Shuttle stop marker (via Solid Ground)

With the Ride Free Area’s (RFA) demise in a matter of days, those in need of a free ride in the downtown area are not entirely out of luck.  Solid Ground, a local social service agency, will be operating a free circulator which will run a fixed-route one-way loop within downtown, Belltown, and First Hill.  The circulator will use two shuttles, a 19-seater and 23-seater, to run 30-minute headways from 7AM to 4PM.

The shuttle is a pilot project funded by the City of Seattle for $400,000 a year, which was previously used to help Metro allay the costs of the RFA.  While it will be operated at no cost to riders, its limited operation and coverage in no way replaces the breadth and expanse of the RFA.  According to Solid Ground, the circulator primarily caters to low-income folks and those needing access to social services:

“Solid Ground’s focus is creating a response that meets the needs of this underserved population,” said Gordon McHenry, Jr., President and CEO of the nonprofit agency that operates housing, homeless preventions and other programs aimed at helping people move from poverty to thriving.

“Given fiscal constraints, a downtown circulator is a practical response to the needs of people who are the least advantaged in our community. Solid Ground’s drivers understand the population being served and have experience providing transit services in the downtown core,” McHenry said.

Unfortunately for those dependent on the circulator, there will be no set schedule for the shuttles to adhere to; a Solid Ground flyer (PDF) even warns that “hours of service and location of stops are subject to change.”

While the circulator is devised to best meet the needs of the impoverished, homeless, disabled, and other underserved populations, the scantness of its operations represents nothing more than a flimsy band-aid for the problem social service agencies are aiming to combat.  $400,000 a year could go a long way in the form of free-ride tickets, free ORCA cards, or other assistance programs that don’t involve running a shuttle that is a non-option for most intra-downtown travelers.

The circulator starts operation next Monday, October 1st.  For more information about hours, routing, stops, and destinations, check out Solid Ground’s website.

59 Replies to “Solid Ground’s Free Downtown Circulator”

  1. What a waste of money. Why not spend that 400k on subsidizing bus pases for low-wage workers? They’re the ones who need it. Let DESC and the like worry about transit for the homeless. They get single-trip passes from metro, don’t they?

  2. I don’t understand why this exists. If we want a mechanism to allow people to ride for free downtown, then just establish a policy that fare enforcement on RapidRide and Streetcars will not occur in the desired area. That way people can board and leave the RR or Streetcar without having to pay as long as they don’t hit the area that requires PoP.

    This would not appreciably impact the time spent by the busses/streetcars because there’d never be Pay as you Leave!

    It sounds like the best of all worlds–free service inside a certain area, with minimal to no impact to those outside the area (unlike the current RFA which has a huge impact due to Pay as you Leave).

    1. Just to be the devil’s advocate I’d like to point out that is exactly what the RFA is Downtown just only on a subset of transit service. Also the C/D lines are interlined so there isn’t any service south of Columbia.

      1. There will be in another year when RR E comes onboard. Of course, it’ll just be on Third Avenue, but a year after that we’ll get the FHSC on Jackson Street, and sooner or later (I hope) we’ll get RR Madison as well…

      2. Will RR E terminate at IDS like the current 358 does? Will it continue to layover at the NW corner of 5th/Jackson?

    2. I think this is a great idea. I think these will be de facto free areas for scofflaws anyway, unless they’re heavily policed. Why not let others on free for short rides?

  3. I think to be effective in any way, they need to run a counter clockwise complement to the shuttle. Can you imagine having to go from 9th and Virginia to 1st and Marion via Boren and Yesler?

    1. With a cap of $400,000, they would have to halve service to hourly headways for two-way operation.

      1. That isn’t want he is saying. He is saying run it in the other direction and I would disagree. Northbound on Boren can be a total mess between 3-5 or when I-5 Southbound is slow.

      2. He said “run a counter clockwise complement”, so that would be in addition.

        My reaction is that 1st and Marion is downhill from 9th and Virginia. Just walk.

      3. Adam, as aw pointed out, Anon proposed a “complement,” not an alternative. Andrew M, at least we still have schedules that are kinda sorta correct.

  4. Route seems reasonable. Wonder why there is no Swedish stop?
    Wish the city would put more resources into this – and replace the horrible bus ticket program with an Orca option.

    The agency will be sending out over 41,000 subsidized tickets to human services agencies as part of its Transit Incentive Program. The distribution of the tickets will be overseen by the King County Department of Community and Human Services and Seattle’s Human Services Department.

    The tickets will be given to homeless people who need a way to get to a job, shelters, medical appointments and other needed services. Those tickets are being paid for as part of congestion reduction package passed by the King County Council in 2011.

  5. I haven’t heard any discussion about public safety for the Circulator. How many additional police and emergency response resources will be used by the route? Will Metro Transit Police or Seattle Police be responsible for patroling these coaches? Will unlawful and nuisance incidents occur more frequently? Will business owners protest the placement of Circulator Stops at their storefronts for reasons of perceived negative activity by this population?

    Is it wise to create a “separate but equal” system that 98% of people will never ride, but still pay for thru taxes? At some point, taxpayers will demand better results for their $400,000. Certainly, being poor does not mean individuals are de facto more unlawful, however, the flaw of the RFA was that it attracted this type of activity purely by its free nature. Its not really fair for the poor or for the broader society to create this route. It almost seems Designed to Fail at its inception.

    1. The population served by this route and the population that created chronic trouble on buses in the RFA are very different.

      As a general rule, those poor and homeless folks who regularly visit social service agencies and medical clinics are not the people making trouble.

      There is no reason for the lowlife population to wait for, or take, this bus. It won’t do anything for them. They will sneak onto RapidRide or through back doors of other buses instead.

      1. Prepare for the next round of anger, now that riders won’t have the RFA to kick around anymore. There’s not enough Metro police! I see lowlifes sneaking on my bus!

  6. I went to Solid Ground’s website to look at the circulator route map and bus stops. Most of the stops are designed to get people close to things like food banks, health clinics, and shelters, as well they should. There’s even a list of what social service agencies are close to which circulator stops. At the risk of sounding like Mr. Potter, why isn’t the route also designed to get people close to things like work resource centers?

    1. The population that they will serve is often pretty desperate, disorganized, and socially excluded. Getting them services first will help people move to work, given time.

  7. They left off the Seattle PD precinct at stop 6 (Virginia/9th).
    At least they got the stop spacing right.

  8. I still don’t understand why we need this. Other major cities smaller and larger than Seattle never had a RFA nor a free circulator. How do the homeless get around in those cities?

    1. Many just ride the bus/train anyway. If there are turnstyles, they step over them. If there are drivers collecting fares they walk past.

      How do the law-abiding low/no income get around elsewhere? I’m guessing they walk.

      1. Forcing people to walk doesn’t make your city walkable.

        I’m personally not too concerned about the able-bodied poor – the entire loop is moderately walkable. I’d be more concerned for those with disabilities, the elderly, those with children, and those carrying posessions.

    2. Taking your question more seriously, I’ve been doing some searching. Last year Santa Clara County (roughly the population of King County) was going to offer free transit passes to the homeless, and estimated it would cost $111k. This would pay for 1,850 transit stickers and their social security agencies would screen people before handing out 3-month passes.

  9. Solid Ground already has one of the contracts for the Access vans, which are the same vehicles and drivers who will be running this route. It’s not a big change for them; just a repeating route. There aren’t a lot of new administrative costs, so it will be a pretty efficient operation. There are a LOT of headaches with bus ticket and Orca card distribution; this is a good program. I’ll be real interested to see what the ridership figures are.

    1. I so often see complaints on here about bus drivers who take a lot of time to help potential passengers figure out where they want to go while the bus riders fume at the delay. I also see complaints here about the confusing array of fares, policies, transfers and routes. And along comes Solid Ground to say, let me take a population that is often confused and often needs to go to the same place, and our trained drivers will handle them without passes, transfers or fares, and without delaying anyone but our other clientele, who are all in the same boat and will either understand or not, but we’ll deal with that because that’s what we, as an agency, do.

      And I’m sort of amazed at all the carping here.

      1. It’s not the same population. The “population” that you referring to travel outside the RFA and will continue to do so with Reduced Fare Permits and the King County Human Service tickets.

        Here’s a motion approved by the Sound Transit board in June to provide an additional 18,750 Human Service day passes. Interestingly enough they sell these day passes for “20% of retail fare value”. Other interesting tidbits from this document:

        1. Expected decrease in ridership on Sound Transit routes transiting the RFA: 191,000 per year
        2. Additional expected revenue from trips that convert to paid: ~$1.1 Millon
        3. 67% of existing trips in the RFA are generated by existing pass holders

        Lots more detail for those who are interested.

      2. So exactly zero persons who live downtown, live in shelters downtown, or on the streets downtown use the RFA to move about downtown to social services agencies downtown? I somehow doubt that.

    1. +1 to Bruce. Solid Ground is just the provider. If you have a problem with the idea, blame belongs to the city and Metro.

      I don’t mind it. It will end eventually, and it’s a good dose of inoculation against a lot of the arguments against ending the RFA.

      1. blame belongs to the city and Metro.

        I don’t think you can even blame Metro; this is all on the city. NW Harvest claims to be able to provide a meal for 22 cents. I wonder if anybody weighed the 1.8 million meals (227 per year for every homeless person in Seattle) against the funding for a circulator bus that provides a service that previously never existed. The vast majority of the route is outside the RFA.

      2. Kicking in funds and pays for transportation services are links. The sandwich filling doesn’t appear in an html preview that allows the “new” syntax of the dash following the tag dang it.

      3. “You have to wonder how all the need to get to Pill Hill has been handled up until now since none of those stops ever were in the RFA.”

        They weren’t, and that was a major flaw in the RFA which is now being corrected. If you’re going to have an ride free area or route, it only makes sense to put the county hospital in it, because a lot of people are indigent because of medical issues or mental-health issues, and Harborview is on top of a steep hill that’s hard to walk up, and it’s just a few blocks outside the RFA so why not just extend the RFA to it?

  10. In a general sense, isn’t it a little dangerous to mix (fiscally, and in a perceptional sense) the roles of a public transit agency and social welfare/public assistance. Both should be fully funded, but when their roles start getting all mixed up it becomes (maybe) difficult for Metro and related to keep focused. The transit agencies need to worry about infrastructural efficiencies, and social services should find ways to get passes to those who need them.

  11. 9 hours a day 365 days a year works out to just over $120/hr. That’s about what it costs Metro to operate a full size bus. Sound Transit service operated through Community Transit will be approximately $115 per platform hour. The loop looks to be just shy of 4 miles so unless they are only averaging the speed of a brisk walk (or the SLUT) it doesn’t look like they’d be operating two vans at the same time. Maybe the $400k includes purchasing the vans? Was there a bid process for this contract?

    1. They are operating two vans. Don’t forget to take operator breaks and PM peak traffic into account.

      1. It’s shy of a 4 mile loop with just over 1/2 mile stop spacing. How do they run two vans and only offer 30 min, if you’re lucky, headways? New York City has the slowest bus service in America. NYC Transit buses travel at an average speed of 7.5 mph.

      2. The scheduled time to reach the top of Queen Anne from downtown on the #2 is 28 minutes, and that’s under 3 miles. That’s 6mph max, and the 2 rarely makes the scheduled time (IMHO).

        That said, the 2 has closer stop spacing. I’d guess they could do better than 30 min for this run, but not a lot better.

      3. How many people get on and off the #2 in that half hour? Remember these are only 19-23 seat vans plus there’s no change fumbling. Even 6mph would be a 50% improvement bringing it down to 20 min. headways. I seem to remember 12mph being about average for a city bus. Central London buses make 13kph (8 mph). That gets you the 30 min. headway with one vehicle.

      4. For this population, there will be a lot of lift usage. And, again, don’t forget bathroom and lunch breaks for the operators.

    2. Another oddity of this route is the longest walk between an two stops is 1.6 miles or about a 1/2 hour walk. For that would anybody that can’t just call Access wait around up to 30 minutes for a bus with no schedule and then takes another 30 minutes to get there? Most of the stops are within a mile of each other but with a unidirectional circulator you could spend the better part of an hour getting there! I predict this route will rival the 99 for ridership… and fare recovery :=

      1. Many if not most of the folks in the population this serves cannot walk 1.6 miles in anything close to half an hour. Also, in a lot of cases a “short” walk may include Madison or James Streets.

        Not everyone who has some difficulty walking needs or wants to use Access.

  12. This circulator was agreed on by the city, the county, and the service providers as the best temporary option to replace the function of the RFA. Bus ticket programs will continue, but are already difficult for providers to administratively manage. Metro has already committed to looking at low or no income passes, but they come with their own potential financial and administrative costs. Nothing is as simple as some folks would like to make it.

  13. Just a hunch, but I bet all this “circulation” that people do to social agencies can be reduced by a quite a bit using web technology or smart phones…or even dumb phones.

    Are people taking buses so they can stand in line and pick up a check for example?

    1. No, no checks. If you’re getting govt. food/cash assistance it’s been electronic for quite a long time – eliminating paper checks was a big cost-saving measure. Cash and food-stamp benefits are doled out on cards, which reload every month. JP Morgan handles all the individual accounts.

      You still have to appear for periodic interviews/assessments. However DSHS handles much of that by telephone or mail, to keep as many people out of the physical office as possible.

      Clients where medical issues and medical paperwork is required, there are a lot of repeated in-person interviews and physical paperwork checks. Those tend to be also the most complicated ones (think schizophrenic + homeless + untreated chronic illness) that eat up a huge amount of office time, and often multiple offices.

      1. In some sense keeping these guys off Metro is a societal plus for the majority.

        Free taxi vans for all (schizos)!

  14. Handicapped New Yorkers now have several ways to hail a wheelchair-accessible cab–no whistle or wave necessary—as long as they’re in Manhattan.

    The city has launched a dispatch system that lets disabled riders summon one of New York’s 233 wheelchair-friendly cabs by telephone, text, the internet, or a free smartphone app called “Wheels on Wheels.” Until now, the only way to catch a cab with space for a wheelchair was by calling New York’s helpline, 311.

    1. What’s up with this yellow cab vs non yellow cab and medallions thing? I know medallions have become a way to keep insiders rich and outsiders out, but what does this have to do with yellow vs non-yellow cabs and why some cabs can be hailed and others dispatched in different places? How much of these rules make sense and how much are just arbitrary or legacy or insider-benefitting?

      1. I was going to write an explanation, but Wiki has one already (derk):

        Only “medallion taxicabs,” those painted in distinctive yellow and regulated by the TLC, are permitted to pick up passengers in response to a street hail. The TLC also regulates and licenses for-hire vehicles, known as “car services” or “livery cabs,” which are prohibited from picking up street hails (although this rule is less often enforced in the boroughs outside Manhattan)[47] and are supposed to pick up only those customers who have called the car service’s dispatcher and requested a car. Following state legislation passed in 2011, the TLC voted in April 2012 to allow livery cabs to be licensed to make street pick-ups in the outer boroughs and northern Manhattan, a rule scheduled to take effect in the summer of 2012.[48]

        The thing is there is more demand than availability of medallion cabs, so that’s why there are livery cabs.

        For example, the last time I flew into NYC it was via Newark but I had to get to Queens. I took trains all the way in and got off at Jamaica Station, where there was an army of big four door cars ready to offer a ride, but no real taxi cab markings. On the way back I used a scheduled pickup.

        So here’s where the problem is — smart phones and all the new social media taxi apps.

        If I “call a cab” using my smart phone app, is a scheduled pickup? Or an actual on demand “hail”?

      2. Seattle has a similar issue. There’s the offical taxicabs and the “For Hire” vehicles which, based on their advertisements are about 30% cheaper than a straight-out taxi, with the caveat that technically, you have to call their dispatcher in advance, as they’re not licensed to make street pickups.

        I believe the reason for this price discrepancy is that Seattle does what practically every city does, which is to treat taxi services like some sort of evil and regulate it cap-and-trade style, just like Europe does with greenhouse gases. Meaning there’s a finite number of tradable licenses to operate a taxi, which is something less than the actual demand for taxi services. Which means the cab companies have to get into a bidding war with each other to buy a license, whose costs get passed on to the drivers. Which means consumers get stuck with higher rates.

        The “for hire” services essentially work around this restriction – since they require an advance call, they don’t have to inflate their rates to pay for a regular taxi license of the kind that’s in limited supply.

        I tried this service once for a 16-mile trip home from Lynnwood at 1 in the morning, when the last 511 bus of the night was long gone. Total cost was $36 (rounded up to $40 with tip) – about $15 cheaper than Yellow Cab and about $20-25 cheaper than Zipcar, which I had used previously for this purpose ($10 per hour * the 6 hours I was in Lynnwood = $60). They came right on time, exactly when they promised (in fact, they even showed up a little early), and the quality of service was just as good as Yellow Cab. I would definately use them again for similar trips.

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