I WALK OUT into the morning rain and face the day's first big decision. Should I take the bus...

I WALK OUT into the morning rain and face the day’s first big decision.

Should I take the bus?

I only have to walk a block, stand under my umbrella and hope the bus is on time. I’ve got the exact change, so I’m prepared. My round trip would cost about the same as a gallon of gas. I wouldn’t get mad at anyone on my way to the office. I’d praise myself for doing my infinitesimal part in reducing congestion. And today is a rare day: no outside appointments requiring me to drive somewhere.

Then, in the shelter of my porch, I picture transferring to another bus downtown, or walking a mile to the office. I consider that I pay — a lot — for a parking spot whether I use it or not . . . And maybe today is the day that elusive source will summon me. Maybe one of my kids will. Actually, I have never taken the bus before, so the uncertainty nags.

And there, 10 steps away . . . is my car.

What we do, and why


HOW WE COMMUTE

Percent who drive alone:

Sammamish: 79

Central Seattle: 49

Percent who carpool:

Everett: 17

Sammamish and Central Seattle: 9

Percent on transit:

Central Seattle: 20

Sammamish: 2

Percent who walk/bike:

Central Seattle: 15

Percent of households with no vehicles:

Central Seattle: 24

Sammamish: .9

Highest percentage of

transit use:

Bainbridge Island, at 27

Percent of people who drive alone to “central business districts” of:

Seattle

1980: 35.7

2000: 40.9

Bellevue

1980: 78.6

2000: 76.9

Everett

1980: 70.4

2000: 79.9

Redmond

1980: 74.5

2000: 80.6

Source: Puget Sound Regional Council, 2000 census.

Survey question: “How did you usually get to work last week?”

“Transit” is defined as bus, streetcar, rail and ferry.

Why you choose not to commute by carpool or vanpool

(1999 survey)

No. 1: irregular schedule

No. 2: no alternative to get home if miss ride

No. 3: too much extra hassle

King County Vanpool Participants

1994

Male 57%

Female 43%

2001

Male 50%

Female 50%

Five minutes later, I’m gripping the steering wheel, wedged behind a truck and between two SUVs. Rain splats from above and spinning wheels roil spray from the pavement as we cross south over the Aurora Bridge. It’s a herky-jerky grind, like hens doing a conga line, but we’re moving. I feel guilty, but warm, too, lulled by a new CD, swaying wipers and synchronized brake lights.

Convenience is the drug that salves commuting guilt.

Transportation planners study volume and flows and bridging the blobs where people live and work. What does not fit so easily into their matrix is the human behavior of the lone commuter who, one by one, determines congestion.

Many years ago, transportation planner Cy Ulberg urged his peers to look beyond volumes and timetables and consider the role psychology plays in commuting decisions. He studied values and habits and beliefs and perceptions — like how you feel you’ve waited longer than you have for that bus or you wonder if it’s already come and gone.

“People cannot be expected to gather all the relevant information, perceive it accurately, weigh it evenly and act without prejudice,” he wrote in his report. “They distort information to fit with choices they have made. Once they make some choice, they have difficulty producing a change.”

We make our choices on the black-and-white: convenience, cost, connections, but also on social realities of modern life like multitasking and parenting, daily patterns and habits, time and (personal) space. Sometimes, we let the environmental and political headlines of the day nudge us. Sometimes we aim for the common good, but often it must be at least partly about us.

I think about Ulberg’s report as I drive solo into work. I’m not a road-clogger, I tell myself. My commute is only five miles each way. I often work from home and on weekends just to run counter to the grain. And I need my car. No good reporter hangs around the office; nothing happens there.

Still, my morning choice strikes me as a wimpy one. I look around and see everyone else is driving alone, too. I wonder why they can’t rideshare and if their excuses are valid or, like me, they just don’t want to get wet. The question is not why can’t they rideshare, but why won’t they?

AS DIRECTOR OF the Washington State Transportation Center, Mark Hallenbeck says congestion is not just a function of too many cars in too small a passage in too tight a window. It is also the sum of choices.

“Flexibility and convenience still far outweigh the costs of driving alone,” he says. “People don’t really feel the pain — even though they complain about it. It isn’t so bad that they are really, actively looking for an alternative. And since they aren’t looking, they don’t know what the alternatives are.” And he hastens to add, there aren’t many good transit alternatives for suburb-to-suburb commutes.

So I wondered, upon joining him in a Redmond Park and Ride at 6:35 a.m. for his daily commute, why someone fixated on congestion and choices chooses almost two hours of commuting — and through the funnel we call the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, no less.

“A boss once told me that any transportation professional who lives across a body of water from where he works deserves his commute,” he admitted.

Despite his fixation on traffic, he is like most of us. He chose to live where he wants and work where he must. He and his wife moved here in 1984 when Redmond was a relatively affordable place to raise their children. Since she worked on the Eastside and he worked in Seattle one of them had to cross the bridge each day. Morning bus service heading west was a lot better than that going east, and he had the more flexible schedule.

We complain about employers and work schedules and poor transit connections, the way our region has developed and natural geography like Lake Washington. Yet we overwork ourselves and overbook our kids. We put priorities on desires and habits and expectations and go to the job that best allows us to afford it all. (I eventually got good at — and even enjoyed — taking the bus, but when a family emergency forced me to be a single parent of my two kids for 10 days, the bus evaporated from my mind.)

So we drive alone and pine for relief as we idle. We spew outrage at the price of gas while we burn it into fumes. We whine about clogged roads as we help clog them. We grumble about Sound Transit yet we throw Monorail Hail Marys. We’re addicted to flexibility but completely inflexible about what commuting options we will accept. Some experts say it boils down to control.

The 2000 census found that two-thirds of King County commuters drove alone, but that’s about 10 percent less than in Snohomish and Pierce counties. Across the country, the feds found that as of 2002, the number of lone drivers is higher. Less than 12 percent of King County residents carpooled in 2000 and less than 10 percent regularly commuted on public transportation.

But there is some ridesharing hope. A slew of agencies, committees, planners, politicians and employers is trying hard to make it easier to do and more painful not to.

The transportation center’s Hallenbeck has the savvy to make his trips tolerable. He has a cell phone that allows him to track real-time bus schedules, telling him whether he should transfer on the bridge or on the west side of it. He rattles off the numbers and times, thumbing his way down the tiny screen before deciding to leave the bus before it leaves the bridge.

Sure enough, we wait perhaps a minute before we’re on another bus heading to the University District. Connections are important to him — and you and me. Our lives are stretched so thin that we resist making the commute any more complicated. This region failed to take care of transportation infrastructure decades ago. We’ll be playing catch-up for a long time.

The Sound Transit bus we take is clean, roomy and silent. Some have wi-fi. In the early morning and on a run like this, the bus transports professionals, the folks referred to as “choice commuters,” as opposed to those who need transit. Riders stare at papers or computers. Some snooze.

“It’s great to have a way for lots and lots of people to get from one place to another, and even better to have a corridor to do it,” Hallenbeck says. “Downtown Seattle has lots of people, and so does a park-and-ride. The problem is that isn’t how we’ve built most of our cities.” He scribbles haphazard circles all over a page. “We have people living here and here and there. So you might have a speedy train ride to the station in Tukwila but that portion of the trip from the station to the office somewhere in Tukwila can be painful.”

CARPOOLING MAKES sense. If every driver took just one passenger, congestion would be halved. Carpoolers (and vanpoolers) get rewarded with money-saving incentives like cheaper parking, even bonuses. But who is this person you’re teaming with? A flake? Bad driver? Loves disco music? How will he or she inconvenience you, and how much will you tolerate?

Microsoft has an aggressive alternative-commuting plan, but when Hallenbeck talked to employees at the Redmond campus a few months ago, he noticed two workers who lived reasonably close to each other in Seattle but never considered giving each other a ride. Nor did they ever think of taking mass transit. Others get creative. When Brad Sarsfield isn’t taking Sound Transit 545, aka the “Microsoft Bus,” from Belltown to Redmond, he participates in what he calls a “reverse carpool.” He and friends drive their cars to work on Monday, then carpool with one another the rest of the week, leaving the extra cars at work all week.

Hallenbeck recently learned he lives in the same neighborhood as a UW professor. He’d like to carpool, but their schedules are too different. That’s the irony of flex time. We stagger starting times to ease congestion, but it makes sharing that much more complicated for some, including me.

I couldn’t think of a single person from work to carpool with, so I went on Metro’s online ridesharing site at http://www.rideshareonline.com to find a match. I entered my home and work addresses and got 13 names of people who might make the most carpooling sense. Curiously, all 13 were women, and most of them only wanted to ride.

I went down the list. The first said her husband now gives her a ride. The second said she got used to the bus, adding that the occasional rabble on hers was worth what she saved in downtown parking. The third was Linda Greenwood, who works at a Children’s Hospital satellite office near my office. She responded immediately. She only wanted to drive. I wanted to drive, but ultimately volunteered to be her passenger.

She was pleasant and at my curb on time that first day. Her radio choice was OK. She doesn’t smoke. She drove neither too slowly nor fast. She didn’t even want any money. Being the big spender, I gave her $2.

Several years ago, the Puget Sound Regional Council asked residents why they eschewed regular carpooling and vanpooling. The overwhelming reason was my favorite: an irregular work schedule. A very distant second but related reason was “errands.” As Greenwood dropped me off at work around 8:15, I asked when she would pick me up. “Oh, about 5:30.” The thought of being marooned in the office for more than nine hours robbed me of my job’s greatest reward. So I found myself canceling on her a lot after that. Finally, I figured out the rudimentary but effective solution: Take the bus home.

She enjoys a reduced parking rate and a yearly bonus of about $1,300, but insists it’s not about money.

“I carpool for the environment,” she says. “I look at all of us driving to work in our single-passenger vehicles and I am ashamed. I know in my heart that we are in Iraq because they have oil, and I do not want to add to that burden with my driving habits.”

Vanpooling works on the same principles and attracts riders for similar reasons.

Vanpool 0037, carrying nine people, passes Issaquah heading east at about 4 p.m. It rained hard, and the get-home crowd was thick. The 11-person van had just one more person to pick up, at the Preston/Fall City Park and Ride before its first stop, on the eastern slope of Snoqualmie Pass.

Its terminus is Cle Elum. Some passengers carpool from there to Thorp. One member, a supervisor at the Port of Seattle, drives from there to the town of Kittitas, almost to Ellensburg. The passengers are high-tech workers, middle-managers, a Seattle firefighter, two city of Bellevue employees, a Boeing executive assistant. Some doze, one puts in headphones and watches a DVD on his portable player, one chats away.

On a good day, their commute, while far, is wide-open, and they hit Cle Elum about 90 minutes after they leave Seattle. All of them have cellphones and all use them when they hear the pass may be closed or slow going.

The van, one of more than 700 that King County Metro uses, leaves Cle Elum about 4:40 each morning after most of the crew meets in a Safeway parking lot. Debra Shea started it in 2000. She is the leader, main driver and schedule-keeper. She rides and parks free. The rest of the riders divvy the cost and reap rewards from their employers.

They not only represent the environmental and cost-saving sides of ridesharing; they also, to a person, live where they want — or can afford and work where they can make what they are worth.

“I was scared to death at the beginning of all this,” says Shea, who owns several acres and a 3,000-square-foot home that neither she nor her husband could have afforded in Issaquah. “I didn’t think I was up for the commute, but I put an ad in the paper and it led to this van after awhile. Now it’s just what I do, and when I hesitate, I look around me and remember why.”

JEFFREY JOIREMAN, a Washington State University psychology professor, studies “social dilemmas” and sees commuting as a classic example of it. He has studied everything from the first carpool lane in The Netherlands to the local support for this region’s $3.9 billion transit-funding package in 1996.

Part of the equation involves “pro-social” behavior, which basically means considering something greater than yourself, and “pro-self” thinking, which is a me-first stance. The “pro-selfs” in the commuting world are not selfish, per se. Simply, they are guided more by cost, convenience, flexibility and everyday details. They typically do not think as long-term as their counterparts. But even the pro-socials, more likely to take environmental and world affairs into account when making their decisions, need to realize some personal benefit from their commuting decisions.

The city of Seattle’s “One Less Car Challenge” rewarded families for giving up the extra car for at least a month. Forty sold that car and did not replace it for a year. Organizers appealed to the environmental and societal conscience of participants, but also lured them with benefits, from bus passes to access to Flex cars, which are rental vehicles available in various parts of the region.

Joshua Coberly and his wife, Katie Kennedy, sold their only car. They bicycle, bus and rent a Flex car when they need to travel farther from their home. They wanted to save for a home, and now they have a condo on Queen Anne Hill. They both work downtown, and Coberly, a massage therapist, bikes up the hill to combine commuting with exercise when he’s not taking the bus.

“We did it more for economic reasons,” says Coberly, “but the more I read about polar bears drowning, the more I think somebody has to make a change.”

Incentives and disincentives, used by employers across the state as part of the Commute Trip Reduction (CTR) Law, offer what behaviorists like Joireman call “structural solutions” by changing the equations behind the decisions. The 10-year-old law, which requires major employers to take steps to reduce the traffic, delays, air pollution and petroleum consumption their workers cause, seems to be loosening up some of the congestion.

A task force appointed to study the program highlighted the good news:

• Fewer workers are driving alone to participating work sites, cutting out almost 20,000 vehicle trips each morning.

• Drive-alone trips have dropped 7 percent since 1993 at CTR sites.

• CTR commuters reduced petroleum consumption by about 5.8 million gallons last year.

Looking forward, the task force says the state must find ways to further cut drive-alone commutes. So expect more structural solutions.

The Puget Sound Regional Council’s “Traffic Choices” study is looking at consumer behavior by having volunteers pay virtual tolls for their driving choices. Will people stay out of rush hour or choose less congested highways if it saves them money? Motorists are scheduled to pay a $3 round-trip toll to cross the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge when it opens next year. The state Department of Transportation plans to open the high-occupancy-vehicle lanes on Highway 167 between Auburn and Renton to solo drivers willing to pay a toll.

Building denser cities, too, is in our future. The car is unbeatable for getting into the city, but not so good when you get there and must park. Telecommuting is on the rise, too. The light-rail line that will eventually run from downtown to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport will take 35 minutes. You might be able to do that by car, says Paul Matsuoka, Sound Transit’s policy and planning director, but with the rail, as long as it is working, you’ll know it will take 35 minutes.

If time of commute is a constant, will that change your decision? Will it make you redefine the definition of control? Bottom line: Will it get you on board?

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at rseven@seattletimes.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.