As the end of Metro's Ride-Free Area in downtown Seattle approaches (September 29, R.I.P.), it's worth taking a look back at a little-known report that showed what Metro believes will be the likely impacts of eliminating the RFA on bus travel times.
Back in 2010, Metro did a series of simulations to determine what will happen to transit operations once the ride-free area is eliminated and all bus riders have to pay as they enter the bus. Overall, the simulations determined, there would be "a significant increase in the number of buses waiting at bus stops" downtown, that the delay time at downtown bus stops would increase, and that overall travel times would increase, but that bus operations would not completely "break down" (reassuring, right?).
According to the report, "Under current service levels, southbound 3rd Avenue would likely operate in a borderline acceptable condition as long as transit volumes were to stay the same." In other words, things will be sort of OK, as long as transit use doesn't go up, which it likely will with the implementation of RapidRide bus-rapid transit service and when transit tunnel buses start running on surface 3rd Ave. Additionally, "Operations on 3rd Avenue southbound could completely break down in the event of an emergency tunnel closure without the RFA."
Overall, the report concluded, the Metro system will lose more than 6,100 service hours a year (24 a day) once the ride-free area is eliminated.
On buses heading north on Third Ave. between Jackson Street in Pioneer Square and Battery Street in Belltown, travel times would increase about 11 percent because of "added dwell time"---longer waits, between 4 and 95 seconds depending on the number of passengers boarding and whether a passenger requires a wheelchair lift, while people pay their fares---the simulation concluded. Buses heading south between the same two streets would see travel times increase about 12 percent. Impacts on Second Ave. were similar.
(Editorial note: This estimate---which assumes a mere 2-second increase in boarding times for each passenger who will now have to pay when they board in the former ride-free area---seems hopelessly optimistic to this bus rider, who has seen countless tourists, wannabe fare evaders, riders seeking elaborate directions, and simply confused people take much longer than a mere two seconds to pay their fare and move along.)
Additionally, as Seattle Transit Blog reported last year, eliminating the ride-free area will have an even greater impact on the downtown bus tunnel, reducing bus capacity between 10 and 15 percent---a major handicap in a corridor that's already bottlenecked at Westlake Station because Sound Transit staffers stop every train there to do security sweeps before moving on.
So what does Metro plan to do about all this?
Well, in addition to the signs you may have seen on Metro buses letting riders know that, yes, the ride-free area is going away at the end of September, Metro plans to make the following changes, among others:
• Cut the number of rush-hour trips through downtown;
• Increase the availability of subsidized bus tickets through local human services programs;
• Do outreach through the city and downtown businesses to let people know about the change and encourage people to buy ORCA cards;
• Allow buses in the tunnel to stop at any "bay," rather than requiring specific routes to stop at specific bays; and
• Move some tunnel routes to surface Third Avenue.
Still unresolved is the question of how low- or no-income transit riders will get around downtown. A loud backlash among homeless advocates and service providers against Metro's plan to shuttle people who can't pay for the bus around downtown in tiny, 15-seat circulator buseshas led to a reconsideration of that proposal, and Metro could end up running a regular free bus route through downtown---on a normal-size bus, as opposed to a special poor people's van.