Metro bus fares in 2010 / photo by Oran

Correction: The post originally stated transit would be free after 7 pm on New Year’s Eve. Actually, only Metro buses and the Seattle Streetcars will be free during that period.

BTW, Link Light Rail will be operating later hours after midnight New Year’s Eve. The last southbound train departs UW Station at 1:56 am. The last northbound train departs Angle Lake Station at 1:20 am.

Starting January 14, downtown traffic will suck, far worse than it ever has before. Too many buses, all packed to the gills, will be (in many cases due to political cowardice) stuck in that traffic. Many of you will ignore the beseechments to bike or work at home for three weeks, and will share in that misery.

I was delighted to see Erica Barnett re-raise the idea of bringing back the Ride Free Zone. King County Service Development Manager Bill Bryant quickly dismissed the idea based on false premises, including that it would lead to restoration of the mess that was Pay-after-you-shove-to-the-front-to-exit. Ironically, Barnett was a vocal critic of the original Ride Free Zone. There is likely not enough time between now and January 14 for Metro to conduct a clear-headed analysis of RFZ 2.0, featuring fare enforcement on the outside fringe of the zone instead of making everyone’s ride home an uncomfortable pre-2012-style slog. But it is worth studying for future deployment, or testing before and/or during Carpocalypse.

In the meantime, we will get to experience the now annual tradition of free Metro bus and streetcar rides after 7 pm on New Year’s Eve.

Imagine if transit became free every day after 7 pm, or even 6 pm. That might be the enticement needed to get some to delay their transit trips to outside of crushload hours, compared to the now-eliminated ineffectual off-peak discount. During Carpocalypse, that might be a very useful form of congestion pricing. Wait until the daily period of minimum breathing room on transit is over, and ride free.

Hopefully, such a program would not result in fewer transit passes being sold, or companies withdrawing from the Business Passport program responsible for roughly half of all fare revenue.

If timed properly, the program would also enable very-low-income riders to get home or to shelter — a lifeline during winter months.

One possible side effect of such a program might be to create the ridership demand necessary to justify improved evening service.

And really, bars are open throughout the year, so this gets drunk people home without having to drive, every day.

This is in no way a substitute for more red bus lanes, but in a political environment where the powers that be won’t even look at granular options to paint 3rd Ave half-blocks red where there are no loading zones or parking lots to consider, we have to be open to more ideas.

So, throw your off-the-wall ideas out there. Maybe obstinate forces (like downtown business leaders who are sentencing their bus-riding employees to be stuck in Carpocalypse) will listen and something will stick, or get unstuck.

Finally, a word on messaging: I find Peter’s term “Carpocalypse” a more effective way to get people’s attention that a traffic typhoon is coming, than the gentle, snowflakey phrase “Seattle Squeeze”. When I first heard the phrase, I wasn’t sure if it referred to the housing crisis, a cross-culturally acceptable form of greeting, or a patented sportsball play. The messaging needs to be a little less Seattle passive progressive, and refer in some way to cars being the problem. The simple geometry of the problem is that there will need to be fewer cars on downtown roads after the toll tunnel opens than there are now.

50 Replies to “Carpocalypse Grab Bag: Free Ride Hours?”

  1. Too many buses, all packed to the gills, will be (in many cases due to political cowardice) stuck in that traffic.

    Well, we used to have a Bus Tunnel that worked really well. But a funny thing happened on the way to the airport…

    1. I remember those days. When it snowed, the airport bus (route 194) was, without any notice in the tunnel, moved to the surface. Why, I do not know. After waiting close to an hour for my bus that never came, I had to take a cab to catch my flight. And then, cabs refused my hails, because rules (that I didn’t know). I was fortunate to find someone who had called a cab, and we shared the ride and fare. Metro didn’t have joint ops to blame for that communications failure.

      But at least the convention center boosters waited until the toll tunnel is open for business before evicting the buses. Otherwise, they could have stayed until the new track work begins at ID/CS and the approaching area to the south, which is happening in 2020, after ST gets about a dozen Siemens LRVs up and running.

      Another point of planning failure: WSDOT construction will be closing the Montlake freeway bus stations before an appreciable number of the new LRVs are in service. Some may be wondering why the SR 520 restructure is waiting until then, but I think it is because ST got its ridership predictions correct, and knew it needed more deployable capacity to absorb transferring riders.

  2. I think calling it a “ride free zone” is a mistake. It is understandable that Bryant thought that would entail paying as you exit. It implies there is a (downtown) zone where you can ride for free. But if you exit that area, you have to pay. I think what we want is a “Board Free” zone. If you board a bus downtown, you don’t have to pay. That is pretty simple.

    I don’t think it would cost Metro (and other agencies) that much. If you make a transfer with another Metro bus, you’ve already paid. Commuters often have monthly or yearly passes. At worse you lose half your revenue from downtown trips (the rider has to get there somewhere) but my guess is you lose a lot less.

    As soon as the ORCA readers are added, we transition to all off-board payment (for Third Avenue at least). I could easily see us transition to that approach for the other downtown streets, and the system as a whole (as they’ve done in other cities).

    1. “Ride Free Zone” and “Board Free Zone” are two clearly different concepts. RFZ would still mean that you have to exit before leaving the zone if you haven’t paid. One downside to the RFZ is educating riders that if they intend to travel beyond the zone, they should pay before boarding in the zone. Also, it would be more limited in size — the portion of 3rd Ave with off-board ORCA readers, which means it wouldn’t be useful until after the new ORCA readers are installed, and fare enforcement on the much larger armada begins, in March.

      A variation on the theme is having Metro simply de-police 3rd Ave, and perform the fare inspections further out. Many routes will be too crushloaded on 3rd Ave for FEOs to do their job, anyway.

      A BFZ limited to 3rd Ave would mean free rides mostly for local riders, which SDoT could potentially fund with its bus service budget.

      Of course, every free ride program the Durkan administration creates provides cover for ditching multi-modal improvements in Move-Seattle-funded capital projects. Trying a BFZ temporarily may provide cover for not doing the more effective application of red paint when it is needed most. Either way, let’s be clear to the deciders that we’re not suggesting riders pay when they exit.

      1. Oh, and one more benefit of a BFZ, at least until the ORCA readers are deployed…

        Those Metro operators who would be performing ORCA Boarding assistance could be driving buses instead.

      2. “Ride Free Zone” and “Board Free Zone” are two clearly different concepts.

        Exactly my point. Yet Bryant was criticized for assuming that “Ride Free Zone” meant “Ride Free Zone”, not “Board Free Zone”, or even “Off Board Payment Zone” which is what the proponents obviously want.

        It is fairly simple. There are lots of ways of setting up the fare system. You can have off board payment, but not unless you have ORCA readers on the street, or in the middle of the buses. Neither will be installed soon. Thus we won’t have off board payment for the bulk of downtown trips.

        You can have a Ride Free Zone with any bus route. But if you have a Ride Free Zone, then you have to collect the fare outside of that zone. That means collecting it as you exit.

        Or you can have a board free zone. The board free zone can be after a certain time (as proposed) or just all day long. This means that you simply don’t collect a fare as someone boards downtown. They can exit anywhere and just not pay. It will certainly cost Metro some money, but far less than half of the fares for downtown buses (as explained earlier).

        Only one option can be implemented immediately, and that is a board free zone. Once we start getting ORCA readers (and maybe some readers on the buses themselves) we can evolve towards a full off board payment system (like the more sophisticated systems on the West Coast) .

      3. “The project requires the purchase and installation of 450 Bus Mobile Validators to allow riders to TAP at all doors. This will cost $990,000”

        Metro has no budget for that.

      4. Having thought about it a few more hours, I can see how both “Ride Free Zone” and “Board Free Zone” are not intuitively comprehendible.

        So, let me offer FORfr33 W — Free Outbound Rides from 3rd for 3 weeks.. Make all outbound rides free for the length of the trip. Then use the freed-up ORCA Boarding Assistants to drive extra service.

        Have SDOT cover the lost fare revenue, roughly $1-2 million, for the three-week period, since nearly all the routes on 3rd are intra-Seattle routes. Metro could reimburse the estimated service cost savings to SDoT’s bus service fund after Carpocalypse is over.

      5. If making a chunk of rides free an advertised entitlement for three weeks is too much for Metro to swallow, at least be prepared to declare a dwell-time emergency, and halt fare collection downtown and fare enforcement temporarily.

        ORCA Boarding Assistants would switch from collecting fares to letting the crowd know, and getting them to board swiftly at both or all three doors.

  3. I don’t not use transit when it’s late because it’s too expensive — I don’t use it because it doesn’t get me to where I need to go in a timely matter. I’m not taking Lyft or Uber to save money.

    You know what would really get me to ditch using cars all the time? If there were buses running into the wee hours of the morning on Friday and Saturday nights. You see it a lot in Europe; when I was in Berlin transit was 24h from Friday-Monday morning.

    1. Metro’s new(ish) night owl network is a vast improvement over what they used to have, but yeah, most people are not going to wait around for a bus for 30 minutes to an hour plus after midnight- they’re either going to drive, use Lyft/Uber, or they’ll head home while transit is still running at usable headways.

    2. I’m one of the weirdos that would wait around for it, except it doesn’t help me since I’m coming back from Redmond heading for Burien. The only reason I can stay out until 10:30 is my friend’s apartment is literally right next to a 545 stop.

      1. My biggest gripe about Eastside bus service I not the nearly complete lack of buses after midnight, but so many routes dropping to hourly headways on weekends, as early as 7 or 8 PM, sometimes even earlier.

        Fortunately, Uber has been offering me some unbelievable promotions, blunting the problem at least in the short term, at times, offering me Express Pool rides to/from Seattle for barely more than the cost of gas+bridge toll, but in the long run, such deals are probably not sustainable, so I still want better transit service.

        For the medium term, I have my hopes set on service restructures. I live near downtown Kirkland, and a 255 that ran every 15 minutes to 10 PM (then every 30 minutes to midnight) everyday would make a huge difference – even with a forced transfer to Link in the U district.

      2. The abysmal headways would be tolerable if that was something you could plan around. The big problem is when you’re forced to depend on a transfer. Maybe you can find someting to do while waiting 30-40 minutes to go catch your first bus. But if then you’re stuck for an hour because you miss a close transfer then life really sucks. The only reasonable solution, other than free unicorns for everybody, is for eastside transit to concentrate only on those higher density areas that then can actually serve. unusable transit to lots of places is… well, not much use to anybody.

  4. Question (probably for Glenn In Portland), how did fare payments on Trimet’s Fareless Square work, when going into or leaving Downtown Portland?

    1. Buses: You said “Fareless Square” (or in practice, just “Fareless” to the driver when boarding. There was no system to verify whether or not you were actually getting off within the Square, except if the driver remembered you they might yell at you about it if you cheated. Buses were also technically Proof of Payment outside the Square, however, at some point the fare inspectors quit inspecting buses and focused solely on the LRT due to budget cuts.

      LRT: Fareless Square worked fine with the POP system, as there would simply be no inspections while the train was within the Square.

      1. Whoops! When I used it, I simply boarded the bus without payment, and got off at Union Station. I didn’t know I was supposed to say something.

      2. They actually never really stopped fare inspection on the buses, and still do it from time to time. As best as i can tell, the way it works is that if the driver recognizes someone not paying a fare a few times that particular trip gets tagged for an inspection.

        As to weather you were supposed to say “fareless” or not depended on how badly the bus driver glared at you when you got on and didn’t pay the fare.

  5. I support

    a) Statewide initiative on a payroll tax to replace transit fares

    b) “Imagine if transit became free every day after 7 pm, or even 6 pm. That might be the enticement needed to get some to delay their transit trips to outside of crushload hours, compared to the now-eliminated ineffectual off-peak discount. During Carpocalypse, that might be a very useful form of congestion pricing. Wait until the daily period of minimum breathing room on transit is over, and ride free.”

    Believe me, even if transit was half-fare after 6 PM it’d be a huge INDUCEMENT to use transit for evening events & for errands. Especially as King County Metro and even Community Transit & Pierce Transit runs well into the evening.

    1. Free I don’t support, especially at night, because the fare acts as a behaviour control. Remember the old FRZ was orignally 24 hours, then was limited to 4 AM – 9 PM and eventually to 6 AM – 7 PM before being eliminated due to people who acted up.

      OTOH, half-price off-peak has advantages. If *everyone* gets a half-fare during off-peak hours, that satisfies the FTA half-fare requirement for seniors and persons with disabilities so there would be no need for a seperate discount for them, or for the special ID cards, etc.

      1. The point of a BFZ or RFZ, at least for Carpocalypse, isn’t to draw ridership. To the extent it does, that is a nice side effect. As others have pointed out, that is more a function of transit being able to get people around faster than cars.

        The point isn’t to make the fare rules even harder to follow. The point is to make boarding as fast as possible, which means fare payment cannot be happening at the front doors of buses downtown during Carpocalypse.

      2. I hope we can all support at the least, “Half-price off-peak has advantages. If *everyone* gets a half-fare during off-peak hours, that satisfies the FTA half-fare requirement for seniors and persons with disabilities so there would be no need for a seperate discount for them, or for the special ID cards, etc.”

        This would severely reduce congestion on our transit net, and I would also argue our road network. With ST3 crawling along when what ST3 needs is a serious sense of urgency, we need to take steps to keep our nets humming along.

  6. There is way too much press being given to the viaduct closure and not nearly enough to the tunnel changes in March. The194 worked far better to the airport than link ever has but we are afflicted with so many light rail cheerleaders now.

    1. Really, I guess you prefer the 194 with only 30 minutes service weekdays peak hours, nights and all day weekends with NO service after 7pm Sundays and Holidays. (it was 15 minutes weekday midday). Yes, 194 might been faster, but LINK provides more frequency and easier boarding/deboarding. So, what tradeoff would you preferred?

      1. Warren: Route 194 could have been frequent. Sims and Schell made such a network suggestion to the ST board in 1999. In 2001, the ST board chose the south-first initial segment instead.

    2. So will you take Uber in the tunnel? There will be no buses in the tunnel. Metro’s 2040 plan has one tunnel route, a Fauntleroy-WSJ-SLU express.

      “The194 worked far better to the airport than link ever has”

      The 194 with no traffic was 29 minutes vs Link’s 39. Link’s time will decrease by five minutes or so when buses leave the tunnel. The 194 was vulnerable to traffic jams on the freeway which oould make you miss your flight. Link runs every 10 minutes until 10pm and 15 minutes thereafter while the 594 was every 15-30 minutes until 9:30pm. Frequency makes up for speed in total travel time and passenger satisfaction, especially if you’re transferring from another route. Coming from anywhere other than downtown required transferring. There was never any bus solution between Rainier Valley and SeaTac until Link started.

    3. Um, what? I remember getting in on a “late” flight shortly after moving to Seattle (I think we landed around 8PM) to discover the 194 no longer running. I had to slog back to Seattle on the 174, which arrived late (I think it was only half-hourly too?) and took well over an hour. I then had to watch the half-hourly 358 pull away and wait for the next one.

      Give me that train any day – maybe the bus was faster in the very best case, but the train is much faster in the average case, and has allowed Metro to invest in frequent bus routes connecting to it as well. Even better, these improvements help more than just airport travel.

    4. Hoping for a 1 seat ride to Seatac I spent a day waiting for the 194 on Capital Hill but to my chagrin it never arrived. Never again I said. Needless to say I missed my flight. But they say: never say never so maybe in a couple years I’ll try riding it from Northgate to the airport and see if I makes it this time.

    5. Besides being chronically late, and getting stuck in airport traffic, and not running at all after 7 PM, the 194 just didn’t have the capacity for all those people going from downtown to the airport with luggage.

      I recall one time around the Christmas holiday season when I actually got left behind in the downtown tunnel because the 194 had no room for me. Every person on that bus would have not filled even a single Link car.

    6. “I remember getting in on a “late” flight shortly after moving to Seattle (I think we landed around 8PM) to discover the 194 no longer running. I had to slog back to Seattle on the 174”

      I’ve had to do that a few times too. My plan arrived after the 194 ended, it was still only mid-evening, so I had to take the 174, and it stopped at every single stop along the way except at Boeing so it took a long time.

  7. So, throw your off-the-wall ideas out there.

    How about a temporary Sounder North extension through Seattle to Renton and a temporary Sounder South extension north to the Ballard Bridge? The track is already occupied by the trains, so it isn’t as if this would consume a huge amount of additional track slots.

    You can’t take lanes away from the auto traffic, and you can’t add anything more to the transit tunnel, so that really only leaves the BNSF main line as the one remaining route to add capacity through downtown Seattle.

    1. I’ve been envisioning this as well but with a few more stops at Georgetown on the southern portion, and stops for the northern portion at Bell Street (Belltown), Thomas Street (LQA), Helix Pedestrian Bridge (Expedia/Smith Cove), and Dravis. All the north end stops have existing bridges crossing the tracks, so a bulk of the infrastructure required for a station is already there. Throw up some scaffolding stairs from the tracks to the bridges on either side and we’d have pretty good temporary stations. If it turns out to be a success, design then to be permanent stations that are ADA accessible.

      The Ballard bridge terminus on the interbay side already has a Rapid Ride stop there with stairs and ramps to the tracks so transfer can easily be accommodated.

      1. The Ballard Bridge winds up being a bottleneck, and one of the suggestions I made some time back was to restore the old NP drawbridge and convert the Fred Meyer parking lot into the Sounder South terminal station.

        With a move to make the new Link bridge there instead this will never happen.

        The problem with making only Sounder North stop at the Smith Cove stations is it doesn’t serve those trying to get through downtown Seattle.

  8. How about a ‘”Ditch the Car” moratorium on collecting fares for All Transit Trips during Carpocalypse?
    Here’s an opportunity to introduce non-transit riders to the alternatives available for very little cost – a big promotion if you will.
    Consider that transit fares pay for only a small cost of running the system and much of that cost is wrapped up in ‘fare collection’ anyway. Strip out those costs, and transit probably only recovers 10% of it’s total costs (capital and operating), with the general public paying the other 90% through a variety of taxes.
    What’s the harm in inviting the people who pay most of the bills, to try transit during this period of maximum pain with no strings attached. Just jump on any bus or train and go where ever you please.

    1. Lets put the 49% of commuters that use Public Transit back into autos and then lets hear the screams.
      Carpocalypse becomes ParkingLotpocalypse.

    2. Brent said: “So, throw your off-the-wall ideas out there”

      What’s wrong with suspending fare collection of all types, at all times, in all areas, for all riders for a few weeks or even a few months to let others try it out and give transit a chance to flex it’s muscle? Sure, routes will get crowded (that’s a good thing, No?), and some will just ride around aimlessly (rolling tent city?), and fare revenue will take a hit. So what!

      In 2017, combined capital and operating expenses for Metro and Sound Transit was $2.738 Bil, and fare revenues were $316 Mil, resulting in a recovery rate of 11.5%, before fare collection costs are deducted from fares collected.

      In effect it’s certainly not a free ride for anyone. Just a ‘Pre-paid Ride” – Thank You.

      1. If routes are already crowded and leaving people at stops during peak of peak, which is true for several routes & occasionally Link, then no, getting more crowded is not necessarily the right thing. That’s why it’s much more compelling to offer free transit after, say, 7pm, rather than all day.

        The rolling tent city is a real concern and I have yet to see anyone put forward a serious solution. From what I have read, this issue has been ignored by all the free-transit advocates.

      2. Any business will tell you there needs to be initial capital cost before success over the long haul. Didn’t a 1-2 miles of 520 recently cost billions and a 3/4 mile downtown tunnel cost near as much. They too will need time for investment returns.

        Once Link is relatively finished the return will be over 100 plus years and not just over 2017 or any other single year.

      3. mic and I have a similar attitude toward Metro’s misleading “fare recovery” figures. Metro ought to be using net fare recovery, not gross fare recovery, as a performance measure. Gross fare recovery is just a political tool to show that bus riders have skin in the game. If we find out from the more honest net figure that most of fare revenue is paying the costs of excess dwell time, cash handling, costs to run the ORCA system, ORCA Boarding Assistants, fare enforcement, reduced-fare card distribution and handling, paying off L&I claims and other expenses related to fare disputes, the time costs to human service agencies to handle giving out free tickets and passes, etc, then maybe what we will find out is that the main contribution of fare collection to the transit system is keeping ridership down.

        Give us the honest Net Fare Recovery figure, Metro, so the public knows what fare revenue really does. Or is it the County Council, which has had a strong hand in politicizing performance reports and forcing pork-barrel politics into route design, that is covering up the much lower Net Fare Recovery?

      4. Hear, hear
        Net fare recovery would an interesting accounting exercise just to see the results. I think we would all be astounded how little fare revenues go towards wages and fuel.
        If keeping ridership down is the goal, then they’re in the wrong business.

    3. That’s what I was getting at up above, although at a much smaller scale. If you allowed people to ride the buses for free, you wouldn’t lose that much money. If you allowed them to ride for free from downtown (a board free area) then you would speed up the buses, and lose an even a smaller amount.

      You probably wouldn’t gain as many new riders, but my guess is you wouldn’t gain that many if it was all free, either. I don’t think anyone drives downtown based on price. But a “free board area” downtown would make boarding easier, which is the main thing. If boarding is fast (especially downtown) then it goes a long way towards avoiding bus congestion.

      1. Here’s an idea that would make buses faster *and* safer:

        All-door boarding with POP like San Francisco MUNI has. Orca readers at both the front and back doors. Drivers would still sell transfers but would otherwise have no involvement in enforcing fares.

        According to one paper I read, a 3.8% POP inspection rate gives the best balance between enforcement costs and enhanced revenue collection. POP also gives troublemakers notice that the authorities may board any bus at any time, keeping a lid on other types of bad behaviour.

      2. It won’t help with Carpocalypse, but how about a pilot project of installing backdoor readers on one line, perhaps the E Line, and see how it goes for a few months?

  9. One good surprise from Mayor Durkan’s press conference was stationing police officers at intersections all over downtown to direct traffic. Hopefully, that means all the lane cheaters will not get waved through, and will follow the Mayor’s moral beseechment: “Do not drive on 3rd Ave.”

    I hope whatever tactics are meant to be deployed at the beginning of Carpocalypse will actually be deployed ahead of time, to see the unintended side effects. That goes especially so for manual traffic direction. It would be nice to know the ripple effects of that approach on traffic throughout downtown, including if it messes with bus flow on other streets.

    Trying it ahead of time might also lead SPD and SDoT to figure out clever algorithms to minimize those ripple effects.

  10. As far as free boarding, free fares, whatever crayola you want to take out of the box, I don’t think it’s a good idea because of the undocumented addressees that have become even more of a problem in Free-attle since the RFZ died. I don’t think it would help much because people are already straining the limits of the transit system. Instead of the carrot it’s time to talk softly but bring out the big stick; congestion pricing for the downtown area. Never let a good crises go to waste, right? it’s time to realize that it’s only going to get worse if the number of cars in DT isn’t drastically reduced. Durkin, to her credit, has brought this up before. NOW seems like the best time for an “I told you so” moment.

    “It’s the (market) economy, stupid”. Wasn’t that a democratic slogan ;-)

    1. While waiting for the Durkan administration to sort out how to implement congestion pricing, we could just raise the price of public parking downtown and raise taxes on private parking.

  11. I’m just curious how many of you know people who are driving at downtown at peak hours because the bus is too expensive. That just intuitively doesn’t check out in my view. Anecdotally, everyone I know who drives to work in central areas is doing so to save time, not money. In fact some already have a free pass from their employer.

    Fares generate about $160 million/year revenue for Metro. Sure, some of that is spent on fare collection, but at the end of the day, lower fares aren’t going to get the people causing most congestion out of their cars. Congestion pricing, higher parking taxes, reducing free parking provided by employers, and hey – even just more congested roadways, are likely much more effective tools. And, some have the additional benefit of generating, not forfeiting, revenue for public agencies. This money could be spent on transit priority measures and service that would start to change the calculus so that it is harder to save huge amounts of time by driving.

    1. I agree entirely. Time is money.So anything you do to make transit more efficient relative to driving the more people will use it. More fare revenue. means more things you can due to save people time; like hastening the deployment of ORCA readers.The more convenient and time efficient you make it (relative to driving) the more ridership you get which in turn generates more revenue. Of course the major pot of money that could be used to improve transit and get the most bang for the buck is in deleting under performing routes.I know, gramma has to get to her dialysis treatment on Tuesday afternoons; that’s a DSHS issue, not a Transit mandate. I’m sure it would be a lot more efficient to pay gramma’s Uber/Lyft fare than using Metro dollars.

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