Buried in the Southeast Seattle Metro mailer was a throwaway reference to the ORCA card‘s imminent arrival, which surprised this close transit observer given the vendor’s problems earlier this year.

For those of you who don’t know, ORCA essentially works like a debit card, and is designed to replace the tangled web of passes, tickets, and transfers that currently confuse riders. Basically, you’ll have a cash balance, and the proper fare will be deducted when you board. If you just got off another bus, the system is smart enough to credit you with the transfer.

I sent a few questions to Metro about this:

  • What is the precise date for the rollout? The ORCA card will be phased in over a six-month period beginning next spring, but no specific date has been set yet.
  • What is the fate of existing ticket books, long-term Puget Passes, etc.? The participating agencies will honor any existing tickets held by customers (no expiration) and any paper Puget Passes for their effective period. For example, an annual pass purchased this fall could still be used on buses, trains and ferries through next fall, and ticket books with no expiration date would remain valid. Once ORCA is phased in, the goal is to cease sales of all pre-paid paper fare products. Customers will still be able to use cash to pay their fare.
  • Is it true that it will work like a debit card? If so, will there still be an unlimited-use option for a flat fee, as the PugetPasses are today? ORCA users will be able to purchase a monthly pass and/or maintain a stored amount of value in their electronic account (called an “e-purse”). The pass allows unlimited rides per month based on the dollar value selected, just like PugetPass. Passengers who take a more expensive trip, or transfer to a ride that costs more than their pass value, can pay the difference using their e-purse value, or pay the difference with cash. The card will automatically account for transfers between systems. Pre-paid transit fare in the e-purse can be used on any system for single trip fares and the amount loaded on the card is “debited” as it is used.

We’ll be watching this story closely.  I have a set of privacy-related follow-up questions (inspired by this), which I’ll post in a few days.

Photo from Flickr contributor Wade Rockett.

29 Replies to “ORCA is Coming”

  1. >beginning next spring
    So, don’t hold your breath. Or anything else for that matter. At this point I’ll be surprised if we can get cards before Central Link goes up.

    1. It’s pretty much on track… it was scheduled for early 2009 in the 2001 plan, wasn’t it?

  2. I remember hearing about this thing when I was still in high school. Since I first started using the bus on a regular basis they’ve been saying it’ll be here soon. I won’t believe it until I actually see them on buses.

    Now if only we could get those automated stop announcements that they apparently tested out some seven years ago…

    1. ORCA readers are actually on almost all Metro, ST, Pierce, Community Transit, and Everett Transit Buses. I believe they’re also putting them on ferries and Kitsap Transit. I wonder if they might make it so you can use it at Starbucks or 7-11, like the Octopus card in Hong Kong…

  3. RFID technology is a wonderful thing. Model examples are (as mentioned above) Hong Kong, and perhaps more notably, London. Their Oyster card system is truly fantastic – the entire system, regardless of mode of transport (even the ferries!) uses it. Wave the card by the reader on the way in to the Underground or when getting on a bus, it beeps, and you go. It’s quick. But London totally hit it out of the park when they enabled corner shops throughout London to have card readers where you can top up your card’s value or put a day/week/month passes on it. Saves tons of time.

    1. I’ve read somewhere that they designed the system is being designed to be expandable to any public transit agency in Washington, Oregon and Idaho (Why not throw in TransLink in BC, too), and to be used in non-transit applications such as parking and toll payment.

      That would be the ultimate regional transit card with a reach similar to how the E-ZPass is widely used for tolls on the East Coast.

    1. I actually have the defcon slides. I don’t think it’s ‘easy’ enough to cheat that more than a dozen computer geeks will do it. Sure, you’ll get people selling fake cards every once in a while, but the loss there is still NOWHERE near the cost of a new system.

    1. I’ve seen people on the pilot program using it (although I do believe the pilot program is over). So you can see it if you ride buses regularly enough. :)

  4. Here’s my dream world:

    No free ride zone, but rather charge a small fee say 50c to ride in the old zone. If you want to pay cash it’s $2. Also charge double for cash fares then using ORCA to get more people to stop fumbling for change.

    Charge some kind of distance charge, it’s crazy that it cost you $2.50 to go 5 miles or 35 on Sound Transit. I work 2 miles from my house, the bus costs $1.75 and only covers one of those miles. Pretty steep…

    With my system all riders enter the front and swipe the card, leave through the back and swipe, just like London.

    1. The free ride zone is done for speed, so charging anything would harm that. I think the free ride has some problems — way too many transients, for one — but by and large is a net benefit. I would cut the free ride on weekend though. However, I honestly don’t get a lot of the free ride hate.

      In terms of doubling the fare for those without an ORCA card… I could see charging a quarter more (to encourage faster boarding), but let’s not punish people too much. Those without a card are much more likely to be less frequent transit riders or those who are less fortunate.

      1. The transient issue has been reduced somewhat by the new Denny housing, and if we build more projects to house people who aren’t capable of taking care of themselves, we’ll do even better.

      2. The way ORCA worked in the beta test was you tapped the card only once per boarding which means if your bus crosses zones you might have to tell the driver to set it to the zone you want (it was displayed on the reader’s screen). For trains, you tap as you board and tap when you leave otherwise you’ll be charged the maximum fare.

        What’s interesting is that Portland’s Fareless Square is in effect 24-hours every day compared to Seattle’s 5am-7pm RFA. I don’t know about the transient problem in Portland, though.

  5. “The free ride zone is done for speed”

    If most people have orca cards this is a non issue. Charge much more for the difference and even more people will get one. London charges much more for cash fares and even as a tourist for a week it was worth it to get an pass. It really takes going to Europe to see how terrible our system is.

    1. That’s a huge if. I’ll support it if we start finding that most users have orca cards – but the thing is, downtown is where our tourists are. I don’t want first time users being the only ones hit with a fare – it becomes a barrier to use, it makes people less likely to ride a second time.

      1. True, but I don’t see many tourists on the bus…do you guys? I’ve seen tourists on the SLUT…

        Frankly when I’m in a new town I will take trains, trolleys, taxis, tubes etc, over any bus. Our buses don’t even have maps with stops posted at the stop or in the bus, most don’t call out stops… The few times I have ridden in other cities it’s a royal PITA.

      2. Yes, I also generally avoid buses when I am a tourist. Buses are much more confusing and annoying when you don’t already know the area.

        Now, Ben said “I’ll support it if we start finding that most users have orca cards” — but the point of charging cash users more is to encourage them to get the cards. In London, we got Oyster cards with a one-week Zone 1 and 2 pass, which was relatively inexpensive, and then we rode the Tube all over the place without a care. It was great, and the ORCA could be like that.

        However, what would make it work would be if the cards are easily bought and topped-up. You have to have tons of places to get them (in London, you can buy them at the tube stations at least, and that alone makes quite a few places where they can be bought), and topping them up has to be dead easy. You should be able to do it online, in lots of shops, etc.

        So even as tourists, we were able to just walk into a random Tube station, get an Oyster card, and if we needed to add a day or two to the card at the end of our stay, or just a couple of trips, we could do that just about anywhere. It was quite accessible and we didn’t find it to be a problem.

        We didn’t ride the buses, though, so I don’t know how it works there — but we did see signs that said all tickets for riding the bus must be bought outside the bus, so boarding must be pretty quick. I think they may have had ticket machines outside the stops, though I don’t know if they are outside every stop.

      3. I rode the buses in London once last year when I was out late and the Underground stopped running. It’s not too complicated, but definitely more so than the subway. You can use the Oyster card on the buses there too; there are multiple readers by the doors inside the bus, so you don’t have to use the front door. If I recall correctly, you had to use the front door when paying cash fares.

      4. More about transit fares in London at http://www.tfl.gov.uk/tickets/faresandtickets/2930.aspx

        What they have is a ‘Pay Before You Board Area’ in central London where there are ticket machines located at every bus stop in the zone.

        When I visited Singapore I did the same thing. When I got off the plane at the airport I headed for the MRT airport station, bought a prepaid card loaded with money, went through the gates and on to the train to my hotel in the CBD, which is conveniently linked to the MRT station via underground walkways and malls. Much cheaper and more convenient than taking a cab.

      5. Pay before boarding and then having your ticket validated (or swiping your card) either at the entrance to the station or actually on the bus/trolley is fairly common in the rest of the world. It would speed boarding times and allow for aggressive fare enforcement.

        I’ve never found using the bus as a tourist to be that horrible, a steeper learning curve than most simple rail systems (less so for extremely complex heavy rail systems like Paris or London) but usually essential to seeing some sights without paying for a taxi. Unless you have some really tight itinerary, taxis have always seemed ridiculously expensive in comparison to their actual benefit to the tourist experience.

      6. In Portland, the fareless square is heavily touted for tourists, and most of the downtown tourist spots have basic maps, with landmarks shown. The one time I used transit in downtown Seattle with a bunch of tourists, it was a PITB

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