Graphic by the author

It’s been two years (and a day) since ORCA was launched to the public. How much progress has been made in its adoption? Two key measures for measuring its success are usage and availability. Sound Transit and Metro in a joint press release announced today that the “cards are used on more than 250,000 trips each weekday and 49 percent of all transit trips in the region.” The press release didn’t break down the usage by agency. They also announced that customers can now reload their ORCA cards at 37 QFC stores. QFC joins 50 Safeway stores, seven Saar Marketplaces, and four other retailers for a total of 98 ORCA retail outlets across the region.

You can view the full list of reload locations on ORCA’s website or on a map when Sound Transit updates it. Retail outlets do not sell new ORCA cards.

In other ORCA news: The ORCA system has reached “Full System Acceptance” which means enhancements to the system can be considered and implemented. Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick tells me “there are no final decisions about any system enhancements” at this time. Speaking of enhancements, all downtown tunnel stations served by Link now have ORCA readers on the platform, three months after Sound Transit said it would be done.

For comparison with March last year, according to an ORCA Progress Report, 34% of all transit trips in the region were paid with ORCA and only 14 retail outlets were in operation. Nearly a hundred retail outlets is great improvement from 14 but it’ll take a lot more to make ORCA easily accessible to all.

103 Replies to “ORCA’s 2nd Year”

  1. Oran any idea if ST is trying to get 7-11 onboard? What are the barriers to more widespread retail locations?

    1. I don’t have any idea but I’ll ask. I would think participation is up to the retailer. I’m sure the vendor is having issues with getting these places set up. We should’ve had at least a hundred locations at launch, IMO.

      1. I wonder how much revenue Metro loses when buses switch to “ride free” mode due to the farebox getting jammed.

      2. Not nearly as much as Metro loses in time lost while the bus waits for cash, change, and transfer fumbling. ORCA & U Pass fumbling is an occasional issue but at least ORCA can be read through your wallet, purse, back pocket, or – more amusingly – through your front pocket. :)

    2. The main barrier is that retailers don’t get a cut of the profits. what they DO get is (supposedly) increased foot traffic in their stores. Operating these machines costs money (clerk time) that often doesn’t off-set “increased customer traffic” in your store, especially in downtown locations that already have huge daily customer counts.

      1. Coluldn’t a customer-operated one, similar to a TVM, be placed in the stores instead?

        I think a brand new Camry is actually cheaper than a TVM. There’s a figure floating around somewhere.
        If you then suggest a “dumbed down” ORCA dispensing machine, I’ll ask you what a TVM can do that an ORCA dispenser wouldn’t do. Not much, and I don’t think the cost savings would be significant.

      2. There wouldn’t need to be any TVM style machine. You would just need a stock of pre-loaded cards that can be activated by the store either by webpage or other procedure –just like the other myriad of “gift” cards that such stores carry.

      3. A machine that only stocked new cardscwould be useless for people who need to add value to existing cards. My employer provides a 50% subsidy, loaded directly on my company-provided card. I have to put the other 50% on myself. I do it on-line, since I’m online every day anyway and don’t mind the 48-hour lead time it requires. But for people who need to add funds in cash, or in a hurry, a new-card-only machine wouldn’t help.

      4. I believe all of these locations already have the capability to add value to cards (QFC, Safeway etc.) You don’t need a fancy TVM to do that. Just a small terminal or even a secure webpage.

      5. Josh,

        Your employer can put the full value on your card, and deduct the difference from your pay, pre-income-tax.

        If that is not how they are doing it, ask them to call their contact at ORCA again, and I’m sure the ORCA specialists will be glad to explain how this works.

  2. Aren’t almost all monthly passes only available on ORCA?

    I don’t think 49% of riders is all that great, and if there were a breakdown between monthly pass riders and pay-per-ride users, that the adoption is much higher among monthly pass riders than pay-per-ride users. Further I’d want to be careful to segregate out monthly pass users who also have an e-Purse to use for when the fare is higher than their pass value (e.g. if you have a $2.25 monthly pass and use the ePurse when you take a $2.50 or $3.00 ride).

    ORCA makes using Link easier so the adoption there is probably good. But for people taking a single ride, or just using Metro, you may as well stick with cash and get your Metro transfer.

    To drive adoption the ORCA website needs to be improved, there should be an incentive for using ORCA, whether it’s a bonus for loading $20 or more on the card, or a discount on the fare, ORCA transfers need to be more generous to be equivalent to paper transfers, and there should be some ORCA-only products like an all day pass.

    1. +1. ORCA is widespread enough now that we should start thinking about sticks and carrots to motivate adoption.

      Also, is there any news on UW’s ORCA-fication?

      1. They’re saying UW staff and faculty ORCA will start in June. Looks like they’re going for the smallest group first (summer quarter students), then staff and faculty, then the big haul of most students in the fall.

      2. Hooray! BTW, do the buses that become pay-as-you-leave after moving away from the U really have to do that? Even with pay-as-you-leave, buses will still operate as essentially one-door buses until POP is instituted. (And I do hope the TMP recommends immediate POP implementation for our most crushloaded, frequent buses.)

      3. I didn’t think they were supposed to do that at all. The other day I got on a 67 at Northgate and the driver had forgotten to change the placard from “pay as you leave” to “pay as you enter”. Find out what’s wrong with that picture…

      1. Two principal ways a daypass could work with ORCA:

        1) Go to a TVM or the ORCA website and purchase a daypass to load onto ORCA card. (Even with the 24-hour delay to load, this could be rectified behind the scenes, meaning even if bus readers didn’t know you had it, the back end could still make sure that only the daypass was deducted and not individual fares.

        2) An implicit daypass by having a maximum fare that would be deducted. That could be $6 in-county and $9 intra-county, for example. So you won’t be charged more than that on a given day.

        In either case there is the question of what the price should, and I suppose how the agencies split it (that question exists with transfers today). But something like $5-6 in-county seems right, and $8-9 intra-county.

      2. Much prefer the cap. That’s how London does it. Gives the certainty of a daypass without the need for an extra “day pass” product.

      3. Carl,

        Do you mean intra-county and inter-county?

        If it is a multi-agency cap (with ferries and trains excluded), that would need a lengthy negotiation among the agencies to agree what that cap should be, and how the revenue-sharing algorithm would be altered.

        I see it as more likely that Metro would unilaterally institute a day cap, and only if it found a way to encourage Metro ridership over ST ridership, while not losing monthly pass purchasers. Right now, the odds still feel like slim to none, given the propensity of government agencies to raise, not lower, fees.

        In the meantime, I hope you don’t consider the day cap as a prerequisite to eliminating paper transfers, eliminating the RFA, or implementing universal POP.

      4. Yes, I meant inter-county, and of course can’t edit it.

        They already have to deal with some inter-agency fares – what happens if I buy an ST train fare from Puyallup to Seattle and then ride Metro or CT? – so it should not be insurmountable to decide on a split from a daypass. It could be based on the whatever they do for transfers, or just divide it based on the ratio of service provided. And if it’s too hard to do it globally, how about just an in-county daypass in King County. That only requires ST & MT to agree – and if that’s too hard then the agency process is broken.

        As a non-monthly-pass holder, I think a daypass would be an absolute pre-requisite to eliminating the RFA, otherwise it really penalizes “cash” riders who come downtown. Paper transfers could be eliminated without a daypass, but they should extend the ORCA transfer time to 3 hours to more closely emulate what a paper transfer provided, especially so long as it is pay on exit leaving town. With a reasonable daypass they could almost eliminate transfers. I don’t think a daypass would have any bearing on POP.

      5. Go to a TVM or the ORCA website and purchase a daypass to load onto ORCA card. (Even with the 24-hour delay to load, this could be rectified behind the scenes, meaning even if bus readers didn’t know you had it, the back end could still make sure that only the daypass was deducted and not individual fares.

        The problem with that is the value is stored on the card. Say I have $3.50 on my card and then I load a day pass. As soon as my transaction is approved, I walk out the door and catch the nearest bus. The fare is $2.00. Three hours later (well after transfer credit has expired) I go to board another $2.00 bus–the balance on my card is $1.50. My card doesn’t have enough value and thus I’m not allowed to board. Sure the backend could “fix” that, but unless you get to run a negative balance to essentially infinity, that idea won’t work.

      6. “I see it as more likely that Metro would unilaterally institute a day cap, and only if it found a way to encourage Metro ridership over ST ridership”

        Do you really think Metro sees itself in competition with ST? The agencies say their common goal is to improve regional mobility, not to steal riders from each other. And as far as I can tell they’re doing a reasonable job of it. Metro does have a few duplicative routes, but that just indicates Metro is timid about cutting existing one-seat rides, not that Metro is trying to gain market share against ST. Metro staff have made many good recommendations the past few years which the County Council has vetoed. If the Bellevue reorganization is approved it’ll be a major step forward.

  3. OK, I’m looking for some advice: I’m planning to come to Seattle for 3 days this fall to get my stuff out of storage, and I’m debating whether to do cash/transfers or take the ORCA plunge while I’m there.

    I’ll be coming/going by Amtrak and staying by Sea-Tac. Storage is near Capitol Hill.
    Estimate 2-3 round trips between storage and motel. If I have time I would like to see a friend who lives in Lake City and maybe see other places for memory’s sake.

    Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks.

    1. Assuming you take Link from SeaTac to downtown and then a bus to the Hill and Lake City, ORCA will pay for itself in a couple of trips by providing transfer credit between Link and the bus.

    2. Depends on how you plan on getting around. If you’re getting things out of storage, I question how useful public transit will be.

      If you’re planning on riding Link and a Metro bus within two hours of each other, I’d suggest picking up an ORCA card. It’ll pay for itself after two trips. You can pick up a card from a ticket vending machine at King Street Station or at International District Station across the street.

      1. Sounds like ORCA is the winner (and I like the idea of keeping the card as a souvenir), but I might use cash once or twice to get paper transfers for my Pittsburgh friend’s collection….

    3. If you’re going to Lake City or places like Lynnwood or Bellevue you are most likely going to use a Sound Transit bus, which only issues transfers if you use an ORCA card.

      1. Definitely definitely the 522. 306 and 312 are also good choices if you’re downtown on a weekday afternoon.

      2. Although you’d be amazed how many people still pay on cash on the 577/578 starting at FWTC…

    4. If you won’t be coming back to Seattle for a while you can give (or sell!) your ORCA card to a friend before you leave, or mail it to them when you return home. If they already have one, they can give it to somebody who doesn’t. And thus the region will be ORCA’ized one person at a time.

  4. I don’t quite get the graphic, is WTA (Whatcom Transportation Authority) in talks to join the ORCA program? I live in Bellingham and commute to work daily on a WTA bus. I haven’t heard anything about WTA linking up with ORCA yet. Enlighten me!

    Given that a general monthly WTA pass is only $25, and individual rides are $1 for non-pass holders, would that cause any issues, given that most Whatcom folks would be loading a mere pittance on our cards compared to Seattle area riders paying ya’alls high-falutin’ big city fares?

    1. I wish…

      No, there aren’t any talks of new agencies joining ORCA, though the system is set up to allow any transit agency to join in.

      The graphic refers to the trouble the 7 agencies gone through to get ORCA up and running. I included the others because I thought they were the most likely candidates if ORCA expands, based on a quote from a Community Transit official hinting the possibility.

      1. I somehow doubt compass and orca will ever work together. Compass will probally be based off cubics technology since they already have cubic boxes.

  5. So, now, everybody who wants to get an ORCA card can find a place to get one close by, right?

    Now, Metro has to give riders a reason to get it, other than mere respect for the time of other riders and the operating cost of stalling the bus a few more seconds.

    Please, please, please put the greater-value-paper-transfer incentive out of our collective misery.

    1. None of those outlets can provide a card for you. They just load value on it.

      I wonder what’s more of a hassle: physically going to the store and standing in line or navigating through the ORCA website.

      1. This is one of the more annoying things… Why can’t they just provide pre-loaded $5 cards to retail outlets that could be sold for $10? How would this be any different than when outlets used to sell ticketbooks?

      2. Ticketbooks and passes at stores were always cash only, and you had to go to a special counter (Customer Service at QFC, the photo/electronics counter at Bartell’s). I assume it would be the same if they issued ORCA cards.

      3. @Mike

        Tickets and passes were not cash only. They just weren’t allowed to be purchased with credit cards. Debit could be used to purchase any metro fare instrument.

  6. If anyone cares, I submitted a PRR today asking for the contract between ERG and ST for the website – I’d like to see what the requirements for useability are, cause the current site sucks.

    At Atomic Taco’s request, I also asked for the last invoice for ORCA Cards: it’d be nice to see what they actually cost…

    1. I’d be very interested to to see the accessibility standards (if there were any) for the orca website. Saying it sucks is quite an understatement.

  7. My son’s ORCA card didn’t work at the start of this month. Several bus drivers this month told him, “that’s happening a lot this month”.

    The system still has its quirks.

    And I continue to be annoyed at the 24 hour delay after adding value online.

    1. The 24 hour delay only applies to buses, and there’s nothing that can be done about it due to the way the on-board readers are updated. Tap your card on a Link or Sounder reader or check your value at a TVM and it’s loaded immediately.

      1. And it’s not exactly 24 hours. It’s the amount of time it takes from your payment being processed to the amount of time it takes for that information to trickle down to the bus garages to getting that info propagated to the buses. So if you load money at 1pm and a bus pulls out of the garage at 3pm, chances are fair that the bus will recognize your online payment.

      2. I usually think of it as an “overnight” delay. If I want to use the card tomorrow, then I need to do the updates on the website today.

    2. The system works absolutely flawlessly if you use TVM’s to manage your ORCA card. No delays, no missing passes, no missing fares. However, there’s not very many TVM’s and the involved agencies are pushing everyone to use the very broken website instead, which is just discouraging ORCA usage and adoption.

      1. How is it even possible that changes made to an ORCA card at a TVM propagate throughout the entire system instantly, yet they CANNOT get the web site to do the same (for reasons unrelated to the brokenness of the site)? How come the Web site can’t get changes to propagate the same way the TVM does?

      2. aw the reader on every bus has access to your card and can write to it. That’s how you get transfer credit.

        The difference is that the TVM can talk to the back end and see if you just deposited some money. A bus can’t.

      3. Tim, I was addressing the difference between a TVM and the website. The website can access the backend, but it can’t write to the card.

      4. So there are two different reasons for this state of affairs, without either of which we wouldn’t have this issue. The website can’t directly write to the card for obvious reasons (unless we switch from ORCA cards to ORCA iPhones), but that wouldn’t be a problem if the bus could access the backend.

      5. TVMs are continuously connected to both the database and the card reader, like an ATM. Buses are connected only to the card reader. The website is connected only to the database. The linkage between the two is what happens at the bus barn.

      6. The buses could be connected to the backend. You’d encounter a number of problems doing so:
        1) It has to be a wireless connection. Getting 100% converge along all routes is very difficult.
        2) It’s really expensive to set up or use a contracted wireless network with the capacity to do all of these things.
        3) You’d encounter a delay while the reader accessed the backend to “check” if you’ve recently submitted a payment.

        I think #2 is the biggest hurdle.

      7. An alternative if you go online and then happen to pass by a TVM, it will load the value you bought online right away once you put it in the holder on the TVM. Then you wouldn’t have to hope/wait for the bus you are riding to have passed through a garage.

  8. was and still remains the slowest, buggiest, most failure prone website I have ever encountered. The Orca system is not going to gain share until the site is fast and easy to reload the card. It’s easier to carry exact change!

    1. WS-DOT’s Good-To-Go toll site could compete with

      Two things that I hate about it doesn’t store any credit card info, and you have to tab between 4 fields to enter the credit card number, you can’t just type it in. Of course there are many more things to dislike.

      1. Why would anyone want a website on a remote server to memorize their credit card number?

      2. So they don’t have to type it in every time they want to reload? Amazon figured this out more than a decade ago…

        Most credit cards have $0 liability, but a stolen ORCA will cost a few bucks minimum to replace.

      3. Have you never used an ecommerce site? Amazon, Paypal, Starbucks, several airline websites, and various other ecommerce sites all have my CC stored. Some of them require that I enter the CID to complete the transaction.

    2. “ was and still remains the slowest, buggiest, most failure prone website I have ever encountered.”

      Try posting comments at

  9. And yet two years in and they still do not have a satisfactory solution for youth passes! Truck the little ones down to downtown Seattle during school hours, or pay full price. Lovely! Guess it offsets those gas hikes!

    1. Mail: Purchase Adult, Youth*, or Senior* card and add value to your card.
      *Include proof of age for Senior or Youth card.

      I believe they’ve been allowing mail-in for youth & senior for a while now…

      1. We bought our kids passes by mail more than a year ago. It’s a very well guarded secret that they’ve been careful not to advertise through school districts.

  10. “49 percent of all transit trips in the region”

    That’s hard to believe. I ride several buses with at least 75% cash payers, if not 99%. So where are the routes with 99% ORCA usage to compensate?

    1. Ride a 545 to Redmond in the morning and watch everyone tap off at Overlake. I think I’ve seen people pay cash there twice. Same deal going back to Seattle in the evening.

    2. I think just about every Sound Transit Express route during commute hours has a very high percentage of ORCA usage.

      1. Especially the ones going to Snohomish County where all the agencies have an electronic transfer.

  11. ORCA card may be a success despite itself. It’s not as if there are other alternatives other than paying cash. I’ve never seen a poorer designed web site from the standpoint of usability. It’s a major PITA to either fill a card’s “e-purse” or buy a monthly pass. Entering data is a PITA and not very user friendly either. For the last two months when attempting to either buy a pass or add value to the e-purse the site takes the information and then when you attempt to process the site just grinds and grinds and finally times out. The web site is a disaster and sorely is in need of a re-do.

      1. How difficult or expensive do you think it would be? Can we make a community effort to get this rolling? Who should we write? Is ORCA essentially run by Sound Transit? Should we start there?

  12. The problem with ORCA, besides the poor implementation, the fact that the readers are built upon Windows CE and the slowness in updating is that many people live hand to mouth and can’t afford to put money on a card especially if that card itself costs money. Yet they are expected to buy a card and keep a balance on it. Frankly the card should be free and if somebody pays cash they should get a transfer and that transfer should be good on ST.

    The fact is the way to help fix transit around here is to get rid of all the little kingdoms and have one transit agency and that agency shouldn’t be the incompetents at ST. If ST is to be kept then it’s board needs to be disolved and restructured on a one man one vote basis with directly elected representatives. What was wrong for Metro isn’t right for ST.

    The 554 isn’t in the tunnel because there aren’t enough hybrid coaches to put them there and that ST wants to keep as many buses out of their as possible. There is plenty of capacity.

    1. Ah yes, a good argument I hadn’t thought of: ST Express only has so many bybrids! (Can someone confirm the 554s aren’t hybrids?)

      But change fumbling remains regressive, since it is subsidized by sales tax and higher fares, and slows down the travel time of the working poor who have to sit through all the change fumbling. Their time has value, too. If someone is down to $2.50 to their name, I don’t think blowing it on bus fare is a high priority.

      Besides, when we switch to widespread POP, there will be a few more jobs for the working poor, and all the working poor who have chosen to save money by riding transit will have more time to spend at home with their families.

      1. I regularly see hybrids on lots of ST routes, including the 545, 522, 510, 511, and others. Especially given that the 554 runs *less* often during peak, I find it hard to believe that ST couldn’t shuffle things around to make the 554 all-hybrid if necessary.

        By my count, the 550 takes about 90 minutes for a complete run in both directions, while the 554 takes about 120 minutes. The 550 has about 12 trips per 90 minutes at peak, and the 554 has about 8 trips per 120 minutes at peak. That’s a total of 20 buses needed concurrently. In comparison, ST owns 48 hybrid artics.

        So either my calculations are totally off, or there are more than enough hybrids to go around…

  13. It’s discouraging to see such poor implementation of a good concept. I live in the San Juans and here ORCA is of limited use to us–it can only be used for passenger fares. We need unified, multi-modal car-free transport in Puget Sound and the Pacific NW. A few observations:

    1. Too many confusing and competing fare structures.
    2. System support is poor: too hard to get/use a card.
    3. Technology seems antiquated. Just look a the ORCA website, the product of a old, proprietary and broken CMS.
    4. Turf wars between agencies will continue to cripple efforts to make the system a truly workable alternative to private automobiles.

    There are slim rays of sunshine that occasionally peek out, but we’re still way behind where we need to be in order to significantly reduce automobile usage.

  14. So many posts and nobody has picked up on the #1 use of ORCA – free rides on the SLUT!

Comments are closed.