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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.

17 Replies to “RFA Revival: Make Link Free in the Tunnel”

  1. Excellent idea. Worth noting is that downtown is the most difficult section for fare enforcement. The stops are close together, and there are lots of people coming and going. It would make sense to focus enforcement on other parts of the system, like the long stretch to Capitol Hill, or the part between Rainier Valley and the airport.

    1. I think this is why ST is or proposing that the platform be a fare paid zone. Now, if they’d just install turnsills…

  2. I don’t think free Link fares downtown would accomplish that much. Unlike buses, paying Link fares does not delay the trains. If it makes things easier for fare enforcement officers to not do ticket checks downtown, that can be an internal decision, while the public is still told that boarding the train at any stop requires a fare.

    Also, even if the DSTT were free, you’d still have to have ticket machines and Orca card readers there for people traveling longer distances, which I think would create confusion.

    I also don’t think an RFA downtown would make much of a difference to most riders, anyway. Those who arrive downtown by bus will have free Orca transfers, so RFA doesn’t make any difference. It’s only those who either live downtown or drive downtown that benefit might from the RFA.

    1. It is also the people who work downtown, and take transit in the middle of the day from one end of downtown to the other. Maybe they work at the south end, but want to go up the street to meet someone for lunch, or do some shopping. Or maybe they have a business meeting somewhere up there. For many, the cost of the fare is meaningless (they have a monthly pass). In that case, this costs Sound Transit nothing. For others, this little nudge makes taking the train preferable.

      You save money and speed up the system in little ways. You speed up the buses (where dwell times change based on the number of people who board). You have a section where enforcement simply doesn’t occur. You make getting on the train just a little bit easier (you don’t have to find an ORCA reader, and remember to tap off).

  3. If it makes things easier for fare enforcement officers to not do ticket checks downtown, that can be an internal decision

    I think ST’s decision with respect to fare enforcement in the bus tunnel is to make the platform a fare paid zone.

    1. Even if it saves us all money? Even if makes it faster for people to get from one place to another? Even if it helps businesses downtown?

  4. No, transit cannot be free. Even if we could afford to make it free, it shouldn’t ever be free.

    1. Even if it saves us all money? Even it makes for faster transit or helps downtown businesses?

  5. It occurs to me that if you commute, you most likely have a monthly pass. Therefore, you can use Link for short trips DT “for free” (incl in the cost of your pass). But if you’re a SOV driver then you actually would get to use Link for free. Something of a disincentive to actually use transit.

    1. There are a lot of people who commute who have ORCA passes that involve a charge (what I would call “regular ORCA cards”. There are also plenty of people with regular ORCA cards who go downtown and would never dream of driving there. There are also plenty of people who live downtown, and have regular ORCA cards. I really doubt there are many people who would suddenly stop taking the bus (or train) downtown, just because they can get around there without paying. The ones that drive will continue driving, and they the ones that don’t, won’t. The difference is that more people would use the train to get from one end of the other, instead of calling a cab, or riding a bus.

    2. You could see it a different way though. For some SOV commuters who never considered transit, they may hear that you can get to the other side of downtown on the free subway, and give it a try during lunch. Then they may discover that they can park at Angle Lake for free, then just take this train for $3, rather than drive all the way here and park for $20. If that person got a pass, I don’t think they would think of it as having to pay for his free subway ride.

  6. Might sound like a good idea in theory. However, you will get riders who board in the DSTT and forget to deboard before leaving the DSTT, and did not tap or pay fare and getting caught. Further more, LINK trains already have an overcrowding problem during rush hours and some post event times. Might be something to consider when ST can provide more capacity (aka more trips) in the future and definitely not during the Jan-Mar 2020 single track closure (12 minute frequency with 4 car trains).

  7. A Seattle Times commentary Friday advocated restoring the ride-free area.

    When Link started in 2009 ST asked the public whether it should participate in the ride-free area. It would have risen the base fare 25c. The majority response was no. I supported that position because I didn’t want to pay 25c more for every trip bust so some people could ride a few stops downtown for free.

    The RFA was created in the 1970s when downtown was decaying and Seattle’s population was falling. It was called “Magic Carpet” service and was intended to attract shoppers to downtown, allow workers to ride free to restaurants for lunch, and address downtown circulation problems (meaning cars, and people not willing to pay the fare to ride a few stops). The RFA was 24 hours for at least the first decade, so you always paid on the non-downtown side of the trip. Sometime in the 90s or 00s Metro switched to a 7pm rule, ostensibly for “safety”, although I never saw much difference in the riders before and after. So then it was still pay as you leave in the daytime but after 7pm it switched to pay as you enter and the back door would not open at all. That confused me repeatedly for years because I’m used to thinking geographically, not temporally, so I repeatedly forgot what time it was and ended up going to the farebox twice or waiting at the back door to exit and the driver made me go to the front. So if we return to the RFA or a Link RFA, it must be 24 hours.

    Portland did what the author is suggesting: MAX was free downtown for several years while buses weren’t, so the opposite of our situation. I don’t know how well it worked but they later repealed it.

    1. Also, Seattle funded the RFA. But the subsidy didn’t keep up with Metro’s rising costs in later years, so by the time of the 2012 recession debate in the county council, it was a net loss to Metro. There had long been critics of the RFA for a variety of reasons, so the county eliminated it in a grand bargain that also passed a 2-year tax surcharge to maintain service hours in the recession, and also repealed the 40/40/20 rule that forced most cuts to occur in Seattle and most expansions to occur in the suburbs, and told Metro to base future route changes on its new performance metric guidelines.

      The Times article says that while the RFA is a cost, it’s only a bit more than the cost of the free “social-service van” that replaced it, and it could replace the SLU streetcar (which is empty he says) and the CCC (which he doubts will live up to its ridership projections).

      I’m still leaning against an RFA or Link RFA.

      1. I, too, would lean against making the tunnel an RFA. In a perfect world it would be a great idea, but we live in Seattle 2019, which is not a perfect world. When Metro eliminated the surface street RFA it was immediately noticeable how much more functional the buses became in downtown Seattle. The bus ride through the downtown RFA was often an unpleasant crush load that began at the northern RFA boundary and continued until the southern RFA boundary. Yes, ST trains have more capacity than a bus, but creating an RFA will lead to confusion and disputes. ST already has enough problems with the tap-on/tap-off policy. Adding another layer of confusion about fare policy doesn’t seem prudent.


        I don’t think anyone wants to go on record saying this, but what will prevent the RFA tunnel and trains from becoming de facto homeless shelters? Sorry, Seattle 2019 just isn’t a perfect world.

  8. Rather than the ride-free area, how about:

    1. Metro gets date stamped or date coded transfers to reduce fare evasions.

    2. Some revenue sharing deal gets worked out so Metro transfers and Link paper tickets aren’t mutually exclusive?

    Seven different transit agencies on the Oregon coast cooperate on a three day or one week mutually accepted paper ticket. TriMet and CTran mutually accept each other’s paper tickets. It really shouldn’t be that difficult to work something out – at least once such things as the plastic bags filled with old Metro transfers is dealt with.

    Obviously once Link wanders over the county borders some other solution will be needed. That’s still a few years away though.

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