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?"