After JR DuBeau moved to Seattle in 2007, he noticed something peculiar: His girlfriend at the time hoarded bus transfers, carrying a stack of the pieces of paper in her purse whenever she went out.
Bus transfers across the Metro bus system feature a single color and letter that change each day, which is intended to prove that their holders paid a fare earlier that day. But as DuBeau’s girlfriend showed, with enough of a collection, the system can be played. As she approached a bus’s payment kiosk, trying to hang toward the back of the line, she would quickly determine what color and letter the driver was taking that day, reach into her purse, and produce what looked like a legitimate stub.
“I thought it was interesting they didn’t have a more secure system than just a color and a letter,” DeBeau says. “Even in Spokane they have the date printed on it.”
Suspecting she wasn’t the only person who’d figured out this trick, DeBeau created a Facebook group called “Today’s Seattle Bus Transfer,” where members who commute early in the morning can post the day’s transfer color and letter for other passengers.
DuBeau created the group in 2009, and for a while, he says, it was just himself and “this guy named Josh and another woman named Dorothy.” But the page slowly caught on.
“When it started hitting the thousands, that’s when I knew it was getting huge,” DeBeau says. “I’m not one for gaming the system, but it was exciting. I’d never been a part of something this big.”
The page had more than 7,600 members by mid-November, and continues to grow by around 300 members a week.
Several people who use the service say they were driven to it by increasing bus fares. As recently as 2006, a bus ride could be had for $1.25. Now the base fare for a ride within the city is $2.25.
“I use the bus-transfer site because I don’t have a job and I can’t afford to pay for the bus,” Laurel Snyder says. “It used to be 50 cents a ride. I don’t want to pay $2.25 that I don’t even have.”
Most group members are in similar positions—either with no job or with a job for which they need to travel to often. Robert Tobias travels from South Seattle to downtown, and says that after a period of paying in cash, he could get on the bus for free: “I usually only pay for two bus rides a month now.”
Tobias says he started doing this when he wasn’t making a ton of money, but still had to travel to his job. Collecting transfers cut his transportation cost to nearly zero. “The people who are riding the bus usually don’t have another mode of transportation,” he says. “How can they be charging people that much money? Why doesn’t it come out of taxes?” He says he got involved in the transfer group after he began to get frustrated, peeking to see what the transfer color/letter was each day. “I just Googled ‘Bus transfers each day’ and the Facebook group popped up,” says Tobias, who uses the group just about every day and has collected around 160 transfers in two years.
For those starting from scratch, transfer collections can be purchased on the Facebook group, usually from someone moving out of Seattle. They typically cost a little more than a buck a ticket.
King County Metro is fairly oblivious to the problem. Public-relations coordinator Rochelle Ogershok says that while they are aware of transfer books being stolen, it doesn’t happen all that often and it’s not widespread. “To prevent fraud, transfers are individually numbered, color-coded, and receive a ‘letter of the day,’ ” Ogershok says. She adds that most riders use the ORCA card now anyway, and that while the transfers date back 40 years to when Metro began, their only function now is to provide an option for those who cannot afford an ORCA card or who ride the bus infrequently.
Ogershok says that riders caught using an expired or unissued transfer are charged with an infraction the first time. A second offense constitutes a misdemeanor and is subject to arrest.
In that petty criminal spirit, the group of transfer players has developed a sort of code for their enterprise. “Green Drinks” means a green transfer with a letter D on it; “Orange Horse” stands for an orange transfer marked with an H.
If the growing popularity of the Facebook page means more people are actually riding for free, it couldn’t come at a worse time for Metro. It’s facing a $75 million budget shortfall next year, and is warning that it will have to reduce or eliminate 80 percent of its routes if more funding can’t be secured.
DeBeau says that while he doesn’t have anything against Metro, he doesn’t see the point of paying when there is a way to ride for free. Plus, he says he feels like he helps people.
“I think it’s a justifiable scam,” DeBeau says. “It’s not just a group where people post stupid pictures, it’s actually a page people use. It saves them money, all that money.”