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Helping the poor when Metro 'free ride zone' disappears

For nearly 40 years, riding the bus in downtown Seattle has been free. Now, with Metro Transit set to end the free ride zone in September as a cost saving measure, officials are wrestling with how best to serve people who won’t be able to afford the new fares of $2.25 to $2.50.

The most popular idea  is to run small 15-seat free buses, called circulator buses.

“The circulator buses would serve the places that people with little or no income are using the most, the food banks, the shelters, the medical clinics and the places you go for job interview," said Metro spokeswoman Linda Thielke.

Thielke says other ideas, including having social service providers hand out free Metro bus tickets or use a Metro van to drive clients around, are seen as less practical than circulator buses.

Of course, the free mini-bus wouldn't just be for low-income people, tourists or anyone could ride them.

A bit of history

Back in September of 1973, the country was in a recession and Seattle was reeling from the Boeing bust. The mayor had an idea. Why not help spur the economy by promising people who came downtown to shop they could hop on any bus without paying?

What is now called the ride-free area was born. At the time it was the “magic carpet zone."

The ride-free area has certainly accommodated shoppers over the years.  But, it’s also been a reliable form of transportation for the down and out.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.