Make the Bus Suck Less–Advice for Seattle’s New Transit Riders Union
Talk about getting it wrong. Sorry, Seattle Transit Riders Union, but I’m going to drop a little truth bomb on you. (Let me just apologize for saying “truth bomb” first, and for the whole overly dramatic set-up, in fact.)
Tonight, November 15, is the inaugural meeting of Seattle transit rider unioneers, complete with appearance by James Bible of the King County NAACP. In apparent counter-programming, SDOT is holding a Transit Master Plan Open House the same night: 6-8 p.m. at the Ballard High School Library (1418 NW 65th St.).
Here is how STU are characterizing the necessity for their existence: “Why do we need a Transit Riders Union?”
- Deep bus service cuts were only narrowly avoided in King County…
- Public transit is under attack in cities across the country…
- Unemployment is rising and social services are shrinking…
- The planet is warming and natural resources are dwindling…
- The global economy is in crisis…
Only one of those items–the deep bus service cuts–is likely to rouse people enough to attend a public meeting. We happen to know that because it already did. The rest are just mainly tongue-clucking “concerns” that leave people feeling disempowered, more than anything. “Seattle Transit Union Saves Global Economy” is not a headline you’re going to read soon. Except right here, and that wasn’t a real headline, so save the letters.
Luckily, I am here to explain why we need a Transit Union, based upon my having taken the bus yesterday. We need a Transit Union because Seattle is full of people who like things to go smoothly, and who grow frustrated not so much when it doesn’t, as when there is no way to suggest and implement improvements. There are a million little pieces to a working Metro system, and bus passengers, over time, become intimately familiar with most that have to do with other people.
On the way downtown, on the #10, sometime past Broadway on Pine, I saw two men erupt in disagreement over something, one moving decidedly away from the other. I had my headphones in, so was never able to determine what instigated it, but did hear the middle-aged man in an orange tracksuit apologize to the man who’d taken offense.
We were already running late–the driver had arrived at his second stop on the run 5 minutes behind and yawning, as if from a nap, and managed to coast a bit past every stop on the way, coming to a halt next to a pole, usually, that people had to insinuate themselves around to get on or off. Occasionally he stopped for no one.
Orange-tracksuit man decided if his apology wasn’t going to be taken, he might get off the bus. He stood in the aisle at the stop, explaining to a compatriot the intricacies of his decision. “Respect the game,” he told the still-offended party. “Respect the game.” Then he remained standing there.
“Go on off the bus!” said a woman, finally. “How about you respect my kids–I’m gonna be late to pick them up.”
“Respect the game,” repeated the man in the orange tracksuit.
“Respect my kids!” repeated the woman.
Nursing his bruised dignity, the man made his way down the stairwell as if it were a kind of red carpet that might any moment turn to banana peels.
On the way back, I hopped on a #10 via the back door, because an inebriated Native American woman was locked in a dispute with the driver at the front. We traveled to the next stop, the end of the Ride Free Area at the Convention Center, and the driver demanded that the woman exit the bus. She refused. The bus was full coming from downtown, and we all sat there a few minutes.
The operator told her, finally, that he was going to call for Metro security. He got off the bus, and unhooked the electric poles from the wires above. Savvier bus riders began to flee the bus. I thought this couldn’t take that long, and stayed put. “I have called my supervisor,” the operator told us, “so we will have to wait until they arrive.” More people beat it toward the exit.
A man up front in a hoodie began remonstrating with the woman. “Shut up, crackhead!” she told him, and went on to detail her complete abstention from any kind of drug. “What’s going on?” demanded a man at the back of the bus, taking off his headphones. “What’s going on with the bus?”
“Ask him,” the woman said, meaning the operator. “Ask him!”
“What’s the problem?” asked the man. “What’s wrong? I’m gonna be late.” He fished out his wallet. “Here, I’ve got five bucks if you get off the bus.” The woman remained unmoved, arms folded, enjoying I think her fierce certainty of being in the right before the lesser crowd that remained aboard. We sat for a bit more, and then the man said, “Shoot, I can walk there faster,” and made his way to the front to exit. Passing the woman, he said, “You best move on if you don’t want to go to jail, they called the police.”
She pondered this and, in a minute, slowly made her way off the bus. We remained stopped. Now that the operator had called for assistance, he was required to stay there until it arrived. It had been 10 or 15 minutes, so the next #10 was pulling up behind us, and I hopped off just as Metro security arrived. The aggrieved woman had wandered up the hill a ways, then back down to the front door of the bus, and they began questioning her.
In all, a half-hour round-trip took well over an hour, and yet nothing went terribly wrong. It’s just that it cemented, for most passengers I’d guess, the feeling that public transit is simply not something you can rely on for timely service, and what would you complain about, anyway? Who would care?
A transit union would, in theory. A transit union would be made up of the 50 people who had to disembark a bus because one person wouldn’t. It would be made up of the thousands upon thousands of people who arrived to their destination late, with nothing but a shrug and “the bus!” to show for it. Seattle’s bus passengers are burning to contribute to a fruitful discussion about Metro security, operator training, and how to get people to ready their fare ahead of time. It’s not just crochets, it’s an impulse to avoid the snags in the current of daily life.
If the Seattle Transit Riders Union can stay focused on that, they, like the Cascade Bicycle Club, could quickly grow into a megaphone that the city, SDOT, and King County Metro would have no choice but to respond to.