We’ve had a lively discussion about the end of the Ride Free Area and the general failure of SDOT and Metro to adequately prepare for its demise. I think there are two separate objections that have to be dealt with individually.
First, there’s the social justice argument that compelling people to pay for bus travel downtown is unfair to the very poor. I’m unmoved by this argument, for two reasons: one, intra-downtown trips seem to be an odd category to treat differently; and two, tailoring the entire system to the corner cases of affordability, accessibility, and literacy result in a system that no one with a choice would ever ride. I’ll expand the second point in a later post, but while I would like to see more County programs that provide transportation assistance to the poor, giving everyone a break on downtown trips seems like a badly targeted way to do it.
Secondly, there is a much more valid concern that speed improvements downtown are totally inadequate to maintain effective flow of buses and trains. I’m sympathetic to this, although we won’t know for sure for many months of the experiment. The question is how we bring about change. Personally, I would strongly prefer the “Speed improvements/no RFA” equilibrium over the status quo, although the situation this fall may be worse than either. The RFA and pay-as-you-leave makes the system more complicated and destroys the “board in the front/exit in the rear” convention that makes buses more efficient almost everywhere.
My fear is that any extension of the RFA gives momentum to advocates for a perpetual RFA, provides no pressure to actually make the improvements that would make fare payment work downtown, and therefore traps us in the status quo. I’m generally not a fan of “heighten the contradictions”-type strategies but this is a case where good policy must overcome a bad but stable equilibrium.