Monthly Archives: March 2006

From bars to bus shelters

After a legal review of Initiative 901, the county health department has concluded that it is against the law to smoke within 25 feet of a bus shelter.

Bus stops have always been popular places to light up, but I noticed an immediate, marked increase in the numbers of smokers at my stops as soon as 901 went into effect. Folks were smoking as many cigarettes as they could suck down before their buses arrived, and even non-bus riding smokers, cast unceremoniously out of their usual haunts, were showing up. There was (and continues to be) a defiant tone to bus-stop smoking, as if to say “You’ve kicked us out of everywhere, but you can’t kick us off the street!”

Apparently, they can.

OK, not exactly. Only bus shelters are affected, not regular bus stops–unless, of course, the regular bus stops are within 25 feet of a building entrance.

I can’t say I’m mad about the ban (bus exhaust provides enough toxic fumes for me, thanks), but it will be interesting to see how it’s enforced. Will the transit police monitor all 1750 bus shelters in the county? Will the SPD spend their time writing warnings and tickets? It hardly seems likely, given the department’s stand on marijuana, and the number of people who smoke that at bus stops.

But that’s a different post altogether.

How GM made this chick a bus chick

Last night I finally watched Taken for a Ride,–only 10 years after its 1996 release. The film is only available on VHS, and even then, copies are scarce (I got mine from the library), but if you haven’t seen it yet, you should make the effort.

Taken for a Ride is a documentary about how General Motors, through the holding company National City Lines, purchased streetcar and trolley systems in 40 American cities (not sure if Seattle was one of them, but I do know we used to have streetcars) and purposely altered operations to make them less efficient and useful. They then destroyed the existing streetcar infrastructure, burned or sold the trolleys, and replaced the systems with GM buses.

Beyond simply making cities dependent on vehicles that the company made, the intent behind this move (or so the film asserts) was to provide people with a less desirable public transportation option (buses are noisy, polluting, and dependent on traffic), so more people would choose to travel by car. It also had the added benefit of making the newly track-free streets completely available to motorized traffic.

GM was part of the extremely powerful highway lobby, the force behind the interstate highway system we know today. Apparently, freeways began to appear in cities in the late 50’s/early 60’s, and apparently, there was strong citizen opposition to them. The filmmakers interviewed community activists who said that when freeways came to their cities, homes, libraries, and churches were demolished, and neighborhoods were bisected.

I remember an incidental mention of resistance to I-5 in my Quintard Taylor book about the history of the Central District, and when I was a kid, my dad would tell stories about what Seattle was like before there was an I-5. I listened politely, but in my mind, it was just talk, no different from my grandma’s stories of penny candy and eggs straight from the chicken. Even now, as much as I support the idea of transit-dependent, car-free communities, I simply cannot conceive of an American city that does not have freeways.

Which reminds me (and then I promise I’m done): My favorite part of the film was the old footage of highway lobby TV ads. The first one showed 1950’s-style “good American” types sitting in their cars, frustrated by noisy, gridlocked traffic. The voice-over says something like, “It’s your country.” [um, actually…] “Ask for better highways and more parking space.” The second one was almost as good. I can’t exactly remember the action–I think it showed someone driving on a beautiful, coastal highway–but that’s not important. The important thing was the text that flashed across the screen: Mobility: the Fifth Freedom.

What’s good for GM…

A perfect bus storm

This is how my fiance, Adam, referred to his commute yesterday. His first morning bus, a route that runs every 10-15 minutes, was 30 minutes late (the result of a rare combination of frequent lift use and an abundance of school children). Of course, this meant that he missed his transfer at Montlake–a few times–and was later than he wanted to be to work.

He left his office in Redmond at 8:10 (yeah, tell me about it), but thanks to last night’s 520 closure, his 8:17 bus didn’t arrive until well after 9:00. The rerouted bus got him downtown at an off time (when none of his preferred buses was expected), so he took one that dropped him off almost half a mile from his house and walked the rest of the way.

He finally arrived home at 10:35, at which time he me called to say, “I’ve got something good for your blog.”

So he did.

And speaking of school…

It looks like Ballard and Franklin students will be riding Metro to school, starting in the fall. Metro’s official position is positive, but it looks like some bus drivers have misgivings. From the March 3rd PI article:

“Marc Auerbach, a 10-year Metro Transit operator and former Seattle school bus driver, urged the board not to meet just with Metro executives but to sit down with drivers as well. He noted that Metro drivers aren’t able to deal with discipline problems or other potential emergencies.”

They aren’t the only ones. Though I am positive about the idea in theory, I have ridden the bus with high school kids enough to know I’m not going to like it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be one of those grown folks who hates on teenagers. Shoot, when I was a teenager, I rode Metro to school–and most likely cut up and made too much noise, like the kids I ride with now. OK, so maybe I am one of those old folks hatin’ on teenagers (sorry, guys), but my own potential (and minor) irritation is certainly not what’s at issue.

I hope that the district considered all the costs associated with this change when calculating the projected savings. It’s not just about buying bus passes for the kids. There will be the added service on the most frequently used routes (unless they’re assuming that the county is going to cover it), possible schedule changes to accomodate staggered arrival, and, of course, discipline. (Metro plans to ask for staff from the district and the two schools to work with its transit police and operations personnel.)

It will be interesting to see how everything goes. I hope they can work the kinks out with the pilot and find a way to make it successful. It would be nice to see the district save money and take advantage of its existing (and quite good) bus service.

What do you think? Anyone out ride on one of the affected routes (I’m guessing the 15, 28, 7, and 48)? Any high school kids who will be part of the program?

Old school meets new school

Buses may be old-school technology (rapid transit now, please!), but at least the folks running our bus system are embracing the future. King County Metro has won several national awards for its Web site, and it ain’t hard to figure out why. The site has a bunch of cool tools, including a video about how to ride the bus (seriously) and a trip planner. The latest is a real-time bus viewer called Tracker. Tracker lets you locate any route, anywhere in the city. This is useful if you’re (for example) leaving work and want to know how many minutes you have before your bus gets to your stop.

A beautiful complement (still in its pilot stages) to all these fun toys is the free wireless Internet access that Metro and Sound Transit offer on certain routes (MT 48, MT 197 and ST 545). Theoretically, with all these tools, a person (a bus chick?) could be riding the bus and at the same time using the trip planner to figure out how to get where she needs to go and the bus viewer to see if she will make her transfer. Very bus chick friendly, no?

If it wasn’t for Octavia Butler…

If it wasn’t for Octavia Butler, I would not know my friend Coby, a deep thinker, a gifted artist, and a good soul. We met on the 545 over a year ago. I noticed him because he was a fellow brown person (not especially common on that route) and because he was reading an Octavia Butler novel a mere two weeks after I had finished Parable of the Sower, my first exposure to Butler. I struck up a conversation with Coby and discovered that he was an MFA-student-turned-video-game-script-writer who had also chosen to live a car-free life. We have had a bus friendship ever since.

Coby and I don’t ride the same bus to work anymore, but we have done a reasonable job of staying in touch. Almost every time we get together, the subject turns to Ms. Butler and our mutual admiration of her work. Last Monday morning, when I heard that she died, he was one of the first people I thought of. Sure enough, before the end of the day, he sent me an e-mail, expressing his surprise and grief. I am sorry for both of us that there won’t be any new work to discuss.

If it wasn’t for Octavia Butler, I would not have expanded my narrow (somewhat snobbish) view of science fiction. For most of my life, I thought of science fiction as cheesy, formula pseudo-literature, filled with spaceships and aliens and written for 13-year old boys. But Butler’s work, some of the most thought-provoking social commentary I have ever read, shows the instructive value of writing stories that are not constrained by reality.

If it wasn’t for Octavia Butler, lucky bus riders in our fair city would not have had the chance to talk to a real, live MacArthur fellow. Her P.I. memorial says that she “was a confirmed non-driver who would chat with other bus passengers.”

If it’s good enough for Octavia Butler, ladies and gentlemen…

The world, according to Bus Chick

In April of 2003, I made a choice to sell my car and use the bus as my primary form of transportation. (To find out why, read my first Real Change column.)

In these first three “car-free” years, I have come to the following conclusions:

1. Seattle has one of the best bus systems in the country.
Though there is certainly room for improvement, having ridden the bus in many other cities (including Houston, Detroit, San Francisco, Boston, and Aspen), I can honestly say that King County Metro leads the pack.

2. It is possible (if not always convenient) to live here without a car.
Of course, it is not possible for everyone (delivery drivers, for example), but for most who are willing to make a few small changes to the way they live–and one big change to the way they think–it is a viable option. And now that Seattle has a car-sharing program (for those dog food/fertilizer/Costco runs) there is almost no risk to try it.

3) Future development of our city should focus on accommodating public transportation–not cars.
Part of the reason people are so shocked when I tell them I don’t have a car is because the cities and neighborhoods in our region were not constructed with the car-free individual in mind. From now on, they need to be. We must grow more efficiently and create an infrastructure that accommodates walking and riding–that is, unless we’d rather see more cars on the road.

4) Seattle really, really needs rapid transit.
Buses are good–certainly far better than the alternative of everyone driving alone–but let’s face it: They’re only part of the solution. A truly successful system integrates buses with a mode of transportation that is both nonpolluting and independent of traffic.

If you ride the bus in this region, want to ride the bus in this region, or just want to know what it’s like to ride the bus in this region, this blog is for you. You will find resources and information about our current bus system (for example how to get started, get around, or find the best solution to a transportation problem).

If you are interested in the future of public transportation or the future of this (beautiful but rapidly changing) city, this blog is for you. You will find information about current and upcoming transit projects, regular analyses of the gaps in service, and information about development projects that will influence the viability of a long-term transit solution.

Finally, if you are interested in your fellow citizens, this blog is definitely for you. You will find regular stories about all of the brilliant, insane, angry, kind, confused, beautiful people I encounter and observe every day.

If you’ve gotten this far, I hope it is because you are at least somewhat interested in coming back. I hope you will do so often.

Happy reading!