Re: The 7

By Erica C. Barnett August 24, 2009


[caption id="attachment_12665" align="alignleft" width="305" caption="The infamous Route 7"]The infamous Route 7 [/caption]

For years, I rode Metro's Route 7 at least twice, and sometimes more, every day, at every hour of the day. Sometimes I'd ride it at 7 in the morning; other times, right before the line shut down at 2:00 am. I think I know the 7 as well as any other Metro rider, and better than most.

Which is why I feel uniquely qualified to say that this morning's front-page Seattle Times love letter to the route—from the weird racial euphemisms ("colorful," a "mobile patchwork") to the condescending premise (people choose to ride the 7 because they like the "experience")—is made of Wrong.

Let's start at the beginning, shall we? (Note: Yes, I am editorializing here. Wouldn't you?)
When the No. 7 bus makes one of its 116 stops, boarding passengers become part of a mobile patchwork where English mixes with Spanish, Vietnamese and Tagalog.

This is a true fact! There are many languages being spoken on the Number 7. Kind of like on the 194, the 174, the , the 5, the 358... And, oh, every bus where poor people are predominant (which is to say, nearly every bus route in Seattle). Note to Seattle Times : The population (ahem, "patchwork") of bus riders in Seattle is poorer, more diverse, less English-speaking, and less Wonder Bread middle-class than the population as a whole. This is also true of bus systems in every American city.

Moving on!
Many Rainier Valley residents say that even after the much-anticipated opening of Sound Transit's Link light-rail system, "The Seven" is still their preferred mass-transit option on Rainier Avenue South. For the most part, riders don't seem too impressed that new trains coast along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, a few blocks to the west.

For some, it's because light rail won't get them where they need to go, but others are just attached to the bus route that has served Rainier Valley since Metro began service in 1973.

Giving Times writer Phillip Lucas the benefit of the doubt, let's assume he did a relatively thorough survey of people who ride the 7. And that they, "for the most part," confirmed that they "prefer" riding the bus to light rail. Now let's consider all the reasons—apart from irrational "attachment"—that they might do so:

1) Perhaps they have to walk a long way to get to the bus already, and don't think it's worth it to add another 5, 7, or 9 blocks to that trip. Maybe they have stuff to carry. Maybe they're old or disabled. Or maybe that's just a long way to walk when you're in a hurry first thing in the morning.

Because there are no stops at all between Othello and Edmunds, there's a huge swath of MLK that simply isn't served by light rail—to say nothing of the many 7 riders who live in Columbia and Hillman Cities, a mile or more east of the light-rail line. Ridership falls off dramatically starting about a quarter-mile from any transit station; ask people to walk a mile or more, and they're likely to take the closer, more convenient option.

Link Light Rail
2) Perhaps they don't want to pay the extra quarter it costs to ride light rail each way. Numerous real-life examples show that fare increases depress transit ridership. Assuming someone commutes into the city and back every weekday (to say nothing of buying groceries, going to the doctor, taking the kids to school, etc.), that 25-cent fare increase works out to a fare hike of about $130 per person every year—not a lot for wealthier commuters, but potentially significant for someone who's just scraping by.

3) Or perhaps Sound Transit's education and outreach campaign didn't reach as many people as it might have. Although the light-rail agency did send postcards to thousands of Rainier Valley residents, a lot of their outreach has been in the form of online ads, which reach a wealthier, whiter audience.

Maybe all those hypotheses are wrong. Maybe people are just "attached" to riding the 7. But if they are, it isn't for reasons like this:

"The Seven is definitely a colorful experience, where you don't really know what you're gonna see, hear, smell, you know?" said Alex Higgins, a morning passenger whose trips nearly always ensure he'll have a story to tell later.

"Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not," he said.

Let me translate what he's talking about. Ride the 7 long enough—morning, noon, or night—and pretty soon you're bound to see or experience one or more of the following:

- Open drug deals.

- Really open drug and alcohol consumption.

- Open sexual harassment.

- Drivers who do little or nothing to address the above.

- Physical fights so intense the driver has to stop the bus and call the cops.

- People so drunk/high they piss their pants and/or shit themselves on the seat.

- People so drunk/high they're already passed out cold across the back seats during the crowded morning commute.

- People brandishing knives or guns just for the hell of it.

Need I go on?

This isn't "colorful." It isn't the wonderful "patchwork" of life in the big city. It's a bus route that's virtually unpoliced, which veteran drivers avoid, where almost anything can happen and often does. Perhaps it makes some riders feel worldly and urban to watch a group of guys harass a female rider and then follow her off the bus into the darkness. I think it's intolerable. And now that I have the luxury (the money, the time, the bike so that I don't have to walk to the station) to ride light rail instead of the 7, I avoid the 7 like the plague.

Ultimately, what frustrates me about articles like this, which exoticize aspects of city life that are everyday annoyances to the people who have no choice but to use them, is the position of privilege that makes their perspective possible. I hated riding the 7 every day, but I always knew that if the bus just didn't show up, or if the driver walked off her job because she got too upset (true story), or if it was too smelly/hot/slow, I could get off and take a cab the rest of the way. It's easy to stand in that position and say, "What a quirky route full of colorful, interesting characters!" But when it's your life, not a choice, that's a different story.

There is one thing that the article's author and I agree on: The 7 is indispensible, in the sense that it would be impossible or prohibitively difficult for many of its riders to get to work/the doctor/social services/school without it. But we shouldn't mistake necessity for "attachment," or dependence for love.
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