A mobile slice of life

Partially opened sardine tin.
Sometimes being on a crowded bus feels like being one of these fish.
I have been using the King County Metro bus system as my primary way of getting to work for about 29 years, so I have lots of bus stories. Most are not as exciting as the one I repeated when discussion a Nazi-punching incident in downtown recently, which is probably a good thing. Most bus rides are uneventful, or the events are minor things like the bus being more crowded than usual, or overhearing weird conversations, or observing interesting fashion choices.

The frequency of certain incidents have changed significantly since we moved to Shoreline and I’m taking a different route and riding longer. For instance, Fare Enforcement encounters. For a little context, some Metro routes are Rapid Ride lines. My old commute was on Rapid Ride D, while my new one is Rapid Ride E. What makes a route of Rapid Ride is that first the buses are designed more like commuter train cars: multiple doors and low floors so you don’t have to climb up stairs to get into the bus (this also makes boarding people in wheelchairs a lot faster since there isn’t a lift). Many bus stops have a pay station at the curb, so you can tap your card there before the bus arrives, and board using any door–instead of everyone having to enter through one door and either pay as they enter or show the driving a transfer.

This means the Rapid Ride buses operate on something of an honor system. But it isn’t entirely an honor system. Teams of Fare Enforcement officers randomly board buses, announce themselves, and then while the bus proceeds to the next stop, they walk up and down checking everyone’s proof of payment. Those of us with a pass, for instance, hold up our card and they touch a reader to it, which pulls information from the RF chip in the card. If someone doesn’t have a pass or transfer, they will be asked for their ID, information is recorded. They may receive a warning, or a ticket. Usually the officers only pull people off the bus if the person argues or otherwise doesn’t cooperate, or if they need to write up the multiple tickets. Whether they find anyone in violation or not, the get off at the next stop after they’re checked everyone, and wait for another bus on the line to board.

During the years I rode the D-line, I tended to see Fare Enforcement only once a month or so. And only about a third of the time did they have to write anyone up or take them off the bus. My second day riding the E-line, Fare Enforcement boarded the bus and wound up taking three people off. I thought that was unsual. I soon learned it was not. I see Fare Enforcement at least once a week. And I have never seen them not find at least one person who hasn’t paid or doesn’t have proof of payment.

By chance, most of the neighborhoods the D-Line goes through are median-rent or higher-than-average rent districts. While much of it’s route is on a major arterial, a big part of that arterial is through residential areas. The E-Line runs down State Highway 99, also known as Aurora Avenue. It’s a major thoroughfare that usually has commercial and retail. The neighborhoods range from well-to-do, to average, to what some people like to call affordable housing. This also means the crowd on the E-Line is both more colorful and diverse than the D-Line was.

Last week, between taking Friday off and working from home another day, I rode the bus only six times. I saw Fare Enforcement on four of those trips. On three of the trips they pulled two or more people off the bus besides issuing warnings to a couple.

The fourth time was the trip home Thursday. They were already on the bus when I got on. Typically the bus is pretty full by then, but that one was very empty. And all three officers were gathered around one guy, writing him up. He was complaining about how many of these tickets he’s gotten, and one of the officers was trying to get him to confirm that the address on his ID was where he received mail, because more legal papers would be coming. That means that he’s gotten so many tickets for not paying his fare, that they’re going to send a summons to appear in court.

The enforcement guys got off the bus at the next stop. And as soon as they left, the guy pulled a bottle of vodka out of the giant backpack he had in the seat next to him and started swigging. At that some stop, about three dozen people got on our bus, so it was suddenly as crowded as usual. At the next stop the guy with the vodka bottle was still grumbling, and waited until the bus driver had closed the doors and started to pull out to start shouting, “Wait! Wait! This is my stop!” So the driver stopped, and a bunch of people packed into the aisle had to squeeze and move in order to let the angry drinking man and his giant pack off the bus.

There are a lot of reasons someone can’t afford $2.50 bus fare—especially twice a day, five or more days a week, and so on. There are reduced fare passes available, but applying for them takes time, effort, the wherewithal to get documents together to prove you qualify, and so on. And I know lots of people who on paper make too much money to qualify for such programs, but they and their family are living hand-to-mouth. My point is that there are lots of circumstances where skipping paying the fare seems like a reasonable risk. But I still find my mind boggled a little bit.

On the other hand, many times I’ve seen people who keep an eye out the window, and when they see Fare Enforcement standing at the stop we’re pulling up to, they jump out of their seats to exit as the officers get on. I’ve never seen an officer pay any attention to people leaving. I’ve even seen guys not notice until the officers actually step on, and they jump up and say rather loudly, “Oh! It’s my stop!” and rush off. So clearly some habitual non-payers have figured out this is a way to avoid getting a ticket.

When my husband was explaining this a couple months ago online, someone expressed shock that the officers didn’t stop people that were exiting. That misses the entire point of the Rapid Ride. If they prevented people from leaving until they checked them for payment, that would hold the bus up. The way the officers do it, the bus’s route isn’t interrupted.

I’ve rambled on this a bit longer than I meant to, but to circle back to my point about reasons people have not to pay: I have assumed all along that the reason the E-Line is a more fertile ground for catching violators are economic ones. But I have also noticed that people who are dressed in a manner that would lead you to conclude they are well-off are just as likely to turn out to be the person who hasn’t paid. So, it’s another example that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

2 thoughts on “A mobile slice of life

  1. And now for the true story that proves the theory: I used to ride a tram to work through the richest part of town. The top-notch money-pads. And the second part of the ride was through the opposite. Poor, dirty, high unemployment.
    One guy always got on the tram at one stop into the poor section. he wore a rough-looking coat, and always argued the fare (less distance = less cost, but the lower fare was two stops away from where he got on), and mostly he got away with paying the lower fare. One day, the conductor refused. All hell broke loose, threats, intimidation, etc. Eventually, I stepped up and paid the guy’s fare, then sat back down. Tension eased. The guy glared at me.
    I got off in town. He followed me. He followed me to work, where he paid me ten times what the fare was worth, and said this: “If it can be cheap, I want cheap. Don’t get involved.”
    I donated his money to the guide dogs. I chose a different time to travel to work. I noticed his Armani (or similar) suit under the dirty coat.
    How do the rich get richer? How do they maintain their money status? These small actions may explain a lot.
    I am poor, but I am honest. Yes, even with my tax.

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