2986982509_52bb3d1666Once again, ECB has called for Ride Free Area to be eliminated. As we’ve argued before, the Ride Free Area makes buses flow through the congested downtown area quicker. ECB is a smart and strong supporter of transit and it’s great to see her reference some of the comments made on this blog, but we do disagree when it comes to the Ride Free Area.

Yes, the Ride Free Area can be confusing. Some routes you pay when you enter, others you pay when you leave. Sometimes riders paying with cash have to get a transfer on one side of downtown, and show it to the driver when leaving the bus on the other side of downtown. Seattle transit-types will boast that it’s not hard to figure out — but it certainly isn’t easy for new-comers. When I used to bus around Redmond, the handful of times I encountered a pay-as-you-leave bus I was completely lost.

But, it lets riders board and depart through all sets of doors while in downtown, the most congested part of the bus network. It does not cause revenue to be lost for Metro (the city and downtown business owners pick up the tab). And it makes the entire system operate more efficiently.

Read past the jump to see why we should keep the Ride Free Area around for now, and how we can get rid of it in the future.

3029644724_0ce7193ea5While ECB has claimed that eliminating the Ride Free Area would make the bus system more reliable, I have to disagree and say that the opposite is true. Outside of downtown, there are very few stops that see a mass exodus of people such that departing the bus is a pain. (One exception I can think of is the 194 airport bus, but that problem is going away soon.) Most stops outside of downtown only service a few routes, and typically only one with any frequency.

However, you can imagine if 3rd & Pine required transit riders to pay when they entered: The line of transit riders at the front door waiting to pay could result in the many other buses serving that stop to be held up.

Many other big cities don’t operate a Ride Free Area, so why is Seattle different? Most cities don’t have a big downtown, where a lot of commuters transit usage (~40%), that relies solely on buses. Indeed, the expansion of light rail certainly helps make eliminating the Ride Free Area look tenable. So does the implementation of the next smart fare card, ORCA, which I spoke about earlier today.

What’s ironic is there are also a lot of questions being floated about ST relying on ORCA too early.

If you want to get rid of the Ride Free Area then ORCA is the clearest path to that. ORCA is a good thing for our transit system. By ensuring that most of the transit-riding population uses a single smart card that works across all agencies in the region, one can ensure that boarding times are reasonable even with crushing loads.

Too many riders in Seattle use tickets and cash to pay their fares, causing system-wide slowdowns. By eventually requiring transfers and other niceties to be handled by ORCA, ticket/cash use will go down and we’ll have a faster, less-confusing transit network.

So I endorse the approach to simplify everything: Move everything to ORCA. Move many commuters to more robust rail. Eliminate bus paper transfers after enough consumer education has occured. Eliminate PugetPasses in favor of ORCA cards with the same functionality. If someone wants a day or week pass, have it be an ORCA card. Try to minimize cash payment on buses and single-use light rail tickets. And then, yes, eliminate the Ride Free Area.

But this vision is quite a journey from reality. In the mean time, we should accept the Ride Free Area and the irritating confusion that comes with it..

(Photo credit to the Seattle Municipal Archives and to reverendkomissar respectively.)

47 Replies to “ORCA Pt 2, or: Should we Keep the Ride Free Area?”

  1. I think you downplay the mass exodus problem. For busy commuter routes, battling your way to the front of a packed bus so you can pay is a major hassle and time consuming, even if it’s just one person exiting. The Ride Free Area just shifts the pain from loading to unloading.

    1. Brian, you make a good point. What I should have been clearer on is that there are many more destinations outside of downtown for most buses — i.e. the crushing load is spread out rather than just, say, 3rd & Pine. Beyond spreading the pain out, many times the RFA does “shift” the pain. But that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Because most of the time there aren’t other buses waiting behind that stalled bus. If you had paid-as-you-enter, then the “pain” would spread all the other buses fighting for limited space on 3rd avenue, for example.

      For example, you’d rather have your #49 stalled on Capitol Hill with no other buses behind it, than stalled on 3rd avenue with a handful of unrelated routes also being slowed down.

      1. It’s true. Even if a heavy commuter route was pay-as-your-enter, fighting your way off a packed bus when both exits are available is often only slightly better than fighting your way to just the front exit.

        Ultimately, my vote is for ORCA + honor-based fare system.

      2. The simple solution is controlled access loading platforms. Requiring payment prior to entering the bus tunnel is simple, doing so above ground is a larger question that looks at the land use issues of Streetscape design. I don’t know about Seattle, but Tacoma, where I bought a house 5 years ago has streetscape design on the agenda for this year, with budgeted consultant funding.

        Funny thing though, the free ride zone is mostly a subsidy for the very well off, call it corporate welfare and may actually discourage transit useage. The ‘problem’ person is the one that drives and parks downtown, paying for both who then pays nothing to use the downtown circulatory transit system. If that person had to pay for it, they might well be more inclined to try riding transit from home once in awhile.

        Trivia fact – the developer Martin Selig (Columbia Center, Canned Ham, etc) who got METRO to expand the ride free zone into Belltown – by offering 60k a year, I think early 80’s. He never paid a dime.

        Lastly, the ride free zone does allow undesirables onto the bus. This might strike some as harsh, but it is a reality that effects public perceptions of the desirability of bus useage.

      3. It’s probably better for everyone if that rich guy parks downtown and then takes the bus everywhere. Less CO2 wasted while he’s searching for parking, he can shop or eat throughout all of “downtown” from Belltown to the ID, he doesn’t have to spend money at a bunch of different parking stalls, and our streets aren’t overloaded with cars. Still, I do wonder if it’s necessary to have over the weekends but I’m guessing that’s when the “transit efficiency” reasons change to “people spend more when they can get around.”

        Free Ride Area: subsidy for the very well off and also for the undesirables.

      4. This “undesirables” thing keeps coming up, but it is in my opinion unfounded. Do you all honestly think that charging fares is going to keep these “undesirables” off the bus? Have you ever ridden the 174? The one effect that I imagine ending the FRA would have would be to increase the begging for change that occurs downtown (moreso).

    2. Sure, but it moves the problem out of downtown to unloading. Where’s a worse place to have a loading problem? On a downtown street packed with buses or a neighborhood arterial with just one bus?

    3. I want to add to Andrew’s response. It’s not the people on *that* bus causing the big delay, it’s the three buses behind them.

  2. I wonder if it makes sense to move to a Seattle streetcar style trust-but-verify system once Orca is installed. Swipe at either door or pay at the front, and occasionally a Metro officer walks by checking everyone’s card or receipt. Imagine entering and exiting through both doors all the time.

    1. You’d have to check onboard, so any packed route would be easy to avoid payment on.

    2. At least/first get rid of the RFA in the bus tunnel and mandate that all buses in the tunnel use orca with readers at both entrance and exit.

      1. You’d still have readers on the bus (you need them on the way back, after all), but you’d have the option of scanning in the station.

      2. Yes. If you were riding Link, you’d scan in at the station, and then scan out at your destination (assuming it was outside the tunnel). If you were bussing, you’d scan on the bus as you left.

        If you didn’t scan on, with Link, you’d just be in the same nonpayment territory as anyone else as soon as you left the tunnel.

      3. We’re talking about a different scheme – trust but verify with buses. In that case you’d scan in the station or while getting on, not off (or this kills the point).

      4. The assumption of a destination can change enroute. How do you deal with that.

        What if you are in the RFA, don’t scan in because you at first think you’re going to get off in the RFA, but enroute decide to change destinations and get off at a station that happens to be outside the RFA? You didn’t scan in, so now what?

  3. It seems like it all boils down to:

    Is there any way to load buses fast enough on 3rd Ave during the evening commute that doesn’t require pay-as-you-leave?

    1. Check out the end of the blog entry. I think if we get a high percentage of commuters on light rail, which doesn’t have this issue and can move more people, and get nearly everyone using ORCA, then we might be able to eliminate pay-as-you-leave.

    2. Brian,

      (1) Pre-pay stations – you can only ride the bus with a pre-pay ticket or card when getting on a bus on 3rd Ave or what-have-you.

      (2) In the tunnel, set up pay stations and turnstiles – no paying on bus tunnel buses directly. Metro police (who look bored most of the time in the tunnel) could monitor for stile jumpers.

      (3) Run more “Ride-Free” only downtown buses to target that population (tourist, those just trying to get downtown without a pass)

      I also don’t buy the argument that it’s better to have that stall time at unloading than at loading. In my experience, during the evening commute, most of the people pay with passes when they get off, and having to crunch to the front to pay creates a net longer wait time for everyone. When its just so crowded that no one can move, the driver often just opens the back door anyway. In addition, for the commuter buses in downtown, they are loading at 5-7 stops in downtown, and then unloading most of their passengers at 1-3 stops (Northgate, the Park and Rides, Campus Parkway).

      1. As someone who often uses the ride free area to get around downtown I would oppose getting rid of it. Because of the RFA it is possible to run errands during the day, make an interim stop on the way home for dinner or entertainment, or to park once and only once when visiting a number of locations downtown.

        Sure people with passes won’t care about these reasons for having the RFA, but they are important which is why the merchants and city pay Metro for the RFA.

        Getting rid of the RFA would hurt downtown businesses and lead to more traffic on downtown streets in the middle of the day and on weekends.

        Sure a free shuttle can mitigate some of the impact but it is nowhere near as convenient as hopping on the next bus headed in the direction I want to go or using the tunnel to bypass congestion.

      2. Aren’t there cities in America and around the world that don’t have downtown ride free areas, but still have a thriving shopping and business core?

      3. Running “free-downtown-only’ buses for tourists & downtown only folk (lunchtime shoppers) looks like a good solution.

  4. yes just increase orca use by making tickets 2x the cost. If this happens all the ‘regulars’ would have one and things would be speedy.

    1. That’s how Oyster (london’s Orca) works. A single zone fare paid in cash is £4, and but that same fare is just £1.60 with Oyster.

  5. I’m old enough to remember (long before Free Ride Zone) when the Seattle Transit System had loaders at the major downtown bus stops, during the PM peak hours. They would take fares at the rear door of buses, make change, and distribute transfers on request. This greatly expedited loading, and restoration of a few of these people would allow the FRZ to be abolished and allow all doors to be used for alighting outside the CBD.

    Or another approach would be to install ORCA card readers at all bus doors, allowing cardholders to tag on and tag off at any door at any time. Given the capabilities of the ORCA technology, this probably makes most sense, at least in the long run. But this would require fare inspectors on the buses, just as they will be on Link trains.

  6. A simple, easy to understand fare system for ALL public transportation in the Puget Sound will generate the most riders and therefore the most revenue. Using Orca for all but cash transactions is a good thing. Charging a big flat rate plus 5 cents a mile is marginal at best for generating revenue (current ST proposal), and requires riders to queue up at the destination to calculate your total fare. This is just silly!
    Does anyone really think that a lot of people will move closer in just to save a few dollars on a Link fare. They’ll do it for a lot of reasons, but that one is way down the list of incentives.
    Division of revenue between the transit agencies could be by formula, using Orca data information generated yearly for linked and unlinked trips(who transfered to what). Let the computers figure it out.
    A 2 or 3 tier fare structure for ALL transit would acknoledge the higher cost of operations for premium or long distance services(BRT, water taxi, Sounder, STEX routes), while keeping local (within the City of Seattle) fares at one flat rate price — rail, or bus — doesn’t matter. This makes transfers from one mode to the next seamless. A higher fare for longer distance express buses heading out to the hinterland is justified. If you want to evade the premium bus price, stay on a local route.
    Getting rid of the ride free area is only a bad idea for downtown, because everyone will have to Orca ‘tap in’ the front door, slowing boarding to a standstill.
    Here’s where street kiosks at really busy stops would allow riders to ‘tap in’ on their favorite route, and enter any door. ST style fare inspectors could wander the buses and trains to verify you either tapped at the curb or on entering the front door of the bus. That’s all doors open, all the time, both on and off.
    The efficiencies with all door loading and alighting are tremencdous, sometimes speeding up a route enough to keep the same headways, with one or two fewer buses assigned to the route.
    If getting around downtown for free is a big deal, let the downtown association start running their own Kent style “shopper shuttles” for free. It would probably cost them a lot less than it is now.

  7. Why not make all of the county a ride free area? Seriously. How much money does Metro and ST make from the farebox? Why not just increase taxes by whatever that amount is? I can see plenty of upside, but not any downside.

    1. I’m a strong proponent of removing fares completely. It’s a sure-fire way of increasing ridership, for one thing.

      How much would it cost? We’d have to increase bus taxes by about 20%.

      The main reason people cite for not removing fares is because more homeless people would ride (i.e. sleep on) the bus. But I just don’t see how our current system really keeps homeless people from riding when they want to.

    2. For Sound Transit, there’s a hope of 50% for Link.

      For Metro, they hope about 20~30% from the fare box, but get something like 15%

      1. These recovery numbers have to be considered in the context of capital investment. One of the biggest justifications for the high capital expenditures is that they **lower** operating expenditures – which is why the number is so much higher for light rail.

        There is a flip side to this though, and it is called jobs. That capital expenditure is money that leaves the economy just as much as a company shifting manufacturing to China does.

        This is a crucial consideration of transit side effects. By supporting transit are we actually supporting the increasing divide between the rich and poor in America?

        FWIW, this is a big reason why I support busway type transit solutions using existing rights of way. Another big benefit of a busway type priority is that it doesn’t tie you into a single monopolistic corporate provider for the tech, something else that goes very much to the question of rich vs. poor.

      2. Douglas, construction workers do not work for Sound Transit, they work for a construction company. So even after the light rail projects are done, assuming there is another construction contact somewhere in the area, the construction workers still have jobs. It is not like a company moving a factory to China, because that company actually lays off employees in the States. When the economy is bad and private projects stop coming, like now, public infrastructure is one way to keep these construction workers employed until the next economic recovery.

        Your claims about the benefits of a busway are flawed, but if the primary benefit that you espouse is that no jobs are ever created to eventually be “lost,” well, I guess I’d rather have people earning income from ST for a while than earning nothing ever. And to wrap all of this in the very serious issue of poverty is laughable. No, by supporting transit we aren’t increasing the divide at all. No one gets “rich” from transit projects besides the construction agencies that employ everyone. But there are hundreds of construction companies. How many oil companies are there that don’t collude?

        Finally, the benefit of the high capital investment isn’t solely that of a low operating cost. It’s also that you can move many, many more people much faster on a mode that most prefer. To make a crude analogy, it’s the difference between a highway and 1st Ave.

      3. Douglas, that is a rather funny way of looking at capital investment. The general view is capital investment doesn’t remove money from the economy but has a multiplier effect both when built and in succeeding years as the capital investment promotes other economic activity. The roads, rails, ports, dams, water projects, etc. built all those years ago continue to provide benefits today.

        I don’t think the Grand Coulee Dam, or BART have increased the divide between rich an poor, if anything infrastructure investments have leveled the playing field. Countries with a large divide between rich and poor tend to have a fairly low investment in capital projects.

        As for busway type projects they tend to have similar up-front costs to rail projects providing similar capacity, travel times, and reliability. Rail projects have the further advantage of lower operating and maintenance costs and the fact that rail vehicles last much longer than buses.

        BRT advocates have a bad habit of citing the low-investment case of BRT when comparing costs to rail but claiming all the benefits of the high-investment case while glossing over the differences in operating costs or changes in land use patterns vs. rail.

        Furthermore rail built to international standards is no more tied to a single vendor than busways and buses are. There many manufacturers of transit rail vehicles located in many countries. Don’t confuse rail technology with PRT or monorail technology which is tied to a single vendor.

  8. I prefer paying for my transit. I don’t like free (paid by taxes) transit. Paying a nominal fee for per use / per month use gives me a sense of intentionality… gives me a sense of confidence in my fellow riders who I know also paid to be on the bus… gives me the confidence that we are all going somewhere.

    The least favourite part of my commute is downtown in the RFA.

    1. Why 20% payment then? You could amplify this feeling of fulfillment by raising fares to $10 a ride for a 100% fare box recovery. Or if the sense of fulfillment isn’t value-based, lower it to a quarter.

      1. I wonder if it’s still only 20% on those standing-room-only buses that populate the ride-free area.

      2. Lowering the fare to a quarter or a nickel would indeed provide the “sense of intentionality”.

        But fares discourage people from riding — which *can* be a good thing. This is a strong argument for having fares on *crowded* routes at *crowded* times and no fares on *uncrowded* routes or at *uncrowded* times. New Mexico’s RailRunner had introductory fare-free days, and they ended up being overcrowded. Which was nice as an advertising gimmick, but a bad idea in general.

        Practically speaking it’s easier to get farebox revenue than tax revenue. If your buses are overcrowded, raising fares — until the buses are full but not overfull — is eminently sensible. Same with trains.

        With something like ORCA, a much more fine-grained fare system can be installed. For instance, one which charges a nominal amount most of the time, and a larger amount only during peak hours on commuter routes. You don’t want it to be too complicated for anyone to remember, but something other than a flat fare does make sense.

        Actually, a good way to get people to use ORCA would be “With ORCA off-peak trips are free!” (with cash they still cost money). Fill the wasted space on off-peak trips while getting people to switch to the smartcard — why not?

        I think Sound Transit is trying to get mile-based fares into people’s heads with their Link proposal — and that’s a good idea. If you start with a flat fare it’s *very* hard to convert to a more rational fare system later (look at poor old New York City). If you start with different prices for each trip, you can change your fare system quite a lot, to optimize ridership or reflect costs, without people complaining too much.

    2. Are you threatening to drive to work if we take away the warm fuzzy feeling that paying for transit give you, jcdk?

  9. I understand that the DBA paid for the RFA when it was started, but is that true today? I heard from my driver that the DBA stopped payment when the bus tunnel was closed, and they haven’t resumed. Are there records for this online?

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