R.I.P. Free Public Transit in Portland, 1975-2012

orange TriMet bus on the Transit Mall, 1978Free Public Transit in Portland died at 1:46 a.m. Saturday morning as TriMet’s last Blue Line train rolled east from the Lloyd Center MAX station. It was 37.

Born as Fareless Square on January 12, 1975, Free Public Transit was the child of former President Richard Nixon’s Clean Air Act and then-Mayor Neil Goldschmidt’s efforts to boost tourism.

Often unpopular in its youth among its wealthy neighbors, Free Public Transit was embraced and nurtured by transit riders of all stripes, who supported its continued growth.

Always precocious, Free Public Transit arrived at Portland State University in 1977 at age 2. One year later, Free Public Transit played a key role in creating the Portland Mall, a pedestrian-oriented commercial strip through downtown that became the center of civic life and public culture over the next 30 years.

As Free Public Transit’s prosperity and professionalism grew – in 2001, at age 26, it moved into the Lloyd employment district across the Willamette River, and was a key player in a set of lucrative real estate deals that created the transit-oriented Pearl District – so did its fame, and the fame of the city whose payroll taxes supported it. Among other things, Portland became known as home to the largest free transit zone in North America.

But as the 2000s went on, some also came to see Free Public Transit as a source of trouble. Thanks to the pleasantness and vibrancy of the central city that Free Public Transit had itself helped create, downtown rents had risen, forcing poorer people to gradually move to outlying neighborhoods and suburbs. As TriMet cut bus frequencies around the city, it seemed increasingly unfair that Free Public Transit should consume as much money as a small bus line itself.

By 2008, Free Public Transit’s opponents in the city were becoming more confident. After a campaign to remove it from Portland met fierce opposition from Free Transit’s allies, TriMet removed buses from Free Transit’s control and forced its name to be legally changed from “Fareless Square” to the awkward, clinical “Free Rail Zone.”

Free Public Transit continued, but its spirit seemed somehow broken. As transit service continued to degrade and transit fares elsewhere in the city reached unprecedented peaks, even groups that might have supported it in the past seemed resigned to its death.

Free Public Transit in Portland is survived by a terminally ill older sibling, Seattle’s Free Ride Area, and by two younger siblings, Salt Lake City’s ailing Free Fare Zone and Pittsburgh’s Free Fare Zone.

“I can’t believe it’s gone,” said Asa Lovejoy, 27, a Stumptown Coffee barista who lives in Sullivan’s Gulch and said he’s commuted downtown for two years by skateboard and train. “I never really figured out the public transit system when I was growing up in the Boston suburbs. But when I moved here, it was like, you can just jump on the MAX without thinking about it.”

Lovejoy said that if the Portland bikesharing system that opens next year offers free rides of 30 minutes or less, he’d consider buying an annual membership for $50 or $75 or so and using that for his commute instead.

“All I know is there’s no way I’m going to spend $5 every day for a two-mile commute,” he said.

(Image from Portland Transit Mall is © Oregon Historical Society, modified by TriMet. Only a few of the above facts are fictitious.)

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