Like other cities seeking to improve transit, Seattle wants to hear from riders. A new Metro survey tackles fare structure — a not-so-glamorous piece of the transit equation, but one that is arguably more important than rolling out sleek new capital projects or adding free WiFi onboard buses.
“Today, Metro customers are faced with a complex fare structure, including a surcharge during peak commute hours and another surcharge for trips that cross a zone boundary during those same peak hours,” the Metro website states.
The ORCA fare card, debuted in 2009, was supposed to help simplify commuting, but as Seattle Curbed points out, the number of agencies that operate around the Seattle area — Sound Transit, King County Metro, Community Transit, the ferries and more — still makes for a fractured system. The survey asks participants how often they use certain types of transit: King County Metro Transit buses, King County Water Taxi, the Seattle Streetcar and others. It also asks about riders’ destinations — airport, work, school — and how they pay their fare.
Metro says the goals of the survey are to “simplify fares in preparation for modernizing OCRA technology.” It also wants to explore ways to “speed up boarding, improve driver safety, help increase ridership and help reduce barriers to using transit for vulnerable populations.” Seattle Transit Blog gives some more concrete details on what to expect going forward.
“Metro is primarily focused on two goals: in the short term, potential elimination of zone and peak surcharges, and in the longer term, moving gingerly toward cashlessness and/or universal off-board payment,” Zach Shaner writes.
According to Shaner’s analysis, Metro is trying to incorporate “two worthy goals: fairness and simplicity,” that, unfortunately, tend to contradict each other. He writes:
In systems with large geographic areas such as King County, fairness would match fares proportionally with the cost of providing service, leading to high peak suburban bus fares and low fares for short urban trips. The resulting zones or distance-based fares would typically be difficult to understand or remember. BART and D.C. Metro are two prominent examples of this. Simplicity, on the other hand, usually trades fairness for legibility, underpricing suburban trips and overpricing urban trips. Portland’s TriMet charges a flat $2.50 for all single trips, no matter whether you travel all 33 miles of the Blue Line or travel 1/4 mile in the Lloyd District. San Francisco’s Muni and Chicago’s CTA also generally operate this way.
One potential solution to the equity issue involves housing. As Josh Cohen wrote for Next City recently, Capital Hill Housing launched a pilot last year to offer residents discounted ORCA cards. Subsidizing transit passes for lower-income residents obviously won’t fix the whole system, but it is a way of taking some of the financial burden off the transit agency.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.