I did a little experiment over the summer. I lived carfree in Seattle.
No, not carefree, carfree. Though enthusiasts of shedding the shackles of automobiles feel the two words have the same meaning.
But in the end, it was Amazon that drove me to car up again.
What happened is my 31-year-old Volvo finally rose into Swedish car heaven (otherwise known as the Northern European Auto Recyclers yard in Ballard). Because I’m cheap, and it was the beginning of summer, I was unmotivated to rush out and buy a replacement.
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Plus, I wondered: What’s it like to get around Seattle these days on the bus? I don’t mean just to commute to work. What’s it like to depend on the bus for making appointments, for after-work errands, for just living in the city?
Answer: It’s terrible. At least if you have to pass through Amazonia.
For all the talk of Seattle’s green urbanism and the rise of the downtown corporate campus, a la Amazon, there’s good reason 84 percent of Seattle households still have cars (compared to only 44 percent in New York). It’s because relying on mass transit here — on the bus — can slowly turn you into a second-class citizen.
I kept a running tally: In July alone, the bus passed me by seven times because it was so stuffed with riders I couldn’t get on. On one Calcutta-like evening, two buses in a row were too jammed to board. This in the lightest bus-ridership period of the year.
Because my bus stop is next to Amazon’s gold-rush town in South Lake Union, I developed an Amazon survival strategy. To increase my chances of boarding, I would walk upstream of the tech titan, four blocks west. This worked, though every rush-hour trip I took was standing-room-only. I mean pressed-up-against-your-neighbor SRO (the blue-badged workers seem pleasant, I just wasn’t expecting to get to know them so intimately).
Some days, the famously dog-positive Amazonians would bring their dogs on the bus. It reminded me of a train trip I took once in rural Thailand where the locals kept crowding on with their goats.
I kid, Amazon. We’re all thrilled you’re here with your traffic-stopping rent-a-cops and your smart-phone-absorbed workers walking five abreast. Right, Seattle?
OK, now I’m being serious: This situation with the buses is not Amazon’s fault. The company, which is bringing a godsend of great-paying jobs here, was a top donor to the Metro tax campaign last April that voters rejected. So it obviously recognizes a need for more transit around its exploding campus (which is on its way to holding 30,000 workers or more).
But there is collateral damage from this — or, more accurately, from the city’s total lack of preparation for it. Everything from rents to restaurant prices is on an Amazon-fueled ascent. It’s hard not to burn a little. Twice now I’ve heard non-company people joke: “Do you think Amazon will let us stay?”
Once you can’t get on the bus anymore because it’s filled with badges, you do start to wonder: Are we a city or an office park?
I continue to think it will be great for Seattle that Amazon came downtown. It’s no coincidence others like Weyerhaeuser now also want to be where the action is. But the growing pains are real.
I had to end my bus life eventually (I have kids to ferry around). I knew I’d had enough after that time two buses in a row passed me by. I found myself growing bitter, cursing if the addled driver tried to cram more riders on (after cramming me on, of course). This isn’t me, I thought. The bus life in boomtown was turning me into that get-off-my-lawn guy!
So I got a car and life got easier. For me. I see my old bus buddies still lined up at the stops, sometimes three-dozen deep. Will it come? Will they get on? Will government leaders get their acts together and figure out how to provide services with all this growth?
It’s a crapshoot in the world-class city.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org