Transit night life

Last night, after having a great time at nevafeva’s birthday party in NE Portland, I faced the downer of a long bus ride back to Sellwood.

Bear with me for a little Portland geography; surely most everyone who reads my posts already knows this but just in case, let me set the scene. The majority of all bus routes in Portland pass through, or end in, downtown. The first part of my bus journey was on the #6 bus, which basically traveled up and down the north- and south-bound highway of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, before hopping over the Hawthorne Bridge into the downtown bus mall.

Then, to complete my journey from one end of Portland to the other, I had to grab the #33, which hopped back over the Hawthorne Bridge to drive south-bound highway of McLoughlin Boulevard, where I debark and enjoy a half-mile walk to my little apartment building o’ fun.

Two boulevards, two straight shots, each with a juke into the city center. Easy-peasy, right? I should be home in a flash, right?

The first part of the trip went smoothly. I love people watching the folks who ride the bus late on a Saturday. The attractive young girls who are going to a dance club. The middle-aged men who still think they’re young men talking to the young girls. The older lady, drunk out of her mind, just riding around for something to do. Just another bunch of damaged humanity (including me). I felt a kinship with all of them, but sat in my seat and watched.

I debark downtown, and check the schedule on my iPhone. Side note: I found the best iPhone app for anyone in Portland who rides a bus. Last Friday, the website I have been checking for TriMet bus arrival times went away – I got a 404 error. So I poked around Apple’s App Store and found a long list of iPhone programs for transit times. Our local transit agency actually has an API to let others use their schedule information, which explains all the Portland-specific iPhone apps I found. The top rated one was called PDXBus, and it was free, so I downloaded it.

It’s full of features! Bookmarks for most-used stops, it can show multiple stops on one page, it lets me organize and arrange the bookmarks and rename them, it uses Core Location to show me the closest stops to me in case I’m in an area of town I’m not familiar with. It even has a built-in blue flasher that I can use to flag down buses at night.

Last night, though, iPhone told me that I had a 35+ minute wait for the next leg of my trip home. It was cold and I was tired and did not feel like standing in the wind for that long, so I walked 6 blocks to the only open coffee shop I could find, the Starbucks at Pioneer Courthouse Square, which was open until midnight. On my short walk, I was asked directions, as I normally am whenever I walk anywhere. I must look like someone who knows where things are. I accidentally gave incorrect directions (no, seriously, it was accidental). Got a small coffee, had to wait a bit while it was finishing brewing, was offered an Americano instead (no, I’ll wait for the brewed coffee, thanks), texted goodnight to my bestie, Tracy, found out the wifi at Starbucks wasn’t working (which matters much less since I bought an iPhone), and then walked the six blocks back to the bus stop.

And got asked directions once again. His Spanish accent was thick so I had a hard time understanding what he was asking for but we eventually got it sorted out and I pointed him in the right direction.

Got to the stop and the bus was already there, laying over until time to leave. Hopped on, started people watching again while surfing to kill the time. A driver and 15 or so people just wanting to go home, or somewhere else at least, on a Saturday night.

The driver was tall, and white-haired but strong looking, and when it was time to go he pulled out into traffic sharply and crisply. Turned onto Madison to cross the bridge… then just kept going straight.

He should have taken the off-ramp down onto McLoughlin and continued south. He didn’t.

A passenger walked up to the front of the bus to ask him about this mistake, which is always a touchy situation. If the driver is defensive at all, or the passenger is rude at all, it can turn into an argument. This passenger was deferential enough, or the driver was humble enough, to avoid that. “I’ll just have to go around the block to get back on track,” the driver said.

So we continued onto SE Hawthorne, crossed Grand Ave., went one block up and turned right. Now we were parallel to McLoughlin and two blocks away. It’s a little complicated by the fact that the major streets are one-way onlies, but the very next right-hand turn would have gotten the driver right back on track.

He kept going straight.

I kept quiet, but made eye contact with a couple of my fellow passengers. We wanted to see where this was going. We didn’t want to point out that the driver was lost. Well, I did, but I did it on Twitter.

After just a block or two, the driver was screwed, because McLoughlin becomes a raised thoroughfare with no on-ramps. Now, when he got to an intersection and looked right, he could see that he had no way to get back on McLoughlin and back on track. Now, his little GPS unit was beeping at him that he was seriously off course. Now, he (or at least I) could feel the tension of all the passengers wondering where the hell we were and where we were going. A girl who had been talking on her cell phone to a distant friend started narrating the streets we passed, trying to figure out what the score was and how much longer until she reached her destination.

I thought ahead and realized that the driver was going to have to zig-zag through inner Southeast and past the TriMet Center garage, along SE 17th, before he could get back to the normal route. And so he did.

Because the boulevard is one long multi-lane highway, even with this long detour, the driver only missed one stop. Still, I felt bad for anyone who was waiting at that stop for a bus home; the next bus to pass there wouldn’t do so for another hour, and that was the final trip of the night. They’d be waiting a long time, and with no word about what had happened. Maybe they (these hypothetical people I’m picturing) saw their bus pass over the bridge – I’ve stood there at that stop and I know that where this bus had gone was in line of sight from there. How frustrating that would be, to see your bus be so wrong, knowing the next one won’t show up for an hour or more…

Such is life when one relies on transit.