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In Some Cities, Your Bus Fare Now Depends on Your Income

Seattle is the latest city to offer discounted rates to low-income riders. Some say it's a misguided attempt to address income inequality.

King County, Wash., has debuted a new two-tiered pricing structure for public transit riders.
King County, Wash., has debuted a new two-tiered pricing structure for public transit riders.
(Flickr/Atomic Taco)
Middle-class residents of King County, Wash., pay about $2.75 to ride the Seattle area Metro. But under a new pricing plan, those who earn less will pay less. Low-income riders will pay only $1.50 under a two-tiered pricing structure for rides on buses, trains, passenger ferries and other county transit. 

The idea, says King County Executive Dow Constantine, is to “ensure that everyone in the county has the mobility they need to get to school, to find a job, to get to that job” and so on.

That’s a laudable goal. But some worry that this attempt to address income inequality and the high cost of living in the Seattle area may create a more entrenched class system. “The point of public transportation,” says Katie Wilson of the Transit Riders Union, a Seattle group working to improve transit in the city, “is to provide affordable transportation -- for everyone.”

Eight years ago, notes Wilson, everyone paid roughly $1.50 to ride. Since then, the transit system has implemented a series of five fare increases to help meet expenses. The new pay structure, she says, obscures the fact that Seattle transit rides have become significantly more expensive in the past decade. A better solution, some say, would be to secure dedicated funding that allows the city and county to provide transportation that’s affordable for all riders.

That’s easier said than done. “Our real problem is raising revenue,” says Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen. “We have a very conservative legislature in Olympia that’s reluctant to raise taxes, and reluctant to even give municipalities the power to raise revenue on their own.” In other words, the new pricing may not be the best solution for transit affordability, but it’s the best the city and county can do right now.

Seattle isn’t the first place to institute such a plan. (Seattle’s program is open to residents earning up to 200 percent of the poverty level, or $47,700 a year for a family of four.) San Francisco introduced a similar program in 2005. Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver and the Kansas City metropolitan area now also have two-tiered systems. Getting low-income residents to actually apply for and utilize these programs is a different story. A decade after San Francisco introduced its program, fewer than 6 percent of riders participate, even though 20 percent of Bay Area residents live below the poverty line.

In King County, the shift in pricing was prompted by Seattle’s 2012 decision to end a three-decade-old policy of providing downtown public transit completely free to all riders. When the city ended the free-ride zone, the county wanted to offer a cheaper transit option for low-income residents. Ironically, though, it might prove more expensive for the county to institute the new program. The Seattle Times has calculated that it will cost King County Metro $4.75 million annually once the reduced fare is implemented. Running the free-ride zone downtown cost the county less than half that, at $2.2 million a year.

And critics caution that transit discount programs aren’t an effective way to address large-scale inequality. “Does it reduce the gap between the rich and the poor? It doesn’t,” says transportation expert Thomas Sanchez, director of the Urban Affairs and Planning Program at Virginia Tech, who studies transit pricing and inequality. King County’s initiative alone is not likely to have a particularly meaningful impact, he says. If someone’s ability to get to a job hinges on a $1.25 difference in the price of transportation, he says, “that’s a pretty dire situation.” 

Daniel Luzer is GOVERNING's news editor.
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