How many times a day does this happen at Sound Transit’s new UW Station? Someone arrives at the station from street level, hops on the elevator, and gets to the platform. As they’re about to board the waiting train, they realize that they forgot to pay. There’s no ORCA card reader on the platform, so they curse and take the elevator all the way back up to the street to swipe their card (or they get on the train and take their chances without paying if the train is about to leave).

This issue has resulted in more than a few people asking Sound Transit for ORCA card readers on the train platform. The agency, however, is going in the opposite direction – ORCA readers will disappear from the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel platform once buses get kicked out of the tunnel. According to Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray, the main reason for not including ORCA readers on platforms is to prevent loitering. Sound Transit wants a clear delineation between Fare Paid areas and the rest of the station. It’s also possible they aren’t very excited about maintaining extra hardware.

Gray noted that they have “Link Fare Paid Zone” signs at stations. In my experience, however, they’re easy to miss.  For example, the sign at this UW Station elevator is located above where most people are looking. The ORCA reader is tucked into a corner next to the larger ORCA machines, which is easy to miss for people approaching or exiting from a different side.

UW Station. Photo by the author.
UW Station. Photo by the author.

At the Capitol Hill Station, the signs are located above the elevator and escalator.  However, the signs face towards people who are entering the station. The view from the escalator as you’re exiting the station makes it easy to miss the ORCA readers. No signs are there to remind people to tap their card as they exit, resulting in people forgetting and getting overcharged for their trip.  Between the entrance and the platform, there are a fair number of ORCA readers, but when there’s a large crowd of people (as is typical when a train arrives and people exit), it’s very easy for the readers to not be visible.

Capitol Hill Station. Photo by the author.
Capitol Hill Station. Photo by the author.
Capitol Hill Station. Photo by the author.
Capitol Hill Station. Photo by the author.

Gray indicated that the agency is “looking at ways to make it more clear to riders when they’re entering a fare paid zone,” but cautioned that it would have to wait until the downtown tunnel is rail-only, sometime in 2018. But we needn’t look to far for inspiration. One station in the system already has a model for what a better fare paid zone could look like.

Most other rail transit systems have some form of turnstile before entering onto a train platform, but that would be additional (unnecessary) hardware for Sound Transit to maintain. We don’t actually need physical barriers. What would help with this issue is a transition point that reminds people to swipe their ORCA cards. We actually have this sort of thing already at Sound Transit’s SeaTac Station, in the form of cart guards.

Cart Guards at Sea-Tac
Cart guards at SeaTac. Photo by the author.

Because they look like a gate or turnstile, these cart guards send a psychological signal to Sound Transit users that they’re entering a Fare Paid zone. This signal works much better than any signage ever could. Having this sort of thing in other stations would help remind people to pay before they get to the train platform. It could also remind them to swipe their ORCA cards after leaving the train. It has no moving parts, and requires almost no maintenance other than a fresh coat of paint every half- decade or so.

We should ensure that such a system has enough clearance to allow wheelchairs, strollers, bicycles, and other devices through. Because it only needs to send the visual signal of a barrier, designing something wide enough shouldn’t be difficult. So how about it, Sound Transit?

74 Replies to “Sound Transit Light Rail Stations Need (Visual) Payment Barriers”

  1. I agree too. The SeaTac cart guards are a modest addition that would trigger an awareness of where the fare zone is. The wouldn’t have to be narrow like at SeaTac but the should be prominent enough to alert a user.

    Of course, Getting ST to change station treatments is very tough. Now that ST has the new lines committed, let’s push to get them to make station improvements more important.

    1. The SeaTac gates are actually terribly designed. They may be worried about people taking carts to the platform, but those of us carrying perfectly legal luggage can’t get the luggage through the barriers easily.

    2. The mezzanine level at SeaTac station is not a fare-paid zone. People are free to walk through it to the skybridge over International Blvd.

  2. Agreed 100%

    Another cheap solution is a distinct color change on the floor. Either paint or some sort of adhesive floor tape that makes it clear you are enterIng another zone.

    For geater effectiveness the could do multiple things. Combined cart guard like things with a change in floor color, for example…

    1. Los Angeles Metro provides a great example to emulate. They call it a “virtual fare gate.”

      They moved fare card readers to the middle of the walkway, always after the ticket vending machines. It’s right in the line of sight and you practically trip over them. Very effective reminder for frequent passengers on autopilot.

      For infrequent riders there is a red fare paid zone signage above, a red adhesive stripe on the ground and red signs on nearby walls or pylons at eye level. They’ve also experimented with placing signs on the card readers with arrows pointing down.

      Here’s what it looks like:

      The beauty of this system… it works just as well at at-grade median stations as it does at subway stations (which granted, LA Metro has gated all subway stations now.)

      1. Yes, this. LA Metro gets it right, we should copy what they do. As a visitor to their system I was struck by how immediately clear the fare paid zone was. ST places their readers discretely by the wall, as if they’re cigarette butt receptacles; LA puts it where you’re gonna see it.

  3. My complaint is that there are never enough readers and they are never where you need them. It seems that I always have to cross to the other side of the hall stairs etc to tag out, usually with others and trying to tag out while others tag in. Sounder platforms also lack enough readers as well so you wind up wandering the completely opposite direction to get to one and again fighting with other commuters trying to tag off

    1. You can clearly tell they let the electrician decide where to put them rather than someone in charge of the rider experience.

  4. In addition to the gate carts, in the second picture the orca card readers are also deployed in a logical, visible place. When the readers themselves are sprinkled around, they get lost. Personally, I find that the readers are too close to stairs and the elevator. At the stairs or elevator, you are thinking about negotiating them rather than tapping.

  5. “Link Fare Paid Zone” signs are not only easy to miss, they’re hard to interpret. (Is it the zone where you pay your fare?) The gates/turnstiles are much clearer.

  6. Gruss Gott! What penny-wise, pound-foolish bureaucratic thuggery. Sound Transit is going to remove existing ORCA readers from the DSTT? That will clearly result in longer lines at the ones on the Mezzanine which are already too few in number.

    I love the idea of the pseudo-cart barriers; even veteran riders need the occasional reminder. And the readers need to be front-and-center in the flow lines. Using the Second Avenue entrance to University Street one walks past a reader tucked in a corner! How dumb is that? University Street is probably the third most-used station by tourists, and they primarily will be coming from the Pike Place Market.

    I like Sound Transit. They are a great engineering and operations organization, but I sometimes wonder if they like their customers.

    1. Numerically, the need for readers can be seen as analogous to the need for escalator capacity. There is a slow and erratic stream entering the station. And then there is a throng leaving the station. There need to be enough readers to make sure those entering see them, but most of the readers need to be at convenient positions where those leaving will remember to tap off.

      1. Agreed, Brent. More is better up to some not yet nearly approached maximum.

        And I just realized why ST felt the need to put cart barriers at the station entrance. What would happen if someone accidentally pushed a cart into the trackway in front of a train. That cart could become a terrible projectile.

  7. Starting 8AM Monday, everybody call, not e-mail, your county council and Sound Transit board member, and the County Executive, and The Seattle Times, and reporter Mike Lindblom, and the rest of the news media and tell them, or leave this message:

    If you don’t see at least a large cardboard sign, or orange cones, or a yellow plastic sandwich sign marking every Fare Paid Zone barrier line at the entrance you usually use by this coming Thursday, at PM rush hour Friday you are going to:

    1. Stand, as formally dressed as possible, WHERE YOU ARE NOT BLOCKING TRAFFIC, at the entrance to every Fare Paid zone, holding a respectful and dignified sign cardboard notice of your own making. For at least fifteen minutes at rush hour, or as much time as you can spare.

    2. If anybody in uniform threatens you about it, you will respectfully have them repeat the order in front of your smart-phone screen, and then politely take your leave. And immediately send the results viral on social media.

    3. You will take your sign with you when you leave, or hand it to your replacement.

    4. If you have an attorney, you will alert them as well. Call to public defenders’ office costs nothing. For as long as the transit system is going to its own passengers to financial and legal liability through its own inaction, we are going to protect each other.

    cc: Everyone in first paragraph.

    Mark Dublin


  8. I still hope that some day the tap off, tap on, and cancel tone will become distinct from each other. There is very little visual cue to tell them apart, and I shouldn’t have to take out and put on my reading glasses every time I tap. Voice cue would be even better than tone.

    This would free up the FOEs to deal with fare evaders instead of being distracted by mis-tappers.

    I also realize most fare evaders have money-flow issues. I look forward to eventually getting the low-income fare and youth fare to match the RRFP fare, to get youth and low-income day passes, and to get some sort of free or cheap longer-term pass for those of very low-income, but I digress.

  9. OK. I’m sure I must sound naive at this point, but why no turnstiles? I get that they are a nuisance as long as we have mixed-use in the DSTT, but what about once the buses are gone? Pretty sure I read something explaining this logic a while back, but now I can’t remember. Something about the tap-in/tap-out fare system? For the last two years I’ve lived in Boston, and the turnstiles here are absolutely a non-issue. It’s just how you pay and allows traffic in both directions. It saves money by reducing fare enforcement and keeps the process as mindless as possible, which is how it should be in an efficient transit system.

    I feel like even a row of virtual turnstiles – something akin to the painted barriers when entering fare zones, but with a row of ORCA readers – would help people a lot. I know there’s a logic behind the ST system, I just can’t remember what it was.

    1. Are there cities with turnstiles and station agents? Or are they kind of required when you have turnstiles for any potential issues? Coming from the Bay Area, I can see why ST would want to avoid having them, they are always lazy people that sit in a booth getting $30/hr with full benefits to watch portable TV while ignoring customers.

      1. The station agents in Boston are certainly of that variety. The only ones I see do anything are at the bigger stations downtown that have to sell Charlie cards or do other kinds of service. Otherwise they’re just on their phones ignoring all the turnstile jumpers.

      2. LA Metro has someone in central control to buzz people in if necessary. Same with PATCO between Philadelphia and New Jersey.

    2. Expensive to buy and expensive to maintain, and a pain to install at some stations. If one breaks at, say, UW station, it would block access to the escalator.

    3. Translink has installed them throughout the Skytrain system, and they are working well. The fare paid zone was always clearly delineated with an obvious line on the floor and a sign above, but there is certainly no missing a row of turnstiles. They slow you down a bit, but really only a second or two, and there is always a wider turnstile for wheelchairs. There is no attendant at the turnstiles, but I have never seen anyone jump them.

      There was an potential problem with unattended wheelchair turnstiles in case it didn’t work for the person in the wheelchair, but that seems to have been resolves to people’s satisfaction. The turnstile program was controversial because it was instigated by the provincial government to combat fare evasion even through that was thought to be a small problem. But fare revenue has increased since they were put in place. The previous honour system did feel more civilized, but turnstiles have been no bad thing.

      1. But Translink has had to take a hit on bus fares, since the turnstile/faregate system was not compatible with the bus fare boxes.

        Since Seattle and Vancouver require a tap-out, it may be worthwhile, but do heed this warning from Los Angeles:

      2. Overall revenue including bus and skytrain is up 7%.

        The compass card had a bunch of technical issues at first, but it now works and is used for 95% of fare transactions on translink. The tap out function is unreliable on buses, so all the bus routes were made one zone to avoid the need for tapping out. You still board the buses by tapping in, and the system is smart enough to know if that is just a transfer from another bus or skytrain so you don’t pay twice.

    4. Turnstiles created a potentially significant safety hazard at the “at grade” stations where fare skippers might risk simply walking down the tracks to avoid the turnstiles. I remember an earlier blog post where this was discussed.

  10. Yeah why not a row of 4-8 ORCA readers that creates a threshold. I would assume most of the underground stations were designed to have a designated location for potential turnstiles. Place them there.

    My rule with the ORCA readers is to always give priority to someone tapping in so they can catch their train, especially in the DSTT at the platform level.

  11. Better yet, build a smart phone app that allows you to buy and load up an Orca card and “tap in” on the app. I could probably write one in a month and I’m not even a full time developer.

  12. Yes yes this!! I have had to go back all the way up at Capitol HIll and UW stations so many times. I did it at Beacon Hill once and I ended up missing the train. And especially because there are readers on the platform in the DSTT for bus-to-train transfers, some people have already been trained to tap on at the platform.

  13. I agree completely.
    This is a huge failing that every other transit system in the world has addressed (Tokyo rail, NY subway, etc.). Why it was considered irrelevant here boggles the mind.

  14. “Sound Transit wants a clear delineation between Fare Paid areas and the rest of the station.”

    So make a clear delineation. A metal rectaangle that looks like a doorway costs little, as do those “cart gates” at SeaTac Station. Non-locking two-way turnstyles probably cost less than locking ones, and certainly less than an attendant in a booth next to them. Whatever they do it should look like individual doorways or lanes, with an ORCA reader right in front of you on the side.

    Twice last week I left UW station via the elevator and was halfway to the 65 stop when I couldn’t remember if I tapped off, so I had to walk back and check. At Beacon Hill Station I’ve forgotten to tap off because no reader was visible leaving the elevator. At Kent Sounder station I’ve forgotten to tap off and I only remembered when I was on the next bus, so tapping off would have required turning around and taking another bus back and thus a long delay.

    Numerous times I can’t remember if I tapped in, because it’s usually unconscious or semi-unconscious and I’m thinking about something else. So I either have to go back up an escalator or two,, or hope that I did tap automatically.

    So we absolutely need proper fare gates or at least doorways with ORCA readers right in front of you.

    Signs on top of elevators don’t help either because people aren’t looking up if they’re familiar with the station. People can only keep one or two things in conscious attention at a time, and when they see “2 minutes to train” they’re rushing to push the elevator button or get in before the door closes, and they won’t remember to tap unless the reader is in front of them to remind them, or unless they go through something that looks like a turnstyle or lane.

    The DSTT readers need to go to UW Station. The readers do occasionally have lines, and the elevators have only two readers. And the escalators have gotten so bad that I’ve given up on them sometimes. Sometimes I go up two flights and then the third one the escalator is stopped, or sometimes I walk down an escalator on one side and then the next escalator is blocked so I have to walk around to the other side of the station. If ST is trying to minimize people using the elevators, it’s not working, and even those who do try to minimize them are giving up until the escalators are fixed.

  15. What you also get are people who missed tapping in and hop on the train (taking the risk) and then try to quickly hop off at the next station to tap in and jump back on the same train 15 seconds later.

    Like when at Westlake and see the train in the station at the bottom of the escalators and try to hop on but don’t have time to tap in. Of course you passed on the opportunity to tap in when entering the station because you might be hopping on the bus instead.

    1. So, by removing the opportunity to jump off, tap, and hold the train door, removing the platform readers in the DSTT is a feature, not a bug.

      That said, riders at the far end of 4-car trains won’t have very far to sprint to tap readers at at-grade stations, and then run back and jam the door.

    2. How does this work on tram lines in Europe that have the ticket machines on the train? Do they watch the machine for people running to tap on?

      1. Toronto’s new stretcars have that setup too. People could theoretically stand by the machine and wait for a FEO to show up. But I’ve never seen them ask for proof of fare aboard the streetcars anyways. I’ve only seen checks where people get off at Spadina station.

    3. I had one moment when I entered the DSTT on a bus, boarded a train, then realized I forgot to tap, when I was already on the train. At the next stop, I ran for the card reader, tapped, then ran back to the train.

    4. Regarding your 2nd paragraph: I’ve done that before too — like once. Usually there’s time to use the reader on the side of the platform.

      As far as delineating the fare paid zone, why not just have a line of Orca card readers with a double yellow line with the words “Fare Paid Zone” between the lines across the entry points to the stations.

  16. Know my comment was over-wrought. Though notice I didn’t demand we do anything. Just threaten to do it. Major “trigger sentence” for me is agreement with my own experience that posting Metro is willfully stubborn about posting one single sign.

    I isn’t just something where an innocent miscommunication can result in an expensive fine, or at least some public embarrassment and waste of an inspector’s time. It’s a years long institutional habit in both Metro and Sound Transit rooted in the pettiest of personal disputes and turf wars.

    One personal countermeasure. Will often buy a paper all-day pass on my first contact with LINK. Worth it.


  17. How is not having scanners on the platform going to prevent loitering? If someone wants to loiter they’re going to whether or not it’s in the fare paid area.

    This stupidity happened to me at SeaTac. I took the escalator up to the platform, saw an ST worker, and asked him where I scanned my ORCA card. He told me I had to go back down the escalator to scan it. I had luggage with me too. Ridiculous. In every other city I’ve been to you can pay on the platform.

    1. You bring up a good question of whether the only necessary fare-paid area is on the train, since that’s where FOE’s do their inspections.

      Some people will sit in the middle of the train, and then dash when the door opens.

      Some slip off the train when they see the FOEs board. Some of them try to be nonchalant while others dash for the station entrance, or jump the fence. Encouraging the dash for the station entrance or the jump is a safety hazard, compared to dashing for readers placed along the platform.

      If the programmers are clever, FOEs should then be able to tap at the same reader, and record who just dashed and tapped.

    2. My initial draft of this post didn’t include the part about loitering, because I have concerns with equating loitering to trespassing or other illegal activity. My favorite subway systems have people busking and panhandling. We have a homelessness crisis, our shelters are full, and yet dry protected tunnels are off limits to people with nowhere else to go.

      I’m not trying to say that subway platforms should become homeless shelters, but I see no problem (and some potential benefits) with loitering if the people doing it are not being disruptive. For people being disruptive or dangerous, we have transit security to remove them.

      This is a much longer discussion that I didn’t want to get into in the article.

  18. Totally agree. What about a “turnstile” setup, with Orca card readers where the ticket readers would be, and, of course, no gate.

    Seems like high throughput, a clear boundary between areas, and simple. Just a line of orca readers (and gaps) across the entrances.

  19. Turnstiles are very narrow and do not let people over a certain size go through easily. Getting more people to buy unlimited passes would be better.

    I would rather the money go towards putting bathrooms in at the stations.

    1. Most systems I’ve been on have a handicapped turnstile or two in the turnstile bank at stations to accomodate wheelchairs and people who are of larger size.

      1. I’m guilty of using the handicapped turnstile when wearing my shoulder bag. Some designs narrow individual turnstiles in order to cram as many of them as possible into a space.

  20. SF Muni turnstiles open when one taps on. It’s not a difficult arrangement if there is enough width.

  21. I think the road-median stations along MLK are pretty good for remembering to tap on and off, just because the readers are always along your walking path. The expansive mezzanines in other stations make it really easy to choose a path that doesn’t naturally have a reader within arm’s reach.

  22. Great post, but instead of spending the money on physical guides like at SeaTac Airport or turnstiles I’d just have more ORCA machines for folks to tap on and tap off. Like a few machines right at the platform level for those running to/from a train or those who don’t see the machines right away.

    Also um, Todd E Herman since say Wednesday has threatened to have his listeners ride “fare free” on the trains to “protest” the ST3 victory. Um, folks… if this is more than a flash in the pan and a rumbling of the Todd, be ready.

    1. I doubt most of his demographic (car-driving people out in the suburbs/exurbs/further) will be riding light rail anytime soon, and certainly not voluntarily.

      At least we make it hard for them, since downtown stations are impossible to find for tourists.

      1. A lot of stations are real easy to find, like Westlake – which has an entrance right under the Seattle Monorail. Ditto International District which is right next to Sound Transit World Smarts HQ.

      1. A one-day protest won’t make a difference in the bottom line. Who wants to demonstrate against ST3? People who never take it anyway. So if they ride the train once they’ll be gone and vanish without a trace. If people who normally don’t pay fares take part; that’s just the status quo. But I think there’s little overlap between the people who normally don’t pay fares and those who protest: the people who normally don’t pay fares can’t afford to, and the people who protest just hate taxes (or at least taxes that don’t go to roads). That leaves people who don’t ride the train or normally pay, participate in the protest, and then become non-paying riders after that. But how many people is that? First we need to see how many people show up for the protest. Maybe it’s just a dozen people, or maybe three people. That significantly lowers the chance that they ever ride the train outside the protest.

      2. I’d be ironic if a fare protestor rode it and then said, “hey wait a minute this is helpful to me.”

  23. I was going to bring up the SeaTac cart guards immediately after reading the post title. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought of that.

    Side note: I had no idea that the things at SeaTac were in fact cart guards. I always figured that their purpose what what this post is calling for; a way to clearly delineate fare zones.

    1. I don’t know what they mean by cart guards. What are these carts that Richard is worried about falling on the tracks? And how can somebody push something from the mezzanine onto the tracks when the tracks are on a story above.

      There’s another problem with the barriers at SeaTac, whatever you call them. People aren’t always taking a train when they walk through them; they also have to walk through them to get from the airport to the bridge to get down to the street.

      1. I think they’re talking about those “Smarte Carte” things you can rent to push your luggage around the airport. I doubt ST is more worried about them falling onto the tracks than anything else, but the vendor doesn’t want them rolling off-premises.

      2. As I pointed out above, the remedy is worse than the problem. I had no problem getting the same pieces of luggage through the gates all over New York and London, but the one place where they couldn’t make it through was SeaTac. For the place where people have luggage, they need to accommodate luggage. If there’s a problem with the Smart Carte’s, they have to have a solution that doesn’t make it impossible for a 60 year old man to take his luggage through.

    2. The problem with the layout at SeaTac/Airport station is that the cart gates/ORCA readers are actually located before the ticket vending machines. For tourists it feels like you’re entering the fare paid zone with no way to pay the fare. It was confusing to me the first time I visited Seattle.

  24. I would rather just have a big yellow line on the ground to denote the fare paid zone boundary. If it lines up directly with the readers, it would be great.

    1. On the floor may still be a problem if you’re looking ahead rather than down. Visitors look all around because they don’t know the area and don’t know where the things relevant to them are, but people who use the station a lot don’t notice those things; they focus on the one or two things that are uppermost in their mind such as, “Gotta catch my train.”, Can’t be late.”, “Must press the elevator button so that it comes quickly.” “I hope the talk I’m about to give will go well.” They get a picture in their mind of what they must remember, but is it a picture of an ORCA reader, an elevator button, a train coming in just as they reach the platform, a relationship going good/bad, bills they’re worried about, etc. To break through all that and remind people to tap, you need something visible right in front of them at eye/hand level,

  25. Would a clearer boundary of the fare-paid zone eliminate the need for the obnoxious “Proof of payment is required to ride Link Light Rail…” announcements, which the downtown tunnel speakers scream in your ears every 2-3 minutes?

    1. You can hope. I don’t know of anywhere else with such radically different fare pay locations for transit modes that depart from the same platform.

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