Bus battles

Drunks, "Sleepers," and Assault - a Day in the Life of Metro.

FOR AS LONG as the Metro bus system has existed, there's been friction between drivers and passengers.

Each month, Metro drivers and riders file hundreds to thousands of complaints with Metro authorities, ranging from drunkenness to disorderly conduct to assault. And although the great majority of drivers and passengers are quiet, courteous, and polite, it's the few who aren't who give King County's bus system a reputation for being inhospitable, dirty, and downright dangerous.

Just ask Robin Happe, a former massage therapist who drives for Metro part time. During her first year on the job, Happe has stopped her bus to get rid of one obnoxious drunk, been involved in three accidents—"Not my fault," she says—and called Metro transit police to forcibly remove a teenage passenger who threatened her with assault. The officers got there in three minutes flat, storming the vehicle with such force, Happe recalls, "the kid almost wet his pants by the time he realized the police were there."

Metro drivers can count on a quick resolution to their complaints, thanks largely to the system's complex response network, which includes computerized tracking of every bus, on-call supervisors and transit police, and hundreds of part-time deputies in local jurisdictions who can respond to calls at a moment's notice. The same cannot be said of passengers on Metro buses, who often must wait months for a response from Metro's customer comment office, which took more than 1,700 calls, a majority of them complaints, during this past October alone.

For drivers, the most common complaint, according to Metro security liaison David Fairbanks, is verbal harassment, usually because "a customer gets upset because an operator asks them for the fare, or because they want to enforce the rules." But calls run a gamut from the mundane to the bizarre (see "Unscientific Sample," facing page)—"everything from urinating on coaches to knife fights," says Lance Norton, president of the Metro Amalgamated Transit Union local. "On some routes, we've found cases of drug dealing, and [recently] there was an attempted rape on route 7." And while most charges merit little more than a reprimand, Metro police chief Debbie Huntsinger says there are times when the transit agency has to make tough decisions. "After repetitive offenses, some people are just unsafe to be on the bus. Unfortunately, a lot of them are people with mental handicaps, but it gets to a point where you just have to ask: Why hasn't somebody done something about this person?"

Once a driver has called in a complaint and gotten out of danger, Metro has several ways of addressing the problem. The most common complaints—verbal harassment, disorderly conduct, and property damage, which made up 55 percent of 4,500 driver reports submitted to transit police last year—are typically recorded and put on file. More serious problems, such as assaults or fights between passengers, can result in a passenger being "trespassed"—banned—from Metro buses or, in the worst cases, criminal prosecution. "[Passengers] get prosecuted all the time," Fairbanks says. "Most of the time, they're found guilty; most of the time, they plead and it ends there."

PASSENGER STEVE BODY wishes drivers were held as accountable for their behavior. Body, a Bainbridge Island chef whose Southern accent has been softened by years away from his native Greensboro, N.C., recently confronted a driver for being rude and abusive to half a dozen riders on a bus from Seattle to Kirkland. As he was trying to get off the bus, Body says, the driver slammed his arm and torso in the door, "laughing as he did it," leaving his arm numb for hours. "Bus doors are damned heavy and hurt when they make contact, especially when some psychotic dingbat is holding the handle closed," Body says. Seeking an apology from the driver, he called Metro's customer response line.

But instead of an apology, Body says, he got bland reassurances that "something" would be done about the incident. The Metro customer service spokesman "assured me that he would see that the driver was reprimanded and that action would be taken, but almost actually hooted when I told him that what I wanted to settle the affair was an apology from the driver. He told me that Metro can't make drivers apologize," Body says. In fairness to Metro, Body says, "maybe they do come down on errant drivers very sternly," but aggrieved passengers get little more than "a pro forma apology on behalf of Metro employees everywhere, and no assurances that the person who accosted or attacked you has actually been disciplined at all."

Ivy, a clerk who asked that her last name not be printed, takes the bus to work every day. She recalls a Metro operator who drove right by a bus stop where she and another woman were standing with large scarves wrapped around their heads. "We couldn't have been in a more correct place to catch the bus—there was no ambiguity," Ivy says. In retrospect, Ivy believes the driver passed the two women by because he thought they were Muslim; after she'd chased the bus down, she asked the driver why he'd ignored them, but he just acted "angry, sullen, and resentful, refusing to answer the question at all," Ivy says. After the incident, "I didn't feel safe riding with that driver, but I had no choice. I had to get to work. What else was I going to do—pay for a $15-$20 cab ride?"

Ivy complained, but so far, she hasn't heard a word from Metro's customer service division. She isn't holding out much hope for a speedy resolution. "I suspect that this is just one of those 'internal investigation' things. That is: It's a joke. I don't expect them to do anything until they get sued for discrimination or something," Ivy says.

The upshot of many passengers' experiences, Body says, is that "your Metro driver, if he or she is having a bad day, can do anything they want to you, up to and including an assault on your person, and will face only god knows what in the way of punishment, counseling, or censure."

The most common customer gripes to Metro's customer service department—careless driving, bus overload, early or late buses, and accidents—are also the most difficult to resolve, largely because they come down to the customer's word against the driver's. Complaints often get bogged down in procedure: First, a passenger must call in the complaint to Metro's customer assistance office, where it's documented in a computer system. If a driver's supervisor determines that a customer complaint has merit, he contacts the driver and asks him to tell his side of the story. "Our goal is to change behavior if there's a behavioral issue," customer service supervisor Tom Randall says. "Usually, a conversation with the operator gives it closure. If a customer calls again, we can say, 'This is what happened.'"

Often, Randall believes, the real problem is on the passenger's side. "A lot of it is that the expectation from a customer is sometimes more than what the operator is expected to offer," he says. For example, "Sometimes people take not getting into an involved conversation as being discourteous." Occasionally, drivers will have to go through "retraining," i.e., classes, to reacquaint themselves with Metro procedure. In the most egregious cases, Randall says, a driver may have a supervisor ride along for a while to make sure the driver's behavior is in line with Metro's standards.

You may have noticed that nowhere in all this disciplinary procedure is there any mention of Metro employees being fired for misbehavior. As it turns out, there are some instances in which drivers may be fired—gross negligence, showing up for work drunk or high, "serious or repeated discrimination," and gross misconduct, to name a few. But when it comes to "minor" infractions like poor passenger relations, failure to stop, traffic-code violations, and off-schedule operation, a driver gets five freebies a year before Metro can let him go, according to the Metro operators' union contract. After one year, minor infractions are scrubbed from a driver's record.

All of which may be somewhat frustrating for passengers like Steve Body, who have genuine reason to believe some drivers ought to be removed from the Metro payroll for good. Then again, a good argument can be made against rushing to judgment every time a passenger calls Metro with a grievance. Ivy, who has changed her route since her run-in with the Metro driver, says part of the reason for some drivers' bad behavior may indeed lie in a lack of training. "There seems to be too much tacit acceptance of abusive attitudes at Metro. I don't think these guys are getting sensitivity or diversity training, or maybe it's just not sticking, somehow," Ivy says. They also need "to get serious about working to decrease the mean, nasty attitude thing," she adds.

IRONICALLY, if drivers and commuters agree on anything, it's that the most pervasive problem on Metro buses isn't harassment, discrimination, or assault at all: It's nuisance passengers—the ones who board drunk, fall asleep in their seats, smell bad, or refuse to pay the fare.

Drivers can spend hours recounting the horror stories: The guy that gets on talking loudly to himself and talks all the way into town; the woman who boards the bus drunk and smelling like she's just spent the night in a Dumpster who falls asleep in the back; the groups of riders who think they've found a foolproof excuse for skipping out on the fare.

For some drivers, serial fare evaders are a constant source of amusement. "I like to let people ramble on," Metro operator Happe says. "They wouldn't have to tell me any of it if they would just say, 'I forgot my pass,' or 'I don't have the money.'"

But Rachael Swenson, an Art Institute student who recently moved to Seattle from Eastern Washington, says drivers shouldn't let fare shirkers skate through the sliding doors. "I pay $54 a month to get on this bus. I don't know what I'm paying for if other people can run off without paying," Swenson says.

According to transit police chief Huntsinger, drunken riders and "sleepers"—passengers who fall asleep on the bus—are among the most common complaints. "A person who's commuting doesn't want to have to ride next to a person who's inebriated and sleeping on the seat next to them," says Huntsinger. "Unreasonable odors are another one," she adds. "We get horrible cases of people who will almost get the whole bus evacuated."

The 358, which winds down the Aurora motel strip toward downtown, is notorious for the legions of drunks, drifters, and questionable characters who fill its seats during the morning commute. Swenson, who takes the 358 downtown almost daily, spent a recent ride to school listening to a "bum who was obviously drunk" yell at passengers, including an older woman, all the way from Bitter Lake to Greenwood. "He was yelling and going on about freedom of speech," Swenson recalls, "and I pointed up at the [Metro Code of Conduct] and said, 'If you'd like to look up at this sign here, the third [rule] says you're not supposed to offend drivers or passengers or yell or use offensive language.' He started yelling, 'You ugly fucking bitch, I should hit you,'" Swenson recalls. Nobody—not the driver, nor the other passengers—did anything to stop him. Finally, Swenson says, he ran off the bus without paying. It was Swenson's first day in Seattle and her first experience riding a Metro bus.

Can anything be done to stem the flow of drunks, "sleepers," and ne'er-do-wells from flooding Metro's strained system? Some believe focusing the transit police on the worst routes—those with the highest number of driver complaints, such as the 358, the 7 from the U District into the Rainier Valley, and the 174 to Federal Way—has helped deter would-be miscreants. Others believe the answer lies in fixing or doing away with the ride-free system, which allows passengers to ride around the downtown area free of charge.

Many of the problems with violence, gangs, and rowdy, drunken passengers start there, drivers say. "In many cases, an individual might get on in a downtown area and end up staying on a coach that's outbound and it becomes a motel on wheels," says union president Norton, who spent 37 years driving a Metro bus. The problem, Metro security liaison David Fairbanks says, is that "you don't have a lot of leverage with a person to make them pay after they've gotten the service. There's nothing the operator can do—you don't want to force the person to stay on the bus because that just causes more problems."

One solution—restricting the hours the ride-free zone is in effect—was first put in place more than 13 years ago. More radical surgery, such as eliminating the zone altogether, has met with resistance from downtown merchants, some city officials, and Metro brass. Why? Because, according to Fairbanks, the ride-free area does more than just move downtown shoppers from one retail corridor to the next—it also helps reduce downtown traffic by allowing buses to load more people in a shorter amount of time. "It's all about fitting in more buses," Fairbanks says. "It takes time to load people in downtown during rush hour, and if you have to make them pay, it takes even longer."

Still, Metro got enough complaints from drivers about the zone that it decided to commission a study, which should give some indication whether Metro's problems with drunk, unsanitary riders, violence, and vandalism stem from the hordes that board for free. "We're looking to see if there is a relationship between security incident reports based on people getting on in the ride-free area compared to security incident reports when people pay when they get on," says study administrator Pat Fullmer. But Fairbanks says that after more than a decade of debate over the zone, the last thing Metro needs is another study—anyone who's been a driver, as Fairbanks was for 13 years, could tell you the ride-free area contributes to the problem. "If you ask the operators, they all want to get rid of it. If you asked the management team, they'll tell you, 'We're studying it,'" Fairbanks says. "They'll study it to death, and then it'll just go away. But as a driver, I knew that it was a problem."

As a passenger, Swenson says she'd feel safer if only the buses that stayed downtown were free; that would prevent people from riding out of the free zone, then refusing to pay their fare. "It would definitely get rid of some of the people who just want to ride around all day." But Norton says that as long as riders get on the bus legitimately and aren't causing a ruckus, drivers can't do much to make them leave. "Sometimes we'll take an individual on a complete round trip, and then we're allowed to inquire, 'Do you have a destination?'" Norton says. "In some cases, they're just homeless people that just don't have anywhere to go because the shelters are full. A lot of them cause no problems."

Metro can control things like scheduling, routes, and security; it can do less, Norton suggests, about the quality-of-life problems that drive commuters away from public transit and into Seattle's gridlocked commuter corridors. But the real problem, passenger Body says, is that Metro doesn't provide enough incentive to entice people who can afford to drive. "We are not supposed to ride the bus out of some sense of good citizenship or as a public service aimed at curing traffic congestion," Body says. "We're supposed to ride the damned bus because it is more convenient than driving." Until Metro finds a way to make bus riding a safe, reliable alternative to getting behind the wheel, its buses will likely continue to be populated by those who ride not because they want to, but because they don't have any other choice.

ebarnett@seattleweekly.com

Unscientific sample

SOME COMPLAINTS called in by Metro drivers during October 2001:

Oct. 1 Angry passing motorist stopped and knocked on operator's window.

Oct. 2 Passenger smoking drugs on the coach.

Oct. 2 Intoxicated, incoherent customer remaining on coach at the end of the line.

Oct. 3 Operator gets same group of disruptive kids every day.

Oct. 5 Large group of juveniles boarded coach, broke windows, and fled.

Oct. 5 Customer speaking of Gulf War and bombing.

Oct. 8 Road-rage incident—other vehicle cut off coach in HOV lane, slowed to 35 mph.

Oct. 11 Customer yelling, banging body against coach.

Oct. 11 Strange passenger on the coach asking questions about the airport.

Oct. 12 Disruptive passenger espousing anti-American views.

Oct. 14 Coach fired on by unknown subjects; three holes on right side.

Oct. 15 Passenger with white stackable lawn chair attempting to board; operator previously instructed not to accommodate this passenger; passenger will not clear the front door of the coach.

Oct. 18 Kids on side of street threw apples at coach, no damage.

Oct. 22 Passenger slept past stop in Issaquah and wants to return there; did not/will not pay a fare; requests a nonpayment of fare receipt from the operator; harassing operator and threatening his job by calling operator's supervisor on cell phone.

Oct. 23 Knife stuck in seat.

Oct. 27 Floating craps game on coach.

Oct. 28 Smells like people are sniffing glue in back of coach.

Oct. 29 Passenger exposed himself and masturbated on coach; passenger then got off coach.

Erica C. Barnett

ebarnett@seattleweekly.com

 
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