FOR SOMEONE without a car, I am undoubtedly a lucky man. That's because my apartment on Capitol Hill is within 40 feet of three of the best Metro lines in Seattle—the 7, the 43, and the 8. Downtown, the University District, and Seattle Center are all within 15 to 20 minutes from me, with no parking fees, no stress, and nothing more annoying than the occasional overly talkative seat partner.
But it was a long time before I found anything especially romantic about bus travel around Seattle. Our city's bus routes were designed to favor commuters, not explorers; convenience, not scenery. As a result, routes that should provide pleasing views of nature and neighborhoods are far more often mundane. Take the 57 to Alki, for example: Instead of winding its way along the waterfront, the bus shoots up S.W. Admiral Way, takes a sudden plummet down to the beach, and then travels along the sea for a few blocks before climbing again into the unremarkable Admiral neighborhood.
Still, there are some grand surprises to be found in the extensive geography covered by Metro, which ranges all the way across King County north (the 358 goes all the way to Aurora Village), south (the 174 and 194 to South Federal Way), east (the 215 and 209 to North Bend), and southeast (Enumclaw via the 150 from downtown and the 915 from Auburn, or the 152 direct during peak hours). Even without taking any intercity routes, there's an astonishing variety of territory to be covered.
That 209 route, for example: While it terminates in the decidedly unromantic Factory Outlet Mall in North Bend, the section of the ride from Issaquah winds its way through the mountains past Snoqualmie, giving view to several stunning vistas of dark green woods and even the famous falls.
As to your conveyance, there are three types of Metro buses. The older white buses, manufactured by a company called Flyer, are the most familiar and include all of the double-sized "articulated" buses (of which Metro has the largest fleet in North America). These are slowly being replaced by the Gilligs, introduced in 1996. The Gilligs sport a green and black color scheme with blue-green interiors, and are in most ways preferable to the older line: They offer padded plastic seats, a wider seat configuration, and a euphonious tone when the "next stop, please" cord is pulled. They seat five fewer passengers than the old Flyers, though (42 as opposed to 47), and the flat, ungrooved floors have less traction and a greater tendency to become slippery when wet.
The third buses aren't properly buses at all but are large green vans called Champions. These smaller vehicles seat 18 and are used primarily on special and rural routes. There's an air of pleasant informality in a Champion, with the passengers and drivers often chatty and boisterous, and though they deliver a bumpier ride than their larger counterparts, they're a pleasant change of pace.
The biggest innovation of Metro in the last couple of years hasn't been in the buses themselves, however, but on the Web. Metro's comprehensive Web site has sections on special events, route changes, popular destinations, and other news—all laid out in an impressively functional format. If you haven't had a chance yet, turn your browser over to http://transit.metrokc.gov/, and, assuming your machine has the correct specs, you can use Metro's Smarttrek feature to watch your bus route move over a map of Seattle in real time. This is a weirdly seductive pastime, and, if you're not careful, you can end up missing the real bus while watching its virtual avatar.
Despite the cuts imposed on service last February by Initiative 695, when Metro lost about 4 percent of its service, reorganization and funding from the recent sales tax increase mean that much of the service is back to post- Initiative standards, according to Ron Postuma, assistant director of King County's Department of Transportation. Initial cuts, primarily on the lower ridership routes, will be restored pretty much to full by next February. "We tried not to do amputation, just minor surgery," says Postuma, "with the hope that we could eventually restore all service and actually increase it to reflect population growth. It's been a struggle, but we're pretty much on track now."
So if you're up for a bus safari, here are some suggested routes:
Route 209 travels between Issaquah and North Bend, providing service along 1-90. It leaves from Issaquah Park-and-Ride, so catch the 215 from downtown Seattle and then transfer to the 209. During peak hours, you can catch a 214 from downtown direct to North Bend.
If you'd like to explore a small town via Metro, try Enumclaw via the 915. From downtown you catch a 152, than make your connection to the 915 in Enumclaw.
For some island-hopping, take the 54 to Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal, then board the 117, 118, or 119 on Vashon Island to Burton and Westside.
During peak hours, a passenger-only ferry between Seattle and Vashon is also met by a Vashon Island bus.
The routes 3 (East Queen Anne) and 4 (North Queen Anne) serve up to Taylor Hill and afford great views of the city on the way up.
To reach Golden Gardens via Ballard, start on the 7 to the U District. After transferring to the 44, you'll finally arrive via the 86 to walk along the sea and watch the mallards, geese, crows, seagulls, and sparrows all grazing the same ground in an uneasy truce.
If you ride to the end of route 2 to Madrona, you'll end up at Lake Washington, where you'll find a great view of Mount Rainier from the bus stop.
Route 56 takes you to Alki from downtown. There's a viewpoint at Admiral Way, and you'll get a great view of Seattle and the Duwamish industrial area on the way over. Although the route ends at Alki, it misses much of the waterfront.
The 921 runs between Bellevue, Eastgate, and Somerset. Parts of Somerset Drive give you a view of Mercer Island, Seattle, and Bellevue.
An exotic (and brief!) alternative to buses is the waterfront streetcar, which you can use your Metro pass or transfer to board. Traveling from Bell Street to Pioneer Square is an evocative, if fleeting, experiment in time travel.
For the ultimate bus nostalgia trip, you've got to check out the trips sponsored by the Historic Vehicle Association. Their fleet of historic trolleys and motor buses, dating from 1919 to the 1970s, are carefully preserved and reconditioned. The buses depart from Second Avenue South and South Main, across from the Seattle Fire Department headquarters. Fares are $5 for adults, $4 for seniors (65 and over), and $4 for children (2-11), with no regular Metro tickets or passes accepted. The months to come feature two special excursions: a four-hour tour of Seattle's trolley system that goes through Queen Anne Hill, Capitol Hill, and Montlake (11 a.m. Sun., July 8); and a Night Trolley Tour that takes in Pioneer Square, Broadway, Lower Queen Anne, and the University District (6:30 p.m. Sat., Sept. 22). Call the hotline for more details: 684-1816.