Since early November I’ve spied an ever-proliferating number of stickers and posters around town exhorting the public transit riding public to go on a fare strike this Friday. #NobodyPays, they read, with a graphic of a person hopping over a turnstile. According to online anarchist network CrimethInc., the proposal has spread down the West Coast with planned strikes in Portland and San Francisco.
The Puget Sound Anarchists are behind our local edition, which will meet at Mt. Baker Station on the eve of the WTO protests’ 20th anniversary, when the Battle of Seattle made our fair city a global rallying cry for social justice. Then they will ride to points unknown, ORCA cards be damned.
They cite inspiration from the high schoolers jumping turnstiles to protest fare hikes in Santiago, which kicked off Chile’s explosive October of civil unrest and eventually led the national government to repeal the fare hikes and embark on a social reform program. (Protesters also damaged or destroyed 80 subway stations.)
I’ve reported from Santiago and underneath its neoliberal veneer of developed-world economic growth—witness the Sanhattan moniker—lurks savage inequalities with a Gini coefficient (a statistical measure of inequality) among the top 25 worst in the world. Back home, Seattle just ranked #14 on a global index of “inclusive prosperity,” or cities with booming economies that aren’t leaving everyone in the dust.
That contrast is just one reason why the Puget Sound Anarchists’ fare strike is dumb and counterproductive.
For starters, their graphic is all wrong. We have no turnstiles to jump. While this athletic feat of minor civil disobedience has a storied past—turnstile jumpers were among those targeted by disgraced-and-possibly-soon-to-be-arrested former New York Mayor Rudy “Broken Windows” Giuliani—it’s irrelevant here. All of our public transit functions on an honor system. Even King County Metro bus drivers are unlikely to push too hard if you don’t pay when you board.
I understand that Sound Transit fare enforcement has recently come under fire for giving verbal warnings to high schoolers on the first day of school when they had not yet received their free ORCA cards, and for data showing that lower-income and transit riders of color are disproportionately warned and fined for not paying the fare. Last year, a report found that King County Metro’s fare enforcement—necessitated by the off-board payment for RapidRide lines and the Third Avenue transit mall—had a similar impact on people facing housing instability.
Sound Transit claims to have heard the message. For one, they are conducting a public survey on experiences with fare enforcement. I don’t know what the answer is to make fare enforcement more equitable, but very few people are evading the fare to begin with: just 2.7% for Link and 5% for RapidRide. Not bad for no turnstiles. (Portland is at a whopping 17%.)
The fare strike is billed as a protest against the rising cost of living. That’s a perfectly legitimate concern in ever-more-expensive Seattle, but public transit is the wrong target.
When adjusted for inflation, our fares have not budged since Link opened in 2009. Back then, the longest possible ride cost $2.50, which is worth $3.00 in 2019 dollars, or exactly the same price as that ride costs today. By comparison, a bus ride was $2.00 in 2009, which when adjusted for inflation is $2.39 today. So yes, bus fares have gone up in a decade. By 36 cents.
But since then, King County launched the nationally recognized ORCA Lift program, giving lower-income riders a 50% discount. For those folks, the cost of public transit has gone down dramatically.
Far from a fare hike, we’ve had a fare flatline—while still collecting roughly a third of what it costs to run our top-notch public transit system. The American Public Transportation Association named us best in the country last year. We also just topped WalletHub’s September rankings for cities with the best public transit.
And if we want to keep that system winning awards and moving hundreds of thousands of Puget Sound residents every day, we should pay the fare. At least for now. I know Seattle’s chattering classes have teased the idea of free public transit. It might be the answer down the road. But with Tim Eyman’s transit-hating Initiative 976 breathing down our necks, now is not the time to pull the rug out from under ourselves. Especially when we’re already taxing the rich to pay for transit. The ORCA Passport Program, through which employers subsidize transit passes for their workers, generated $76 million in 2017.
If the Puget Sound Anarchists want to practice mutual aid and solidarity on Black Friday around public transit, there are lots of other ways they can do it besides intentionally failing to tap their ORCA cards. They could hand out free ORCA cards. Pay the fare for people before they board. Set up an information table and help people enroll in ORCA Lift.
If all of that is too tame, they could focus on the real targets. Throw vegan milkshakes at Tim Eyman’s nascent gubernatorial campaign. Slow down traffic to save pedestrians on Rainier Avenue. Take up where bus lane hero left off. Or do something useful like their Portland counterparts and fix some potholes, anarchist style.
As for me, I’ll be celebrating Black Friday on the advice of another Puget Sound cooperative entity, one whose ideas are less dumb and counterproductive, when I #OptOutside.