“We don’t want RapidRide,” Marcus told me one night. I’d been telling him stops would be eliminated, and how the 49 would be separated from the 7. “We never asked for it, and we don’t want it!”

I said, “It’s amazing how much they don’t get that, huh?”
“No it ain’t. They never asked us. Oh they did they lil’ outreach thing, and they think they asked us. But they didn’t. We fine as it is.”

And how.

1. A Few Facts

The 7 already runs at RapidRide service levels, with the same frequencies or better than all existing Rapid lines. It has RapidRide stop spacing, as many routes do: once every five blocks, rather than the old once every two. It has two Night Owls, not the normal one. It has numerous infrastructure investments in place from over the years—bus bulbs, signal priority, lane rechannelization, sidewalk expansion. It’s in great shape.

And yet, you’ll hear lamenting among transit enthusiast circles these days, about how the Rainier RapidRide has been indefinitely postponed. You’ll notice those circles are overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly above a certain income bracket, and most importantly, overwhelmingly not users of the 7.

I’ve had variations of the above conversation at least a hundred times (not an exaggeration). The dominant, prevailing sentiment among working-class people in Rainier Valley is that they prefer the 7 to its RapidRide alternate, for concrete and sound reasons which make sense. They like that the 7:
• Serves the Lake Washington Apartment complex, a large and significant facility on Seward Park Avenue (where a number of my coworkers and innumerable passengers reside).
• Serves the businesses and residents in the vicinity of Seward Park Ave, 57th, and Rainier, a triangle of sorts clustered with restaurants, hair salons, bars, mini-marts, and gyms. This is the densest and most commercial part of Rainier Beach.
• Serves the Prentice loop.
• They especially like that it through-routes with the 49 at night for direct service to and from Broadway. Many of the dishwashers and servers in your favorite Capitol Hill restaurants, the bouncers and janitors at your clubs of choice– live along the Rainier, MLK, and Delridge corridors (you knew that; who can afford Cap Hill anymore?). They would prefer if it linked more often (a la the old Aloha St turnback for Broadway-only 7s), but nighttime is when it most matters, because that’s when you least want to transfer buses, especially downtown.

The Rainier RapidRide would do none of these things.

2. Vis-a-vis Light Rail, BRT, and the 7X

Most people hopefully by now know Link is not a 7 alternative; not only are buses and trains entirely different types of coverage, Rainier and MLK are different corridors. But for the one spot where they meet, the 7 remains the preferred alternative. Why?

It’s either faster or equivalent in travel time than transferring at Mt Baker, and of course more convenient. After hours, only out-of-towners or non-residents transfer at Mt Baker to continue downtown—this is especially true during off-peak hours—and sometimes we help them out, telling them that by the time they’ve expended the 10 minutes it takes to cross the street and walk up to the platform and waited for the next train (another 15–or nowadays, 30 minutes at night), we’ll already be downtown. When I used to drive the 7 in rush-hour mornings, sometimes—if we got stuck in enough traffic on Rainier at I-90–we’d take long enough to get to 5th & Jackson that we’d be able to see the passengers who’d left us for Link walking up out of International District station.

Whatever floats their boat, I guess.

In the southbound direction, there’s a woman who boards in the U-District in the evenings and departs at Capitol Hill Link station—only to always reappear when I arrive at southbound Mount Baker station, where she reboards to continue her journey home. She always walks by me too quickly, or I’d tell her she could be riding one vehicle home instead of waiting for three(!); I’m literally the same bus she chases through town by transferring to Link.

In other words, speed isn’t a concern on the 7. At best bus lanes between Walker and Charles would be appreciated during rush hour; and the only reason the 7 Express was underused was because it was mishandled. With as few trips as it had at the end, of course no one used it. The trick is to make service attractive, and they’ll come. Make it more than an opportunity trip while waiting for the local 7. Run it frequently during peak and intermittently all day, like the 9 (this has been proposed to me over a dozen times by passengers over the year), and make it truly an express: five or maybe six stops total, all south of Walker.

(You’re wondering why a Rapid line would need to replace the 7 at all. In other cities, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is overlaid onto existing service, so it can be truly ‘rapid,’ making only a few stops while the local route, or ‘shadow,’ covers the in-between stops; in King County, BRT is used to replace existing routes, which is why they need to make so many stops. Converting a route to Rapid format is a cost savings for Metro, because RapidRide is in large part federally funded. With a limitless budget you’d just keep the 7 and run the R Line on top of it, and everyone would be happy.)

There are other concerns: Link doesn’t run late enough (last trips on Sundays are around 11:30), and unless you have the incredible fortune of having both endpoints of your commute right outside rail stations, Link always requires a transfer. My dishwashing friends don’t want to change buses on their way home. If they work in kitchens near Broadway and Pike or Broadway and Mercer, they’d rather walk a block to a bus that’ll take them clear to Rainier and Holden, as the 49/7 does, than face the inconvenience of using rail. That’s doubly a concern now that Link runs less frequently, and the 49 has been reduced to thirty-minute service(!) at night.

3. The Gentry

There needs to be a strategic shift away from a transfer-based network during this time when service is infrequent. I must also add my enormous preference for front-door boarding for safety concerns: greeting each incoming passenger with respect and acknowledgment allows me more control over the space, a better read of the room, a sense of community, and a safer environment. This is huge. On a route like the 7, respect and community are what will get you and your passengers through the night. I cannot achieve that with RapidRide’s all-door boarding. I cannot assert community, positive atmosphere, acknowledgment or safety with all-door boarding. This is why I don’t drive the E Line very much, even though I was all over the 358 for years. I had tools for making it work back then that I no longer have.

Gentrification is when change happens in a neighborhood without that neighborhood’s consent. I have the ability to speak for the community because I’m there every evening. I’ve been there every evening for years. I rode the 7 regularly as a child and have driven it off and on since 2009, drove it five nights a week for four years straight, and remain on it as my route of choice with as few as three exceptions in eight years (let me take a break every now and again!). Basically, I’ve been out there, and I’ve taken the time to get to know the people.

They are the least liked, least heard, and most disrespected people in the city, and I am proud to be their friend. I choose them because they are kinder to me. They say hello to me. They value respect.

Yes, gentrification is unstoppable. Capitalism is a beast with a lifespan, and it is aging. As more money becomes held by fewer, larger amounts of people lose access to resources. We’ve watched as the new buildings have sprouted up. We’ve felt the folks from the north and east encroaching in. We’ve looked about in unspoken mutual reflection as the first white faces stayed on the bus south of Genesee, then Edmunds, then Orcas. Orcas! When did that ever happen?

Back during the heyday of blogs, there was a blog called “Stuff White People Like.” In a delightfully amusing and now-deleted post, it once noted that one of the Stuffs White People like is public transit—as long as it’s not buses. Isn’t it funny how that’s true? Planes, trains and all the rest, sure—but you don’t see Lego making a city bus. There’s a stigma, and it’s stuck. Fixed-route service is somehow sometimes able to transcend that stigma, and RapidRide has thusly ascended. Something about all the stations and priorities and—well, the just plain specialness associated with Rapid transit. I have friends I cherish in every rung of the class ladder, and for whatever reason my affluent confidants have no allergy to RapidRide.

That is one reason why the Rainier RapidRide counts as gentrification. But the biggest reason is that the neighborhood doesn’t give concrete feedback easily (Metro has sure tried, believe me. No organization is more equity-oriented). You just have to be out there, feeling the pulse of the place, how it shifts and speaks in years. Can those who’ve suffered at the hands of authority be expected to give their honest feedback to authorities on command, on terms not set by them?

4. Silent Relief

I write all this because you will have read elsewhere that it’s a calamity that the Rainier RapidRide is significantly postponed. Don’t you worry, reader. Take it from me. We scoff at that lament the way we scoff when a certain publication once actually proposed terminating the 7 at Othello St and not even serving Rainier Beach. We know a wrongheaded idea when we see one, and usually we just tolerate it.

The R Line wouldn’t have been as good as the 7 (mostly because: no service to Seward Park residential and business areas, Prentice, and no night service to Broadway), but it would’ve still been good service. We would’ve put up with it, as we put up with so many other things.

The night Trump was elected in 2016, I noticed both halves of my route were in mourning, but the Broadway half was more distraught than the Rainier half. I was confused by this, because although Trump’s policies would hurt all of us, the Rainier crowd would be more disproportionately damaged. I asked Will about it, phrasing the question as delicately as I could. He was only too happy to reply.

“Nathan, you gotta understand. We’re the black man in America. We’re used to getting shat on. Now these white folks out here are experiencing what that feels like for many of them probably the first time. But for us it’s a way of life. And what we do, is we get on with it. We keep our head down and keep goin’. Survive. Hell, Nathan, you’re a person of color. You know what I’m talkin’ about. We survive, baby! ‘S what we’re good at!”

And that’s what the folks would’ve done with the Rainier RapidRide. But in a challenging time, the indefinite postponement of the R Line is, for the significant portion of working-class people I know in the Rainier Valley community, a cause célèbre. Even if it’s only temporary this is an enormous win for underserved communities in the Valley. On this particular issue, we couldn’t be happier.

I know I don’t speak for the whole community; of course that’s ridiculous. I don’t even speak for the whole 7-riding community. But I at least have the ability to speak for some of the 7-riding community, not abstractly, not from behind an armchair, and not with well-intentioned groundlessness like certain outlets I won’t name, but rather from years-long interpersonal primary experience. My word is not definitive, and I know folks will disagree with me; when they do you can bet they won’t quote this paragraph. Listen to them. Consider their views. But I say also listen to the people who are actually affected, the gestures of other cultures, voices on the late-night streets.

5. No Blame

I will also reiterate what I’ve said above and multiple times on record earlier: Metro has bent over backwards trying to get feedback over this. I do not point my finger at them. These neighborhoods are tricky. I don’t just have good friends up in the King Street offices, but on the R Line planning committee itself. Their work is tough, and I loved the community-based approach they were taking. My biggest hope is that they’d be able to prove wrong every anxiety I list here, and in reviewing their plans I must share a healthy optimism. They heard my concerns and even spent time on my route, and their RapidRide Art Plan is the best, most inclusive, insightful, community-engaged and people-oriented civic proposal I’ve ever read (and I don’t just say that because I’m in it!).

I’m not interested in assigning blame here. I’m just highlighting voices who may not have been heard in the outreach. Metro’s gotten some good feedback, and I’m merely adding to it. I hear these voices often, have noted the passion with which they speak, and have noted that they don’t feel heard. Maybe a lesson can be learned from the recent 106 restructure, which was met with nigh-unanimous and continuing enthusiastic street-level approval.

This postponement’s win is that gentrification, even if can’t be stopped, can be delayed. Maybe this delay is leading to the bigger win we all need, in that it gives us the time to think critically about how to move forward, and reconfigure what some see as gentrification as something else entirely. If the R Line were given the leeway to happen exactly as described in that internal 2020 Art Plan, which had a lot to say about community and social geography, the Valley would be in good hands.

One can hope.

Article Author

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.