Pedestrians Crossing 3rd& Pike
Pedestrians Crossing 3rd & Pike. Photo by Oran.

King County Metro, Sound Transit, Community Transit and the City of Seattle are hosting an open house on Thursday, 4:00-6:30 PM, at Union Station, to discuss their plans for the elimination of the Ride Free Area and obtain feedback from the community. Done right, RFA elimination could boost Metro’s revenue, reduce casual fare evasion, and eliminate Metro’s arcane “when to pay” and “where to exit” rules. Done wrong, RFA elimination could make buses even slower and less reliable on the surface through the CBD, and dramatically reduce the peak capacity of the downtown transit tunnel.

Metro has studied RFA elimination extensively, but it remains to be seen whether the agency has the time and money to get this right by September. In addition, as I’ve pointed out before in comments, one way to mitigate bus congestion downtown is to run fewer buses downtown, by requiring riders on underutilized radial routes to transfer to frequent, high-performing trunk routes, thereby ensuring that every bus entering or leaving downtown is a full bus. What we’ve seen so far in this respect with the Fall restructure process is not encouraging.

UPDATE: Metro’s Linda T. notes that if you can’t make the meeting, you can also provide feedback and learn more at this page on the Metro site.

Transit agencies and city host open house on elimination of
Ride Free Area in downtown Seattle

Metro also moving to pay-on-entry system countywide in September

The Ride Free Area for buses in downtown Seattle is scheduled to be eliminated on Sept. 29, 2012. At the same time, riders will begin paying when entering the bus for all trips.

These changes will help King County Metro Transit save money and preserve bus service. Sound Transit and Community Transit are also preparing to act on similar changes for their bus operations in King County.

The three agencies and the city of Seattle are hosting an open house to update the community and get feedback:

Thursday, March 29
4-6:30 p.m.
Union Station Great Hall
401 S. Jackson St., Seattle

Metro is currently working with Sound Transit, Community Transit, and Seattle on an implementation plan for the Ride Free Area changes. This includes options to address transportation needs of low or no-income people who use the Ride Free Area to travel to essential services in the downtown area.

The Sound Transit Board is scheduled to vote in June on charging fares for ST Express bus trips within the downtown area, consistent with current policy for Link light rail.

77 Replies to “Ride Free Area Elimination Open House”

  1. Thanks, Bruce. Encourage strong attendance, and will make every effort to be there myself.

    I think what the system needs to hear from the public is that nothing about fare collection should be permitted to delay transit operations. Followed by, as you point out, the possibilities for improved speed and reliability.

    In particular, present conditions in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel every game night already provide clear and undeniable evidence that using coach fareboxes in the Tunnel results in delays that should not be tolerated now, let alone every PM rush hour from November on.

    I think that making Tunnel platforms “proof of payment” immediately would be an excellent lead-up to this fall’s complete change.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Gotta do it like Budapest – the platform itself is entirely a fare paid zone. If you go down the escalator without proof of payment, a fare inspector is waiting at the bottom to write you a ticket…

      1. Good luck getting Metro to pay for ticket vending machines, just to be kicked out of the tunnel in a few years.

      2. Nice idea, truly.

        The winos and general riff-raff will have to learn that a bottle of “Night Train” does not equate to a fare on the “Link Train.”

        Thunderbird might do at the airport, though.

  2. Another tactic to limit loading chaos in the DSTT and other busy stops is to employ loaders, like the Seattle Transit System used to. (Yes, I’m old enough to remember….)

    Loaders would have a portable ORCA card reader and would stand at the back door of outbound coaches. ORCA cardholders would then be able to load through the back door, just like fare-paying riders used to do in the days before the Free Ride Zone.

    1. I second that idea, at least in theory. My experience in the DSTT and on the surface of DT is that many delays come from 1 person asking a question, not moving to the back, excessive luggage, etc. Loaders can only do so much, but I think it is worth trying that concept.

      Assuming 8 loaders are needed at $40/hour (all-in) working 4 hours/day for 250 days, the total cost is $320k/year. I assume DSTT delays cost at least that much in schedule padding for drivers.

      1. Would undoubtedly be more than 8 loaders during the PM peak. They would be needed at the busiest above-ground bus stops in addition to the DSTT. But the PM peak would not be 4 hours — more like 1.5 or 2 hours/day.

        Metro should not add new parttime hires exclusively to be loaders. They should add a small number of service supervisors, and then add this responsibility to some of those supervisors assigned to the CBD.

      2. Assuming 8 loaders are needed at $40/hour (all-in) working 4 hours/day for 250 days, the total cost is $320k/year.

        Your financial assumptions are no good. That’s close to triple what we’re paying hourly for security guards. This will be cheaper labor, probably on the order of $10-$12/hour. Honestly, you could probably fill that position at minimum wage, although the turnover rate would be horrid.

      3. Lack, you’re not counting the true cost which is going to be benefits, hiring cost, training, social security and medicare payroll taxes, etc. How many Metro jobs actually pay minimum wage? This is the government we’re talking about. I’m sure that in Democratic King County they will be union loaders.

      4. Bernie:

        These would likely not be county jobs at all. If this was done it would be outsourced to an independent contractor, who would hire non-union employees for $10/hr with no benefits. The contractor would probably charge the county something equivalent to $12-$14/hr to cover their administrative overhead and give them a little profit.

        King County doesn’t generally direct-hire for much of their unskilled labor.

    2. How long before the operational costs of loaders equal the one time capital costs of installing Orca readers in rear doors of the tunnel bus fleet?

      Proof of Payment and an incentive for passengers to use Orca over cash (get rid of paper transfers on Metro too) would allow requiring people to tap cards before going down to DSTT platforms and tap on to a bus through which ever door is closest to them. Orca could then properly calculate which agency gets the fare and ridership count. Setting the initial price of DSTT platform entry higher than any bus fare would encourage the second Orca tap on the bus or Link train returning the fare difference (or a second tap at the same station would cancel the transaction as it does now).

  3. Has Metro looked at having DSTT security staff help with loading riders in wheelchairs rather than having bus drivers do it? It probably wouldn’t save a ton of time, but it would help.

    1. +1

      I remember a time when I was at University Street station on the 550 waiting for a rider in a wheelchair to board. There were no other buses on the platform so a train must have been stuck behind it. She got off at Pioneer Square station.

      Had she took the train behind it, everyone (including the wheelchair) would have made it to their destination faster. Unfortunately, the RFA discourages this…

      1. If Link’s base fare is dropped to $1.75, it will pick up a lot of intra-tunnel trips. ST will get revenue it otherwise would not have gotten. This should be revenue-positive for ST, not to mention safer for these riders.

        Metro will lose some of the rides that cost it the most to provide. I think the improved traffic flow would far more than make up for any lost fare revenue.

        This should have a positive throughput effect with or without making the DSTT POP.

      2. Why not a single fare for an intra-tunnel trip irrespective of what vehicle you take? If the entire tunnel is POP, it shouldn’t matter whether you take Link, Metro or ST Express. Tag on, tag off and who cares what gets you from A to B.

      3. Why a differential fare in the tunnel? Because a lot of people are able to board Link much faster than they can board buses. Eight doors vs. one door makes a huge difference. Plus, the conductor doesn’t wait for people to find a seat. And the wheelchairs are restraint-free.

        I apologize for bringing this up, since I now realize the trains will cost less than the buses ($2 vs. a minimum of $2.25) anyway. I’m having a bad math day.

      4. Riders care about what will get them there faster, or more conveniently. A wheelchair-bound passenger may prefer to use the train because of the ease of entry and egress, but an able-bodied person may want to take the first vehicle that comes. The latter may hang out near the Link stop but be prepared to go to one of the bus bays to get a quicker ride. All door loading should help with getting the bus on its way more quickly.

    2. Is that part of the job of security? Security should only be there to keep us safe and summon assistance when needed.

      1. And a bus driver’s job is to drive the bus. Should we hire yet a third party as wheelchair loaders?

        Add a line item to security’s job description.

    3. While task sharing can be a good thing, I think its important that security personnel keep their eye on their main job.

    1. It would also be really neat, Linda, if you also included the comments on this blog. Yes, we can repeat ourselves in other media, but Metro should be able to enfold input from a variety of sources, not just the ones it controls.

  4. If the problem is too many platform or service hours being put in the CBD, then maybe it is counterproductive to cut off the under-productive tails of routes, since the reinvestment will likely be more hours spent by buses on 3rd Ave. Just a thought.

    Indeed, this may be the golden time to invest in local routes in Bailoland and elsewhere. ;)

    Seriously, though, one of my comments to Metro was to please *not* have a free downtown circulator bus, and instead make a selected number of inbound-only buses free, and expand their free area to cover all key social service agencies and be free within that zone 24/7. The RFA elimination does not have to be done in a manner that is mean-spirited to the destitute, nor a form of segregation.

    A lot of social service agencies have bent over backward to transition from free tickets to giving away ORCA with a few rides’ value loaded. The missing step is providing the incentive not to use up the e-purse, and then toss the card. That is one of the reasons I want a universal cash surcharge for bus boardings.

    Another part of the solution, and one Metro is not prepared to do quickly, is to be more assertive in pushing transfers to and from Link.

    But the biggest, and most doable, step for Metro, between now and then, is to place all the new ORCA VMs at key bus stops in the CBD. The surveys show a lot of riders don’t know where to get an ORCA (and have probably walked right by lots of “TVMs”. So, don’t just place the VMs downtown, but label them *ORCA* Vending Machines. Signage can make a world of difference.

    1. I’m not convinced better routing of the 99 isn’t a good idea. Don’t you think there’s a way to serve tourists and those in need of a free ride?

      1. This was actually suggested by a fellow bus rider last week, to move the 99 to 3rd Avenue.

    2. If you make “a selected number of inbound-only buses free”, doesn’t that add complication to the system when we’re trying to eliminate complication? How will people keep track of which routes are free where?

      1. [Mike] Easy. When a bus whose terminus is downtown enters (what used to be) the RFA, it changes its sign to “Downtown via FREE RIDE”, and stops charging.

        So long as every bus with that signage uses the same route (i.e. 3rd between Stewart and Yesler, or the DSTT), you’re golden.

        Note that most tunnel buses already change to “Convention Pl via ALL STATIONS”, so this kind of thing isn’t unprecedented.

      1. “Now, before this turns into an off-topic deleted post…”

        Unfortunately, I read it to soon.

  5. When I send my comments to Sound Transit, I will propose that they reverse the fare scheme in the tunnel by charging for buses, and make the train free (or at least cheaper) all the way to Stadium Station.

    Boarding or alighting from a bus in the tunnel slows down the entire operation (even when using an ORCA) much more significantly than boarding or alighting from Link does. Choosing to wait for the train rather than take the next bus should be incentivized.

    1. That just means you’ll have crowds clogging up the platform waiting for a train, making it take that much longer for bus riders to circulate through the station.

      Not to mention it makes it difficult to enforce a Proof-of-Payment scheme in the tunnel. Are you still going to passengers tap their ORCA when they enter the station, even if they intend to stay within the tunnel? If not, how would you distinguish between people riding through from CHS to Othello and failing to tap their card at their origin?

      We need a sane, consistent, and fair fare structure. That’s achieved by making all modes of transit pay-as-you-enter, with proof-of-payment for all stations. No more crazy exceptions.

      1. Northbound into the tunnel wouldn’t be a problem, at least for now. Southbound, riders would be told at Stadium Station that if they haven’t paid yet, they need to exit, pay, and reboard.

        I’d be tempted to suggest simply reducing the base fare to $1.75, but the call for having free rides needs to be accomodated somewhere.

      2. There’s going to be goofy, inconsistant policies either way. If you ride Link and want to pay cash, go up to the TVM. If it’s a bus, pay when you get on. If it’s ORCA and you’re riding the bus you can tap as you get on. Oops, did Link come first? Run upstairs and tap.

      3. “how would you distinguish between people riding through from CHS to Othello and failing to tap their card at their origin?”

        Same way they do now – fare inspectors hopping on at the Stadium station. I’ve never seen a fare inspector downtown.

      4. I don’t see why everyone is insisting that Metro and ST/Link need separate ORCA readers. You just run the numbers, estimate what fraction of people in the tunnel are using Metro’s services versus ST’s, and then split the revenue accordingly.

        Plus, excluding fare evaders and mistakes, Link riders will double-tap, while Metro riders will single-tap. (And again, the estimates can be used to handle the train riders who forget to tap out, or bus riders who get off at Stadium and tap out for no good reason.)

  6. As with the Downtown Bus Tunnel, I wish there would be pre-pay readers at places where lots of people board buses, like Transit Centers. When I ride #41 to downtown, I have timed how long we are at the Northgate Transit Center waiting for a few people to get off and tons of people to get on. It has been as little as two minutes, but many times as many as six minutes! That’s just ridiculous to have to wait that long to board people through one door. Then you get a few people with cash holding up the line and a few others with questions(“Does this bus go downtown?”)…

    1. This is why I so want the RFA to go away. Alighting at Northgate Station would rarely end up taking more than a minute. It wouldn’t solve the boarding problem, of course.

      1. It’s much better to have this delay outside of downtown where payments are not delaying multiple other buses, not in the DSTT.

      2. So it’s okay to delay the bus at important transfer stations outside the CBD?

        The bus is going to be delayed anyway. Maybe we should have fewer buses going downtown.

      3. @Kyle I’m not staying the delay is ok, far from that, but yes it’s much better to have it delayed where it’s only affecting riders of that one bus, rather than riders of every single DSTT bus and Link. If you have this delay in the DSTT the delay will compound, congesting the entire tunnel. That is why the RFA is important from an operations perspective.

      4. Yes, obviously… at least for the tunnel. That isn’t want I was talking about though, I was talking about Metro’s current fare policy vs a pure pay as you enter fare policy.

      5. POP in the DSTT is not easy. If you tag on with Orca there, what fare gets charged (for e-purse users)? For Link, you tag off at the destination and you get a refund for your fare if you didn’t go all the way to Sea-Tac. If you take a bus, how does it know how to charge you correctly? One zone or two? Metro or Sound Transit.

        Without a consistent fare structure, it doesn’t work. Asking riders to tag off when riding the bus just makes the high-volume outside of downtown stops slower like they already are with pay as you leave.

      6. You would need a reader for each service (Link, metro, and st express) to make sure each agency gets the appropriate fare revenue. This gets very confusing very fast and is a recipe for confusion. If you increase cash fares by 50 cents then that will entice many to get orca.

      7. John, you don’t need that; you instead make people tap the onboard reader (or insert their ticket into the farebox) when they get off the bus outside the tunnel.

        When U Link comes online, we can add rear-door readers to ST Express and make the entire ST Express system tap on/tap off just like Link. This will alleviate confusion and slowness around single-zone trips on multi-zone routes. We won’t need to do the same for KC Metro because we can kick all buses out of the tunnel—instead, all KC Metro trips would be board at front, debark at rear.

      8. Recalling a conversation from last summer’s CRC meetings, the ERG tech is capable of tap on/tap off fare calculations which would allow distance based fares for bus agencies as well as dealing with the use case you presented.

        You’d probably need readers at each door to tap off or they would be charged a higher fare if they fail to tap off.

  7. I would think that we will see a higher LINK ridership as a result of this. I mean people take the free buses between tunnel stations now and not LINK (though many take LINK and don’t pay or tap between tunnel stations). So in the future when everything costs, might as well take the LINK train coming your way instead of the bus since you have to pay on either mode.

  8. I think paying at each station makes sense. That is the way a subway works, and it should work the same way whether you ride a bus or train.

    I also think this is one of the few areas where a street level tram makes sense. I’m no fan of the South Lake Union Streetcar, but if we ran something similar up and down the current ride free area, it could work well. It would be free, frequent and make lots of stops. Since it would be free and have lots of doors, getting on and off would be fast.

    I would then have most of the buses skip downtown. Have the bus enter one end of downtown and turn around. Maybe get rid of the buses in the tunnel as well. The bus comes in, everyone gets off, some of the folks wait for the train or tram, while others just walk to their destination. I think that would make the buses much faster and a lot more consistent (which also makes them faster).

    People might balk at the transfers, but if the train/tram is fast and frequent, it doesn’t matter. This is how complex subway systems work — you transfer frequently, but things are fast and frequent enough to make it work well. In the case of the Seattle Transit tunnel, it is really simple.

    1. When the county decided to build the DSTT in the ’80s, it was precisely because suburban commuters didn’t want a last-mile transfer. The alternative to the tunnel was (what would now be called) a small light rail line on 3rd Ave with transit centers on the outskirts of the CBD.

      Perhaps more relevantly, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem of RFA elimination which is that paying would take too long, you’d just be paying at a bus on the outskirts of the CBD versus on 3rd. You could add a ton of ticket machines at the transfer points, but then you could just put the TVMs on 3rd and not bother building a tram and save tens of millions.

      Long term, I think the end game has to be a “cashless area” with similar boundaries to today’s RFA, where off-board or ORCA payment is mandatory. Radial routes (or all routes) would switch to a proof-of-payment system.

      1. When you say “cashless area” does that mean you still have to show proof of payment to the driver when you get on?

      2. Initially it could be done by showing tickets to drivers, long term it could go POP with fare enforcers. I doubt Metro has anything like the money needed to go POP on the surface.

  9. Sure, that works well in Sydney, Australia where busy stops – including the whole downtown area – are “pre-pay” only for most of the day. You still insert your magnetic pass into the machine when boarding, but paying cash is not permitted. I would hope you would blanket the area with ticket vending machines before you did that. In Sydney, it seemed as though most stores sold transit passes. Something I haven’t read yet – presumably with the elimination of the ride free area you would be able to – encouraged to – leave by the back door at all times. Wouldn’t a significant increase of people leaving by the back door speed bus travel anywhere except in the downtown area?

  10. The thing that shocks me is that I live in a neighborhood with high transit ridership, and posters from the Free Riders Union on the utility poles of busy sidewalks.

    Yet it seems that no one in the neighborhood even knows the RFA is going away in September.

    I’m half tempted to run off a few dozen fliers of

    Ride free area to end in September
    4-agency planning meeting
    Thursday, March 29
    4-6:30 p.m.
    Union Station Great Hall

    and see what happens

    1. Well, there’s some outreach. Metro used their SMS Rider Alert system to text out a 2-text notice today, 3:45 PM. So that notified me and like the 2 other people who actually subscribe to SMS rider alerts.

      1 of 2
      FRM:King County Metro Transit
      MSG:Transit Ride Free Area in downtown Seattle to end Sept. 29. Learn more: Open House Thurs, March 29,


      (Con’t) 2 of 2
      4-6:20 PM, Union Station, 401 S. Jackson, Seattle

      1. this is actually the second message they have sent using the Rider Alert system for this meeting

  11. The fact that all buses in the DSTT are either inbound or outbound gives an opportunity for a rules tweak that could cut boarding and alighting time by nearly half:

    Don’t allow boardings on inbound buses.

    That would allow quick egress from inbound buses at all doors.

    Then, station the security personnel at the rear doors of outbound buses, ORCA readers in hand. Cash fumblers have to pay at the front, after anyone who requires the ramp, while ORCA users get the choice seats.

    This could actually be implemented for non-RFA hours just to test it at any time Metro and ST want to.

    1. I’ve often wondered if Metro should change all the peak-only commuter routes to be drop-off only as they enter downtown in the mornings, like the Vashon routes are today; all it requires operationally is a headsign change to “DROP OFF ONLY”. Everyone could head straight for the nearest door to exit.

      1. “Next stop: 4th & Seneca. Exit from all doors.” The computer-generated voice hooked up to the GPS would be all the educational effort needed.

        There do need to be decently frequent outbound buses at the stops served by these inbound buses, or connectivity will be lost. The outbound buses can’t be significantly slower than the inbound buses, or the efficiency will be defeated.

    2. Not allowing passengers to ride inbound buses for intra-downtown trips means they may have to wait ten or fifteen minutes for a bus off-peak, while the bus has only three people on it and only one is getting off at that station. This defeats one of the purposes of the DSTT.

      1. Here’s an alternative idea. Have the inbound buses stop near the Link boarding area, and allow them to be used for intra-tunnel trips. Have them be POP in the tunnel so that ORCA users can tap on and tap off and pay the Link fare between tunnel stations.

        Benefits of this approach:

        1) Inbound buses will have space freed up as they travel down the tunnel so it can go to short distance riders.
        2) Space on outbound buses is reserved for longer distance riders, and they don’t slow the boarding process for those buses.
        3) By stopping in the middle of the platform, it should be possible for other buses to pass those buses without some elaborate queueing at the tunnel entrance.
        4) Short distance riders pay a smaller fare, and can take either bus or train, whichever comes first.
        5) There shouldn’t be any ADA issues for these riders. If they absolutely must have level boarding, they can wait for the train. It should come within 15 minutes.

      2. Having the inbound-only buses not board passengers could be limited to peak only, when there are plenty of outbound buses coming by every minute.

  12. One thing I wonder is why don’t they have ORCA readers inside the buses and trains. Sometimes they are too far apart or not easily found (Tukwila LINK). Other times you’re rushing to catch the Sounder.

    If you put ORCA readers in the back of the bus, you could have people flow into both entrances, and then use the LINK/Sounder policing system to ferret out the scofflaws. At worse, you’d have spent the cost of a reader and collected no more fares than a DSTT…at best, you’ll increase the collected fares for that zone and speeded people along their way and have a consistent system for buses and trains.

  13. The elimination of the free ride zone is not the direction a city should take which aims to get more bus riders and fewer car drivers. Also, this is a hardship on the poor.

    1. The lack of low-income ORCA cards is a hardship on the poor. Poor, slow bus service is a hardship on the poor. Higher rent due to being required to pay for a parking space, even if one doesn’t own a car, is a hardship on the poor.

      Having to pay fare to ride the bus from Jackson to Bell St is an inconvenience, and hardly a barrier to making the trip.

  14. I am routinely amazed at the general lack of understanding some of the posters at this otherwise intelligently commented site display when issues involving the lives that low-income citizens actually lead come up. To travel inside the RF area in the a.m. and the p.m. (i.e., during peak hours) when one has to be downtown for longer than two hours means another $2.50 to get home outside the RF (unless there are lowering adjustments to the basic fare, and that doesn’t seem likely).

    $2.50 a day can mean the difference between feeding your child and seeing your child go hungry for many of these families. I am not suggesting that never paying is a good idea for the long-term fiscal health of the system, but a number of you gentlemen don’t seem to get that some people really struggle to come up with that initial $2.50 or $2.25 or $3.00 and wait 15 minutes to escape that a.m. or p.m. peak hours cutoff and keep the “quarter” because they really need that quarter…

    I can definitely say that I will go downtown less, and spend less on downtown retail, once the RFZ disappears. Currently I can walk downtown and use the RFZ to patronize ID restaurants, Uwajamaya, SoDo, all the general retail, Pike Place Market, Collins’ Pub in Pioneer Square, the ferry dock area, SAM, all the arts/music venues like Benaroya and the Triple Door, etc.

    By avoiding car transport I cut pollution and car crowding while adding my disposable $$ to local downtown business, plus adding the value of exercise for personal health. I use the transit system widely throughout the county and pay gladly for that use. But once I have to factor in a “$4.50 to $5 tax” or curtail my visit to two hours, University Village, Ballard, Northgate Mall, and other shopping venues start looking better.

    I suspect the DSA underestimates the number of people who park downtown and use the RFZ to amplify their range of shopping, in the same way they don’t get how the deep-bore tunnel toll will make traffic a discouraging nightmare for previously willing patrons. But then, as a lot of you have eloquently pointed out, the DSA isn’t very smart.

    1. Which would you rather have: preservation of the RFA, or a low-income ORCA that has the same fares as a senior ORCA?

      1. I’d preserve the RFZ but use a downtown tax for the buildings that benefit from it, similar to the hotel tax municipalities impose for civic improvements.

  15. Seniors in the downtown have a need for short rides because of the steep hills to walk up and safely downhill. I walk as much as I can. I pay $4,058.00 tax for my one bedroom condo a year and some of that already go to Metro Transportion.

    If you start charging, this must also charge handicap riders. Also children that will occupy a seat. Young enough to ride for FREE, can ride your knee.

    1. Seniors, youth, and disabled riders already get a discounted fare. For some reason (the politics of seniors voting and youth not voting, and some seniors screaming louder?), youth don’t get as much a discount.

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