You’ve probably heard by now of the now-famous sixty urine-soaked seats. In what ended up making national news, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries fined Metro for one serious violation (not providing operators with unrestricted access to bathroom facilities when needed to relieve themselves, with specific attention to how bathrooms are often unavailable at night, not located at all route terminals, and with not enough time to access the bathroom if one is provided) and one general violation (no running water, soap, or paper towels for route 36 & 50 operators for over six years).
The language employed in the (public) documentation is harsh (“Describe on the form how you corrected each hazard, rather than what you intend to do in the future…. If we do not receive written confirmation you have corrected the hazards, we will take follow-up action, which may include additional penalties. If you provide us with false information, you may face criminal penalties.”), and I feel it is appropriate.
As an operator, my bladder and my mind are immensely grateful to learn of this. When the King County Council ordered Metro to tighten the schedules in 2009, in response to economic pressures and as a result of a now highly-questioned performance audit, many staff knew the ramifications would be far reaching: more accidents, more unreliable service, a decline in customer service quality and maintenance, and more work-related injuries for operators. All of those have panned out–even down to more operators needing kidney stone operations because of accumulated lack of access to restrooms. I’m grateful that such badly-needed attention is finally being brought to bear on the issue.
What I’d like to contribute regarding all this is a little further clarification on how you might end up with sixty urine-soaked driver seats. My frustration is not with Metro, but with certain folks’ misunderstanding of the issue. I would think such a thing might be self-explanatory, but a quick listen to Mr. Dori Monson, the local talk radio personality, reveals that it isn’t. I was directed to a recent show of his wherein he told Metro GM Kevin Desmond he couldn’t fathom how such a thing could happen. Monson cited how he once successfully sat in traffic for two hours fighting the urge, and that forty-five minutes on a bus ought to be nothing. Mr. Monson concluded by saying that drivers who soil seats should be fired.
I think the polite way to say this is that Bob Woodward isn’t going to rise from the grave to shower Monson with praise for investigative journalism. Mr. Desmond, as someone who clearly cares passionately for transit, its users, and its operators, acquitted himself reasonably well on the issue, but both individuals–Mr. Monson in particular–would do well to further inform themselves on the issue prior to discussing it on air.
Many routes are longer than forty-five minutes, and the breaks at the ends of those trips are regularly only five minutes– five scheduled minutes, that is. An eight-hour shift is required to have two fifteen minute breaks (drivers don’t get lunch breaks), and all the rest are often shorter. A real-world example: I drive a 97-minute 7/49 trip that needs to be that long, and needs more than the five minutes given at the end to balance out the very natural delays one will encounter over that time. Heaven help you if you get two red lights (three minutes), take a minute to answer someone’s questions, or if there’s someone inside the gas station bathroom at the end of the line.
Weekend schedules are older, and my weekend runcards give me 60-75 minutes to drive what is actually 90 minutes in real life, but the breaks aren’t any longer. The weekday and Sunday 49 terminal has a bathroom which closes at 10pm and 6pm, respectively, and the nearest reliable bathroom after that is six blocks away. The issue is not the length of the route (through-routes are convenient, fun to drive, and structurally very useful), but rather the unrealistic nature of the schedules themselves. When Service Planning writes runcards expecting you to get from 12th & Jackson to 5th & Jackson in two minutes, you just want to throw up your hands and invite them all out for a few honest-to-goodness, real-world, ground-level bus rides.
Some bathrooms are too often out of order, overused, too far away, or plagued with drug use. The 70 is famous for having consecutive six minute breaks ever since 2009–one legendary ten-hour and forty minute piece has just two breaks longer than ten minutes (fifteen each, and one is your very first one, when you don’t need it). The “no-pee” 24/124 has only a heavily drug-abused bathroom on one end, and a quarter-mile walk away on the other; the 11 has only one terminal, being a live loop, with a bathroom too far to reach in the allotted time, and which is closed after hours. And so on. In situations like this the operator is forced to make a decision between taking the time to care for his/her body, or receive the wrath of irked passengers who have been kept waiting. As Mr. Desmond has pointed out, this is not a decision they should have to make.
My hope is that this comes across not as a rant, but as an explanation. I’m compelled to share these realities as a corrective to the information which you might encounter from less-informed outlets. If your 70 is late, complain to the King County Council, not Metro. If your driver is stressed, mind that (s)he might not have had a restroom in the last six hours. The important thing is that thanks to voters, there is now actually funding available with which to address the issue, and the service can be improved to the benefit of both riders and drivers. All of which is to say: Hooray!