To Seattle and back again: a lesson in bus travel

Our adventure began at the westbound stop for Bus 166, right across from the Des Moines Senior Activity Center, and – as it turned out – right beneath the flight path for planes descending to SeaTac airport.

  • BY Wire Service
  • Tuesday, August 12, 2008 11:58am
  • Life
Left to right: Georgie Nupen

Left to right: Georgie Nupen

Our adventure began at the westbound stop for Bus 166, right across from the Des Moines Senior Activity Center, and – as it turned out – right beneath the flight path for planes descending to SeaTac airport.

“You’ll pay the driver when you get on,” explained transit instructor Lisa Johnston, shouting to be heard over the roar of jet engines.

A year ago, waiting to catch a bus wouldn’t have been on my Kent-to-Seattle travel agenda. But now, with gas prices creeping toward $5 a gallon, a $1.50 bus ticket looked pretty attractive.

So here I was, along with 11 Des Moines-area seniors, ready to learn the ropes on Day 2 of a bus-travel training class, offered free for seniors through King County Metro. Day 1 was a seminar session, during which Johnston walked the class through the steps of reading the bus schedule, planning a trip, paying the bus fare, and making sure to catch the right bus.

“If you’re not sure (if it’s your bus), ask the driver,” Johnston reminded us. “Sometimes they forget to change their signs, and you don’t want to wind up on the wrong bus.”

As a group transit instructor, Johnston regularly makes trips like this, taking groups of elderly or disabled adults on day trips to experience the system first-hand.

“Metro’s idea is that people will learn how to ride the bus, and want to do it themselves,” Johnston said.

One of my fellow travelers was Des Moines resident Donna Ehrhard. Ehrhard said she wanted to learn how to use the bus system so that, once she’s on a fixed income and can’t afford her Honda Accord anymore, she’ll still be able to get around.

“I’m practicing so that I can take care of myself and be independent,” she said. “And it’s an adventure. I haven’t taken a bus for 20 years.”

Neighbors Donna Woods and Bronson Berg also came along for the trip. After yesterday’s class, they were eager to put their newly acquired knowledge into practice.

“I’m ready to go,” said Woods, adding that Johnston had made the complex bus system “real user-friendly.”

Berg agreed. “She gave us the keys to find things fast.”

Our bus came, and we boarded. Minutes later we hopped out again, switching onto Bus 132 across the street from the Des Moines QFC. It’s not the quickest route into Seattle, but simpler than changing buses again in Burien, Johnston told us.

I had almost forgotten what an interesting experience it is to ride a bus. One meets all sorts of people — nurses, airport staffers, sous chefs, young parents and old beggars, all crammed together cheek-by-jowl as the bus fills up on the way into the big city.

Exciting, too. A fight very nearly broke out in the back of the bus over a girl playing her music too loud, but one of the antagonists got off the bus before it came to blows.

We reached our destination, the corner of Fourth Avenue and University Street, without further incident.

Johnston walked us to our rendezvous spot for the homeward bus – Third Avenue and Pike Street – and then we were free to roam the city.

A few people took off for Pike Place Market immediately. Others headed out to find lunch and shade. I dined with several of the seniors in the Westlake Center food court. Over pizza and salads, the older women relived history for me — eating cereal with Karo Syrup drizzled on it in place of sugar during the Great Depression; rationing gasoline; growing all one’s own produce.

After lunch, Des Moines senior Cordy Barney toured me round Pike Place Market. We saw the fish merchants throwing fish, the street musicians singing out “Under the Boardwalk” in a cappella harmony in front of the original Starbucks, and the rows and rows of fresh flowers and produce lining the street for the organic market.

And then it was time to come home.

Johnston had paid for the whole group herself on the way out; this time, she had us all pay for ourselves with pre-paid tickets, being sure to ask for a transfer pass at the same time.

On the way into the city, we’d paid as we boarded the bus in Des Moines. On the way back, because we were boarding in the downtown Seattle “Ride Free” zone, we would pay when we disembarked. (Bus routes in downtown Seattle are free 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.)

Thanks to a speedy trip back on express Bus 121, we made it to our last bus stop with ten minutes to spare before Bus 166 was due to arrive. We waited, keeping eyes peeled for our bus. Right on time, a bus drove up the hill — but it was Bus 164. Not our bus. We waved to it as it swooshed by. And then we waited. And waited. And waited.

“I bet that was our bus,” Ehrhard said. She guessed that the driver might have forgotten to change the electronic sign.

A half hour later, the next Bus 166 came, and the driver confirmed Ehrhard’s suspicions. Bus route 164 doesn’t come up this street, so it had to have been our bus. Well, we’d learned our lesson: always, always ask.

Minutes later, we were stepping off the bus in front of the Des Moines Senior Activity Center.

We’d done it: ridden the bus all the way to Seattle and back. And it was both easy and cheap. For me, the ride out cost $1.50. The ride back, during peak travel hours, cost $2.25. For those seniors with senior bus passes, the cost was only 50 cents each way. And no parking fees.

“With a few pointers, this is easy,” Johnston said. “But those few pointers can make all the difference.”

I wish I could say that after this excursion, I’ve parked my car permanently and started taking the bus everywhere. I haven’t … and for everyday travel, I probably won’t. My comfy, air-conditioned car, and the flexibility of being able to drive anywhere at any time, is too convenient to give up for the sake of saving a little cash.

But the next time I want to take a day trip to Seattle, or go somewhere when I’m not pressed for time, I’ll be looking at the bus schedules.

Bus travel tips

• Use Metro’s online trip planner to plot out your route ahead of time. (Go to, and click on “Transit”)

• Buy packs of pre-paid bus tickets at most QFC and Bartell Drugs stores. They come in 20-packs of 50 cent to $2.25 tickets.

• Take a class. Anyone 65 or older, or younger with a disability, can get free bus training (group or individual) through King County Metro. Info: 206-749-4242.

• Find a bus-buddy. Riding with someone who already knows the ropes makes learning the system much easier.

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