Photo by Oran

Long discussed by transit wonks, and prominently included in the recent $20 CRC deal, the elimination of the ride-free area is now just a matter of time—about 13 or 14 months. There are pros and cons to to the elimination of the RFA, but perhaps the biggest concern to many in the transit community is the effect on on travel times and reliability at the extremely busy stops on 2nd, 3rd and 4th Avenues and in the DSTT. Over the last year, Metro has simulated the increased boarding times due to RFA elimination in those locations, and the results of that study presumably fed into Metro’s decision to acquiesce to that demand. Earlier this week on STB:

“We tested this at several locations in downtown, including Third Avenue and it didn’t really create a serious problem,” Jim Jacobson, Deputy General Manager of Metro, said in an interview. “There are times when it creates problems, but that usually goes away after one signal cycle.” There will certainly be an increase in dwell times, Jacobson said, but there wasn’t much reason for alarm.

I have obtained an internal document from Metro that lays out the methodology and results of the study for 4th Ave and the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT), and includes a summary of the results for 2nd and 3rd Avenues, along with staff suggestions for mitigation of the increased congestion that will result.

According to the report, if the RFA were abolished tomorrow—without mitigation or service changes—bus operations on 2nd Ave, 4th Ave and 3rd Ave northbound would be slower but still acceptable; 3rd Ave southbound operations would be borderline acceptable, with no additional capacity for new service (such as the RapidRide C/D slated to start next year) and liable to tip over into failure in the event of DSTT closure or a traffic disruption downtown; and the transit tunnel would be hosed. From what the report says, Metro will have to deploy a suite of mitigation measures (suggestions include TVMs, better scheduling, lengthening bus zones, more traffic restrictions and enforcement on 3rd) on the surface streets and move some peak routes from the tunnel to 2nd/4th in order to make this work.

More after the jump.Here are some other points that stand out to me:

  • Abolishing the RFA hits hardest in the tunnel — a 10-15% reduction in peak bus capacity. None of the operational improvements suggested can fully close the gap between the current peak usage and the reduced peak capacity.
  • I predict awkward discussions between the leadership of ST and Metro. Debt service on the tunnel is allocated based on the number of trips each agency runs in the tunnel, so either ST will have to let Metro pay for a smaller fraction of the debt service, or force cash-strapped Metro to pay for slots it can’t use.
  • It’s vital that Metro gets 2nd & Columbia right. That stop, discussed previously on STB, is perhaps the main operational problem with southbound 3rd Ave, and RapidRide C/D is slated to use it. The increased service and traffic at that stop will compound the existing problems.

For wonks, I recommend reading the Executive Summary on pages 2 and 3, and the longer summary on pages 23 through 29; the rest is probably more detail than most readers will want to bother with. Keep in mind that the suggested mitigation measures in this document are staff suggestions, and the inclusion (or exclusion) of a particular measure does not guarantee that it will (or won’t) happen; and moreover, the leadership at Metro and the county executive have evidently decided that they can make this work on-time and on-budget, and are entitled to a reasonable presumption of competence in this choice.

Feel free to add your take in the comments. We’ll surely have some followup posts to get into detail about specific results and recommendations.

51 Replies to “Report: Eliminating Ride Free Area Will Hurt Tunnel”

  1. Good posting, Bruce, but it would be more accurate if title substituted “could” for “would.”

    The Downtown Seattle Tunnel was designed for eventual conversion to off-board fare collection. Frankly, operations after 7pm would improve considerably if Metro started making platforms Proof of Payment tomorrow evening.

    I’d like to see everyone concerned not get into the habit of accepting that changes in fare collection downtown have to interfere with service, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.

    We’ve got over a year, and thanks to this blog, an interested and informed group of citizens. Working in partnership with a workforce of extremely able operating people, headline could really read “don’t have to”. For the Tunnel, and the rest of the system.

    Mark Dublin

  2. On page 20, there is a reference to delays caused by road reliefs at Jackson street westbound at farside 5th Avenue during the afternoon rush hour. Road reliefs at this location include northbound trolley routes 1/36, 7 and 14. The delays also affect northbound routes 2X and 358 which also service this zone.

    These delays, which can last up to five minutes while operators are relieved when the bus is in service (to adjust seat, adjust mirrors, log on radio/farebox, etc.), can be avoided if the road relief point is changed to the next northbound bus zone at Prefontaine Place south/3rd Avenue northbound at nearside Yesler Street where this is plenty of trolley siding wire.

  3. I think the money Seattle is currently paying for the RFA needs to go to mitigation and capital projects that improve downtown transit speed & reliability before funding anything else.

    ++ Also, it seems some of the suggestions could be done to improve operations today. Why do we have to get to the point of collapse to get anything positive done? Funding notwithstanding we need to set higher standards and be proactive.

  4. My suspicion is that the city needs that money just to cover missing funds anyway. I’ll find out next week.

  5. Complete agree about your second point. Metro and SDOT need to be much more proactive about *improving* transit speed and reliability downtown, not just minimizing how much it is slowed down. That is completely unacceptable.

    1. Until buses are equipped with Back to the Future style deLorean modifications that allow them to fly, reliability will always be an issue with this type of transportation. Buses (and trains) sometimes run late. Allow yourself some extra time, have a “plan B” at the ready, and enjoy life in the urban environment. Bring a book.

      1. Note that the goal here isn’t 100% reliability (ideally) but higher reliability than present. Even in the 2015 BTTF hover car world, there’s congestion in the skies.

  6. How to spend that city money is a decision that belongs to the city, not the county.

  7. Yeah, Jon, but I think Oran would rather the city spend it on something helpful as opposed to a free downtown circulator, or some such.

    1. Bring back route 91? I cant remember if it ran on 1st or 3rd. The Overhead is still in place for the chinatown turnback though.

  8. No big deal, but the headline “No Ride Free Simulation Project” was confusing to me. Until I began reading the article I thought it was saying that there would be “No Simulation Project” for the RFA changes.

    1. Agreed, we just changed it to make it clearer that the main adverse impact is on the tunnel.

  9. What on earth can the City do with just $400k? That’s really not enough money to do anything but paint a couple lines and hang a couple signs. Adding one bus priority signal would probably blow the whole thing for a year. You could maybe get a bus bulb or two.

    We can argue all we want about what the City can buy to gain back the benefit of the RFA, but in the end, Metro is going to have to spend a chunk of their own budget as well to gain back those service efficiencies through their biggest single bottleneck.

    The argument has been made that the loss of the RFA is cost neutral for Metro, because the inefficiency is just being moved to a different point on the route, but that doesn’t ring true to me. A delayed bus downtown often delays several other buses, whereas a delayed bus outside of downtown only delays itself. The report says the 3rd Ave delay is an “acceptable” light cycle, but how much does a minute of bus service cost again, and what massive percentage of Metro routes pass through downtown?

    So Metro is given the choice of either simply eating the costs of those extra service hours, or spending more of their own money on things like off-board payment to offset the system-wide delays. My hunch is that the most cost-effective options would be anything that increases ORCA usage (more vending machines, fare incentives, back-door readers, etc.).

    And the tunnel delays are downright ugly. But only temporary, I suppose, as those buses will be relocated anyway once U-link opens, so that really only accelerates the inevitable.

  10. The linked document put some numbers to my concerns (emphasis theirs).

    The annual operational cost to eliminate the RFA is projected to be $890,000 annually

    Their cost breakdown is:

    +47 hr/day for downtown fare payment
    +22 hr/day for additional downtown queue delays
    -24 hr/day for no pay-as-you-leave
    -4 hr/day for the drop in intra-downtown free-riders
    -1 hr/day for projected increase in ORCA useage

    250 service-weekdays/year

    It doesn’t look like they included the $400,000/yr that the City of Seattle was paying them to save $890,000 a year.

  11. What if 3rd Ave and the DBT were restricted to ORCA users and possibly Transfer holders? It would keep boarding moving quicker without opening up the flood gate of riders that comes with the free ride area. There is no real economic reason for locals to have not adopted ORCA at this point. The cost of the card itself is cheap, when it isn’t being given away, and people have to option to use it as a virtual purse instead of a pass.
    We reserve lanes for people that carpool in order to reward individuals that adopt practices that improve the street network as a whole, why not reserve bus stops to reward individuals that adopt practices that improve the transit network as a whole?
    To help the roll out Metro could install off board payment machines similar to the parking meters at the affected stops. They could create an all day pass fare for tourists. Metro could also have random fare inspectors on the routes that conduct checks between stops.
    Once the cultural decision is made that everyone should pay a fare but that boardings and deboardings should be fast, the steps needed to reach that goal are details that can be solved by people truly interested in making it work.

    1. I don’t see that as being a workable solution, in fact the occasional rider after being denied service for not having an ORCA in the CBD would never take transit in the region again as its simply too hard in their mind. A better solution would be to allow rear door loading with “loaders”. This is not a new idea; indeed Seattle Transit System used the idea for many years. Basically, you have a fare collector standing at the rear door on certain stops, and he would collect fares. In today’s day and age, he could handle ORCA and Transfers at the rear door at busy stops. This way he doesn’t have to handle cash. Than you advertise that M-F during 3-6 or whatever, you can board at the rear door at these stops with your ORCA or transfer. That would be a better use of the $400k than a free shuttle or the like. All the operator would have to do is spot his coach so the “loader” could load from the rear door and keep the hooligans from getting a free ride. Anyone who’s confused about the loader or needs to pay in cash, can board through the front like everywhere else.

  12. The solution for the tunnel is easy thanks to its controlled access- have the tunnel buses operate on a proof-of-payment system within the tunnel, even if they collect pay-as-you-enter fares the rest of their route. The way enforcement would work, the notion of a “Link ticket” would be generalized to include bus as well and everyone boarding in the tunnel would either tap their orca card just as if they were riding Link, or buy a ticket at one of the TVM’s that are already there. Then, at random, unannounced times, fare inspectors would walk the platform-level boarding area and ask everyone waiting for a bus or train to produce a valid ticket or recently-swiped Orca card, or face a citation. The bus drivers would simply open all doors and not collect fares while inside the tunnel, just as they do today. The only thing that would change would be that after the buses leave the tunnel, it’s still pay-as-you enter and all doors are open for exiting passengers.

    The beauty of this solution is that all the infrastructure, including the fare inspectors and the TVM’s, all already there. At worst, you might need a couple of additional fare inspectors. But by patrolling one station, then hoping on a bus or train to the next station, patrolling there, etc., they should be able to work quite efficiently.

  13. ORCA’s market penetration is terrible at this point. Wasn’t it in the 20% range in the last batch of numbers? First-time users of the card often hate it.

    The delay in loading funds from the internet is a huge problem, and one that’s not going to go away without fundamental changes in the ORCA system. The scarcity of any alternative to using the website means that users simply prefer cash and paper transfers.

    The user experience at an TVM or ORCA kiosk is much better, in large part because the changes are applied to the card instantly, but they are at few locations, and probably aren’t going to be expanded beyond a few grocery stores any time soon. Even though there’s only maybe $300 worth of hardware in a TVM, the vendors charge obscene prices for them (I remember hearing some prices upwards of $10,000 in the early days), so Metro’s not going to be installing them around town anytime soon.

    Without a proliferation of ORCA kiosks or some real heavy user incentives to improve ORCA’s market penetration, making any stops ORCA-only is a non-starter.

    1. ST the partner agencies and the vendor really need to relaunch ORCA. The website needs a total rework, the retail outlets need to be expanded to cover nearly all your major supermarkets, and drugstores, better hours on the ORCA Phone line (atleast 16-20 hours a day, every day), and finally all major transit stations need to have an ORCA TVM installed so riders can service their cards enroute. In order to be successful it needs to be ubiquitous. Its no where near that right now, infact for those who use it infrequently with an epurse its damn hard to maintain if you dont plan well ahead or are able to visit a TVM enroute.

  14. I am skeptical the TVMs could be adapted to accept bus payment. The issue is not the hardware, it’s the labor (and potential intellectual property issues) involved in reprogramming them, as well as the bottleneck they would create for a rush-hour commuter crowd. If you’re going to create that kind of bottleneck, you might as well just stick with collecting fares at the bus.

    I think this arrangement would only work with manned turnstiles, or with near-100% ORCA adoption.

  15. There’s a reason why ORCA adoption is low for Metro, and it is due to the continued use of paper transfers. All the other transit agencies simply stopped giving transfers to people who pay cash, and their ORCA use shot up.

    1. PT and KCM still issue paper transfers, Kitsap Transit has been wishy-washy eliminating them, than bringing them back and i dont know what they are doing. Not sure about Everett either, Community and Sound Transit is the only one i know of for sure that dosent issue paper transfers anymore. Although Whenever i ride ST routes i still see a fair number of people who pay in cash.

  16. Hi, Linda T. from Metro just chiming in with some clarifications. First, it’s important to remember that phasing out the ride free area (RFA) will provide many benefits including: (1) savings to Metro in excess of $2 million each year; (2) operational efficiencies outside the downtown Seattle area gained from getting rid of the pay-as-you-leave system; and (3) reduced fare evasion. In recent years, it was getting harder to justify the RFA in downtown Seattle given Metro’s current financial situation.

    Second, Metro has studied in depth the performance impacts on surface streets and inside the bus tunnel associated with ending the RFA. Last year, we did simulations using actual buses, and we also modeled the scenarios. This work showed that bus service on the surface streets during the PM rush hour will be affected, but tolerably so. In the bus tunnel, because of the mix of buses and trains there are different concerns and different solutions to keeping both modes on schedule. But, there are several potential options to manage the tunnel impacts that we have started exploring with Sound Transit.

    We have a great working relationship with Sound Transit, and we’ve been through a large-scale project like this before when the tunnel was shut down for renovation in 2005 and reopened in 2007. Now, we have 14 months to further study and implement fare payment in the tunnel and we are moving ahead with that work immediately.

    Given the overall benefits, now is the time to take this step. It will generate additional fare revenue and help Metro reduce fare evasion. Also, all customers will appreciate the clarity of a pay-as-you board policy. Both Metro and the city have outgrown the old “magic carpet” concept from 1973, and it’s time to move ahead with a more cost-effective payment system.

    The projected “cost” of shutting down the RFA is a highly preliminary number. It will be refined in the next year, and Metro will figure out how to absorb any cost by making service adjustments elsewhere. We are not increasing our budget costs. Metro is still estimating a revenue benefit in excess of $2 million.

    And, Metro is definitely going to work with both ST and the City of Seattle to make the transition as smooth as possible.

    1. Hi Linda,

      Thanks for the clarifications. I should be clear, too, that many of us here at STB have supported RFA elimination for years and continue to support it, for precisely the reasons you describe. I’m confident that Metro will make this work, and that, on balance, the benefits outweigh the costs and riders will like it. I am also very pleased to hear that the relevant agencies have committed to work together and that Metro is moving ahead with this work immediately.

      That said, I think this report shows that you guys have a lot of work to do, particularly with the tunnel and the problematic stop at 2nd & Columbia, work that will require spending significant capital funds at a time when money is very tight. It’s perhaps unfortunate that this project must be undertaken now, rather than at some point in the future when Metro is better-resourced, although I realize the timing is not necessarily Metro’s choice.


    2. The tunnel really should be a pay-before-boarding zone.

      I honestly don’t understand why this hasn’t been done already. Could you clarify: are you planning to actually do this?

  17. They could do this on 3rd Ave too, by installing simple bus ticket machines all along 3rd. Community Transit uses the same machines that Seattle uses for parking, they just modified them to do bus tickets. These are at all Swift stops and they use fare enforcement officers.

  18. What sort of re-programming is required. You insert money, it dispenses a piece of paper. The only thing you have to change is the words printed on the paper. There would be a small one-time cost to change the signage, but once it’s done, it’s done and you recoup it quickly with the operational efficiencies of getting rid of pay-as-you-leave.

    Also, one must remember that while there might be lines at the machines, those lines won’t delay the bus, which means service hours saved. Plus, anyone with an Orca card would be able to bypass those lines and do a quick tap instead. The ability to bypass the lines at the vending machine would provide a further incentive for people who don’t have an Orca card to get one, which would further increase efficiencies of the system.

  19. Morgan, Yes. All Sound Transit TVMs (in the tunnel, at Link and Sounder stations, at Bellevue and Federal Way TCs) dispense Adult ORCA cards. You can check balance, add e-purse value and monthly regional passes to cards at TVMs. You can even buy a paper ticket or regional pass using the e-purse value on your ORCA card.

  20. By the way, those parking machines are very inexpensive compared to the full TVMs. They could easily be installed in the tunnel and on 3rd.

  21. Won’t eliminating RFA eliminate a lot of riders who might go a stop or two who will now walk or perhaps take a cab even? This should clear up a lot of congestion.

  22. Portland’s MAX and streetcar lines are fareless downtown and across the Willamette River fareless to the sports arenas, convention center & Lloyd Center. It’s the equivalent of Seattle between Queen Anne and Royal Brougham west of I-5. Tri-Met buses were fareless downtown until MAX Green Line was added to the transit mall essentially simplifying fareless transit on high-capacity MAX.

    Seattle should totally redesign transit downtown and expand RFA. Most mass transit is subsidized about 70%. This bitching about fare evasion is typical Seattle BS that wastes time, leads to a degraded downtown transit system and makes know-it-all Seattlers look stupid. Wsdot, SDOT, Metro and Sound Transit are incompetent & corrupt. Keep telling yourselves how great it is to live in Seattle like you’re told it is.

    1. Downtown Portland has a very different geography and track layout. MAX criscrosses downtown and the Lloyd district, and the streetcar covers an area MAX doesn’t, so that most parts of downtown are within five flat blocks of one or the other. So a “free rail zone” offers comprehensive downtown coverage. In Seattle there’s only one rail track downtown, and the hills make even walking two blocks to it an ordeal, not to mention that there can be no east-west rail at Madison because LR/streetcars can’t climb hills.

      There is an argument to make all buses free, but we can’t do that with the current budget.

  23. If you want to speed things up — then eliminate cash fares entirely and insist on ORCA or pre-purchased tickets.

    Then if you want to have a subsidized area, or class of people, just reimburse their ORCA cards.

    Manhattan doesn’t have a “ride free area”…you have to pay to go one stop on the subway…same as on LINK in the bus tunnel.

    Not only is eliminating RFA fair to the rest of King County, which is now funding “transit” with a $20 tab fee — but it improves health by making people walk the 3 or 4 blocks when they would jump on a bus.

  24. So basically Metro is saying the RFA should never have existed in the first place and never served a true purpose and has been draining resources and efficency for years?


    1. No, it means the RFA outlived its usefulness. If it hadn’t been a benefit in the 1970s they would have cancelled it then. It worked fine until they started closing it at 7pm and then started “front door only after 7pm”. But downtown is a lot bigger now, there are a lot more buses, the DSTT makes it easier to get across downtown, and the city’s fee was not indexed for inflation. The latter may seem surprising, but before the 1970s oil embargo nobody expected inflation to rise as fast as it did.

  25. Fourteen months is, alas, barely a blink in transit-planning time. But it may be enough to buy some time to tweak the fare structure a little more. It’s going to get a good kick from eliminating the RFA, so why not make a few more fixes?

    Setting up a fare barrier or proof-of-payment zone in the DSTT is an obvious next step. But there’s still no Orca discount or cash surcharge. Is this happening anytime soon? Providing even a modest incentive to avoid cash payment will greatly increase the share of Orca payment.

    And paper transfers gotta go. If you’re gonna transfer, get an Orca card. Or a printed/magstripe day pass. If necessary, another window of free Orcas can address access to lower income customers.

    Having spent untold hours of my life waiting to exit through the front while people fumble for change, I can’t wait to see the RFA vanish.

  26. Eliminating the RFA was a good idea, and forcing everybody to use ORCA would be an even bigger improvement.

    Here in Singapore, 99% of people have the transit smart card. For most people, it’s an e-purse, and fares are charged by distance. You tap in and tap out for every type of transit, there are fare gates for fixed guide-way transit, and the drivers check people tapping in on the bus. Once you know how to use one bus, you can ride anything.

    If you don’t tap out, you are charged the maximum fare for that route. Transfers are automatic between all services, min fare is .71, max is ~$2. If you don’t have a card, you can pay the driver cash, but the fare is about 50% higher and without a transfer. There are TVM’s on fixed guide-way transit only, but I think you can add value at some stores and at ATM’s.

    In this area at least, Singapore has it right. Waiting times at stops are usually the time it takes people to walk on to the bus. Metro and ST ought to think about making everybody bite the bullet because it will make transit much faster long term.

  27. As others have already pointed out, Orca can be key to achieving operational efficiencies, increasing revenues, and reducing fare evasion – not just in the RFA but system-wide. We simply have to penalize cash payment and eliminate paper transfers. London’s Oyster system didn’t begin to take off until TfL instituted a two-tier fare structure (making Oyster fares less than cash) and the Oyster daily cap. I personally use Oyster to board buses in the West End at rush hour – from this I have seen first-hand how all-door boarding in a downtown Seattle scenario with no RFA – but with Orca readers to tap as passengers board – will not increase dwell times much beyond what we have today.

    1. The problem is, as always, the upfront, non-refundable fee to get an ORCA card.

      People *will not tolerate that*. It has to be eliminated or made refundable when you return your Orca card.

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