Seattle’s Compassionate Response to Fare Evasion

Photo:  Seattle DOT Flickr
Photo: Seattle DOT Flickr

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Transit agencies often treat fare evasion with arrests and prosecution, but Seattle’s King County Metro is going with compassion and progressivism.

Turnstile jumping typically stems from poverty — 43 percent of King County Metro fare-beaters had incomes of less than $1,000 a month. An independent audit the same year found almost a quarter of the warnings and citations went to “people experiencing homelessness or housing instability.”

The audit said the way the agency was conducting fare enforcement was not very productive and was also at odds with its equity goals. So, beginning last year, the agency removed the court system from the process. The previous civil penalty was $125 and could be referred to the court system for nonpayment. Now, fare evasion reports are now handled by the agency itself.

First-time offended are issued a warning. If riders receive a second violation, they are offered a menu of resolutions. These are designed specifically so that they don’t trap folks with lower-incomes in a cycle of debt and criminalization.

Under the new system, violators can choose to pay a $25 fine within 30 days. Or they can perform two hours of community service. Or they can simply put $25 on their Orca card for future use. Alternatively, the fine will be voided if they enroll in a transit discount program for low-income people.

King County Metro has, since 2015, offered half-price fares through the “ORCA Lift” program to people with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. But signing up to receive benefits is not effortless. According to the agency’s survey of fare beaters, about half were eligible for discounted transit fares but had not enrolled in the program.

That was just the first of a handful of programs that are designed to improve affordability. Seattle began offering free transit passes to all high school students and some college students last year.

In addition, since the results of its survey and audit, King County has been doing more to expand affordability for those with very low incomes. Seattle recently announced it would provide free ORCA cards to 1,500 people who live in 11 public housing communities across the city. The one-year pilot program will cost about $1 million, according to the Seattle Times.

A recent review [PDF] of the changes advises the agency go even further: Instead of simply enforcing fare payment, fare enforcement officers operate should take a role in informing riders about the discounted ORCA Lift program.

And enforcement agents should receive special training in implicit racial bias and de-escalation techniques. When the agency evaluated its progress in January, black people were being disproportionately ticketed — receiving about 42 percent of violations despite comprising just 7 percent of the county’s population, according to the Seattle Times.

Metro Transit also recommended more places to purchase ORCA cards be made available, since RapidRide riders purchase them before entering. Special interventions are also needed for riders with no incomes, or who may have mental disorders, the report found, like connections to social service providers.

9 thoughts on Seattle’s Compassionate Response to Fare Evasion

  1. Sure, don’t pay. Nevermind the fact their fare recovery is already below the national average, let’s let people Not pay.

  2. I think this investment in tolerance, generosity, and forgiveness on the part of Seattle will pay for itself many times over, creating a more relaxed and friendly atmosphere for everyone.

  3. Multinationals run local bus companies as contractors.

    Fares often pay little of the overall budget. Compassion is the way.

  4. There are still many who evade paying fare who can afford it but aren’t caught due to lax enforcement. And to say that racial bias is in play seems untrue. When enforcement checks are done they move through a bus asking each passenger for proof of payment. If the officers are letting white violators off with a warning but ticketing blacks then that’s wrong but I haven’t heard that’s the case. So that would mean that blacks are evading fares more than whites it seems.

  5. Seaguy, the poverty rate amongst black residents of Seattle is much higher than it is for most other ethnicities. Since fare evasion is linked to poverty and income, there is a clear cause and effect.

    The point of Seattle’s enforcement system is to offer people a pathway to becoming legal, fare paying users of the system without criminalizing their actions. Instead of levying fines, it gives them the option to purchase transit fare. Fare collection is the whole point of enforcement in the first place. It’s not there just to punish people for the sake of punishing them.

  6. Compassion my foot. Might as well let the homeless roam around transit for free. Oh wait. They already do in SF.

    It’s not like these transit agencies turn a profit with fare recovery. All this means is people who pay to ride (what a novel concept) end up paying more with annual fare increases.

    “More relaxed and friendly atmosphere” for whom?

  7. Fare evasion would be a moot point if transit was free. Given the reduced burden on roads and highways transit riders (as well as bike riders and pedestrians) provide, it seems like a good idea to me.

  8. Mark, I understand that you’re trying to look out for yourself. However, the rise of fares would probably increase regardless of fare evasion. It doesn’t make sense to punish people who are struggling to pay, so options to reduce their burden will result in less fare evasion.

    These practical, data-driven decisions have next to zero effect on your personal wealth nor on your standard of living, so I suggest you try to be happy for others whose lives could be drastically improved.

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