This past Thursday, I made my first trek into downtown Seattle in a LONG time. The last time I visited an Amazon building was over a year ago when drove in on a weekend to clear out my desk and Seattle CoderDojo’s storage closet before my Amazon badge deactivated. On weekdays, though, back when we commuted, I’d almost always take a bus into town (either Amazon’s or public). I tried to recreate my old commute on Thursday and I failed miserably.
I don’t like driving in downtown. Feels too cramped, too many one-way streets, parking’s either a pain to find or expensive. So for most of the time I’ve lived in the Seattle area, I’ve taken a public bus or an Amazon bus to get into and out of downtown. I’d park my car at an easy-to-reach suburban park and ride, get on a bus, then work or relax until the bus dropped off downtown. But for almost all of that time I had a monthly bus pass provided by my employer.
Step 1: Get a bus pass (85% of which was unnecessary)
The common “tap and go” card for multiple transit systems in the region is the Orca Card. If you don’t order a monthly pass (which I did not need), the card acts as a value store from which your fare is deducted and any transfer passes are stored. The problem is that if you try to add money to the card via their web site, it will take 24-48 hours to be added to the value store. I had to order a card and it came while I was on a business trip. I was arriving home at 10 p.m. and then heading downtown the next day. The card had enough value on it to cover a local fare, but not an in-and-out to downtown Seattle.
So how could I add value that registers immediately? I could do so at the transit center office 9 miles away, the closest train station 11 miles away, or an “Orca retailer,” the closest of which was 2.4 miles away.
I left a little early to get my card topped off before I hit the park and ride. I went to the Albertson’s that was the closest retailer they identified, waited for someone to come to the customer service counter, then was told their Orca terminal was down and had been for months. They recommended I go to one of the two nearby Safeway stores.
I drove to the Safeway that was on the way to a Park and Ride, only to be told their Orca terminal had been pulled out when they switched from an Albertson’s to a Safeway and had never been replaced, but the QFC on the next block over should have one.
I drove over to the QFC. Waited a while to get helped, but they had a working terminal. Added some money to the card. Additionally, the woman told me that whenever their terminal was down, Orca came to fix it the next business day, so the Albertson’s probably dropped the ball somewhere on calling for a repair. She also said my story explained why her kids stopped going to that Albertson’s to top off their cards and would ask her to do it while at work. They weren’t just being lazy.
After all that, I had enough on my card to make the trip, but I was steamed.
Now, before we move on, I’m not asking you to feel sympathy for my adventure. I had the time and inclination to drive around to set up my bus adventure because I wanted to take the bus. What miffed me was how this would have played out if I was dependent on the bus. I would have had to spend hours walking or pay gig ride services just to put money on my Orca card so I could take the bus. And if I was dependent on the bus, that time or the ride service fares might have a MUCH bigger impact on my economic situation. In my typical liberal fashion, I was upset on behalf of the poor (and a little on my own behalf, because really).
Step 2: Get a bus
This proved to be more difficult. In the old days there was one “all-day” line going into and out of downtown. The rest were commuter lines that only went in during morning commute, were off for a few hours, then spent a few hours going the other direction.
In the time between COVID sending everyone home and things opening back up, they opened the light rail station at Northgate. And as I looked up what would be my best bus route downtown at this time of day, I found out the all-day bus to downtown no longer went downtown. It went to Northgate.
Because of the extra trips necessary to get my card topped off, the trip planner showed I was basically just going to make it in time for my lunch appointment, but with some tight tolerances on transfers. But this was going to be my first time transferring to the train at Northgate and I knew it could be easy for me to get turned around finding the right place to catch the inbound train, miss my transfer, and end up being late.
So I went and got gasoline (because I was down to less than 2 gallons in the tank), then drove.
Traffic was mild at noon and parking wasn’t too hard to find in the Amazon parking garage (I was meeting a former Alexa teammate for lunch). In the end, the gas and parking were about the same cost as taking transit as I was only parked for less than 2 hours and traffic was good enough I could maintain a relatively consistent speed without a lot of acceleration and deceleration, providing solid fuel efficiency.
Also, it occurred to me as I was writing this… if I’d done more advance research on how the routes might have changed, I’d have known not only about the transfer at Northgate, I’d have realized that it had a ticket machine there. I could have left about 15 minutes later than I did, gone straight to the Park and Ride, used the small value on my card to get to Northgate, topped off the card at the ticket machine, had time to find the train into downtown, and arrived for lunch a little early or on time.