Monthly Archives: September 2006

The bus driver who wanted to be God

Most bus riders know the joy of having built-in reading time, and this book-loving bus chick is no exception. I have my standard favorites (Morrison, Austen, Boyle, Senna, Durham, Smith), my list of “shoulds” (still haven’t gotten around to finishing Middlemarch), and my recommendations from friends (currently reading A Fine Balance, loaned to me by my friend Donna). Then, every once in a while, I’ll discover someone new on my own. This week, it’s Israeli writer Etgar Keret. Keret is not new to the literary scene (apparently, he’s been around for over a decade), but he’s new to me. He’s written a delightful collection of short stories, the most delightful of which is the story the book is named for, “The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God.”

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

This is the story about a bus driver who would never open the door of the bus for people who were late. Not for anyone. Not for repressed high-school kids who’d run alongside the bus and stare at it longingly, and certainly not for high-strung people in windbreakers who’d bang on the door as if they were actually on time and it was the bus driver who was out of line, and not even for little old ladies with brown paper bags full of groceries who struggled to flag him down with trembling hands. And it wasn’t because he was mean that he didn’t open the door, because this driver didn’t have a mean bone in his body; it was a matter of ideology.

Intrigued? Check this book out at the library. (I’ll be returning my copy this weekend.)

I tend to prefer novels to short stories, but I have to admit, stories are ideal for bus reading. Keret’s stories are really short, which means you can get through at least one (no matter how slowly your read or how minimal the distance) per ride. They’re also ideal for bus stop waits–unless you’re waiting for the 48, in which case you might want to break out that copy of Middlemarch you’ve been meaning to get to.

School bus

Yesterday marked the first day of classes at the UW School of Dentistry, and with it, this man’s return to the bus:

A handsome bus riderMy youngest brother Joel, a brilliant, handsome, six-foot-four inch, iron-pumping, soccer-playing, second-year dental student, is also a bus rider. (Yes, I do know all the good-looking dentists–and dentists to be–in Seattle.) Joel’s not a full-time bus nerd or (necessarily) a transit advocate, but he is smart enough to know a good deal when he sees one. Instead of fighting traffic from West Seattle to the U District and paying for gas and parking, he pays a small fee ($44 per semester) for a U-PASS and leaves the driving to Metro. On his rides, he studies, naps, or catches up with people he doesn’t have time to talk to in the course of his busy-dental-student days.

Joelie with teeth
The future Dr. Saulter, with denture-shaped salt and pepper shakers

Fellow bus chicks: If you want to catch a glimpse of this handsome rider, hop on the eastbound 55, or any of the northbound 70-somethings (he takes whichever one comes first) at the crack of dawn or the same routes (going south and west) late in the evening. You might even see him sporting one of those sexy bus rider t-shirts we talked about in the spring. When I finally get them printed, he’s agreed to be one of my models.

Some rules of the ride

Bus rule #1:
If your morning bus to work is late–really late–and you wait for what seems like forever (hours surely), and when it finally arrives, it is bursting-at-the-seams crowded, so packed with people that you can remain upright without holding on (if, that is, you don’t mind making a few friends on the ride), you will be rewarded, upon disembarking, with the sight of another bus, the same route number, but articulated this time, whizzing past your crowded bus–completely empty.

Bus rule #2:
If there is a person on your bus who is behaving oddly (speaking to an imaginary friend or prophesying the earth’s imminent demise or removing required articles of clothing), everyone else on the bus will stare straight ahead (or out the window, or at their books) and pretend that the person in question is not acting a stone fool–unless, that is, some of those “everyone elses” are the masters of public humiliation we know as teenage girls.

Kids, don’t try this at home

Google Transit (one of the projects from Google Labs) now provides trip planning services for King County Metro riders.

King County Metro Transit has partnered with Google in its implementation of an online transit trip planner that highlights Google’s map features. The Google Trip Planner uses Metro-generated data to find transit trips that are operated by Metro in King County.

Along with an itinerary based on their entries for point of origin and destination, people who use Google’s trip planner have access to a street map, a satellite image or a hybrid of the two in order to see a graphical representation of locations along their route. Google’s Transit Trip Planner also provides transit information for Portland, OR; Eugene, OR; Tampa, FL; Pittsburgh, PA and Honolulu, HI.

Pop-up stop information
Google’s UI is good at showing you where the stops are–not so good at helping you get where you’re going.

I really love that Google is thinking beyond cars in the area of directions and mapping. (Can I tell you how tired I am of the “driving directions” tabs on all the mapping websites? Talk about carist.) I love the potential of this service to simplify and standardize transit trip planning. With a few minor exceptions, I even love the UI. Now, if they could just get their algorithms to work.

Today, I tried five fairly simple trips using Google Transit and, despite the claim that the service uses “Metro-generated data,” none of the results matched Metro’s–or were remotely accurate. I was told to walk for 14 minutes to catch a bus downtown when two downtown routes stop right in front of my house. I was told to ride several miles in the wrong direction to transfer to a bus going in the right direction. I was told to take routes I have never even heard of. Of course, as a frequent rider, I knew that the information was bogus, but I pity the poor fool who actually tries to follow Google’s instructions.

Other Seattle bus riders are having similar problems. Christina from Capitol Hill sent me this:

Have you messed around with Google transit yet? It’s not very good. What can we do to let them know how wrongwrongwrong they are? This is from my friend’s house to Group Health. is reporting that sometimes you have to cross a jersey barrier on Aurora to follow the directions!!

Note: I altered Christina’s friend’s address slightly (stalker prevention measure), but the insane route remains intact.

And then there was Todd Bishop’s article in today’s paper:

“It was so far away from anything that was even remotely logical,” marveled Ronald Holden, a Belltown resident whose Google Transit itinerary would have required him to walk 13 blocks and ride two buses for a half-hour to visit his son in Seattle’s Central District.

My advice: For now, stick with Metro’s Trip Planner. It doesn’t have cool maps, but it usually works. When you have time, try the same trip in both tools. If you get crazy results, tell the folks at Google. The great thing about software is that it improves with time–and user feedback.

A late-evening detour

Tonight, Busnerd and I attended the Transportation Choices Coalition‘s annual auction (also known as the “who’s who” of transit nerds) at Triple Door. Good fun.

After the event, we hopped on the 4 and headed home. That’s where the real fun began. Traffic on 3rd was being rerouted because of some kind of accident or blockage between Cherry and James. Of course, rerouting a trolley is no joke, since trolleys are powered by wires that run on a predefined route. The 4 heads east on James, so the driver had to go around: He turned right on Cherry, coasted down the hill to 2nd, turned left, and then continued to coast to the intersection at James. We waited at the intersection for about seven minutes until a “push truck” arrived and pushed us up James to the other side of 3rd. By the time we got there, the blockage had been removed, so we probably would have been better off waiting it out. But then, I wouldn’t have been able to take this (not-so-good) picture of a push truck:

A push truck

Busfather: alone at the top

Mr. Fabre (aka Busfather) on a northbound 48

For the first few months of John Fabre’s reign as Operator of the Year, he shared the title with last year’s OOY, David Alexander (something about a late announcement in 2005). This month, the title became John’s alone, and as a result, you can finally see his picture on buses. OK, so maybe I was the only one looking for it, but still.

Speaking of funny bus conversations…

Here are some I compiled for my August 9th Real Change column:

Monday evening, northbound 48:

A woman and man in the seats across from me are getting to know each other.

Woman: “Oh, my God, you’re funny.” [short pause] “Take me home with you.”
Man: “No.”
Woman: “You got a wife?”
Man: “No.”
Woman: “Then take me home with you.” [another short pause] “I’ll cut your hair.”

Tuesday evening, westbound 545:

A man and two women, probably coworkers, are making small talk on their commute home from work.

Woman A: “Where did you go to grad school again?”
Woman B: “At University of Oregon.”
Woman A: “Oh. Is that next to California, or am I missing a state?”

Wednesday, midday, westbound 10:

Two women get on at 15th and John, talking music.

Woman A, to Woman B: “I’ve got all kinds of stuff. I’ve got everything from Shania Twain to Kid ‘n Play. Gospel, hip-hop, every genre. The sad thing is, since I’m not going to have kids or anything, when I die, my music collection is just going to go in the trash.”

Thursday afternoon, eastbound 4

A group of teenagers is cutting up in the back. The bus reaches a crowded stop, where another group of teenagers is waiting to get on.

Girl in back: “Lord, my sister’s about to get on this bus.”
Boy in back: “Oh, that one with the backpack?”
Girl: “No, the one with the pajama-bottom-lookin’ pants and corner-store flip flops.”

Saturday, noon, northbound 36:

A man and a woman are sitting in the elevated seats behind me, apparently discussing family business.

Man: “I have to communicate all that stuff through Mom. I can tell her stuff to tell him, but if I say, ‘Hey Jason…,’ that’s breaking the no-contact order.”
Woman: “What no-contact order?”
Man: “For saying I was going to kill him, which I did. I said I was going to blow his f-ing head off for chasing me around the house with a machete.”

Saturday afternoon, southbound 16

A man and woman who are both sitting in the back are making conversation to pass the time.

Woman, to the man: “How did you tattoo yourself? Never mind — I don’t want to know.”

Westbound 27, 5-ish

A man gets on with several bags of groceries and sits in the front section, near two middle-aged women.

Woman A: “That’s quite a load.”
Man: “Yeah, I have to do this every two weeks.”
Woman A: “Shoot, I do it every week.”
Woman B: “I do it every day.”
Man: “You got a big house?”
Woman B: “Nope. I’m a big woman.”

Accident: bad. Ridership increase: good.

Good news from the American Public Transportation Association (drum roll, please): Public transportation ridership is up! According to APTA’s press release, transit ridership increased 3.2% nationwide–and a lot more in our neck of the woods.

Bus ridership in small, medium, and large communities also showed increases. Nationally, bus ridership increased by 3.2%. The largest bus agencies showing double digit increases for the first six months of 2006 were located in the following cities: Detroit, MI (14.2%); San Antonio, TX (13.2%); Dallas, TX (12.7%); and Seattle, WA (11.4%).