Category Archives: bus chick tested

Carfree Sundays, part I

Today, 14th Avenue East was closed (to cars, that is), from Republican to the park. I didn’t make it over there until close to 4, when it was pouring down rain and (even though the event wasn’t scheduled to end until 6), the Cascade Bicycle Club representatives were closing down their tent.

Seattle's first carfree Sunday
14th Ave E with no cars and–thanks to the rain–no people

Despite the uncooperative weather (hey–I’m sure the plants appreciated the drink), CBC’s commuting specialist, Chris Cameron, seemed pretty bullish. Apparently, folks were out in force earlier in the day, enjoying the taste of freedom and community that is possible when cars aren’t present.

Here’s hoping the sun shines on Columbia City next week.

Transit envy

Last Friday, Bus Nerd, Chicklet, and I headed to Portland (on the train!) to participate in the Towards Carfree Cities conference. (Actually, I was going to participate in the conference, and Nerd and Chicklet were going to hang around Portland. Minor detail.) It turned out to be a bad day to attend the conference (most of the good events happened earlier in the week) but a good day to learn more about getting around Portland. (Disclaimer: I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve been to Portland–and on one hand the number of times I’ve been as an adult. Forgive me if this is old news to you Oregonphiles.)

I’ve been known to roll my eyes when folks start going on about how fabulously bikeable, walkable, and transit-friendly Portland is. It’s not that I don’t believe it; it’s just that I’m a bit of a Seattle partisan, and all that Portland love brings out the hater in me. Mostly, though, it makes me wish that my beloved hometown had grown smarter, with transit and biking as a focus, instead of ballooning into such a bloated, sprawling mess. But I digress.

I have to give credit where credit is due, and Portland deserves some credit for thinking outside the car. For starters, their train station is actually clean and inviting. (When is King Street’s interminable “remodel” going to be finished, anyway?) And, of course, there’s the bike thing. I could tell almost immediately that Portland is much more bikeable than Seattle (bike paths, bike parking, and bike nerds everywhere!), but I didn’t try to get around by bike while I was there (hey, I know my limits), so I can’t really speak about it.

Portland's train station
Portland’s train station (the inside ain’t half bad, either)
Bike parking at Powell’s

On to transit:

I’m extremely impressed by what Portland has going on. Though I was only there for one day, and I didn’t really venture beyond the downtown/waterfront area, I can say with confidence that Portland’s system (TriMet) is much more usable (and useful) than Seattle’s. Some reasons why:

The website! I could write an entire post just about this. It is clearly organized, with easy access to the information riders need (trip planner, how to ride, maps, etc.). To find out how to get to the conference location, I typed “Amtrak Station” and “Portland State University” into the trip planner entry fields on the home page and (immediately, without errors or a list of obscure locations I might have meant to enter) got several useful itineraries, complete with fare information, links to maps, and detailed information about the stops, including the stop IDs. All transit websites should be this good.

• The bus stops. At the big stops, the shelters tell you the intersection where the stop is located, so you don’t have to walk to the corner and try to read the signs. The signs tell you: the stop ID (which, unlike in Seattle, you can use for TriMet’s version of Tracker or the automated phone system), if you’re in the Fareless Square, and if the stop has frequent service.

A Portland bus shelter
A Portland bus stop

• The streetcar. Getting around the center city on that thing is a cinch. Since it’s a fixed route and there are maps available almost everywhere, you can (and we did) use it to get from the waterfront to PSU to Powell’s without knowing a single thing about Portland or its transit system. No asking the driver of whatever route happens to show up, “How far do you go down 3rd?” No hassles trying to figure out how to get from one corner of downtown to another without a long, uphill walk (favored by bus chicks but few others), a transfer, or a cab ride.

(Note: I might get my bus chick credentials revoked when I admit that I haven’t yet ridden the SLUT, but there it is. Yes, Chicklet keeps me pretty busy, and blah, blah, blah, but the truth is, it doesn’t go anywhere I need to be–or, at least, it doesn’t go anywhere I’ve needed to be since it began operating. I’ll check it out before the summer’s over, but to clarify: This is not a comparison of Portland’s streetcar and Seattle’s [except perhaps to suggest that Portland’s is more useful to a larger number of people] but rather, a comparison of how easy it is to get around the cities’ downtown areas.)

Chicklet learning about the Portland streetcar
Portland Streetcar: So easy, a baby could ride.

• Digital signs inside vehicles. We saw these on the streetcar and on buses. They are very helpful if you don’t know a city (and don’t have a husband who uses a personal GPS device with his nerd phone), are in an unfamiliar neighborhood, or can’t see out the window.
MAX light rail. I didn’t ride it, but it’s there. Enough said.

Other stuff of note:

• The streetcar had audio ads over the automated PA. They went something like this: “State street station, brought to you by the State Street Grill.” It was kind of creepy, but interesting nonetheless; I’m always keeping my eyes out for new ways to fund transit. Most of the ads I heard were for new condo developments. And speaking of…

A condo ad on the Portland Streetcar
“Forget the car. Live in the Pearl.”

• We ran into Vic and Julia from Sustainable Ballard/Undriving Ballard (he-ey, ladies!) on the streetcar. They were in town for the conference as well. Julia even presented earlier in the week.

Portland isn’t perfect, by any stretch. Like most (OK, all) US cities, it still feels very car-dominated. I’m also aware that, despite their proximity, Seattle and Portland are very different cities–in part because of differences in size and geography, and in part because of better planning on Portland’s part. Still, what I wouldn’t give to have a little of what they’ve got around here. How about we start with a new and improved website?

Speaking of bus chicks in training…

Riding the bus with Chicklet gets more fun every month. These days, instead of sleeping the rides away, she stares at people, returns smiles, looks out the window, and sometimes even tries to pull the bell. (She’s very advanced for her age, you know. Most BCiT‘s don’t go for the bell until they’re at least a year.)

She still rides in a front-pack carrier (good for keeping us close and my hands free), though we’re not using the same one we used for the first six months of her life. That carrier (a borrowed Baby Bjorn) was recalled by the woman who lent it to me; she’ll be needing it for her own brand-new baby.

The recall was actually a blessing, because, much as I appreciated the loan, the Bjorn was beginning to outlive its usefulness. It suspended Chicklet in an upright position, with her legs dangling straight down. This worked fine when she was brand new, but as she got bigger (and longer) her legs started to get in the way. Her feet rubbed against my thighs when I walked, so much so that on long walks, the color from my pants rubbed off on her outfits. And when we rode the bus, I had to force her legs into unnatural positions, against the shape of the leg holes, just to sit down. Neither of us found these positions very comfortable.

So, upon finding myself baby-carrier-less, I set about searching for one more suitable for bus riding. [I ain’t one to hawk products, but…] The one I chose, an Ergo Baby I found on Craigslist, has so far worked out quite well. Here’s why I like it:

• It holds Chicklet in a seated position, with her legs straddling my waist, elevated slightly higher than her behind. This keeps both of us comfortable and does not interfere with walking or standing.
• It has a sleeping hood, which I also use to block bright sun and rain.
• It has a zippable front pocket, which I use to carry my wallet, bus pass, and cell phone.
• It is easy to put on: a buckle at the waist and one behind the neck.
• It’s safe. (At least, it passed all of my indoor safety tests.)
• It comes in nice, neutral colors. None of those “hip parent” patterns that are supposed to be stylish and (unless all of your clothes go with leopard) require you to buy one to match every outfit.
• It’s durable and washable, which makes it a good product to borrow–from someone who isn’t planning to have a baby anytime soon–or buy used.
• Best of all: It transforms into a hip carrier and a backpack carrier, and can hold a child up to 40 pounds.

Whew! Looks like I’ve licked the baby-transporting problem for the foreseeable future.

Now if only I could figure out an equally elegant solution for transporting baby (and bus chick) stuff. Stay tuned…

Chicklet in Ergo (Photo credit: Espressobuzz
Chicklet in her Ergo Baby, after a 4 ride to the opening of Pryor Studios

And about that Connector ride…

Last Thursday, I tried riding the Connector, Microsoft’s private commuter bus. The Connector doesn’t stop in my neighborhood (I have to catch a Metro bus or walk a very long way to get to one of the stops), and it’s pretty easy to get to Redmond on the public bus from where I live, so I’m not necessarily the best person to evaluate it. Still, I wanted to try it at least once, just to see what it was like.

To ride the Connector, you have to make a reservation online. You can either make a recurring reservation (if you want to ride every day at a certain time), or a one-time reservation (if you want to take it home next Wednesday at 5:30). I made a reservation for 9:00 AM the morning of the 27th on the Capitol Hill route, boarding at the Cherry and Broadway stop, which is closest to my house.

The experiment started out badly. I caught the 4 to Jefferson and Broadway and, because the 4 was slightly tardy (imagine that) and running isn’t my forte of late, missed the Connector by about 30 seconds. (I learned later that I can also catch the 8 to 17th & John and pick up the Connector at the Group Health stop, but I’m not sure that’s any more convenient.)

If I had missed a 48 or a 545 (the buses I usually ride to work) I would have simply grumbled a bit and waited the 10-20 minutes for the next one to show. But the Connectors run 30 minutes apart, and I hadn’t reserved a space on the next (and, incidentally, last) morning run. Fortunately, there was a “Connector ambassador” at the stop where I was waiting (they’re there to make sure everything runs smoothly in the first few weeks), and, after checking her list, she determined that there was room for me to ride on the next one. (If there hadn’t been, I would have had to find my way to Montlake or downtown to catch a 545.)

The ride itself was nice, though we got one of the small shuttles instead of one of those big, luxury buses I was expecting.

Connector shuttle

This was a good thing, since the small bus we got wasn’t close to full. Still, just in case you care, here’s a picture of one of the fancy, big buses, courtesy of “Public Transportation Adventure” Jim:

Big Connector

Connector cons:
• Reservation system: I don’t see how this requirement can be avoided, but I predict it will cause ongoing headaches, both for riders and for administrators of the service.
• Managing missed buses: See above.
• Limited schedule: Because of the requirement to make a reservation, a rider is required to arrive and leave at specified times, much like a carpool or vanpool member. No disrespect to folks who choose these options, but one thing I like about the bus (at least the bus I ride to work) is the flexibility to work late or leave early if I need to.
• No fresh air: I’m not sure how they work on the big buses, but the windows on the small shuttles didn’t open. Not that I’m necessarily a fan of folks who open windows, but I like to know it’s an option.

Connector pros:
• Reclining seats: They’re even more comfortable than Sound Transit’s.
• Seatbelts: I always feel safer in a bus than I do in a car, but I still wish that all buses had these.
• Laptop trays and chargers: Nice touch.

Laptop charger on the Microsoft Connector


Laptop tray on the Microsoft Connector

• Overhead bins: Unlike on Sound Transit buses, which also have overhead bins, the Connector only has one destination, so you can actually make use of them.
• A quieter ride: The Connector ride was duller than most rides on a public bus, but it did allow for easier eavesdropping. An example:

Connector ambassador 1, to Connector ambassador 2: “In my 20s, I dated these nice guys who were into commitment, and I was the fickle one. Then, at about 29, I decided I wanted to settle down, and I keep getting these bad eggs.


So then I got with my cheater/liar, and now Tim, so I’m like, ‘What’s next–a murderer?'”

A bus chick’s version of a good day

This morning, I stopped by the County Courthouse to see some demos of the partially wrapped buses. (The Council tabled the vote on whether to allow the partial wraps, so these demos were made available to help the members come to a decision. Members of the Transit Advisory Committee and the Accessible Services Advisory Committee were also invited to take a look.)

The partial wraps leave 15″ clear on every bus window. This looks different on different buses, depending on the size of the windows and the height of the seats. (I apologize in advance for the quality of these pictures; I have yet to replace my broken camera.)

Here’s what a partially wrapped trolley looks like:

Demo of a partially wrapped trolley

Note: There aren’t any real ads designed for this template yet, so the folks at Metro just removed some of the vinyl from an existing ad.

Here’s a New Flyer 40-footer:

Demo of a partially wrapped 40 footer

In this case, instead of altering an existing wrap, they covered the parts of the windows that would be obscured by the ad.

Here’s the view from inside the trolley:

View from inside a partially wrapped trolley

And from the other side:

View from inside a partially wrapped trolley

Anyone recognize the man in the red circle? Yes indeed, Busfather was there as the official driver of the 40-footer. He got to hang out for a couple of hours while the bigwigs (and regular folks like me) checked things out. Not a bad gig for a sunny Monday.

Anirudh, aka Bus Hero, who also happens to be one of my fellow TAC members, was also there.

Anirudh on the trolley:

Anirudh on the partially wrapped trolley

So was my councilmember, Larry Gossett:

Larry Gossett on the partially wrapped trolley

Y’all already know how I feel about bus revenue: I’m inclined to endure a little obscured vision every once in a while if it means more service. The good news is, the partially wrapped buses don’t obscure your vision. I could see out of all the windows, even when I hunched down to make myself shorter. (Of course, I’m not sure how a child riding alone or a person in a wheelchair would do. I’ll leave the latter to the folks at the Accessible Services Advisory Committee.)

Bottom line: We (OK, I) likey. Councilmembers, please vote “yes.”

After the bus viewing, a lovely lunch at the Gates Foundation with my friend Char (which involved a slowish ride on the 70), and a quick trip to the Real Change office, I happened upon Smooth Jazz while crossing the street on my way to catch the 27. (He was driving a bus back to the base, apparently, after finishing his shift.) I waved before I had a chance to remember that he doesn’t actually know me, and he waved back. Turns out, he does know me (and how could he not–I’ve been on his bus about 30,000 times in the past year). He said he hadn’t seen me in a while and had been wondering what I’d been up to. This, of course, made me feel very important and fabulous.

Called up the homies and Im askin yall
Which court, are yall playin basketball?
Get me on the court and Im trouble
Last week messed around and got a triple double
Freaking brothers everyway like m.j.
I cant believe, today was a good day

Speaking of bus drivers…

Yesterday I attended the first day of a two-week class for bus drivers who are converting from part time to full time. (The part-time class, during which they actually learn to drive a bus, is six-weeks.) It was cool to learn a little bit about how Metro operates from the inside, and it was really cool to spend the day with 24 bus drivers.

What I learned (the condensed version):

• You have to be a part-time driver before you can be a full-time driver. Part-time drivers have set hours and tend to be assigned to the straightforward (and relatively drama free) commuter routes. Full-time drivers get benefits.
• The coordinators (those people the drivers talk to over their radios about reroutes, breakdowns. emergencies, etc.) receive 450,000 calls per year.
• During morning and afternoon rush hours, there are over 1100 buses in operation.
• Bus drivers (and the people who love them) pack a mean lunch: po’ boys and sliced grapefruit and cut veggies and fancy chips…all arranged neatly in a mini Igloo cooler. Those of us spoiled by easy access to restaurants and cafeterias (and who barely managed to throw a pb ‘n j and an apple in a bag) did our best not to be jealous.
Drivers don’t like the 174, either.

More on all the statistics and stuff later.

Bus driver class
Bus driving, 201

At lunch, I talked to a woman who, after over ten years as a beautician, has decided to make bus driving a career. Her father is a bus driver as well and has been driving buses in Seattle for 32 years. Right now he drives the 8. She showed me his picture, so I’m on the lookout.

I talked to another Seattle OG, Alan Brooks, who told me that one of his passengers on the 255 actually ate a transfer. Something about Alan makes me think he’ll have many equally insane stories for me in the future. Another thing about Alan: His goal as a driver is to educate passengers not to stop a bus that with a sign that says “University District” and ask if it’s going to Federal Way. Good luck on that, my friend.

Irony of the day: The class instructor, Jeffrey (aka, “the man who brought me Busfather“), included an article about the high cost of car ownership in the class materials. One of the students, Rene, who has been car-free for 15 years, said that his job as a bus driver makes this choice extremely difficult. After all, someone has to get to (or from) the base when the buses aren’t running.

Rene went on to say that, according to his calculations, if he took a $10 cab ride to work every day and rented a car for two months out of the year, the total cost would be less than half the cost of a year of owning the two-year old vehicle he was considering purchasing. “I’m going to try that,” he said. “I’d really like to avoid buying a car if I can.”

Now that’s my kind of driver.

Detroit visit: a recap

I’ve been to Detroit a total of four times–each time accompanied by Bus Nerd. Except for the second trip, when we stayed downtown and practiced getting around solely by bus, our visits have involved a fair amount of car use. His parents, though bus chick sympathizers, are not bus riders themselves, and since we usually go there to visit them, we roll how they roll. And then there’s the fact that Detroit is the most transit-poor major city I have ever visited.

In Seattle, folks tend to be surprised if you use the bus as your primary form of transportation. In Detroit, they are surprised if you use the bus at all. It’s not that people in Detroit don’t ride buses (the buses we’ve ridden there have been pretty full); it’s that people who have a choice don’t ride buses. As I’ve mentioned before, the bus-stop signs don’t even tell you which routes stop there. There are no schedules, and maybe that’s a good thing, since (so residents say) buses are regularly very late. Sometimes (as I learned on my second visit), they don’t come at all. The trip planner on DDOT’s website worked for us on one of our previous trips, but when we tried to use it last Sunday, it was down. I’ve tried using it since I’ve been home. Still down.

A Detroit city bus
A Detroit city bus

Many factors have contributed to the state of Detroit’s transit system:

1) The Big Three: These guys have been undermining and outright blocking efforts to create real transit in the region for decades. They sell the heck out of car culture, and it’s working. It also doesn’t hurt that almost everyone who lives there is employed by the industry (assuming they’re employed at all), and they are justifiably proud of what they produce.
2) Sprawl: Detroit is a huge, spread-out city with no real central point of commerce. Many (maybe most) of its employment and commercial centers are in surrounding suburbs. As I learned in Houston, planning routes and transfer points under these conditions is a challenge.
3) Poor environment for pedestrians: Let’s just say that walking around in the Motor City made me long for Montlake.
4) Two systems that don’t play well together: The Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) runs the city buses, but Suburban Mobility Authority for Rapid Transit (SMART) runs the buses in the suburbs, including buses that go from the suburbs to Detroit. Individual cities elect to participate in SMART, and some (Livonia, for example) have elected not to. This means no bus service whatsoever for the residents of those cities.
5) Racism: Detroit is one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country. The city is predominantly black, and the suburbs are predominantly (often, exclusively) white. Many suburban cities see transit as a threat (don’t want the “blacks from Detroit” to have an easy way to get there), so they don’t support it.
6) Weather: (Bus Nerd will disagree with me on this one.) It’s simply too dang cold to be standing outside in the winter.

Some reasons for hope:

1) Recent efforts to build a light rail line between Detroit and Ann Arbor: This would provide easy access to U of M and stop at the airport on the way.
2) Transportation Riders United: This is a very cool transit advocacy organization that is working hard on the light rail issue and also happens to have its offices in my very favorite Detroit building.
3) Post Super Bowl transit talks: During the Super Bowl, DDOT ran free shuttles from the suburbs and various neighborhoods to the festivities downtown. Lots of people–visitors, suburbanites, and Detroiters–used them, proving that folks will take advantage of options that are useful and convenient. It looks like city officials are starting to see the value.
4) Rosa Parks Transit Center: It’s in progress as I type and will have lots of cool features (for example, a climate-controlled waiting area) I’d like to see here.

And speaking of Miss Rosa (who, me?) … Detroit is also home to the bus she was riding on the day she become my shero.

Rosa Parks bus

Flexin’ for the weekend

TahomaOne of my favorite places on this earth is Mount Rainier, otherwise known as Tahoma, “mother of waters.” It is majestic and beautiful and timeless and humbling and peaceful and powerful and one of the reasons I have chosen to live a public-transit-based life. Every year around the 4th of July, Bus Nerd and I head to the mountain for an overnight camping/hiking adventure. Yes, folks, bus chicks can survive in the wild.

Unfortunately, the bus doesn’t go to Mount Rainier (believe me, I checked–even looked into hitching a ride on a tour bus), so we usually rent a car for a few days. This year, we tried Flexcar’s new(ish) weekend special option. You can reserve one of the eligible vehicles from Friday at 5:00 PM until Monday at 8:00 AM for a flat rate of $100 (obviously much cheaper than 63 hours at the usual rate).

By the time I got around to making the reservation, almost all of the cars available for the special were taken, so I had to reserve one that’s parked in Bellevue, at City Hall. I took the 550 (where I met July’s Golden Transfer winner–more on him in a couple of weeks) to pick it up and then swung by the ‘Soft to scoop up Bus Nerd. We stopped to visit some friends in Kirkland (since we had the car and were on the Eastside and all) and then headed to REI for freeze-dried foodstuffs.

The trip to the mountain was wonderful, as always, though the hikes weren’t as spectacular or strenuous as we’re used to. After we returned to Seattle on Sunday evening, I headed to Madison Market to stock up on cleaning supplies, wine, and other heavy stuff I hate carrying on the bus. We also rewarded ourselves (for two whole days of “roughing it”) with a visit to Kingfish. I ordered a Louisville Lemonade and was halfway through it before I remembered I was driving. I stopped drinking immediately because I’m a bit of a lightweight and didn’t want to impair my (admittedly degraded) driving skills. This caused the bartender to stop by our table (twice) to make sure I liked my drink. The things you drivers have to deal with!

Monday morning, we returned the car to Bellevue. Adam took the 565 to Redmond, and I took the 550 back to Seattle.

I have been waiting for a long time for Flexcar to offer an option like this, and all in all, it worked very well. It was far easier (and somewhat cheaper) than renting a car. Assuming you’re already a member of Flexcar (which you have to be to do this), you don’t have to fill out any paperwork, pick up the car during business hours, or remember how much gas was in it when you got it. (If you have to get gas while you’re out, Flexcar provides a gas card.) All you have to do is reserve the car (on the Web or by phone) and pick it up and return it within your reservation times. Beautiful!

Some issues I encountered:
• It was difficult to determine the availability of the cars that were part of the special. The process would work better if the list of eligible cars linked directly to the pages to reserve them.
• Not all gas stations accept Flexcar’s fuel-only card. I struck out twice in Enumclaw (at an AM/PM and a Safeway) before I found one (a 76) that let me pay with it.
• After hiking miles uphill with a heavy pack, exposing myself to wild animals and creatures, and sleeping on the ground, my only injuries came from…driving. Seriously. I think I pulled a muscle between my right ankle and shin (haven’t worked that pedal foot in a while), I have a blister on my left hand from gripping the steering wheel, and my tailbone is completely destroyed.
• Jokes aside, I don’t drive as well as I used to. I simply don’t do it enough. I still consider myself very safe, though, honestly, I am now (even more) annoyingly cautious and slow.

Bus Chick with FlexcarBus Chick on Tahoma