Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, announced this morning that it will resume charging fares on Link Light Rail and Sounder trains on June 1. Fare enforcement officers will begin riding trains again and “educating” riders about the reintroduction of fares and providing information about how to access reduced-fare ORCA Lift cards starting tomorrow, May 19. Starting in June, fare enforcement will begin again. Officers are supposed to “follow social distancing guidelines” when checking fares.
A temporary “recovery fare” of $1 for Link trains and $2 for Sounder will be available through an app called Transit GO Ticket and at fare machines for one month.
According to a press release, “riders taking repetitive trips without apparent destinations” have been “associated in part” with “a dramatic increase in unsanitary conditions, rider complaints and incidents of vandalism after fares were temporarily suspended in March.” In other words: Homeless people riding trains for free have trashed our trains and made other riders uncomfortable.
“Beyond providing money to support transit operations, the resumption of fares will also allow Sound Transit to increase safety and security for essential riders,” the announcement says.
The notion that some riders are “essential” and others are effectively joyriding ignores the fact that, during COVID, most of the places that homeless people are allowed to be during the day, including libraries, community centers, day centers, and even many feeding programs, have shut down. Non-“essential riders” ride buses and trains because they have nowhere else to be, which is a symptom of the unaddressed crisis of homelessness, not the essential maliciousness of people experiencing homelessness.
In an email following up on today’s announcement, Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick emphasized that complaints about, and hygiene issues related to, non-destination riders were among the primary reasons for the decision to reinstitute fares. “For the four week period ending on April 26, we recorded 293 biohazard incidents and 59 vandalism/graffiti incidents on Link. … On a per-passenger basis, biohazard incidents skyrocketed by almost 1700 percent while vandalism/graffiti incidents increased more than 1400 percent.”
Using “per-passenger” numbers as a “skyrocketing” metric is misleading. Because ridership has dropped, according to Sound Transit, by 85 percent, it would be more useful to look at increase in incidents rather than the number per rider. Sound Transit was unable to provide 2019 incident data by the end of the day on Monday. But extrapolating from the numbers that they did provide, a 1700-percent increase in incidents per rider suggests there were about 113 biohazard incidents last April, compared to 293 this year, and about 22 graffiti and vandalism incidents, compared to 59. Both numbers more than doubled, but neither increased anything like 1400 or 1700 percent.
This framing presents public transit as something that should be accessible during a pandemic to people who are “heroes,” like health care workers, and not people who are using it for “inessential” purposes, like staying warm and dry.
“The frequency of these incidents are unacceptable by any measure,” Patrick continued. “Our first obligation as the region’s transit provider in these times is to provide a safe, secure, and sanitary trip to passengers who are taking truly essential trips. This includes the many health care workers who are heroically traveling to our health care facilities on light rail to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.”
This framing presents public transit as something that should be accessible during a pandemic to people who are “heroes,” like health care workers, and not people who are using it for “inessential” purposes, like staying warm and dry. This judgment might seem fair if Sound Transit were comparing nurses to, say, school kids hopping the bus to hang out with their friends across town, but it gets a lot dicier when the people being deemed non-“essential riders” are riding because their other option is sitting on.a sidewalk in the rain. Libraries, community centers, and food courts aren’t homeless shelters either, but they do routinely provide places for people experiencing homelessness to go during the day. Now that those places are closed, people are turning to buses and trains for daytime shelter—and being told they are ruining it for everybody else.
In an ideal world, of course, no one would use public transit (or libraries, or community centers) as shelter, because everyone would have a place to live or at least a place to be. In this less-than-ideal world, there are more than 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County alone, and no matter where they are, there will be someone complaining that they’re causing problems or just taking up space. King County Metro has also seen an increase in these “nondestination” riders, and a rise in complaints. But while Sound Transit has responded by reinstating fares, reinstituting enforcement, and explicitly trying to drive away riders taking “repetitive trips with no apparent destination,” Metro has acknowledged that homeless people are riding transit in greater numbers because they have nowhere else to be.
“I’m not going to deny that the non-destinational riders present a challenge, especially when that group is seeking to use our buses as a shelter,” Metro general manager Rob Gannon told me earlier this month. “That is a challenge that is not unique to transit systems. That is a pervasive challenge of homelessness, and the lack of services that are currently available is exacerbating that situation.”
Jeff Switzer, a spokesman for King County Metro, says the agency “is still evaluating the best time to reintroduce fares and has not yet landed on a date.”