Tag Archives: Orca

On families and fares, part II

It was definitely a proud moment, in a milestone sort of way, when each of my kids turned six and was old enough to pay bus fare. I gave them youth ORCA cards – along with lanyards to store them in – as birthday gifts and had to restrain myself from photographing their first taps on the reader. I still get a kick out of watching them march up the bus steps and expertly tap their cards (after politely greeting the driver, of course); it is a reminder that my dreams of raising bus proficient kids are coming true.

On the other hand, the fact that my children are now full-fledged, fare paying riders means, well, that they have to pay. And, as my heroes and sheroes from Rainier Beach High School reminded us last year, riding the bus is expensive.

Youth fare in King County is now $1.50, which means that taking two kids anywhere costs six dollars round trip. For those families with access to a car (or even to cabs or “ridesharing” alternatives), this substantially diminishes the financial incentive for taking transit. For families without access, it adds up to a significant cost burden. Some examples:

A two-way, off-peak bus ride for two adults and two children costs $16.

A one–way trip for one adult and three children costs $7.00.

A month of bus rides to and from school for one student costs $60 ($54 if the family can pay the lump sum for a pass).

Because our family doesn’t own a car at all, and because we don’t ride with kids daily (they walk to school), adding the youth fares has not made a very big dent in the amount of money we save by busing. But we are not representative of the majority of families who rely on transit — nor of the families who would choose it more often if the financial incentives were greater.

Our current fare structure (and, for that matter, our payment system) creates unnecessary barriers to taking kids on transit. If we are serious about reducing our dependence on cars (and the cost of living in our region), we need to do a lot better.

On families and fares

Last November, our Chicklet turned six—and entered the world of fare-paying riders. As with many aspects of taking transit with children, this transition has presented some logistical challenges.

In an ideal world, Bus Nerd and I would be able to pay for Chicklet with our own ORCA cards.* Unfortunately, that is not an option. Not surprisingly, it isn’t possible to load two passes onto one card. And, though each of us has both a pass and a supplementary “e-purse”** loaded on our cards, it’s not possible to use the pass for the adult fare and the e-purse for the child fare. At least, we haven’t found a driver who thinks it’s possible; the request seems to baffle them.

The last thing we want is drama and confusion (and holding folks up!) every time we board a bus with our kid, so, we decided to “simplify” by buying Chicklet an ORCA card of her own. The thing is, simplifying’s not so simple.

First of all, buying the pass was a hassle. FYI folks: You can’t buy a youth ORCA card just anywhere; you will have to schelp downtown during business hours. And make sure to bring your kid’s birth certificate. No proof of age, no pass. At the time I purchased Chicklet’s card, I worked downtown, so I went to Metro’s pass sales office–with the necessary documents, thanks to knowledge gained helping a young friend some years ago–during lunch.

Because Chicklet’s daily commute is a walk, she doesn’t ride the bus enough to justify a pass. So, I loaded the card with twenty dollars. (The total cost was twenty-five, since the card itself costs five dollars. Don’t get me started.) Later that day, I logged on to ORCA site, registered the card, and set up autoload to add $10 whenever she ran out of money.

Chicklet was really, really excited to get her own card. (Though I’m not sure she liked it as much as this one.) We wrote her name on the back in black sharpie, and she used it for the first time on a trip to the Seattle Center to meet up with some lifelong friends. It took her a couple of tries to get the hang of tapping (and to figure out what the different beeps mean), but within days, she was wielding that card like a pro.

Yay! Except…

Chicklet has no place to keep a transit card. At six, she does not carry a wallet or purse and only carries her backpack to school. I anticipated this issue and so bought her a lanyard with a card holder when I bought her the card.

Chicklet with her lanyard

Chicket, wearing her lanyard on a recent bus excursion

The lanyard is a great place to store the card (and has the added bonus of providing a place for us to keep the school ID she never needs), but it doesn’t address the more critical six-year-old challenge: She isn’t the best at keeping up with stuff.***

In the interest of not losing (or having to remember) it, I carry the lanyard in my bus bag, which I always have with me. When we go somewhere on the bus, I get it out of my bag; she wears it while she needs it, then gives it back to me.

We still don’t have a solution, other than buying another card, for when she travels with her dad. Sometimes, we remember to do the card hand-off in advance. Most of the time, we don’t. And, despite my precautionary measures, we have already managed to lose one card.

The details of the loss are not important–especially since we still have no idea how it occurred. What is important is that, after a week of paying cash, hoping it would resurface, I made another trek to the Metro offices.

The first place I visited was the lost and found. Despite the fact that her name was written on the back, the man at the desk said he could not look for the card without the eight-digit card number. Of course, I had no clue what the card number was. And, of course, he could not look it up from his desk. For that, I had to visit the pass sales office.

The woman at the pass sales office was able to look up Chicklet’s card, and when she did, she discovered that it was not a youth card but an adult card. (Apparently, it is common for youth cards to mysteriously get converted to adult cards when an adult loads money on the card online. And also, no one really knows how to prevent this from happening.) So, even if I found the card, Chicklet would not be able to use it. (Apparently, despite all this unintentional online card-flipping, there is no way to intentionally, with the help of Metro staff, convert an adult card to a youth card.) She recommended that I purchase another card.

I did buy another card, but unfortunately, the woman I was working with was not able to transfer the balance from Chicklet’s lost card to her new card. (The person authorized to do that was away at lunch.) She registered the new card for me, in hopes it would prevent the inexplicable youth/adult mix-up (she was doing her best to help, bless her heart), and promised that my balance would be transferred by the end of the day.

A month later, the balance has not been transferred. But, so far, weeks after I set up autoload online, the new card is still registered as a youth card. And so far, we’ve managed to keep track of it.

But I’ve taken a few additional precautionary measures, just in case.

Chicklet's new ORCA card

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*******
*Actually, in an ideal world transit would be free. This would just be a decent scenario in the very broken world we live in.
**An e-purse is an electronic account from which a fare is deducted every time you use it.
***For context: She has managed–more than once–to lose a pair of glasses that were attached to her face.

For better or worse, Link edition

Chicklet, Busling, and I took a recent Link excursion to the Beacon Hill Library. We went to attend an event, but I was mostly just looking for an excuse to get the BH stamp on my library passport (and yes, I’m still working on that).

I ride the train very infrequently, but every time I do, I wish I had the opportunity to do so more often. The reasons aren’t particularly unique, but I’m going to share them nonetheless.

– I don’t need a schedule. Trains are frequent and (unlike buses) don’t often experience delays. I love just showing up at the station knowing I won’t be waiting more than a few minutes.
– It’s easy to board with kids. Stroller or no, bus stairs are no fun with little ones.
– Trains are fast and cool. (I’m not the only one who thinks so. Chicklet is an absolute train fanatic. I need to introduce her to the STB guys.)

Pretty train

Of course, nothing’s perfect

Many months after my initial rides, I still think the payment process is confusing and puts too much burden on the rider. Infrequent riders (especially distracted or busy infrequent riders like me) aren’t going to remember that they have to swipe before and after they ride–especially when the card swiping machines aren’t anywhere near the train. We forgot to pre-swipe at Pioneer Square Station and missed the train schlepping back up the escalator to do so. We also forgot to post-swipe on our way out of Beacon Hill Station and made the machine mad by double-swiping upon our return. I’m still not exactly sure how much I was charged.

If you’re going to penalize folks for not paying, the process should be idiot proof.

Ah, well. I suppose I’ll get the hang of it with a little more practice. Here’s hoping I won’t have to wait long for another opportunity.

Heads up: Big bus changes in 2010

The highlights:

Another fare increase: Starting January 1st, a one-zone peak-hour trip will cost $2.25. (Note: Youth fares will not change.)
No more Puget Passes: Need a bus pass? Get an Orca card. They’re free until January 31st, and then they’ll cost $5. (Note: All passes purchased in 2009–before the December 15th deadline–will be valid until they expire, and all employer-provided passes will be accepted until the employer makes the transition.)
No more paper transfers between systems: You’ll still be able to use paper transfers within Metro’s system, but only Orca-based electronic transfers will be valid on Link and buses operated by other transit agencies.

You can find all the details in this Metro press release.

Also note: Contrary to the Council’s somewhat misleading press release, February shakeup will include some service loss. Though (thanks to added service in certain corridors) there will be no net loss of service hours, some trips (certainly far, far fewer than we feared) will be eliminated. As far as I know, there’s no way to find out which trips will be cut until the new schedules are published. I’ll post more useful information as soon as I have it.

Update, 1/2: STB posted a good summary earlier in the month.

Transportation in the news

• There’s a new, nationwide portal for transit applications. MyBus and OneBusAway are already in there. (Source: Mission-Sustainable)

• Transit riders and privacy groups are raising concerns about the way Orca collects and stores users’ travel data. They’re chatting about it over at STB.

• Link’s Seatac station is up and running. I missed the big ribbon-cutting (hey, it was at 8-something on Saturday morning!), and I’m not headed out of town anytime soon, but I’ll probably ride down there for the heck of it in a day or two. Anyone already been?

Link: Our first “real” ride

On Saturday evening, I finally caved to Nerd’s nagging to ride Link again, and we decided to head down to Columbia City for something to eat. It was our first time riding for real–as in, not on a opening/celebration day–and I am happy to report that (despite the rumors I’ve heard about empty trains) we had tons of company on our ride. If anything, we had too much company; we had to stand for the first several stops.

We also hit our share of new-travel-mode snags. For example:

• Payment was confusing. When we got to Pioneer Square station, we first thought we had to use our Orca cards in the ticket machines upstairs. We struggled to figure out what to do until a nice ST employee (who was servicing one of the machines), told us that we didn’t need tickets. We only needed to swipe our cards on the card-reading machines–once before boarding and once after debarking–inside the stations. He also warned us that if we forgot to swipe on the way out, our cards would be charged $2.50, which is the cost of the most expensive ride.

Soon after we boarded the train, the ST fare police came aboard and asked us to demonstrate proof of payment. Everyone in our car held up their tickets; we held up our Orca cards. It’s not clear how the guy knew we actually swiped them, and it’s really not clear how this proof of payment system will work as more and more riders get Orca cards. Maybe I’m missing something?

• The train had “technical difficulties.” Midway through the climb to the Beacon Hill Station, our train stopped at a little booth-type thingie, and two official-looking men with orange vests got on. They stomped their way through the train for about five minutes (without explanation), then left. The train continued to Beacon Hill Station, at which point the driver came out of his booth and kicked us all off with a short, barely intelligible explanation. One of the other passengers told me that the bells were not working, so that train could not be driven with passengers.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long for the next train (after all the drama, ours was only a minute or so ahead of the one behind it), and the rest of our trip went smoothly–except, that is, for all the stops at lights.

We decided to skip the train ride home and instead opted for the trusty (ahem) 48. The ride was without incident, except that when I swiped my Orca–a little over an hour after paying my fare on Link–I was charged the full $1.75 fare. Guess the “transferrable fares” part isn’t up and running quite yet.

Catching up

After 21 post-free days–the longest hiatus I’ve taken from this blog in the three (plus) years I’ve been writing it–I return (project: complete, Chicklet: healthy and enjoying her bus rides more than ever), determined to reestablish a more regular posting schedule in May.

I’ve had about a zillion bus adventures since I last checked in–far too many to write about. The good news is, there will be many zillions more.

On to the transit news of note:

I trust you all noticed that Metro’s website has new and improved home page. It’s the beginning of a long-overdue update/upgrade to make the site more relevant, responsive, and usable. Some highlights: Trip Planner entry fields are now on the home page (not three clicks away); the navigation is simpler; and there are “quick” links to important stuff like Orca information and Tracker. It ain’t perfect (yet), but it’s a good start.

The Orca payment system is live. As it happens, my annual pass expired on May 1st, so I’m now using an Orca card. This month, I’m trying the “e-purse” only, which means that I didn’t purchase a pass; the money I loaded onto the card is deducted as I ride. Since I’m not commuting five days a week anymore, and, since, with Orca, paying cash is as convenient as paying with a pass (more on that later), I figured it was worth it to find out how much money a pass actually saves me.

I had a few glitches at first–it took a couple of days for the money I added online to register in the system, and a couple more days for transfers to work correctly–but everything seems to working fine now.

What I love:

• You don’t have to buy a pass to have the convenience of a pass. If you’re an infrequent rider, you can add money to your e-purse and use your card when you need it. No more worrying about having correct change or keeping track of transfers.
• If you do buy a pass, you can add extra money to your e-purse for trips that exceed the pass’s value. Beautiful!

What I don’t love:

• Annual passes are no longer an option. I have no idea why.
• Orca’s web interface for loading money and buying passes–especially for people with new cards–is confusing. It’s not clear up front how to buy a pass, and it’s also not clear if you can use the money you load into your e-purse to purchase a pass (you can’t).

On the whole, though, I’m loving the change.

Anyone else have thoughts about Orca–or, for that matter, Metro’s new home page?

* This includes, believe it or not, the period after my mother’s death and the period after Chicklet’s birth.

Until there’s a biometric option…

Sound Transit or Metro? Peak or off peak? One zone or two? Pay as you enter or as you leave? If you hate keeping track of this stuff (or carrying extra change in your wallet to supplement your pass), you’ll be happy to know that Metro, Sound Transit, and several other regional transit agencies are in the process of testing that smart-card-based, regional fare system I mentioned back in August. (In fact, I think the test was scheduled to end on 12/22.) Though I don’t regularly ride any of the participating routes, I’ve seen a few of the card readers in the course of my travels. Here’s one:

Orca smart-card reader

Apparently, they keep track of the time (peak or off peak) and location (ride free or fare), and (I assume, since I’ve never ridden with anyone who actually has one) automatically deduct the proper amount from a rider’s “e-purse.” Nice.

Last month, a few of you wrote to say that you planned to participate in this test. How did it go?