Ride Free Area (discontinued Sept. 2012)

Questions & Answers

Get some answers about Metro's transition to a pay-on-entry system and elimination of the Ride Free Area in downtown Seattle.

Ride Free Area basics

What's the history of Metro's Ride Free Area in downtown Seattle?

The Ride Free Area in downtown Seattle began in September 1973 in partnership with the city of Seattle to speed up bus boarding in the more congested central business district and to support retailers. It replaced the "Dime Shuttle" that Seattle Transit had operated downtown. In 1973, Seattle Transit was one of two agencies that were combined to create Metro Transit. For the past 39 years, the city has paid Metro to operate the Ride Free Area. While the cost has grown with inflation, it has not been adjusted in several years to account for changes in operating costs, ridership, and resulting fare revenue lost by Metro.

Why is the Ride Free Area (RFA) in downtown Seattle being eliminated?

In August 2011, the Metropolitan King County Council approved a two-year congestion reduction charge of $20 on vehicle registration renewals. This helped prevent a 17 percent reduction in Metro service.

It also directed Metro to eliminate the Ride Free Area or negotiate a new agreement with the city to cover the cost of operation. This is not possible, because the city’s budget is shrinking rather than growing. That cost is currently estimated at $2.2 million annually. So, Metro is proceeding with eliminating the Ride Free Area.

The Council also directed Metro to take additional efficiency measures:

  • Introduce more cost-effective transit services on some lower-ridership bus routes;
  • Develop a Transit Incentives Program that offers bus tickets to people when they register their vehicles. They can then either use the tickets or donate the value of the tickets to the human service agencies that currently receive discounted bus tickets for their clients from Metro.

Why is Metro changing to a pay-on-entry system?

At the same time the RFA is scheduled to be eliminated, Metro will move to a pay-on-entry system at all times to be consistent with current pay-on-entry practices outside the downtown area. It should be less confusing for riders to always pay when they enter the bus. Metro will be asking passengers to enter through the front door and exit through the rear doors to streamline boarding.

When are these changes scheduled to take effect?

Changes are scheduled to begin with the fall transit service change on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012.

How is Metro going to make these changes, and what will be done to address any impacts?

Metro is focusing on issues related to operations, communications, and assisting low-income riders address the changes and impacts:

  • Operational changes will be made to minimize delays resulting from people boarding buses through only the front door, which could slow boarding particularly in downtown Seattle. Metro is also changing the number of buses in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, revising where buses stop and turn on downtown streets, and working to speed up boarding when everyone pays on entry.
  • Customer education will be important, because the changes affect the majority of Metro riders – not just those making free trips in downtown Seattle. All riders will pay when they enter the bus, no matter where they board, and most will exit at the rear door.
  • Solid Ground - Downtown Circulator Bus
    Metro and the city of Seattle met with human service agencies for many months to discuss options to address transportation needs of people with little or no income who use the Ride Free Area to travel to essential services in the downtown area. The consensus is that a circulator bus connecting key downtown service centers will best meet those needs. The city hired Solid Ground to operate the circulator using shuttles supplied by Metro. Details on routing and operating hours of the circulator are posted online at Solid Ground's Downtown Circulator Bus page. Many agencies also provide bus tickets to their clients through a program supported by Metro and Sound Transit.

How to pay

Will it cost more to ride the bus?

No. Metro fares are not changing. But, starting on Sept. 29, you will have to pay a regular fare to ride buses in downtown Seattle. The best way is to pay with an ORCA card. You can also pay with cash (exact change), a ticket, or a valid transfer from other Metro service.

When do I pay?

For almost all bus trips, you will enter the bus at the front door and pay on entry. RapidRide passengers have the opportunity to pay before they get on the bus, if they are waiting at a station with an off-board ORCA reader. There is also an exception for Vashon Island bus riders who board the bus at the ferry dock or while on the ferry. In that case, they pay when they leave. During the afternoon commute, some stations in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel will be set up to allow for fare payment at the rear doors (see below).

What else is being done to speed up boarding?

At some of the busier stations in the transit tunnel, Metro staff will be stationed in the bays near the rear doors of the buses with portable fare readers during the afternoon commute. This will allow people with ORCA cards to board at both the front and back doors to help keep the buses moving.

How will using an ORCA card help me with these changes?

Having everyone pay on entry could add to the time it takes to the board the bus, especially at busy downtown Seattle bus stops during commute times. An ORCA card speeds up boarding because all you have to do is tap your card on the reader by the front door. If you do pay cash, please have the exact change ready before you board.

How is Metro going to enforce the new pay-on-entry rules?

Metro Transit Police will be providing focused fare evasion patrols in downtown Seattle during this transition. Metro Transit Police deputies will be posted at high-volume locations, especially during peak hours. Deputies will also ride buses in the downtown Seattle area, as they do now.

What happens if I board a bus that travels across two fare zones, but I only want to go within one zone?

Please tell the bus drivers when you board that you need to pay for a one-zone trip so they can reset the farebox reader if necessary.

How to ride

What will be different about boarding the bus?

Almost all passengers will pay when they enter the bus at the front door.

What will be different about exiting the bus?

Riders will be encouraged to exit through the rear doors whenever possible. People who use wheelchairs or have mobility issues can still exit through the front door, and so can passengers who have loaded a bicycle on the bike rack and need to unload it quickly.

I work in downtown Seattle and use the Ride Free Area buses to connect from my workplace to the ferry dock and/or train station. Am I going to have to pay twice?

Using an ORCA card will save you money because ORCA cards include an automatic two-hour transfer credit for the value of first trip. If your transfer trip(s) cost the same or less than your first trip, no more will be charged when you tap your card. If your transfer trips cost more, only the difference will be deducted from an ORCA e-purse.

Six of the transit agencies participating in ORCA, and the King County Water Taxi, provide transfer credit for e-purse payments. Washington State Ferries does not provide transfer credit.

Passengers with passes, including those loaded onto an ORCA card, usually have unlimited monthly or annual trips up to the value of the fare on the pass. Even if you have a pass on your ORCA card, you'll still need to tap your card every time you take any transit trip to show you've paid a valid fare for the trip.

I work in downtown Seattle and frequently use the Ride Free Area buses at lunchtime or after work to run errands, shop, and dine out. Will I have to pay for each trip I take during those times?

Starting on Sept. 29, you will have to pay a fare to ride buses in downtown Seattle. The best way is to pay with an ORCA card. You can also pay with cash (exact amount), a bus ticket, or a valid transfer from other Metro service. The new circulator the city of Seattle is operating to assist people who have little or no income is also free to the public.

If you use an ORCA card you will need to tap your card each time you ride, but ORCA cards include an automatic two-hour transfer window. So, if you make your trips within two hours, you will be charged just once. Passengers with passes, including those loaded onto an ORCA card, usually have unlimited monthly or annual trips. Just tap your card on the ORCA reader and it will show "Pass."

I have difficulty walking and standing. I need to sit in the seats near the front of the bus that are priority seating for elderly and disabled riders. What should I do if those seats are full when I board?

If the seats are full, please ask the bus driver to make an announcement asking if someone can move to make room for you. Also, you are welcome to exit the bus at the nearest door – front or back.

Starting in September, Metro will have two new RapidRide lines stopping in downtown Seattle. How will we board and pay on those buses?

RapidRide allows entry through rear doors if you have already paid. Paying onboard the bus or before you board varies, depending on whether it’s a RapidRide stop or station. The stations have off-board fare card readers.

Transportation assistance

How does Metro plan to provide transportation assistance to people who have little or no income?

Currently, Metro spends almost $1.9 million per year to provide tickets to low income riders through the King County Human Services Ticket Program. The agencies that receive the tickets pay 20 percent of face value for the tickets. These tickets are distributed by agencies to their clients for travel to shelters, medical appointments, job training, and other essential services. Approximately 1 million tickets are distributed through this program annually.

Solid Ground - Downtown Circulator Bus

Starting this fall, there will be transportation assistance via a free downtown circulator bus. Information on the routing and schedule of the circulator is posted online at Solid Ground’s Downtown Circulator Bus page.

How do I know if I qualify for a Regional Reduced Fare Permit and how do I apply?

The Regional Reduced Fare Permit entitles seniors (age 65 or older), those with a disability, and Medicare card holders to reduced fares on 13 public transportation systems in the Puget Sound region. Proof of eligibility is required, and information can be found on Metro Online or by calling 206-553-3000.

How do I know if I qualify for Metro’s Access Transportation service and how do I apply?

People whose disabilities prevent them from using regular bus service may be eligible for Access Transportation service, which is provided using shared rides on vans operated by Metro contractors. You must apply and be found eligible ahead of time to use this program. For more information, call Metro's Accessible Services office during regular weekday business hours at 206-263-3113.

Changes to transit operations

What’s going to happen with other buses that operate in downtown Seattle or in King County, like Sound Transit and Community Transit, and the Sound Transit buses operated by Pierce Transit?

Community Transit and Sound Transit will implement the same changes in downtown Seattle.

What changes will be made in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel?

Metro is moving three tunnel bus routes to the surface in September to reduce the number of buses in the tunnel because boarding times are expected to increase slightly when everyone begins paying on entry. The routes moving to the surface are 212, 217, and 301. Routing and schedule information will be available in September.

Also, tunnel buses that are inbound to Seattle and primarily dropping off passengers pull forward to the front end of each tunnel station, which they started doing in June.

Are there going to be any changes for buses that use surface streets in downtown Seattle?

Metro is moving three bus routes from the tunnel to surface streets in September, and improving some bus stops and traffic signals to help buses move more quickly through downtown Seattle. Improvements will be mostly focused on Third Avenue.