I just had a terrific commute home. (I’m not being sarcastic.)
I stepped off the RapidRide E and walked over to the stop at 4th and Pike. There was a 49 bus there – a 60-foot trolley – with all its doors open. There were no passengers on the bus, and a crowd of people standing around outside. But, oddly, no one was boarding. I was about to ask the driver if he was taking passengers when I saw there was a 43 – another 60-foot trolley – ahead of it. People were boarding the 43, so I walked up there.
A Metro employee in an orange vest was directing people onto the 43, telling everyone to not worry about paying the fare. “The fare’s on me,” he kept saying.
There was an 11 bus – a 60-foot diesel – ahead of us. Its back-end was in the center lane, as if it had pulled around both the 49 and the 43. The 11 was boarding passengers, and it seemed that people were paying their fares.
Then I understood what was going on: The 49 had broken down, and the 43 was taking on its Capitol Hill-bound passengers.
I saw flashing yellow lights coming from somewhere behind us. I looked back and saw that a huge Metro maintenance truck was maneuvering between our 43 and the 49. A second man in an orange vest walked up to the front of the bus and began giving the driver instructions – something about brakes, power, and air. I heard the banging sounds of poles being pulled down off the wires.
Then I understood that my earlier understanding was wrong: It was not just the 49 that had broken down. The electricity to the overhead wires was off. We were about to be pushed out of town – or until we came to powered wires again.
(I’ve just checked my email. There’s a Transit Alert. The trolley wires are out on Pike Street.)
I looked around. No lights seemed to be out in the city. The outage seemed to be confined to the bus wires. I was surprised that power was on inside the bus. Back when I drove trolley buses, when the overhead power went out, the bus lost all electrical power. That was back in the 80s, and technology has obviously advanced.
The driver announced that we’d be making no stops until Bellevue Avenue. “We’re an express until Bellevue,” he said. We began moving.
A middle-aged guy across the aisle seemed to be panicking a little. “Does anyone know what’s going on!?” he called out. The guy in the seat ahead of him turned around and calmly explained that the power was out in the wires, and we were being pushed. “Pushed how far?” the first guy asked.
Bus riding is not for everyone. While public transit gives flexibility, it also requires flexibility from its riders. (So does a private car, actually, but a car gives the illusion of being in control.)
I, of course, was fascinated by all this. In my bus driving days, I’ve had buses pushed a few hundred feet, but never as far as from 4th Avenue to Bellevue Avenue (9 or 10 blocks), through peak-hour Downtown traffic. How does the truck driver see what’s ahead of the bus? What if a car turns suddenly in front of the bus, or a pedestrian crosses against a light? If the bus had to stop suddenly, what happens to the truck? How do they even coordinate slowing down for changes in traffic flow? I wanted to know how it all worked.
Image how much power that truck has, to be able to push a 60-foot bus, full of passengers, uphill.
Actually, though, it wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped. Except for seeing the bus pass by the stops at 8th Avenue and at Boren, and seeing the occasional refection, in shop windows, of the truck behind us, with its yellow lights flashing, I couldn’t really see much out of the ordinary. We traveled smoothly, only slightly slower than traffic but still at a good pace.
We turned onto Bellevue Avenue and stopped just before Pine Street. The truck honked its horn once. Someone put the poles back on the wires, the bus’ motor came on, and we were on our way.
This is the thing about commuting by bus, for me: If I had driven my car home from work, and it broke down along the way, I’d probably be waiting for a tow truck right now instead of writing this blog post.