Metro's bus route No. 7 is one passengers and commuters love to hate. But, riders who don't use light rail realize that even if their trip is slow, crowded and unpredictable, The Seven is an essential and colorful part of their daily routine.

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When the No. 7 bus makes one of its 116 stops, boarding passengers become part of a mobile patchwork where English mixes with Spanish, Vietnamese and Tagalog.

The atmosphere occasionally is charged when discussions from the back of the bus turn into arguments, drowning out other conversations while the “bing” of the stop-request signal becomes more frequent as downtown Seattle comes into view.

Many Rainier Valley residents say that even after the much-anticipated opening of Sound Transit’s Link light-rail system, “The Seven” is still their preferred mass-transit option on Rainier Avenue South. For the most part, riders don’t seem too impressed that new trains coast along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, a few blocks to the west.

For some, it’s because light rail won’t get them where they need to go, but others are just attached to the bus route that has served Rainier Valley since Metro began service in 1973.

“The Seven is definitely a colorful experience, where you don’t really know what you’re gonna see, hear, smell, you know?” said Alex Higgins, a morning passenger whose trips nearly always ensure he’ll have a story to tell later.

“Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not,” he said.

For some, the heavy daily ridership — and notoriety — means a love-hate relationship with The Seven. Short trips on this bus can turn into long ones, proved by the round smudges on the windows — spots where riders sometimes nap.

An average of about 11,000 people rode The Seven every day last spring on its 11-mile route from Rainier Beach to downtown. Before entering Chinatown International District, the bus already has passed Rainier Beach and Franklin high schools, Asian and African cafes, supermarkets, libraries, community and senior centers and Restaurant Row in Columbia City — among other landmarks.

The Seven consistently is among Metro’s top five routes in terms of ridership — in part because it makes nearly round-the-clock stops on weekdays. At Rainier Avenue South and South Graham Street, 3 a.m. is the only hour a northbound bus doesn’t stop there.

With so many riders and frequent stops, a trail of blinking turn signals is likely just behind the bus, with car drivers doing anything they can to avoid stopping along with it. Metro Transit plans to streamline the route and cut the number of times the bus stops through Rainier Valley.

Many riders in the area joke about how long a ride takes, the shout-outs to friends and neighborhoods scrawled across the backs of seats, and some of the people they’ve seen riding the bus.

“You’ll see some characters on here periodically, but you’ll see them on every bus line,” Eric McDaniel said. Just then, Ira Jones, 52, boarded the 8:30 a.m. bus wearing a red three-piece suit.

McDaniel catches the bus most afternoons from Rainier Avenue South and South Graham Street to work in Lake Forest Park. Although the route can be gritty, he said, the service is appreciated — even if some would rather ridicule it or avoid it entirely. “Everybody uses The Seven,” he said. “It’s hugely important.”

Arguments occasionally burst into fights aboard The Seven, sometimes bringing trips to a halt. Metro Transit Police responded to more than 40 incidents on the route in the first half of 2009, according to Metro.

The agency began focusing on increasing security in 2003, and officers respond to reports of unlawful bus conduct and occasionally have arrested disruptive passengers on outstanding warrants.

After a jury found Metro Transit negligent in a lawsuit that stemmed from a teenage couple being harassed and beaten by a group of about 30 rowdy teens on The Seven in 2005, Metro increased the number of full-time police monitoring the system’s buses.

That year, more than 500 rider infractions were reported systemwide. After increasing transit police presence and encouraging drivers to report all incidents, 3,000 infractions were reported in 2007, and nearly half led to arrests.

“They had good results with what they started out with, but they wanted to do more,” said Linda Thielke, Metro Transit spokeswoman.

Gloria Martindale, 53, said a slow trip and reports of crime and violence on The Seven aren’t reasons to catch the light rail or switch bus routes.

“You just have to know when to catch it,” she said.

Since Metro Transit began service, The Seven has shuffled through Rainier Valley and has become ingrained in Southeast Seattle’s identity — and its daily routine. The bus has one of the longer routes within the city and is effective because “it runs in areas where people are transit dependent,” Thielke said.

Tedr Collins, a Renton resident who recently moved out of South Seattle, said the crowds and the number of stops made riding the bus a low point in her day.

“I try to stay away from The Seven,” Collins said. But she can’t. Her doctor’s office and salon are on the route, so she grudgingly took a seat by the window on a ride from Rainier Beach.

Higgins, who lives in the Seward Park area, typically parks his car in Rainier Valley and catches the bus to his job at a downtown Seattle law firm.

He celebrated the arrival of light rail by taking the bus to work, as he usually does.

“I drove to the light-rail line to kind of check it out,” he said, “then decided I’ll do it another day and just went back to The Seven.”

One bus driver on the route said she was driving a bus with no air conditioning during Seattle’s late July heat wave and encouraged riders to transfer to air-conditioned light-rail trains.

The temperature outside was 103, likely cooler than it was on the bus, she said.

Only two riders got off.

Although The Seven isn’t the fastest, most serene or scenic route in Metro’s system, riders still depend on it.

“Even though I hate it,” Collins said, “I couldn’t get anywhere without it.”

Phillip Lucas: