September 29 was the first day in 40 years that downtown didn't have a ride-free zone. The reason for the zone's demise is none other than money. Based on a study conducted in 2010 and published in King County Metro's Public Engagement Report, the Ride Free Area (RFA) had, annually, an estimated 8.4 million boardings, and about 2.8 million of these were by people without a pass or transfer. The annual cost of giving these 2.8 million people a free ride was $2 million. Money is tight these days. The King County Council directed Metro to kill the service, which, as everyone knows, benefited the poor and homeless more than anyone else.
Ken Schram, the boisterous and sometimes controversial local radio and TV personality, thinks the elimination will hit the less fortunate the hardest: "Metro expects to rake in an additional $2 million a year by eliminating the ride-free zone, a healthy portion of that on the backs of the poor and the agencies that serve them. Certainly, there will be fewer drunks and druggies on the buses, but I still find the ultimate price too high" (KOMO News, September 29). Indeed, I couldn't find one article or person that thought canceling the RFA was a great idea, yet it happened with seemingly little protest. People had been focused on saving system-wide bus service. Last summer, after crowded public hearings, county council members killed the RFA as part of a deal: They would collect a new $20 fee for car tabs and end the free rides downtown, thereby salvaging service around the city. Forgive me for getting on my Marxist horse, but all of this comes down to punishing the poorest members of our city for a recession they had nothing to do with. Not one of them swindled a homeowner, overvalued exotic securities, or foreclosed on a home, and yet they are being disciplined by budget tightening and cuts.
A funeral was held a day before the RFA's end. Organized by the Transit Riders Union, a grassroots group that advocates for more transit service, it was staged as a New Orleans funeral march that began at Westlake Park. Although there's a sense of humor in having a funeral for a ride-free zone, no one at Westlake was happy or festive. Face after face, about 100 in all, was somber. All of the signs were shaped like tombstones. The speeches were gloomy or angry in that simmering way, and the funereal music by Tubaluba perfectly fit the occasion.
The march ended at the small park on the side of the King County Courthouse. More speeches were made. One by Katie Wilson (an articulate member of the Transit Riders Union) pointed out that bus transportation had, over the years, taken more and more out of our paychecks. At around the time the RFA started, she explained, a person making minimum wage had to work for 10 minutes to pay for his or her day's worth of bus rides. Today, it's 40 minutes. Another speaker announced that King County Council member Larry Gossett was going to make an appearance and accept a scroll of 3,000 signatures for a petition against canceling the RFA. Gossett did appear, accepted the scroll, said something about strengthening the community and doing more for the poor. But just as he was near the end, he was hit by a thunderbolt of anger. A young man in the back of the crowd yelled: "You guys are just doing nothing. This is one of the richest cities in the world. Who are you kidding? You did nothing. None of you really gives a damn. You are talk. Go to hell." The young man spoke with anger—the kind of anger before a fight erupts. Gossett coolly walked by this hot ball of anger without looking at or responding to it. He had the scroll in his hands.
On October 1, Solid Ground, a nonprofit that helps the poor, started running a free bus to fill the gap in service for low- income people. The route has seven stops in the downtown and First Hill area, each stop close to a hospital, a food bank, a psychiatric clinic, a charity organization, a drug rehab center. The circulator bus runs every 30 minutes and is serviced by two buses. The bus I rode in was operated by Charles, a retired Metro driver who is friendly, is trained to deal with tough situations, and knows this city like the back of his hand. (Me: "Which neighborhood has the worst streets?" Charles: "West Seattle. Those roads are bumpy and desperately need repair.")
At the time I boarded the circulator bus, which was not far from the doomed Yesler Terrace projects, Charles had been around the city five times and picked up a total of 10 people (six were disabled, one was ordinary, two were members of the press). I was the only person on the bus. No one was picked up during my trip. The homeless and poor are, it seems, in the dark about this service, which, like all new things, needs fine-tuning—the stops, for example, do not indicate that they are serviced by the circulator bus. "I also think we need to have more stops," explained Charles. "And also we should use the words 'free' and 'open.' Everyone understands 'free,' a lot of people are not so sure about 'open.' But we are learning as we go."