On Friday Transportation Choices Coalition is putting on a forum about the end of the Ride Free Area (RFA). The panel is gangbusters:

Tim Harris- Real Change News 
Jim Jacobson- King County Metro
Bill LaBorde- City of Seattle
Zach Shaner – Seattle Transit Blog

The talk begins at noon at Seattle Municipal Tower. RSVP here.

52 Replies to “A Future Without the RFA”

  1. There is a place where the social justice and throughput angles overlap: the unusually high price of our transit smart card. I’ll have more to say on that at length later on, but for now, let me just say that it appears ORCA is the most expensive transit smart card in the United States.

    Plenty of other agencies have lowered their card fee over time, so there is precedent that it could happen here, perhaps to even make it “free”.

    A report various human service agencies put out back in 2009 named the cost of the card as a barrier to access. I don’t think any of those agencies have changed their position.

    In its recently-released report on increasing ORCA access, Metro mentioned nothing about the possibility of lowering the card fee, but it did say mitigation is required if Metro is to raise cash fares (to be different than card fares) or eliminate paper transfers. I would contend that making ORCA free or really cheap qualifies as appropriate mitigation.

    Metro’s pass-through cost to the vendor of $2.50 per card remains in place for the duration of the 10-year contract. Yes, they want to use card fees to pay for a big chunk of the $70 million 10-year contract, but the extra $2.50 on top is probably deterring riders enough from buying the card to cost a lot more than $2.50 in service inefficiency. This will become especially true starting September 29.

    From a marginal vs. average viewpoint, the vast majority of riders who are willing to spend that extra money on a card for the added benefit have already done so. The stragglers are riders who don’t see any economic benefit from getting the card, don’t know where to find it, or don’t know it exists. It may have made some financial sense to milk the fees up until a break-even point. On September 29, we pass that break-even point, and start hemorraging system slowdown that far outweighs any benefit to trying to milk more profit off of ORCA sales.

    1. My daughter claimed that she was spending $20 a day pumping gas into her SUV. So, I took her to Saar’s in Rainier Beach and bought her a “free” ORCA card with $20 loaded in the e-purse. I also handed her the bus schedules for her commute. We’ll see how this works out.

    2. First, I’ll applaud the fact that ORCA got implemented at all. In another post Bruce Nourish commented that the real work that was done was fare integration with all the participating agencies.

      That said, It is to nearly everyone’s benefit that ORCA gets as widely adopted as possible. Therefore I would think the transit agencies would have written the contract such that wide card adoption was an incentive to the vendor. This would have made availability and manageability (i.e. ORCA vendor proliferation) more important early on and would have setup a model that made initial card cost negligible. This way it wouldn’t be part of the decision-making process of whether or not to get a card.

      I agree with Brent – the time has ended to try to offset system cost with a per-card fee. The only reason I can think of for this fee is to prevent system users from viewing the card as disposable.

  2. FOUL: My wife and I were going to Downtown on Sunday last. I parked near Ryerson Base, and caught Link to Univ. Stn (fare $2.00) Simple.
    On the way back, Sunday service is pretty sparse, so decided to take a Metro bus back. Fare from IDS to Stadium is $2.25.
    With no RFA, everyone will be faced with the dilemma of trying to figure out different fares based on the paint job of the vehicle, even though they do the exact same thing.
    Message to Metro and ST. Go in a closet, and you can’t come out until you decide on common fares. Period!

    1. More accurately, the *route number* rather than the paint job. Metro frequently uses its own buses on ST 545, 550, etc.. and I’ve also seen Community Transit buses on the 510/511/512/513. Only once have I seen a Pierce Transit bus on a 590-series.

      “Excuse me, Mr Kafka, so this is a Metro bus with a Metro fare box but is really a Sound Transit route with Sound Transit fares?”

      “Why yes, tourist, it couldn’t be easier! For the same intra-downtown trip, you could pay $2.00 (train!),$2.25 (Routes 000-399, off-peak), $2.50 (routes 500-599 anytime), $2.50 (Routes 000-399 peak),$3.50 (most 400-499 routes), or $4.50 (routes 421/422/424/425).”

      Inbound AM commuter routes should be drop-off only, but with pay-as-you-enter some tourists/visitors with ORCA are going to get soaked by afternoon commuter fares.

      1. How about a five dollar “universal transit cash fare”? Any train or bus anytime anywhere no transfers for five bucks!

        Hate the price? Get an Orca.

    2. Or you could just solve the fare discrepancy issue by moving all the buses to the surface. Then it would be really simple: If you catch Link in the tunnel you pay $2, if you catch a bus “upstairs” in the rain you pay $2.25 (for your example).

      But of more interest to me is the effect on Link ridership of eliminating the RFA. Currently “for-pay” Link competes with a free service in the DSTT. Eliminate that free competition and Link ridership is sure to increase. Even more so if Link costs $2 and the bus costs $2.25.

      1. I thought we solved this months ago beween us. Two big reasons why the buses WILL NOT leave the tunnel until Northgate and East Link starts is this. It’s here with buses for another decade, at least.
        1. ST has to pay for tunnel costs and debt service based on the percent of tunnel usage. No Metro, No more partner agency.
        2. Excess capacity of about 60 buses an hour will exist in the tunnel even after U.link starts. Light Rail just adds two more cars to each consist in the peak, keeps the same schedule, and boogies onto UW for their turnbacks. The tunnel won’t see any difference, except more bodies on the platforms and longer trains.
        3. It saves Metro money to run in the tunnel. Sure, we did it for two years on 3rd during construction, but the delays due to lack of curb space were significant.

      2. I don’t know what you “thought”, but the question of when the DSTT reverts to 100% rail is far from settled – both here and in official circles. And ST takes full ownership of the DSTT in 2019 anyhow so it is highly unlikely that Joint Ops will remain after that point regardless of what Metro wants.

        But there really isn’t any point in retaining Joint Ops after about 2016 anyhow. With the bulk (all?) of the peak only service moved to the surface after the RFA goes away, and with the bulk of the 70’s routes reformulated to better utilize U-Link, it just doesn’t make sense to maintain an unreliable and costly service like Joint Ops for a shrinking number of bus routes.

        But hey, to each their own. If you think it makes sense to hold a high reliability, high ridership service like Link hostage to some guy fumbling for change at the fare box of an idling bus, then more power to you.

      3. It would be difficult to eliminate all remaining bus service when U-Link service begins in 2016. Politically the south end routes (101,150 etc) which will not have Link service anytime soon (if at all), deserve the benefits of the DSTT. Even the east side service (ST 550 for certain) would suffer degradation if ejected from the DSTT in 2016. The same applies to north end service before Link serves Northgate.

        The end of the RFA will bring a preview of problems and will define what level of bus service the DSTT will allow without causing unacceptable delays. The challenge is finding what practices eliminate delays and ensure maximum levels of bus service complementing Link.

      4. Wouldn’t it make sense for buses to simply end at the tunnel, but not go through it? If you have to get to the other end of the tunnel (or somewhere in between) then you ride the train. There is the question of fares, but ORCA should handle that well. It should count as a transfer (on your ORCA card) and be free.

      5. Jeff,

        When the DSTT turns to glue “politics” won’t keep buses in the tunnel. And politically speaking, South King will be (is?) pretty isolated and won’t have much pull anyhow.

        With the peak-only routes out of the tunnel after the RFA goes away, and with the 70’s restructured as feeders after U-Link open, there are only going to be something like 6 or 7 non-ST bus routes left in the tunnel. That is a pretty small number. Plus the bulk of the tunnel ridership will be on Link.

        It makes no sense to maintain an inefficient and costly Joint Ops system for such a limited number of routes. And a strong case can be made that more efficient and better service could be provided if some of these remaining routes were restructured as Link feeders anyhow.

    3. Actually with an ORCA card loaded with a pass or e-purse, you aren’t stuck with having to try and figure out anything.

      Get one.

      1. Is that the message to our visitors?
        Our fare system is so fucking screwed up, with a myriad of rules and different fares based on multiple agency egos, that you MUST PURCHASE AN ID CHIP THAT WILL LET COMPUTERS FIGURE OUT THE FARE FOR YOU.
        Mere mortals should not be required to think in our complex society.
        If you don’t like it, don’t come here!

      2. OMG! Braeburns cost $1.99 a pound and Fujis cost $2.49 a pound! How can people ever be expected to figure out how much to pay for an apple?

      3. If you want fujis, you must go back up to the mezzanine, stand on one foot, and rub your tummy,
        ….get out wallet, fumble for singles

      4. Or bI guess you could read the sign that greets you as you board or at the platform.

      5. They …sell apples… on the platforms at all stations now.

        But I agree, having ORCA charge you the right fare is no excuse for having buses/trains with radically different costs for the same ride. An argument could be made, though, that the CT expresses ought to cost more (as they do) specifically to discourage intra-downtown rides on routes that are intended to take people long distances, just to avoid opportunistic on/off rides and the delays they cause. Link fares being different makes sense because it’s a different mode; you shouldn’t expect it to cost the same as a bus.

        My biggest complaint is the discrepancy between ST and Metro peak/off-peak fares, particularly for multiple zones. I find it ridiculous that riding Metro across the lake at peak costs 20% more than riding ST, while riding off-peak it’s 10% less.

      6. Braeburns and Fujis are surely a bit passe by now, having been developed sixty plus years ago. Please, everyone, I implore you to use more modern varieties such as the Pink Lady or Honeycrisp for future comparisons.


        Steve P. Dant

  3. People need to buy pre-loaded ORCA cards pretty much anywhere. Give them choices: $20 in an epurse, one-zone off-peak pass, one-zone peak-hour pass, etc. Have color-coded wrappers on each type, so vendors know instantly which is which. Bar codes on the wrappers so they can be scanned at the cash register.

    I go to Vancouver a few times each year, and transit passes are sold at every convenience store, drug store, grocery, etc.

    Why is this so hard?

  4. It seems like anything to do with transportation here is going to always be a hassle no matter what is or isn’t done.

    But I sure look forward to the RFA being gone. What a royal PIA it has been in my opinion. Wish I could attend the meeting but work calls first.

  5. Thanks for the word about Friday. Have been waiting for the chance to talk with Metro Deputy General Manager Jim Jacobsen and City Councilman Tom Rasmussen’s staff member Bill LaBorde about what’s likely to happen to Tunnel service if anybody tries to use bus fareboxes to collect change down there through PM rush hour.

    I generally keep my stopwatch in my hand ever time I’m in the Tunnel. Four minute dwell times after 7 aren’t uncomommon- which also hold LINK trains waiting to enter stations. Transit invests great effort to see that passengers aren’t stealing rides from Metro and ST. Would appreciate these agencies’ return of the favor regarding the public’s time.

    Is anybody going to be there representing the King County Council or the County Exec?

    Mark Dublin

    1. It’s not just your time they’re wasting, they’re flushing their own money down the toilet to make sure no one else gets it. Metro’s total operating cost: $642.5M Total operating hours: 3.542M. So that’s $181 an hour to run that bus, and every 4 minute delay costs $12. Doesn’t sound like much, but multiplied by all of the buses every day forever… Are there really 5 people per tunnel stop per bus stealing a ride from them?

      (yes, using the 4 minutes isn’t fair – we have little more than a guess how much the RFA removal will slow down buses. but it will slow them down, and that brings added cost, reduced frequency, longer journeys, and less consistancy.)

      1. I sat at the front of a north bound 73 from campus parkway to NE 80th St today (approximately 10 stops) and 9 people didn’t pay a fare…9. So, I guess 4 is reasonable estimate. At least its not as bad as the 7…

  6. Please tell them they need to offer a reasonable daypass for KC residents who don’t have a monthly pass and are taking the bus into town for the day to shop or run appointments.

    1. Or a maximum daily total – effectively the same thing as a day pass assuming you’ve got the card. Also nice would be a 2-3 day pass or equivalent maximum.

  7. I would be for the RFA if it wasn’t unique to Seattle…as in, there could be multiple RFAs in other communities.

    For example there are many short trips on well defined corridors that I think should be less than the price of a standard ride.

    Here in Kent for example, taking the bus up and down Kent East Hill from Kent Station to the top of the Hill…but no further. I would make that free.

    1. I’d love to see distance-based fares, now that we have ORCA and GPS. Pay with cash? Full price. ORCA? Tap on, then tap off. If it’s just a stop or two, it’s only a few quarters.

      1. It was like this when I lived in Britain (Leeds), even for cash fares. You announced your destination to the driver, he/she spit out a receipt, you paid in cash, and they made change. Fares were priced in 10p increments. To go from Leeds Uni to the City Centre was £1.10, but to my friend’s flat a little further on was £1.20. It was a confusing, time-consuming hell, even though I was impressed how quickly drivers made change (having coinage in 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p, £1, and £2 helps!). Additionally, this was a First bus, whose transfers were invalid on Arriva. You think our multi-agency mess is hell, try the UK. =)

        Thankfully they’ve simplified it somewhat now. You’re entitled to up to 4 stops for £1, anywhere within the city centre for £2, or anywhere in Leeds for £2.80. I agree with Matt, flat fare for cash, distance-based fares on ORCA would be ideal.

      2. Yep. Same on Bus Éireann city buses in Cork, Ireland. Zach, we have to have a chat about the insane Thatcherite competition laws and NEW EU-wide competition laws. Congrats on headlinning the talk!

    2. I absolutely agree that this is a major problem, beyond the RFA and involving all our fare boundaries. You could go all the way from Fauntleroy to Lake City and pay a one-zone fare, but take the 358 from Shoreline to Bitter Lake and it’s two. Distance-based ORCA fares, as Matt suggests, would be great. We’d probably need back-door ORCA tappers (and off-board ones in congested areas) and system-wide POP to make it work. If we did all that we’d probably have the best transit payment system in the US by far even if we didn’t do a great job of implementing it!

    3. I think downtown is one of the few areas where a streetcar makes sense. I think it should be free. Just run up and down third. Everyone can hop on and hop off without paying.

      Then stop making all of the buses go through downtown. Yes, it is convenient when you can just stay on your bus, but that convenience has a big cost. The buses spend way too much time going going through downtown. If you want to get from one end to the other, you can just hop on the train (which might cost you) or ride the streetcar (which wouldn’t). The rest of us will walk.

      1. Forced transfer at the edge of downtown? That streetcar had better be a lot more frequent and reliable than any other transit system in this region. Downtown is a major transfer node, not just a final destination. Turn a one-transfer ride to a two-transfer ride and you lose a lot of riders.

    4. There’s nothing preventing Kent from doing so. If Kent want to pay for the service. There used to be the Shopper Hopper. Anyway, free rides are a terrible idea. You have to manage demand in some way and get some revenue–partially because money is good and partially because if there were no fares, this just gives neutral and anti-transit people a reason to point and say “see, transit users don’t pay for their services”.

      1. Oops, didn’t see the second-half of your point. Yeah, 2.25 is steep for 1.5 miles. I’d be interested to see how we could do with ORCA, but I wouldn’t want distance-based for cash fares–ever. While drivers can be fast, it’s cumbersome.

  8. Matt, Carl, Brett, John: it would be good if you could be there Friday. Would be especially good if blog contributors who drive transit could show up too. I don’t think either Jim Jacobsen or Bill LaBorde are hostile to a sensible solution.

    But conversations I’ve had with staff these last months seem to indicate the sense that orders and financial strictures from elected representatives could impose a situation they’ll like less than we will.

    So I think a sensible approach requires that both regular passengers and operating personnel, including the political action committee of their union, let he Metro Council and the Sound Transit Board know in advance they’ll be held accountable for quality of service after September. In the financial and every other sense of the word “accountable.”

    September’s changes don’t have to be for the worse. Fare collection is 30 years overdue for an overhaul. Like in the old saying, I’m looking for necessity to be the proud parent of some badly-needed inventiveness.

    Mark Dublin

  9. Tim should be a hoot! The trouble with his stand on opposing the end of the RFA is that social providers want their clients to be able to move easily around Downtown to access services… While this is a worthy concern to address, I don’t believe it’s a problem that should be solved by our TRANSIT dollars.

  10. Will this forum actually finish at 1pm?

    A single hour seems like a pretty short amout of time for five dynamic panelists to actually discuss the challenges (from a transit throughput and social justice perspective) and potential solutions for transit service after the RFZ goes away.

  11. What about the Whatcom Transportation Authority (WTA) method?

    The fare is $1.00.

    There are unlimited ride passes. The passes are sold, generally as a monthly, or a quarterly pass. They are sold at Bellingham Station, Cordata Station, some local businesses, and Whatcom Comm. Coll. There is no e-purse option.

    When a rider boards, the rider either swipes a pass, or pays with cash. The rider exits out the back door. Always. Oh, and says, “Thank you”, too.

    Additionally, all the buses are timed to meet with each other, and all routes terminate at either Cordata Station, or Bellingham Station.

    That’s it. There is no “Ride Free Area”, and the fare is the same at 0745, as it is at 2102.

    1. A lot of what works in Whatcom cannot work in Seattle.

      1. Public transport, being subsidized, has this feature that the more service is needed the harder it is to keep fares low. Our fare structure in Seattle is neither especially fair nor especially simple; Whatcom’s is very simple, and cheap enough that fairness doesn’t matter so much.

      2. It’s good to have an e-purse option, which allows irregular riders to pay quickly with ORCA instead of holding up the bus fumbling with cash. This matters more with actual ridership.

      3. When we get rid of the RFA and PAYL people will learn to primarily exit at the back, just like they do in other cities. But for all we complain about the RFA and PAYL, it seems to be effective at managing limited downtown curb space, especially in the tunnel.

      4. In King County almost every route either goes downtown, to the U District, or to Bellevue. Our lack of direct crosstown routes is widely considered a weakness.

      5. Pulse scheduling is wonderful… when you only have a few important nodes to schedule, when you don’t have much traffic, when you don’t have much frequency or very many routes (when the peak bus flow just isn’t high enough to cause problems). If all the buses arrive at the same time in Seattle it’s a bad thing. You’d rather have them spaced relatively evenly and at high frequency.

    2. Most bus fares are heavily subsidized, so the ‘fare’ portion is a very small percentage of the actual cost of the ride.
      So we’re quibbling over the few percentage points of fare difference between agencies, for maybe 25% of the cost of the ride.
      Again, cash fares amount to only fractions of the entire fare payment system, so now we’re focusing on an even smaller number. Keep in mind that Business and Passport account for a major amount of our fare paying public. Those passes are sold at bulk rate discounts, yet offer unlimited travel in the region for mere pennies on the dollar.
      My point is this. We create a hell of a lot of confusion over a very small percentage of riders that are effected.
      That’s shortsighted.

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