Erica Barnett wants to get rid of the ride-free area because it “makes fare collection a nightmare”. The ride free area is there because boarding in downtown would take a really long time if everyone getting on had to pay right then. Right now everyone can just walk on and off and the buses can get through downtown in a reasonable amount of time.

So here’s my question: is fare collection really a nightmare due to the ride-free zone? Would you want to trade a more complex fare collection process for buses getting gummed up downtown with fare payments?

45 Replies to “Ride Free Zone”

  1. No and hell no.

    Want to make our entire collection system easy and shave multiple minutes off each route? Make all zones ride-free zones and collect fares via taxes.

    The Magic Carpet Ride system was the best transit idea Seattle had since the 1926 subway. Collecting fares downtown would slow the system to a crawl.

    1. Well, free transit creates significant problems by encouraging overuse. I don’t think the actual fare is a significant barrier to entry to people who want to use it, but it *does* create a barrier to significant overuse. We *are* capacity-limited in a lot of areas already.

      1. Probably true, but my point is that it would speed routes up significantly.

        I’m ok with overuse downtown and over short distances. It sure beats waiting for everyone to pay.

  2. Would you want to trade a more complex fare collection process for buses getting gummed up downtown with fare payments?

    No. We already need to have buses skip stops on 3rd ave and some other streets to fit all the buses that go downtown. If each stop took a lot longer and people could only board through the front door and several of them had to fumble for change… well, how many stops should we have buses skipping? My guess is we would need to double the number of bus stops and then having each bus stopping at only every 4th, although it may be worse. And at that point it gets confusing to figure out which stop you need to go to for your bus, not to mention which way to walk to transfer.

    Keep the buses moving through downtown. Maybe with some sort of fare prepayment system we could get rid of the ride-free zone, but otherwise the system as it is works and should be left in place.

  3. On the other hand, downtown Seattle’s fare collection system is pretty unusual. Lots of other cities seem to manage with a normal always-pay-when-you-board system, so I don’t think it’s self-evident that making that change here would cause downtown to grind to a halt.

    As another data point, Portland has a downtown ride-free area but also does pay-as-you-board; my impression (as a former resident there) was that it didn’t lead massive fare evasion, as you might think.

    1. Interesting. That way downtown-only trip-goers and those with transfers and passes could board in back. I think you’d also want ticket vending machines so people could buy “transfers” or passes. Any sort of change like this would need study and capital though, and Metro won’t be able to afford those any time soon.

      I can see ECB’s point. It’s confusing to swipe my card as I board the 2, and then have to swipe it again as a leave on the other side of downtown. The ride-free area is confusing. I remember back in 2003, when I used to take the bus from around Microsoft to my apartment in downtown Redmond, I’d sometimes get on this Metro bus that came from Seattle and it was “pay as you leave” and I never figured out when I’d pas as I leave and when I don’t.

      However, basic analysis of the issue would lead one to conclude that simply eliminating ride-free would be a very bad idea in terms of travel times. Lower travel times, means we can operate more buses for less money.

      However, I see no reason why we keep the ride-free during the weekend. A lot of people have the chance to try riding buses on the weekends so we should make it as least confusing as possible.

      It’d be worth getting stats from Metro on how much time/revenue is saved by operating the free-ride on weekdays as well as weekends.

  4. I’ve long been opposed to the freeride area for a few reasons:
    -Fare collection is SO complicated. I’m a resident and regular bus rider, and even I am never sure whether I need to pay when I get on or off. Also I would assume that a huge number of people board downtown and then “don’t have the money” at the end of the trip
    -It promotes use by bums and hobos, which has the additional effect of making transit less attractive for people who can afford to drive but might actually switch to transit if it was nicer
    -If we want nice transit we should pay for it

    I’m not convinced getting rid of the freeride area would cause longer boarding times. New York has everyone pay getting on and has a much higher ridership than we do here. The key would be eliminating the use of cash and getting everybody to use some sort of MetroCard-like system.

    1. Those “bums and hobos” (hobos? Honestly, is this a Depression yet?) get on in the U-District with valid transfers often donated by well-meaning students all the time. I’ve occasionally heard an operator chew them out, asking where they’re going, etc. Sad that we will not fund anywhere for the down and out to go, so the public library, art museum, and buses become the de facto day shelters.

      ORCA is coming, and I have to think Metro is aware of the problem this will cause if people walk too close to the reader getting on and getting off, accidentally paying twice!

    2. I am incensed every time I see the “bums and hoboes” argument. I have been homeless for 8 of the last 20 years. Not currently and not all at once. I was homeless *in Seattle* off and on during 1989-91, 1996, and 2002-3. Yes, I rode buses, and not always “for transportation purposes”. First of all, I have been a transit hobbyist all my life, and I often go for recreational rides. When I used to travel, of course I wanted to ride as many bus lines in every city I went to as possible! Now, during the 1989-91 era, I stayed at DESC, which at the time had a lottery system. The lottery prize was a place to sleep. If you lost you could try again at Operation Nightwatch. Failing that, which didn’t really happen that often in those days, meant I took the 280 all the way around the Night Owl loop twice to get some shut-eye. I always behaved myself and was sober. I’ve never been much for taking baths/showers, even when “homeful”, but I didn’t piss my pants or anything like that. (Ironically, I was banned from Pierce Transit in 1991 for lack of hygiene and I was “homeful” at the time!) However, except for that issue, I never caused a problem on buses. I had an income and always paid my fare. I never heard of any “free pass” program, that must be new. In 2002-3, I stayed at SHARE, which gave its clients two free bus tickets a day. Instead of stereotyping the homeless, why not direct your complaints against the specific behaviours or characteristics you take offence at in these people. I might even agree with you on some of them….

      I actually agree the FRZ should be abolished for revenue reasons more than anything else. I think a revival of the old “Dime Shuttle” (adjusted for inflation to about 55 cents) which went from Westlate to Pioneer Square would be appropriate for lunchers/shoppers, and Metro should go to more zonal fares, at the rates used by Seattle Transit System and Metropolitan Transit Corporation in 1970, adjusted for inflation….

  5. I think we need to figure out a different form of payment. Lots of countries require you to buy passes in advance from kiosks and validate your pass on board at a self serving validation machine on the bus… this keeps boarding/unloading very fast. Then you just have random spot checks with patrols to make sure people have validated passes and have stiff fines for those cheating. It seems to work well in lots of different countries, so I don’t see why we can’t implement something similar here.

    I hate our current cash payment on the bus system. So much extra time gets added onto my route because people have to fumble for change as they’re getting off the bus slowing everyone down. Even swiping of passes can take up a ridiculous amount of time.

    1. One problem with prepayment is the costs of installing and maintaining the infrastructure to sell tickets.

      Another alternative for prepayment that wouldn’t require the change system-wide, but could eliminate ride free, would be to have only the downtown stops currently in the ride-free zone, or whatever area seems best, require prepayment. That reduces the number of vending kiosks needed and the amount of area to patrol for fare-checks. Also, you could cordon off boarding areas where possible (I know San Diego has done this) such that you are not allowed into the boarding area until you have paid your fare. That way, spot checks can just be in the boarding areas. (or maybe just less frequent on board, if you want to do that too)

  6. I sort of think the ticketing system needs to be completely overhauled. The plan I’m about to suggest is in place in most cities that have real transit systems.

    Monthly cards need to be at a discount from regular tickets. I’m thinking monthly cards at about 75, discounted multipacks (10 rides for 20?), and tickets in cash at about 2.50. That way most people will just pay with cards, and you can have people pay in advance.

    As it stands, if people had to pay in advance in seattle it would be super slow because so many people pay in cash. It’s really hard to justify a metro card right now unless you take the metro an awful lot. With discounted ticket rolls or multi-ride passes, it wouldn’t be so bad.

    Using swipe or RFID cards would also instantly reform the somewhat ridiculous transfer system that presently exists.

    But other people’s points are pretty good too.

    1. We will have a new RFID card next year (so they say…) that will automatically handle transfers. You can put $30 on the card, for example, and it’d work like a credit card for the bus, or you can buy it as a monthly pass.

      1. I’ve heard next spring; they just haven’t announced it officially yet since they want to be sure that it works before doing so. My sources also tell me that cash fares will still be accepted, but the only transfers will be via Orca card.

      2. There have been a lot of active ORCA readers in the last few weeks. Smells like testing.

      3. Just this evening I saw an ORCA reader that was active with the three lights on and tape covering the screen.

      4. Metro has been testing the ORCA readers along with the radio system. A glitch has been found and everything is on hold right now! Not sure whether this will delay implementation of the system in march 2009 or not!

    2. No matter what, you still need a way for people to get on the bus without buying some sort of card.

      Basically the only way to speed things up is to spend more money… but unfortunately that’s not something we have a lot of these days.

      I think we need to send our metro (and sound transit) planning crew out on a transportation sight seeing vacation. Send them to Paris, Berlin, Madrid and maybe Hong Kong to witness what real mass transit systems are like and how they work.

      1. The locations with the highest demand also have the highest percentage of pass users. A faster pass system like ORCA really does work.

        I don’t really think our planners need to go see these other places – I don’t know of any that haven’t already been there. Knowledge of what to implement isn’t a problem – money is, I’m sure, and at this point, time is.

        I don’t think we need to worry about the system just before we make a big change, anyway. :)

  7. Yes, the ride-free zone is confusing, especially for new riders and visitors. Once Orca is here, it will speed up the boarding process and then they should eliminate the ride free zone.

  8. As buses get more and more crowded as transit use increases, I think what we’ll see is what happens on the U-district buses today: at the Campus Parkway stop, drivers simply open both doors and let everyone stream off, allowing whoever is in the back to simply walk away. The Free Ride Zone is confusing, and it only gets worse at the borderline around 7 pm; try getting on a downtown-bound bus at 6:45, which is pay-as-you-enter because it won’t get downtown until after 7.

    One thing I’d like to see here that is in place in many other cities is a tourist-oriented one-day or three-day pass. If you could buy a one-day unlimited pass at kiosks downtown, it would be easier to accommodate those users. Those kiosks could also sell one-way tickets which would reduce the fumbling time at boarding for residents without passes.

    1. We have an unlimited one day pass. You buy it from the driver (ha! that helps). In another comment thread, someone tells the story about how you can’t even buy a bus ticket at the transportation booth in the airport. Clearly we need easier, more available ticket sales spread throughout the city whether or not ORCA works.

      That being said even having kiosks on every corner and a fully functioning ORCA system, removing the ride free area would turn downtown into a transit mess. There will still be people that dig for change (or their ORCA card), and the time difference between this and just letting everyone in both doors is large.

    2. The one day pass is only sold by the driver on weekends and holidays. There’s a visitor pass available for any day but you can’t buy it from the driver!

      What’s worse, is that the first one only has a face value of $1.50 and seems to be only sold on Metro buses even though it’s a paper PugetPass. The second one only works on Metro buses, not ST, CT, PT, or ET.

      What’s neat about ORCA is that it’s contactless, no swiping ever. You can keep the card in your pocket wallet or your purse. Just bring the card close enough to the reader to register your fare and you’re good to go. Unless you buried it in your backpack, there should be less delay paying with ORCA versus cash or magnetic passes.

      I was down in Portland for a day and easily bought a day pass good for unlimited travel anywhere on Tri-Met from a MAX ticket vending machine with my debit card. I hope we can do the same when Link comes online. We should install machines like those at transit centers so people don’t have to go to Bartell’s to buy tickets or passes or to top up their ORCA.

      I say keep the Ride Free Area and let ORCA handle most transactions. If we get rid of the RFA then a “pay before you board” zone should take its place. The concern is that currently there are more than a hundred individual bus stops in the RFA.

      One thing that bugs me is that there’s only one card reader at the front of the bus. There should be one at each door to take advantage of all doors. No more people squeezing to the front to pay as they leave also. It also allows people to “tap in” and “tap out”, eliminating the need to ask the driver to change the reader if you’re going only 1-zone on a 2-zone bus (or vice versa). On the other hand, if people forget to “tap out” then they’ll get charged the maximum possible fare.

  9. The ride free zone has always been a great subject for debate. I think there are reasons why it makes good sense and reasons why it doesn’t, so I don’t have a real emotional investment in it either way.

    Eliminating it could -conceivably- help with one aspect of riding the bus, and that’s reducing the um, ‘social service’ aspect of it. I can’t blame the bums and the winos and the homeless folks for seeking out the bus as a place of temporary warmth and shelter, though I -can- blame them for refusing to understand that when the ride is over, the ride is -over- and they need to get out and move on.

    That’s one of the reasons the hours for the free ride area were significantly reduced over the years, there were too many reeking piss-stained drunks camping out and driving away the people the transit system is supposed to be serving– regular bathers who pay their fare and use transit to actually -get- somewhere. The system still needs some improvement in that respect unfortunately.

    On another matter, I am well and truly baffled by all the seemingly literate folks posting here who claim to be so confused about when they should pay as they enter or leave. I rode the buses exclusively for about five years after I moved here, and it didn’t take me anywhere near that long to figure it out.

    When you walk up the stairs, the first thing you might see if you bother to look is a very visible 6×8″ sign attached to the side of the farebox, indicating what the fare is, whether or not it’s peak hour, and at the very top, four quite simple, legible words that say either “pay as you enter”, “pay as you leave” or “ride free area”. These words are legible from several feet away from the door all the way up to the top of the steps.

    It’s true, the driver is on the opposite side of the farebox and can’t -see- the sign, so sometimes they forget to put the right side out, but if you read the sign and act accordingly, it’s hardly your fault if the sign is wrong, now is it?

    But I find it hard to see how anyone with basic functional literacy could claim to find it confusing if they’ve ridden the bus more than two times in their life. READ THE SIGN.

    Functional literacy is a wonderful thing, more people should aspire to practice it.

    1. The system is not incredibly user friendly, especially as you approach 7pm. Having to pay as you enter at the beginning of the route and then flash your transfer near the end of the route is confusing and has nothing to do with functional literacy.

  10. The RFA has outlived its purpose. Bus speed through downtown could be maintained with a “proof-of-payment” system like the one Metro says it will use for its Rapidride BRT:
    – Cash customers board through the front and pay on entering
    – Everyone else (the majority), including those with passes and transfers, enters through any door.
    – Fare checks occur randomly.
    – Fare checkers would not have to be scary armed cops but could be regular Metro staff with radios.

    This is how it works on light rail systems throughout the country.

    The RFA encourages people to use Metro for non-transportation purposes (i.e., sleeping, hanging out, passing out) and discourages many people from riding.

    Even with $2+ fares, the cost really is a token cost to most people. Those who are needy could receive subsidized passes through the city, job agencies, homeless shelters, etc.

    One last benefit of getting rid of the RFA: downtown is the point where most buses are the fullest. Some who now ride free would have some motivation to walk a few blocks downtown instead of squeezing on to already-full buses.

    1. “The RFA encourages people to use Metro for non-transportation purposes (i.e., sleeping, hanging out, passing out)”

      Quite a few commenters have made this point. But I don’t get it. Are people really sleeping during the six stops downtown, then crossing the street and trying again? Or are they getting on, then sleeping while riding out to the suburbs, then refusing to pay when they get off. If so, how do they get back? And why haven’t I seen many homeless people on our buses compared to most cities?

      1. Matt, only part of this is in response to your comments above. The rest is just responding to some general comments I’ve seen here…

        “Or are they getting on, then sleeping while riding out to the suburbs, then refusing to pay when they get off. If so, how do they get back?”

        Not only do they refuse to pay but they won’t get off the bus until the driver has called the police and waited for assistance in “de-boarding” said passenger. Then they spit or swear at the driver for having the nerve to wake them. Homeless people have resources available to them that enables them to ride the bus with a card GIVEN to them by taxpayers. Put yourself in the drivers place for a bit and think what it would be like to have that stench in your nose all day. Even after these “non-transportation” get off the bus the scent lasts for a long time. When it finally dissipates a new, similar person gets on and it starts all over. Before you judge a driver as being a bad person for not helping someone that is “down and out” realize that they deal with this all day long and if the RFA was gone it a lot of the problem would be taken care of. Would anyone like to have a smelling piss-pants guy lying on the floor under your desk while you work? I didn’t think so.

        ~Thanks for letting me vent~

      2. Well, free passes given to homeless is a different issue than the Ride Free Area, but thanks for describing another reason a day shelter would be a good idea.

      3. Ruby,

        Can you give more specific information on where these free passes come from? I’ve heard it asserted before that low-income people can get assistance with passes, but no one’s ever provided me with a contact or link.

      4. I believe they get them from their Welfare worker. I don’t know other than that. Sorry. I know you can get a reduced fare permit if you are a senior or have some kind of disability. You pay $9 for a sticker each month then you can ride the bus for 50 cents. Those are available from Metro at various places. 2nd & Jackson downtown or at the Pine Street tunnel kiosk.

  11. Anyone who has stood in line for several minutes to exit a “pay as you leave” bus knows that the ride free area does NOT speed up bus service.

    1. You are so right! Half the passengers that get on the bus in the RFA try to pay anyway! No matter that the driver says to pay as you leave over and over again.

      The RFA is kept alive because the downtown business owners pay a fee to the county. They think that it encourages people that work downtown to go shopping or whatever on their lunch hour. Sounds good on paper eh? Ending the RFA has actually been brought up numerous times at City Council meetings but the council-peeps don’t want to lose the money they get from the businesses downtown. We need to speak up a bit louder I guess. If there was no Free Ride, then the free loaders wouldn’t be on the bus…and that would speed things up considerably at both ends. You don’t have to sit and wait for some dork to do that “Transfer Dance”, patting all his pockets and thumbing through his wallet, when you know darn well he has no transfer anyway.

    2. What actually slows the process is the idiots that don’t get their fare ready until the last damn minute! That is what slows everything down!!!

      1. What really pisses me off is when some fool gets on the 545 in the mornings and we’re running late as it is because of the 520 Bridge (I’m referring to that one jerk who asks how much fare is every time – same passenger, same driver, same trip). I have a Microsoft Employee ID, let us pass users (UPass, Microsoft ID, Puget Pass, etc) use the back door

  12. As a former Pierce County Resident (who commuted via the 590-something – usually 592 or 594 – or Tacoma Sounder), here’s my two cents:

    In Norfolk, Virginia, we have Hampton Roads Transit Route 17 (The NET) which is a free circulator running up and down our equivalent of 3rd Ave as well as the free #310 which loops the perimeter of Downtown Norfolk. (disclaimer: Downtown Norfolk is MUCH smaller than Downtown Seattle). All other routes are regular fare.

    1. Seattle had a “Dime Shuttle” from the 1950s to 1973, which was replaced by the Magic Carpet Zone. The Dime Shuttle ran from Westlake to Pioneer Square. I don’t have specific route info at this time.

  13. Does anybody have any data to back up the belief that the ride-free area speeds things up? Some of the comments on this thread make it sound like the whole Metro system will grind to a halt if the RFA is eliminated and riders always paid as they entered.

    The buses that run on 3rd Ave have about 4 stops with high volumes of passengers entering/exiting. Eliminating the RFA would make these stops take a bit longer, but the overall trip time would be the same — each passenger still takes his X seconds paying his fare. (Riders that are incapable of having their fares ready are a separate problem.)

    Always paying as you enter could actually make things go faster. The simplicity and consistency would eliminate confusion for infrequent and new riders. Riders who go through the RFA wouldn’t need to pay twice. Exiting a crowded pay-as-you-leave bus wouldn’t require fighting your way to the front of the bus.

    And a bonus of this change would be additional revenue for Metro. I don’t know that there are many trips taken within the RFA, so I don’t think this is where this revenue would come from. But I see a significant number of riders exiting without paying — either because they can or the driver lets them out the back due to overcrowding. Paying as you enter would address the latter case and probably reduce instances of the former.

    1. It was always fun trying to explain when I was waiting at Tacoma Dome Station the Ride Free Area. In addition, I was on the 510 once visiting a friend in Everett and it took someone a lot of convincing* that this bus was free within Downtown (they were going from King Street Station to Central Library)

      * which of course lead to angry passengers trying to get to Everett

    2. Eliminating the RFA would make these stops take a bit longer, but the overall trip time would be the same — each passenger still takes his X seconds paying his fare.

      Whether that time is spent in downtown Seattle or outside it makes a big difference, because the downtown streets are full of buses and they often have to wait for other buses to clear the bus stops. This is why already we have implemented skip stop on most downtown streets. If dwell times increased in the central business district, that might no longer be sufficient to accomodate all the buses.

      I’d be happy to see the RFA go and be replaced by a prepayed only area, if those work and aren’t even more confusing. The only other bus system I have significant experience with is Pittsburgh, and it’s not that different. I don’t think they had a ride free area, but they did have buses going away from downtown operate as pay-as-you-leave during most of the day.

  14. ORCA is on its way! The drivers are getting the training right now and it won’t be long before you can actually USE those funny boxes that have been on the bus for over a year. You won’t even have to take your pass out of your wallet/purse/pocket. You just have to wave the pass within 3 inches of the box and your fare is registered.(so if it’s in your pocket you just have to get close to the machine.)You won’t have to pass a card through the slot and the driver won’t have to look at it. If it’s not valid, it will not “read” and a beep will go off…just like the weird noise the card slot makes now I guess. Your fare is deducted from the total that you have purchased and when it runs out you just load more money into it. There will still be cash fares but most passengers use the bus passes anyway.

    Hey…it’s a start.

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