Tag Archives: Bus Chick tested

For better or worse, Link edition

Chicklet, Busling, and I took a recent Link excursion to the Beacon Hill Library. We went to attend an event, but I was mostly just looking for an excuse to get the BH stamp on my library passport (and yes, I’m still working on that).

I ride the train very infrequently, but every time I do, I wish I had the opportunity to do so more often. The reasons aren’t particularly unique, but I’m going to share them nonetheless.

– I don’t need a schedule. Trains are frequent and (unlike buses) don’t often experience delays. I love just showing up at the station knowing I won’t be waiting more than a few minutes.
– It’s easy to board with kids. Stroller or no, bus stairs are no fun with little ones.
– Trains are fast and cool. (I’m not the only one who thinks so. Chicklet is an absolute train fanatic. I need to introduce her to the STB guys.)

Pretty train

Of course, nothing’s perfect

Many months after my initial rides, I still think the payment process is confusing and puts too much burden on the rider. Infrequent riders (especially distracted or busy infrequent riders like me) aren’t going to remember that they have to swipe before and after they ride–especially when the card swiping machines aren’t anywhere near the train. We forgot to pre-swipe at Pioneer Square Station and missed the train schlepping back up the escalator to do so. We also forgot to post-swipe on our way out of Beacon Hill Station and made the machine mad by double-swiping upon our return. I’m still not exactly sure how much I was charged.

If you’re going to penalize folks for not paying, the process should be idiot proof.

Ah, well. I suppose I’ll get the hang of it with a little more practice. Here’s hoping I won’t have to wait long for another opportunity.

Paying to play

Bus Nerd and I do our best to limit air travel–in part because of the ridiculous amount of fuel it uses. This sucks a little because we like to go places. And sometimes, we need to go places. Like this weekend, for example. We’re headed to Detroit to visit his family (missed them over the holidays) and (this was his idea) participate in Detroit’s Winter Blast. The tagline for this event: “A Detroit celebration!” Hey, when it’s 12 degrees outside, I’m in no mood to celebrate. I’d rather sit in my Gail’s kitchen, drink a cup of something hot, and play with Hope, her newly adopted bulldog/lab. But I digress.

I first heard about TerraPass back in September. In a nutshell, it’s a company that helps individuals offset their carbon emissions by assessing fees for environmentally damaging activities (such as driving or flying) and donating the money to various clean-energy projects. It’s a reasonable concept, but I’m afraid it gives the impression that people (specifically, people with money to spare) can continue unsustainable, earth-damaging habits and then “undo” the damage by writing a check. (The FAQ on TerraPass’s website addresses this somewhat.)

Of course, you don’t need TerraPass to donate to alternative energy projects, but they do make it more convenient. They partner with major corporations, so you can pay up at the time you make a carbon-unfriendly purchase, and they even calculate the “cost” of your activity. We paid our fees ($17 per person–cheap, considering) through Expedia. It still feels a little like so much guilt balm, but I’m glad they’re out there–if for no other reason than to remind people of the impact of their choices.

And you know I’ll be rockin’ one of these snazzy luggage tags they sent us:

Carbon-friendly luggage

Maybe we’ll get noticed on the 194.

A Sunday drive, bus-chick style

The MEHVA fall foliage tour turned out to be great fun. There were three buses full of people–60 riders total. Who knew these events were so popular?

Here’s the bus I rode:

One of the tour buses

I have to be real: This wasn’t the kind of “vintage” I was expecting. These buses were around when I was a kid, which–in my mind–just makes them old. They even had some of the signs I remember from my elementary school bus-riding days:

Follow the rules

Despite the rain, the views were lovely, though you can’t tell that from the pictures. (Hey, you try taking decent photos from inside a moving vehicle–through a rain-spattered window that won’t open.)

Cascade foothills on a rainy Sunday
Cascade foothills on a rainy Sunday
Cascade foothills on a rainy Sunday

We stopped at the Black Diamond Bakery for lunch, and I got a chance to talk to MEHVA volunteers Jeff, John, and Warren, who gave up their Sunday afternoon to host this bus-chick friendly event.

Warren, John, and Jeff of MEHVA

Thanks, guys!

Next MEHVA excursion: the Christmas lights tour on December 9th. I’ll definitely be there.

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. Seattle.metblogs.com 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.

Moving toward multi-modal

Recently, I’ve started to consider expanding my transportation options. No disrespect to the bus, which has served me well for many years and will remain my primary mode of transportation, but there are times when I want more control over when and how quickly I get somewhere. To that end, on Monday, I took a beginning commuter class through Cascade Bicycle Club’s Education Foundation. (Well, it wasn’t an official class; I spent a couple of hours getting schooled by their extremely knowledgeable commuting specialist, Chris Cameron.)

Busnerd biking
Busnerd, on Bike to Work Day, 2006

Despite the number of bike nerds I know, I’ve never really considered biking a viable option for regular travel, 1) because of practical considerations like how to dress, weather, and hours of daylight, and 2) because I am terrified to ride in the street. (I’ve participated in Bike to Work Day a few times, but for that, I used bike paths, trails and sidewalks. Plus, there was the added incentive of free food at the end of the line.)

Chris gave me some good information about how to equip a bike for safe travel, and we even did a trial run along Sand Point Way. I’m feeling confident enough to try biking on my trips to Madison Market and for other miscellaneous errands in my neighborhood. Next step: Find a decent used bike.

Highlights of Monday’s class:
• Riding the 74 for the first time (to get there)
• Meeting Patrick Burns McGrath (aka Cascade Commuter)
• The bowl of chocolate kisses in the CBEF office

Introducing…Mrs. and Mr. Bus Chick

The wedding festivities are over and done with, and Busnerd (aka Mr. Bus Chick) and I are taking a lot of naps. Whew! Getting married is exhausting. We are grateful for Flexcar (used my membership quite a bit in the past 10 days), but I am happy to be back in my normal bus groove.

For those who asked: We did have a “wedding bus.” We rented an old-school Seattle Transit bus from MEHVA (Metro Employees Historic Vehicle Association) to transport guests from the ceremony to the reception. The bus also picked up out-of-towners at a downtown hotel. This, combined with the scheduling of all other wedding-related events within walking distance of the hotel, made it possible (in theory, anyway) for folks to make the trip without renting a car. Thanks to MEHVA’s volunteer drivers for making it happen.

I don’t have many pics yet, but here are some my father-in-law took of us next to the bus. As you can see (I hope–I compressed them a lot to preserve server space), I was anxious to get going.

The 'just marrieds' by the wedding busWedding busMore wedding bus fun

If not Mount Rainier, then at least Mount Vernon

Jim (left) on the most recent of his public transportation adventures

Jim Moore is a person who lives his job. A service planner for Sound Transit, the man will take public transportation anywhere: from Seattle to Anacortes, from Lake Quinalt to Seattle, and even from Seattle to Brewster (near Okanagan).

On Friday, to test the integration of the Sounder commuter train with one of Skagit Transit’s newest bus routes, Jim (and two other Sound Transit employees), completely of their own volition and using their own time and resources, took public transportation to Mount Vernon. I was fortunate to be one of the people invited along.

First, we took the Sounder from King Street Station to Everett. I am an old hand at riding Amtrak to Vancouver, but this was my first time on a Sounder. The ride costs $3.00 (less if you have a bus pass, nothing if you have a Flexpass), and you can actually purchase your ticket from a machine on the platform.

The train was comfortable, with reclining seats, plenty of legroom, outlets for electronic devices, and overhead storage bins. There were also bathrooms, a huge plus in this bus chick’s book. (Miraculously, I didn’t need to use one, so I can’t tell you how clean they were.) We rode in the front car, which is testing a wireless pilot. I did use that, and, as you can see from my hurried Friday afternoon post, it worked fine. But the best part, hands down, was the view. We spent the hour-long ride kicking back, looking out the window, and asking Jim how to get to various rural locations using transit.

View from the northbound Sounder, somewhere between Seattle and Everett

At Everett Station, we transferred to the Everett Connector (route 90 X), an express bus from Everett to Mount Vernon operated by Skagit Transit. The 90 X is a new route (started on July 10th) and currently runs four times (round-trip) in the morning and four times (round trip) in the evening. The ride to Mount Vernon’s Skagit Station (where you can also catch an Amtrak train, a Greyhound bus, or an Island Transit bus) costs $2.00 and takes about 50 minutes.

In Mount Vernon, we ate dinner at Skagit River Brewery, which is half a block from the train station. Some of my fellow travelers ordered a pitcher of their strong, house-made beer and were kind enough to let me taste it. (It was, indeed, very strong.) I ordered a barbecue “appetizer” that turned out to be large enough to serve sixteen. I barely made a dent (had to save room for dessert, after all) and so packed up the smelly pile of meat to carry on the long trip home.

To save time (and also because we had stayed out later than the last 90 X), we caught the southbound Amtrak right from the Mount Vernon station. The train, which was coming from Vancouver, was crowded by the time we got on, so to keep the group together, we sat in the bar car.

While I drank merlot from a plastic cup and watched the sun set in the spectacular Skagit Valley, I got schooled by Jim and the other transit nerds (“foamers,” as they call themselves) who came along for the ride. As someone who knows a lot about riding public transportation but very little about how it is funded or run, I was completely in awe of their deep understanding of all things transit. They knew about the history of the systems in our region. They knew about land use laws. They knew about the status of all of the transit-related ballot measures. They knew the manufacturer and model of the 90 X. And they knew just about everything there is to know about trains: speed capabilities, safety records, weight regulations, track conditions.

I was glad it was Friday and that I was enjoying the conversation, because there were a few delays (I think to let other trains pass) on the way back. We finally made it to King Street station at about 10:35 (scheduled in at 10:05). I caught the 14 home right outside the station.

Et voila! Seattle to Mount Vernon and back again, with some strong beer, great views, and not-so-great wine in between. Not bad for a car-free Friday night.

Cool stuff I encountered along the way:

• Skagit Transit’s fare boxes. They’ll take bills up to $20 and give you change in the form of a fare card. Nice!
• Internet kiosks in Everett station. They allow free trip planning but charge for general surfing. The paid surfing (usually, I assume by folks waiting for the train) funds the kiosks and their maintenance. Brilliant!
• Chocolate mousse and Snickers pies at Skagit River Brewery. Yum!

Not-so-cool stuff:
• Those trip-planning kiosks I mentioned earlier were out of service when I visited, so I didn’t get to see how well they worked. Actually, I guess I did.
• Amtrak’s self-serve ticketing machine in the Mount Vernon station. It was unreliable and prone to freezing. We barely got our tickets before the train arrived.
• Amtrak’s grouchy staff. Either Amtrak is seriously overworking these people, or they need to consider a different line of work.

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