A recent presentation on One Center City / Convention Center expansion construction plans teased the possibility of an off-board payment zone on 3rd Ave all the way from Jackson St to Denny Way Ave, with all-door boarding. King County spokesperson Scott Gutierrez quickly threw cold water on the tease by pointing out that the plan amounted to adding RapidRide-style off-board ORCA readers at each bus stop on 3rd Ave, as an additional payment option, all-door boarding, cash payers still paying while boarding at the front, and random fare enforcement on all the buses that traverse 3rd Ave.

The county is considering other measures to reduce the impact of front-door fare payment by (1) buying out the ORCA card fees for cards distributed at county facilities and possibly other facilities in King County; and (2) eliminating the zone and peak surcharges on Metro buses.

Policy changes like eliminating paper transfers, having a cash surcharge, and making the cash fare an even $3 appear unlikely to be proposed, much less stomached by the county council. Even if they were, they still wouldn’t eliminate the impact of front-door change fumbling on 3rd Ave. Nor does it appear likely that Metro or the council will expect everyone to get an ORCA card and keep it filled with ORCA product in order to be able to board on 3rd Ave.

There is another way to remove front-door fare slow-downs on 3rd Ave, and it is something that’s been used before, to great effect: a Ride Free Zone (RFZ).

The problems with the original RFZ included excessive dwell time waiting for passengers to push to the front and pay as they exited, and the mass confusion of when people were supposed to pay while boarding or wait until alighting. Thankfully, Metro’s plan to deploy fare enforcement on all the 3rd Ave buses, but not necessarily on 3rd Ave, helps solve that problem.

A new RFZ would deliver the additional benefit of moving fare enforcement off of 3rd Ave, where it would be difficult to do on crushloaded peak-hour buses.

Those paying with ORCA will be able to tap a reader on 3rd Ave before boarding, board at any door, and then exit at any door when they reach their destination, with or without an RFZ.

Those who have paper transfers covering the time their route reaches 3rd Ave will be good to go. But expect fare enforcement officers to be strict about the time, and merciless about issuing a citation if someone is clearly using a decade-old transfer slip.

Metro’s first ticket kiosk, on east side of 3rd Ave, north of Pike St
Photo by Oran

Under a new RFZ, those paying cash might have to wait until they get to the edge of the zone to pay. They could take the first bus that goes to that zone exit, alight, and then buy a ticket at a kiosk installed at the first bus stop at the edge of the zone, or pay while boarding the bus on which they will be continuing their trip. It would take just a few kiosks to cover all the bus stops at zone exits. Ideally though, the ticket kiosks would be at all bus stops up and down 3rd Ave, and every kiosk would also feature real-time arrival listings, along with a nice place to put the ORCA readers so they don’t become free-standing street furniture obstacles.

Cash payers are the only category of riders who would act differently between the current plan and an RFZ plan. But many cash payers would welcome the return of a Ride Free Zone.

The stakeholder most likely to balk at this plan would be Metro, which would take a fare revenue hit, along with the capital and maintenance costs of ticket kiosks, which they currently don’t plan to deploy. That revenue hit would be at least partially, if not totally, ameliorated by the reduced operating costs from smoother, faster downtown bus movement.

The perpetual benefit of all-off-board payment on 3rd Ave could be a positive legacy of the convention center construction mess.

If you have other creative ways to reduce the impacts of front-door fare payment, this post is a good chance to offer them.

52 Replies to “Ride Free Zone Could Save 3rd Ave Bus Ops”

  1. expect fare enforcement officers to be strict about the time, and merciless about issuing a citation if someone is clearly using a decade-old transfer slip.

    I’ll believe it when I see it.
    What would be the cost and effectiveness of implementing a cash fare type box like I saw in Nashville. You put your money in and if you over pay it issues you a magnetic strip receipt that can be applied to your next transit fare. The magnetic stripe is also your transfer pass. The nice feature is you don’t have to worry about having exact change. You can feed in a $20 if you want and each time you board you just get a new receipt with the appropriate amount of money deducted.
    Anybody seen this system in use elsewhere?

      1. The Skagit system looks identical to what they have now in Nashville. When I was there I seem to recall you got more of a grocery store type receipt instead of a card and if memory serves had to feed it into the machine each time and it would print a new one instead of being able to “swipe”. Same basic concept though and it seems to work well. A good deal more user friendly than “exact change only”. I thing the key to making it work in Seattle would be an abundance of ticket kiosks in areas subject to boarding delays (i.e. downtown, Capitol Hill and U District).

        And I’d note both systems offer the all day fare option!

    1. How long does it take to print the ticket, and do you have to stick the ticket back into the machine to transfer? I’ve seen at least one system like that where you had to wait several seconds for the ticket to be issued or validated. Multiplied across as many cash-payers as Metro has and it would lead to serious delays beyond what we have now. I think it was VTA where I saw this although it may have been elsewhere, and total ridership was much less than Metro so there were fewer cash-payers.

      1. We have had these in Tulsa for 10 years (although we are way behind, creative agency, little funding.) You buy a pass, dip to activate first ride, swipe after that. Transfers, swipe each additional trip. Here is a detailed link, forgive me I’m not sure how to post links here. It takes less than a second if the rider knows how it works.


      2. The old system I recall in Nashville you did feed the “ticket” in each time. But it was fast. About like sticking a bill in the fare box and the new one printed out in just a few seconds. It sounds like the card/swipe system is even an improvement on this. You’d think that in a city that likes to boast about being hi-tech you could just pay with your phone. Apparently Nashville has an app for that now.

      3. Transit Go is a start. They don’t advertise it very well. It doesn’t even show up on their transit apps page. I was thinking something more along the lines of Amazon Go. Amazon just bought Whole Foods; wonder if they’re interested in a transit agency… or two :=

  2. Why was on board ORCA card readers never implemented? It’s used in other transit systems.

    1. Are you referring to rear-door ORCA readers, to complement the ORCA readers that are at the front door of all Metro buses? Here is the official answer.

      Determination has been made that rear door ORCA readers are not feasible at this time given Metro’s varied zone and special fare structure which require operator interaction with ORCA equipment to provide exceptions and correct fare categories for different riders. This continues to be an area of interest, but there is no solution currently identified and funded. Metro also continues to look for ways to increase the number of ORCA card users and off-board fare purchase.

      The flat-fare proposal appears to make rear-door ORCA readers more feasible.

      1. How are off-board ORCA readers different from back-door ORCA readers for these issues?

      2. Off-board ORCA readers are only deployed at major stops with lots of boardings. If they are only deployed downtown for a particular route, fare enforcement would only need to check fares on that bus once outbound after the zone.

        Rear-door ORCA readers would enable all-door boarding for the whole length of a line, but require fare enforcement for the whole length of a line. Perhaps it is time to try them out on some of the existing RapidRide lines, once the flat fare is in place.

  3. The RPZ seemed to slow down buses through Downtown because of the large amount of added free activity, so I’m not eager to see it come back.

    Rather than have the RFZ zone for every bus, I would suggest looking at a free Downtown circulator shuttle route. That strategy would provide a free alternative to staying on buses with crush loads through Downtown. A shuttle with larger areas to stand and few seats could allow for quick ons and offs.

      1. It’s primarily for people who can’t afford the regular fare. That was the concession to them when the Ride Free Area ended. It connects people to social and medical services, and those are generally only open 9-5.

    1. Years ago Seattle Transit had such a shuttle called the Dime Shuttle as it cost a dime to ride it.

      From its terminal on 7th Ave at Olive Way it went south on 7th Ave to Pine, west on Pine to 2nd Ave and then south to Yesler Way, east on Yesler Way to 3rd Ave and then north on 3rd Ave to Olive Way and back to its terminal at 7th Ave.

      It operated Monday through Friday but only from 10 am to 3 pm. Not sure why those limited hours but there is a history of a shuttle service for the downtown area. If I remember the service was about every 10 minutes.

      1. 10am to 2pm covers lunch break, shopping during lunch break, and part of the tourist day.

  4. Why isn’t One Center City the convention center mitigation? Instead of unrelated vanity projects as mitigation for the convention center, the convention center expansion is royally screwing over transit downtown and should be the main focus.

    1. We also want long-term mitigations like lid over I-5 at Pine and Olive and a park on part of it.

      1. ….so who pays for the maintenance and operation of the SCADA system for this massive lid over I-5? Lids seem like great solutions; however the annual energy and maintenance costs associated with fire and life safety systems of tunnels and lids are quite high.

      2. Who pays for the existing lid? I haven’t heard that maintenance costs are a problem.

    2. How about an agreement to allow rights for a new subway station entrance if or when the second tunnel line station entrances are needed? How about agreeing to construct a pedestrian tunnel connection to the current Westlake or University Street station? If WSCC is paying for a park two blocks from the site,, they should first be paying for transit rider connectivity to a station one or two blocks from the site.

    3. since the property WSCC is owned by metro, the entire sale price will eventually go to transit or other county expenses. Unfortunately the deal is being financed by the seller (king county) and is structured as a balloon payment with the convention center only making interest only payments on 1% interest for the first 4 years when buses will be slowed the most. If WSCC sale was financed through a bank or financed on normal terms there would be money for mitigation but as the deal is written metro is looking at appropriating​ 16 million just to replace the facilities that are located on site before even considering any One Center City. this is why i think the KC council needs to demand a better deal for the sale. It will be before the entire council tomorrow (6/19) not sure if there will be public testimony but I think that they will have public testimony before the sale is finally approved

  5. A significant problem with the RFZ that’s not mentioned here is that it encourages abuse in two forms: non-payment when a trip starts in the RFZ and then continues beyond it (and no practical way to enforce that), and buses in the RFZ becoming a place to spend time (by riding back and forth). Those of us who remember the RFZ also remember these problems, and they alone should be enough to prevent bringing it back.

    1. Random fare enforcement should mitigate the first problem you mention. It’s really a matter of how often each bus is checked.

      As it is, people still ride without paying. At least with an RFZ, they won’t threaten violence upon the operator first.

    2. >> and buses in the RFZ becoming a place to spend time (by riding back and forth)<<

      How is that a problem? If there's a free fare zone and that's how someone likes to kill time (or sight see, or escape from the elements), why should that bother you? I don't care why someone else is on a bus. Nor should anybody else. Ride back and forth for 14 hours straight if it makes you happy.

    3. It’s not middle-class sightseers, it’s homeless people and poor rowdy people who are smelly and loud and intimidating to other people so they’re afraid to ride the bus. They didn’t go back and forth in the Ride Free Area because that would require transferring every 10-20 minutes. They would start in the RFA and ride to the end or somewhere further out and then when they were leaving and it was time to pay they’d say they had no money.

    1. Here’s a better image:


      In fact, do this systemwide rather than just on 3rd buses. It would be expensive to implement, but with decreased dwell times, you might be able to run one less bus at a time on many routes while maintaining service frequency. That would mean lower operating costs, and long-term, even lower capital costs.

      On the Spadina streetcar, you either have a monthly pass, you purchase a ticket/transfer before you board, or you purchase a ticket/transfer using these machines after you board. There is no holding up the streetcar while someone fumbles around for change.

  6. Question, Brent.

    What is the cost of one minute of lost operating time, meaning amount of time spent motionless when last boarding passenger has cleared the door and the bus ahead is out of the way? Also cost distributed through the CBD economy of passengers’ and their employers’ time wasted?

    Shouldn’t be hard to get this info. Which should prove that a whole rush-hour’s amount of free rides out of Downtown, with front door fare collection starting at first stop past CBD boundary, should pay off with interest. One more in a long list of CFJDI’s. (Cost-Free-Just-Do-Its.)
    Mark Dublin

  7. It’s hard to take metros efforts seriously until they get rid of paper transfers to encourage orca use and eliminate fraud that they know is happening.

    Sound transit had already set a precedent for orca only transfers.

    Do it. Offer free orca cards. Move on.

    1. It’s not Metro, it’s the King County Council. They’re the ones who would have to approve changing the transfer policy.

  8. In Berlin, the entire system is proof of payment and if you need to you buy a ticket from a vending machine behind the bus driver.

    Same advantages as the RFZ in terms of boarding without barriers only it isn’t an RFZ.

    1. Same in Vienna. Other than tourists, everyone has a pass that covers transit costs that is part of their general ID card and so there is no need for a lot of fare enforcement.

  9. We spend so much money on hardware, software, time lost, salaries (and pensions?) for fare enforcement just so we can pay before we ride the bus or train. Why not get rid of fares completely and fund transit with tax dollars only?

    I’ve never seen anyone do the math, but it seems like it would be better to get rid of fares.

    1. Fares pay 20-30% of Metro’s costs per the county’s formula, so absorbing the remaining cost wouldn’t be that much overall but it would be significant enough to require a tax increase or cutting routes. (20% is if I recall the difference before the 2014 cuts vs after, although that may have included the three rounds that weren’t implemented). So the spread is what’s covering 15-minute evening service on several routes. Tallin, Estonia, has paid for tansit passes for all its residents (but not visitors) for a few years, search “tannin transit free” for reviews, including an Atlantic article. The free fares are popular with riders and enable working-class people to stretch their income, but other performance measures are mixed. The increase in ridership is a few percent, so it didn’t require doubling the bus fleet or cause people to ride around in circles all day taking up seats, as some American critics have predicted. But Tallin also doesn’t have a lot of homeless people with no place else to go except buses because they give then shelter. Still, a free fare is feasible if our government and public are ever ready for it. King County is already talking about buying out the ORCA fee to encourage usage; that’s the same concept in principle although it’s a one-time help rather than ongoing, and it doesn’t benefit those who already have ORCA.

      1. It most certainly does benefit those who already have ORCA, by making our trips faster. A person having an ORCA card makes a little bit more effort to keep their card loaded. The benefits accrue to the rest of the riders, and to the taxpayers.

        Metro’s gross fare recovery is 31% of operating costs. Net fare recovery is clearly less, but they don’t track that figure. 31% is largely a political figure used to impress transit-skeptical politicians that riders have skin in the game. As I keep saying, net fare recovery would be a more useful datapoint by which to judge the utility of having fare collection at all, and to see whether fare collection is being done efficiently.

        There is a certain circular lack of logic on the buses-as-homeless-shelters. Are those who fear the homeless riding around all day on buses ready to pony up for shelters, and allow more housing to be built in their neighborhoods?

    2. Because then you would have all those meddlesome poor people riding transit. And we don’t want them on transit, at least according to Mike Orr.

      1. It’s not about ridding the bus of poor people, it’s about getting rid of the anti-social behavior. There are lots of poor people riding the bus that you would never know were poor, probably the vast majority, in fact. They pay their fare, they sit quietly, and they don’t exhibit threatening behavior. Disruptive people are less likely to pay, and if you implement something that at least pretends to enforce payment, it reduces the amount of uncomfortable craziness that’s on board. Ride Link, then a geographically comparable Metro route, and it’s immediately clear that even a low probability threat of fare enforcement improves everyone’s ride experience.

        If this was Oslo, Tokyo, Dubrovnik, Singapore, or Tallin, then yes, by all means let us have free transit. However, until we somehow magically make it shameful to be thieving, drunken, or crazy jerks in public, then we can’t have anything free, less it be made unusable for everyone else. There are lots of democracies much poorer than the US that won’t tolerate what we put up with.

      2. I was just citing what would be a common objection. My own opinion is that we should create adequate housing for all income levels ASAP. Then nobody would be spending all day in parks, libraries, and buses because they have nowhere else to go. And they’d be better able to get a job and hold onto it. (Those who refuse housing are a small minority, and a separate issue.)

        As for bad behavior, a lot of that ultimately comes down to stress. People should be responsible, and their parents should teach them that, but at the same time, when your life is constantly insecure and subject to upheaval, it’s one stress after another and people get frustrated and impatient and that leads to bad behavior. Their behavior is their responsibility, but at the same time, if we ensured that everybody had housing and food and medical care and affordable transit and education and a basic income regardless of their status or employment — like Scandinavia has more or less — then these stresses would disappear and so the bad behavior linked to them would disappear too.

        Third-world countries have transit fares around 20 or 30 cents so that the public can afford them.

  10. Brent,

    While I’ll certainly agree that this would optimize performance on Third Avenue and it’s an excellent example of “thinking outside the box”, there is not even a snowball’s chance in hell that the County Council will make cash payers get off the bus at Denny Way and get on a following one in order to pay their fare.

    I think you know that.

    1. Yes, that’s really not going to happen. It would also be counterproductive to have packed-full buses at rush hour wait for half the bus to get off or for a few people to push their way to the doors in full aisles. That’s what used to happen at Campus Parkway before Link: the bus had to sit for two minutes while people made their way off. But in that case they actually wanted to get off at Campus Parkway. This would be unnecessarily forcing them off for an off-board payment ritual.

  11. Consider Denver’s 16th Street Shuttle, free since 1982, runs every 2 minutes between the Capital Grounds and Union Station. The shuttles are 4-door, all Low-floor hybrid drivetrains burning natural gas pretty efficiently. Bus and LRT lines cross this shuttle route attracting patrons who pay to ride those lines, yet are pleasantly relieved of the need to pay on the Shuttle. Nevermind. Seattle is run by ruthless business interests counting every goddamn dime and sticking it to the public wherever they can.

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