Between 30 and 40 years ago, the public agencies repsonsible 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 wtih mentally illness, sick, befuddled, or 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 woudl simply eliminate fares.
The benefits were immediate and immense. And as a result, "Fareless Square" and its cousins became ubitquitous. 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 39-year-old 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 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, you'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. Cornichon thinks the result will be a clusterfuck on Third Avenue starting this weekend.
In a last-ditch effort, there was a protest march this afternoon. As expected, there were virtually no hipster condo dwellers with the leisure time to participate, but the ragtag group of homeless advocates, led by a New Orleans-style mummer's band, marched solemnly from Westlake to the County Courthouse, where the presented their concerns to Councilman Larry Gossett.
Here's Metro's official doublespeak about the decision to eliminate the Ride Free Area:
Having everyone pay on entry may add to the time it takes to board the bus, especially in the tunnel and at busy downtown Seattle bus stops during commute times. However, these changes will make Metro's system simpler to use. It also will help speed up the de-boarding process. Riders will be encouraged to exit through the rear doors whenever possible. People who need to, however, such as those with strollers or mobility devices, anyone needing a little extra time, or anyone who needs to let the driver know that they are removing a bike from the rack, can exit by the front door.
But, again, this isn't about providing free transportation, it's about the engineers at Metro taking over Seattle. (The free transportation will still be available, through a stash of bus tickets for the folks who live in shelters, doled out condescendingly, in the manner of soup kitchens, to the indigent.) These unappointed bureaucrats, with $50 an hour salaries, are building two RapidRide lines with federal monies (so far, so good, but nothing that hasn't been standard in European capitals for literally decades), but have simply been ignoring Seattle's unique geography: that every major bus route runs along or under Third Avenue.
How long until Carmageddon turns into Busterfuck? I give it a week before heads roll.
UPDATE:Not even a week. Less than a day, in fact. The operators of the homeless shelters are now saying they'll shut them down completely unless they get ... MORE FREE BUS TICKETS. This sort of squabbling makes me want to tear out my few remaining hairs. Jesus.