If you ride a Metro bus at night you’re probably familiar with the “front door exit only after 7 pm” rule. It states that “after 7 p.m., for extra evening security, board and exit buses via front doors only.” Metro calls it a safety feature and a way to cut down on fare evasion. CORRECTION: Pittsburgh does this. They have a downtown Ride Free Area in effect until 7 pm like us.
This is a rule unique to King County Metro. I have not yet found another major metropolitan transit agency in North America that does this Most major cities don’t do this and for good reason, because the cost of delay caused by forcing everyone to exit through the front door outweighs the security and revenue protection benefits.
The rule is now effectively rescinded after a Metro bus driver was assaulted last year for not letting more people out the back door. There is no longer any mention of the front door only rule in The Book, Metro’s transit operator manual. Section 6.19 (Ride-Free Area) and 6.20 (Fare Collection and Loading Procedures) tell drivers that “customers may exit through either door.” Metro spokesperson Linda Thielke confirmed to me that “bus drivers do have the option to open the rear door to allow passengers to exit the coach during [7 pm - 6 am]“. Meanwhile, signs on the rear door, inside and outside, continue to say “Use Front Door Only 7 PM – 6 AM”, even on RapidRide buses.
For the sake of consistency*, safety and speed, this policy should be completely wiped off the face of Metro’s buses, literally. The stickers and references on the website should be removed. Customers should be encouraged to exit through the rear door whenever possible*. San Francisco and other major cities do this with automated announcements and signs. Drivers should be clearly instructed of the policy change, again. Many drivers now open the rear door but some didn’t seem to get the memo, not letting passengers exit through the rear door in broad summer daylight with no apparent security hazards. Old habits do die hard. When there’s a real security threat caused by opening the rear doors the driver always has the judgment to keep them closed.
Metro’s Fare Evasion Report found that whether or not a fare was paid, “less than 0.8 percent of systemwide boardings exit through the backdoor outside the Ride Free Area on pay-on-exit trips.” It concluded that “[rear door] fare evasion makes up a small share of total fare evasion.” It’s not possible to say this is because of the back door policy. The driver can’t do much to stop determined fare evaders, front door only or not. In San Francisco, back door fare evasion appears to be a significant problem but their buses are already the slowest in the nation due to other reasons. This is a trade off between the cost of delay and the cost of fare evasion.
Another problem is “Back door!” or a passenger who wants the rear door open. Many other cities’ transit systems allow passengers to open rear doors through motion sensors, push bars, pressure mats, or manually pushing them open. A green light indicates when the door is unlocked. By giving passenger control of the rear door, the door will only open when needed.
Not since the days of Seattle Transit has this feature been offered on Seattle buses. Metro’s reasons, according to Thielke, are “due both to our Ride Free Area and the fact that we have so many different coach types, it would be confusing and aggravating to the general public if some coaches employ this technology and others don’t.”
San Francisco has a more diverse bus and rail fleet than Metro’s and the feature is present on most (if not all) vehicles. Instructions are clearly given on how to open the rear doors. Vancouver, BC, does too. On our own Link trains the operator has the option of opening, closing, and enabling doors for passenger control. There is no technical reason why something similar can’t be done for buses. With the new on-board systems being installed across Metro’s fleet, the back door opener can be controlled automatically on a per-trip basis like the ORCA reader, stop announcements, and destination signs.
To end, I have this funny and fitting analogy to the back door/front door exit issue:
Exiting out of the front door is like a human throwing up; it just kind of disrupts things. When a human upchucks, he / she can’t really take on any new food. The human must wait for the throw-up to come out… and then think about maybe eating some food.
*except “Pay-as-you-leave” trips leaving the Ride Free Area, which deserves a post of its own