By Erica C. Barnett
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, King County Metro plans to rip out its existing fare boxes, which accept cash, tickets, and ORCA transit passes, and replace them with a cash-free payment system—part of a long-term plan to expedite boarding, integrate the county’s bus system with Sound Transit, and reduce conflicts between riders and drivers. “Every second you save at the curb is money you can reinvest at keeping service operating,” said Carol Cooper, Metro’s Market Innovations Section manager.
But going cashless could end up reducing access for some Metro riders, including low-income and homeless customers, infrequent riders, people with disabilities, and those who don’t speak English—to name just a few groups for whom buying and using ORCA cards can be a challenge. “There’s a great deal to be gained by ensuring that more people get ORCA Lift [low-income passes] and other subsidized ways to ride, but I don’t think those can wholly replace cash in the system,” Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger said.
In a recent report on the future of Metro’s fare system, the agency outlined its plans for smoothing the transition to eliminating cash fares, which—according to Metro—will make boarding faster, ease conflicts between riders and drivers, and eliminate the need to periodically repair Metro’s 1,509 on-board fareboxes, which are a decades-old model that is no longer being produced. Replacing fareboxes with new ones that accommodate cash payments would cost around $29 million, Metro estimates—a substantial cost for a system that is still recovering from the pandemic. Cash riders also have to pay a second fare to transfer to Sound Transit trains and buses, a problem that will only become more acute as Metro terminates more routes at light rail stations.
The move toward a cashless on-board system is happening as Metro, Sound Transit, and other regional transit agencies switch to a new generation of ORCA cards that will cost less to purchase ($3 instead of the current $5 fee), include the option of tapping a smartphone app instead of a physical card, and allow people to ride with a negative balance of up to $2.75, the equivalent of a single bus fare.
“Our goal is not to put anyone in a position where they can’t access our service. We’re pulling out all the stops in trying to address all of the different barriers, and that’s why it’s going to take time and we’re going to continue to evaluate our ability to [go cash-free.]”—Carol Cooper, King County Metro
Although social service providers and advocates have argued for doing away with card fees entirely, at least for low-income riders, that’s unlikely; the fees will pay to set up the new system and distribute cards, including a $1.25-per-card fee to a contractor called Ready Credit Corporation, whose core business is prepaid debit cards.
Prior to the COVID pandemic, the amount of money Metro received from cash payments had declined steadily for several years, falling 40 percent between 2013 and 2019, when cash fares amounted to around $19 million. During the same period, the number of riders who said they used cash “on a regular basis” declined from 32 percent to 11 percent, according to the report. Over the last two years, however, the percentage of regular cash riders increased to 17 percent, largely because white-collar workers with employer-funded ORCA cards were no longer riding buses.
Metro’s report does not say how many people occasionally, as opposed to regularly, use cash. But even 11 percent of riders amounts to millions of bus rides a year—rides that will no longer be possible without an ORCA pass if and when Metro makes the switch.
During a stakeholder engagement process, representatives from groups representing “priority populations”—riders with disabilities, Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) riders, low-income and homeless riders, and those whose primary language is not English—pointed to barriers that currently prevent many of their constituents from using ORCA cards.
According to the report, “Nearly half of riders who pay cash report that the reason they do not use ORCA is that they don’t ride enough to make it worthwhile.” However, “priority population” riders were also more likely than the general population say they use cash because it’s “easier, they do not have a credit or debit card, or can’t afford the card fee,” which even ORCA Lift pass holders have to pay every time they replace a card. Many low-income riders, the report notes, don’t qualify for ORCA Lift passes, which are limited to people making less than 200 percent or less of the federal level, or around $27,000. Even among those who were eligible for ORCA Lift, about half still paid their fares with cash.
Metro’s Cooper says that as part of its transition away from cash, the agency is taking steps to make it easier for people to access ORCA passes, including low-income fares and reduced fares for people with disabilities. “Our goal is not to put anyone in a position where they can’t access our service,” Cooper said. “We’re pulling out all the stops in trying to address all of the different barriers, and that’s why it’s going to take time and we’re going to continue to evaluate our ability to [go cash-free.]”
In addition to allowing negative balances, Metro has proposed expanding the number and type of places people can buy ORCA cards (including online); loading transit passes onto wearable items, such as bracelets, that are harder to lose; allowing riders to pay on board by tapping a regular credit or debit card; creating new ORCA options such as one-time tickets and multi-ride passes; and capping fares at the cost of a pass—so that, for example, someone who paid by the ride would never have to pay more than the cost of a monthly pass.
“There are many different ways where, potentially, people won’t have to have an ORCA card itself, [such as] the ability to attach a transit benefit to something else that have like an EBT card,” Cooper said. “There’s a lot of ideas out there, and the feasibility and ease of implementation of these things is evolving very quickly.”
Many of the improvements Metro is considering would add significant costs or require policy changes by the county and the ORCA Joint Board, which includes representatives from all the region’s transit agencies, from the state ferry system to Everett Transit. Some, such as mobile payment apps and payment by credit card, would still be inaccessible to many low-income riders. And there’s no guarantee that groups that would be disproportionately impacted by the move to cashless fares, including 20 percent of BIPOC riders and 30 percent of riders with disabilities, will find it easy (or possible) to make the switch.
“[M]any riders who pay cash face financial, technological, cultural, and other barriers to using ORCA that are not simple to overcome,” the report says. “As a result, a cashless on-board option could make transit less accessible for many riders who currently rely on it for most or all of their transportation needs.
“There have to be ways for people who don’t have credit cards, who are unbanked, or for people who, for a variety of reasons, can’t use the ORCA card system, to pay for their rides, and it doesn’t make sense to eliminate cash as an option.”—Alison Eisinger, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness
The report suggests that if there’s no way to eliminate cash on board fairly, Metro could still press pause on its plans to go cash-free. In the US, the only transit system that has eliminated cash fares is the Greater Dayton (OH) Regional Transit Authority, a relatively small system with only 25 routes.
“Metro is first and foremost a mobility agency that’s focused on providing affordable and accessible mobility services,” Cooper said. “Our intent is to work with the community to try to address the challenges [with eliminating cash fare payment], and we won’t make a recommendation or a proposal until we are confident that we can successfully accomplish that.”
Some advocates, including the Transit Riders Union, want Metro and other regional transit agencies to eliminate fares altogether. By eliminating the option of paying cash on board, TRU general secretary Katie Wilson says, Metro risks reducing the mobility of vulnerable people: “they will ride transit less because they now have trouble with the mechanics of paying fare, on top of having trouble affording it. Maybe Metro could institute a policy that doesn’t penalize or shame people for riding for free under these circumstances,” Wilson said.