For people living on fixed or very low incomes who use human services in downtown Seattle, getting around town in our notoriously hilly city can be a challenge. For many, walking isn’t an option – and for others, bus fare is nonexistent. So to help residents access essential services critical to their health and well-being, Solid Ground’s Seattle Downtown Circulator Bus provides free weekday rides along a fixed-route, seven-stop circuit.
The Circulator’s two buses circle around and around, 7am-4pm, Monday-Friday – about 25 minutes apart, traffic depending – with stops strategically located near a wide variety of health and human services. One of our founding Circulator operators, Solid Ground Transportation (SGT) Driver Joe McCrea, has driven the Circulator since the service began in the fall of 2012. “That’s a lot of circles!” he says, quickly adding, “I like it.”
A stellar safety record
Over nearly six years of operation and 225,000+ miles driven, SGT Director Kari Ware says, “We’ve had ZERO preventable accidents” despite the challenges of increasing traffic, construction and frequent special events in the Seattle’s downtown area. This speaks volumes to the safety standards and training all SGT Drivers receive – and to the skill and care of the drivers.
The first Circulator Stop is at the top of a hill by Harborview Medical Center. Joe says that some people ride all the way around the route to avoid climbing the hill: “A lot of people swear by [the Circulator]. It doesn’t go very many places, but this is a big hill to get up. It’s pretty quick. You get from downtown up here in less than half an hour.” While multiple buses run by Harborview, Joe says, “You have to have bus fare, and it’s totally packed.”
“This service here has been nothing but a blessing. It saves me a lot of money, because I live on a very fixed income. And during the winter, this is a huge help. Big-time help.” ~Randy, downtown resident & longtime Circulator rider
Longtime Seattleites may remember the days of Metro Transit’s Ride Free Area (RFA), which ran along the downtown corridor for nearly 40 years. In 2012, budget cuts made the service unsustainable. And while Seattle shoppers lamented its demise, the impact was much more than an inconvenience for people experiencing homelessness and/or living with health conditions and mobility challenges – people who need to access essential downtown services. To help mitigate the loss of the RFA, the City partnered with Metro to launch the Circulator, with Solid Ground as sole contractor.
The reality, Joe explains, is that “Some people operate on basically NO money. And even if you do have money, the discounted fare is at least a dollar. If you’re just going from Pioneer Square to the Market, you don’t want to spend your last dollar on a bus ride. I wouldn’t. So it’s people who don’t have money or who are watching their money – low-income or fixed-income people downtown – they’ll use it to try to save their ORCA card and save money.”
Randy and his friend Mickey – along with Thumper, Mickey’s “chub” (a cross between Chihuahua and pug) – are regulars on the Circulator. “I take it almost every day,” Mickey says. Joe says the best part of his job is the riders: “The people have been great – polite, respectful. There’s some who’ve ridden it from the very beginning, and some come and go. People will get back on the bus who we haven’t seen in two years. Sometimes they give me a report – where they’ve been, what they’re up to.”
Randy, born and raised in Seattle, comments, “Yeah, this is a BIG hill for me; I only got one full lung. I run out of breath very easily.” Randy’s been riding the Circulator about three years. “This service here has been nothing but a blessing. It saves me a lot of money, because I live on a very fixed income. And during the winter, this is a huge help. Big-time help.”
Swinging by essential services
As we ride along with Joe’s colleague Phuong Nguyen, Joe points out the many essential services near or along the route: DESC (Downtown Emergency Service Center), King County Courthouse, Lazarus Day Center, Chief Seattle Club, Pike Place Market Senior Center & Food Bank and more.
At the Millionair Club, Joe explains, patrons can get breakfast, lunch and day work – such as handyman and stadium jobs – with free lunch. At the Urban Rest Stop (URS), you can get your laundry done and take a shower. FareStart offers restaurant training, and at the Recovery Café, people in addictions recovery can attend AA meetings and get a solid meal.
One challenge Joe notes is that with Seattle’s development boom, construction sites often affect the Circulator route. “Right now 1st Avenue is closed, so Western is the detour, and there’s construction there too. It seems like as soon as one is finished, another one starts up. There have been some bad delays. And the Space Needle is getting harder to see.”
He adds, “Also there’s a ferryboat that gets off and unloads all these cars, so it can take five or 10 extra minutes just in that one section of street.” There are benefits too though. “I get to see the sun rise, and I never get tired of that view going down Yesler where you see the Smith Tower and the ferryboat.”
Riders helping riders
Joe gets to witness riders helping each other out regularly. “I’ve seen a lot of kindness.” He says, “People share information about resources” that Joe himself doesn’t necessarily know about. It’s a community of riders who, for the most part, have each others’ backs. “I see it a lot.”
One time, he recalls, “There was a little old man who had these big bundles he could barely carry. And this other fellow helped him carry them because he knew he probably wouldn’t be able to take them where he was gonna go, so he said, ‘I’ve got a minute, I’ll carry these for you.’ There are little things like that all the time.”
Joe himself is a gentle and compassionate soul. He says, “I like the job; I feel lucky to have a job.” And while he concedes it’s not a job that just anyone can do, he also feels driving the Circulator has made him more compassionate. “I feel like a lot of people, they’re the same as I am. I don’t know what they’re going through. Things happen, and people end up in need.”
He sums it up, “The Circulator is a great service. It’s kind of amazing that we have it. People in America, they don’t see this in a lot of places – a free ride for folks downtown. People need transportation, no matter what they’re going for.”