Monday, October 18, 2010

Transit on summer holiday 2010, Part 1

Our family traveled a lot in July. Texas, Nevada, Eastern California, and Washington D.C. And yes, I tried to use transit whenever possible. Here's part 1 of what worked and what didn't.

First, North Texas. To get to Sea-Tac Airport, I took an express bus with my 12-year-old son from home to downtown Seattle, then caught Central Link light rail to the airport. No problems there, though light rail is slower than the #194 express bus it replaced (to say nothing of taking twice as long as driving), and drops you off about 3/8 of a mile from the terminal, but it still saved us a bunch in parking costs.

From Amarillo, Texas to a farm 100 miles north was a transit vacuum. There was no expectation that any such thing was possible, and it would have been foolish to try -- there are places where transit works and where it doesn't, and one of the places public transit simply does not work is in rural areas. Interestingly, I was able to attend a wind farm presentation there -- North Texas is home to some good-sized wind farms, with more on the way once the grid gets upgraded to accommodate them.

Then it was back to Seattle for a week in the office (heading home from the airport on light rail and an express bus, of course) before driving to Reno and then to Mammoth Mountain in Eastern California, where the rest of my family had gone while I was working back home. They flew there from Texas, but driving to meet them gave us increased mobility plus the ability for everyone to drive home without having to pay for return flights.

Reno has a bus system, of course, but its service to my parents' part of town is very limited, and frankly I would rather bike. Reno has remarkably extensive bike facilities despite not much usage that I've observed. In any case, I was only there for a couple days visiting my parents, so didn't get out of the house much or beyond their activities at all. I played a bunch of guitar and listened to a lot of good music over copious quality libations with my Dad, though, so it was a wonderful side trip.

I usually find a way to use the bus system in Mammoth on our vacations, and this trip was no exception, though even at 8000' altitude the bus still has to compete with the ease and convenience of bicycling. With my younger kids, though, those free buses can be very handy. There's a Mammoth Jazz Festival that coincided with our visit, and there were some complicated transfers of kids that happened around it, involving our minivan, my bike (which I'd brought on our rack along with one belonging to my kids), and the bus, which is configured to look like a trolley with all the windows removed, a big hit with my kids. The difference in the feel of riding around in a bus without windows vs the closed-in feeling of riding transit buses is remarkable, but I don't know how easy it would be to translate that experience to Seattle.

More on the second, more transit-intensive portion of our July trips next time.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Seattle Transit Quat Trick

OK, nearly a year after I first wondered about this, conditions finally aligned last Friday so that I was able to go ahead and use a bus, light rail, Sounder commuter rail, and my bike on the same commute day. Like a hat trick, but with four goals instead of three. I'll call it a "Quat Trick".

In the morning I rode a King County Metro #355 express bus from Greenwood to south downtown, loading my bike on its rack. Then I biked from 5th & Jefferson past the International District tunnel station and down 6th Ave to the Sodo Trail, where I barely missed my usual connecting King County Metro #150 bus to Tukwila. My backup bus, a KC Metro #101, had been just in front of the #150 bus. So I had a choice to either wait 15 minutes for the next #150 bus, bike the rest of the way to Tukwila (which takes half an hour longer than piggybacking on a bus) or get on Link light rail instead. Light rail is less direct and 10 minutes slower than my #150 bus, but if a light rail train came by soon, I could still get to work more quickly than by waiting 15 minutes for the next #150 bus. Sure enough, the light rail train came by 3-4 minutes later, so I walked my bike over to the light rail station and hopped aboard. I actually had to move someone's luggage out of the bike slot.
About 30 people were aboard the first vehicle with me, with most of them still on board when I got off at the Tukwila International station.

A big red & yellow RapidRide (Bus Rapid Transit) bus was pulling into the parking lot just as I pulled out. No passengers were aboard -- they must be testing the new equipment before opening the first RapidRide line this month.

From the Tukwila International station it's a sharp downhill to the cartopia that is Southcenter Mall, without any bike facilities after the first downhill mile, another reason I generally don't like biking this route.

I had to get home earlier than usual on my return trip. This put my departure into the same window as the two daily afternoon northbound Sounder trains from their Tukwila station. I ended up leaving my office early because I'd misread the Sounder schedule, but the train was early too, pulling into the station just as I did, so I was thankful for the ORCA kiosk they put in since my last Sounder ride -- I just swiped my card on my way to climbing into the lead train vehicle. About 20 people were aboard, leaving well over half the seats empty, but this is still significantly better ridership than the last time I rode Sounder months ago, when it was typical to see no more than 5-6 people in that first vehicle. From King Street station I ended up biking the rest of the way home, including straight up Fremont Avenue into the Phinney neighborhood, always a fun climb.

But I did it, the Seattle Transit Quat Trick, nearly a year since first entertaining the idea. I'll go back to using a straight bus/bike commute whenever possible, of course … faster, cheaper, and usually more convenient.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


First, let me say that after months trying to add credit to my ORCA card, much of it the fault of that system, I was finally successful thanks to some help from ORCA telephone support when all other forms of advertised support had failed, where I spoke with an someone who said she gets calls like mine all the time. Many thanks to her not only for applying the credit that their system recognized, but also the earlier credit that had been invisible to them, even though they charged my credit card. See earlier chapters in my overlong saga here:

ORCA again
ORCA, Part 3
ORCA, Part 4

The fix finally happened a few months ago, and I've been using my ORCA card largely without trouble since then. I sincerely hope that disappearing credit purchases like mine are an ORCA card issue of the past, and that people don't continue to see them going forward!

However, ORCA card usage is still not entirely smooth sailing. I spent most of July on vacation, taking three separate long trips, two of which had transit components, one of them significant. More on that in a later post. On two of those trips, I took a bus/light rail combo to Sea-Tac Airport on my way out of town. Both times I saw new and unexpected behavior from light rail and from my ORCA card.

In a previous post I wrote that every trip I've taken on light rail I've seen transit cops go through the train and verify that every passenger had paid for their trip. Well, on one early-morning trip to the airport last month, that didn't happen. I paid for our whole family to get on a bus to downtown using my ORCA card, with the bus driver manually indicating to his console that I was using it to pay for multiple people. But there were no transit cops on the light rail trip from downtown to the airport. No big deal, right?

Except that on my next trip on light rail to the airport, I learned something else interesting. I took a bus to downtown with my son, paying for both of us with my ORCA card. And then on the light rail train from downtown to the airport, when a security cop took my card to verify that we'd paid for that trip, he told me that ORCA cards can't accommodate transfers on trips made by additional people. It recognized my personal transfer just fine, but apparently I was supposed to pay for my son's trip on light rail separately, even though it should have been a simple, no-additional-fare transfer for him as well as for me.

Major hole in the ORCA system here, it seems like.

On the return, my wife used my ORCA card to pay for her trip from the airport to downtown on light rail, knowing from me that she needed to buy separate tickets for the kids, which I believe were recognized as transfer slips by the King County Metro bus driver who drove her the rest of the way home from downtown.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Two flats, two apologies, and one close call

On Bike-To-Work Day last month I biked to work and most of the way back. I would've biked the entire 45-mile round trip except that I got a flat tire about halfway to work, which made me late, which made me stay later at the office, which made me have to piggyback on a bus for part of the way home at an hour early enough for our family's evening plans to stay on track.

Otherwise, Bike-To-Work Day was as fun as it is every year, though a bit chillier and wetter. I stopped at three commute stations along the way and got some of the usual swag and registered for the usual giveaways that I won't win. I missed Mayor McGinn's ride to downtown from the Fremont Bridge by a few minutes, but no big deal -- at that point I still had a long way to ride and more swag to pick up along the way.

My flat was due to a tire failure; a belt in my tire snapped, with one end of a metal wire then protruding into the tube and the other out through the tire. I had a patch kit and all the tools I would've needed to patch the tube, but I went flat right at the Tukwila Park and Ride, and decided the better course was to ride the bus from there to within half a mile of my office, and in the afternoon see about heading to REI for replacement items -- tube and tire. Which made me late getting home, as previously mentioned. Not the best Bike-To-Work Day I've had, but not too bad. I ended up riding my bike about 27 miles on my commute that day.

The following Monday I biked to work again, on my road bike this time, and sure enough I got another flat. Unfortunately I left my frame pump on the other bike, and so I had to rely on the kindness of strangers to finish my morning commute. Fortunately this was not in short supply, and not long after I started taking my bike apart in some unknown company's parking lot right off the sidewalk, a woman drove in, asked if I needed help, and when I said I needed a pump, she brought me inside and introduced me to another bicyclist there who had one. Turns out the unknown company was a Parks & Recreation office, which seemed highly appropriate. Many thanks again to all our Parks & Rec employees and all the great work they do!

2-3 miles further down the road in South Park I had one of the closest calls I've ever had on a bike. I was cruising along a wide, quiet residential street when a medium commercial truck pulled up to an intersection a little ahead of me -- he had a stop sign and I didn't. The driver didn't see me and pulled out to make a left turn in front of me. I hit the brakes immediately and started a guttural shout that began rising in pitch: "aaaaAAHHHH!"

About the time I reached the front of his vehicle, dodging into the oncoming lane to postpone it the collision, I'd slowed to walking speed but the driver would've hit me if he hadn't finally seen me or heard me, or used whatever sense he finally used to tip himself off to my presence. I stopped a car length away, seething. The driver seemed amused, sharing grins with his passenger. "I didn't see you, sorry," he said.

I could've given him an earful at this point, telling him to watch for all road users and not just the ones that could damage his truck or threaten his own life, but said only "Be careful." And I hope he does.

Another few miles down the road, along the Green River Trail in Tukwila, approaching the same Park & Ride where I'd gotten my flat the previous work day, there was a Parks & Rec truck sitting in the middle of the trail, taking up nearly the entire path. As I wasn't able to see anyone and there was space behind the truck for someone to pop out, I dismounted and walked the bike past it. Sure enough, the driver was behind it. He apologized, pointing to a graffiti-ed warning sign on a pole. "Sorry about that," he said, meaning he was sorry for taking up the whole trail with his truck.

"No problem," I said. "Have a great week." And I hope he did.

Friday, May 7, 2010

ORCA, Part 4

A couple things that haven't yet been mentioned in my saga of trying to get an ORCA card to work (See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 for previous history):

1. I lost the card for more than a month. It was right after I purchased my second credit for it back in February. I did it from my laptop in bed just before going to sleep, and the next time I went looking for the card a couple days later, I couldn't find it. The card showed up in April on my desk. I think my wife found it someplace and moved it there, knowing I was looking for it. I still don't know where she found it.

This complicated my attempts to get resolution on having made this $20 credit purchase, which at that time appeared as "pending" on the ORCA card website, to say nothing of the $15 I'd spent which had never been acknowledged at all.

2. My first attempt to resolve this situation was via e-mail, back in early March (or maybe even February). I laid out the situation in brief, including the fact that the card had gone missing, and requested that the credits be applied to one of the other two ORCA cards we had and which appeared on our online account. The e-mailed response was simple and sunny: tap the card and all will be well. However, since we couldn't even find the card at that point, this response was no help at all. A polite request for further guidance to this "help" e-mail was never answered.

Needless to say, after trying three different methods to try and get resolution on this issue by mid-April (e-mail, talking with a representative at the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel's Westlake Station, and on hold for 15 minutes on the telephone), all of them fruitless, I was getting quite annoyed.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


In my bike commutes over the past several weeks I've noticed something I hadn't really encountered since last fall: headwinds. I've observed the typical warm-weather wind pattern in the Puget Sound region is for winds from the south or southwest in the morning, shifting to winds from the north or northwest in the evening. Since my current office is south of my home (about a 45 mile round trip), what this means for me on a typical warm-weather day is headwinds on both legs of my bike commute. Usually these are not particularly significant (I only really notice when sustained winds are more than 10 mph and/or have higher gusts), but they certainly don't make bike commuting easier.

Well, for the past few weeks, and after six months without significant wind on the days I've bike commuted (usually 1-3 times per week -- I also telecommute twice a week), the typical Puget Sound warm-weather pattern seems to have returned. The first time I noticed this was about three weeks ago. I took a bus downtown, then biked from there to my office in Tukwila. For most of that bike ride I had to drop a gear because of the persistent headwinds, and along one stretch alongside Highway 99 south of South Park, I had to drop two gears.

Two weeks ago I biked the entire distance to my office and arrived pretty well spent from the relentless headwinds. And Monday, just as I started climbing the Dexter Hill southbound from the Fremont Bridge towards downtown Seattle, on a day when windstorms littered my route with tree branches and leaves and caused a lot more mayhem elsewhere in the region, a gust hit and forced me to drop a gear, which I never was able to make up. I felt almost as out of shape as I had been back in January.

On the other hand, maybe my commuter bike's semiannual tuneup is overdue, or maybe I really am getting too old for this. I will have to try breaking out my road bike later this week to see how much it helps -- I haven't ridden the road rocket since about October.

One fun note about that first windy bike/bus commute three weeks ago: at the stop after I boarded my morning bus to downtown, new Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn boarded too, loading his bike behind mine on the bus' bike rack. He greeted me by name when I gave him a wave hello -- we know each other from our intersecting neighborhood work on issues of bicyclist and pedestrian safety and urban planning over the past few years, but I hadn't seen him since before last summer's primary election when I was working on his campaign. It was nice to see him again. No one else on the bus seemed to recognize him, which surprised me.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

ORCA, Part 3

A week ago Friday, on another bike/bus commute, I biked downtown from my home in Greenwood, went downstairs to the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel's Westlake Station, had a nice chat with Tito the Tunnel Flautist, even buying a copy of his new CD, then descending further to the ORCA Service Center to see if I could get them to apply the $35 in charges I'd added to my ORCA card this year, none of which has appeared on the card to date. (See Part 1 and Part 2 of this developing saga for details on what came before.)

The woman behind the window seemed a little nervous about my reaction. I can understand why, as I imagine she's been yelled at before by people in my situation -- probably more than once -- because of the appalling hoops that ORCA customers must jump through in order to get their charges applied, but I'm a bit more civilized than that -- it's not her fault that her employer's service system is FUBAR. Basically, what I learned was partly what I already knew, and partly that the ORCA infrastructure is even more screwed up than I'd realized. No, she couldn't apply the charges I'd purchased for my card. I would have to call their service center for that. Yes, she found one of the two purchases I'd made in their records, but not the other one. Yes, both purchases were charged to me by my credit card company, but ORCA will not recognize one of them, though I will be following up on this. This much I hadn't known before.

What I did already know (or thought I knew) was that I need to "tap" my card in order for the purchases I'd made to be applied. Unfortunately, when I did so later that day, even the purchase they acknowledged was not applied.

Last Monday morning I got on the phone with their service center. And I stayed on the phone -- on hold -- for about 15 minutes before finally hearing a message that call volumes were unusually high. Until I had to hang up or miss my Monday morning bus.

To be continued in a Part 4, I guess ...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Light rail ridership looking up in 2010

I have to say, since about a month ago I've noticed that Central Link light rail ridership seems to be up from its dismal 2009 numbers. The last 7-8 times I've seen a southbound train go by from stations in the downtown Seattle transit tunnel, they've seemed to be carrying about twice as many riders as I was counting last year, or even in January. Yesterday morning the one train that went past me while I was waiting for my bus to Tukwila had 33 riders on board. This isn't nearly as many as were on the articulated bus that brought me downtown in the first place, which was carrying about 50 passengers with hardly a single seat free, much less the articulated bus that brought me home from downtown that evening, which had 65-70 people on board, about 10 of them standing, but it's a nice improvement nonetheless.

This is as expected, of course, now that the King County Metro #194 has been canceled; people who used to take it to the airport now have to take light rail instead even though it's several minutes slower and drops you off twice as far from the nearest terminal. I will miss that #194. But at least King County Metro can save a little money by not having to operate it any more.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bike helmets and a cold ride home

I forgot my bike helmet yesterday morning. Caught my bus to downtown with half a minute to spare, but I'd hurried getting out of the house, and in my haste forgot about three things that would make for a much more comfortable bike ride: my helmet, my fingerless gel gloves, and an unmentionable. Once on the bus but while still digging for change to pay for it (the bus was already moving towards the next stop), I bonked my head on the high handrail, which immediately brought to mind the fact that I was not wearing a helmet.

So at the next stop, transfer slip already in hand after paying for it, I dismounted my bike from the bus, rode the 3 blocks home, and got all the stuff I'd forgotten earlier.

As a bike commuter for the past 25 years, even though I've never had a significant accident during that time, I can't say enough good stuff about bike helmets. As a little background, there's some debate within the bicyclist community about whether bike helmets are a good idea. The argument against requiring wearing bike helmets is, as near as I can puzzle it out, that in communities where bike helmets are not required, and are in fact often not worn, that bicyclists are actually safer than they are where they are required. The cost of a helmet is also characterized as a barrier for some who would otherwise bike.

There is some merit to these arguments, of course, and I'm doubtless not relating all of their subtlety (if not entirely omitting other arguments against requiring bike helmets), but the fact of the matter is that you are dramatically safer from head injury -- especially catastrophic head injuries -- while wearing a bike helmet. Which is good enough reason for me. Sure, it would be great to be able to live in a city where drivers are aware enough of bicyclists, and where bicyclists have safe enough bike facilities (and ride safely on them!), that the danger of such a head injury is so small as to make bike helmets unnecessary. But we don't live in such a community, however much progress we might be making in the right direction … the greatest threat to adult bicyclists in Seattle, as it is most everywhere else in the United States, is from drivers who don't see them.

Wear your bike helmets, people!

Once back on the road, I biked towards downtown along the Greenwood/Phinney/Fremont corridor towards the Fremont Bridge. As I rode south past N 80th Street, I spied a King County Metro #5 bus almost half a mile ahead, and thought how nice it would be to put my already-purchased bus transfer slip to good use by overhauling that bus sometime before it made its turn onto Aurora Ave, then riding it the rest of the way downtown -- I might be able to shave 5-10 minutes from my commute by doing so. At that point, my bike ride was mostly flat, and I can almost always outrun a local bus on the flat, much less downhill, even though it has a higher top speed than I do, simply because it has to make all those stops.

Sure enough, I'd nearly caught that bus just after it crossed the N 46th Street arterial, but unfortunately there was a red light between it and me, so it receded into the distance again. The green light came a minute later, and I caught the bus again just as it was turning from N 43rd Street onto Fremont Ave N. Then I passed it as it stopped a little ways down that hill, and pulled into its last stop before it entered the Aurora Ave expressway. So I got to ride a #5 bus to downtown after all, then biked from its stop on Wall Street to Westlake Plaza. At Westlake, a pedestrian asked if I was cold, as I was wearing my usual swim trunks and T-shirt (plus a thin day-glo vest), but I hadn't thought about the temperature at all, and found that I wasn't cold. Then down the first set of stairs where I normally see Tito the tunnel flautist (who has a new CD out!) there was a fellow with a blind man's cane and a guitar, playing a very credible Ray Charles blues-y version of "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys", which made me smile so I dropped a buck into his guitar case. Then when I got to the platform, my connecting bus was just pulling in. It ended up being a great morning commute -- this is just not the sort of great experience I get while driving!

It was considerably colder on the ride home, but I still biked about 10 miles of my return commute even though I was still wearing just swim trunks and a t-shirt with a thin nylon dayglo-vest over it. But my experience with the #5 bus getting home was the flip side to the excellent timing I'd enjoyed in the morning; as I was passing that #5 bus at its last stop in Belltown it abruptly pulled out alongside me and I came to a screeching halt to avoid a collision -- it had not signaled its intent to merge back into traffic until the very moment it began moving. I sat behind it as it waited to turn right onto Battery Street and then again at its next stoplight, but there was only one person waiting to get on at its next stop just before Denny, and as I rode up on the sidewalk alongside, it took off without me. So I ended up biking the rest of the way home, which I hadn't really wanted to do in this cold while wearing as little as I was. I could see that it had even snowed that day along my route, though that snow hadn't stuck. Ah well, the hill-climbing did me good (and kept me warm!).

Monday, March 8, 2010

When buses are on schedule

Last Monday morning my bus to downtown was on time. It might even have been a minute early, as it was pulling away from my bus stop just as I got to within a block away. I had to pedal on down the sidewalk after it for 20 yards (no pedestrians were in sight) then drop down a curb cut onto the street. This was the first time I'd ever bicycled on N 85th Street -- which in my neighborhood is little more than an extended freeway on-ramp -- especially during rush hour. However, no cars were visible behind me, I would only be riding on the street for a block and a half, and this street went downhill right after I merged onto it, enabling me to go as fast as motorized traffic there. As it turned out, no cars came up behind me for that block and a half, so my concern was moot.

The light turned red ahead of my bus at Aurora Ave, enabling me to get back onto the sidewalk, slow way down for a couple pedestrians there, and get onto the bus. That bus encountered no traffic on its way to the U District, light traffic in the U District itself, and no traffic from there to downtown. This allowed me to get downtown a little ahead of schedule, which is a rarity in my experience. It also allowed me to get to my transfer station two minutes before the next bus to Tukwila arrived, which was also on schedule. So basically that morning was an almost perfect bike/bus commute, with almost no waiting for buses and some fast bike connections where the buses couldn't take me.

In total, my virtually perfect bus/bike commute Monday morning took about 65 minutes -- a little more than an hour. Contrast this to the time it would have taken in a car: 25 minutes without traffic, or up to 60 minutes with traffic, depending on how heavy that traffic is.

My return bus/bike commute wasn't as good, natch -- the ride downtown was fine, but I had a 15 minute wait for the bus that would take me from Belltown to North Seattle, mostly because that bus was 10 minutes late.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Bad collision in the express lanes

Written Friday morning, on a bus headed downtown.

This morning I'm riding a King County Metro #355 bus to downtown Seattle in the express lanes, which have been jammed up solid for the past half-mile. An ambulance just passed us, siren wailing and lights flashing, our driver plus a bunch of other vehicles scattering to get out of its way. I can only assume it's on its way to reach someone who was injured in a collision ahead of us, which caused this traffic in the first place. I hope the ambulance makes it in time.

We're passing the collision now, and it's a bad one. We're down to one lane, with two fire engines, three state patrol cars, two ambulances, a WSDOT emergency truck, a lot of orange traffic barrels with lights on top, four other cars stopped, at least two of which appear damaged, and guys in orange and yellow day-glo vests everywhere. A bunch of them are bent over in a cluster behind a minivan that looks as if it were rear-ended by a union van that might have been in use during a construction project. I can only assume it's a medical emergency, and I hope s/he makes it.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

ORCA again

I'm getting kind of annoyed at ORCA. As I mentioned in a previous entry, my wife bought two ORCA cards last year, each preloaded with $5. I used one of them once, which was manageable. Then I tried purchasing $15 more credit for that card, and the transaction didn't take -- my online ORCA account didn't show any more credit than before. I don't recall ever completing an online transaction that just disappeared into the aether before.

So I tried again two weeks later. This time the transaction was marked "pending", which is still how it's indicated on the ORCA website. And so, two completed credit card transactions later, on a credit card that every other online merchant is happy to accept, my ORCA card still has exactly the same credit value on it that it had more than a month ago, which is to say exactly one ride's worth. I got my credit card bill last night, and checked my ORCA account this morning. Sure enough, ORCA has charged me $35 in two transactions, but my ORCA card still hasn't been credited with either of my purchases. On the plus (?) side, earlier this week an ORCA card with no value on it showed up in our mailbox, which neither my wife nor I ordered.

So yes, I'm annoyed. Good thing King County Metro's bus system continues to accept cash, and to issue paper transfers. Because while it might be nice to have the option to use that ORCA card to ride Sound Transit's Sounder commuter rail or Central Link light rail once in a while, these are both slower and less convenient than the buses I'm riding instead, so maybe I'm not the target ORCA card market after all.

But given this quality of service, I have to ask myself "Who is?"

Monday, February 22, 2010

Winter cold returns

I took an earlier bus to downtown than usual this morning. I hadn't really planned on riding a bus for this leg of my commute to Tukwila; I'd hoped to bike it instead. But I checked the forecast before leaving the house, and the temperature was 35ºF. This led me to put on a fleece jacket, which I don't usually do until the temperature drops below 40º.

Boy, we've been having some nice weather in the Seattle area lately. This weekend was sunny with highs that must've been around 60º. I did some gardening and even led an early baseball practice in the unexpected sunshine, on a dry field which is almost unheard of at this time of year. So seeing that temperature this morning was an unpleasant reminder that even in a warm El Niño winter like this one, we still have a month to go before Spring.

I took the garbage out, where it felt even chillier than 35º, so I put on some sweatpants. Then in checking the bike before starting my ride, I noticed that my rear wheel was starting to rub up slightly against a brake pad, and since this can take 5-10 minutes to adjust, I figured I could live with it for the ride downtown. Starting off down the street, the bike was fine but it was darned cold, especially after all these sunny warm days.

I bailed out of the bike ride and caught that earlier bus downtown instead. Traffic was ugly on the freeway, but the bus sailed right through it in the right lane to the University District, and then on the express lanes to downtown where I caught my connecting bus to Tukwila without having to wait more than half a minute at my transfer station. Quite a nice alternative to driving in that nasty freeway traffic or down Aurora Ave where lane closures are in effect, albeit later in the morning. I'll give it another go tomorrow, though tomorrow's forecast calls for rain in the evening. Hopefully I'll beat it home.

Monday, February 15, 2010

(Not) Training for the holidays

Last year I did a lot of bike commuting in October and November leading up to the holidays. I gained my usual 10 pounds during those holidays, but I'd lost more than 5 of those pounds beforehand, and the holiday pounds came off by the time baseball season got into its full swing.

This past year hasn't worked out nearly so well. I didn't lose weight going into the holidays, and instead of gaining 10 pounds between Halloween and the day after New Years, I gained 15. I hit the heaviest I've even been, 10 pounds more than I've ever weighed before. And even though I'm bike-commuting more now that the weather has gotten drier this past month (about 100 miles on the bike so far this calendar year), I've really only put in a single long day on the bike since New Years.

Yes, I have to bike more even though biking is too mechanically efficient to make a good weight-loss sport unless you put a lot of effort into it -- the bike/bus commutes I usually do aren't really strenuous enough unless I do it more than my usual twice per week. It would also help if I cut back on the calories, heh.

So, my project for the solstice is to lose those 10 extra holiday pounds plus 10 more, which should get me back into somewhat better trim, though if the truth were fully told I could stand to lose 50 pounds more than that to get back to the kind of shape I was in when my lovely wife married me.

So far I've lost three of those pounds. My wife thinks I look like a sausage in my day-glo vest, though she puts it more kindly than that.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Bus breakdown

Last week I saw Tito the tunnel flautist again, this time in his more usual morning habitat. He was deep in conversation with another commuter as I walked up, so I didn't have time for much more than a few words before I had to get below to catch my bus to Tukwila.

Maybe I should've waited, as once my bus got onto the freeway and was passing Boeing Field, the driver pulled over. Then I saw smoke coming out of the back of the bus, where the engine is. The driver announced that he was having engine trouble, and that another bus would be along presently to give us a lift. He offered his cell phone to anyone who would need to call ahead, which I thought was awfully nice of him. I heard someone say the delay would make him late for an interview, but aside from him and another couple takers for the cell phone, the 20-25 passengers on the bus sat quietly while the minutes ticked past. I think it was half an hour before the next bus came by, another regularly scheduled King County Metro #150, which had about the same number of riders, and therefore plenty more room for us, though seats did get scarce. I missed my morning meeting, alas.

This is the first time in 20 years of bus commuting that I've experienced a bus breakdown, but it could've been a lot worse. I remember when I was in grade school near the Hudson River and my father bought our family a second car, a 1964 Mercury Comet we promptly dubbed the "Vomit Comet" 'cause that's kinda how it smelled, so he could drive it back and forth between our home and the nearest rail station, where he rode the subway to his office in Manhattan. But then one
hot summer day his train broke down and he had to wait for three hours day in cramped standing-room-only conditions in a subway tunnel. I didn't hear many details, but he did say he would never ride the train again, and so far as I know he never did.

On my trip home, I was more than 10 minutes early for my bus at the Tukwila Park and Ride, so I rode my bike from there to downtown Seattle. On the other side of downtown, where I'd hoped to catch a second bus home, I was more than 10 minutes early for that bus, too, so I ended up riding my bike all the way home from Tukwila, more than 22 miles, ending with a climb straight up Fremont Ave from the Ship Canal, which is I think is about a 350' elevation gain in just 3/4 mile.

It wasn't a climb I'd wanted to make when I'm as out of shape as I am now, but if I have that much of a head start I can generally beat the bus home even with as much uphill as there is up Phinney Ridge, and maybe even when I'm this far out of shape, and the same was true on this trip.

I definitely needed a rubdown afterward, though.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Tunnel flautists

One morning two weeks ago I got out of the house a little too late to repeat my usual winter routine of riding downtown on the King Country Metro #355, so I had to ride my bike downtown instead. This would be a good thing, as it had been about three months since I'd tried riding a route with an uphill of any consequence, this ride had a nice manageable one, and I'd been feeling out of shape on my previous ride. The only way to get in shape for bike riding is to ride your bike, so away I went.

One hill turned into several: first up Dexter from the Fremont Bridge, then a much smaller hill on Dexter from Mercer to Denny. And last, up 5th Avenue through downtown. I was really sucking wind by the time I got halfway up the last hill; out of shape indeed. I'd actually hoped to stop before that last hill, to visit with Tito the tunnel flautist, who I hadn't seen in a couple months, but a slow-moving Sound Transit #545 bus in 5th Avenue's right lane was in the way of the right turn I'd planned. Plan B was to continue on 5th Avenue to the International District station, which I did, getting there about 4 minutes before the King County Metro #150 bus that would take me on to Tukwila.

That bus was fairly full, but a seat in the middle was open.

Just as I settled into it, someone said hello and darned if it wasn't Tito himself. We had a nice chat all the way to Tukwila, talking music, family, brotherhood, jobs, and more. Drop a buck in his tip bowl some morning if you see him at the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel's
Westlake Station. He's brightened my commute many a time.

Interestingly, on my way home, I saw a different tunnel flautist at the University Street tunnel station, where I've never seen anyone playing before. I wonder if he'll become a regular there. I have to think that word of Tito (and his good nature) has gotten around in more than one community.

If it comes to it, I'd recommend tipping any musician around public transit who brightens your day. For many, it's their job.

Friday, January 22, 2010


I started my bike/bus commute today thinking I would try for my first Seattle Transit "Quat Trick", riding a bus, light rail, Sounder, and my bike on different legs of a single two-way commute. But my morning #355 King County Metro bus was 10 minutes late, and now that Sound Transit no longer accepts King County Metro transfer slips as payment, I was looking at trying out one of the new ORCA cards my lovely wife bought for us last month, and I didn't really want to do that in a situation where I wasn't certain that it would work correctly, and where I would have no backup way to pay.

Turns out that at the International District station of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, where I would have the choice of transferring to a #150 bus or a Central Link light rail train to Tukwila, the bus came first, so I went ahead and took it. No Quat Trick today for me.

I can't say I'm too fond of paying separate fares for a bus and then a light rail train over my usual method of paying once for a bus and then having a second bus accept my transfer slip as payment, on top of the slow light rail leg adding 10 minutes to my total commute. Paying twice as much for a slower ride is not exactly a bargain, I think most would agree.

The Olympic mountains were gorgeous from the window of my #150 bus
as we passed Boeing Field, by the way, with only a cluster of snowy summits visible, all glowing a pale yellow-orange. I wished I had a camera. Heck, I wished I was a photographer.

On my return trip as I boarded a #150 bus headed back to downtown from the Tukwila Park and Ride, I had another chance to try out one of our new ORCA cards, which my wife had preloaded with $5 when she bought them. And if that didn't work, I could always pay cash. So I used the card, and it turned out to be easy. The driver even said that I wouldn't need a transfer slip, all I had to do was wave (he said "tap") my card at my second bus' card reader and it wouldn't deduct additional funds if I did so within two hours.

It took a few tries before that second bus' card reader would accept my card, though.

Boy did I feel out of shape today.