The Commuter Derby

Starting out: Diamond driver Richard, sidekick Eric, scooter ace Orin, power pedaller Connor, and bus navigator Rachel on the Sammamish Plateau.

FIVE OF US MET at 7:15 at the Sammamish Plateau Starbucks at 604 228th Avenue Northeast on July 27, a steaming heat-wave morning. Our mission: to determine, not just how long it takes to make the same Eastside-to-downtown commute by various modes, but what pleasures, perils, stresses, and costs each one entails.

Kelly, our solo driver—representing the majority of local commuters—couldn’t join us; her car needed an emergency brake job. Such are the hazards of driving; when a bus breaks down, you wait for Metro to send a new one. She made the drive two weeks later, further compromising whatever scientific validity this sample may have.

At 8:10am, primed with coffee and biscotti, we set out for Seattle.

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RACHEL, Metro Route 216
Time 1 hour, 11 minutes
Direct Cost 0 with pass; single ride would cost $2.50, monthly PugetPass $90
Stress and Discomfort Low
Fun Factor Moderate

I’d checked Metro’s online Trip Planner first, so I knew that the 216 bus went directly from 228th and Fourth, across from our starting point, to downtown Seattle. However, setting out with the other contenders meant leaving 17 minutes before the next bus was due to arrive—time I would otherwise have spent sleeping in bed or relaxing at Starbucks.

I jaywalked to the bus stop, phoned OneBusAway, and confirmed that the 218 would arrive on time. I sat in blazing heat, listening to public radio, and boarded at 8:35. The driver greeted me with a huge smile—obviously she was starting her shift. I sat near the front and set my bag on the next seat, hoping I wouldn’t have to give it up. Commuters trickled in at each stop as the bus inched along and poured in at the Sammamish Park and Ride. At 8:48 a guy boarded talking on the phone about a trip to Iceland. Sounded great; my shirt was now stuck to the seat.

Nearly everyone was listening to ­iPods. One girl wore a Disney princess backpack and a T-shirt celebrating the metal band Avenged Sevenfold. I started sneezing, and a sad-eyed, balding man stared at me. My sneezes echoed loudly in the silence.

At 9:05 we crossed the bridge to Mercer Island. Just as I noted how light the traffic was, it ground to a halt. A man got on board, balancing his entire breakfast on a manila file folder. I held onto the seat beside me until a heavy-set man in a suit sauntered down the aisle clutching a Starbucks thermos. Three other seats were empty; naturally he squeezed in next to me.

The most interesting oddity was a middle-­aged man reading Twilight. The bus proceeded without further delays to Fourth and Seneca, and I walked four short blocks downhill to Seattle Met’s offices.

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CONNOR, Raleigh Grand Sport Road Bike
Time 1 hour, 29 minutes
Miles Traveled 22.42
Water Consumed 1 liter
Calories Burned 750
Direct Cost 0
Annual Vehicle Costs $30
Bike and Gear Purchase $705
Stress and Discomfort Moderate
Fun Factor Extremely high

I started out chugging up a long hill, southbound on 228th Ave toward I-90. Halfway up, the carpool cruised by me. Zooming downhill on Southeast 43rd Way to East Lake Sammamish Parkway, I reached 44 miles per hour, my top speed for the trip, eyes watering and bugs hitting my face. The posted limit was 35, but cars still flew past.

Traffic sped even faster on the parkway, a four- to six-lane monster of a road through suburban subdivisions and apartment compounds broken by occasional glimpses of the lake. The first snag was a giant hill on Southeast 34th Street in ­Bellevue. I’d plotted the route on Google Maps, but it supplies no information on bike paths or, more important, hills.

I finally topped the hill and hit Eastgate Way, within sight of the freeway. The entrance to the bike path that follows the freeway, at 36th Street and Richards Road, was entirely unmarked; if I hadn’t scoped it out the day before, I might have missed it. Signs occasionally mark bike routes, but my general impression is Eastside bike accommodations suck.

The trail swooped under the freeway and through the freshwater wetlands of Mercer Slough Nature Park. Race or no race, I couldn’t resist stopping to take pictures.

The bike lane on the bridge from ­Bellevue to Mercer Island was surprisingly bumpy, though no tree roots pushed up the pavement and nothing heavier than bicycles had worn it down. Crossing Mercer Island on the surface streets, I had to stop and wait at five or six intersections. Cars shoot straight through beneath the Mercer Island lid, but no one considered bikes when the tunnels got dug.

I couldn’t resist stopping twice to take photos and watch wakeboarders playing north of the long bridge and boats massing for Seafair. Bicyclists do get their own tunnel on the Seattle side—cool and breezy, a welcome break from heat that had now hit 80. Bike lanes are few on the 2.3 miles of city streets from the Mount Baker tunnel exit to the office, and I dodged pushy drivers and buses. But at least they were going closer to my speed. I’ll take a crowded street over a roaring six-lane boulevard any day.

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ORIN, Vespa GTS 250ie
Time 1 hour, 4 minutes, 20 seconds
Distance 23.1 miles
Fuel Cost $0.86
Other Vehicle Costs, including amortized purchase $1,650 for 9,000 miles of use per year
Stress and Discomfort Low
Fun Factor High

I took I-90 to the rendezvous and had one scary moment when a Sound Transit bus passed on my left. The turbulence felt like a giant hand grabbing my left sleeve and tugging as hard as it could. I zipped north on 228th until I reached East Lake Sammamish Parkway, where a construction flagger held back traffic. And held. And held. Finally the flagger released us. The parkway was pleasantly twisty and pleasantly cool, though the temperature gauge read 80 degrees. Lake Sammamish is a nice air conditioner.

I turned into Marymoor Park, a promising shortcut, and soon realized I should have stayed on the arterial. The speed limit was 25 miles per hour, and wherever there wasn’t a speed bump there was a stop sign. I inched along behind a cautious green Corolla and eventually reached West Lake Sammamish Parkway, Overlake, and State Route 520.

I motored merrily along in 520’s HOV lane, passing traffic in the general lanes like it was standing still, because it mostly was.

The diamond lane gave out on the bridge deck, but so did the jam. I turned off at Roanoke, swung around the south end of Lake Union, slowed for more roadwork downtown, and parked beside two Harleys in the carpool parking area around the corner from the ­Seattle Met offices.

I could knock at least five minutes off my time by tweaking the route, in particular by avoiding Marymoor. Maybe more if I had GPS with traffic alerts and could avoid all that roadwork.

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KELLY, 1999 Nissan Altima
Time 1 hour, 18 minutes
Distance 21.3 miles
Fuel Cost $2.59
Other Vehicle Costs, including amortized purchase $2,500 for 3,750 miles of use per year
Stress and Discomfort Extremely high
Fun Factor None

I grew up on the Eastside, so I should have had an advantage over the Seattleites in the race. But the terrain keeps changing; road construction can scarcely keep up with growth. I turned south on 228th, hoping for light traffic because school was out for summer. Skittering between lanes to avoid cars slowing to turn, I suddenly remembered East Lake Sammamish Parkway was closed for construction, pushing traffic onto other roads.

I considered taking my dad’s favorite detour—approaching I-90 east of Issaquah to get over to the left lane before everyone else enters. But that route had more stoplights, and I hate backtracking; I stayed on 228th. Traffic got heavy, so I cut through Microsoft’s Sammamish Campus. So did many other drivers. It still took 40 minutes to reach I-90—slightly longer than usual.

I had to fight my way onto the freeway and over to the (relatively) fast lane; morning commuters are so intent on getting there, they ride each other’s tails to stop others from cutting in. Our rate rarely reached 25 miles per hour. My foot got tired pumping the brake and accelerator in turn. I was sick of the CD I had with me; fortunately KEXP was playing decent music this morning.

Traffic cleared after Bellevue Way, and I cruised all the way to I-5, which was crowded as usual. I made a quick exit onto James Street, though it wasn’t the most direct route to the office. The same panhandler as always stood at the corner of James. I rolled down the hill, dodging the cars that turned without signaling or stopped to disgorge passengers. Right on Yesler, right on Western, almost there… Then I waited 10 minutes at Marion Street because a ferry had just unloaded.

Finally I arrived, frazzled and weary before the workday began.

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RICHARD AND ERIC, 1991 Isuzu Trooper
Time 45 minutes, 10 seconds
Distance 22.6 miles
Fuel Cost $3.94
Other Vehicle Costs, including amortized purchase $1,140 for 3,000 miles of use per year
Stress and Discomfort High
Fun Factor High

We lost a minute making an obligatory northbound right on 228th, then U-turned to head south toward I-90. We lost another minute stuck in the center lane before getting over to Southeast 56th Street, the (unmarked) turnoff to I-90. But the HOV lane in the access ramp saved us as we cruised past a long backup. Once on the freeway, Richard fought for a mile to get over to the diamond lane; “yield” seemed to be missing from the local vocabulary. But we sailed again down that lane, wallowing in schadenfreude; the off-ramp to I-405 northbound was backed up for half a mile.

Approaching Mercer Island, we missed the poorly marked turnoff to the diamond lane and bogged down for two minutes. But the general lanes opened up midbridge and traffic flowed all the way to Seattle. We exited onto Fourth Avenue rather than risking a jam on I-5. We stopped ourselves just in time from turning onto Royal Brougham Way, blocked by roadwork further up, steered up Fourth, broke through a two-lane cluster of left-turners at Columbia, and turned left on Madison. Whoops. More roadwork.

“My blood pressure is higher than usual,” Richard muttered from the driver’s seat. Madison narrowed to one lane, and we waited for a bored cop on flag duty to wave us through. We still arrived in time to snag a space in the free carpool parking nearby.

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