Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The American City That’s Adopting a Pay-What-You-Can-Afford Model for Public Transit

June 3, 2015
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The American City That’s Adopting a Pay-What-You-Can-Afford Model for Public Transit
A new pilot program makes public transportation more affordable for many Seattle residents. SounderBruce/Flickr
But is a tiered transit fare system sustainable?

For Andrea Smith, a Seattle resident who commutes to her job at a nonprofit theater daily by bus, the latest fare hikes for a monthly transit pass were making the trek unaffordable, particularly as business slowed after the Great Recession.

“I was paying cash, ride by ride, since I couldn’t afford a monthly pass,” she says. “I commute to work every day, often six days a week, and I was spending far more…, just because I couldn’t afford to pay all at once.”

A new pilot program launched three months ago by the King County Department of Transportation provided a fix that so many residents who rely on public transit (yet found they couldn’t afford it) desperately needed. The first of its kind in the nation, Seattle’s ORCA Lift offers fares directly tied to a person’s income. For anyone below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $23,340, riders only need to pay $1.50 a trip — reduced from the standard $2.75 fare (though that number changes based on distance traveled and time of day). That means a person who rode the bus to and from work, five days a week at peak travel times could save up to $910 a year.

“The ORCA Lift reduced fare for low-income riders is an important step forward in making public transit affordable for everyone in King County,” says Katie Wilson, the General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union, an organization of working-class individuals who lobby for affordable and reliable public transit.

According to numbers provided by King County officials, nearly 9,000 riders have signed up, accounting for around 54,000 weekly boardings on the bus system.

While the program is a good first step, Wilson says, but there’s much more that could be done. Before the recession in 2008, standard adult fares remained stable around $1.25 — lower than even ORCA Lift’s new total, Wilson points out. “Standard adult fares have doubled since then, and on March 1, the same day as the ORCA Lift program was introduced, fares were also raised again for youth, senior and disabled riders,” she says. “The ORCA Lift program is not enough. We’re still a long way from a public transit system that is affordable for everyone.”

A New Yorker for 16 years, Smith says she loved “how you could get around so easily on public transit” in Manhattan. Even thought transportation in the Emerald City still lags, she’s telling all her friends to sign up. Though it’s tough seeing how many of her colleagues qualify for the reduced fare, at least she knows they’re all still able to get to work. “The ORCA Lift card has been a godsend for me.”

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