Un-Fare: The Case for Free Public Transportation

In the past week, I’ve seen every side street and Whole Foods in Seattle out the window of a bus. From a three-week stint at a restaurant in the International District to a marketing job in South Lake Union, Seattle’s public transportation has become my second home. As I stand teetering on the brink of my twenties, my life is full of changes and unpredictable schedules which means reliable transportation is essential. Luckily, I have found that Seattle offers affordable, easy-to-use, and convenient public transportation that makes my daily commute feel more like a hobby than a chore. Just kidding, it’s the worst.

Perhaps the most egregious crime of public transportation is Fare Enforcement. Ready to pounce on innocent bystanders, Fare Enforcement officers are specially trained to make sure you’ve coughed up your $2.75 to board a RapidRide bus or the light rail for $1.25. According to the King County website, the penalty for not paying your fare is $25 in the first 90 days and after that, it jumps to a whopping $50 ticket. Fare Enforcement also means that there is a constant presence of bodies crowding the already congested busses and trains of Seattle for the sole purpose of busting the pettiest of theft.

I first encountered them on a ride back from the International District at 11 PM on a Thursday night. It was late after a long shift and I had slipped by the card scanner, saving my $1.25 for another day. The light rail was crowded and I had to shove myself uncomfortably in between a group of teenagers just for standing room. Fare Enforcement boarded on the stop after mine and we all squeezed together to make room for them. I slowly pressed myself to the door of the opposite side of the car and held my breath. The group of teenagers separating me from a hefty ticket were (fortunately) being rowdy and uncooperative, and amidst a heated discussion, I was able to slip out of that car and avoid punishment.

Okay, that one’s on me. At the time, I’m sure I had a dollar and some change to spare for my ride home, but I’m not the true victim of this system, just an unfortunate witness. Last month, it was reported that students were being busted on the morning ride to the first day of school––where they would have been awarded free ORCA cards for the year. Although South Transit responded that these tickets were a mistake, the mere presence of Fare Enforcement creates an extra barrier between students (often low income) and their education.

This might seem like a small injustice on the scale of things, but a Harvard study found that reliable public transportation is the most important factor to achieving social mobility for low-income people. Having easy access to services like education, doctor’s offices, and job interviews make a world of difference in people’s lives, so why are we so resistant to it? Not only is Fare Enforcement a waste of money, but it is a regressive practice that discourages poor people from using resources that make life livable.

While Seattle markets itself as an environmentally friendly liberal utopia, Fare Enforcement directly negates all of these claims. Fare Enforcement (and even the idea of paying for public transportation) punishes people for using a sustainable alternative to cars. If the city really cared about our ever-impending climate crisis, then we would work to expand our public transportation system, not criminalize users for taking advantage of it.

According to this (very helpful) article from the Seattle Times, less than 7% of public transportation expenses are paid by fare revenue. Most of the funding comes from taxes. In fact, taxes from drivers (who don’t even use public transportation) already make up a higher percentage than the actual fares paid on the bus. So, while getting rid of fares altogether might be a slight increase in taxes, it won’t be a huge drain on taxpayer dollars like many people envision it. Even more, the abolition of fares also means no more Fare Enforcement which is an expense we pay for at the moment.

Of course, if you zoom in on one bus ride, this argument seems completely ridiculous. It’s a couple bucks, I know. I’m sure a few of you are screaming into the screen for me to just pay my fare and move on with my life, but I can’t. Even if I look at my past week in public transportation, the fees start to pile up.

I work a part-time job in South Lake Union a couple miles from campus. I take two buses there and two buses back, and my commute takes me around an hour. Much of that is spent standing on an overcrowded bus or shivering in the rain as I wait. The ride costs $2.75 each way so that’s $5.50 a day. In a five day week that’s $27.50 just spent on travel (I work for minimum wage so that’s around two hours of work). If it weren’t for the biting cold and the ever-present Seattle rain, it might be worth my time to walk the two-and-a-half-mile route to and from campus. Why should I––or anyone, for that matter––have to pay for a service that is constantly breaking down, being rerouted, and being monitored by the looming presence of the Fare Enforcement officers?

Public transportation is far from a luxury and it’s not entitled to ask for a service that gives low and middle-income people a chance to survive in a city that doesn’t seem to want us here. The presence of Fare Enforcement is an ever-present reminder of how much our city wants to further marginalize low-income people, choosing to pay full salaries instead of working to subsidize or eliminate fares altogether. While we have the facts, that public transportation is directly linked to upward mobility, we continue to see the priorities of our government represented in regressive policy.