Bus downtown
Courtesy Ned Ahrens, King County

Today the County Executive and Council announced an agreement that paves the way for the Council to enact the congestion reduction charge. The agreement includes phasing out the Ride Free Area, implementing a transit incentive program, and right-sizing bus service (details to follow in future post). So, what exactly is happening with the Ride Free Area?

The Ride Free Area was initially launched in 1973 to help spur retail development in the downtown business core. Today, about 9,000 free bus rides are taken daily in downtown Seattle between Jackson and Battery streets and in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel.

According to Metro studies, about half of all riders traveling in the Ride Free Area carry a pre-paid bus pass. Another 18 percent have paid for their trip and are making transfers in the Ride Free Area. And about one-third are making trips as unpaid riders. Eliminating the Ride Free Area was listed as the #1 strategy to reduce fare evasion in a 2010 survey of Metro’s bus drivers.

Among the benefits riders will see from the phasing-out of the Ride Free Area:

  • Riders will pay as they board, rather than paying as they exit after leaving the Ride Free Area– a policy many customers found confusing.
  • A “pay as you enter” fare system will reduce fare evasion on outbound trips, reduce fare disputes between drivers and passengers.
  • On trips leaving downtown, riders would be able to use all doors to exit and, especially on a crowded bus, would no longer have to work their way up the aisle to the front of the bus to exit.

Before the change, Metro will reach out to travel and convention groups to discuss how best to accommodate visitors who want to use Metro buses during their stays in downtown Seattle.

Metro will also work closely with human service agencies to figure out the best approach to helping the people in our community that need transit the most—many of whom use the Ride Free Area to access basic services.

Currently Metro contributes nearly $2 million worth of discounted tickets annually to charities and other human services groups to help their clients get to job training, shelters and medical appointments. Metro will either increase the current ticket allocation or further reduce the discount, while giving the public the option of donating their transit incentive tickets to the pool.

This enhanced program will assist those who have relied on free service downtown—and give them the ability to travel outside of downtown with the tickets.