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Ride-Free or Die: A Look at the Ride-Free Area in Seattle

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Between 30 and 40 years ago, the public agencies responsible for public transportation in American cities made a calculated bet. As their buses navigated the congested streets of downtown Portland, Atlanta, San Francisco and Seattle, the most time-consuming problem they faced was boarding passengers. The major part of that was, simply, collecting fares.

The biggest reason: downtowns everywhere are a magnet for people without resources. It takes a while for the homeless, people with mental illnesses, the sick, befuddled, or those in wheelchairs, to get on and off buses. So decades ago, transit planners came up with a solution that would be win-win: within certain downtown boundaries, they would simply eliminate fares.

The benefits were immediate and immense. And as a result, "Fareless Square" and its cousins became ubiquitous. The positive result was that the progress of transit through downtowns everywhere became more rapid, more reliable, and more desirable. Along the way, King County's Metro Transit became the eighth largest transit system in the country.

Comes now the 21st Century, and the flow of dollars to public transportation is under fire. Fareless Square and its ilk (such as Metro's Ride Free Zone in downtown Seattle) are being cut. Ironically, there's probably never been a greater trend toward downtown living, toward urban concentration, toward living without cars. And yet the very agencies that created a mechanism to speed their buses and trolleys through center cities are claiming that there's a high cost to efficiency. As a budget-cutting meausre, Metro has decided to eliminate downtown Seattle's Ride Free Area as of Saturday to save about $2 million, even as it's already acknowledging that the service changes will mean increased delays as the Cummins, GE and Caterpillar buses idle while drivers collect their fares.

Leaving aside the argument that this is like shooting yourself in the foot in order to run faster, there's collateral damage: those poor, homeless, mentally ill, befuddled and wheelchair-bound folks who rely on public transportation from one end of the Ride Free Zone (the County Courthouse, let's say) to the other (the Social Services Center, or Harborview, for example), well, they're pretty much out of luck. At least, until an emergency ride service kicks in. But for everyone else, drawn to downtown living at least in part because of easy transportation through the downtown corridor, well, they're really out of luck, too.

The county auditor complained three years ago that Metro couldn't explain why eliminating the Ride Free Area would save any money by recovering "lost" fares. Yet that's what's happening this weekend, without public input.

In a last-ditch effort, there's a protest march this afternoon. It's unlikely that you'll find a lot of hipster condo dwellers with the leisure time to participate, but the protest against the elimination of the Ride Free Area begins Friday afternoon, 3 PM at Westlake Park. Curbed will be on hand.

[Photo by Ronald Holden]

-- Ronald Holden