Thursday, August 14, 2008

A bus to the Snoqualmie Valley. Three, actually.

I took a bus ride with my son to the Snoqualmie Valley last weekend. We brought bikes. He'd just turned 11 years old and I wanted to take him on a big summer adventure, far beyond the usual in-city activities. So I sold him on the idea of a two-day bike ride over the Cascades and through the fabled 2-mile-long Snoqualmie Tunnel.

This would be a long ride for an 11-year-old boy, with the worst hills on the route somewhat paradoxically close to Seattle, just beyond the Sammamish River Trail in Woodinville. So I decided to skip past them by busing to the flat Snoqualmie Valley.

It turns out that very few buses go that way in the morning, and the ones that do have relatively complex connections.

The bus that gets to the Snoqualmie Valley is the King County Metro #929, which is the size of a large van. Only three run per day, only one of them in the morning. They start in downtown Redmond.

Not too many buses go from Seattle to downtown Redmond, either, just the Sound Transit #545, which I rode quite often last year. The 545 crosses Lake Washington on the SR-520 floating bridge, and has the luxury of a three-bike rack, but this still isn't nearly enough for the demand, so if we wanted some assurance of getting a spot together, we would have to catch it earlier on its route, from downtown. This necessitated using a third bus to get downtown, the King County Metro #358, one of the most heavily used routes in Metro's entire system, though little-used by bicyclists.

We left early, to compensate for any missed connections we might experience due to wave-offs. I woke up to Christy McWilson and Dave Alvin's cover of Moby Grape's classic "8:05" playing in my head, I figure 'cause that's the time I wanted to get on the road. We didn't quite make that, meaning that we would miss our first bus, but we still had plenty of wiggle room left. We rode up the sidewalk on Aurora Avenue another quarter mile to catch the next bus earlier on its route, then caught it, no problem. There were no other bikes on its rack.

Downtown, we got off at 5th & Wall, then biked over to 8th & Olive, where we would catch the 545. We arrived at the same time as that bus, which had no bikes on its rack, but unfortunately its driver didn't see us waving at him from across the street and left without us. We caught up three blocks later at a stop light, a place where no stop existed, and he told us he would wait for us at his Bellevue Avenue stop a few blocks ahead, God bless him. I don't think English was his first language, as he neglected to tell us that his bus turned right onto Bellevue Avenue and so I churned up the hill, actually beating him to the intersection, and sailed on through. He turned right behind me, where I couldn't see him. By the time I turned around to look, he was gone. I imagine he saw me go through the intersection, waited a few seconds at the stop anyway, shook his head sadly, and went on.

So, we rode back down the Olive Way hill to our original stop to wait for the next bus. By that time, another bicyclist was already there, and when that next bus came along a few minutes later, there were already two bikes on its rack. He got the third one, and we got to wait for our third 545 of the morning. We were actually still in good shape, as I'd allowed plenty of extra time, but I was starting to get concerned.

The next bus came along maybe two minutes later; the two earlier buses must have been late. And huzzah, there were no bikes on its rack, so we mounted up and headed for deepest Redmond. As usual, the bus was pretty well full by the time we got to Overlake where all the Microsofties exited. It was virtually empty by the time we got to downtown Redmond. We were still 20 minutes early for the 929, thank goodness. My son rode around in the skate park next to the transit center while we waited.

The 929 is one of the few buses in the King County Metro system that doesn't require an official stop for people to get off; all you have to do is tell the driver where you'd like to go, and he'll get as close as he can to that spot on his route. I'd planned to get off at the intersection of Novelty Hill Road and the West Snoqualmie Valley Road, but when I told the driver our final destination, he suggested that we might want to get off 1/4 mile later, as that stretch of the West Snoqualmie Valley Road is curvy and narrow. Bus drivers rock! We took him up on it and held up traffic briefly at the light while we took our bikes off the rack, then headed over the 124th Street bridge across the river and picked up the Snoqualmie Valley Trail on the other side. The rest of that ride is another story entirely, and a lot more of an adventure than getting to it in the first place, but at least with a little extra time we were able to get there safely; it took us two hours to bus those 25 miles, of which almost 45 minutes was spent waiting for buses in one place or another, much of which would've been avoidable if the buses' capacity to carry bikes wasn't so limited, but we got there safe, sound, and ready for an adventure.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Buses, bikes, and a hard summer rain

Last month, Seattle got some rain. Not terribly much, you understand, but more than is normal for Seattle in late July. I was oblivious to the forecast one day when I was doing a bus/biike commute; I had no problem getting to work, but about halfway through the day it started to rain. Pretty hard, too. For Seattle. The roads were good and wet by the time I left work and biked the mile to the nearest bus stop, and it didn't take long for me to reach that same soggy state.

I wasn't the only bicyclist caught by surprise by the summer rain; another was waiting at my bus stop even though I arrived 10 minutes before my bus was due. He said he'd been waved off by the previous bus. When the next bus finally arrived, it had one open slot on its bike rack, which the other bicyclist got, so it was my turn to get waved off for the next bus 15 minutes later. I saw many more bikes than usual on bus bike racks that day, I think because those other bicyclists weren't having any more fun than I was bicycling into a horizontal rain. 

When the next bus arrived, it was jammed, but at least it had an open spot on its bike rack. This kind of crowd is unusual for an afternoon #150 into Seattle, in my experience, but it happened again in nicer weather a few days later with me wedged standing into the front of the bus next to a pair of attractive young blonde women in snug white tops, which appear to be in fashion lately. I figured maybe it was because of a big Mariners crowd, but those days only a couple people got off at the ballpark. Lots more got off at Westlake that nicer day, some carrying Nordstrom bags, including the two women I was next to. Maybe there was a big sale? 

I miss King County Metro Transit's 3-bike racks.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Seafair By Bike

I took the family to Seafair last weekend. After 18 years in Seattle I'd never been, but I thought our kids needed some exposure to a little of Seattle's older, more unique traditions. We got a good deal on tickets at a school auction, so we went. I figured traffic would be horrible, so I looked for an alternative to driving there.

Shuttle buses cost $5 for every rider, including kids, which would have added up to more than the admission. A regular bus running right through our neighborhood could have taken us to within a mile of the park entrance, and it looked like it would be no problem catching a ride on that bus since we would get on early on its route, but coming back looked like it could be ugly: everyone getting onto the bus at the same time, and buses only running twice per hour.

So we biked. It would have been a little far for the younger kids, so for the only time all weekend, I used a car, though only for part of the route. We had a good weekend all around, running what errands we need to on foot or by bike. One errand had me wheeling my bike into an auto parts store for a quart of oil. The clerk asked if it was for the bike.

(I don't think he sees a lot of bicyclists there, but some of us bike or use transit when we can, and drive when we have no other choice.)

Five bikes hung or stood on various bits of our minivan to Denny Blaine Park, which I figure was about four miles north of Genesee Park, the main entrance to Seafair. It was far enough away that I guessed hardly anyone else would be doing what we were and I guessed right; there was plenty of parking there even though parking lot was small. Most of the route from there to Genesee Park was on Lake Washington Blvd, which is pretty highly frequented by bicyclists during the summertime, so I figured drivers there would be more careful of us, and especially our kids who don't always move in a predictable line. The plan worked beautifully. There was a little bit of hill climbing to get from Lake Washington Blvd to the main park entrance, but we were in for a big surprise when we arrived: REI was sponsoring a valet bike parking tent. Maybe 40 other people used it, which seemed like a disappointing turnout, but for us it was unbelievably convenient. Sure, other people might have had VIP entrances, and tickets to lakeside tents that required special passes, but we got in and out a lot more easily than almost any of them did. The REI tent even had a free-spin wheel where they gave away yet more swag, and from which we were lucky enough to come away with a pair of bike water bottles plus a few things the kids thought more highly of.

I love REI!

The rest of the way down to the lake was a sea of military recruiters with 18-wheel simulators. I have no idea what went on inside those, and fortunately my kids are all too young to be either interested in them, or of interest to the recruiters staffing them. 

Seafair itself was about what we expected. The Blue Angels drew the most interest, but people grooved on the hydros, too. My kids have seen the hydro challenge on the SAFECO Field scoreboard enough times, plus a few races on TV, but this was the first time they got to see them in person. It was a nice way to see part of an old Seattle tradition, before Seattle became just another dot on the increasingly homogenous U.S. map.

Coming back, my wife flatted and I didn't have all the tools I needed to fix it, which was a good reminder to get my supplies together before our big weekend trip, so my sons and I went on while my wife and daughter got a treat at Starbucks. Then we drove back and picked everyone up. She got her tire fixed the next day, and I should now have everything I need to fix a bike this weekend.

If we ever go back to Seafair again, which may depend a lot on what our kids think of that idea next summer, we'll probably do the same thing we did this year: park at Denny Blaine and bike the rest of the way; no traffic to speak of with free valet bike parking. Nice!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

When you miss a bus

This morning, I was late for my bus to downtown. The next one would be 20 minutes later, so I decided to bike there instead. Downtown, I barely missed my connection to Tukwila. I decided to bike there, too.

My commute ended up taking almost twice as long as it would have if I'd caught my  buses, and more than three times as long as it would have if I'd driven. I'll tell you what, though ... there were a ton of other people bicycling this morning, the most I've ever seen on a day that wasn't a Bike To Work Day.

I must've missed my return bus from Tukwila to downtown, too, as I waited more than 10 minutes for it to arrive. I decided to wait for the next bus this time, as I'd been a little tired after 20+ miles of biking this morning, and I knew I would almost certainly have 7-8 more miles to bike between downtown and my house later. I also have a big ride coming up this weekend that I don't want to go into tired.

Next month there'll be a transportation conference in Ithaca, NY, home of Cornell University. It'll be all about Podcars (Personal Rapid Transit). I look forward to a time when U.S. policymakers start following the lead of their European counterparts and begin building truly sustainable public transit that you won't have to wait for, much less wait 15, 20, or even 30 minutes for. And it'll carry many many more bikes than buses or trains can on longer trips like my bike commute!

Two interesting encounters with motor vehicles to report on the way home. Coming northbound across the Fremont Bridge while I was in the right lane (the one with the sharrows) some [person] in a black Jetta came squirting past as we neared N 34th Street and cut me off so he could turn right in front of me. His girlfriend (I assume they weren't married) looked over at me as he did so, I figure because she was concerned that maybe he wasn't doing such a smart thing. I frowned and shook my head, which is about as demonstrative as I get on a bike. Then, further north on Greenwood Avenue, a bus driver did something I've never seen before: I find that on slight/moderate uphills I sometimes travel at roughly the same average speed as local buses. The buses hop from one stop to another while I slog away at a constant pace, but if we start at the same time the bus and I will leapfrog each other. Well, this afternoon I passed a bus that was pulled over at N 73rd Street, but instead of racing past and pulling over in front of me, which is what every other bus driver has done in a similar situation, in my experience, the driver slowed down as s/he approached the next stop and let me continue through it ahead of him/her. I gave a little wave to acknowledge the courtesy, as I try to do every time I see a driver do something nice for a bicyclist, and of course as this was on a level stretch of road where I generally average a higher speed than local buses, I didn't see that  bus again. Regardless, northbound #5 driver at about 7:00 PM on August 4th, you rock.

Monday, August 4, 2008

A bus to SAFECO Field

For my son's birthday, he wanted to take in a Mariners game at SAFECO Field, just him and his Dad. My wife was bummed, 'cause she likes baseball, too, and we both cherish one-on-one time with our kids, which we don't get enough of anymore. They're growing up fast.

I got some good seats for the occasion, 5th-row on the Field level, close to where the ballgirls sit; I thought it would make a special remembrance if he could bring home a foul ball to go with the Felix Hernandez bobbleheads we both got for arriving early (I'm saving the other for my second son's birthday in a few more weeks). He brought his mitt, too, in case we got something hit more directly our way. I was glad because he's a pretty good young ballplayer and might just save someone in our area a nasty little bump. I also bought him a birthday package, which included some nice swag for a good price, plus an individualized  birthday wish on the big scoreboard.

Then came the complication: how would we get there? I would be coming from my office in Tukwila while he would be coming with my wife from North Seattle.

The solution was easy: my wife had some errands to run downtown and could bring him to King Street Station in plenty of time for the game, while I would bus/bike to work and back to the same place. But then it became not so easy: as I was pulling into my bus stop in Tukwila for the return ride, the bus came up from behind and roared past; the driver didn't know I wanted to climb on board, and no one else was waiting there. This would make me 15 minutes late, and probably make my wife grouchy and my son anxious -- I didn't have a cell phone that day.

While I was waiting for the next bus, about a dozen people walked to the stop, many wearing Mariners-branded clothing. I think some were out-of-towners being brought to the ballpark by their local hosts. None had ridden this bus to the ballpark before, and were concerned about whether it was the right bus and whether it would get them there on time. I let them know which bus to get on and reassured them that they would get there in plenty of time. I can see how it would be intimidating for someone who isn't accustomed to buses to make the leap to riding one to the ballpark: you have to do a fair amount of research to figure out the right place and time to arrive for a bus going in the direction you want, and you have to remember the number of the bus you want to ride in case there are several different buses that stop there. King County Metro's Trip Planner is an invaluable resource for this, but for some trips I still find myself having to spend 10-30 minutes figuring out the best connection.

The bus came, there was room for all of us and a lot more, plus my bike, and we did indeed arrive in plenty of time. It turns out that traffic and the nature of her errands made my wife even later than I was; but only by 3-4 minutes, so meeting turned out to be no trouble. I put my bike on our minivan's bike rack, then my son and I walked to the ballpark from King Street Station. My wife could've brought my son's bike along, too, as there's now plenty of bike parking in the SAFECO Field parking structure, but I didn't want us riding 8 miles home in the dark; it would have been my son's first nighttime ride, and downtown isn't the best place for an introduction to night riding.

We stopped for a sausage and a hot dog outside the ballpark and arrived in plenty of time for the game. I had him introduce himself to the ballgirl and let her know that it was his birthday. He was reluctant until he saw someone else do it first.

It was a beautiful evening, my son loved the bobblehead and the nice surprise of the birthday package. But until the 9th inning only two foul balls were hit our way, with the first going to the first boy who'd introduced himself to the ballgirl (the second wasn't hit anywhere close to us, and the ballgirl handed it to someone who was a lot closer to where she got it). By the bottom of the 5th, the ballgirls switched places and my son introduced himself to the new ballgirl all over again. And we waited. Two foul balls were hit in the air to within a few seats of ours, but not close enough.

With one out in the top of the ninth of what looked to be a blowout Mariners win, the second-to-last Cleveland batter hit a foul ball close to our ballgirl. She made a very nice grab (these ballgirls were obviously capable players in their own right), and then, while at least a dozen kids clamored for the ball nearby, she carried it to my son, who was waiting patiently at the end of our aisle about 30' away from where she caught it, and handed it to him. He was practically glowing. Thanks, Seattle Mariners, for hiring such thoughtful and capable people! Best of all, my son thought to compliment the ballgirl on her excellent play, making his Dad one very proud papa. I think the same batter (or maybe it was the next one, as my memory got a little hazy right about then) promptly hit into a double play to end the game with an all-too-rare-this-season Mariners W.

My son and I walked a mile to 3rd Avenue afterwards, waited 10 minutes for a bus that would bring us to within 1/4 mile of home, and got home late but safe and happy. My wife told me later that my son thanked her profusely for the experience, saying he had a really great time. I did too, if it came to that, but I'm especially glad that he went out of his way to tell her so, as I know she wanted to be there with us.