Thursday, September 23, 2010

Paying for the Bus Should Be Easy

I'm sure most of you reading this are in or near Seattle like I am but, for those of you uninitiated to the intricacies of the King County Metropolitan Transit System, allow me to wax pedantic.

There are two payment methods accepted on a Metro bus: cash/paper transfer, and ORCA card. For the sake of argument, we'll pretend like we all have ORCA cards in order to simply the question of how you pay. But when do you pay? Well, let's see now. If any of the following is true:

  • It's after 7pm
  • The bus never goes in or through the free ride area (pretty much all of downtown)
  • The bus does go in/through the ride free area, and has come from there and is going towards it

then you pay as you get on the bus. If, however, all of them are false then you pay when you get off. Got it? No? Ok, take your time. Read it over a few times. I'll go get a soda.

Why does Seattle and King County make people think so hard just to pay for a ride? Those of you gearing up to play devil's advocate are most likely thinking "Well, don't they post a sign?" Sure, they do. They even made it bright yellow. I've still seen drivers have to warn people not to pay at the wrong time pretty much every time I've gotten on the bus. I know that sounds anecdotal, but I've lived here for 8 years and I ride the bus pretty much everywhere I go - my sample size is fairly large. 

The next excellent argument to make is "People can learn." Theoretically true. Except even someone like me, who knows the bus system better than pretty much anyone else I know thanks to my long dependence on it, sometimes forgets to pay at the right time. Now, I'm not a total outlier as far as Metro customers go, but I'd wager I'm at least a standard deviation above the mean when it comes to how often an average Seattlite uses that particular mode of transportation. Most people take the bus only when it happens to be the most convenient option at the time - maybe for commuting or maybe just when you're going to a ballgame. For example, I'm very often surprised how often some of my friends, who've lived in Seattle awhile, longer than I have in some cases, have no idea that it's the Ride Free Area that's the determining factor about whether you pay when you get on or get off the bus.

I think one of the main reasons even people who are longtime Seattlites can get confused is that it's easy to be affected by the Ride Free Area even if they never take the bus downtown. I'll illustrate with an example. I made a partial map of the routes of the 43 and the 48. As you can see, their routes overlap for quite a long way - a little over 3 miles. There's a significant amount of people that live in that corridor who also work/go to school in that same corridor, allowing them to not have to worry about which bus they catch to get where they're going; they just hop on the next bus that comes along and think nothing of it. The rub is that the 43 goes downtown, but the 48 doesn't, so occasionally the rules will change for how they pay. I wish I could say this is the only example, but it certainly is not. The 8 and the 43 have the same problem as they both pass through one of the busier parts of Capitol Hill on their way to Seattle Center and Downtown, respectively, and there are many more.

Not only does the pay-as-you-leave system create confusion, it also creates all kinds of potential problems, both for the passengers and for Metro itself. I could go into it in depth, but this is already getting rather lengthy so I'll cherry pick an illustrative example that happens every day: the overfull, rush-hour bus leaving downtown. Invariably, there always comes a stop where a few people that happen to be near the back of the bus have to get off before the bus has had a chance to clear out. Sometimes I've been that person - sometimes I've been that person and didn't manage to make it to the front before the bus took off! Or, sometimes, the full bus will arrive at a popular stop and there's a whole surge of people trying to get off. In those situations sometimes the bus driver will be nice and let people get off at the back door; those people either get a free ride or try to be good Samaritans and attempt to wade back through the people coming out the front door like salmon in the spring in order to pay their fare.

Unfortunately, as confusing as this sometimes-pay-as-you-leave-sometimes-pay-as-you-enter system can be for Seattlites (not to mention the poor, unsuspecting tourists), we'll probably never be rid of it. I can think of three possible solutions, but I don't have much hope for any of them.
  • Eliminate the Free Ride Zone. I have a feeling the downtown businesses wouldn't like that very much as it might reduce the amount of tourists frequenting their shops. Plus the downtown homeless would lose what little mobility they have. Still, it would guarantee you always paid when you got on, and such a system is not without precedent: Boston, for example, has no such policy.
  • Pay when you get on AND off. This is my personal favorite, because then King County could implement distance-based fares. Just imagine that the ride free area followed you wherever you went! If you go less than, say, 5 stops or maybe 1 mile (or whatever arbitrary number the bureaucrats might attach), the ride's free - always and everywhere. Beyond that you pay for what you use. This assumes the rider is using ORCA, of course. Cash would default to the above option. This system is also not without precedent; our own SoundTransit uses it for Link Light Rail right here in Seattle. Plus, it enforces everything Seattle says it wants: increased transit adoption, increased ORCA usage, shorter trips, etc. But. But but but. King County would have to double or even triple the number of ORCA readers, and the number of free rides would likely go up, thus simultaneously decreasing revenue and increased costs. Bureaucrats rarely go for that kind of thing.
  • Have rail free and buses not. Fixes the pay-as-you-leave issue for the buses, and it's the same thing that Portland does. I've read a bunch of their literature and it seems like having rail be free downtown instead of buses is simpler for them to manage. They don't go into a lot of detail about why, but it seems like it simply causes less confusion for the populace and they have less lines of free ride to manage. Why do I think we'll never do this one? Cynicism mostly. We never seem to be able to do anything Portland does.
Hopefully someone's got another idea, because this system's got to go.


Anna said...

Another option would be to not have the driver responsible for payment, but have fare controllers on random rotation. That way, it could be *always* pay as you get on, and if you are in the ride free zone, you don't swipe, but if you ride outside the RFS without fare, you're constantly running the risk of hefty fine. This was the system I grew up with (it also employed "always enter in the front, always exit in the back" on 2 and 3 door buses, and "enter on 1 and 3, exit on 2 and 4" on 4-door buses.)

Dustin Hodge said...

See? This is why I write a blog. People thinking up cool solutions that I didn't. :)

Colin said...

You actually missed it in terms of fare payment options. The last entry should be "The bus does go in/through the ride free area, but hasn't gotten there yet."

Really, they should be rewritten as such:
It is before 7 pm*
The bus passes through the ride free zone
The bus is driving away from the ride free zone

*this 7 pm time is subjective based on driver, many of them base it on "bus left ride free zone before/after 7 pm" not "the current time is before/after 7 pm"

Then you change the conditional to "if any are no / all are yes" instead of "if any are yes / all are no" and gets rid of that confusing double negative.

Portland's fareless downtown thing is actually really weird too based on the ticket validation system if you're traveling from the fareless area to the pay area. This is avoidable by knowing if you're going to be leaving the fareless area, but that gets into the domain knowledge issue. Re: this and Seattle, light rail is basically free in the tunnel anyway (fare checkers do their thing after the ID station).

If we're talking radical changes to bus systems, why not have a loop bus / train in downtown that's always free and reroute other busses to either bypass downtown (like the 48 does and the 9 used to) or to turn around at the interface between the two places. Non-free busses are always pay when you get on (since they don't go downtown) and if the in-downtown transit comes often enough (every five minutes or something) you shouldn't run into too many transfer timing issues. This will add an extra transfer (on average) but if the loop is frequent enough and has a dedicated transit path it shouldn't cause too many problems.

This is similar to what the SLUT, monorail, and waterfront streetcar do, only fully realized instead of shitty. Actually, it's exactly a non-shitty version of the model that the waterfront streetcar uses.

Dustin Hodge said...

Thanks - correction made. The fact that I had to be corrected kind of illustrates my point about how complicated the system is.

Colin said...

I think it totally illustrates your point that the system is whacked.

Kate said...

I just visited Seattle for InfoCamp and yeah, the system is INSANE.

In New York, as it is in most other cities, we make it simple:

Pay when you get on. No matter where in the five boroughs you are. That's it.

Bad usability, King County Transit. Bad.

(I could get on a rant about their myTransit app, but that's another animal.)

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