By ending the Downtown Seattle Ride Free Area, King County Metro has made a colossal mistake affecting everyone who lives, works or ever goes downtown. 

But it's a mistake that can be fixed or at least alleviated.

The free downtown bus service, originally marketed as the “Magic Carpet Zone,” began in 1973. That was less than a year after the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, a special taxing district originally created to build a sewage treatment system that would “save Lake Washington,” took over the city-owned Seattle Transit system and the private Metropolitan Transit Co. (King County took over both the transit and treatment systems in 1994.)

The Ride Free Area had two original purposes. It was meant to help speed bus traffic through often-congested downtown streets by moving the fare-collection transactions to outer areas. And it was meant to help make downtown more attractive to shoppers and visitors by making it an easier place to get around.

Greater downtown is only spread out a mile and a half, from Pioneer Square to Belltown. The steep grades in downtown’s middle hinder its walkability. 

The ability to get on any Metro bus downtown for free — as long as you disembarked while it was still downtown — made the downtown core a whole lot easier to do business or pleasure in. Before long, the free area was expanded to include Belltown up to Battery Street.


Going downhill

But a service feature intended for shoppers, workers and visitors soon got a reputation as a magnet for the inner-city poor and the mentally disturbed. This reputation increased in the early 1980s, after the Reagan White House’s first massive welfare cuts kick-started the homelessness crisis still with us today. The renamed Ride Free Area got cut off at 9 p.m. nightly, then at 7 p.m.

Then a few years ago, both Metro and Sound Transit were trying to preserve and even expand service, even though the Great Recession had slashed the sales-tax revenue on which the agencies depend. 

Metro bosses made a deal last fall, with reluctant King County Councilmembers Jane Hague and Kathy Lambert, to instigate a $20 car-tab fee that would stave off drastic service cuts. 

In return, Metro pledged to strengthen its revenue streams, in part by eliminating the Ride Free Area and making all riders pay upon boarding. (Free downtown transit has also ended in Portland, Ore., the only other big city to still offer it.)

When the deal was announced, local political pundits and bloggers only wanted to talk about how the changes would impact the poor and the homeless. Substitutes were hastily arranged for these riders: Shelters and service agencies will distribute free bus tickets; a special free shuttle will run along First and Boren avenues at 30-minute intervals to help the poor get to medical and service-agency appointments.

But while these riders had needed the Ride Free Area the most, they’re sure not the only ones who benefitted from it.

Everyone did.

Downtown residents of all economic castes — of whom there are now more than 10,000 — had easier access to shopping and entertainment. Downtown workers had easier access to errands and lunch spots. Downtown visitors from around town or around the world could easily stretch a trip to a Mariners game or the retail core into side trips to the Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square. 

Prior to the Ride Free Area, Seattle Transit and the early Metro had run a “dime shuttle” looping around the retail core. 


Another opportunity

If the county’s deal with the feds prevents the Ride Free Area’s resurrection, a downtown shuttle service should be brought back — for all riders.

It could be funded by a combination of the county, the city, the Downtown Seattle Association and/or the downtown Metropolitan Improvement District. 

It could run cheap (no costlier than a buck) or free buses back and forth on Third Avenue, doglegging at the northwest end to Seattle Center and at the southeast end to the International District. 

This program could incorporate (and add service to) the existing Metro Route 99, which loops Alaskan Way and First Avenue as a replacement for the still-missed Waterfront Streetcar. 

It could be upgraded later to add a third route looping Second and Fourth avenues, helping riders avoid some steep walking south of University Street.

If we prod these public and private agencies sufficiently, at least some shuttle service could be under way by the holiday shopping season. 

Get on board with it.

CLARK HUMPHREY is the author of “Walking Seattle” and “Vanishing Seattle.” He also writes a blog at To comment on this column, write to