THE KING COUNTY Metro bus system is—in the abstract—a wonderful thing to behold. The $362 million system (half a billion, if you count its capital budget) consists of 1,300 buses carrying 320,000 riders on 243 routes daily. During the afternoon peak period between 3 and 6 p.m., Metro has 1,100 buses on the streets. The system serves 100 million people a year, and its buses go as far north as Bothell and as far south as Auburn.
So why is it that a system that sounds so great in theory is, in practice, such a pain in the ass? Don't take this the wrong way: I ride the bus almost daily. When I drive, it's in a grizzled, beat-up, 10-year-old Honda, not some shiny, gas-gobbling SUV. Like King County Council members who love to sing the praises of "the best bus system in the nation," I believe in public transit—so much so that I, unlike many politicians, actually use it. But I can tell you why people don't like to ride the bus, and it's not just that they love their cars. It's the illogical routing that turns a 15-minute drive from Ballard into a 45-minute, standing-room-only vomit comet; it's standing nose-to-armpit with someone who's just had his third beer of the morning; and it's listening to drivers who, all well-intended training to the contrary, are snotty to tourists, rude to slow-moving elderly people, and condescending to people with disabilities.
For two months, I kept a journal of my Metro misadventures. What I concluded was that although buses do get people out of their cars, they could—with more routes, better route planning, and more frequent rush-hour trips—do much better. Until there's another option that actually gets commuters out of traffic and onto a fast, truly high-capacity system, I'll keep hopping on the bus, inconvenience be damned. But nothing—not even the monorail—will ever convince this Texas girl to trade in her beloved Honda and become a car-free Seattleite.
It's a caricature of an idyllic autumn day: The sun is shining, the air is crisp but not overcool, and the leaves are drifting idly off the trees along First Avenue. But inside Metro's route 15 bus, it might as well be the dead of winter. The vents and windows are slammed shut against a phantom cold, heat is pouring out of the vents full blast, and there are about 10 square inches of space per person. It's got to be at least 95 in here, and oxygen is dwindling fast. The driver, dressed for a summer day in Texas in shorts and T-shirt, is, needless to say, oblivious to our plight.
I've barely been riding Metro for two months now, and already I've heard at least three horror stories about drivers who are rude to people in wheelchairs, ignore requests for directions from blind passengers, and yell at frail elderly riders to sit down until their stop. I'm sure most Metro drivers are friendly, well-trained, courteous employees. But today, the driver is the other kind. He decides to make an example of a lady in a wheelchair who pulls onto the chair lift forward instead of backward, contrary to Metro's suggestion. "If you ever do that again, you won't be riding my bus!" he tells her. "Very rude. Very, very rude!"
The driver has clearly picked the wrong lady to screw with, and their flare-up quickly erupts into a full-scale conflagration. Finally, the driver tells her he'll refuse to pick her up if he sees her in the future—a violation, as it turns out, of one of the most basic Metro rules: Don't refuse a ride to anyone. Later that day, I spoke with Metro spokesperson Tom Randall about the incident, and he informed me that under Metro's guidelines, people can get on the bus any way they please—forward, backward, or sideways, if that's what they feel like doing. In situations like this, Randall says, "We just need to remind the drivers that they are working for the people who are riding the buses." I couldn't have said it better.
I'm staring with disbelief at the seat where, just minutes before, a street alcoholic with slumping shoulders and a sad-sack expression decided to relieve his bladder. That's right, I saw someone pee on the seat on a public bus. For once, I'm glad the bus was crowded—it meant I was standing up, not sitting next to the guy, and am able to edge slowly away. The girl on the seat next to him isn't so lucky. She's got that faraway look on her face that says she's at the beach, walking through the woods, or maybe (paradise!) driving her car—anywhere but riding on a hot, crowded Metro bus next to a drunk with piss-stained pants. He gets off, and most of the stench goes with him down the aisle, to the front of the bus, and down the stairs, where he pauses, examines his pants with apparent wonder, and mutters, "Oops," before stumbling off.
You know, I'm starting to understand why some bus drivers finally snap: It's the passengers. Not the passengers in general—that one passenger who gets on every bus and manages to make things miserable for all the others. Today, that passenger is a stout woman who's lugging what looks like a heavy suitcase and carrying a box of laundry detergent in a plastic sack. When she gets on, she loses hold of the sack, causing a cascade of detergent to spill down the stairs and all over the aisle. (Had this happened a week later, we'd all have been evacuated, and the suspicious powder tested for anthrax.) Anyway, she's pissed, and she lets everyone know it. "FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!" screams Ms. Articulate. A kindly looking older man smiles gently and admonishes her. "Nice language, lady." He stops smiling when she shouts, "Fuck you, old man." She picks the seat next to me to sit in, and the one where I'm sitting to stash her suitcase, which she slams, without apparent concern, against my shin. Maybe it's time to revise that rule that doesn't allow drivers to turn passengers away.
Here's my dirty little secret: Sometimes, when I get up too late to make the 8:55 bus out of Ballard, I drive downtown. There's an area just north of downtown where you can park for free if you're willing to hunt, and from there you can walk to First Avenue and catch any bus down to the Weekly office. Contrary to the spirit of public transportation? Maybe. But let Metro add some buses so they get to my neighborhood more than once every half hour—then we'll talk.
Anyway, on this particular morning, I've chased my bus all the way down Elliott. I park on Western and slam my legs into gear, chugging up the hill on Denny at about half a mile an hour. The driver sees me chugging, but he's chugging faster. By the time I'm within sight of my stop, he's already there. But get this: He waits for me, a decision that costs his route at least a minute and a half, and by the time I arrive, out of breath and grateful, I've decided to nominate this driver for Metro's Operator of the Year.
I'm a sometimes bike commuter, and I'll be the first to admit that bicyclists often interpret the rules of the road a bit creatively. But that's no reason to even joke about running them down, as several bus passengers—and, incredibly, the driver—did this morning. Actually, it wasn't exactly a joke: After a bicyclist veered a bit close to the side of the bus, one passenger started yelling, "Hit him! Hit him!" and pretty soon several more joined in. "If I didn't need my job, I'd tap him on the butt," the driver (who I've also seen take off before elderly passengers are seated) chimed in. (Tap? With a 40,000-pound bus? More like pulverize.) I guess even the mighty weight of running the county's public transportation system can't entirely squelch that most common of driver maladies—road rage. And speaking of road rage, I'd just about kill to be in my car right now.