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The Death of the Ride Free Area

A Funeral for Free Downtown Bus Service

The Death of the Ride Free Area

Jungyeon Roh

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." recommended

 

Comments (39) RSS

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Mike Buchman, Solid Ground 1
Charles, thanks for checking out the circulator bus. There is a map of the route, listing of stops, and more info at www.solid-ground.org/circulator.

We definitely need to do a lot more outreach to targeted populations of folks living on low incomes downtown and those accessing downtown social and health services. About 10,000 brochures have been distributed, more are on the way to providers in the next few days, including our first printing in Spanish.

The circulator stops are marked by a 3"x 3" inch sticker on the Metro bus route signs at those locations, which is hardly enough. This whole thing is a pilot project and will need to be adjusted on the basis of lessons learned in this early phase. Solid Ground and our partners at Metro Transit and the Seattle Dept. of Transportation are committed to making this work as well as possible, given available resources.

(Also, glad to hear you got your Kindle back!

Mike Buchman
Communications Director
Solid Ground

Posted by Mike Buchman, Solid Ground http://www.solid-ground.org on October 3, 2012 at 1:49 PM · Report this
Mike Buchman, Solid Ground 2
Charles, thanks for checking out the circulator bus. There is a map of the route, listing of stops, and more info at www.solid-ground.org/circulator.

We definitely need to do a lot more outreach to targeted populations of folks living on low incomes downtown and those accessing downtown social and health services. About 10,000 brochures have been distributed, more are on the way to providers in the next few days, including our first printing in Spanish.

The circulator stops are marked by a 3"x 3" inch sticker on the Metro bus route signs at those locations, which is hardly enough. This whole thing is a pilot project and will need to be adjusted on the basis of lessons learned in this early phase. Solid Ground and our partners at Metro Transit and the Seattle Dept. of Transportation are committed to making this work as well as possible, given available resources.

(Also, glad to hear you got your Kindle back!

Mike Buchman
Communications Director
Solid Ground

Posted by Mike Buchman, Solid Ground http://www.solid-ground.org on October 3, 2012 at 1:51 PM · Report this
3
Good riddance to having to share the bus with the junkies. Of course, Chuckie's "thug life" friends will get on free anyway under the veiled threat of beating the driver, but it's a start.
Posted by Stranger'sWorstNightmare on October 4, 2012 at 7:17 AM · Report this
Jeremy Janson 4
@SWN: Washington State has more than good enough gun laws and justifiable homicide laws for people to protect themselves. The State Supreme Court has even ruled that the City of Seattle has effectively no authority to install its own anti-carriage laws (the signs still say "no guns allowed," but said "rules" have been completely invalidated by judicial injunction) and only those rules which are Federal can still apply (e.g. schools and airports). If urban stereotypes refuse to carry in a place that has already successfully legitimized their rights, they really have no right to complain about "suspicious people" or crime. And once we start carrying, we'll have a more than civilized enough society to have workable relationships with those who need our help.
Posted by Jeremy Janson http://hailingfromgeorgia.blogspot.com on October 4, 2012 at 8:39 AM · Report this
Jeremy Janson 5
I'm pretty sure that if that ridiculous light rail (30 MPH! MY GOSH, THAT'S SPEEDS NOT SEEN SINCE THE 1800'S!) had never been built, there would still be a ride-free area.
Posted by Jeremy Janson http://hailingfromgeorgia.blogspot.com on October 4, 2012 at 8:43 AM · Report this
6
Ending the RFA was a mistake, and it will impact the most vulnerable people in our city. Katie Wilson is right on point about how we are paying more and more for transit, and the working poor are really paying the price. Transit riders need to organize at the grassroots level, just like Seattle's bike riders have done, and advocate for transportation solutions that actually take riders into account.
Posted by transit rider on October 4, 2012 at 10:14 AM · Report this
7
Since I first started riding the bus to work six years ago, bus fees have nearly doubled while the working poor of the city are continually pushed further out to the poorly-serviced outskirts of the city. It gave me hope to be among the many who marched in support of transit justice. This is only the beginning.
Posted by mrjoe on October 4, 2012 at 10:47 AM · Report this
8
The RFA was abused by the non-working poor, bums, thugs...Good Riddance RFA!
Posted by louix on October 4, 2012 at 1:00 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 9
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.


This is a red herring. The working poor live south of the city, which means they're already paying to get into downtown.

The ride free area was intended to foster tourism and help business, not to provide free bus service to the poor.
Posted by keshmeshi on October 4, 2012 at 2:13 PM · Report this
Andy_Squirrel 10
I always thought the RFA radius was fairly small anyways, even if you were homeless I don't think the 10-15 blocks is really going to provide a tangible benefit. I'm not saying I back the removal of the RFA but It's not serious enough to have me shouting in the streets over.
Posted by Andy_Squirrel on October 4, 2012 at 5:06 PM · Report this
11
if a nonprofit wanted to start a fund for the needy to get free bus passes or Metro could do its own caaign on the website, i would donate. im sure many others would too.

maybe metro could offer a discounted one ($20 per month? )..it seems like we'd need +\- $2000000 in fares per year..so if everyone in seattle and surrounding area donated about$1 each, could it work out?

im in for $20.
Posted by Cassette tape fan on October 4, 2012 at 7:48 PM · Report this
12
If we are going to take the Free Ride Zone away from the urban poor then I think it's time to take Free Parking away from the Suburban Commuters. Why in the world are we giving away free parking spaces? It makes no sense to be shutting down lines and reducing services while at the same time people are parking for free! End Free Parking!!
Posted by antidamon on October 4, 2012 at 7:54 PM · Report this
fletc3her 13
It always seemed to me the RFA stopped just short of where I wanted to go. For example, it didn't make it up to Broadway, to the hospitals, to the Seattle Center, or to the stadiums.

What I'm not sad to see go is the absurd pay as you leave fair structure. I've seen countless people dash off the bus without paying. It's a lot easier for the driver to police fares as people come onto the bus than getting off.
Posted by fletc3her on October 4, 2012 at 8:34 PM · Report this
14
There's free parking?
Posted by WenG on October 5, 2012 at 12:09 AM · Report this
Karlheinz Arschbomber 15
Ads inside buses: Metro's top transmission mechanic of 2009! Immunize your kids(in Spanish & other lingos)!

Ads outside buses: Expensive stuff for rich people, and DUI lawyers threatening you with being condemned to bus riding if you don't hire them.

Message is obvious.
Posted by Karlheinz Arschbomber http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arschbombe on October 5, 2012 at 8:09 AM · Report this
16
Seattle joins rest of world in bus service, hand wringing ensues.
Posted by bobbobbob on October 5, 2012 at 8:10 AM · Report this
17
I seem to remember the point of the ride free zone being to improve traffic flow, not to provide a service to the poor.
Posted by buttmonkey on October 5, 2012 at 2:54 PM · Report this
18
Are disabled people not ordinary? I hate to be like what the fuck but really what the fuck?
Posted by DJ Mudedewhatthefuck?! on October 5, 2012 at 9:26 PM · Report this
19
I agree, DJ. I also find it troublesome that you assume you can tell whether people are disabled just by looking at them, Charles (unless you asked?). Many disabilities, including my own, are completely invisible, which does make them any less relevant or obstructive for those who possess them.

While I've never been a user of the RFA, I think it's rather presumptuous of us riders who were not frequent users to assert that its eradication is irrelevant. Of course it's irrelevant to those of us who didn't need it- the presence of a community of riders protesting its lost this passionately is proof that it was a vital service for them. I understand that the Metro is facing a funding crisis, but I'm not sure the solution to the problem is reducing schedules, cutting routes, and eradicating services like the RFA (which may have been a gateway to getting more people onto and familiar with the Metro) is a step in the right direction. It seems to me that the worse the service becomes, the less likely those with any other options will use it, and so the service will decline further. Now is the time to be investing in public transit options- personal vehicles are becoming an unfeasible luxury for many people, even leaving environmental concerns aside. Light rail will not become a useful tool for most Seattleites relying on public transportation for quite a few years, and in the meantime the Metro has been regularly raising fares and cutting (or threatening to cut) routes. I am a fan of the new payment options in the form of the Orca card, but its system still has some significant issues- value added to cards has a ridiculous pending time (although the money is deducted from the bank account used immediately) and many buses appear to have malfunctioning Orca readers. I see quite a few people ending up riding without paying a fare at all because their card value is still pending or because the reader isn't working on that trip. I'm also frankly surprised by the new communication/display system in many buses- it seems like the money spent on putting in fancy displays with pre-recorded stop announcements etc. on buses is perhaps an extravagance considering we were threatened with a huge reduction in services without emergency extra funding less than a year ago.
More...
Posted by Sphinx on October 6, 2012 at 6:41 AM · Report this
20
I agree, DJ. I also find it troublesome that you assume you can tell whether people are disabled just by looking at them, Charles (unless you asked?). Many disabilities, including my own, are completely invisible, which does make them any less relevant or obstructive for those who possess them.

While I've never been a user of the RFA, I think it's rather presumptuous of us riders who were not frequent users to assert that its eradication is irrelevant. Of course it's irrelevant to those of us who didn't need it- the presence of a community of riders protesting its loss this passionately is proof that it was a vital service for them. I understand that the Metro is facing a funding crisis, but I'm not sure the solution to the problem is reducing schedules, cutting routes, and eradicating services like the RFA (which may have been a gateway to getting more people onto and familiar with the Metro). It seems to me that the worse the service becomes, the less likely those with any other options will use it, and so the service will decline further. Now is the time to be investing in public transit options- personal vehicles are becoming an unfeasible luxury for many people, even leaving environmental concerns aside. Light rail will not become a useful tool for most Seattleites relying on public transportation for quite a few years, and in the meantime the Metro has been regularly raising fares and cutting (or threatening to cut) routes. I am a fan of the new payment options in the form of the Orca card, but its system still has some significant issues- value added to cards has a ridiculous pending time (although the money is deducted from the bank account used immediately) and many buses appear to have malfunctioning Orca readers. I see quite a few people ending up riding without paying a fare at all because their card value is still pending or because the reader isn't working on that trip. I'm also frankly surprised by the new communication/display system in many buses- it seems like the money spent on putting in fancy displays with pre-recorded stop announcements etc. on buses is perhaps an extravagance considering we were threatened with a huge reduction in services without emergency extra funding less than a year ago.
More...
Posted by Sphinx on October 6, 2012 at 6:42 AM · Report this
Knat 21
I'm with Andy on this one. I didn't find the RFA to be that useful even when I was living and going to school all within its borders. The area serviced wasn't big enough to get me where I wanted to go for most trips, and if I was going a long way, I got a transfer, making the rest of my trip like the RFA anyway.
Posted by Knat on October 7, 2012 at 9:24 PM · Report this
22
#12 obviously can't afford a car, and therefore never noticed that the city raised the parking rates downtown to $4 an hour, some of the highest in the world.
Posted by Mister G on October 8, 2012 at 2:26 AM · Report this
23
Downtown Seattle is STILL the Ride-the-Tax-Dollar-for-Free Area of the rich folks who cuntroll it!!! ;D -----> http://www.inequality.org
Posted by 5th Columnist on October 8, 2012 at 10:57 AM · Report this
24
All those branches of the Wall Street banks get undertaxed as corporate persons on the local,state,AND federal level;the absence of district voting in Snobbattle is inexorably linked to the absence of CLASS representation in Strangeattle's government!CALL the DoJ:Command them to do your bidding(as they are YOUR employee . . . .)
Posted by 5th Columnist on October 8, 2012 at 11:01 AM · Report this
25
The rich always get a free ride when it comes to the money from the fares,fees,fines,taxes,and tolls payed by the lower classes;Feudalism,anybody? ----> http://theyrule.net , http://www.revleft.net ,and http://www.broadleft.org
Posted by 5th Columnist on October 8, 2012 at 11:03 AM · Report this
26
Do they do this to poor CITIZENS in other OECD."FirSSt"-World/Global-North cuntries?Pfft!!!
Posted by 5th Columnist on October 8, 2012 at 11:04 AM · Report this
27
Reply @ Mister G:I can't afford the Upper KlaSS;can YOU??? o.O(Pfft!) NO WAR BUT THE CLASS WAR!!! -----> http://www.workersolidarity.org
Posted by 5th Columnist on October 8, 2012 at 11:06 AM · Report this
28
It's about time for a one day bus boycott.
Posted by bob the voter on October 8, 2012 at 1:05 PM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 29
I thought part of the reason for the RFA was a compromise from 1973 when Seattle Transit merged with the County Transit to replace the 10 cent ride area downtown?

Needless to say, the zone was abused by a lot of people and for that we can blame Metro for not enforcing the pay as you leave rule. And not only that, drivers should not allowed passengers on who ththey knew wouldn't pay when they get off (the repeat offenders). And for that we can blame Metro's management for not supporting the drivers and many of the drivers who just didn't give a shit.

Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on October 8, 2012 at 1:47 PM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 30
Needless to say, the zone was abused by a lot of people and for that we can blame Metro for not enforcing the pay as you leave rule. And not only that, drivers should not allowed passengers on who ththey knew wouldn't pay when they get off (the repeat offenders). And for that we can blame Metro's management for not supporting the drivers and many of the drivers who just didn't give a shit
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on October 8, 2012 at 1:48 PM · Report this
31
@13: Agreed. Having pay-as-you-board for all stops is much less confusing and makes things more efficient. I've been looking forward to it for a while. There's nothing like being on a jam-packed 73 bus, waiting for people to trickle out through the front door because everyone has to pay on exit.

@29: I don't really blame the drivers. I was on a bus once where a driver decided to enforce the rules. We sat there for about 20 minutes while he waited for a transit cop to arrive. If I were a driver I'm not sure I'd consider it a reasonable tradeoff to make 30 people late in order to punish one freeloader.
Posted by Orv on October 8, 2012 at 3:31 PM · Report this
32
I'm of mixed opinion about seeing the RFA go, but on the whole I like the change...mainly because the confusing--especially to newbies--pay as you leave, except maybe after 7, and depending on where the bus originates system is finally dead.
Posted by ryanmm on October 8, 2012 at 5:14 PM · Report this
Tacoma Traveler 33
In Tacoma, we hsve a public transit initiative on the ballot that will end all weekend service and service after 5 pm on weekdays if it fails to pass.

Posted by Tacoma Traveler on October 9, 2012 at 5:14 AM · Report this
34
Count me in the glad to see it go column.
Posted by Senor Guy on October 9, 2012 at 11:41 AM · Report this
35
Yeah it might have been abused by drunks, drug addicts and non-working poor. But now I look at downtown and its just seems a lot more crowded with drunks and drug addicts and cops patrolling the area.

when I first came to this city I though the Ride Free area was great. the other effect that I noticed is that Downtown is like a ghost town compared to how it was. There is significantly less people around and more drug addicts and drunks hanging around the pike and pine lately. I wouldnt be surprised if the elimination of the RFA is found out to cost local businesses throughout the RFA millions a year
Posted by JoeIsRad on October 10, 2012 at 7:31 AM · Report this
vavavarooooom 36
I am sad about losing the RFA, though at rush hour, plenty of people are still hopping on for free along 3rd ave. You just need a busy bus.

Are you guys going to cover the clusterfuck that is the Rapid Ride C? Westies got totally screwed in the route revamps. West Seattle Blog has been covering the last week pretty well, but I would love to see wider coverage.
Posted by vavavarooooom on October 10, 2012 at 9:08 AM · Report this
37
I won't miss the ride free area. For one thing, it lead to a great deal of confusion about when to pay with infrequent riders. Most days on my commute, someone would try to pay at boarding, because that's how most farebox systems work. Having to care about which direction the bus is going to know when to pay is an horrible workflow. The little signs by the farebox are completely useless, because infrequent riders don't expect to have to look for such a sign.

In response to @4's comment about concealed carry and self-defense laws, they are ultimately undermined by the ability to take a firearm to one's destination. The courts have upheld employers' right to ban guns in the workplace. If one can't take a gun to the destination, then having it in transit is eliminated.

Of course, this leaves aside the fact that public transit shouldn't be a place where one feels significantly threatened to *need* to resort to deadly force.
Posted by Tyler Pierce on October 10, 2012 at 11:01 AM · Report this
Pridge Wessea 38
@36 - Once upon a time a stranger staff writer (now at publicola) said West Seattle wasn't "real Seattle." Perhaps this mindset still holds.
Posted by Pridge Wessea on October 11, 2012 at 6:14 AM · Report this
39
Well Tyler so glad you won't be inconvenienced with confusion about to pay or not to pay anymore. Too bad some very poor and homeless have no way of getting to the foodbank or doctor's office anymore!
Posted by Renee V on October 22, 2012 at 8:05 PM · Report this

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