Until 2012, Seattle had the Ride Free Area, a certain section of downtown Seattle (including the entire DSTT) where one could board any bus through any door, exit any bus through any door, and not have to pay a fare. Funded by the city of Seattle, this was meant to make it easier for people to get around who couldn’t afford a fare, to make it more feasible to make short trips through downtown without a car and without needing to pay full fare for a short trip, and to speed boarding in the busy downtown core and the DSTT (which, at the time, also had bus service in addition to Link). In practice, this resulted in a complex payment arrangement, where you sometimes pay when you board, and sometimes pay when you exit, depending on which side of the RFA your bus was on. And because King County Metro ran many bus routes into downtown Seattle from every part of the county. You could take a bus from Eastgate to Issaquah, or the Federal Way Transit Center to Twin Lakes Park and Ride, and need to pay when you exit if you are taking a bus that happens to be originating in Seattle. This created lots of confusion, and many people just paid as normal, and some undoubtedly exited the bus at the back door without the operator noticing and evaded their fare.
The RFA applied to everything but light rail trains (and I think the Seattle Streetcar as well), which is weird since that is the easiest mode to make free for a specific area. With buses out of the tunnel and trains remaining at 10 minute frequency midday, most of the intra-downtown trips in the DSTT will move to third avenue, overcrowding the already busy corridor and under-utilizing the tunnel. ST is not likely to add midday frequency to the tunnel until East Link opens in 2023, so that leaves four years of significant under-utilization of the tunnel.
One solution that both increases utilization of the tunnel and achieves the goals of the RFA? Make train trips within the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel fare free.
Making a “ride free area” is easy to do with trains; simply make all trip pairs within the tunnel fare free, and don’t do fare enforcement in the tunnel. Riders who are riding within the tunnel don’t need to tap their card at all, and this can make it easier to catch a train if they are in a hurry. This will also increase throughput a little bit during rush hour. It provides an incentive to wait for the train during off-peak hours, since it might take a little more waiting, but you can get a free ride for the wait. And it makes things quicker for fare enforcement, which doesn’t need to check every rider on a train within downtown, but can simply wait until a train exits Westlake Station or International District/Chinatown station, and check riders which are still on the train. There could also be an automated reminder that if you didn’t tap their card, then you need to deboard, tap, then wait for the next train if you wish to continue past the tunnel, which should minimize confusion and give people warning before they are subject to fare enforcement. This would also move some impromptu trips off of busy third avenue, and make better use of the tunnel.