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Monday, January 29, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Free rides: one way to curb traffic

Seattle Times staff reporter

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LANGLEY, Island County - After waiting a few minutes at a bus stop here, Jeanne Blackburn got on an Island Transit bus and settled down for a ride to her job at a cookie shop.

The bus rolled past quaint cottages and rolling fields on Whidbey Island.

Maybe the best part of the trip, however, was that it was free.

There's no fumbling for quarters on Island Transit buses, no transfers, no fareboxes at all, just a blank floor next to the driver.

That concept could be of more than idle curiosity to countless Seattle-area drivers. Sound Transit is facing major problems in building a light-rail system, leading some people to wonder if there could be another way to cope with traffic jams.

Free buses are one suggested solution.

Known as Ride Free Express, the idea's backers include such influential supporters as two former governors and a former head of Metro, King County's bus system.

Ride Free Express promoters argue that by adding 100 express buses and 4,000 vanpools and making existing bus routes free, about 192,000 more people would ride transit daily. If they came out of single-person cars, that's about twice the number of drivers crossing the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge every day.

Free riders also say the buses could be running in two years, while Sound Transit's Link light-rail system won't operate until at least 2009. They also contend that the $160 million a year to be spent on the rail system would largely pay for free bus rides.

People running existing bus systems don't think it would work that way.

"The biggest issue with free fares is how to replace the almost $70 million of fare revenue brought in every year," said King County Executive Ron Sims, noting other large systems have tried it and failed.

"Free fares would certainly be a way to immediately attract additional riders to the system," said Sims. "But all the large systems that implemented free fares eventually moved back to collecting fares, either due to ... overloads or security problems."

An integral part of island life

Traffic-jammed Seattle drivers don't have to go very far to try a fare-free system.

It's about 40 miles north, on Whidbey and Camano islands, where Island Transit has been running free buses since 1987.

Downtown Seattle has had free bus rides for more than 20 years, of course, but Island Transit is a different trip, showing how free rides can operate through an entire county.

Kids ride it to school. Shoppers take it to supermarkets. Commuters get off a ferry and get on a bus. Many riders say the free buses have become an integral part of island life, as accepted as not having to pay to go to a park for a picnic.

The islanders like it so much that in May they voted for a sales-tax increase to keep buses free and make up for losses caused by the passage of Initiative 695.

"I've been using the bus system for a little more than a year," said Blackburn, who doesn't own a car. "I love it. I'm totally dependent on the bus."

To Judy Brown, riding from Freeland to Coupeville, the bus allows her and her daughter to share a single 1995 Buick, avoiding buying a second car.

Michael Miller carefully calculated the benefits of free bus rides when he moved from Everett to Whidbey Island to take a job two years ago, figuring he saves $45 a month by not driving.

"It was one of the advantages to where we picked our house," he said.

None of this surprises Martha Rose, Island Transit director, who virtually bubbles over about the joys of riding free.

"We're the best fare-free system in the world," she says. "Our mission is, we want to do everything we can to get people on the bus."

Free buses would certainly seem to aid that philosophy, but most transit systems don't do it. The reasons are rooted in economic philosophy but generally center on the idea that no one rides for free.

Driving really isn't free

A 1994 fare-free study by the University of Washington's transportation center, for example, found the state is "extraordinary in the number of systems that are fully fare-free ... experiences with fare-free policy in Washington are overwhelmingly positive."

But it noted, "This positive review of fare-free policy conflicts with common thinking about the policy within the transit industry."

Charging fares certainly isn't profitable; farebox revenues usually cover only about 25 percent of the cost of running a bus system.

And there's more to it than just dumping fareboxes. A 1998 Portland study concluded that unless the idea changes that driving a car is free, there'll be no level playing field for mass transit. "Imagine the result if people had to put $1.40 - exact change, please - in a farebox in their car each time they wanted to make a trip," the study asked.

But it also found it would be hard to convert to free rides. "A fareless transit system is a distant goal dependent upon first expanding transit service," it said

Then there is the sometimes murky history of free fares.

A notable experiment took place in Austin, Texas, in 1989 and 1990, where an increase in ridership swamped the system. In September 1989, the system was carrying 50,765 people a day. In September 1990, the number was 85,540.

The trouble is, they were the wrong kind of riders.

"We gained the transients, we gained a lot more school kids who would normally walk to school, we gained the gangs, the undesirables," the president of the Austin bus drivers' union told The Associated Press in 1990.

That objection still is brought up as an argument against free buses. Island Transit has a no-joy-riding rule it depends on drivers to enforce.

Effects of Initiative 695

And with no fares, the basic question remains of how to pay for running buses. The answer is to use other taxes. One of the main transit-money sources here used to be from the motor-vehicle-excise tax on cars, so if more cars were sold, bus systems got more money. But Initiative 695 two years ago cut car taxes and ended that money source. Island Transit used to get 60 percent of its money from the motor-vehicle-excise tax and 40 percent from the state-sales tax. Now it gets 100 percent from the sales tax.

Initiative 695 also led to fundamental changes in other free systems in the state. Skagit Area Transit, or SKAT, a free system started in 1993 in Skagit County that now runs 24 buses, lost 50 percent of its revenue from Initiative 695 and will start charging a 50-cent fare on May 1, although it will be collected through a "cashless" system with riders buying a prepaid ride card, said Dale O'Brien, SKAT director.

SKAT expects a 40 percent ridership decline, he said.

Chelan County's LINK Transit started a fare-free system in 1991 and now operates 15 full-size buses and 22 smaller vehicles. The agency had a 50 percent revenue cut from Initiative 695, decreased service by 50 percent and began charging a 50-cent fare in February 2000.

One other state system, in Mason County, remains free.

Whether a free bus system could work in the Seattle area is unknown, of course, and the political challenges of getting multiple state and local governments to agree to such a change would be staggering.

Still, Chuck Collins, former Metro transit director who's a major promoter of Ride Free Express, along with former Govs. Booth Gardner and John Spellman, thinks it could work here. Collins estimates a free system would have a 35 percent ridership increase.

"To get cars off the road, you've got to have new riders," he said.

INFORMATION

Bus statistics

King County Metro

County population: 1,685,600

Number of buses: 1,213

Annual ridership: 100 million

Annual budget: $362 million

Annual farebox revenue: $68.7 million

Sound Transit's ST Express

County population: Sound Transit serves King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, with a total population of 2,985,500. ST Express is the bus element of the regional transit agency.

Number of buses: 154

Annual ridership: 4.4 million

Annual bus budget: $24.3 million

Annual farebox revenue: $5.5 million

Island Transit

Island County population: 74,200

Number of buses: 37

Annual ridership: 888,030 in 1999

Annual budget: $3,962,411

Annual farebox revenue: Zero

Skagit Area Transit

County population: 100,600

Number of buses: 24

Annual ridership: 1,580,000 in 1999

Annual budget: $4.5 million

Annual farebox revenue: Zero now, expected $165,000 a year after fare collection starts in May

Chelan County LINK Transit

County population: 62,600

Number of buses: 37

Annual ridership: 1.5 million in 1999, last year of free fares

Annual budget: $4 million

Annual farebox revenue: $300,000

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