How Our System Works

The ORCA reader on the 47 bus this morning was out of order, so the driver let everyone ride for free. For me, it wasn’t a bonus, since my employer pays for my ORCA card. It wasn’t a bonus for my employer either, since my employer supplies me with a monthly card – it costs them the same, no matter how many, or how few, times I tap my card. It was a nice gesture, even though it’s standard practice when an ORCA reader isn’t working. (The same goes for a jammed fare box.)

As I was waiting on 3rd Avenue this evening, waiting for a bus to take me to Pike Street, wondering what I was going to write for a blog post today, I saw a RapidRide bus approaching. I tapped my ORCA card at the stop, and boarded through the back door.

That’s when I wondered if anyone outside of the Puget Sound region, reading these blog posts of mine, knows what the heck all this means.

Well, it’s like this:

Here in Seattle, our main bus system is King County Metro Transit – typically referred to as simply “Metro”. It serves all of King County, which (fun fact!) has twice the land area of Rhode Island. To the north of us is Community Transit, serving Snohomish County, and to the south is Pierce Transit, serving Pierce County. Uniting all three transit systems is Sound Transit.

To complicate things a bit, Community Transit also serves Seattle, and other parts of King County.

An ORCA card can be used on all four transit systems, plus some others. “ORCA” stands for “One Regional Card for All” – which makes “ORCA card” a redundancy, like “PIN number”, except that you have to say it that way to differentiate it from an ORCA reader, which reads the chip in an ORCA card.

When I catch a 47 bus in the morning, that’s Metro Transit. So are the 43 and the 49. Like all buses, except RapidRide, I tap my ORCA card at the reader next to the farebox as I board.

When I get to Westlake Station, in the Downtown Transit Tunnel, I could catch any bus that comes along, since I’m going only as far as Pioneer Square Station. Every bus in the tunnel is either Metro or Sound Transit, and my ORCA card with work on either system. But I usually wait for a Link Light Rail train, because it’s roomier, and it’s only a five-minute wait, or so.

Link is Sound Transit. Since it’s light rail, you tap your ORCA card, or buy a ticket from a vending machine, before you board the train. At random times, fare inspectors check passengers on the train for a valid ticket or a tapped ORCA card. (Fare inspectors carry portable ORCA readers.)

Since Link Light Rail fares vary by the distance you travel, you also have to “tap off” at the station where you deboard. That system also tells the fare inspectors if you’re paying for your ride: If your ORCA card shows you’ve “tapped on” at a station, and you’re on the train, and you haven’t yet “tapped off”, you have a valid ticket to ride.

So, if I were waiting in the tunnel, and I didn’t care if I was going to board a bus or a train, I’d have to wait close to an ORCA reader. If a bus arrives first, I’d board and tap. If a train arrives first, I’d tap and board.

ORCA cards also work like transfers. If you tap your card on a bus, or “tap off” at a Link station, and then tap your card on a second bus within a certain amount of time, your second ride is free – if you have a pay-per-trip ORCA card.

Then there is RapidRide – Metro’s version of “bus rapid transit”, which is a bus that operates sort of like light rail without the rails. (Community Transit has a BRT system named Swift.) RapidRide buses have ORCA readers at the front door, next to the fare box, but they also have ORCA readers at RapidRide stops. You can tap your card before the bus arrives and board through any door, like light rail. And, like light rail, RapidRide also has random fare inspectors.

Every bus on 3rd Avenue is Metro Transit.

And that’s how our system works.

5 thoughts on “How Our System Works

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