When I’m nervous, I sweat.
Taking the bus for the first time in years didn’t have me particularly worried, other than checking my phone regularly for the time and estimated arrival of the bus to take me north of Lynnwood.
But figuring out how to deftly use the bike rack on the front of the bus had me in beads.
In classic newbie fashion, I first approached a bus parked at the bay that wasn’t in service. The driver shook his head and mouthed “No” as I rolled my bike toward the drop-down rack.
When the correct bus arrived, the bright yellow handles with instructions (pull and release it down, then pull the tension bar up onto the front tire) were clear and seemed intuitive, even if doing so in front of other passengers felt like those nightmares of taking an exam in the nude.
It helped that I knew Community Transit years ago made a short video about how to use the bike racks, and I’d watched it a few times while I was waiting.
The double-decker Sound Transit-operated express route that connects Everett and Seattle was a quick ride from Everett Station to the Ash Way Park and Ride. There were maybe eight passengers aboard, which tracks with ridership numbers that have plummeted to about 14,200 on weekdays from pre-pandemic averages around 35,000 daily. Ropes and signs blocked seats for distancing. Windows were open for ventilation. As far as COVID-19 particles, I felt safe.
A different bus ride, on the Swift Blue Line from Everett to Lynnwood, led to a couple of odd, if outlying, experiences.
A fellow passenger claimed that someone who had disregarded the distancing guidelines swiped his phone when they exited after a few stops. I didn’t see the phone or the purported theft, but it clearly upset the rider.
Later during the ride, a customer used a vape pen. Even before the pandemic that prompted face covering guidelines in public places, it would have been against Community Transit’s rider code of conduct and illegal. But during the past year, it felt egregious.
“The vast majority of people who ride our buses do so safely, pay their fares,” Community Transit spokesperson Martin Munguia said. “We do hear things about incidents that happen on the bus.”
Nationwide, assaults by far were the leading crime in 2019, with 1,539 reports, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a division of the United States Department of Transportation. Robbery was a distant second, with 209 reports that year.
I’m not sharing these incidents or statistics to frighten anyone or display them as some kind of ailment of public transportation. They happened, and as I follow through on my commitment to bike, bus and walk more (and drive less), I wanted to learn about transit safety and how riders should respond to misbehavior.
“A customer seeing another customer doing something, they aren’t always comfortable walking up to the person or the bus driver,” Munguia said.
Passengers can tell drivers if a rider is violating the code of conduct or doing something illegal. Drivers receive de-escalation training that is designed to get voluntary compliance, Community Transit spokesperson Monica Spain said in an email. From there, if the issue is not resolved or if a crime is reported, drivers can ask for a supervisor to meet them at a stop to try and escalate the enforcement.
“Our bus drivers’ primary focus is to provide a positive customer experience,” she wrote. “Their main focus is driving safely, and they also monitor activity on the bus.”
Community Transit has a contract with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office for transit policing. They are responsible for fare enforcement, handling disturbances on buses and checking park-and-ride lots.
The Transit Riders Union, a Seattle and King County-based advocacy group, has called for fare enforcement reforms with King County Metro and Sound Transit. After an audit in 2018 concluded that fare enforcement on Metro’s bus rapid transit, RapidRide, cost more than it brought in, the Transit Riders Union called for a two-year moratorium on fare enforcement. Instead, the group proposed, riders should be given information about reduced fares and how to get an ORCA card.
Community Transit has heard similar calls, especially in the wake of widespread pleas for equity and racial justice in the past year, and leaders are reconsidering some of their programs.
“I think we, as well as other transit agencies and businesses in general, are looking at how we structure our services and things like fare payment and fare enforcement,” Munguia said. “We’re still evaluating a lot of those things.”
During online video meetings last year, Community Transit staff heard from under-represented groups that having multiple fare enforcement officers on the Swift line was “intimidating.” It led to discussions with the sheriff’s office around the contract and what changes can be made to satisfy all parties.
Transit enforcement officers can ask passengers to get off, can give them tickets or can ban them for periods between one month and up to a year.
Transit agencies in the ORCA card network recently made youth cards — which normally cost $5 plus whatever amount is deposited into the account — free for children under 18.
Some transit advocates have pointed out that if fares are scrapped on public transit, fare enforcement becomes unnecessary. Munguia said that the goal of increased ridership is great, but if Community Transit loses fare revenue, which makes up about 11% or 12% of its operating budget annually, the difference has to be made up through revenue increases elsewhere or service cuts.
It also can lead to people “not necessarily using transit as a means of getting from one place to another but as a place to be,” which could deter some commuters from using transit, he said.
As a slowly morphing transit user, I’m not worried about fellow passengers despite the odd experiences recently, especially since I’ve mastered the bike racks. No sweat.
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