Friday, February 22, 2008

A first winter bike-commute

I started a new job last month in Tukwila. I drove alone for the first two weeks, but as the weather improves and the daylight stretches further into the evening, I expect to spend more and more time bicycling to and from work. Last Friday was my first non-SOV commute to my new job.

There are some complications. Most noteworthy is that it's a 45-mile round trip, and part of the route has no good bike options, but I'm working up to it. I did some research ahead of time, not quite enough but still a fair amount, and learned that the best I could expect to do on my way to work was a 55-minute multimodal ride, which compares to 35 minutes by car including finding a parking space and then walking the usual 1/4 mile from that parking space to my office; I work in a really big building, for a really big employer. Today it took me 70 minutes, or twice as long as it would have if I'd driven. This seems pretty typical for transit: there can be many benefits to using transit, but in just about any West Coast city, getting where you want to go quickly is not one of them.

I took an express bus from North Seattle to the south end of downtown, the King County Metro #355. Nearly all the seats were taken but there were no standees, which is pretty typical in my experience for most of the peak-hour King County Metro bus routes I've ridden as well as the Sound Transit #545, but excluding the backbone King County Metro routes like the #358 on which it was rare for me to get a seat when I was regularly riding it as recently as a year ago.

After three stops in the U-District and a zing down the express lanes to downtown, I got off the 355 and hopped on my bike to search for the International District bus tunnel station. It only took a few extra minutes to find, but by then I'd already missed my next bus, which could have been either the King County Metro #101 or the #150. 

On my way through the train station, after getting off the escalator, I got asked (nicely) by a couple burly guys in transit jackets to get off my bike  ... I wasn't pedaling and was proceeding at barely more than walking speed, but rules are rules. I didn't know that rule at the time, but live and learn. It wouldn't be the last time I learned something today, and my next trip will go more smoothly. The next useful bus for me came along 10 minutes after I arrived.

My next bus, the #150, was another express that took me down the busway from downtown (where I passed a two-car Sound Transit light rail train moving north on what must have been a test through the graffiti-afflicted section on both sides of the busway and rail route near the stadiums), hopped onto I-5 at Spokane Street, and got off 10 miles later on Interurban Ave. The ride from downtown was wide open, which is as expected for a reverse commute at that hour. I rode the #150 to Ft. Dent Way, got off, and turned left on my bike at that intersection with traffic close on my tail, entered the Interurban Trail as it began just South of there, and crossed the Green River on a new bike/ped bridge.

The trail then took a big bend around the Fun Center at the intersection of Interurban and Grady Way, and halfway through that bend I came upon the railroad crossing I'd hoped to find there but hadn't seen on any of the (outdated) online maps I'd tried using. Best of all, there was no sign there saying "Do Not Enter" or "No Trespassing" or anything of that ilk, so I looked both ways (I grew up around midwestern railroad tracks, and so was comfortable in crossing when I was sure it was safe) and crossed. When I reached the other side I looked back and did indeed see a sign indicating that entry was prohibited, so I imagine this crossing will be the last of its kind for me, especially since I saw a news story later that day that someone was killed by a train in Carkeek Park two days before. About 1000 people are killed in the U.S. by trains every year -- entirely too many. Note to Burlington Northern: Please put up a "Do Not Enter" sign on the west side of this crossing!

This quick hop across the railroad crossing saved me a mile of bicycling, and of course I was able to save myself the trouble of parking and of walking the 1/4 mile from my parking space, but it still took me quite a while longer to take this pair of express buses in getting to work than it takes me to drive. Note to the city of Seattle and King County: Finish the Duwamish and Green River Trails, though I congratulate you for doing as much as you already have on these routes over the last several years.

And finally, a note to my new employer, which will charge me money to use the showers at its facility: charging people extra to commute via bicycle is bad policy!

On the return trip I tried something different: the Sounder commuter train, which I'd never ridden before. There is only one afternoon train per day going northbound to Seattle, but its timing is actually pretty good for me, and with a timely connection to a downtown express bus that would take me the rest of the way home, the return trip promised something that transit has never been able to deliver on for me in 20+ years of commuting: a trip time roughly comparable to driving. It isn't just the Sounder to credit for this unusual competitiveness: the Sounder actually takes just one minute less from the vicinity of my office to downtown than a bus that leaves several minutes earlier, but the combination of its speed on the southern leg of my return trip with the quick connection to an express bus downtown and that express bus' use of express lanes for most of its ride home means there is little time spent waiting at a transfer point, which I maintain can be a deal-killer for too many prospective transit users.

Anyway, I arrived at the Sounder station in the afternoon several minutes early, which turned out to be a good thing because I went straight to the platform hoping to buy a ticket, and then learned that the ticket-vending machines are actually down in the parking lot. So I went back down the ramp to buy a ticket and then hurried up to the platform to catch the train, which was just then pulling in. The cost of the ticket from Tukwila to Seattle was $3.25, about 60% more than the comparable bus ride would have cost, which was disappointing, but even more disappointing was the number of people on board: on the car I boarded there were roughly 95 seats, exactly ten of which were taken. It's no wonder the Sounder costs so much to operate, with that $3.25 fare paying only a tiny fraction of those operating costs! I was heartened to see that 3 of those 10 riders (including me) were bike riders: this car had six slots for bikes, all inside the car itself (unlike most buses which carry bikes on the front of the bus, exposed to the elements), though those spaces are shared with wheelchair users, with wheelchair users having priority. The train had five more cars like this one, too, which I imagine had even fewer people on board.

The train accelerated to about 60 mph for the first few miles of its trip, then slowed down to about 40 at the south end of Boeing Field, stopping entirely to let an Amtrak train pass by in the other direction in the SoDo area, and crawling the last mile or two at 15-20 mph to King Street Station. I counted four at-grade crossings in that area, each one stopping all cross traffic, and now I know why broadcasts of Mariners games feature such frequent train whistles!

I carried my bike to the entrance to King Street station and hustled north to the connection with the express bus that would take me the rest of the way home. It was drizzling by this time. It was only a five-block ride, with a dismount to climb the steep block on wet pavement between 4th and 5th Avenues on James Street, and I beat the bus to the transfer point by about half a minute. I can easily see how this transfer might not work as well in the future as it did on my inaugural ride -- my bus may have been as much as two minutes late --  but I wouldn't have made it in any case if I hadn't been using a bike. There were 20 people on board, with about 25 more empty seats, plus additional room for standees. The bus got onto the freeway a block later and flew up the express lanes to the U-District, made three stops there before getting back into the general purpose lanes for a somewhat slower and more congested two miles to its final exit, and dropped me off a block from my home.

All in all, I felt great about my first winter bike-commute, and I expect to build up to doing this several times a week by summer, with more bicycling and less transit-riding as my level of fitness catches up to where it was last fall. I hope to build up to bicycling the entire 45-mile round trip, but of course a bike trip at a consistent 15-20 mph will take a bit longer than the 60 mph assist I got on board this trip's express buses and/or train. It's still interesting to note the utility of a bike to make the timely connection on this initial commute possible at all. I'm also fortunate that comparatively few people are bike-commuting at this time of year -- I didn't have to compete with other bicyclists for any of the bus bike racks I used.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A bus to Hollywood

I was in Southern California for Christmas week. I flew into Burbank rather than LAX mostly because that's the best fare I could get, but also because LAX is such a zoo, and the last thing I needed was to get hung up on Christmas Eve at friggin' LAX.

Burbank was good. L.A. was good, as least as long as I wasn't driving there. I did meet the usual rich lunatic driver quota in the vicinity of Sunset Boulevard near Santa Monica, but at least this time the lunatic was only impatient, and not to the point of being either homicidal or suicidal, like last trip. Christmas with my wife's family was good, too.

One of the events my wife's family planned was a trip to the El Capitan theater in Hollywood to see the latest Disney film: "Enchanted". I decided to up the ante on the trip a little, announcing that I would be taking the bus with anyone else who wanted to come.

There was no response.

I asked around. "Would you?" I asked my wife's cousin. "The bus?" she asked incredulously.

Several similar responses followed. So I asked my kids, who usually enjoy taking the bus in Seattle. It's kind of an adventure for them, and one I actively encourage, though not on every route, and only during hours when I'm pretty sure they'll have a safe and positive experience. No dice. My two boys wanted to drive with their older cousins, one of whom has been on TV.

Only my five-year-old daughter was game, but by the time we got going it was too late to walk the mile to the bus stop, so my wife dropped us off there on her way. We hoped to be in time to catch the express bus from Santa Monica, but something didn't work out since the first bus we saw five minutes after arriving at the bus stop was a local "2" bus. This could have been unfortunate, as the "302" express was estimated to take 30-60 minutes to go the ~10 miles to Hollywood, and I hadn't scouted the "2" at all, other than to know it was heading the same way.

The people waiting at the bus stop were all Hispanic. The people on the "2" bus were all Hispanic, too. Every one. Note that I'm not saying this in any negative way whatsoever, nor did I feel any different about riding this bus with or without my daughter than I would have in Seattle with a different demographic. Truth is, these were very nice people, one of whom got up and changed seats, unbidden, just so my daughter and I could sit together. The woman in the seat in front of us thought my daughter was sweet, too, though she was very shy about expressing it. She smiled in a delighted way at us every so often, though, so I could tell.

A white man on a bike boarded about the time we were going past UCLA, getting off again several stops later. While he was still aboard, a black man on another bike also got on. The bike racks are just like those in Seattle (the older ones that still function, that is): two bikes fit on each metal rack.

Two things about these buses were different -- and better -- than Seattle's: scrolling monitors naming the next two stops, and TVs. The two TVs were similar to the ones on airline flights, including repackaged regular TV programming, albeit with many programs in Spanish, but also including snippets of a live map showing the bus' current position. This made it much more obvious to me when our stop was nearing, and as a stranger in town I really appreciated it.

Our total time on the bus had been about 45 minutes, with no significant traffic. We had a two-block walk from our stop to the theater. My wife called via cell phone as we walked -- she'd just arrived in line and was hoping and praying that we wouldn't be too late. Apparently, some of her relatives had been laying side bets on how late we would be. The consensus was that we had no chance to get there by showtime. We got there 10 minutes early. Ha!

Even better, we didn't have to hassle with parking, at least not on the way there. My wife parked across the street under the Kodak Theater, where the Oscars usually get awarded these days, and the whole process of finding a parking place and then coming out again is a big part of the reason that she only beat me to the theater by a few minutes.

After the show, we wandered around the Kodak Theater mall, then to the nearby Grauman's Chinese Theater, where a family member's footprints are in the concrete. It's kind of a zoo in that neighborhood, with lots of tourists and a few random people dressed up as celebrities  like Michael Jackson for reasons that I might still not fully understand (I didn't ask), but previous listening to songs like Rodney Crowell's "I Wish It Would Rain" may have at least partially cleared up for me. The upshot was that I really didn't want to take my daughter walking through the side streets of this neighborhood after dark, even for just the two long blocks from Hollywood Blvd to Sunset, so we drove home with the rest of the family. I was fortunate in this respect in that I had this option readily available. I suspect that many people who'd been riding the bus with us earlier in the day did not have this option, bringing me back to the central problem of transit for its ridership everywhere: its safety, convenience, and extended transit time compared to personal transportation options like private automobiles. Yes, I very much enjoyed taking my daughter on the bus to Hollywood, just as I enjoy taking my kids on the bus at home in Seattle, and just as they enjoy in their turn. Every trip can be an adventure!

But, of course, when you have no other transportation options, the potential for every trip to be an adventure can also be a drawback. I've had buses break down while I was riding them, or on which someone had a medical emergency, not often but still more frequently than any car I've ever driven, including some real beaters shortly after I graduated from college. I've also driven past somewhat more buses that had either broken down, or were surrounded by police cruisers with lights flashing, or which got stuck on slippery roads, and I've been on several buses so full that they drove right on past waiting groups that wanted to board. And, of course, transit almost invariably takes longer than driving, at least in the major cities of the western U.S., including Seattle and Los Angeles, though some of that time can be reclaimed by doing other work on the bus, or reading or writing, assuming a seat is available, which is another significant uncertainty at peak travel times.

All of these sorts of uncertainties and inconveniences work together to discourage many people from using public transit who might do so otherwise. If public transit ridership is to significantly increase during these times of skyrocketing energy costs and global warming, one thing needed is public transit that is faster, safer, more convenient, more immune to congestion, and capable of carrying volumes of passengers that are at least as high as the options we have available to us now, as well as being at least as energy-efficient as the transit options being used now, and not costing so much that they break the regional bank. This is one reason I'm so supportive of emerging public transit technology like Personal Rapid Transit, which is being built in London and outside Stockholm right now, with the first system scheduled to come online in Spring, 2009, with many more cities in the world anxious to implement it once they're convinced that it's viable, which it certainly appears to be.