If you've never ridden the bus or train, here's a quick primer on how to get around the region without your car.

Share story

Seattle-area traffic, often infuriating already, is going to get worse Friday night when the Alaskan Way Viaduct shuts down. Maybe that’s just the shove you needed to try public transit for the first time.

If you’ve never ridden the bus or train before, you’re in luck. Public transit can be a delight. Forget glaring at the bumper of the car ahead of you, or anxiously craning your neck to peer around it. Instead, you can pay a modest fee and someone else will worry about all that. You can read a book (or this newspaper!), listen to a podcast, play with your phone or just observe the jumble of humanity all around you.

For any first-timers out there, here’s a quick primer on how to get around the region by bus or train.

What bus or train should I take? Where do they go?

Try using King County Metro’s trip planner — even if you don’t live in King County. Type in where you are. Type in where you want to go and when you want to be there. The county’s algorithms will spit out some recommended itineraries. You can also try using Google Maps’ directions function and click on the little subway icon to get suggested public transit itineraries.

How do I get to the bus stop?

If you live in Seattle, hopefully there’s a bus stop within walking distance. The city says that two-thirds of Seattleites live within a 10-minute walk of a bus route with frequent service.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Learn more about Traffic Lab » | Follow us on Twitter »

If you live in the suburbs, or in lesser-served parts of the city, you may need to be dropped off at a bus stop or transit center. Uber and Lyft are offering discounts on shared rides to some transit centers and app-based shuttle services will pick up commuters and deposit them at transit hubs in Bellevue and West Seattle.

There are also park-and-rides.

King County has more than 26,000 parking spots at nearly 140 park-and-rides scattered across the region, where you can leave your car and hop on public transit. Pierce County has nearly 7,000 park-and-ride spaces and Snohomish has nearly 9,500.

Some park-and-rides are modest, with just a dozen or so spots. Some are not: Bellevue’s Eastgate Park-and-Ride has more than 1,600 spots and Tacoma Dome Station has more than 2,300.

One thing many of them have in common: They fill up quick.

More than half of King County Metro’s 63 permanent park-and-rides are more than 80 percent full on an average day. At the most popular lots, spaces are often gone by 8 a.m.

When is the bus coming?

The most-ridden buses come every few minutes during peak hours, and at least every 15 minutes the rest of the day. Other routes run every five to 10 minutes during peak hours and every 30 minutes at other times. And some longer routes run only during commuting hours.

Light rail runs every six minutes during peak hours and every 10 to 15 minutes otherwise.

The OneBusAway smartphone app does a reasonable job of telling you when the next bus is coming, although don’t treat it as gospel.

Give yourself some leeway. The bus isn’t always on time. And even if it is on time, “on time,” according to Metro (and most transit agencies), means anywhere from 1.5 minutes early to 5.5 minutes late.

How much does it cost?

Fares on King County Metro buses are $2.75 and include a free transfer to another bus within two hours. Fares on Snohomish County’s Community Transit buses range from $2.50 for local routes to $4.25 for long-haul commuter routes.

Fares on Sound Transit’s Link light rail range from $2.25 to $3.25, depending on how far you’re going, and also include a free transfer. Sound Transit’s buses cost $2.75 within a county and $3.75 if they cross county lines.

If you pay with an ORCA card you can transfer from bus to rail, only paying the difference in fares; if you pay with cash, you can’t.

All fares are cheaper for kids, the elderly, people with disabilities and qualified low-income riders.

How do I pay?

Cash, tickets or an ORCA Card.

For buses: Pay at the front as you board — except RapidRide routes (red and yellow buses, named after a letter, not a number). On those routes, you can pay with an ORCA card at a curbside reader and enter through any door.

At the front of the bus, tap your ORCA card against the card scanner or feed cash or a ticket into the farebox. Buses will take cash, but will not give change. If you pay with cash or a ticket, get a transfer from the driver. (Sound Transit buses don’t issue paper transfers.)

For light rail: Scan your ORCA card at a card reader when you enter the station, or buy a ticket at a station vending machine and keep it with you. Scan your ORCA card at a station card reader when you get off too, to avoid being charged the maximum fare. There are no turnstiles at stations, but roving fare enforcement officers check for proof of payment on both light rail and RapidRide buses.

What’s an ORCA card?

ORCA is an acronym — One Regional Card for All. You can use an ORCA card to pay for buses, light rail, commuter rail, the King County Water Taxi or Washington State Ferries. You can get a monthly pass ORCA card, or you can put cash on your card and pay by the trip.

Buy an ORCA card online, at a light-rail station, at your transit agency or at most local QFCs and Safeways.

How do I get off the bus?

Most buses have an LED screen near the front that lists the next stop. When you see your stop, pull the cord to ring the bell and notify the driver. Keep in mind that it’s often (usually) quicker to get off at one of the rear doors, rather than the front door.

On Link light rail, an automated address system announces each stop as the train approaches, and tells you which side of the train to depart from.

Is the bus or train going to be crowded?

If you’re riding during peak hours, probably. Metro says that 18 of its routes are chronically crowded already, but many other routes, at peak times, often meet a lay person’s definition of “crowded.”

Take an open seat, as available, but remember that the seats at the front should be ceded to seniors and people with disabilities. If you’re standing, move to the back of the bus to make more room for others. Be polite.

Light rail is running at its ideal capacity of 150 per railcar on average, half seated and half standing. Any more people, and you’ll have to jostle to board the two- or three-car trains.

Correction: The caption of the first photo has been fixed to identify the location.