May 20, 2015

The Daily Durning: Transit Fares and Inequality

From Governing:

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

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

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.” …

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.”

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