Aurora Village Transit Center
Aurora Village Transit Center

Of the six RapidRide routes Metro has rolled out, or soon will roll out, only one will have more than one adult fare: RapidRide E, an improved version of today’s Route 358, which connects downtown Seattle and Shoreline via Aurora Avenue. Metro’s fare system has two zones, with Zone 1 the city of Seattle, and Zone 2 the rest of the county; adult riders pay a 50c surcharge on rush-hour trips that cross a fare boundary, while off-peak riders, seniors and youth each pay a flat rate. All E Line trips will cross the boundary at 145th St. I don’t know exactly how long the zone system has been around, but it’s at least 30 years, and like so many things of that era at Metro, seems to have been designed with a focus on the downtown Seattle 9-5 commute trip.

One of the few rapid transit-like features all RapidRide lines will ultimately have is partial off-board payment at the busiest stops: riders with ORCA will be able to tap on at the platform, while cash payers delay the bus, fumbling with change and dollar bills at the farebox just like they’ve always done. Zone fares present a problem in this system, as riders have no way* to declare to the ORCA platform reader how many zones they wish to pay for; of necessity, platform ORCA payers risk under- or over-payment. We at STB, along with many of our readers, have wondered how Metro is going to deal with this, and after more than two months of pleading and nagging, we finally have an official answer:

The E Line will have the same 1 and 2 zone boundaries as the 358. The off-board readers can only handle one fare set so we are setting them to the number of zones that the majority of the riders pay (which is also consistent to the default settings for the farebox and ORCA reader on the bus).

This means in the inbound/southbound direction, the off-board readers from Aurora Village Transit Center to North 160th Street (the last station before the zone boundary) will be set to two zones.

Riders who are only going one zone will have to pay on the bus and ask the driver to override the two-zone setting on the bus. All other off-board readers, inbound and outbound, will be set to one zone. Again, if the rider is going two zones from those locations, they will have to ask the driver to override the default setting.

More after the jump.

This approach is expected to best serve the most customers and allows the operator to focus mostly on safe driving and customer service. We rely on customers to cooperate and pay the appropriate fare and keep the service moving. Riders on the 358 help do this every day […] and we look forward to serving them with RapidRide in the future. Like with all RapidRide launches, there will be a period of transition and education as we shift to a new system of fare enforcement and proof of payment.

Additionally, Metro’s Strategic Plan, adopted in summer 2011 includes strategies for achieving long range goals and objectives for the transit system including;

Strategy 6.3.2: Establish fare structures and fare levels that are simple to understand, aligned with other service providers, and meet revenue targets established by Metro’s fund management policies. Metro’s fare structure and fare levels should enable Metro to meet cost recovery targets that are established by fund management policies adopted by the King County Council. Fares should be set to reflect the cost of service, promote operational efficiency, ensure regional coordination, minimize impacts of fares on those least able to pay, and reduce the cost of fare collection … Simple and consistent fares are important to make transit easy to use for both new and existing transit riders.

As Metro moves towards goals of financial sustainability, more customer friendly fare structures will be discussed, analyzed and pursued. There will always be some tension or tradeoffs between achieving fare revenue targets, relating the fare level to the length or cost of the trip and the ability of the rider to pay, and simplifying fare structures to make service accessible and understandable to our customers.

This approach seems pretty kludgey,  but I admit I can’t think of a much better one within the context of the current zone system. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this response is the hope of possible future fare simplification: along with many people in the transit world, I regard fare collection as the agency’s primary system-wide operational challenge, and fixing Metro’s fare structure is a precondition for moving towards a system where payments are always fast, simple, efficient, and mostly cashless on core frequent-service routes. It’s good to hear official statements of concurrence from on high.

Coming up, we’re going to have several posts discussing blue-sky ideas for rethinking Metro fares, and there will be plenty of opportunities to discuss such ideas in the comments of those posts. Let’s keep the discussion here on how best to make the current fare structure work with the current technology in time for the E Line launch.

* That’s not completely true. Users with registered cards can use ORCA’s zone-preset feature, which allows them to override the fare reader’s two-zone default and pay only a one-zone fare on two-zone trip, for all trips on all their cards. If you live in Seattle and rarely travel outside in the peak period, this will work very well for you, but still doesn’t solve the general problem.

64 Replies to “RapidRide E and Two-Zone Fares”

  1. I can’t really see how this is going to work well. I hope that Metro can take oddities such as this into account as they go about their broader fare policy update work this year.

    In the meantime, this just adds another layer of complexity and another degradation of the RapidRide brand. Is a fare enforcement officer really going to ticket someone who pays off-board at 3rd/Pike and alights in Shoreline? Are we going to tolerate allowing riders to overpay for southbound trips within Shoreline? Are we going to tell some customers to tap off-board and some to tap on-board (after having a conversation with the driver)? How are fare enforcement officers going to differentiate between those who paid off-board and those who paid on-board? This is ‘Rapid’ how?

  2. How about tap-on, tap-off, like at the link station? I hate that the BRTness of rapidride is getting killed by a thousand tiny cuts.

    1. +1 I think tap-on, tap-off should be the standard everywhere, and would allow us to come up with much more useful fare structures while keeping the rules simple.

      That said, I doubt they could implement that by the time RR-E comes online.

    2. Bingo.

      If you don’t tap-off you pay the full fare. Not sure why that would be so complicated with all the readers already installed. It also prepares the system for the potential of more dynamic pricing strategies.

    3. If you have to use tap-on tap-off to implement your fare strategy, it’s getting too complicated.

      (If I go further about what that implies, I’ll be off-topic.)

  3. For what it’s worth, this is not a new problem for RapidRide. I doubt if a two-zone fare was ever collected on the 358 before ORCA adoption, and today I doubt if one is ever collected northbound. Two-zone fares just don’t work on local routes.

    1. In my original question I pointed that out, and there was a remark in the response, omitted above, which denied it. Yes, what you say is true, and anyone who’d ridden the 358 regularly would know that, along with many other eye-opening facts and experiences, but I wasn’t going to get into an argument about it.

    2. During peak hours north of 175th is someone going downtown going to ride fake rapid ride e or the 301? willing yo bet the e riders won’t be going very far very soon with all of the stops that are still going to be made. these riders should pay the one zone fare always.

      1. We can talk a lot about what should be… but today someone riding from 130th to 175th owes a two-zone fare, and it’s not being collected. That’s all I’m saying.

      2. I’m strongly in support of enforcing policies as they are written, even bad ones. If everyone ignores a bad policy, then it will stay in place, causing confusion and unfairness for the people who do pay attention to it. But if the policy is rigorously enforced, then it becomes much harder to ignore, which motivates people to change it.

  4. Most people riding outbound to Shoreline on the 358 today probably pay one zone, and this is a good thing because it saves time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone ask for a two-zone fare outbound on the 358 during peak (I don’t ride it every day, and I’m sure it happens every now and then) and I’ve never seen drivers make a point of asking people to do it. They mostly seem interested in keeping the bus moving, and enough people dodge fares on the 358 that at some times of day they’re happy if you pay anything at all.

    But when fare inspection starts on the E Line you’d better pay the correct fare according to policy, rather than follow current practice, because fare inspectors in Shoreline will have little choice but to penalize you if you don’t.

    The irony is that drivers will probably keep giving out cushy transfers to people that pay partial fares in cash in north Seattle. I have no problem with that, because it keeps the bus moving, and protects people from racking up fare evasion penalties after doing their best to pay. But there’s nothing to protect people that pay with ORCA. I really don’t want to be one of those guys, but… it’s yet another disincentive to ORCA use.

    I think the most reasonable and fair thing would be to tell fare inspectors not to enforce zones outbound, returning the payment situation to the status quo on the 358 and the handful of other local-ish two-zone routes. But they’d have to publicize it to get everyone paying off-board, and then some group of people would complain that some other group of people is freeloading, and then they’d have a mess. Or maybe they wouldn’t care about that mess.

    1. But when fare inspection starts on the E Line you’d better pay the correct fare according to policy, rather than follow current practice, because fare inspectors in Shoreline will have little choice but to penalize you if you don’t.

      I really hope this isn’t the case. If they enforce the zones for ORCA customers northbound when the off-board payment machines are set to one-zone fares, then they’ll have to post signs telling people going to Shoreline that they have to get in line with the cash payers, ask the driver to reset the fare for two zones, and tap their card on the bus. There’s no way the extra 50 cents is worth all that hassle for riders and drivers alike.

  5. Another ‘Transit Oddity’ in Seattle.
    At least they pre-set the fare to charge the maximum, so that only stupid, infrequent, tourist, lazy, mis-informed, fare challenged people will be getting screwed on a regular basis.

  6. I like tap-on and tap-off, but should add that adding readers at either every stop or at every exit on the bus would help the problem Bruce mentioned.

  7. I have a question about how passes work in this system.

    I’ve heard that if you have a pass on your ORCA you still have to tap onto trains and POP buses to pass fare inspection. If you’re a daily commuter going out to Shoreline during peak with a $2.75 pass on your ORCA, do you have to tap at $2.75 to pass fare inspection, or will tapping off-board at $2.50 work?

    1. I am not sure if this is what you’re asking, but, I have an employer-subsidized high-end pass on my ORCA card, and when I tap my ORCA card, the reader just says “PASS” without saying how much money is changing hands. I assume if I had a lower-value pass that didn’t cover the whole cost of the trip, it’d say I still owed more money so the driver would know to say “Hey, your pass doesn’t cover this trip, I need 50 cents more.” But hopefully someone with more insight will chime in.

      1. Yes, even with a pass you need to tap to obtain a “permit to travel” on your card. These taps are essential for pass revenue being distributed to the participating agencies according to the formula in the ORCA agreement.

        If you have an ORCA “Business Passport” from your employer then your pass is good for the maximum fare charged by any of the participating agencies.

        If you purchased a monthly PugetPass, that’s good for the amount you paid for. I know if you tap on-board and the fare is greater than the value of your pass, the OFTP will prompt you to pay the difference to the farebox. I don’t know how that works with off-board readers – my suspicion is they’ll simply say insufficient funds.

      2. The money changing hands is not the price of the trip but a share of the month’s pass revenue, depending not only on the nominal fare but on what percent of your trips were on Metro vs other agencies. The reader can’t figure all that out or predict your future trips. It can only register the pass usage and e-purse surcharges.

      3. It is certainly the case that if you have a pass at lower value than the fare the reader wants, this is handled correctly. For example, when I worked in SnoHoCo I had an ORCA pass at the ST 2-county fare. When that was bumped from $3 to $3.50 there was some amount of time where I still had a $3 pass (possibly due to my own error), so my e-purse was charged the balance each time (or if I didn’t have anything in the e-purse it would say “PASS + OWE .50” and I would have to pay 50 cents).

        What I’m worried about is something different. Generally the existence of a pass on your card doesn’t count as proof-of-payment on Link or RR, you have to tap the card and the record of the tap is the proof-of-payment. My concern is that people with a $2.75 pass (but who have not manually changed their zone preset) will tap an outbound off-board reader (with a one-zone default) during peak, and that this will only register as proof-of-payment for a one-zone ride. Then the fare inspector comes on in Shoreline and penalizes them (or at least hassles them or gets confused).

      4. Looking at Eric Butler’s FareBot code, it looks like the card simply records the use of a pass or transfer, not the amount. However, conceivably the handheld readers used by fare enforcement can show the location of an off-board tap and any passes loaded on to a card.

      5. No one seems to be answering Al’s question, though.

        If you have a $2.75 pass on your ORCA and are traveling 2 zones, but you tap it on the 1-zone reader, can you get nailed by Fare Enforcement for underpayment? It does result in underallocation of funds to Metro.

        If all the fare inspector sees is “pass used, stop #xxxxxx”, seems like he gets a free pass (and so does anyone who knowingly wants to dodge the 2-zone fare).

      6. Hmmm…

        I have an Android phone with NFC capabilities. I suppose I could load a pass on my ORCA for a month and see what info it stores for various trips…

      7. I have a pass on my Orca and the Swift ambassadors don’t hassle me if I don’t tap it. They look at it with the little reader, see the pass and move on. I’d guess that Metro will do the same thing. I may be wrong though.

      8. “I may be wrong though.”

        Based on multiple conversations with Fare Enforcement, both on and off my bus, you are. They are checking for full proper fare payment. Anything less and they put you in the system. After an unknown number of bad checks (they wouldn’t tell me) you get a ticket. Metro has also put out multiple bulletins to us indicating the need for us to tap our passes to properly distribute fare revenue.

    2. you tap your card on an orca reader. because your pass is greater than or equal to the fare you will be given a permit to travel with no additional fare due. if on the other hand you travel two zones then your 2.75 pass would work for stated value and you would pay the difference out of epurse or on the bus using a quarter.

      1. I believe it was stated above, that the off-board ORCA readers will be pre-set to one-zone for all peak outbound trips just as the OCRA reader at the front door is now. If that’s the case, then FEO’s will know this is the policy and won’t hassle you for the extra zone charge.

  8. Please give some idea as to who said the E line was going to be handled this way.

    I’ve heard rumors that the zones and peak fares are going away as part of the fare restructure planned for next year. Something about lack of relevance to the current route structure and fare confusion between Metro and ST. Switching to PAYE has something to contribute to this as well.

    As for the readers, there is an orca-compatible reader that allows for changing fare set by the user.

    1. I was told, “This information comes from Metro staff, including Victor Obeso and Karen Rosenzweig.”

    2. Yes, who’s the Einstein that came to this solution.
      Metro must think they are PanAm airways, figuring the cost of a ticket between SEA and LAX, as opposed to going on to ATL. For christ sakes, it’s only a 9 mile trip to 145th, then another 2 miles to the end of the line. And the taxpayers are footing the bill for 75% of it, so we’re dicing the last 25% into smaller pieces, while the bus sits there trying to figure it out. It reminds me of retirees trying to divvy up a lunch tab, quibbling over who had the extra coke, while the waitress stands there.
      Bean counters rule the government, and someone needs to explain the benefits of going to a flat fare system.

      1. THIS.

        I think the fundamental problem here is that there’s a policy that’s driving the customer experience. That’s because, as you say, bean counters rule the government.

        In any non-dysfunctional private company, the customer experience drives the policy. Metro needs to start focusing on the user!

      2. But who is teh customer. I submit that since they pay 70+% of the operating costs it’s the taxpayers, and they have, time and again, indicated that bean counting is what they want.

      3. @William: When have taxpayers ever said they wanted beancounting at the expense of a system that works? I don’t think they’ve ever been given this option! The county council sets the fare structure, and that small group is certainly not the customer!

        But anyway, I think you’re fundamentally wrong on who the customer is. In many industries (most obviously, ad-supported ones) the money doesn’t only flow from the consumer to the producer (another interesting example is credit cards, which are primarily used for convenience but paid for by finance charges and transaction fees so that there’s very little connection between what any person pays and the benefit they derive). This leads to the cynical observation applied to modern journalism and many Internet businesses: “You’re not the customer, you’re the product.” There’s a bit of truth in this, but it certainly isn’t the case that these businesses stop trying to serve their users. They can’t give their users everything they’d get if they funded the whole service, but that doesn’t mean they sell them down the river entirely — they still have to provide them something of value or they’ll fall into a terminal death spiral.

    3. Like everything with our fare system it’s like calculus; easy once you understand it but incomprehensible otherwise. I was getting charged the two zone fare going from Totem Lake to S. Kirkland P&R and then transferring to a 249 to Overlake. The system should be smart enough to realize that if I transfer at S. Kirkland P&R it’s a one zone fare. I felt bad about asking the driver to change the zone before I tapped. It’s either dumb or an attempt at maximizing revenue. But, when I go into my preferences and change my default to one zone then it does the right thing. If I was actually taking the 255 from Scrotum Lake to DT Seattle I could just set my preferences to one zone and scam the system. Metro seems to work hard at screwing themselves over.

      1. I was told by a CT employee to set my ORCA to one zone because I kept getting dinged by ST when I only went one zone. Even when the driver told me I’d be charged one zone they’d charge me both. Now it rings up as one zone all the time.

      2. “If I was actually taking the 255 from Scrotum Lake to DT Seattle I could just set my preferences to one zone and scam the system.”

        … and people do, and we can see it. I used to chase the $.50 but have realized that’s a horrible use of my time. I press the underpayment button, look for repeat offenders and write them up, per Metro’s policy. If they get enough reports, they can chase the fare evader down.

        (In theory, Metro (Sound Transit?) can search ORCA records for this type of fare evasion. Think about it: If you have access to an ORCA users full travel history, this kind of scamming would be easy to catch. Give me a few CSV files and I’ll write some SQL code (sorry if that’s so late 1990’s) to spit out the likely offenders – A human can then go through and look at the records and flag them appropriately. If Metro tells us that they are looking for fare evaders in this way and reinforces the need for us to report underpayment via the DDU, I *GUARANTEE* we’ll do it – in mass. It’s hard to keep punching all those buttons when you don’t have any feedback that they are using the data.

        Long term, fare enforcement is the way to deal with this. Converting routes to RapidRide helps greatly, but converting the *entire* system to PoP is a better way. All non-RapidRide routes would work the same way they do today except that you need proof of payment when you are on the bus. In this parallel (and very well run, I might add) universe, Metro can train drivers to open all doors at *any* RapidRide ORCA equipped stop, regardless of whether we have a long red bus. Eliminating paper transfers in favor of ORCA transfers is the way to go. I’d perfer non-cash payment, but PoP vouchers – good only on the coach it was cut on, for a given time, would probably be Ok.

      3. The one-zone, two-zone thing seems virtually impossible to enforce, enough that Metro should not even be attempting to enforce it. How can the bus driver possibly expect to remember if the person getting off in downtown Seattle got on at Montlake or Kirkland, and whether he paid for one zone or two zones when he did get on, let alone get the passenger to pay, when the back door is wide open for people exiting.

        The whole thing is so unenforceable, we should not even bother trying to pretend it’s enforceable. Charge a premium fare for routes in which everyone or nearly everyone on the bus is traveling a long distance, and stick to the one-zone fare for all other routes. It’s easy, simple, and reduces potential for arguments, delays, or confused riders.

      4. Everything about our fare system made “sense” when it was introduced. We’ve gotten over pay as you enter; pay as you leave. The RFZ is gone. Next step is one fare one transfer period. Get that working and then maybe start charging a premium fare for Express Routes… And if you do then they had pretty well been real express routes!

  9. Isn’t this problem largely covered by ORCA user preferences? If you commonly use 2-zone fares, just set your card to default to 2-zone, otherwise set it to default to 1-zone.

    See orcacard.com -> FAQ -> Fare ->Fare preset

  10. The solution is maddeningly simple – just make the E-line one zone and be done with it.

    1. Exactly! I think that’s what Metro wants to do, but they won’t admit to it until they get the green light from the county council.

      But if they can’t implement an express fare category, the financing won’t work out. I’ve at least come across one mention of the possibility of a cash surcharge, but no mentions in any official document of the notion of an “express fare”.

  11. Here Metro is again making another “little” inefficiency that slows down RapidRide. I used to think that it is fine the way it is, and indeed, it’s not terrible (it’s relatively permanent and secure frequent service in a time and place where transit is tanking), but it can get really slow. It really does fail at being rapid. Taking the A-line that I ride every weekday, I usually pointed to broken signal priority as the cause, even though signal priority is actually working fine (with the exception of the SB A at S 316 st, where it has to wait for a left turn signal. The line is actually noticeably more rapid when it switches to flashing yellow). The problem is actually a bunch of little things adding up. You know that stop without an ORCA reader? It’s a little thing, but there are other stops without ORCA readers, and a lot of people board at those. And with Metro making it default to two zones, and require 1 zone trips to be paid for on the bus, they might as well not have offboard payment. And of course, that only works if you assume everyone uses an ORCA card, which is ridiculous at best. People are set off by the initial fee, and if they stay on King County Metro, they have no incentive to purchase one. Even if it makes boarding rapidride buses faster, they figure it isn’t that much for one rider, but the problem is that it *is* that much for many riders.

    What metro should do is have tap-on-tap-off for ORCA users on all RR stops (and actually *fix* them when they break), and in addition, have machines that vend paper transfers for cash and credit users at all stops. If this is done, then all of the RapidRide lines will be much more swift.

    Before its opening, the A-line had estimated end to end travel times (FWTC to TIBS) of 30 minutes, which it might actually achieve on some runs between the hours of 11 pm and 4 am. The point is this: to make it work, Metro needs to be fully committed, and since this is funded by a special tax approved by the people, they have no excuse to be partially committed. If they aren’t, rapid ride is forever doomed to be a misnomer.

    1. Thanks Alex. One thing that is lacking on STB is ‘before and after’ assessments of changes made to the system. Rapid Ride was a big one. Could you do a guest post on RR-A in the near future?
      To our sensors, I know this is off topic, so be kind.

      1. I could list a whole slew of posts offering before and after assesments of RapidRide, but I’m feeling lazy, too.

  12. I don’t see this as much different than a #358, primarily because RR E is to stop almost every place the 358 did, in part due to a lack of underlying local service despite the opportunities to redirect existing routes to provide that coverage (316, 345) in the most stop-heavy areas. Also, because of Metro’s refusal to go “all in” for off-board fare payment, having bicycles on the front of the buses, the same driver-assisted only option for wheelchair riders, etc. And, they’re only promising additional trips in the reverse peak and off peak segments.

  13. I’ll say more soon about the LIFOAC, but I’ll go ahead and mention that it appears unlikely the LIFOAC report will comment on the topic of peak or zone fares.

    I encourage folks to go ahead and start contacting their county councilmembers and the county executive directly about modernizing the fare system. Peak and zone fares are an anachronism.

  14. I have a stupid question for which I’ve never really needed an answer because of my monthly pass:

    How are the off-board readers currently set for peak vs. off-peak fares?

    1. Let me be more specific:

      1) How is the off-board reader reset from peak to off-peak, and back again?
      2) When does this reset occur? Does it happen on all readers essentially simultaneously?

      1. Don’t treat this as definitive, but based on what I’ve read on STB:

        – “Peak” is a property of the run, not the rider’s trip. If the run starts as a peak trip it’s peak all the way through.
        – So the reader is set at the start of a run and stays the same throughout the run, and changes occur at different times throughout the system.
        – Whether a run is peak or not depends on either its start time, or its scheduled start time, or its scheduled time entering downtown, or something like that. I don’t remember exactly.

  15. So now instead of waiting for riders to fumble for change we have to wait for drivers to fumble with the machine to change the zones. Something tells me Rapidride E is not going to be ANY improvement over the 358. This is especially sad considering how well a Swift style bus would solve most of the 358’s issues.

    1. Zone juggling has been in place since 2009. But the elimination of the Ride Free Area pushed the possibility of occurences into the Central Business District. So, a lot of 2-zone local routes are set for 1 zone, while a lot of 2-zone express routes are set for two zones. Thus, in practice, Metro has already implemented an express fare. ;) They just haven’t fessed up to implenting it.

    2. The 2-zone surcharge is only in effect during the peak, the same period in which no sane person who slog it out all the way between downtown and shoreline on the 358 when considerably faster service exists on other routes, such as the 301, 304, or 355.

      So, most of the peak riders of the 358 are either going to be just traveling one zone, or will be making a short trip that just happens to cross the Seattle->Shoreline boundary. While the latter is technically a two-zone trip, it is only so by an artifact of the rules, not by any logical sense. Allowing people in this category to pay for just one zone seems fine with me.

    3. Grant,

      I’ll bet you zone and peak differential disappear with the October 2013 or February 2014 service change, in time for E’s rollout, just as the RFA went away just in time for the C/D’s rollout.

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