Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ride Free Seattle

No More Free Rides on Metro

Metro KC Transit Ride Free Area (RFA)
 ~ The Seattle area bus system, Metro Transit, plans to eliminate the downtown Ride Free Area (RFA) effective September 29, 2012.

The rationale, tucked away in a PDF says simply:
Phasing out the RFA will increase revenue and have a net positive impact on Metro’s bottom line. It would make it simpler for riders to pay fares throughout the system. A more consistent fare collection system is expected to reduce fare disputes and fare evasion. In a 2010 survey of Metro’s bus operators, eliminating the RFA was listed as the leading strategy to reduce fare evasion.
This is perhaps true, and the solution may well work, but Metro is solving the wrong problem, and the real problem is only going to be made worse.

There's no doubt that the current system allows for some riders to take trips and not pay for them. The problem is the hybrid service area, with part free and part requiring a fare depending on day, time and location. Here's how it currently works:

  1. If you're riding the South Lake Union Trolley Streetcar or Link Light Rail, always pay before boarding; these are never free anywhere. If transit police catch you without proof of payment, you get a ticket.
  2. If you're riding one of the RapidRide buses (the A or B line) pay before boarding by swiping your ORCA card at the bus stop readers or you can pay on the bus by using the front doors and paying as you enter.
  3. If the bus you're riding doesn't come from, or go to the RFA, always pay when you board, 24/7.
  4. If the bus you're riding left the RFA between 6:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. weekdays, pay when you get off.
  5. Otherwise, pay when you get on.
Obviously, there are a lot of problems with this scheme.
  1. It's hard to figure out. Even regular riders get it wrong; I've seen many swipe their ORCA cards getting on, even though it's pay as you leave. If regulars don't get it, you can be sure the tourists are completely lost.
  2. Drivers have placards next to the fare box they can display to tell people when to pay, but most resort to putting their hand over the fare box, and even the drivers screw up sometimes.
  3. When you get on a bus during or shortly after RFA hours, you need to know not only where it goes (i.e. does it go where you want to go) but also where it came from. If it's from downtown you pay when leaving; otherwise you pay when boarding. You also need to know when it left the RFA. Even though it might be an hour after the end of the RFA operating hours, if the bus left the RFA before 7:00 p.m. it is still pay-as-you-leave, even if you're boarding at 8:00 p.m. or later.
  4. Once the RapidRide C and D lines start, the payment system becomes unworkable with the RFA. No part of the A and B Lines are in the RFA, so pay-before-boarding all the time works. Lines within the RFA have the same problem as buses going to and from downtown--there's no way to determine who boarded where, so compliance could only occur by funneling everyone through the front door and treating them like regular buses for payment. This would defeat the whole idea of the RapidRide, letting people board and exit through all doors as if it were a bus version of the Link Light Rail.
  5. And lastly, the problem that has spurred Metro to eliminate the RFA: people can get on downtown, and ride to Tacoma or Everett without any money to pay their fare. What can the driver do when someone just gets off without paying? This is why Metro operators in that 2010 survey point to eliminating the RFA to reduce fare evasion.
Metro claims it loses $2.2M a year operating the RFA. It calculates this from the number of free rides, but the actual losses might be smaller, as some would not ride the (now free) bus only a few blocks downtown if they had to pay full fare to do so.

Finally, in response to outcry from human service agencies, Metro will still operate some free buses, but they will be smaller "circulator" buses operating in an extended downtown area for the benefit of those who cannot afford to pay. Expect this service to be infrequent, inconvenient, and first on the chopping block in the next budgetary triage proceeding.

Metro realizes that it is losing money to fare evasion with the RFA, and that its plan to implement more RapidRide lines is incompatible with the RFA. Their solution is to eliminate the RFA, but what they should be doing is eliminating the fares. Then everyone could simply get on and off through any door any time, and no one would be evading fares. Problem solved!

Yes, of course that would mean finding funding from sources other than the farebox, and these days that's a difficult challenge. Metro's $549M operating budget in 2011 was funded mostly (61%) from sales tax revenue, a source that has shrunk with the recession. The fare box is the next largest source at 24%.

Where funding for public transit can be found is a complex question without easy answers. However, the value of a robust public transit system is clear. High quality systems reduce passenger car trips, reduce automobile passenger miles, reduce wear and tear on road infrastructure, reduce congestion, reduce demand for downtown parking, reduce pollution, and reduce carbon emissions.

Our reliance on cars burdens society with a heavy cost. Our road fetish needs to end, as the funds flowing into ever more and broader roads do not increase our mobility, but rather feed a fundamental law of highway congestion—road users increase with road capacity; additional roads do not reduce congestion. Our youth are driving less as societal attitudes change; the future is public transit in vibrant urban cores.

We shouldn't eliminate the RFA to capture a paltry $2.2M on a $549M budget; we should make the entire system a RFA and redirect transportation dollars from cars to sustainable, more efficient public transit. We will create more livable cities, reduce congestion and pollution, and, in the end, save money as well.

Go ahead. Tell Metro what you think.

Cross-posted to the Fare-Free Northwest blog.

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