First and third grades, here they come!
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).
A couple of weeks ago, as our crew was getting ready to head out for a fun family night, I began to feel a familiar, low-level anxiety. It wasn’t stress exactly – nothing really bad would happen if we were late to an optional activity. It was a feeling of being pressed and rushed, of being on the clock. For some reason, on that day, I tuned in to the feeling, and it suddenly dawned on me that I feel that way all the time.
I have written about this before (both when I was single and trying to have a decent social life and when I was adjusting to busing with babies), but for some reason, it wasn’t until that moment that I realized how much it was weighing on me.
Every time we take the bus, we’re on the clock. There’s no room for error in the time you leave the house, because being one minute late out the door means you will miss your bus, which might not be coming again for 15, 30, or more minutes. (And Lord help you if the next one’s late.) If you’re taking more than one bus, you’ll have the same problem again at your transfer point.
This means that we start getting ready to go long before we actually have to leave. (If it’s critical for us to be somewhere at a specific time, we plan to take an earlier bus than we need to, just to make sure that a late bus doesn’t throw us off.) For every outing, my kids have the same routine: go to the restroom, pick out books to bring, and put shoes and coats on. You would be surprised – or maybe, if you’re a parent, you wouldn’t – at how ever-lovin’ long this takes them.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Almost as soon as we get where we’re going, we have to plan how we’re going to get back. If the bus we need has frequent, all-day (and evening) service, we don’t have to stress that much. But we are not always so fortunate. No matter what, we must start our preparations to leave long before we have to go, so there is time for bathroom visits, goodbyes, and the walk to the stop.
Even on days when we use carsharing, we are on the clock; cars are rented hourly and must be returned on time. Unless I reserve a car for the entire day, I am watching the time, usually feeling pressed and hurried, just like when I ride the bus.
Please know that I am well aware that using another form of transportation would not necessarily lessen my anxiety. If I drove a car, I would face traffic delays, and worrying about crashes would be much, much worse than worrying about being late. Ditto for riding a bike (at least the crash part). But seriously, why do these have to be our options?
I am also aware that at least some of my bus-related pseudo stress is a result of my particular temperament: I hate being late AND I hate rushing. But, for people who don’t have the privilege of flexible work, able-bodiedness, and proximity, the stakes are high, and the stress is real. Buses in this county aren’t working for a lot of people. In fact, I would argue that our entire transportation system fails most people, most of the time.
We must continue to speak up — and yes, act up — until this changes.
There are not enough words in my limited (yet stank) vocabulary to describe the level of nonsense bus riders in my neighborhood have endured since the Seattle Department of Transportation embarked upon its interminable 23rd Avenue Corridor improvement project.
Theoretically, after the work is done, the streets will be better and safer for all users, though those users will not necessarily be the people who are enduring the construction chaos. Independent businesses are stretched to the breaking point, and, as anyone in a gentrifying/fied city knows well, improvements almost always result in even more displacement.
Bitterness aside, safer crossings, wider sidewalks, smoother pavement, and whatever other stuff work crews have been doing for the past 11 months (and counting) are good. What is not good is how bus riders have been affected by the poorly managed — and terribly communicated — construction. Bus routes are constantly rerouted and re-rerouted, with precious little (if any) notice. Riders wait for long periods at stops that have been closed because signs are placed in locations where most riders are unlikely to look.* Those who are fortunate enough to learn about a closures in advance often go to the updated pickup point, only to have the drivers blow right past them, apparently unaware that passengers of their route will be waiting there. And don’t get me started on the reroutes that happen mid-ride.
I am not telling you all of this to complain about SDOT’s and Metro’s poor coordination and communication (OK, maybe I am a little) but instead to provide context for yet another example of why bus drivers who are good at their (incredibly difficult) job are so important to our community.
Last week, our family went out to dinner to celebrate Bus Nerd’s birthday. While we waited for the 3, which was supposed to be arriving in a couple of minutes, a Metro supervisor arrived — I assume to put up signage — and let us know that SDOT was closing the street at that very moment. Before the work crew could finish putting out the barrier, a bus came through the intersection. The bus was out of service, heading back to base, but the driver pulled over to ask the supervisor what was happening. (Not surprisingly, he hadn’t been notified of the closure.)
After the supervisor told him what was up, the driver offered to take us to our destination, which was less than a mile down the same street. A woman who had been waiting at the stop with us tentatively told him she was going downtown. He smiled and waved her on board.
“I’ll get you there,” he said. (Indeed.)
I have no doubt that it had been a long day for that driver.** He was probably ready to be finished with passengers and stop-and-go travel and hightail it back to the base for some rest (and a bathroom break). But, he proceeded to stop at every stop along the road, picking up folks who would otherwise have been waiting (and waiting!) with no clue what was going on. He did his best to answer their questions, despite his limited knowledge of the situation. And he did it with a smile.
* I wish I had a photo of the most egregious example of this, which was at the 27/8 stop in my neighborhood. Unfortunately, the camera on my six(+)-year old phone is no longer working.
** When you’re a bus driver, every day is long, regardless of the number of hours you put in.
I have a tendency to write about our family’s extreme adventures. I write about how we ride the bus to Coulon Park or the Puyallup Fair or Yakima, about the three-bus trip with my toddler and week-old baby (in January) to my Goddaughter’s first birthday party, about many of the ridiculous things we’ve transported on the transit.
I’m not sure why I focus on this stuff. I think it’s partly because I’m a bit of an extremist. If I’m not careful, I can drift into the literal, rigid, all-or-nothing mindset of my second grader. (Who am I kidding? She’s a chip off the big chick.) But mostly, I think it’s because the extreme tends to be more interesting and memorable than the mundane. I doesn’t (usually) occur to me to write about our daily walks to school, or our 48 rides to church (which are much less awesome since our stop was removed—ahem), or our uneventful 8 rides* to the dentist in Columbia City.
Our extreme adventures might be useful for entertainment value (emphasis on the might), but they’re not especially good at inspiring folks to action. In my experience, taking small steps, if they go well, leads to taking larger steps, and before you know it, you’ve spun yourself a big, beautiful bus ridin’ positive feedback loop. I, for example, started my journey to completely insane bus fanatic with a simple decision to use my free bus pass from work once in a while. Actually, my journey officially began when I started riding Metro to school at eight years old. But I digress.
The point is, despite my impatience with the concept of incremental change (and the fact that we’ve long since passed the window for baby steps), I understand that it is only possible to move people when you meet them where they are. Or when you become a dictator. (The dictator thing could really come in handy in other ways, like for making sure there’s frequent and reliable transit for people who are willing to use it. Sadly, I don’t have the charisma — or soldiers — to pull it off.)
Though I don’t have many of the skills necessary for effecting change, I do have many years of experience getting around without a car. The least I can do is provide some reasonable, achievable advice to help people drive less. So, in order of difficulty, here’s a (short) list of things you can do to spend less time in your car.
1. Take transit every time you go downtown for non-work trips.
This is a no brainer. Driving downtown is stressful. It’s difficult and expensive to park, and there’s almost always too much traffic on the way in and on the way out. On the flip side, most neighborhoods, even neighborhoods where transit is scarce, offer decent, direct service to downtown. Save yourself hassle and money, and just do it.
2. For optional, leisure trips that are a mile or less, walk or ride your bike.
Spring is almost here, and being outside is good for your body and soul. If you’re going somewhere just for the fun of it, make getting there part of the fun. Chances are you’ll see neighbors you don’t often have the chance to talk to. You might pass a business you’d like to visit. And, I can guarantee you’ll see something you never knew was there. (A few Sundays ago, we took a different route home from church and discovered a house with a giant goldfish pond in the yard.)
Ideally, the walk/bike zone should be two miles for able-bodied people, but I’m starting small because I want these tips to be achievable. Walking two miles (really four, since any trip is there and back) is a decent time commitment, and biking with a family presents complexities. If the kids are very small, special equipment is required. If they are old enough to ride their own bikes but not old enough to ride in traffic, it can be challenging to find a route. (Sidewalks are not ideal for groups of people on bicycles.)
That said, if you have the time to invest in a longer walk, you don’t have kids, or you’re willing to figure out how to make bicycling work for your family, make two miles your goal and give yourself a gold star.
3. Do more in your own neighborhood.
One of the reasons people drive so much is because our culture teaches us to search out “the best” of everything: the grocery store with the most selection, the absolute best swim lessons, the tastiest burger. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t explore. (My family loves exploring.) I’m saying that all this searching for more and better has caused us to forget that there’s such a thing as good enough. And, it has kept us from being fully connected to the communities we call home.
What if you made a commitment to appreciate what’s in your neighborhood (including your actual neighbors, by the way) more often, instead of constantly looking elsewhere? The more reasons you have to participate in your own community, the more you can take advantage of tip #2.
4. Change how your kids get to school.
When you’re crunched for time and have more than one stop to make, driving feels like a necessity. Parents who have to ensure that their kids get to and from school or daycare often drive daily because it is simpler than trying to figure out how to manage multiple stops using a different mode. But what if you thought about your commute and your child’s as two separate trips? Chances are you have options.
If you have school-age children there’s a decent chance there’s a school bus available for them to ride. (In Seattle, kids are required to attend neighborhood schools, so this isn’t the case for most elementary students.) If you live too close for a school bus, find out if there’s a “walking school bus” (a volunteer-led, group walk) in your community. If not, consider organizing one. Or, try walking with them. If they are old enough, consider letting them walk or bike to school on their own or with friends.
The best part is, changing how your kids get to school can sometimes expand the options you have for getting to work. If your kids can get to school without you (by school bus, walking school bus, or walking or biking alone), you can then reconsider how you get to work. Even if you are walking with them (or for that, matter, driving them), you can plan your commute starting from their school. Is there a bus that stops nearby? Do you have coworkers you can carpool with? Can you bike with them to school and then bike from their school to work?
The key is to separate the trips and figure out what the options are for each. It might not be as difficult as you think.
Happy (almost) spring, everyone. Hope to see you out there!
*Starting on March 26th, the ride to Columbia City will require a transfer, which will necessarily make it more eventful. But hey.
My love of the bus has always had its roots in a deep craving for community. I have written extensively (here and here and here and here and here, for starters) about how my family’s bus-based life has enriched our sense of community and our connection to our city and neighborhood.
And it’s not just about sharing the ride. Living without a car has forced us to participate in our neighborhood in a way we never would have if zipping* all over the region was as easy as jumping in the car. Out of necessity, we play at local parks, attend the local school, shop for groceries at the local store, and get our check-ups at the local clinic. (Our church is the outlier at exactly one mile from home.) We frequent the library, community center, and city pool. And, we regularly socialize with our neighbors. Instead of spending our energy searching for something “perfect,” we focus on enjoying — and occasionally, improving — what is available. This way of living has added a richness and sense of belonging to our lives that is nothing less than magical.
But for all its community-building benefits, our carfree life also has a disconnecting influence. We have a network of family and close friends that spans the entire region, and we don’t see them nearly as much as we’d like to. Traveling long distances by bus is fine for adventures, but it’s not something you “fit in” to your day; it is the day. Almost as soon as you arrive at your destination, you’re figuring out how you’re going to get back.
So, we rarely eat Sunday dinner with my youngest brother and his family in Tacoma, or spend a spontaneous afternoon with close friends in Renton or Kirkland. We skip most birthday parties that are held at transit-inaccessible venues — in other words, most birthday parties**. We leave evening gatherings earlier than everyone else, because waiting for a transfer with two small people after dark is not my idea of a good time.
It is very important to us to be connected to the Black community– both for our own social well-being and to foster a strong sense of identity in our children. While we are definitely connected to Black folks through family, church, and neighborhood friendships, we don’t participate in some of the organizations and institutions — specifically, those aimed at connecting Black families — we would otherwise be a part of. With Seattle’s small Black community now so dispersed — “automobility” is essentially a requirement.
Of course we know about (and occasionally use) carsharing, but, with car seats to schlep and no cars nearby, it’s not especially convenient or desirable for us. More than anything, the need to use a car regularly to feel connected reinforces how integral cars are to the way we practice community in the United States in 2015.
I don’t see a path to changing the way of life in this country so radically that cars (or for that matter, airplanes) are no longer necessary for maintaining relationships. Our culture is too mobile and often more focused on opportunity than community. But certainly, we can all work to build connections with the people we share our neighborhoods with. We can think of the places we choose to live as more than just access points to all the other places we want to go. Rather, we can think of them as the places where we build our lives.
* I should note that traveling around this region by car involves very little zipping—hello traffic!—but you get the point.
** Having a few friends over for cake (ahem) apparently does not cut it anymore.
As of last week, it’s been twelve years since I gave up my car. A lot has changed since my 11-year “anniversary.” For one thing, we have another kid.
Our foster son (Heaviest Baby Ever, or HBE, for the purposes of this blog) is 21 months old, adorable, brilliant, and completely insane. (It is no coincidence that I posted my last entry mere days before he joined our family.) HBE has been with us since he was 16-months old, already well into the squirmy, irrational toddler phase. (On the plus side, I got to skip the busing while pregnant part this time.)
All of us have spent the last four months adjusting to this change and bonding with our delightful—and exhausting—new addition. The grown-ups in our household have also spent it figuring out how to manage busing with three babies.
As you might imagine, I have some STORIES TO TELL—about double the drop-offs, the return to traveling with a toddler, and adjusting to having more children than hands—but I’ll save those for future posts. Today, I’m not particularly interested in sharing the details of my personal experience. Or, perhaps I mean to say, my family’s personal experience isn’t really the point.
Over these twelve years, I’ve come to understand that the fact that we’ve managed to make this car-free life work, despite all the children, route “restructuring,” and sketchy stop removals is not reflective of what is possible for most people. It is reflective of some level of determination and stubbornness on our part—and also of a fair amount of privilege.
What’s on my mind almost all the time (and certainly every time I sit down to write something about transit)? The many people who aren’t managing.
Instead of focusing on the tradeoffs and compromises we were willing to make in order to live near transit and other amenities, I want talk about the fact that most working people can’t afford to live in Seattle at all, with or without tradeoffs.
The cost of housing in Seattle has been a problem for decades. At this point, it has reached the level of crisis. It is the most important issue our city faces, and there is shamefully little being done about it. We can talk all we want about urban villages and walkability and live/work communities, but if only rich people can live these utopias we’re building, we haven’t solved any problems. If anything, we’ve made problems worse, pushing people who can’t afford cars to distant suburbs that require them and moving rich people, many of whom will still choose to own cars (even if we ever manage to provide adequate transit service), into a crowded city that is better off without them.
Rather than regale you with stories of the dozens (hundreds?) of times I walked from one end of Yesler to the other (it’s 32 hilly blocks, in case you were wondering) because the 27 doesn’t run during the day anymore (!!!), I’d rather talk about the reliability and availability of transit in this region. The pathetic frequency of many routes, combined with the fact that buses are stuck in the same traffic mess as cars (but unlike cars, don’t have the option of rerouting to get around it), means that buses simply can’t be relied upon to get folks to their jobs, childcare pickups, and medical appointments on time. The way I have coped is by always leaving early, scheduling appointments at times when buses are more likely to be reliable, and living close to everything I really need to do every day. These are not luxuries everyone has.
Looking at reliability in a broader sense: Transit service in King County has been in jeopardy for years. Riders live with the constant threat of cuts, never knowing if the bus they rely on will be eliminated or reduced. In September, KC Metro cut almost 200,000 of hours of service (my beloved 27 included), and riders were left to figure out how to carry on their lives. In the meantime, the agency continues to raise fares to compensate for lost revenue (props for ORCA LIFT, though), and there is still no statewide (or, for that matter, countywide) transit funding solution on the horizon.
One of the purposes of this blog has always been to, as I said, back in 2009, “present a way of life.” I hoped that it would encourage people to think differently and give them a window into a way of doing things they perhaps hadn’t considered. But these days, encouraging people to depend on transit seems naïve, even irresponsible.
Right now, the region’s got all it can handle trying to make things better for those who already do.
One of the key reasons our family has been able to make the car-free life work is that we stay local. By that I mean, the places we go regularly—school, work, church, grocery store, doctor, library, community center—are a walk or short bus ride away. (If we had to deal with long commutes, transfers, and crosstown kid-schlepping on a regular basis, I would have long since lost my mind.) But the fact that we keep our lives local does not mean that we never get around.
We do our getting around when it counts: on adventures!
Seattle is a city of great parks, and this summer, we took full advantage of these fantastic public resources. Here’s a taste of some of the non-neighborhood* parks we visited in July and August–either to meet up with family and friends, or just because we felt like it. (Bold means we visited more than once.)
Ballard Commons Park: 27 + 40
Cal Anderson Park: 8
Carkeek Park: Zipcar (We had one for our annual pilgrimage to The Mountain and decided to make it a two-fer.)
Coulon Park: 48 + Link + 560
Madrona Park: 8 + 2 or 27 + walk (On nice days, when we had time, we walked the entire way–and back–using our secret path through the woods as a shortcut.)
Come September, as the obligations of the school year take over, our adventures become less frequent. (Of course we do have a visit to the gigantic park known as the Puyallup Fairgrounds to look forward to later this month.) By the time winter rolls around, and the weather saps our motivation, they are rare.
I am so grateful for the summer of memories we have created.
* We also frequented many nearby parks, including: Powell Barnett, Pratt, Flo Ware, Peppi’s, Spruce, Judkins, and Leschi.
** These days, the 27 turns into the 33 (it used to turn into the 17, and before that it was the 25), so we didn’t even have to transfer.
One of my close girlfriends lives in Renton. Not Renton as in, near the Renton Transit Center. Not even the Renton Highlands. No, this friend lives deep in Renton–miles from the nearest bus stop, a long way even from a sidewalk.
Every once in a while, I take a Zipcar to visit her at home, but usually, we meet somewhere–either for dinner near RTC or downtown, or with our kids at a bus accessible park, library, or similar.
For our most recent get together, we agreed to meet at Coulon Park, because she had somewhere to be in Renton right after our visit; the kids and I had the whole day free; and when the weather is good, I am always (always) down for a transit adventure. Especially when the adventure includes a train.
On the big day, we got up early to pack a picnic lunch, swim suits, towels, and a few toys, then headed out the door at 8:30 for a long-ish walk to our first bus: the 48. We took the 48 to Mount Baker Transit Center, where we transferred to Link. (Just for today, I’ll refrain from complaining about how horrible that transfer is.) We rode the train all the way to Seatac–easily the best part of the adventure–then transferred again to the 560. Our stop in Renton was less than a half mile from Coulon, and we arrived at the entrance about an hour and twenty minutes after walking out our front door–a few minutes early for our 10 AM meeting time.
Yes, 80 minutes is a long time to travel from Seattle to Renton (twice the amount of time it would have taken to drive with average traffic), but we really did enjoy the trip. Our waits were short, our rides were smooth and air conditioned, and we had plenty of interesting scenery–inside and outside of the vehicles–to entertain us on the way. When we go on transit adventures, we think of our travel time as part of the fun.
The rest of our Coulon adventure was even better than the ride. The kids played on the playground and the beach for hours while I caught up with my girl. After she and her daughters had to leave, we played for at least an hour more. And after everyone had thoroughly exhausted themselves, we made the long trek home. Chicklet insisted on the exact same itinerary, so we could have one more chance to ride the train.
Perfect adventure. Perfect day.
As I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions (here and here and here and here), my fellow bus riders are a creative bunch. One of the many areas through which they express their creative energy is cursing. If there were a world cursing competition, it would be held in the back of a bus. Or at a stop.
I think you see where I’m going with this.
I am prepared to (and in fact regularly do) talk to my children about what we witness, experience, and overhear on our travels. I think of it as their opportunity to learn about the world they live in and my opportunity to teach compassion and reinforce our family’s values. Still, I have a hang-up about bad language–especially certain words–and have always been slightly fearful that my kids would join the ranks of advanced potty mouths before they even had any middle-school friends to impress.
As it turns out, it has (so far) not been an issue. Oddly, neither one of them has ever uttered a bad word—nor seemed even the slightest bit interested in those that are hurled past them with infrequent regularity. In our six and a half years of bus parenting, curse words have never come up.
Until last weekend, that is.
On Saturday, as Chicklet was sitting on the couch, obsessively reading a My Little Pony comic book, she suddenly gasped.
“Mommy, Mommy come here! Come here! This book has a BAD WORD!”
I hustled over, almost excited for an excuse to finally ban this bane from my household for good. (I have no idea why I allowed my children to be introduced to these insidious, equine, purveyors of platitudes, but I rue the day.) Looking simultaneously embarrassed, outraged, and horrified, she pointed out the offensive language: