Everyone On The Bus

I've picked up a new client with offices in downtown Seattle. I need to get down there a couple days a week, so I thought I would try a new-to-me thing: the bus.

Folks who grew up in metropolitan areas are probably laughing, but the whole notion of mass transit is kind of alien to me. First, there's the gear issue. When I go somewhere, I tend to have stuff—instruments, amps, speaker cabs, boxes, etc. Sure, I could probably manage a guitar or bass on the bus, but I can't manage an instrument or two, and amp or two, and all the cables, gear, and nonsense that I need for a typical rehearsal, let alone a show. So even if the bus can take me where I want to go, it's only useful if (essentially) I don't take anything with with me.

And buses just don't factor into my everyday thoughts. The town where I grew up didn't have any sort of bus service until I was 15—I think I already had my learners' permit to drive by the time it started rolling. More importantly, the bus didn't run anywhere I needed to go. School? No: not only would I have to walk almost a mile to get to a route, but it would only run another mile before the line quit, leaving me a mile and a half from my school. I could literally do less walking by bee-lining to school directly on foot. Work? If I remember, I'd get to walk the same almost-a-mile to get the bus, then wait for 45 minutes downtown to take a transfer that'd get me within about a half mile of work. Total time: about 90 minutes and a mile and a half of walking each way. I could walk the distance in 90 minutes…or drive it in 10 minutes.

Before I got a driver's license, I did a lot of walking. And a lot of bumming rides off my older friends.

I didn't have any more meaningful encounters with municipal transit until I moved to the Seattle area in the early 1990s. I lived right next to a major bus route, but the transit system seemed mostly geared towards getting people in and out of downtown Seattle—something I only did if I had a recording gig or show (see, gear, above). Once again, I was in a situation where walking was quicker and more productive than the bus, so I erased buses from my mind. There was (and is) no subway or rail transportation in the main Seattle metro area, so that's not an option. Eventually, I moved again, and the nearest bus stops were over two miles away—an unpleasantly steep two miles. I'd occasionally drive to a park-and-ride if I had a gear-free errand in downtown Seattle (like jury duty or one of the two baseball games I've attended), but getting to a park-and-ride wouldn't do me any good most of the time…so I erased buses from my mind.

But with this gig, I realized that I might have struck pay dirt in Seattle's bus system. Not only would I be traveling within Seattle proper, but I was going north and south in and out of the downtown core—seemingly one thing at which the bus system excelled—and I didn't have to carry much of anything. I checked route maps and I appeared to be in even better shape: in theory, I should be able to get on a bus within a block or two of my house and get dropped off within a block or two of my destination with no transfers. Coming back would involve a four-to-seven block walk downtown, but the bottom line: get on, get off, and I'd be done.

So now I'm an a semi-regular on the bus. For the most part, it works, although Seattle's rush-hour traffic makes heading home a little unpredictable. I've had my share of mishaps: twice now the bus I've been riding has broken down, entailing delays and mid-route rescue by another bus. And, of course, I've had the pleasure of hanging on the aisle of a packed bus when one of Seattle's more disadvantaged, beer- and urine-soaked residents jams up next to me. I'm hoping the smell comes out of those clothes.

I've noticed a couple things:

  • If I miss a bus, I usually just start hoofing it to the next stop(s). It's exercise, right? On my way into town, I can easily cover 20 blocks before the next bus comes along. No one else seems to do this: folks are perfectly happy to scramble to catch a bus, but once they get to a stop, they just hang tight. But I feel like an idiot standing around waiting.
  • As you might expect, the cool kids tend to hang at the back of the bus. There's a group of aspiring hip-hop/rap freestylers I run into every once in a while, back there with their home-made beats, their MP3 players, some portable speakers, and a four-jack headphone amp. Ray Charles may have described rap as "boasting with drum machines," but that doesn't mean it doesn't have entertainment value. These kids can be pretty funny.
  • Some drivers have a "tourist mode," where they announce all sorts of curious things accessible from a particular stop. One calls out specific menu items he recommends at nearby eateries; another has been commenting on store sales.
  • One reason people go in for ringtones is to distinguish their phones from everyone else's phone on the bus. Not once do I believe I've heard a generic, built-in ring. And only rarely have I heard a song I recognize.
  • Some people really do wear earbuds just so they'll look like they're listening to music and no one will try to speak with them. One man I see regularly has a set of iPod-white earbuds he puts on as soon as the bus pulls up…but the end of the cable is just riding loose in his shirt pocket.

My worst gripe is that it's almost impossible to make productive use of time spent on the bus. The best thing I've come up with is trying to read, but between the bumps, noise, and unreliable lighting, it's not always feasible even if the bus is mostly empty. When a bus is crowded, reading seems impolite: I'd hate to be "absorbed" in a book and, say, fail to give up a seat to a senior citizen or someone else who needs it more. I've seen a few people trying to use PDAs and smartphones, but the experience just seems ridiculous: they're constantly dropping their stylus thingies, losing connectivity, or on the verge of battery death.

All other things being equal, it probably takes twice as long to take the bus downtown as it would to drive…but that's not counting time I'd have to spend finding (and paying for) parking, not to mention dealing with traffic and the stress of driving. In bad traffic, the bus may actually be faster getting in and out of downtown, thanks to bus turnouts and transit lanes.

So, I'll stick with it, at least for a while. And maybe I can find some way to reliably read or make use of that transit time.

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