In general, the fare structure of our transit systems needs to be vastly simplified. The complexity deters riders who have to choose between transit and driving.
Update (Sept 28, 2011): I found Metro published a paper on the topic of fare coordination which indicates they are moving towards adopting may of the core ideas I've outlined on this page. The big thing that's missing (from "Coordination Opportunity #4, in particular) is the consideration of a single basic fare for most service and a premium fare for peak-direction-only commuter services. (This would be similar to the fare structure used by Community Transit.)
In 1996, voters approved Sound Move, which, in addition to funding light rail, commuter rail, and a regional express bus network, promised regionally coordinated fares. Sound Transit's response was in two parts:
Note that in light of the above projects, it seems that NOTHING has been done to coordinate fares in the region, as per the Sound Move mandate. (Apparently there is a regional Transit Integration Group which is supposed to be addressing this, but I could not find much information about their work.) Let's review where things stand 12 years after the voters' mandate for regional fare coordination...
As a couple years ago (when I first wrote this piece), fares GENERALLY follow this structure:
...or, if you are a YOUTH (thru 18 yrs for all BUT Metro and the Seattle Streetcar, which are thru 17 yrs!)
...or, if you are a SENIOR or DISABLED:
And, don't forget...if you bus left the Ride Free Area between the hours of 6am and 7pm--even if it was before you boarded--you need to pay when you leave and must exit from the front door.
Ah, complexity. :-/ IMHO, Pierce Transit has done the best job of providing a consistent fare policy, while Metro is the worst (except for youth and seniors, for which fares are the simplest on Metro!). Metro Transit charges extra for two-zone travel ONLY during peak hours, whereas every other transit agency collects the same fare all day, every day, based on the number of zones traveled. Also, note that Sound Transit & Metro have different zone boundaries inside Metro's service area:
(Still, we can be thankful Metro simplified its original zone plan. In 1973, "Metro set fares at 20 cents base and 10 cents for each additional zone, and there were 30 different zones that the buses traveled through. In 1977, the agency moved to the simpler two-zone system.")
With the introduction of the Orca card, it has actually become impossible to transfer between agencies without a card. This is particularly challenging for communities in the Rainier Valley which are served by light rail.
Others are also fed-up with uncoordinated fares and passes.
Even within a single transit agency, fares are too complex. Metro and Sound Transit are the worst.
Multi-zone fares are frustrating on buses because they are largely enforced by the honor system. Drivers cannot realistically track which riders cross a zone border. Worse still, overlapping transit agencies enforce different fare boundaries! Community Transit provides an alternative solution by classifying routes based on 'local' and 'express/commuter'. As long as the routes are clearly differentiated, this is much easier for the rider to understand and more enforceable than a multi-zone system since each route has a single fare.
In contrast, consider what is arguably the most successful transit system in North America: New York City. Their fares are simple: $2.25 for bus or subway. Express buses are $5.50. (Reduced fare is 1/2 price for those who qualify.) Where you're going doesn't matter. The time of day doesn't matter. Period.
Consider this scenario: two friends are going on an outing. One has a bus pass--the other has a car. Almost always, the friend with the car will drive. Every time this happens, we lose an opportunity to introduce someone new to transit. People who own cars will rarely take the bus, even if their friends ride the bus.
In order to introduce new riders to transit and improve the utilization of our bus system, our transit agencies should offer a "Friends Ride Free" program (likely only during off-peak hours since that is the time when excess capacity is available).
A potential problem with this is that strangers might try to casually bum a free ride from riders waiting at bus stops, saying, "Hey, will you tell the bus driver that I'm your friend so that I can get a free ride?" This is potentially a very awkward situation existing for bus riders. To avoid this, joining the program should be an option for riders for strangers to assume that any paying rider can take a friend. Here are a couple options:
San Diego offers a Friends Ride Free program on certain holidays.
Higher fares for "one-way" express/commuter routes
Peak-hour one-way express/commuter routes are by far the most expensive routes to operate by almost any measure, largely because half of their time on the road (going the reverse direction) generates no revenue, part-time employees required for these routes are more expensive to hire. Considering the high value provided by these services to commuters who would otherwise have to drive through congestion and pay high parking fees, and that the riders of these services are generally paid more than those who are dependent on all-day transit service, fares for these routes should be substantially higher. (I'd guess they should be about 2x higher, though I have not researched this in-depth; also, I believe any dramatic changes like this should be phased in over many years.) These routes should be differentiated with their own 'premium' brand so that it is clear that a higher fare is being charged.
These could be clearly branded as having their own fare policy, including:
Discounts for pre-paid riders (ORCA, tickets, etc)
Consider re-introducing discounts for tickets and steeper discounts for bus passes, with the rationale being that paying transit fare with cash on-board is often much slower, and the additional time means slower buses...slower buses mean costlier operations since more buses and operators are required to meet capacity and schedule requirements for each route.
Another strategy--pattern after London's system: just use the system with your card, and you will only be charged for the best deal available. That is, you don't have to commit to a one-month bus pass before you use it--just use your card as normal, and you'll never be charged more than the cost of a pass (for whatever length of time the pass is valid).
To generate more funds, substantially increase the cost of fare at the farebox, and provide residents the opportunity to register for a discounted fare. Furthermore, steep discounts would be more easily available to residents rather than visitors who have fewer alternatives. (This is done by the transit system in Zurich, for example.)
Many areas in Germany (and other countries, I'm sure) offer a family pass on the weekend where up to four people can ride transit in the region as much as they want for the day. [add details about this]