Lost, Again, in Seattle

Can I just get a proper bus map?

Clue me in here: Is using the bus in Seattle some kind of treasure hunt? I moved here from San Francisco seven weeks ago, and I still can't figure out how the city's public transportation system works.

It's not a defect with the King County Metro Transit Agency's coverage. I know people complain about the frequency of buses here, but every major street seems to have its own bus line, and I think it's technically possible to get from White Center to Lake City on $1.50. The problem isn't due to a lack of customer assistance, either. From my desk, I can visit the Metro Online Web site and plug any two addresses in, with my desired arrival time, and print out a route, complete with walking directions to the bus stop. Or I can call the trip advisor line from any corner in King County and find out how to get from where I am to my destination.

But every time I want to get on a bus, I have to call Mama Metro to tell me which one to take—there's no way for me to get to know the city on my own terms or my own time. All I need, I've been telling anyone who dares offer help to a guy staring up at a bus stop with bewilderment and rage on his face, is a good map: just a street map of Seattle with the bus lines printed on them. That's it. Portland, Vancouver, and New York have them. You can pick up a street/bus map at every El stop in Chicago or find one posted at every major bus stop in San Francisco. Never felt lost in those cities.

Metro does publish one system map, an abstracted diagram of all the bus routes in its coverage area, but the diagram only identifies most of the streets that the bus routes travel and none of the streets it doesn't. Given the scale of the map and the way bus lines are identified, it's impossible to trace the entire length of a given route.

My hunt for a usable public transportation map has become a holy-grail quest that has led me to repeat my request to new Seattleites, native Seattleites, hotel concierges, bookstore owners, the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau, and finally, Metro itself.

I tried explaining what I was looking for to a couple of Metro staffers, and they were befuddled by my befuddlement. True to the spirit of good customer service, agency press rep Rochelle Ogershok spent a long time trying to figure out why the Web site and phone lines weren't enough for me—"You're the first person to ever ask for a map like that," she said—and after our call, continued talking to folks around the agency. A few days later she sent me an e-mail:

"I talked with our map folks and they tell me the challenge is trying to squeeze that much information (including roads that serve multiple transit routes) into a single map that doesn't confuse people. . . . So, in the meantime, you might just want to have a map of Seattle on hand and cross-check it with our transit system map if you are someplace and you're not sure which direction to walk to catch a bus." More transportation information products are on the way, Ogershok also says. And there's always that help line.

One of my friends says she remembers how much she wanted a basic Seattle bus/street map when she arrived here a decade ago. Line by line, she slowly learned her way around. Line by line, I'm learning: I can take the 7, the 36, the 12, and the 10 with no assistance. But if I want to really explore the city, meandering from neighborhood to neighborhood in search of little noodle joints and obscure shoe stores, even Metro tells me I have to pack two maps and my cell.

Seattle may be one of the greenest cities in the country, but since I moved here I've been choosing the car far more than I ever expected. I may have to drive with one eye on the road and one eye on a map, but at least I can get lost—and find myself again—on my own.


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