The pandemic has hastened a fork in the road for our local public transit agencies. When offices first went remote, commuting dwindled, cutting into bus and light rail revenue that helped support operating costs. Those continuing to ride didn’t have to pay for a while, either, as King County Metro halted passenger payments and Sound Transit stopped checking for ORCA cards.

Both systems have since reinstated fares, but the larger question raised by free rides and a de facto honor system at rail stations remains: Is Before Times fare enforcement really necessary for buses and trains to run?

Last week, Sound Transit took one step toward reforming the status quo. Its board opted to lighten up on enforcement, increasing the number of warnings issued before fines and potential legal action as a means to curb inequity.

A few weeks before that vote, we asked three local transportation experts to weigh in on the past and future of fare enforcement at two of our major transit agencies. The conversation, held over Zoom, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Image: Jane Sherman

► Hester Serebrin, policy director, Transportation Choices Coalition
► Barbara Baquero, co-principal investigator, Participatory Active Transportation for Health in South Seattle (PATHSS) study
► Nathan Vass, bus driver, King County Metro; writer and filmmaker


How do each of you feel about how Sound Transit and King County Metro handle fare enforcement?

► HS: I want to recognize that we’re having this conversation in the bubble of, What does equitable enforcement look like? Rather than the larger conversation of, Do we need enforcement? Should fares be free? I think that that is a valid conversation, a very large conversation and necessary and nuanced, and I’m not sure how much we want to go into that here. [Ed. note: stay tuned!] We’ve been focused on making sure transit has the money that they need to fill all of those funding gaps so that it’s not pitted against service—oh, we could have free fares, but only if we took away service. That’s not the conversation we want to have. So we’re trying to kind of broaden that conversation.

We worked a lot with King County Metro, and King County Metro rolled out a bunch of great policy updates [reduced fines, ORCA LIFT enrollment alternative, no courts], and then really kind of took that conversation to Sound Transit, which has a physically different system just because of how they’re set up. It took a while to kind of educate the board members and get the data that we wanted, that ultimately we knew would probably show very similar outcomes, which is: Even if you are checking everyone and not showing bias in individual interactions, the system still will penalize people of color, people who can’t afford to pay, more.

► NV: There’s an adage that says that bus drivers never talk about driving; they talk about the people. And fare has been the reigning subject of conversation during the course of the pandemic because there’s been such a radical shift of what the interior space of the bus is like. And that shift began with the introduction of free transit during the pandemic. It’s been interesting to notice, within myself, shifts in how I perceive what constitutes a safe space, a welcoming interior space, and how those do not intersect with fare collection in the way that I imagined they might.

Prior to the pandemic, I benefited immensely from not collecting fare, from giving people free rides. That was a way for me to create a safe space inside the bus, where people felt acknowledged, where their challenges felt heard, and they felt appreciated and respected by me as I invited them in: “Don’t worry about it. Pay me tomorrow. Let’s put it on the tab.” Things like that. I was primarily driving in South Seattle, and that was absolutely fantastic. Metro’s policy is to state the fare once if you feel it is safe to do so. Sometimes in training, we would have discussions of, when is it safe to do so? It’s never safe to do so. Always allow people to ride. If they ask, if they don’t ask, welcome them on in.

And that was a really great way to go about things until the pandemic hit. Once we had the new environment of back door boarding, less interaction with the operator, no fare collection, along with the disallowing of the ability of officers to remove passengers—the implementation of those three new elements, which had not existed before, created an environment that had changes I wasn’t expecting.

One of them was an absolute skyrocketing of security incidents. There was also a shift in the degree to which passengers with destinations felt safe riding due to questions of hygiene, concerns of how clean the bus is, because the interior now had people who were either refusing to leave or spending large amounts of time on the bus who didn’t have destinations and were not well-equipped to take care of themselves.

The other element was a slight slowing down of service. Now that the bus was free, people would often just hop on the bus to ride to the next stop because they were walking in that direction. And those impulse rides would complicate and slow down service for people who had waited for the bus because they were traveling a longer distance than if they were pedestrians [riding for one stop].

There’s something that gets lost when there’s no human interaction at the start of the ride. And because of that, I found myself tending toward driving non-RapidRide routes [that still have back door boarding] because it feels safer for me, and because it seems to be a better experience for the passengers. This might be pointing toward something that fare collection does that translates into either stewardship or community or—what’s odd is that I make no effort to collect fare. I just say “hi” to them as they get on. So it isn’t the fare. It’s the moment of interaction there that fare collection ostensibly impels.

► BB: With light rail, I guess what I would say too is...it’s not equitable. I appreciate Hester’s work, and your organization doing all that. But I think we can do more. It could be a system change. This is not necessarily just talking about what you’re all doing right now, but in terms of these changes to reduce the fines, or who walks onto the light rail and checks for passes and stuff like that, it still puts the burden on people of color.

I have my pass because I do it through the university. I still get upset when I see [fare enforcement], or I get worried. Like, did I check? What’s going to happen? Or if I see anybody that has been told that they need to do something different—you need to sign up for the ORCA card or stuff—that’s a lot of work for some people that may not have the technology. So yes, we can make changes on the practices that we have or how we implement some of the policies, but I think there’s an opportunity to do more, and to do something different.

Already a community is telling us what they want, what they need. Do we want to respond to that? Or do we just want to continue doing our own thing, and not including that? For example, Nathan, you are speaking to your own experience, and advocating—just make everybody walk in through the front door. We can eliminate some of these encounters and all that. You have years of experience doing that. Why are we not going back to something that worked before?

► NV: Yes, thank you, Barbara. Some of the solutions seem easy, and yet they don't get acted upon. I remember, when I first started driving the bus, after 7pm, everything was front door only. And we’ll probably never get back to that. But one of the benefits of that was, it felt a lot safer. You knew who was on the bus. There was sort of this checkpoint that you walked past and there was no—I wasn’t about to enforce the fare—there was no penalty if they didn’t speak or say hi, or anything. But it was a way for the community to feel like a community.

► BB: The other thing that I want us to flag too is this intersection of issues, [like with] housing—“the bus and train is the only place that sometimes I can spend the night because I don’t have any other place to be.” It’s having that larger conversation, right, in terms of, again, who are we enforcing? Who is using the street? Who gets the privilege of riding when they want? Because I can commute and I can work from home, and others need it every day, and sometimes don't have enough money to pay for everything. So who are we serving?

► HS: I think that that’s so perfect. I’ve heard someone say, Whatever’s happening out in the world, whatever's happening on the bus is a reflection of that. We have housing crisis. We have opioid crisis. We have all of these things, where people aren’t getting the public support they need. And the bus is one of the last remaining public spaces.

I heard a beautiful vision, I think it was coming out of either New Orleans or LA, about treating the bus like a public library. You can find community there. It’s free. It has the things you need on it. At the same time, we are equipping buses or drivers with all of the resources they would need to provide that kind of level of service or social services.

This topic is about fares and fare enforcement and fare evasion. But we have very naturally transitioned. It’s about safety and feeling safe and secure on transit. And I think that that is really important for all sorts of reasons. One, I want to make sure we continue to help decision makers and policy makers differentiate between true security incidences; incidences that are maybe uncomfortable—whether that’s smells or people sleeping—where you might not like it, but no one’s harming you; and fare evasion, which really has very little impact on other individual riders. When we’re trying to think of solutions to help folks in all of these different buckets, they look really different. It really highlights the difference between fare evasion, people not paying, and then the act of fare collection and enforcement as a method of preventing certain people from riding, or other behaviors, or using officers as a security presence.

That again, like, raises the question: security presence for whom? I know a lot of people of all races and backgrounds and demographics have felt more uncomfortable on transit in these past couple years, as kind of that lack of community connection and a lot of different stuff has [started] happening on the bus. So having some sort of presence can be helpful. But what that is should look really different than what we’ve relied on in the past. I think that the way that Nathan put it so succinctly as like, people came through the front, and that was because of fare collection, but I wasn't collecting fares and that kind of fixed everything.

► NV: It made everything okay, yeah.

► HS: It was such a beautiful distillation of what we what we are trying to do with fare enforcement, and how little that has to do with fare collection, if that makes sense.

► NV: Yes, absolutely, Hester. I really appreciate you parsing that out. It reminds me of how a lot of the issues that we almost immediately began talking about, that are larger than fare collection, are outside the purview of Metro.

Sometimes it feels like when we as an organization or organizations are trying to come up with solutions for these things, they feel like Band-Aid solutions because we are not able to address the big picture of these much larger concerns, of which security incidents on buses or fare evasion are only the smallest sort of effects. I try to remind myself of that when I’m driving the bus. These are not my problems to solve. But I, as an individual, can try to give out respect and appreciation and acknowledgment. That’s the limit of what I’m able to do. And I wish that policymakers spent more time on the routes or interacted more with folks on the streets.

It seems to me, at least with light rail, that we’re sort of caught in between two [philosophies]. There are folks who think public transit should be free. And then there are others who are probably more used to a traditional subway turnstile system.

► NV: Free transit sounds wonderful. But there is something about fare collection, or maybe more accurately front door boarding, that makes the space feel safer and more communal. And if there's a way to achieve that, which I think is what we really care about when we ride transit, aside from the obvious need to fund transit, that would be wonderful.

► BB: I think this is an opportunity. We’re in a crisis. So usually from crisis, good change can happen. I don’t think the change has to be—one, perhaps two things to the system can make a huge difference. So I would advocate for not enforcing fares. I mean, I respect and appreciate the yellow vest people [fare ambassadors] are coming now and just checking. Let’s have them do another job. Maybe just walk around the stations and welcome people.

► NV: Yes!

► BB: And then think about, Hey, can I pay more, because I make that kind of money? There are other ways that we can find the funds instead of penalizing people socially, and physically, because they need to ride the bus. The person that makes 130k and gets a ticket, that’s not going to register, because they have the power and privilege to do that. But the person that went to work at the hotel and didn’t have [money] that day to ride, is gonna carry that with them the rest of the week, and [be] afraid next time that they get on the bus or on the train, because of what just happened. So let’s not enforce it. Let’s find other ways to find this money that we need.

► HS: Like she said, if you are rich and can afford a ticket, it’s not going to deter your behavior in the future. And if you can’t afford a ticket, it also probably doesn’t deter your behavior, because what we’ve found is that so many of the tickets that have gone to the courts go unpaid, and they go to collections, and then those are the kind of impacts that rack up and affect people’s credit and ability to rent housing and their mobility and that kind of stuff.

I will just say that transit isn’t free. Transit is a public good that costs a lot of money to provide. We need the people that can afford to pay to pay. I think it is a question of, is fare collection the best way to do that, or are there other ways of collecting those funds through the businesses, that currently through Business Passport, etc., do pay a majority of those funds.

In the transportation package that just passed, we have a new revolutionary transit grant that will help fund paying for fares of those 18 and under. If there’s a state-level importance of people riding transit, which is important to our climate, mobility, and economic opportunity, all the goals you can think of really wrap around transit, we should be paying for that at a systemic, statewide level.

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