Author Archives: bus chick

Moving beyond the margins, part II

Recently, a dear friend of mine moved from Seattle to a small city in the desert southwest. It wasn’t exactly a voluntary exit (a casualty of the rising cost of living in our shared hometown), but the destination, selected precisely for its “different-ness” from the sparkling, blue and green beauty she was leaving behind, was a welcome new adventure.

Shortly after my friend and her husband settled into their new home, a series of unexpected circumstances conspired to leave them without a car. Their lives almost completely fell apart. Bus service in their new city is hourly on most routes—and essentially nonexistent after 7 PM. Sidewalks are limited. Crossings are inconvenient, dangerous, or both.

My friend and her hubby both have jobs. (Hubby works shifts outside of business hours, so no bus commuting for him. ) They also have many pets and so must haul giant bags of food and litter on the regular. And, of course, they must manage all of life’s other errands, obligations, and appointments. Without a car, their lives became consumed with figuring out how they were going to get where they needed to go. It was difficult and stressful and time consuming and not at all workable for the long term. So, they did what they had to do to return to the ranks of vehicle-owning Americans.

Talking to my friend about her struggles getting around reminded me of some similar struggles in my own past. As I’ve mentioned, I couldn’t afford a car for most of the time I lived in Houston. Back then, I wasn’t proudly “car-free”; I was broke and desperate for reliable transportation.

Sidewalks are not a given in our nation’s fourth largest city, and walking is often isolating and risky. Almost every time I left my apartment, I was forced to walk through parking lots and in drainage ditches and an on the edges of roads. (As a bonus, I also regularly experienced street harassment.*)

Houston is huge – 628 square miles, to be exact – with no real center of commerce, so traveling by bus would have been difficult even on the best-run transit system. And back then (ahem), Houston did not have the best-run transit system.** Poor frequency, awful transfers, and some drivers’ tendency to blow past stops to avoid missing green lights (OK, maybe it was just that one driver) made it very hard to arrive anywhere on time. I was fired from one of my many college jobs for chronic lateness.

When I started teaching and could finally afford it, I bought a reliable used car. A few years later, I bought a reliable new car. I was so happy and proud and excited and empowered on the day I drove that car off the lot, I could not have imagined that, only a few years later, I would hand over my keys and never look back.

I have not owned a car in almost 14 years. To this day, I think of my decision to live carfree as one of the best I have ever made. It has changed my life in innumerable positive and beautiful ways. This does not mean that my choice has been painless or without challenges, but most of the time, and certainly on balance, it’s pretty darn good. I would argue, however, that a significant percentage – dare I say a majority? — of people who don’t own cars do not feel enriched by their circumstances. Instead they feel helpless, disconnected, and vulnerable.

So what makes the difference between being happily carfree and desperately carless? Certainly, a lot depends on where you live. In Manhattan, living without a car is easy. In Yakima, not so much. But in Seattle, or Pittsburgh, or Houston, or St, Louis, it can go either way. The most important determining factors are a person’s neighborhood and life circumstances. Shift work, kids and errands, sprawling communities, poor transit, mobility struggles, and high crime rates increase the challenges to living without a car.

It is in these “in-between” places where we have the greatest opportunity to improve people’s lives  — the most low-hanging fruit, as it were. In these places, we need to design our transportation systems to accommodate the shift workers, the errand runners, the physically challenged, and the vulnerable. This means frequent, reliable, affordable (preferably free) public transit, all day, every day. It means safe, comfortable transit stops and convenient transfer points. It means sidewalks in every neighborhood. It means protected bike infrastructure. It means accessible everything.

Of course, these improvements will benefit everyone, as they should. Living without a car, whether voluntary or not, should be as painless as possible, for as many people as possible. It is the only way we will build more equitable communities, or reduce car ownership, or lower the cost of living in increasingly expensive cities.

All we are missing is the will.

Mother and son walking to preschool in Kent, WA (Photo credit: KUOW)

Mother and son walking to preschool in Kent, WA (Photo credit: KUOW)


* To be clear, this happens on pedestrian-friendly streets, too. In fact, the more dudes there are walking on a street, the more likely one is to experience harassment.

** Since I moved back to Seattle in 1998, they’ve added light rail and completely revamped the bus system, so I really can’t speak to what it’s like now. Hey, if it’s good enough for Janis Scott


Some truth

For me, the most important thing about writing is telling the truth. Ironically, this is precisely the area in which I fall short. It’s s not that my writing is untrue — I do my best to keep things factual; it’s that it is not as true as it could be. Curating facts to advance a particular point of view or present a certain image is one way to communicate, but it feels very surface. Only by exposing vulnerability and exploring ideas without an agenda can we truly connect with words. So today — and, hopefully, on many future days — I am going to share a bit of my truth.

The truth is, in this moment (as in most moments) I am overwhelmed by the suffering in this world. Suffering — of both large and small scale — surrounds us. Hurricanes, homelessness, famine, disease, and war. Child abuse, poisoned water, mass shootings, failing schools, and underfunded everything. Car crashes. Evictions. Convictions. Loss of parents and children. Loss of species and habitats. Exploitation. Violence.

I am beyond fortunate to have shelter, enough to eat, a loving spouse, healthy children, and access to medical care and transportation. Yet, even in my life, there has been plenty of suffering. And I do not doubt that there will be plenty more.

Right now, as I sit on my comfortable couch typing, there are millions of people who are living through their worst moments and millions – even billions – more who have never known comfort or safety.  How can I sit here, so complacent, while children die of drone attacks and women are raped by soldiers and thousands of people in my own city live on the streets? It is because my own fear of suffering keeps me paralyzed.

Ten years ago, I watched my mother die of cancer. Now, all around me, friends and acquaintances are being diagnosed with the disease. I grieve for them, because I know what they are facing. I also wonder: Am I next? Every time a child dies, or a terrible accident happens, or an earthquake devastates, I am filled with the pain of the people who are affected. But also, I wonder: Am I — are we — next?

Dread and despair are my constant companions. I can push them away, count my blessings, look for the helpers, focus on my breath, connect with my Creator, but they lurk beneath the surface and follow me everywhere – even into my most joyful moments.

I know for sure that fear is the opposite of love. One need look no further than the disturbing election that is playing out under our noses to see that. But I cannot conquer my own fear, or even, most of the time, keep it under control.

Fear informs so many of my decisions. It keeps me from standing up and stepping out more than I do, because standing up might be uncomfortable: physically, socially, legally, and in countless other ways. It keeps me from fostering another child, because I know it will be hard, and also because, if something catastrophic happens to me (see above), there will be three children without a mama. Fear even informs what I post on this blog. I worry that it will sound trite, that it will unwittingly offend, that I will be exposed as a bad writer or even a bad person.

I try to choose love over fear, as often as I can, in as many contexts as I can, because love — not the sentimental variety, but love as King envisioned it — is the only constructive response to the violence and misery in our world. But I am not very good at it. Thank God I have so many examples of courage and love in action to draw on for inspiration. I will keep trying.



A Cadillac every weekend

I am a Seattle girl to the core. My hometown has my heart – even if it is currently breaking it. But there’s another place (aside from my city-in-law, Detroit) that I’ve managed to make a little room for: my home for most of the 90s: Houston — aka the H, aka H-town, aka City of the Purple Sprite — Texas. I attended college in Houston (go Owls!) and then taught high school there after I graduated.

During my time in college, I worked a lot of odd jobs. Only one of them – photocopying dissertations for physics PhD students – was on campus.

I worked as a summer and after-school nanny, until one father decided to regularly remind me that he was “looking for a mistress.” I sold lingerie and men’s clothing and was equally bad at both. I did general office/clerical work for a woman who ran her own medical billing and transcription business – and who also chain smoked in her windowless office, all day, every day.

I was a waitress at a Bennigan’s that had approximately zero customers, which suited me, except that it is perfectly legal in Texas (and many other states) to pay tipped workers far below minimum wage, and it’s hard to make rent when you earn $2.13 per hour. I worked as a driver for elderly people who lived in expensive, private assisted-living facilities, regularly enduring questions like, “You’re not a n****r, are you, Carla?” from “curious” residents.

Of course, none of these fantastic jobs paid well, and because of school, I wasn’t working many hours. So, for the majority of time I lived in Houston, I either couldn’t afford a car at all, or I drove cars that were only occasionally functional. Sometimes, I was fortunate enough to have a job that was easily accessible by bus, like the brief time I worked in the basement of Hermann Hospital, retrieving supplies ordered by medical staff.

Because Hermann Hospital is in a part of town that is well-served by transit, and because it is expensive to park at or near the hospital, I and most of my coworkers commuted by bus. One of those coworkers was a dapper, fortysomething man whose name I can no longer remember. In fact, I only vaguely recall what he looked like. But I will always remember his gorgeous collection of shoes – distinguishing him as fashion-forward despite the required uniform of blue scrubs — and what I learned from him.

I often say that my spouse was the first person I ever met who did not own a car on purpose, but that’s only because my memory is faulty. My shoe-blessed Houston colleague was proudly carless way back in ’93, long before I met my beloved Bus Nerd. Since, like most of us, Mr. Shoes took the bus to and from work, and since he was single and not dealing with multiple schedules and errands, he didn’t need a car during the week. He saved his running around for the weekends, when he shopped for groceries, went to church, visited friends and family, and partied.

The way Mr. Shoes saw it, it didn’t make sense to him to pay for and maintain a vehicle that would remain parked at his home for over 70% of his waking hours, to say nothing of his sleeping ones. So, instead of buying a car, he rented one every weekend. He would get a weekend deal on a luxury model (usually a Cadillac), buy the insurance, and spend a worry-free two and a half days traveling in style. On Sunday night, he would return the car and hand off the cleaning, maintenance, and responsibility to someone else. The rental car company even provided rides to and from the rental office.

Back then, Mr. Shoes’s way of life seemed revolutionary – and yes, a bit crazy – to me, a person who wanted more than anything to own a reliable vehicle. The idea that you would use a car only when you needed it instead of having one at your disposal was simply beyond anything my 21 years of conditioning (even as a product of a bus-friendly family) had prepared me for.

Now, all these years later, I realize that I am Mr. Shoes — except, sadly, for the shoes. No, I don’t rent a car every weekend (and, as far as I know, Cadillacs aren’t available through carsharing services), but I have embraced the concept of using one only when I need to. On Saturday, we drove a Zipcar to White Center for a fundraiser that lasted late into the evening, far past the time I was willing to wander down rainy, sidewalk-free streets (in heels) looking for a bus stop. Next Sunday, we will ride with my dad to Tacoma for my sweet niece’s third birthday. On the other 29 of this month’s 31 days, we will use our bus passes and feet for travel.

So often, our ideas about money and life and choices are limited by our imaginations. We think things are either/or, yes or no, black or white. What Mr. Shoes’s example reminds us is that sometimes, we have more options than we think we do.

Sometimes, the options include a Cadillac every weekend.

On families and fares, part II

Chicklet's new ORCA cardIt was definitely a proud moment, in a milestone sort of way, when each of my kids turned six and was old enough to pay bus fare. I gave them youth ORCA cards – along with lanyards to store them in – as birthday gifts and had to restrain myself from photographing their first taps on the reader. I still get a kick out of watching them march up the bus steps and expertly tap their cards (after politely greeting the driver, of course); it is a reminder that my dreams of raising bus proficient kids are coming true.

On the other hand, the fact that my children are now full-fledged, fare paying riders means, well, that they have to pay. And, as my heroes and sheroes from Rainier Beach High School reminded us last year, riding the bus is expensive.

Youth fare in King County is now $1.50, which means that taking two kids anywhere costs six dollars round trip. For those families with access to a car (or even to cabs or “ridesharing” alternatives), this substantially diminishes the financial incentive for taking transit. For families without access, it adds up to a significant cost burden. Some examples:

A two-way, off-peak bus ride for two adults and two children costs $16.

A one–way trip for one adult and three children costs $7.00.

A month of bus rides to and from school for one student costs $60 ($54 if the family can pay the lump sum for a pass).

Because our family doesn’t own a car at all, and because we don’t ride with kids daily (they walk to school), adding the youth fares has not made a very big dent in the amount of money we save by busing. But we are not representative of the majority of families who rely on transit — nor of the families who would choose it more often if the financial incentives were greater.

Our current fare structure (and, for that matter, our payment system) creates unnecessary barriers to taking kids on transit. If we are serious about reducing our dependence on cars (and the cost of living in our region), we need to do a lot better.


We are water

These are strange times. I look around and see a world consumed by greed and hate. Everywhere I turn, there is an injustice, an outrage, a terror, each on its own so big, so entrenched and intractable, that it doesn’t seem possible to fix it — or even to make a meaningful impact. I don’t know what to do about any of it, so most of the time, I do nothing.

But something beautiful is bubbling up in the midst of the greed and hate: resistance. While I sit around feeling hopeless and angry, courageous people — regular folks with bills and deadlines and daycare pickups — are building movements. These people understand that knowing the exact right thing to do isn’t as important as the doing. So they speak up, tell the truth, and refuse to go along, in the face of unlimited money and military might marshalled against them and a corporate media establishment that alternately ignores and vilifies them. They stand up — despite the risks to their reputations, livelihoods, safety, and freedom — because it is all they can do.

I am humbled and inspired by Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, sHell No!, COPINH, the Democracy Defense League, and so many others. And today, as we await a federal judge’s decision about the fate of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, I am especially grateful for the Standing Rock Sioux and all of the people who have gathered at Sacred Stone Camp, sacrificing themselves to protect our water.

Water protectors at the Sacred Stone camp resisting the Dakota Access oil pipeline (source:

Water protectors at the Sacred Stone camp resisting the Dakota Access oil pipeline (source:

Last Saturday, one of the members of the camp was interviewed after being attacked by dogs from the pipeline company’s private security. The reporter asked the man if he thought he and his fellow activists would win their battle to stop the pipeline. He replied, “We win every day, when we stand in unity.”

I am with you. Thank you.

Westbound 27, 12:15 PM

A sixtysomething woman stands near the front door looking for her fare. Her purse-digging delays the driver long enough that a forty-ish man running at full speed is able to make it to the stop before the bus pulls away. He walks past the woman on his way to his seat, breathing hard but still looking sharp in a black Kangol and blue silk shirt.

The woman raises her eyebrows.

“You didn’t have to do all that.” she mutters. “You look too good for all that running.”

Back door magic

When I was a young bus chick, getting off the bus at the back door was a really big deal. It wasn’t the actual act that was important, but rather, the moments of apprehension as I stood there, wondering if the driver would see me and open the doors without prompting, or if I’d have to draw attention to my shy self by hollering, “BACK DOOR!” at the top of my lungs – possibly even <gasp!> more than once.

Responses to a driver’s failure to open the back door are unique and telling. A polite reminder. A demand. A desperate entreaty. Other riders share the anxiety of the person who stands alone at the rear exit, trying to maintain cool and decorum as the panic slowly rises. Sometimes we show solidarity by adding our voices to the request, a chorus of back door!s rising together in the precious few seconds before the bus leaves the stop.

But just as the transfer trade has been diminished (though not altogether eliminated) by ORCA card payment, so too will back door panic slowly fade to the background of bus experience. Fellow bus chicks, behold.

back door magic

These are the rear doors on one of Metro’s new(ish)* buses. There is no need for help from the driver; simply tap gently on the yellow bars and the doors will magically open. The experience of using these doors is transformative. Amazing. Empowering. Magical. But, for a nostalgic type like me, it’s also a little bit sad.

In the short term, we will still have our back door drama. Most Metro buses don’t have the new doors. And the drivers I’ve talked to say most riders haven’t figured them out yet. They either don’t notice the instructions or do see them but shove enthusiastically on the doors, which won’t open if pushed too hard.

But over time, as coaches get replaced and riders get experience, “BACK DOOR!” will be no more.



* They’ve actually been around for about a year, but it took me a minute — ahem — to get around to writing about them. In my defense, I did talk about them here.

Westbound 2, 12:20 PM

A group of middle-aged people, dressed like teenagers and walking a tiny dog, board at Broadway. They make their way to the back, chattering as they go.

Woman 1: “I’d rather talk to people I don’t know.”
Woman 2: “I know, me too. After people get to know me, they’re like, ‘I don’t like you. You’re a b*tch.’”


Last week, between Monday morning and Friday evening, I took 52 transit rides, 30 of them with kids. It was a record for me. It was ridiculous and amazing and exhausting. I was excited to share it on my blog, because where else could I record the magnificence and insanity of a week of 10+ bus rides per day but on a blog about the bus?

I wrote most of the post — which was filled with details* of my bus savvy, my kids’ bus running abilities, and my entire family’s general awesomeness — before I decided against sharing it. It reminded me too much of the posts I wrote in the early days of this blog, which, when I look back at them, make me cringe. I wasn’t all that young (34) when I started writing here, and I’d certainly seen a fair amount of the real world. And yet, much of what I wrote back then – a combination of breathless, pro-Metro posts and tales of all the extreme stuff I did on the bus — comes across as either impossibly naïve or incredibly smug. Maybe both. Metro cheerleader with a side of self-congratulation.

What I was missing back then – or at least, what I failed to give enough attention to – is just how privileged I am to be able to live the life I do. I have access and options and adequate income and support and flexibility and health. Many – perhaps even most – people do not.

Encouraging ridership has its place, but these days, I’m much more interested in fighting for an affordable, accessible, sustainable transportation system that serves everyone.

Back in the day, my Metro cheerleading was based, in large part, on a desire to encourage people to make better environmental choices. Though the desire to live more lightly on the planet had a lot to do with why I gave up my car, it doesn’t have anything to do with why I love the bus.

As I’ve mentioned, my passion for public transit has its roots in a deep craving for community. The concept of dozens of human beings, of every conceivable appearance and experience, sharing space and conversation, passing through each others’ lives, often making a lasting impression, has always struck me as profoundly beautiful. The individual rides are not always pleasant, but there is beauty in humanity, in connectedness, in the messiness of our lives and interactions.

It is the people on the bus who inspire, infuriate, touch, and teach me. And it is solidarity with those people that motivates me to write and — even (especially) after a week of 10+ rides per day — to continue to choose public transportation.

I am so grateful that I can.


* Just in case you’re interested in the details: 7 (5x), 8 (9x), 14 (1x), 38 (5x), 48 (6x), 50 (18x), Link(8x).