“Can I request a night stop?”


She specified a block in between stops along the Prentice loop.* She was a demure east Asian woman I’ve seen before but never spoken with. Now that we were alone on the bus, she said, “You’re probably the most nice driver I’ve ever seen. You are so nice to everyone. It is really great to see. We run into some crappiness out here.”

Her voice was reedy and small. She explained further, in a voice that knew the awkwardness of her words but needed to quietly say them anyway, because they were true. Sometimes a phrase will sound trite, but where else do you turn when you have no recourse but the truth? Haltingly, she said, “I have brain cancer. What I’m saying is, seeing you being so nice makes life seem worth living.”

My thanks to her hardly seemed adequate. It was important for her to share, and it’s all she wanted to say. We may receive many compliments or affirmations in our lives, but sometimes it’s the most spare, unaffected, and passing of them which still us to the bone.

A young man named Ghost was on my 7 last night, also making use of the Prentice routing. In a different way he said something similar. We were having a wide-ranging conversation, making use of the expansive time from Capitol Hill to the bottom of the Valley.

At one point in Pioneer Square he said, “you know why I smile at people now?”
We’d been discussing the value, and rarity, of doing such. He was sprawled out over the first two chat seats, a gangly octopus dressed in oversized swaths of black cotton and polyester.

I said, “how come?”
“‘Cause I read this article once. It said,”
“What’d it say?”
“It said, it was talkin’ about this guy, this guy who was gonna kill himself but he didn’t commit suicide ’cause somebody smiled at him.”
“Oh wow. Oh wow.” I looked at Ghost, processing. “That’s, talk about making a difference in someone’s life.”
“Yeah. Just because somebody took a second to smile, made him feel human again.”

*The Prentice loop is at the tail end of the 7 route, and although the 7 is very frequent (every 10 minutes all day with frequent service til midnight, plus 24-hour service) only a few trips continue on to do the loop. The Prentice Street (upper Rainier Beach) neighborhood is served every 30 minutes until about 10:30pm, and sometimes less often than that. That may sound like pretty good service, but for this transit-dependent part of town, it isn’t. Elsewhere, mediocre bus service is an inconvenience. In places like this, it shapes lives. People who don’t ride the 7 will tell you the Prentice service, which used to be more frequent, is underutilized and therefore not as many buses are needed up there. Actual passengers will tell you the only reason the service is underused is because of how infrequent it is.

This is one of the great catch-22’s in transit planning: if the service isn’t used, the company will reduce the amount of service. If the service is reduced, nobody will use the service because it isn’t good. An example of the opposite would be the 545 which, upon being introduced as a frequent, all-day express route between Redmond and Seattle that ran every 15 minutes or less and covered its distance in speeds comparable to driving a car, many thought was actually too good, and believed there was no ridership to justify its existence. But people came. They materialized, because the option was so attractive. Now it’s one of Sound Transit’s busiest routes.

Last year there was a sixteen-car accident that shut down Rainier Avenue in such a way that a shuttle bus had to be devised that night to ferry passengers from Rainier & Rose to the end of the route up on Prentice. For convenience the shuttle driver (a friend of mine!) drove every single one of his shuttle trips up through the Prentice neighborhood. Despite the fact that Prentice service ends at 10:30, he kept going up there until his shift ended at 3am. People used the service on every trip, all night. Not only did many people ride up there, there were people waiting for the bus up there at 2am, long after bus service would normally stop. Though I don’t feel many more 7’s needs to go to Prentice, it’s undeniable that if the service was improved, people would use it.

The least Metro could do is address the (in)famous 60-90-minute gaps in Prentice service during both weekday rush hours, when there is no service to or from Prentice exactly when it is most needed.* There was a time when folks thought running 10-minute service south of Othello was extravagant, but now we’re accustomed to the glut of people traveling between the Henderson loop and Rose, who would definitely be walking if the service wasn’t as frequent as it is. No 7 driver hasn’t heard the familiar “I’m just goin’ to Rose” less than a thousand times.

Planners! Feedback from a neighborhood that doesn’t email in quite as much: the peak-hour Prentice gaps, plus the early quit time for bus service to that neighborhood, are the complaints I hear about the most. The consistent positive feedback I get refers to the evening through-routing with the 49, and the direct service to downtown (if the community ever finds out how the RapidRide+ corridors will split the route up, they’ll riot!). The suggestion I hear most that isn’t a complaint is the idea of dividing the tail into 2 terminals: every other 7 should serve Prentice, with remaining trips serving Rainer Beach Station. Or better yet, have outbound 7s turn right on Cloverdale, L on MLK, L on Henderson to either the Henderson layover or Prentice, for better connectivity and a single route from downtown that hits all three “hubs” of Rainier Beach: the light rail station, the high school, and restaurant row.

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Nathan Vass is an artist, filmmaker, photographer, and author by day, and a Metro bus driver by night, where his community-building work has been showcased on TED, NPR, The Seattle Times, KING 5 and landed him a spot on Seattle Magazine’s 2018 list of the 35 Most Influential People in Seattle. He has shown in over forty photography shows is also the director of nine films, six of which have shown at festivals, and one of which premiered at Henry Art Gallery. His book, The Lines That Make Us, is a Seattle bestseller and 2019 WA State Book Awards finalist.