Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Winter biking begins early

Last week the weather improved enough (and the timing worked out) for me to do another bike/bus commute. I caught a King County Metro #355 to downtown, hitting some traffic along the way, and then a #150 from the International District station to Tukwila, with a bike connection on each end and in the middle. Before my bus arrived, a light rail train went past at the station with exactly four people aboard. My bus, by contrast, had more than 40 people riding with me. I sincerely hope that opening the light rail station at the airport will improve its ridership more than the incremental increase I expect, because I have not been impressed at all by the Central Link ridership I've seen so far, excepting its opening weekend.

On the way home as I rode up to the Tukwila Park and Ride where I would pick up the #150 bus, that bus passed me and slowed but did not stop, so I was out of luck. I'd worked a long day and it was after 7:00 PM, so my next bus wouldn't come along for another half hour. Rather than wait in the cold for that long I continued biking to downtown, adding about 12 miles to my bike commute. I hadn't expected the longer ride and didn't have double socks on,
so my feet were fairly frozen before I reached downtown, though fortunately they warmed up again while I was riding the #358 bus home from Belltown.

This morning I tried a repeat of last week's
commute, though this time the weather was more than 10 degrees colder: it was about 21ºF when I left my house. The morning ride was fine though freeway traffic was even worse, so my bus ride to downtown took about 10 minutes longer than it should have, but this was no problem since I have about a 12 minute wait for my connecting bus there anyway. Sure enough, that bus drove up about a minute after I arrived at the station. This sort of traffic is unusually bad in my experience, though certainly not unheard of.

By the way, in warmer weather (and in daylight) I'm much more likely to take more of these bus legs of my commute on my bike, but at this time of year I'm content to ride nice warm public transit, slow and infrequent and occasionally crowded and even more occasionally peopled with crazies and/or drunks as it is.

That said, and now that I'm home with the kids abed, in between the return legs of my commute tonight, as I was biking north on 3rd Ave through downtown, a
#70 trolleybus pulled up in the right lane at a stoplight, and out of the corner of my eye I saw someone in the back look over at me. I looked back, and it was Rob Johnson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, his eyes moving back to his paperback book.

"Hi Rob," I said.

No response.

"Hi Rob!" I said somewhat more loudly, waving my arms.

Still no response.

"Hi Rob," I heard someone else nearby say, I know not where.

Rob was having none of it, though
granted, the bus windows were closed. He probably recognized me, just as I imagine he did at a Mariners game last season when he walked with a date past me and my family, again looking full into my face before turning away. He probably felt some cognitive dissonance then, too, as I imagine some others also do when they are faced with supporters of truly sustainable public transit modes that they do not themselves endorse.


I raced the bus up 3rd Avenue for a couple more blocks before it turned east towards Capitol Hill. I won, natch.

After getting off a #5 bus in Fremont and biking to my home neighborhood of Greenwood, I stopped at a store to pick up some "Secret Santa" treats for my kids. A man selling "Real Change" newspapers at the market asked me how cold I thought it was.

"About 28," I guessed, then wished him warmth and headed home.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Express bus vs light rail on my commute

I rode the King County Metro #355 bus to downtown again this morning, proudly wearing stickers for Mike McGinn and Mike O'Brien.

I got to thinking last night about exactly how long my morning commute took using various transit combinations, door to door. When driving and without significant traffic, it takes about 30 minutes plus another 5 minutes walking from one end of the parking lot to my office, though traffic often makes it worse. By comparison, yesterday it took me about 85 minutes to do the same trip using a bus/bike/light rail combo.

Yesterday's commute seems to me to have been about 15-20 minutes longer than it should have been, mostly because I perceive the light rail segment of the trip to be so much slower than a King County Metro #150. But it may also have been because my #355 bus was about 4 minutes late, which caused me to miss the connecting bus downtown.

So this morning I tried a direct comparison to yesterday's bus-LRT trip (with bike connections in between and on each end), this time substituting the King County Metro #150 for the light rail leg. The bike portion of the commute would be very similar, with a flat 3.3 mile bike ride at the end of the trip today compared to yesterday's 3.2 mile ride with a long downhill, though yesterday's ride had me waiting at one traffic light for more than a minute.

The first difference was that this morning's #355 bus didn't have a working Wi-Fi connection, unlike yesterday's. Must be a different bus, even though it ran at the same time, with the same driver. So unfortunately I couldn't post this as it was being written. Oh well.

Status halfway: my #355 bus was three minutes late from Greenwood, almost exactly like yesterday, which would again make me miss my connecting #150. The #355 made good time to the south end of downtown, and when I biked from its first downtown stop to the International District tunnel station and reached the top of the stairs leading down to the platform, I saw my #150 bus just then pulling out. Argh. It was also three minutes late, however.

Three minutes later, a light rail train arrived, giving me the same choice I had yesterday: take light rail or wait seven more minutes for my next bus. Yesterday I chose the train, today I waited for the bus.

The next #150 bus to arrive was also a couple minutes late, but I climbed on. With all the delays, my guess was that I would get to work at about the same time today as I did yesterday.

However, even while starting seven minutes later than the train plus a couple minutes of delay, I still arrived at work 10 minutes earlier today than I did yesterday (74 minutes today vs 84 minutes yesterday), with the only significant difference being that riding the train took a lot longer (more than 15 minutes longer) than riding an express bus, with all other factors being almost exactly equal.

Political Endorsements

Yes on R-71
No! on I-1033
Dow Constantine for King County Executive
Mike McGinn for Seattle Mayor
Nick Licata, Richard Conlin, Mike O'Brien, and David Bloom for Seattle City Council
Rob Holland and Max Vekich for Seattle Port Commissioner

The Seattle Transit Hat Trick

After riding the bus on the first leg of my bike+transit commute yesterday, from North Seattle to downtown, and riding Central Link light rail on the second leg (from downtown to Tukwila, followed by a 3+ mile bike ride between the Tukwila station and my office), I looked into riding Sounder on the first leg of my commute home, from Tukwila back to downtown.

Alas, northbound afternoon Sounder options are very limited, only two per weekday, at 5:04 PM and 5:39 PM. And I wouldn't have been able to catch one until about 6:00 PM.

No matter, I rode the King County Metro #150 bus from Tukwila instead, which is actually a more convenient option (except that it lacks Wi-Fi) since it continues up through downtown rather than stopping at King Street Station, south of downtown.

While riding all three commuter transit options available to Seattleites into and out of our fair city would have been fun, it would also have been a "Quat Trick" for alternative transit when my use of the bike on the same trip was considered.

Anyone else ever ride the bus, light rail, and Sounder on the same commute day?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Back in the saddle

Speaking of Central Link light rail, I rode it the rest of the way to Tukwila on my Monday morning bike/transit commute. I got on at the International District station.

Oddly, there was no operative Wi-Fi network on the train, whereas there had been on the King County Metro #355 bus on my earlier leg. This is the opposite of the usual circumstance.

When I boarded, five people got off the train, with a dozen people remaining on the first vehicle in the train, which I boarded. The first bike hangar in the vehicle was unoccupied, so I took it, my bike sticking way out into the aisle (I'm a tall guy, and my seat and handlebars stick way up). At the next stop, a woman in a KC Metro jacket and her own bike saw me sitting there through the window, shrugged, and headed farther back, I assume to the bike rack in the rear vehicle. A Transit Security guy got on, too, then asked everyone for proof of payment once we got underway. This seems to be the usual drill now. By the time we reached Rainier Beach station, there were only seven people left in the vehicle.

As I've noted in the past, this is abysmal ridership, down even from last month's disappointing totals, with no prospect of improvement before the #194 bus line closes early next year and not much prospect for improvement even then (except for people now riding the #194 plus a few more because an incrementally larger number could be expected to ride light rail who wouldn't ride a bus, even though the bus is faster), since the light rail line really doesn't have much built-in ridership, and won't until more residential development occurs around the four stations in the Rainier Valley (plus the Beacon Hill station).

Unless, of course, Sound Transit gets serious about providing fast, safe, and convenient feeders between those light rail stations and neighborhoods that are nearby but more than a quarter-mile walk away, and which by-and-large are already well served by King County Metro buses. The Personal Rapid Transit demonstration that Sound Transit committed to funding and building during the same Sound Move vote in 1996 that brought us Central Link light rail in the first place (and which has been ignored ever since) would go a long way towards demonstrating Sound Transit's commitment to serving a constituency beyond the big-money developers who will benefit most from what the light rail line is now and will be until additional segments are completed (University Link will be first, to open no earlier than 2016): development-oriented transit (as opposed to transit-oriented development).

Postscript: When I got off the train at its current end of the line in Tukwila, only four other people got off the entire train with me. Abysmal ridership indeed. But on the plus side, the Park and Ride Lot there was full, a few cars driving around in it and clearly looking for a parking space, so at least a few hundred people a day are able to use light rail to commute from there to downtown. I wonder what the people looking for a parking space there ended up doing, however.

Post-postscript: On the return to downtown on a King County Metro #150 bus from Tukwila, with about 20 other people on board with me, we came even with a light rail train heading in the same direction at the Stadium Station. It had 10 people on board.

Abysmal ridership indeed.

A bus to Boston

OK, not ALL the way to Boston

Last weekend I flew to Boston with my kids. My cousin was getting married there and I wanted to bring as much of my family as I could. Unfortunately my wife had other long-simmering out-of-town plans, so she couldn't join us, but at least my daughter and two sons were able to come.

We had an 8:50 AM flight. If we wanted to arrive at least an hour early, we had to be at the airport by 7:45 AM. Driving to Sea-Tac would take about half an hour, plus at least a few extra minutes to park. Taking a bus to downtown and then a transfer onto the King County Metro #194 would take about twice that long, but would save us at least $70 in parking costs for our four-day weekend, and as much as $140 if we parked at the airport garage. Taking the bus would mean we would have to get out of the house before 6:45 AM, no small feat with three easily distracted children and only one parent (me) to ride herd.

It was doable if the kids had everything packed and ready beforehand. Not that this would have been remotely possible under normal circumstances, so I fudged our usual rules and threw in some incentives. A buck for everyone who had their bag packed and ready and who was in bed by 8:00 PM, not a minute later. Another buck for everyone who was at the front door by 6:35 AM, bags in hand, and breakfast already eaten. And a third dollar if everyone could do it.

My second son, the one who rode home from SAFECO Field with me this summer when a lot of yelling and shoving broke out on the bus next to us, took a little convincing, but on assurances that this experience wold be nothing like that one, he went along in the end.

Well, only my daughter was able to get to bed by 8:00 PM. One son almost made it but couldn't tear himself away from his computer game in time. My oldest son -- the preteen -- announced that he didn't care one way or the other, and so got chased into bed by 8:30. But next morning, with the example of my daughter's successful evening in front of them, everyone was ready to go on time and with a minimum of fuss.

We walked two blocks to the nearest King County Metro #355 bus stop, arriving with five minutes to spare. The bus flew south on I-5, made its three stops in the U-District, and rode the express lanes the rest of the way downtown. We got off at Jackson Street, walked two blocks downhill to the Pioneer Square station of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, and a #194 bus came by five minutes later. Then it flew the rest of the way down the busway and I-5 to the airport, dropping us off a short walk from the terminal. I showed the light rail line to the kids as we passed under it and then rode alongside, explaining that in a couple more months, not long after the light rail station at the airport was opened, the #194 bus we were riding would be discontinued even though it's quite a bit quicker from downtown to the airport than light rail will be. So this would very likely be our last trip on the #194 even though it has been a tremendously useful and (relatively) cost-effective service for us and for many others in the past.

Our trip went off without a hitch, including the long flight to Boston. On our return to Boston's Logan International Airport, because a couple of my sisters wanted to bring my daughter to a doll store in suburban Natick, and my sons had exactly zero interest in that. I'd hoped to take a train ride from there to the airport, but plans changed when we had a horrific traffic jam waiting to cross the Sagamore bridge from Cape Cod, so time ran out for the luxury of a train ride on Boston's fabled "T", which I've ridden on several occasions before but my kids had never heard of. My sons and I went to the Apple Store instead while my daughter visited the doll store with her aunts. Now my oldest son wants a new iPod shuffle. Great.

My wife, who drove to Sea-Tac airport and parked at a remote lot the day after our trip to Boston, returned there an hour and a half before we did, so we had an easy ride home without having to wait for a late-night Sunday bus, which would have been a much dicier trip than our Thursday-morning departure.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Yup, I'm sick. Been sick for more than three weeks now. Started out as a nasty sore throat from a post-nasal drip, and worked its way down. Got it from my wife and daughter about two weeks after they came down with it. None of us ever had a fever.

It's never been debilitating, but it hasn't been fun, either.

I stayed home from work for a good portion of the time, but not before getting everything I needed to telecommute. Going forward I will probably telecommute one day a week, compared to zero days per week before.

When I've gone to work at all, I've driven. No sense in subjecting a busload of strangers to whatever it is that I have. I still have a cough and some sinus congestion, but every day there's less of it. I will probably return to biking to work later this week.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Trains, buses, and some more yelling

In the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel this morning, I saw two trains go past, one in each direction, as well as one #194 bus going south. I was in the Pioneer Square Station, waiting for my #150 bus to Tukwila. The first train to go by was northbound during the peak commute, and about 1/4 of the seats were occupied as it pulled into the station. The second was southbound, and there might have been 15-20 people on the whole train -- I counted 4 in the last vehicle, of whom one looked like an employee. A minute later, a King County Metro #194 bus came by, on which 1/3 to 1/2 of the seats were occupied, roughly 30 people. Now, noting that the light rail train and the #194 bus were both heading for the airport, and the #194 bus would get there at least five minutes sooner even if the light rail line to the airport were complete, which it isn't yet -- despite starting a couple minutes later -- it's easy to see how people would choose the bus over the train in this situation.

Granted, the final destination of the bus isn't the airport; it goes on from there to Federal Way. But on previous trips from downtown to the airport on this bus, basically everyone got off at the airport. But still, perhaps 50% more people this morning were taking the #194 bus to the airport while I watched than were heading towards the airport (and who might be getting off earlier) on light rail.

There was a little yelling on my #150 bus once it came. A guy sitting across from me made the mistake of looking towards the back of the bus, and a woman there started yelling at him: "Don't look at me, bitch! I don't need no ugly ***** *** looking at me!"

So he stopped looking at her. And she stopped yelling. He seemed upset by it, commented to the fellow sitting next to him, who was reading, about it. That fellow tapped the side of his head. "Crazy," he said, "Don't let it bother you."

I snuck a peek backwards as I was just about to get off. There was one woman back there who looked like she might've been the one who'd been yelling. She had wide eyes that moved around a lot. She looked back at me, not aggressively. And then I was leaving to dismount my bike and ride the rest of the way to my office.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Critical Mass goes to SAFECO Field

Critical Mass went by SAFECO Field tonight, not long before the Mariners game started. I was standing near the corner of Royal Brougham Way and 1st Ave S., waiting for my wife to drop off my kids so I could bring them to the ballyard. My cell phone rang; she was on Aurora driving past Queen Anne, and traffic by the stadiums was good. It looked like she would get there in about 5 minutes. And then I saw Critical Mass coming.

I've seen
Critical Mass once before, in fact I even rode with them for a couple blocks downtown this Spring. I came up from the University Street tunnel with my bike, all decked out in my usual dayglo commuter gear, and there they were, streaming past. Several among them asked me to join them. Of course they didn't make room so that I could actually do so, but it was nice of them to ask. Once nearly all of them (and there were about 100) were past, I mounted up and caught them -- they hadn't been riding fast. I don't suppose they normally do. It felt kind of like a rolling party, though they were riding together in a rather disciplined proximity. Then they turned left towards the Market and I continued straight up 3rd Ave, and that was that.

Today, there were about twice as many of them. Nearly half were wearing helmets. I only noticed a few of the bikes before one of the bicyclists cheered at me; I was wearing a baseball cap that one of them thought looked like it came from Roosevelt High (it didn't, but I can see how they might have gotten confused) and she yelled 'Go Roughriders!". Heh. They seem like a nice enough bunch of kids. I was sort of grinning goofily at them the while.

But of course that light at Royal Brougham Way is closely controlled by traffic cops on game days. And of course there were a whole bunch of slow-moving cars. The bikes all streamed between the lanes amidst them. A few cars crossed the light with the bikes, which I don't expect is usual for a Critical Mass ride. But then again there were cops everywhere. No one was particularly misbehaving, unless you consider bikes riding between lanes to be misbehaving, which I guess it is. Then halfway through the crowd of bikes, the light changed, splitting the Critical Mass riders. Normally I think they would "cork" the intersection and proceed through on the red light to stay together, but of course they were surrounded by cops here so they didn't. A sensible move for all, if you ask me.

A police car with lights flashing trailed the main body of cyclists. Then a couple black SWAT SUVs came by, filled with cops in monotone black uniforms. Dunno if they were following Critical Mass, too, or if they just happened to be in the same place at the same time, much as I'd been this Spring.

Meanwhile, traffic had snarled significantly in the immediate neighborhood. I think my wife ended up taking 12 minutes to drop off the kids when it should've taken 5. Big deal, I know, except that the delay meant we didn't get inside the ballpark in time to pick up the freebie DVDs the Mariners were giving away that day ("Mariners Commercials, Volume 2"), which is the reason my kids had wanted to see this game in the first place. Bummer for us.

Anybody have extras that they'd like to trade us for extra "Mariners Commercials, Volume 1" DVDs that we picked up at a previous game a couple months ago?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Not-free Light Rail

I missed my downtown bus connection this morning. I'd taken a mostly-full King County Metro #355 from North Seattle to 5th & James, then biked to the International District Station, but arrived just one minute after my connecting bus, a King County Metro #150, had gone past. My next bus wasn't due for another 14 minutes.

The roads were wet from this morning's rain, so I didn't want to take the King County Metro #101, my usual alternate, because it has a pretty ferocious downhill and my bike's rear brake was disconnected -- the rear wheels on both my commuter bike and my road rocket have gotten out of true over the past month, and I would be dropping off my commuter bike at REI for repairs this afternoon, but in the meantime the only way to keep the rear wheel rolling was to unhinge the rear brake, making it non-functional.

A light rail train went by a couple minutes after I arrived. This gave me an idea. I work in Tukwila, after all, even if nowhere near the Tukwila light rail station. I'd scouted a bike route from the Tukwila light rail terminus to my office a couple weeks ago, and while it didn't look great, and I find the Southcenter area notoriously unwelcoming to bikes, I'd heard that bike lanes had recently been painted on Southcenter Blvd, which is the route I'd scouted.

I didn't catch this particular train, as it stopped too far away from where I'd been waiting, but I figured if the next train arrived before my bus, I might take it.

So I did. I hadn't thought about how to pay for the train ride before I climbed aboard, but I had a transfer slip from my earlier bus, which I hoped would be enough. There were a total of six passengers on the vehicle I boarded, which was the forward vehicle in the two-vehicle train. I'd looked into the previous train as it passed, and counted four passengers in its second vehicle, though there were more in its first vehicle.

A couple transit cops got on at SoDo Station, calling for tickets. I pulled out my transfer slip. One cop glanced at it as he passed and thanked me. Sweet, Seattle's light rail apparently accepts bus transfers after all. The two cops got off at Beacon Hill Station. Later in the day I learned that bus transfer slips will be sufficient payment on light rail trains for the rest of the year.

A few passengers boarded while others got off as the train proceeded south. I don't think the number of passengers in my vehicle ever exceeded eight, which I might say is outrageously poor ridership, especially in light of Sound Transit's revelation that its first-week ridership averaged just 12,000 boardings per weekday. But this will improve as more destinations come online, increasing slightly when the segment to the airport opens later this year and more significantly to the UW seven years from now, and as more massive housing developments get built in the immediate vicinity of stations in the Rainier Valley, though of course Sound Transit could drastically increase light rail ridership by following through on its 1996 commitment to build a demonstration PRT system and then extending that to neighborhoods near those light rail stations. That would be nice.

It's also unfair to judge system ridership by counting passengers on two reverse-commute trains even if those counts were taken during peak hours -- I should note that the one train I saw coming into the ID Station while I was waiting there looked like it had considerably more riders, with as many as 2/3 of the seats taken, similar to the 355 bus I'd ridden earlier this morning.

With so few passengers on my train, I felt freer to look around the vehicle, and counted only two bike slots in it-- that's just four bike slots for the entire train, though I suppose additional bikes could still be brought aboard even if they couldn't be stowed properly. My bike protruded halfway into the aisle. The train really has quite a violent shimmy as it speeds along the fast section nearing Tukwila -- I have to think that'll be addressed someday.

When I got off the train in Tukwila, only five other people got off the entire train with me. Yes, this is abysmal ridership, though I feel certain that Sound Transit will contend that ridership is ahead of estimates anyway. Again, it's too soon to make a lasting judgment, but this is not what I'd call a good start.

My bike ride from the station turned out surprisingly well. Southcenter Blvd had a bike lane for more than a mile, all the way to where it crossed under I-5, and traffic after that was light enough that I was able to change lanes as they turned to side roads the rest of the way across Interurban Avenue, where I caught the Interurban Trail, which I rode the rest of the way to my office. I was surprised to see that the ride had taken 10 minutes longer than it would have if I'd taken my usual #150 bus.

I should also say that last Friday, while I was driving with my 12-year-old son to climb Mt. Adams, my wife repeated my light rail trip to Columbia City with our other kids, stopping at Jones Barbeque and having lunch with them there. She says the food is better when it's hot, which it hadn't been after I used light rail to carry a batch up to a ZooTunes concert a few weeks ago.

P.S. A couple transit cops boarded my return #150 bus at Stadium Station this afternoon, one through each door. One walked from the rear to the front, then both climbed off again. In 20 years of bus riding in Seattle I don't think I've ever seen transit cops board a bus like that before. I appreciated it, actually.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Free Light Rail

My seven-year-old daughter and I took a ride on Seattle's new Central Link light rail line on Sunday, just to see what it would be like while rides were still free and the line was still heavily used. More of us had originally planned to go, but our family was deep in the midst of a game of Monopoly (the National Parks edition), and we couldn't tear free until time got short. We were also going to a Los Lobos concert at the Woodland Park Zoo later that night, so our options at that point got quite limited. We decided that my wife, one of our friends, and some of our kids would drive to the Zoo to wander around beforehand while I took as many of our kids as wanted to go on the bus to downtown, where we would climb aboard a light rail train and have an adventure.

My oldest son said no way. "Why doesn't someone else go?" he asked. My second son, the one who'd been with me a couple weekends ago when a fight was breaking break out right next to us asked if it would be any different from a bus ride. "Well, yes," I answered. "It's a train."

"Have I ridden a train before?" he asked.

"Yes, several times. Remember when we rode the South Lake Union Trolley? It's sort of like that, but bigger."

"Is it like the Santa Train?" my daughter asked.

"Is it like a bus?" my second son asked.

"Well, it's sort of like the Santa Train," I said
to my daughter. "But that one is old and this one is brand-new. And it's sort of like a bus," I told my son, "but it won't be like your last trip where those people said all those bad words and started pushing each other."

"I don't want to go," my son said.

"I'll go!" said my daughter, brightly. Bless her.

"More than one of you can go," I said to all my children, but the others were already leaving.

So my daughter and I walked down to the nearest bus stop at about 2:30 on a bright Sunday afternoon to wait for a King County Metro #358 bus, which was due about three minutes after we arrived at the stop. A couple other people were waiting, too, one of them smoking. The bus came on time and there were plenty of seats, so we climbed aboard and got two together near the front of the bus. We got off at 3rd & Pike and walked a block to go down to the Bus Tunnel, which will henceforth be referred to here by its new official name of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. No buses were operating in the tunnel over the weekend so as to make it as easy as possible for as many trains as possible to carry as many passengers as possible on their inaugural weekend.

There were a ton of people in line. In fact there were two lines, starting at the far end of the Westlake Center Station Mezzanine and threading something like 100 yards to the other end. After a few minutes in line at the bottom of the escalators from street level, our line moved in a big pulse and then stopped. A few minutes later it moved again and we passed a sign telling us that there would be a 30-minute wait from that point. A few minutes later and the other line moved in a big pulse past us. Various buskers performed between the two lines. One guy did card tricks. A woman juggled two Koosh™ balls and a rubber chicken, which she seemed to drop frequently. My daughter was a lot more interested in peering over the railing to see the top of the trains as they pulled into and out of the station below us. The line moved in another big pulse past a sign that said there would be a 20-minute wait from that point, and we waited some more. The other line moved in another big pulse. From where we were standing we could now see the top of the escalator to the lower level. And then our line started moving and we followed a few hundred people down the escalator to the next train, which was filling up rapidly. My daughter and I sat in the train's very last row, a few more people got on behind us, and we were underway.

A couple women in the row ahead of us seemed to tune in as I explained to my daughter all about how the tunnel worked, where I would stand in the various stations while waiting for my bus(es) to work, the differences in each station's design, plus some indication of what would be coming next. We emerged into sunlight after the International District station and stopped at the Stadium Station, where my daughter proudly pointed out SAFECO Field near the tracks and pronounced that she knew why it was called "Stadium Station". The women in front of us smiled. I told my daughter to watch out for buses in use on the busway next to the light rail line, and we saw several go past. Beyond the SODO/Lander station, which I think was the first one ready for light rail (perhaps not including the ones in the Downtown Transit Tunnel), we climbed the ramp that would take us over the light rail maintenance facility (which I named "pylon land" for her after all the green-and-black pylons there) and then plunged into the darkness of the Beacon Hill tunnel. I noticed that some playing cards were flashing on the walls and tried to show my daughter, but she didn't see them. They weren't done very well, actually, and seemed out of sync, usually showing part of one card and part of another in each frame. The Beacon Hill station seemed very cramped and dark -- Morlock habitat for sure. And then we came into the light for the elevated Mt. Baker station. Which seemed an incongruous name since Mt. Rainier was right ahead of us, looking glorious.

"Your brothers and I are going to that mountain next weekend for a big hike," I told her, pointing to it, "though we're not climbing to the top."

Then we descended to street level for several more stations. I'd already decided that we would go all the way to Tukwila and then come back to Columbia City for some barbeque takeout at a restaurant where my wife and I attended a party last year, which I would bring to the ZooTunes concert for our dinner. At that station I saw a friend of mine who works for Sound Transit and made a mental note to seek her out on the way back.

On the elevated section beyond the Rainier Valley, the train sped up. The ride had been very smooth up until then, if not particularly fast, but with the faster speed here the train had a noticeably rougher ride. I had to ask my daughter a couple times if she was scared, both because of the pronounced fishtailing motion and also because of our altitude, which in places seemed to approach 100 feet above the creekbed below, but she said she was fine.

We stopped before arriving at the final station and at first I wondered why, but then I saw the train ahead of us just pulling into that station. When it was nearly all the way in our train started moving again. And when we got out of the train and into the station, it was hard not to notice the enormous size of the place. Huge high glass ceilings, a giant molecular sculpture with messages on it that might be regarded as inspirational, or at least as promoting Tukwila's civic spirit. Sort of the polar opposite of the Beacon Hill station. And there were probably a thousand people waiting in line for the next train back. I asked my daughter if she would rather wait in line for the next train, or hop onto a bus for a quicker return. She opted for the bus. I checked with the driver of the first bus we came to, which was heading directly back to downtown, so that wouldn't work, but he motioned us to the next bus in line which was a "local". The driver of that bus told us that he could indeed drop us at the Columbia City station, so we hopped on board and a couple minutes later started up.

There were a total of four passengers on the bus.


Yes, I know, this was a tourist day, and people were there to check out the new light rail system and not some old buses (even though this was a cushy Sound Transit bus). My daughter was enchanted by the comfortable near-empty bus, however, since (as she put it) "We had it almost all to OurSELVES!".

The bus took a little time waiting for a couple left-turn signals before we got onto the freeway, but once that was out of the way it flew up I-5 to the MLK Way exit, and then flew up MLK Way itself. Driving this way with help from the signals tuned for fast light rail operation was very quick, but it gave us a view that we wouldn't have gotten from the trains themselves:
the view of the MLK corridor from the street is actually quite ugly; seven lanes of gray pavement and gravel cluttered with the soup of power poles and interconnecting cables, especially when no train is there to focus the attention and mitigate the blight. It looked kind of like a tidal flat of rebar.

We passed a train as we got onto MLK Way, then passed another by the time we'd arrived at the Columbia City where all four of the bus' passengers got off. We walked to the corner of Edmunds St and my daughter pointed to a bicycle cab and asked "Can we ride in it?!"

The bicycle cab had a sign on the back advertising rides for one dollar. How could I resist? So we climbed in and rode the two long blocks to Rainier Ave, and then one short block to Ferdinand Street, where we got off and paid (and tipped) the bicyclist. And there was the barbeque place: Jones Barbeque, looking just as I remembered. We ordered, waited for our order to come up while sipping a pink lemonade together (it tasted of Aspartame, which my daughter loved but I thought was awful), then refilled it with root beer on our way out and walked back to the station. We might've ridden in another bicycle cab, but none was waiting. Maybe no one wanted to lug back 300+ pounds of passengers on that two-block-long slight uphill, I don't know.

By this time it was after 5:15 PM, and the signage at the station described the last train as having departed 15 minutes earlier, but we'd just missed catching another train, and no one told us when we asked them that no more trains would come, so we sat down and waited. A volunteer told us that the friend I'd recognized here earlier had already departed for the day, but promised to pass on our greeting. Sure enough, another train came by a few minutes later and we climbed on -- I imagine that quite a few people that had ridden trains south from downtown earlier that day still had to get home, and it wouldn't have been very good publicity for Sound Transit to strand them in Tukwila with only buses (cushy though they might be) to take them home. This time we were in the middle section of the car, standing, with many more opportunities to chat with our fellow passengers. A pretty festive crowd, actually. One person even seemed to know the barbeque joint where we'd stopped, which is pretty remarkable considering that the bag didn't have any advertising mark on its side, and there's more than one barbeque joint in Columbia City. He even let me know that there's a location closer to downtown, near the SODO/Lander station.

Back in downtown Seattle, I had us get off at the University Street station rather than Westlake, figuring that we could avoid the Westlake crush as well as get a seat on our bus earlier than the Pike/Pine zoo. We were nearly 10 minutes early for our next bus, a King County Metro #5, and that bus was nearly 10 minutes late, so we had a good long wait. But there were plenty of available seats when it arrived, and we had no trouble taking it to the Zoo's west entrance. The ride took more than 20 minutes for a ride of about 5 miles, and the concert had been underway for half an hour (the band was playing "King Louie's Song") by the time we arrived. This bus/train/bus/bike/walk/train/bus option definitely wasn't the quickest way to get around today, and by the time we broke out the picnic at the concert it was barely warm (the containers were getting slumpy and saturated, too), but it was still some mighty fine barbeque.

And the concert was amazing ... I don't know how accustomed Los Lobos is to playing to 5000 blissed-out liberal-arts-educated white people in the sun, but they seemed to take it as their personal mission to get us up and dancing, and by the time the sun had set over most of the audience and they'd gone to a set of Mexican polka-flavored traditional salsa mixed with extended three-guitar electric funk-rock-folk goodness, everyone was on their tiptoes, with a lot of their kids on their shoulders, rocking out. I only wish that Dave Alvin had been there to get up with them. Their finish, when they'd invited about 50 audience members to come up and share the stage with them, dancing away, may have been the most amazing thing I've seen on a rock stage in my life.

Maybe not so very different from when I saw them 25 years ago in East L.A. with my roommate at a free concert in the park, I think to thank their hometown once their first album had been released even though with about a dozen outlandish-haired punks I think we were the only non-Hispanic white people in that audience.

That, and the couple Los Lobos shows I've seen in between, has been (and will always remain in my memory) a great time for all. Maybe excepting the 2 or 3 guys who tried to pick a fight with my roommate at that concert 25 years ago.

The sunset afterwards was stupefying, too. Heckuva day all around.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Friday morning I biked downtown from my home in North Seattle to the International District station. I waited for nearly 10 minutes for a bus there -- watching three trains go through the station while I waited, and then boarded my bus to Tukwila, a King County Metro #150. There were less than 20 people aboard at 9:00 AM. BY the time we emerged from the tunnel just a couple minutes later, a man in front of the bus started yelling at another passenger.

It wasn't just a random yell, either. He was furious and insistent: "WHAT DID SHE DO?!!"

He seemed to be directing his ire at a pair of women across the aisle. As far as I could tell, they'd done absolutely nothing to set him off. It seemed like just another random outburst by a crazy person at someone smaller and meeker on public transit.

After maybe 45 seconds of this loud, crazy stuff, the man got up and said something, quietly and apparently humbly, to the bus driver. He fumbled for change, though didn't get to the point of paying (this was a pay-as-you-leave bus). Then, quietly and humbly, he moved back to his seat. He seemed ordinary enough
, of fairly slight stature, and looked as though he was well cared-for. I would have guessed that he was in his 20s. Not someone I would've suspected of crazy talk like this.

After no more than a couple minutes, he started yelling again. Soon, every other word was an f-bomb. The woman sitting across from me in the middle of the bus got up and moved farther back. He seemed upset that he'd been made to apologize for his sins (more than) a few times. He didn't seem to feel like he'd been getting a fair shake in his life. And he seemed to think it was racial. And for some reason the presence of these two small, meek women, of a race different than his, seemed to be setting him off. We were approaching the last stop on 6th Ave South, before getting onto I-5 for the high-speed ride the rest of the way to Tukwila. The bus driver asked him "Are you OK?" and opened the door. The abusive passenger got up, said something quietly to the driver, and got off, glaring at the two women the whole way, his expression the very picture of injured pride.

As we exited I-5 in Tukwila, 10 miles later, I thanked the driver for her graceful handling of that situation. She smiled in a relieved sort of way and said that when the loud guy had gone up to speak with her quietly the first time, that he'd gone up to apologize for his behavior and to say that he wouldn't do it again, which of course didn't end up working out. But he'd also told her he would get off the bus if it happened again, which he'd ended up doing.

A difficult juxtaposition of behaviors; polite and humble one breath, and aggressive and hateful in the next. I have to assume the guy was mentally ill, of course. I sincerely hope the two women he was so angry with aren't too shaken by the experience. And I wish all three of them well.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Late Friday night on the 358

My wife's family has been trickling in and out of town for the last couple weeks. We all rented a couple houses in the San Juans for a week around the 4th of July weekend, and her out-of state family has been circulating among her in-state family's homes since then. Her sister wanted to go to a Mariners game and see SAFECO Field. I urged them to take the bus there, while I drove to work and then parked near the ballpark. Afterwards, I would take the bus with one of my kids while my wife, her sister, and our other kids drove home in my car.

The game was OK, not great (we lost), but it was still a good family trip. My daughter gets on the big screen while waving her poster of Ken Griffey Jr. while he's at bat, whereupon he hits a clutch single. Afterwards, we all walked back to my car, and then my nine-year-old son and I continued into downtown to catch a bus home. Since the buses don't come very often at that hour, we did quite a bit of walking along 3rd Avenue before we finally decided to stop and wait at 3rd & Union. It was 10:45 before the bus, a King County Metro #358, finally arrived. We took our seats in the back, as there weren't two anywhere close together farther forward.

First mistake.

By the way, my now-seven-year-old daughter, the one who'd ridden the bus to Hollywood with me a couple Christmases ago, wanted to ride home with me tonight, too, but I know what the 358 can be like late on a Friday or Saturday night, and I wouldn't let her.

One good choice made, at least.

In the very back of the bus a man and a woman are sitting together with a boom box turned up higher than it should be, but not egregiously so. She seems a little high. The stop after we get on, probably at 3rd & Pine, where I know from experience that things can get lively, especially at night, and not in a good way, a bunch more people get on, including a couple that moves to the back. The woman sits down across from my son and me while the man, who's wearing a blue shirt, negotiates with the man sitting in the back row, who's wearing a red shirt, to move a pile of his stuff so he can sit down, too, including the boom box, which gets turned up louder, but the pile of stuff is getting moved. The woman in the back starts sassing the newly arrived man. Talks about the "mafia" and calls him a *bitch*. This infuriates the man in the blue shirt. The n-word starts flying. So do f-bombs. Nobody is backing down. All the antagonists seem impaired by some substance or other, to a greater or lesser extent. The man in the blue shirt's female companion starts pushing him away. He lets himself be pushed but occasionally pushes back past her to reinforce his point, which is (paraphrasing) that he doesn't appreciate being called "bitch". Nebulous threats of violence are made. He allows himself to be pushed far enough forward that there is little immediate instigation for further conflict. The man in the red shirt gets up and starts hassling his female companion. Tells her (paraphrasing again) that she shouldn't have been saying what she did. The sound of what sounds like a loud slap comes, but I can't see past him to see what happened. She becomes quiet and stays that way. My son, who'd been sitting right next to the man with the blue shirt, has wide eyes but doesn't look spooked. I have one arm around him and the other wrapped around a pole with my hands clasped together in front of us. I don't want anyone crashing into my son accidentally -- at this point there've been a lot of angry words, but no indication that the situation is in immediate danger of escalation, and while I'm concerned that my son has to see this, it's also a fairly safe exposure for him to an uglier side of life than he usually sees, and he hasn't seemed frightened by it, at least not yet -- two reasons I hadn't already removed him from the situation.

The man in the red shirt apologizes for frightening my son. then calls out to the other man that he's taken care of the situation from his end, just like the man in the blue shirt's female companion has, so "everything is cool now". He emphasizes their brotherhood (and sisterhood). This seems to annoy the man in the blue shirt, but not enough to rouse him again. He and his companion are talking quietly. The man in the red shirt's boom box gets turned up louder. I'm noticing that so far the loud hip-hop music has seemed to aggravate the situation rather than soothe it. A couple minutes later the man in the blue shirt walk backs again, once again right in front of me and my son, to emphasize that he "is cool", too. The man in the red shirt notices that he isn't exactly apologizing, and points this out. The man in the blue shirt, a little more loudly, reiterates that he "is cool" (with the situation). The man in the red shirt points out that "the kids" (meaning my son) don't need to be seeing this kind of behavior. The man in the blue shirt turns to my son and tells him he may want to move away, then gets a little louder and more aggressive, complaining about being called "a bitch". The n-word starts flying again.

I move my son forward, where seats have started opening up as the bus continues on its route north -- we are out of downtown and near the Aurora Bridge by now. I make eye contact with the man in the blue shirt's female companion as we move past her. The situation in back seems to calm down a little, perhaps as the ramifications of our exit become clearer. The man in the blue shirt's female companion may have gone back to defuse the situation again, too, but at this point my visibility into the situation isn't so good and I can't tell. Another man, older, comes forward too, shaking his head to me: "he just can't leave it alone" and expressing concern for my son. I tell him my son is OK, just as I'd told the man in the red shirt a few minutes earlier.

The man in the red shirt's boom box gets turned up even louder. Soon the commotion in the back gets louder, too. It has now escalated to pushing, apparently. An exodus of people who seem genuinely frightened begins past us. At the bus stop at Aurora & 75th, just outside PCC, after everyone has offloaded, the bus driver opens the rear door and, over the intercom, tells unspecified persons to get off the bus. I figure the aggressors in this situation have exactly zero motivation to comply, and since we're within half a mile of our home, we might as well do so ourselves, before the situation gets even worse. Half a minute later, the bus proceeds past us with all of the aggressors still aboard. Not many people are left in the back of the bus, though the front is jammed. I'm hopeful that with fewer people in close proximity, that tensions will defuse. Especially if the damn boom box gets turned down.

My son and I have a conversation on the half-mile walk home. He tells me it was like being teleported to New York. I ask him why he thinks so and we then discuss the effect of poverty, powerlessness, alcohol, and drugs, and how they can sometimes reinforce each other to create a bad situation where none needs to exist. He seems fine, but I hope will come out of this wiser and better equipped to deal with tough situations in the future. Later, when my wife asks him about it and asks if he heard any bad language, he says nearly all of it was bad. He has no trouble falling asleep. Neither do I, for that matter, but I have troubled dreams.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Trains in the tunnel

I'm starting to see a train in the bus tunnel nearly every time I wait for a bus there. They aren't taking passengers yet, of course, and won't for a couple more weeks, but it's good to see them operating in close proximity with buses there. I've noticed that they are somewhat louder than buses in the tunnel, and also that some railings are probably going to be moved farther away from the platform's edge, as the trains pass very close, and I could see someone getting hurt if they lean or reach out even a little bit over the existing railings.

As I write this on the King County Metro #150, coming into downtown in the evening with a load of passengers headed to a Mariners home game, one of these trains just went by in the other direction. It makes a bell-ringing sound as it comes into and exits each station, but the ringing sound seems prerecorded -- no actual bell is being rung. It sounds a little cheesy even though it's probably more practical, and of course the sound will be good for the safety of nearby pedestrians who might not otherwise pay attention.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Flat again (and again)

A day after I flatted and repaired my tube (twice), I bike/bus commuted again, this time without incident, though I was careful not to ride too far. But a week later, with about 75 miles on the patched tube and after riding all the way to work, when I got to my bike for the ride home, my tire was flat again. This shouldn't have been a big problem with an REI bike department about a mile away from my office, so I inflated the tube and rode like heck to get there before I ran out of air again.

The store didn't have the right size tube for my road rocket: 700x25. They recommended a nearby bike shop. I pumped up the tire again and rode a couple miles to find it, but no dice -- their fairly imprecise directions were no help. So I resigned myself to a bus ride downtown, albeit from a little earlier on its route than usual, and parked myself on another bus bench just outside the Southcenter REI. The bus wasn't due for another 20 minutes so I took the rear tire off and slapped a third patch onto the grievously wounded tube. Then when the bus finally arrived, it already had two bikes on its rack, with the next bus not due for another half hour -- I got waved off. The driver shrugged -- there was nothing he could do. I was seriously out of luck and getting frustrated with the limitations of scheduled transit service. My latest patch seemed to be holding, so I started riding my route home, hoping the tube would hold out until the next bus stop. It did, so I took the gamble to the next stop a couple miles farther up the road, the Tukwila Park and Ride. I was actually only about 5 minutes behind the bus that waved me off, with 25 minutes to go until the next one. And my tube was holding at 3/4 pressure. So what the heck, I'm already in about as deep as I can get and with no guarantee that the next bus won't already have another full bike rack, I take a deep breath, mount up, and bike 19 more miles home. Fortunately without further incident.

I ended up riding about 50 miles that day, all the way to work and all the way back, plus all the farting around bike shops at Southcenter, none of which was actually helpful.

At home that weekend, I had an unusual hour to myself, and with my tire flat yet again, I pumped it up and rode it most of the way to the nearest bike shop. The tire went flat about four blocks away from the shop, and no amount of further pumping helped, so I walked it the rest of the way. They changed the tube and I bought a spare for my pack. Here's hoping I don't have to use it anytime soon. I've put about 100 more miles on it since then. If only it were as cheap an easy to change the tire on the old clunker car in my garage.

And, oh yeah, yesterday I got waved off again, at the International District Station in the bus tunnel. Two bikes
already on the rack meant I had to wait for a later bus. Luckily I knew my options, and a different bus with a more problematic -- but still doable -- route came by a couple minutes later, so not much was lost. I've spent way too much time waiting for buses this past month, and not nearly enough time actually riding them.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Earlier this month I bike-commuted the 22+ miles from my home in North Seattle to my office in Tukwila again. About 2/3 of the way there, I flatted. Doggone. I've only flatted once before on my road rocket, and that time was about 20 miles into a different 22+ mile commute, but it happened less than half a mile from the shop where I bought the bike, easy walking distance for them to take care of it for me.

This time I flatted miles from any similar services, near the First Ave S bridge. I had my pump, a patch kit, and tools, of course, but after getting the wheel and tire off, the pump didn't seem to be getting air into the tube. No problem, there was a bus stop nearby and it would surely take me closer to where I wanted to go. Unfortunately, beyond the route number there was no information at the bus stop describing where that bus actually went. Still no problem, as I had a cell phone and schedules for other bus lines with me, from which I got a rider service number to call.

But no good ... this bus didn't go in the right direction at all, and the service rep I spoke with told me my best option was to go 5 miles back to Spokane Street and transfer to a better bus there. OK, I walked my bike across the street to catch the recommended bus, and once there on a bench in the shade, I had another look at my tube. It'd be 20 minutes before the next bus came along, and I had nothing better to do. Being able to sit was a big help, and I quickly figured out that the pump was actually working -- the twin pinch-flat holes in the tube were big enough that as fast as I could pump air in, it came right back out again. I patched the holes and put everything back together, then fully inflated the tire. The bus finally comes by as I'm almost finished, but I think I have everything under control and wave the driver past. Then I figure out that the tube isn't holding pressure, but I have enough to be able to get me half a mile farther along, where there's a bus stop for a different line. After arriving I stop and check the tube, and it has gotten really low -- the patch is leaking. I sit down on another bus bench to take everything apart again -- this bus won't take me anywhere near where I want to go, either. Sure enough, one of the holes has found an outlet along a tube seam. A second patch overlapping the first did the trick, at least for the time being. I never did see the second bus. I hop on the bike and continue riding. For the first couple miles I stop every couple minutes to check the tube, and while it wouldn't hold full pressure, it held steady at about 3/4 pressure -- maybe 60 psi. I stopped checking so often, just one more time with about 3 miles to go and it held, so I biked myself the rest of the way to work. It took more than 3 hours, twice as long as usual. Next time I'm at the bike shop I'll have to get an extra tube for my pack.

The return trip was fine, though I didn't ride all the way home, just 3 miles to the bus stop, then on a King County Metro bus to downtown and then a #5 to Upper Fremont, then biked the rest of the way home without further incident.

At least not that day.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Youthful exuberance

As I begin this, I'm on a Friday evening bus from Tukwila along with several kids whose normal communication seems to be conducted at a full yell. It seems friendly enough, if extremely loud, even when one of them is actually threatening to kill another, which has happened several times, or referring to each other at full volume as "fat f*ck" or various other terms of shared identity that seem to be used by some high schoolers these days, a phenomenon confirmed by a high school teacher I spoke with the next day. Those wacky kids. But of course this quickly cleared out the back of the bus of several adults who did NOT seem to want to be in the middle of THAT. The loud kids got off at a stop in the International District, and it was nice to exist in a state of normal ambient noise for the rest of my ride into downtown, where I transferred to another bus home.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

40+ years of bikes

In honor of bike-to-work day: Friday, May 15, 2009.

c1967: I must've had access to a bike back when I was a five-year-old, because I distinctly recall crashing into a car while riding near my family's apartment in the Bronx. The car was stopped at an intersection and I rode right off the curb into it, but I wasn't going fast enough to cause more than a scratch to myself or either vehicle.
c1970: Groovy custom-built banana-seat coaster-brake with chopper handlebars, a trim little sissy bar, rear shock absorbers, chrome fenders, and a leather carry bag on the back. See snapshot. Rear wheel was a fat-tire slick, front wheel was much smaller and a bit narrower. My uncle built this, just as he custom-built bikes for everyone in my family. This is the bike I learned to ride on -- no training wheels. I think the first of my two relatively serious bike accidents was on this bike, when my stupid kid self put his foot between the front wheel and the fork while moving fast. Wheel abruptly stopped turning and I went flying over the handlebars onto the pavement.
c1971: My uncle built a much more rugged bike for my younger sister. Same-size fat knobby tires front and back. It wasn't really mine but I borrowed it a lot so I could ride off bluffs into gravel pits, jump dirt piles, the usual crazy kid stuff. Don't recall ever wiping out. The bike was very popular among my friends, but I didn't share it much -- it not really being mine to share. Basically a BMX bike before the term existed.
c1974: Montgomery Ward 10-speed with disc brakes -- a birthday present while I was in Jr High. The disc brake worked better than caliper brakes in wet conditions, but was otherwise a gimmick. This was my bike for the next 13 years. In college, with a load of books in both hands and riding no-handed downhill around a curve, I hit a pothole and wiped out. Messed up the bike a bit with some road rash left over for me, the second of my two relatively serious bike accidents. Walked it the rest of the way to my dorm, left it unlocked in the bike rack there -- I was mad at it, knowing that no one would be stupid enough to ride away on a bike in that condition, at least not for long. Bike was stolen by the next morning, of course. After the end of the semester I learned that campus security had recovered it half a block away. Apparently the thief had fallen off and then a car had run over the front wheel, which was bent. Bike stayed in that condition for a couple more years until after graduation, when I had a LBS fix it up, putting caliper brakes on the rear wheel since replacement parts for the Monkey Ward disc brake were no longer available. Bike-commuted in 1985 on side streets between South Pasadena and Pasadena. Also rode alongside the 1984 Olympic marathoners in Los Angeles one memorable time -- I'd hoped too see more of that race, but my roommate and I hadn't reckoned on how fast they were even though we were runners ourselves, so we didn't get to see nearly as much of the race as we'd hoped. Moved to Long Island and then to DC, riding it for recreation both places. Finally gave it to my best friend's landlord (his name was Kelly and he lived in College Park, MD), who needed it a lot more than I did. I did not perceive that suburban Long Island or Northern Virginia were safe places for regular bike-commuting in those days.
1987: My uncle came out of bike-builder retirement to build me a 10-speed for Christmas. It had a big rubber clown horn on the handlebars. After getting it boxed up in San Diego for the flight home, I rode it once in the DC winter. It was an awesome present, a nice bike with an even nicer horn. Left it in my apartment building's locked bike room afterwards, but didn't chain it up there. Never saw it again.
1988: Bought a steel-frame Puch 12-speed at age 26 -- my first self-purchased bike. Rode it for recreation on the W&OD trail in Virginia and, after moving to Sacramento, the American River Trail. Citrus Heights/Roseville wasn't a great place to bike-commute then, either. Moved to North Seattle, bought my first helmet, and bike-commuted downtown and to Bothell. Bought a cushy seat when riding over roots on the BGT started causing electric bolts of pain to shoot from my keel even when I wasn't on the bike. After 10 years in Seattle, mounted an electric motor on it and bike-commuted some more to Bothell, Belltown, and Redmond. A LBS replaced the 6-gear freewheel with a 7-gear equivalent. Once I was in good enough shape for the long ride to/from Redmond, pushing that heavy old steel frame with a second high-resistance chain to the attached 12-pound motor, with or without the 15-pound battery, was more effort than I wanted to expend, so I started borrowing the Trek 720 I bought in Eugene for my wife 10 years earlier, raised the seat way up high, and used that for a couple months. My wife eventually wanted her bike back.
2007: Dropped a K on a Trek 1500. 105 crank, chainrings, and headset, Ultegra rear. The road rocket. Thing can go up hills by itself. Bike-commuted to/from Redmond and later to/from Tukwila. Spilled once while going around a hairpin turn too fast -- I wasn't used to the high center of gravity or the headset integrated shifters/brakes, and didn't brake enough before starting the turn. Started buying accessories for night and wet riding: fender, lights, dayglo vest, tools, small carry bag.
2008: Bought a Novara Buzz V so I could ride Iron Horse State Park over the Cascades between Duvall and Cle Elum with my 11-year-old son. The crossbar-style handlebars necessitated fingerless gel gloves to keep my hands from going numb. Worked nicely enough as a commuter that I switched the cushy seat from the road rocket, which I didn't ride for another 9 months while I used the Buzz commuter exclusively. This year I bought a second cushy seat so I can ride either one of my two new bikes with little prep. I bike/bus commute 1-3 times a week these days. I also pack up the whole family for occasional recreational bike rides around North Seattle: to/from school, baseball practices (my 11-year-old son now sometimes bikes to his practices or games solo), picnics at Gas Works, Costco (!), Pop Mounger pool in Magnolia, SeaFair, even Red Hook in Woodinville and Gene Coulon Park in Renton, really anywhere we want to go. I still have the steel electric Puch, though I don't ride it much anymore.

Family bikes

Kettler tricycle
Winchester bike trailer
16" Novara coaster-brake
16" hand-me-down pink/purple coaster-brake with a little flowered plastic basket on the front
20" Raleigh BMX coaster-brake
20" toy-store 7-speed BMX
24" Giant 21-speed BMX-style
24" Trek 21-speed hardtail
Trek 720

My wife rides the Trek 720. My two oldest sons (11 and 9) use the 24-inchers. My 6-year-old daughter uses the Kent single-speed. My 3-year-old son hasn't quite graduated from the tricycle to training wheels on the 16" Novara -- he mostly rides in the trailer behind me, but he won't stand for that much longer.

We are fortunate in that most of these bikes are hand-me-downs, excepting only the little Novara which we bought for my oldest son when he was 4 years old, my wife's Trek, and the Giant which we bought used from a local meteorologist when her son got too big for it. We had a couple more hand-me-down kids' bikes once, one a Kent that a random kid at the coach-pitch field gave us one day, and which we eventually donated in turn to BikeWorks, the other from a neighbor that we lent to a babysitter who hasn't been heard from since. We're ready to pass on the pink/purple coaster-brake now that my daughter has gotten too big for it. The tricycle has just about fulfilled its purpose, too. Gotta share our good fortune, after all, plus our garage is crammed with bikes! The trailer is still useful for carrying cargo for picnics and shopping trips.

My nine-year-old son is the only one of my kids who's had an accident to date; while riding up 8th Ave NW with his older brother and me last year, he wasn't watching where he was going and rode right into the back of a parked pickup truck, though he wasn't going fast enough to hurt himself or anything else. Really, a little safety education goes a long way -- my sisters and I never had any, and our kid bike accidents (especially my sister's big one) were a lot more serious than anything my kids have experienced. So far. Knock wood.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Thoughts on NY subway transit relevance to smaller cities, Part 1

My brief adventure with Brooklyn and Manhattan transportation brings into sharp focus the key issues in any transit system's success, which the New York subways are largely successful in addressing, but which many other municipal transit systems struggle to meet:

Low cost
Few transfers

The New York subways feature huge trains and relatively high frequencies, and the system is capable of moving extremely large numbers of people almost anywhere they want to go in the city. Waits at transfer points complicate matters, but frequencies are high enough (and surface traffic is generally bad enough, with parking tight enough and expensive enough) to make subway travel attractive for most New Yorkers. The only real physical constraint to transit travel there is the system knowledge riders need in order to make timely and direct transfers. This is partially solved through use of a single subway map (helpfully named "The Map"), good signage, necessity, and exercised memories, though it doesn't seem to cover buses or the Long Island Railroad, which might've been a good option for me to get from the Brooklyn Bridge to JFK. Note that this solution doesn't necessarily transfer well to other cities, few of which are served so comprehensively by rail transit. In the past I have also used Port Authority buses between New York and its immediate New Jersey suburbs. Here in Seattle, by contrast, for the remainder of my lifetime there will never be more than a single T-shaped light rail line in the city, intended to be fed in the near future only by a (good) bus network. Its trains will be considerably smaller than New York's, also suffering from somewhat less frequent service.

By the way, on the bus I was riding to Tukwila last this week when I started writing this, a passenger was attempting to get the bus driver to help him locate the driver of the bus he'd been on a few weeks ago when he was assaulted by another passenger; punched in the face several times apparently because that passenger disagreed with some comments made ("out of context", according to the assaulted passenger) in a conversation directed to someone else. He wants that bus driver to act as a witness in case the assaulted passenger takes legal action against the man who attacked him. Obviously passenger safety in public transit won't be guaranteed in Seattle or New York or anywhere else, until such time as passengers get to choose who they ride with.

Another safety-related issue I noticed in driving and walking around New York was that it seemed like there was an NYPD patrol car parked on every other block. I wondered how this could be possible until I considered the high residential density there; of course police will seem so much more visible even when the ratio of police to civilians is the same as it is here in Seattle -- the greater density means that the police will also be closer together, and hence more visible.

All in all, the investment required to bring a medium-sized, medium-density city like Seattle the level of rail transit that serves such a large proportion of New Yorkers so well would be basically impossible with public money, and at some point we have to ask ourselves as taxpayers how much rail is enough, especially when a rail transit spine can be complemented effectively with more cost-effective alternatives. Which brings us back to where we started in this post: finding convenient, high-capacity, fast, cost-effective, flexible, safe, reliable, and congestion-proof public transit that minimizes transfers as well as the time spent waiting for them.

Yes, adding more buses can improve this, making the bus transit network more convenient and higher-capacity at a relatively low cost, but this would not really do anything for all of the other considerations: bus transit will still be slow, prone to getting caught in congestion, not particularly safe, and requiring transfers that might have long waits. Even a fully rail-networked Seattle would not feature very quick urban transit, with safety a continuing concern and transfers required, likely with longish wait times at transfer points, and of course the cost to build a grade-separated rail transit network throughout the Seattle metropolitan area would be astronomical.

So, with the economic and environmental unsustainability of private automobiles becoming increasingly obvious, what other choices do we have? More on that next time.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

New York

I flew to Manhattan for a long weekend with my two sons for my grandmother's funeral. We saw her off in a fashion befitting her long, fruitful life, in which she made many friends and a lasting impression on the big family she raised and the bigger extended family they raised in turn. She was a talented painter as well as a wonderful mother to her six sons and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A certain Irish pub in Brooklyn saw a lot of extra business that weekend from our assembled family; we still love to see each other from our four compass points even in times of sorrow like this year, or tragedy like earlier this decade.

The day after our farewell to Gram, I took my sons and my sister's family over the Brooklyn Bridge and into Manhattan. We walked over the bridge, which was an adventure in itself, then took the subway to Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, where we waited for the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. The enormously long train came a few minutes later, and we dilly-dallied our way to the ferry terminal, then hustled to the ferry entrance roughly 15 seconds after it honked its horn and set sail. The next ferry would depart half an hour later, and unbeknownst to us at the time, the ferry we'd just missed was the last one of the day that would allow us to get to Liberty Island early enough to actually climb up into the statue.

Yes, the boys were disappointed, but it was still a fantastic day for all of us, including eating hot dogs from a street vendor who was wearing a grungy NY Yankees jacket and who looked just like anyone else's working class Italian-American father. My sons agreed that it was the best hot dog they'd ever eaten, and I thought it was mighty fine, too.

On our way back we took a much more direct subway , which dropped us off within a few blocks of our hotel, then we dashed upstairs for our luggage, caught a cab, and headed to JFK for the long, late flight home.

New York City subways are something to behold. The trains are huge and frequent, and they run practically everywhere in the city. Any place in the city is nominally just a transfer or two away, but in practice usually much less, since from my time in New York I remember that many New Yorkers generally don't have to travel far to get what they need, except perhaps in their commute.

With the freeways jammed on Sunday afternoon, our route back to the airport took us along Atlantic Avenue through Brooklyn, which closely paralleled a subway line that emerged to become an elevated train about halfway there. Under more normal circumstances we might have taken a train like this one, but the concierge at our hotel told us when I asked about it earlier that morning that the A-Train to JFK wasn't running at that time. He offered shuttle buses as an alternative to get halfway there, then a shorter version of the A-train which connected to an airport train, but our time was short and it looked like a cab to the terminal was going to be the only alternative that would get us where we needed to be in time to make our flight. We only arrived at the terminal an hour before flight time, which was cutting it a bit fine, but we didn't have any baggage to check, so except for an incident in the security line that could have been avoided with a little forethought, all was well.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


My grandmother died this past weekend. That's one near and dear friend or family member passing away each month this year. My family was driving into the mountains for a three-day Presidents Day weekend when I heard. She was 96 and had been ailing for the last several years, so unlike my friend last month, her passing wasn't unexpected, though it remains a sorrowful occasion.

I remember my grandmother first as the formidable woman who owned a sandy summer cottage at Breezy Point in Queens, and by "sandy" I mean the sand was everywhere inside, most especially the bedsheets, though the fact that I was an active boy who played all day every day on the beach may have had something to do with that. Her husband, my grandfather, died when I was five years old, and while I remember him, I don't remember much. My grandmother, on the other hand, I grew up with. She took me on a road trip from New York to Boston one year, just the two of us, when I was 9 or 10 years old. She handed me a map and asked me to navigate, which I'd never really done before, but I was a quick learner. She might've been taking me to visit my cousins in New Hampshire, to be picked up by the rest of my family a couple weeks later. We took the side roads, not Interstate 95. That trip may have been one of the more formative experiences of my life, with me being given active responsibility for the first time, with potentially unpleasant consequences if I didn't execute well.

When we arrived in Boston, she took me to visit the U.S.S. Constitution, which I've only returned to once since then. It must've made an impression, since I've been actively interested in the Age of Sail since, but I don't recall much about the visit itself except the toy cannon she bought me from the gift shop, and how many different sizes of cannons there were to choose from.

There'll be a memorial service in Brooklyn for her in a week or three, where they'll lay her ashes to rest beside her husband, from whom she's been apart for so long.

God Bless you, Gram.