Tonight (6-8 p.m., November 30), celebrate at Optimism Brewing a good year for democratic transportation.
The author is general secretary of the Transit Riders Union. TRU is hosting a Holiday Victory Celebration tonight (Nov. 30), 6-8 p.m. at Optimism Brewing. All are welcome. Charles Mudede

If you’re homeless or living on a bare-bones income, transportation is a challenge. With even reduced fares out of reach, chances are you rely on Metro’s Human Services Ticket Program.

This program was born of protest. Back in 1991, Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE) was spending most of their budget buying bus tickets so people could travel from their South Lake Union shelter to an overflow church on Capitol Hill. Nearly broke, they began meeting at the King County Administration Building before making the trek on foot. After weeks of this public demonstration of need the Metro Council relented: SHARE and other service providers could purchase tickets at a discount. The program has expanded steadily for twenty-five years, and last year 138 service providers distributed over 1.4 million tickets to homeless people, seniors, youth, students, veterans, refugees, and victims of domestic violence.

With housing costs and homelessness rising, the need for tickets has skyrocketed. The Transit Riders Union (TRU) learned from our members that tickets are a scarce resource; just procuring a few to get to appointments, meals, and shelter, let alone social activities, is time-consuming and stressful. Service providers confirmed this story. Queen Anne, West Seattle, and North Seattle helplines can give people only a ticket or two per month. Often Compass Housing can’t get people to job and housing interviews. Casa Latina can help their day workers with transportation for only twenty days of each month. The King County Code caps the quantity of tickets available, and many organizations were not allocated nearly what they requested. For others, cost was prohibitive: providers pay 20 percent of face value, so the price per ticket doubled since 2008 due to fare increases.

The simple answer? Make more tickets available and cut the price. This summer TRU launched a campaign to do just that. We delivered hundreds of petitions and letters. Transit riders and service providers met with county officials and testified at public hearings.

This fall the King County Council responded. The council voted unanimously to raise the cap and then to halve the ticket price. Moreover, the Executive Dow Constantine has promised to “direct Metro to engage other transit agencies, the state, other local jurisdictions, human services agencies and other potential partners in a discussion of transit’s role in contributing to the social safety net for the lowest income residents, and how to provide assistance while still being able to meet the growing demand for transit service throughout King County and the region.”

This last part is important, because ultimately we need to do better than tickets. As our regional transit system is increasingly integrated across modes and agencies, we need card-based solutions. Earlier this year TRU campaigned successfully to enable ticket-users to ride the light rail, but Metro’s “combo-ticket” solution is clunky. An unlimited ORCA card that is very inexpensive or administered through a service provider would be liberating for many who rely on single-use tickets. King County should look to Calgary, Canada, where a sliding-scale transit pass will soon provide transportation for as little as $5.15 per month for people living in extreme poverty.

Homelessness and poverty are not going away any time soon. We hope King County and Sound Transit will start taking a more integrated approach to affordability and access so that activists can focus elsewhere. How about shifting the state legislature to win stable and progressive transit funding? Or building a multi-modal movement to make Seattle a place where few people need to own and drive cars? Many of the hundreds of low-income people who have participated in struggles for affordable transit would love to take on these broader transformative issues, if only they didn’t have to be more immediately concerned about getting from A to B.