One subset of what we might call “Seattle twitter” has been debating how we should think about the woman in this video:
This woman’s direct action was captured by a local reporter, and went viral, with most local media doing stories on it. An inspired follow-up event on Monday with red flags available at the bus stop for riders to gently ‘steer’ the scofflaw drivers out of the lane. My understanding is the red flags now remain at that and a few other stops that routinely see bus lane drivers, which are being used to ‘direct’ cars out of the lane. Also, there are buttons.
To some, she’s an obnoxious busybody at best and a vigilante at worst, harassing ordinary motorists just trying go about their business and navigate the chaos of the streets of downtown Seattle. To others, she’s a goddamn hero, an inspiration, and should run for mayor. It will probably not surprise our readers to learn I’m in the latter group. Some observations:
- The video was shot on Friday, in the midst of the afternoon rush hour. The stop in question, 6th and Olive, serves 33 different routes from 3 transit agencies. During peak, it serves more than one bus per minute. For a number of buses expressing to points further north, it’s one of the last major stops before getting on the freeway.
- Seattle has made some progress in the clawing some public ROW away from (mostly) single occupancy vehicles, although much more is needed. The Northbound express lanes many of these buses are trying to get on still usually work pretty well, but these buses can get stuck in traffic pretty badly in the final blocks before entering. At present, driving alone accounts for around 30% of commuters to and from downtown Seattle, but requires upwards of 80% of the public ROW (to say nothing of all the additional space devoted to car storage). However, the hard-won bus lanes found here and there in downtown are severely constrained by a lack of enforcement mechanisms. The city has been begging the state legislature to give them permission to use cameras to toll bus lane violators and box-blockers, but so far to no avail. (A bill appeared to be on the cusp of passing earlier this year; if the rumors I heard were true they lost a couple of key votes when those legislatures realized they were authorizing the enforcement of a crime they enjoy committing from time to time.) As for regular ticketing enforcement, SPD has more or less made clear they have no interest. The city could try to force them to do otherwise, but the likelihood of success is low enough that it’s probably not worth it.
- Interestingly, political officials reacted very differently. Peter Rogoff, CEO of Sound Transit, an agency responsible for about a third of the routes slowed down by violators of this route, called them heroes. SPD spokesperson Sean Whitcomb, on the other hand, suggested something “more productive” like lobbying Olympia to change the law. (The next day Mayor Durkan struck a more conciliatory tone, joking that we should get these protesters ticket books.)
- Why is this happening in Seattle? Seattle is unique among American cities in one important respect. It’s a top-8 transit region, along with Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, DC, SF/Oakland, Baltimore, and Chicago (after 8 there’s a big drop-off). Unlike every other high-transit use city, Seattle’s culture of public transit was built almost entirely on buses. Sure, Ferries have been around forever, but they’re for commuters in certain suburbs getting in and out. Seattle’s regional heavy rail commuter service from Tacoma and Everett only launched in 2003, and while popular its schedule remains heavily restricted by having to negotiate for space on busy freight track owned by BNSF. Much more light rail is coming, but the current system is one line, just over 10 years old. I’m not sure how Seattle built and maintained a transit culture out of buses to a degree no other urban area in the country was able to do, but it’s what they did, and it’s part of the culture of the place. So while transit advocates in places like Boston or NYC tend to focus a great deal on trains and forget about buses, that’s not the case in Seattle. We understand buses are the core of the system, downtown Seattle simply could not be what it is without a ton of buses (if even half of the 250K+ daily visitors tried to drive, the traffic consequences would be catastrophic). Downtown Seattle as it currently exists is utterly unthinkable without buses, something the 100’s of people at key downtown stops generally understand.
- It seems obvious enough to me that efforts to curtail anti-social behavior by drivers are going to need both social and legal enforcement. The obvious success story in this regard is drunk driving, and while increased penalties for DUIs surely played the main role, increasing the social stigma of driving drunk is surely part of the story here. Actions like this are important in simply conveying to people they are seen and behaving badly; puncturing the illusion of anonymity the psychology of driving creates. Bus lane cheaters (not to NYT: hire this headline writer) are not just thieves but particularly harmful ones; if I steal five dollars from you, that’s bad, but it’s neutral in an act utilitarian sense (I have five dollars, you don’t). If I steal a piece of public ROW that causes me to make a light but a bus to miss one, I’ve stolen a couple of minutes not just from one other person but from several dozen other people. People who do this don’t deserve anonymity until they someday have to pay a modest fine; they deserve social consequences as well. Good for our bus lane hero for inaugurating an environment where that can start to happen.
- Nearly a century ago, cars started taking over the public roads essentially by force, killing other users at astonishing rates and frightening them out of the roads, while launching a propaganda campaign to stigmatize road use by non-drivers. The laws granting them their dominant place on the roads came after the successful, often extra-legal attempt to take them over. I doubt we’ll ever take our cities back from cars without some direct action. The city government is clearly not comfortable with this, but it if inspires them to start taking transit lane enforcement seriously, that itself is a huge win, and a rightful source of civic pride for Seattleites.