Civil Disagreement is an occasional feature on the Opinion Northwest blog. Here editorial writers Lynne K. Varner and Jonathan Martin debate whether an armed robber on a Seattle Metro bus indicates an unsafe city.
Did you see The Times story about the 19-year-old man who got on the King County Metro RapidRide C Line bus at Third and Pike Street wearing a nylon stocking over part of his face and began robbing passengers at gunpoint? He got personal property from a few before he was tackled by other passengers and held until police arrived. The suspect was “agitated and belligerent” during the arrest, reported the West Seattle Blog.
This was not only a scary moment that could have ended more tragically (was that gun loaded?) but it also was not good advertising for public transit. I’m sympathetic to calls to ride public transportation as both a cost-saver and a way to reduce our carbon footprint. I’m willing to strike a bargain with King County Metro: I’ll get out of my car and ride the bus, saving personal money on gas and saving the public coffers on costly repairs to heavily used and clogged roads. In exchange, it must reassure me that I’m not taking my life into my hands each time I board a bus.
This morning I took the 70 bus to Third Avenue in the heart of Seattle’s downtown retail corridor. People hung out in front of the Macy’s, McDonald’s and other points along the city street. The 7-Eleven did a robust business selling beer and malt liquor. Police sat on bikes nearby, but did not engage anyone. The time it took my bus to show up, no more than 15 minutes, I was accosted by a couple of guys who thought I looked extra good today (Nope, never met them before.) I grew more cognizant of the dirty unswept street and the smell of weed. I sidestepped people who were hanging out on the street as though they were at a block party. Yes, others were commuting to work or going shopping, but I felt we were in the minority.
To endure that and get on the bus and be confronted by an armed robber is more than any commuter should be expected to bear. Bus-related crime is up and, given the armed robbery and shooting of a Metro bus driver last August, more brazen. Bus operators have reported 45 assaults on passengers inside buses between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, a Metro spokesman told The Times in a news report. There were 27 assaults during the same period last year. The same story quotes a Seattle police spokesman noting a spike in cellphone robberies on buses, light-rail trains and near transit centers countywide.
I do not suggest we put armed guards on buses or wall off drivers from passengers, but we should consider whether a brazen armed robbery at dinnertime is a harbinger of bad things to come.
Here’s what that incident yesterday tells me: when hundreds of thousands of strangers mingle each day, weird things very occasionally happen. According to King County Metro, there were 137 arrests or infractions issued on buses during the entire month of September. That month, there were 385,768 people boarding buses every weekday. By my rough calculations, that works out to .000016 arrests per weekday boarding.
Contrast that with the national rate of fatal car crashes per 100,000 of population: 10.39. It’s not a perfect analogy but, Lynne, you get my point. You are far more likely to get into a crash, or even die, on your commute across Lake Washington than I am to even witness an arrest on my bus ride in from Wallingford. Your car is a death trap! Take a bus!
This incident, and the bus-driver shooting in August aren’t good for public perception. But these crimes didn’t happen because of the bus. They just happened on the bus. If we’re going to anecdotally tie location to crime (which the news media often does), you’d have to never walk into a coffee shop because of the Lakewood police and Café Racer shootings both happened in cafes.
Okay, Metro bus riders can be kooky. Toenail clippers. Heroin nodders. The ranters. But mighty Seattle grinds to a halt without Metro. One bus removes 40 cars from the street. Weekday mornings, my bus, the 358, stops at Denny and Aurora, and dozens of Amazon workers (along with Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien and myself) hop off and walk a few blocks. If your answer to perceived (not statistically-based) fear of transit is for us to instead make single-occupancy car commutes, Amazon could not plop 15,000 jobs into downtown Seattle because their workers would be stuck in traffic.
Public perceptions are easily made and hard to reverse. But the data do not support your premise. I’ll bet you one of those soy London Fog drinks you favor that if you hop on my bus any random morning, you’re more likely to find a city council member than a gun-waving nutso.