The just-released “Subsidized annual transit fares: Ensuring transit affordability to low-income residents of King County, WA” case study by Results for America explores how King County Metro’s and Sound Transit’s subsidized annual pass aims to expand mobility. The subsidized annual pass, which launched in late 2020, builds upon an earlier pilot and research demonstrating that fully-subsidized access to transit significantly increases public transportation use among people with low incomes.

Guided by the knowledge that mobility is a human right, Metro prioritizes accessibility across its entire network and provides discounted transit fares to customers with lower incomes, customers with disabilities, seniors, and youth. Additionally, many students and employees receive transit benefits through their school or workplace. Customers can use Metro’s interactive tool to find the fare that is right for them and the Reduced Fare Portal to enroll online. In late 2020, Metro and Sound Transit introduced a new option for customers with the greatest need based on their incomes. People who qualify through certain state benefit programs can receive a fully-subsidized pass that provides unlimited access across Metro and Sound Transit’s systems.

“This income-based approach to fares is one of King County’s most significant efforts in promoting racial equity in access to transportation,” according to the Results for America case study. The study pointed to the 2016 implementation of King County’s Equity and Social Justice Strategic Plan and the 2019 convening of King County Metro’s Equity Cabinet as instrumental to the creation of the subsidized annual pass.

Results for America cites the following as “major accomplishments” of the pass:

  • Improved regional access to transit for low-income residents: Prior to the public launch of the fully subsidized annual pass, a randomized control trial of a pilot found that recipients of a fully-subsidized transit pass more than doubled their transit usage compared to individuals with ORCA LIFT. The majority of fully-subsidized rides occurred during off-peak hours. The study was conducted with researchers at LEO (the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities) at the University of Notre Dame and the University of California-Irvine.
  • Early success for riders holding the new subsidized annual pass for riders: Despite being launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, in its first quarter of operation, the subsidized annual pass allowed over 3,000 residents to take over 100,000 individual transit trips. As of August 2021, 6,000 residents have enrolled, with over 60% of enrollees identifying as Black, Indigenous, or as a person of color.
  • Serving as a national model: Jurisdictions across the United States have developed equity-centered mobility plans and income-based fares using many of the components of the King County model, like partnering with human service agencies for recruitment, enrollment, and pass distribution.”

The case study notes local leaders’ commitment to racial equity, community co-creation, partnering with state and community-based agencies to recruit and enroll community members, a unified regional payment system for transit, and a continuous learning approach as keys to the success of the subsidized annual pass.

Full case study:

Relevant resources: