Preliminary Sound Transit fare enforcement survey results shed light on perceptions, concerns and areas of improvement

Feb. 7, 2020
Household income emerged as the primary demographic characteristic that differentiated those surveyed who were able to provide proof of payment and those unable to do so.

Sound Transit released preliminary results of its fare enforcement experience survey it conducted following concerns that its practices unfairly punished certain groups.  

Sound Transit’s practice is to position fare enforcement officers at the ends of the train where they work inward and ask everyone for proof of payment. According to a Sound Transit presentation from October 2019, African-American/Black riders made up nine percent of light-rail and commuter rail ridership, yet accounted for more than 20 percent of the warnings or citations issued. Sound Transit also noted that disparities included people with no or very low incomes who can’t afford to pay fares, but still have mobility needs.

In an effort to combat these disparities, the transit agency’s fare enforcement workgroup conducted a rider survey where it collected responses onboard Link light-rail and Sounder commuter rail trains through an online survey distributed region-wide and by convening community listening sessions.

The intention of the survey was to determine the primary reasons for why a rider did not pay to use the rail services, measure customers’ experience with fare enforcement and identify any differences in customer experiences across demographic groups.

Sound Transit reports three key results emerged from the onboard survey:

  • A higher percentage of respondents without proof of payment were African American/Black, Hispanic/Latinx, low income or with disability than were riders with proof of payment.
  • Household income, specifically above or below $50,000, was the primary demographic characteristic that differentiated those surveyed who were able to provide proof of payment and those unable to do so.
  • “I forgot to tap,” “my ORCA card didn’t work,” “I thought my transfer was valid” and “I couldn’t find where to tap,” were the top reasons for not showing proof of payment.

The online survey found that respondents:

  • Supported reducing nonpayment fines.
  • Agreed that Sound Transit should help riders who can’t afford to pay.
  • Agreed that fare enforcement officers should offer on-the-spot information about reduced fare programs.
  • Support suspending fare enforcement in the event of severe weather.
  • Support forgiving fines after enrolling in ORCA LIFT (Sound Transit’s reduced fare program).
  • Agreed or strongly agreed that many people do not know about payment options, subsidies, benefits or programs.

The listening sessions collected feedback from underrepresented communities and queried respondents in five categories including fare enforcement officers, customer experience, access, program changes and youth.

The results of the listening sessions found:

  • Respondents believed security should be present, but security should not be the role of fare enforcement officers.
  • Regarding customer experience, respondents said there needs to be better alignment of transfers between bus and train, as well as between transportation agencies.
  • Respondents would like to see increased access to reloading Orca cards.
  • Regarding program changes and youth, respondents found the $124 fine for nonpayment excessive and believe it does not fit the “crime” and would like to see Sound Transit decriminalize fare enforcement.

The full preliminary report is available to view on Sound Transit’s website. The agency’s fare enforcement workgroup intends to use the information as it works to finalize proposals for program changes, which will be shared with the Sound Transit Board of Directors in March.

Sound Transit also said it will continue to use the insights provided by the survey data to inform other continuous customer service improvement efforts.

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Editor in Chief

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the magazine’s editorial direction and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.