Last Thursday, the Sound Transit Executive Committee heard a staff update on a potential restructure of Link fares, likely in 2024 if approved. Link fares haven’t been touched since 2015 and — given openings of new extensions on the horizon — are due for a refresh. Alex wrote about some of his ideas back in 2020, proposing to maintain the current distance-based scheme, but with fares increasing logarithmically rather than linearly.
Most of the Sound Transit staff analysis has come down to weighing a flat fare — as is the case with ST Express — versus retaining the distance-based fare. The full slate of ST2 stations, when open, will total 38 stations, resulting in a whopping 38×38 fare table.
Relative to its North American peers, Link is one of very few light rail systems that uses a distance-based fare. Portland’s MAX and the Twin Cities’ Metro both employ a flat fare whereas older mid-century heavy rail systems like BART and the Washington Metro charge based on trip length. Distance-based fares are also popular internationally, particularly in Asia, but these systems almost universally have fare gates that require tapping out upon exit.
Earlier in the fall, Sound Transit undertook a public outreach process to collect rider sentiment on fare restructuring. Overall, preference between a flat vs. distance-based fare was actually split quite evenly, with some variations when drilling down into demographic subgroups. Surprisingly, Snohomish County riders were much more amenable to a flat fare whereas their Pierce County counterparts felt otherwise. This might be the result of Lynnwood Link being a direct connection to Seattle next year while the 1-Line extension to Tacoma is still several years out.
Lower-income earners were also slightly more likely to prefer paying by distance than higher-income earners, but this disparity doesn’t seem significant. Although low-income earners are currently more predisposed to taking shorter cheaper trips on the 1-Line, higher earners typically have their fares paid for by an employer and may be agnostic on either option anyway.
Survey respondents generally indicated that although flat fares would be easier to understand, distance-based fares tend to be more affordable. That seems reflective of the general tenor of this debate, in that this is really a tradeoff between fare complexity (i.e., how easy it is to understand fares) and planning economics (i.e., pricing travel as a function of origin-destination patterns).
Although a move to a flat fare structure would eliminate tap-offs — and thus a source of origin-destination ridership data — I’d venture to guess that the majority of riders already don’t tap off anyway, either because their fare is already paid for or because it’s just easy to forget without exit gates.
The staff briefing acknowledges that zone-based fares came up as a theme in survey comments. Although this model was not analyzed extensively, it is currently employed by our friends in Vancouver, who have a three-zone overlay across the TransLink service area. A zone-based fare is not without its downsides, however. There is an inherent degree of complexity similar to distance-based fares, and zones can arbitrarily penalize short cross-boundary trips.
Sound Transit will host a public hearing on Thursday, November 16th, to receive additional comments on the fare restructuring, which may go to the December Board for final approval.