ONLY TWO GROUPS of people ride the bus.

The larger of the two groups consists of people with no other choice. No-choicers are either too young or too poor to own cars, and most are not happy about being stuck on the bus. And really, why should they be? Buses are slow, noisy, and smelly. Seats are cramped, rows are too close together, and aisles are narrow. Buses get stuck in traffic and have to wait at lights. Ask people who ride the bus out of necessity, and they'll tell you that the bus sucks.

The other people on the bus are... well, let's just say that they're different from you or me. These people can afford to drive; some of them have cars. So how come they're on the bus? For the same reason they're at PCC buying outrageously expensive organic carrots: because it makes them feel virtuous. Virtue riders care about clean air, want to save the salmon, and worry about global warming. But what they care about most is feeling superior. Ask virtue riders why they're on the bus and they'll sigh, shake their heads, and explain that riding the bus is the right thing to do.

Solving Seattle's transportation crisis means making mass transit attractive to people who aren't already on the bus. No-choicers and virtue riders are already riding Seattle's slow and smelly buses. The people who have to be tempted onto mass transit, if we want to make a dent in our traffic congestion, are car drivers. Most car drivers are well aware that buses exist; most are also aware that buses are slower than driving and considerably less pleasant. Most car drivers were once no-choicers, and some are even lapsed virtue riders. But whether you're a no-choicer, a virtue rider, or a car driver, the latest proposal to solve Seattle's transportation crisis may surprise you: free bus service.

"Using the money that would be spent building and operating light rail," explains Chuck Collins, the former head of Metro ('76-'80), "we could establish free bus service throughout King County and establish 4,000 new, free van pools with paid drivers." Sound Transit is going to get $150 million in annual tax revenues to build and operate its proposed light-rail system. Instead of going with light rail, Collins says, Sound Transit can vote to use those taxes to eliminate bus fares. Collins estimates that would cost $62 million a year. The additional money ($88 million), he argues, could provide extra buses for the overloads that would result from free buses.

A free bus system would primarily benefit no-choicers, and being a no-choicer myself, I'm all for it. Free bus service would also give virtue riders something else to feel smug about, particularly when they visit other cities. What free bus service won't do, however, is tempt drivers out of their cars. Riding the bus is already cheaper than driving; if it were simply a matter of price, no one would drive. And free bus rides won't be any more pleasant than $1.25 bus rides, and could be considerably less pleasant if our buses fill up with homeless people.

But Collins' plan is attracting support. According to Seattle Times columnist David Brewster, free bus service would spark a "virtuous circle," with increased ridership resulting in more frequent bus service, which would in turn attract more riders, resulting in still more frequent bus service. I would peg Brewster as a virtue rider, but his column supporting Collins' plan makes it clear that Brewster has never actually been on a bus. Brewster doesn't stop at predicting that free bus service will result in more frequent bus service; he goes on to fantasize about the growing number of bus commuters clamoring for "cleaner buses and on-board coffee service." On-board coffee service? Has Brewster--a man who once observed that the Olympic Peninsula lacked a good five-star restaurant--ever been on a city bus at rush hour? There isn't room to turn around, David, much less make your way to a Starbucks counter at the back of the bus for a triple vanilla mocha brève and a fat-free blueberry muffin.

Like Mayor McOne Term Wonder's laughable plans to solve our transportation crisis (sending street cars down already gridlocked streets, subsidizing cab fare for two-car families), free bus service is a transportation solution that only makes sense to people who don't actually use mass transit. Collins, by his own admission, hasn't been on a bus in 20 years.

And Metro buses are, for all intents and purposes, already free. Metro bus drivers are instructed not to confront passengers who refuse to pay. "Our operators are instructed to state the fare once to a passenger," explains Metro spokesperson Frank Abe, "and if the passenger refuses to pay, we don't want our operators to be enforcers. So they'll just make a note of it." Metro keeps track of non-payers, according to Abe, "and if a pattern is established, we can make an arrest if need be."

How many people are arrested for refusing to pay their fares every year? "It's infrequent," admitted Abe, but on the day we spoke, a man was found guilty of larceny in Shoreline District Court for not paying his bus fare.

Free bus service, "virtuous circles," and on-board espresso stands won't solve Seattle's transit woes. Free bus lines feeding into a citywide mass-transit system (taking passengers from point A to point B faster than a car) just might. Free buses alone won't be enough to tempt drivers out of their cars; once again, taking the bus is already cheaper than driving.

What we need is a mass-transit option that's faster than driving, and the only faster-than-driving option that's on the table right now is I-53, the monorail proposition.

So, yeah, let's have a free bus system. But let's not delude ourselves. Free bus service is a good, progressive idea, and I'm all for it. But it's not going to get people out of their cars. Only the monorail will. After we scrap light rail and dump $62 million into free buses--let's take the $88 million that's left over and help fund the monorail.

Support The Stranger