Guest post: Carfree families: Doing the math on a fare increase

This guest post is by Sarah Gilbert, a Portland writer and blogger. She’s also the mom whose story of being turned away from a local burger joint with her three young kids led to the chain retooling their drive-thru policy and signage to actively welcome people on bikes. Even in dreamy Portland, carfree parenting isn’t always a piece of cake, as Gilbert keeps discovering and, lucky for us, exposing in her writing, including here.


back to school errand day: truman and monroe wait for trimetA new generation of bus riders, hopefully. (Photo by Sarah Gilbert)


TriMet, Portland’s public transportation agency, has leaked plans to raise its fares from $2.10 to $2.50, and to eliminate its transfer system in which a single fare is good for an hour and a half, often enough time for a quick errand.

The proposed fare policy would force families with young children off the bus entirely. Most would go back to the car for errands and other short trips. The bus aisles will be clear of strollers. But the streets will be clogged with cars.

Already, it’s not cheap to travel with one or more grade school-aged children. My nine-year-old is $1.50 per trip, and my six-year-old is about to turn seven and enter the fare system. This means that under the current fare system we would still be able to travel together, round trip, for $5.10 total It’s not cheap, but it’s about half the price of an hour of Zipcar and more convenient than biking for long distances in the rain or, especially, after dark, when I prefer not to have my children sharing streets with often-inebriated drivers.

I have no car, so the decision is easy — pay for the bus, or bike or walk for free. We’ve walked more than a mile one way before, to avoid paying a fare when our transfers expired. Luckily, we’re all very mobile and we have sturdy alternate transport options.

Most of the Portland metro area’s transit-dependent families don’t have a decision matrix that looks anything like mine. Their choices are often bus or car, and that car is likely unreliable, a beater, or a loaner. It might not be insured and it probably isn’t a hybrid. The families I know who ride transit during the day are mothers without jobs doing errands with their children; either their family has no car or only one or they believe in making low-impact choices.

Like us, they do not ride transit every day. They ride to the big, cheap grocery stores on the edges of the city. They ride to the doctor’s office. They ride to and from school; many parents I know ride with their older kids to school, drop them off, and then ride back home with the toddlers and preschool-aged kids. They ride to the indoor play park or the thrift shop or the hospital. When I was pregnant with my third child, I spent a lot of time riding to Emanuel Hospital, where the stops would be crowded with other pregnant moms and parents and their babies and young children.

This policy is a firm message from TriMet: We don’t want you, families. We far prefer commuters — who already go only one-way and can pay more, who are choosing the bus for convenience and downtown parking prices, not because it is the only option — and the elderly, whose discounted fares won’t increase and who, TriMet’s spokesperson says, tend to travel farther. A day-long ticket for these travelers would only be $2.

The most telling example of how much TriMet doesn’t want families is the fare options: There is no all-day youth ticket. My family, traveling the mile-and-a-half to Hawthorne on the 75, would pay $11.40 there and back once my middle child’s birthday arrives in April; a luxury I would rarely afford. For nearly every other family like mine, the there-and-back errand would be insensible. They would choose the car.

I filled out TriMet’s fare increase survey a few months ago, and was discouraged that I saw none of the choices included an option that made sense for my family or families like mine. Why not decrease the fares for kids and prompt more families to make the choice to do errands by bus? Why not make the all-day fare for children comparable to the “honored citizen” fare? Why not make choices that demonstrate a prioritization of the least deep-pocketed transit users over the most?

Many of the bus drivers are wonderful and sweet to my children; many other riders, too, light up with smiles and stories when we come aboard. My children love to sit in the way-back of the bus, where the teenagers and the surliest of the bus riders usually sit. Rarely do I see those bubbly boys fail to coax a smile out of at least one of the frowny-faced riders. Often I am surprised at how welcome we feel. Always I am glad to give my children the opportunity to interact with adults of all sorts.

Sadly, TriMet’s leadership does not share this welcome, and would rather have me interact only with my own kind (other families in minivans and Volvos, I suppose). At no time have I ever felt this more keenly than I do now. If this fare increase is passed, we will be riding our bikes in all but the most desperate times. I cannot afford $11 or $12 for a casual errand. And this will impact my decision about where to send the younger boys to school ($8.30 is too much to pay to drop two children off at school and turn around and go right back home). The rest of the families will be in cars, right where TriMet apparently prefers them.


Update (2/8/12): TriMet has official announced their proposed rate and service changes. The new fares are as foretold above. (See also Sarah Gilbert’s follow-up post on UrbanMamas.)

This post is by Sarah Gilbert — look for more guest posts on Taking the Lane soon!


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17 Responses to “Guest post: Carfree families: Doing the math on a fare increase”

  1. Paul Johnson February 7, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

    How hard is it to fold the stroller, anyway? It’s already required on high floor vehicles, and it’s just the right thing to do on low floor vehicles. Along with removing disruptive children and not letting them scream and run the length of the vehicle.

    • sarah gilbert February 7, 2012 at 4:48 pm #

      Paul: I call both ad hominem and straw man. There are bad behavers in all groups of riders, and as I never travel with a stroller (in small part due to the fact that they are, indeed, highly difficult to fold, especially when juggling an infant and/or another child) I really can’t answer that question. from where I sit, it looks incredibly hard, and if you’re frustrated, your stress level is nothing compared to the parents’ stress level. trust me.

      and drivers can hardly kick off families for occasional impulsive behavior of one of the children, especially on the Max. if the children really are running and screaming constantly on the buses on which you travel, your drivers must have the patience of saints; I’ve not experienced such saints in my experience (sweet people, yes, but not holy).

      Having been sworn at or insulted either directly or indirectly by any number of teens and older riders, I’m sure I could find my anger for that whole group and insist they be banned from riding thanks to the bad behavior of a few. that’s not how a society works, however. I’m hoping that we can all be generous and indulgent of the others in our city. I don’t always get my way, though.

    • Paul Johnson February 7, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

      Call it what you want, it wasn’t directed necessarily at you, so much as parents as a group in the Pacific Northwest. Could really learn from rural Kansas in unplugging and paying attention to the kids a bit more instead of your daily agenda. After all, you chose to have kids, it’s your problem, not the rest of the world’s.

    • Elly February 7, 2012 at 10:39 pm #

      Okay, point to whomever can tie this argument back into transportation. Otherwise, peace please!

    • Paul Johnson February 7, 2012 at 10:40 pm #

      Sure. Nobody has to have kids. Nobody should have to put up with someone else’s misbehavior, regardless of age. Everybody has to get to work. Everyone deserves to be able to do so without riding in a rolling day care.

    • Elly February 7, 2012 at 10:43 pm #

      Don’t worry, Paul, we’ve got you loud and clear.

  2. Gin February 7, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    I think it’d be prudent of them to provide a fare option for groups of children and/or families.

  3. marissa February 7, 2012 at 11:41 pm #

    we are going to get a monthly pass for our son when he turns 7. even at $30, it’s the cheapest option for the amount of riding we do. i guess for three children that’s a different story. we have two children, but the youngest is an infant so he’ll be riding free for a while.

    how does trimet plan to enforce the one-way fare thing? what if i’m at jantzen beach and want to go to pine state biscuits? i’d be travelling south, then east. are they going to make me buy another ticket because i’m changing direction? do they change ticket colors every 1.5 hours? how does the driver know which way i originated from when denying me a return trip? i’d like to know more details.

    i have used a stroller while travelling with one child, but i have never failed to fold it before boarding a bus and i don’t understand why other parents are so stubborn about this.

  4. Jonathan Weidman February 8, 2012 at 9:48 am #

    Outstanding blog post. TriMet needs to continue hearing from people like you. We cannot have transit users switching to cars. We need the opposite to happen. Keep doing what you’re doing.

  5. sarah gilbert February 8, 2012 at 11:53 am #

    With the new fare plan out, one part of my analysis is incorrect: there is a day trip option for children, at $3.30, equal to two one-way tickets at the increased $1.65 per trip rate. it doesn’t change my essential math, though: I can’t do errands for any less than $11.60 if I have two 7- to 17-year-olds. (though indeed my daily cost would be capped at $11.60 — whee! I could go everywhere!) two-parent families doing errands or going to a short event/appointment would pay $16.60. the only families who would make this choice are those who have no other option; it would take not just dedication to avoiding cars, but absolutely necessity. if you HAVE a car, and had to choose between taking the bus for $16 or driving for a few dollars in gas and free parking throughout most of the city (like my example and frequently-repeated errand: from my house near Holgate to Hawthorne to go to Fred Meyer or Powell’s or out for pizza), you’d have to be hard-headed indeed to pick the bus.

  6. Rebecca February 8, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

    I agree with everything you wrote, Sarah. These fare changes sound horrible. For those with a car, it’s already more affordable to drive than take Trimet when you are traveling with more than two ticketed passengers. These fare hikes will only push more more people on the road, as you predict.

    My husband and I both have discounted passes through our jobs and commute to and from work on Trimet. Our daughter rides for free. We feel motivated, therefore, to ride public transportation often. I love the planet and everything, but I can’t imagine choosing to pay more to ride the bus than I would to drive a car.

  7. poncho February 8, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

    very valid points but trimet does have a huge budget gap to fill somehow it has to be cured… choose your poison or a blend of them, service cuts or fare hikes

    • Paul Johnson February 8, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

      C) Make motorists pay for it. They’re the ones benefiting directly and primarily by not getting stuck behind more cars.

    • Martin February 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

      Poncho, service cuts vs. fare hikes is something of a false dichotomy, as it ignores a lot of other options. If you look at the cost of employee health-care benefits in this article … http://blog.oregonlive.com/commuting/2012/02/trimet_budget-balancing_plan_l.html … you’ll see it’s an amazing $17,000 per employee per year, with no contribution from the employee. While I don’t begrudge anyone health insurance, that is a fantastically rich level of compensation. Also, even though MAX has the lowest cost per ride according to TM, you’ve got to wonder if all those people on the crowded, slow train are actually paying.

  8. dwainedibbly February 8, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    Excellent post, and great point about the lack of an all-day youth pass.

    Trimet: are you listening?!?

  9. scott g. February 9, 2012 at 8:30 am #

    Martin, money is money, the employees of the transit company have less take home pay because 17k$ is going to the insurance company. It doesn’t matter if there is box on the paycheck that says “insurance deduct” , Saying the transit workers should “pay” more for their insurance, is saying the transit workers are overpaid.

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