Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Bike/bus commute conversations

I'm bike-commuting twice a week these days, except during weeks with lots of rain like last week. I haven't ridden the bike for an entire 45-mile round-trip yet, but I'm working up to it. Yesterday was typical, where my bike ride on the morning leg was minimal -- I piggybacked on two express buses, only bicycling 1-2 miles at the beginning, end, and between the transfer bus stops, but I rode the bulk of the way home (16-17 miles), only catching a bus for 5 of the last 6 miles on the uphill finish.

I really don't have many complaints about the express bus/bike piggybacks except of course that they continue to take roughly twice as long as driving -- it's really quite remarkable that they work as well as they do: for all its imperfections King County Metro seems like a remarkably competent organization.

My one-sided conversation with another bus passenger yesterday afternoon reminds me that I've been having similar interactions on most of my last few bus trips with people who are either in trouble or who have some sort of disability. Whether it's my bicycling garb (wearing shorts in the winter?!) which makes me seem more approachable than the usual bus commuter is something I may never know.Yesterday after bicycling from Tukwila to the north extent of the downtown ride-free zone to catch my express bus home, I made my way back through the bus towards the back when a young man started chattering at me. He had an empty seat next to him (unusually, there were still quite a few empty seats, even though this is one of the busiest routes in Seattle) and looked harmless, so I sat down with him. This seemed to rev him up even more, and he started nattering on about some of his bodily functions and speculating on his own interspecies genetics, dropping the occasional f-bomb. He did notice that I was sniffly and sneezy (spring is hay fever time for me, which bicycling exacerbates), and so asked a few questions that allowed me a few words to contribute to the interaction, but it was mostly a nonstop stream of words from him that I (and the people around me) didn't really need to hear, though friendly enough.

Two weeks ago I got lectured by a man with Down Syndrome (for the second time) about nutrition and proper health maintenance. I let him augment my conscience on health issues, about which he is frankly rather well informed, now substituting fruit for a scone upon my arrival at work most days. I enjoy talking with him, actually, and I'm sure I'll do so again.

Also two weeks ago I sat across from two men who were discussing their rehab, love lives, and some of their near-term dreams, like buying a bed or a TV. One may have been advising the other as part of an AA-type group. The other discussed his girlfriend's jail time and the possibility that he might have some soon, too, if he ended up having to 'do something crazy' in order to pay his bills. There but for the grace of God, I suppose.

Between all these interactions, I can see how riding public transit could be an off-putting experience for some, certainly. I am large enough that I generally don't feel unsafe in these situations, but others might not, especially after dark. I keep in mind at times like this the experience a similarly large friend of mine had 15 years ago when he moved to Seattle and tried taking one of these same buses to his job downtown: when he got home he said he wouldn't be doing that again, I presume because he encountered some similar people on his trip and felt more deterred than I do.

Some years ago I read that the last time in modern America when all the classes mingle is high school. Well, as more people start riding public transit again, that may change. For the better, I sincerely hope.

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