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Rantz: Seattle bus riders rail against ‘gagging’ human waste smell from homeless

Waste at the eastbound bus stop at Denny and Westlake. (Jason Rantz, KTTH)

There’s a recurring complaint with King County Metro customers: The buses or bus stops smell of human waste. And some customers are losing their patience, sometimes unfairly.

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“Either you have a serial dumper or no one did anything to address this,” one customer complained. “Sick of it. Clean this [expletive] up, literally.”

As a frequent bus user, I’ve experienced some of the same observations on routes 70 and 8. The bus or bus stop can sometimes smell as if it’s been used as a toilet.

KTTH and MyNorthwest, through a public disclosure request, poured through over 15,000 complaints filed with Metro online throughout all of 2018, and we noticed a trend. It’s almost assuredly a direct consequence of a region’s out of control homelessness — which Metro isn’t remotely responsible for.

One complaint said the stench near a bus stop of the Rapid Ride E, at South Washington Street between 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue, was so bad, a bus rider literally gagged.

Every morning, I get off the bus at this stop to a line of tents and horrible smells. Other than the space the tents occupy on the sidewalk, I’ve actually never been bothered by the people. What kills me beyond anything I would have imagined however, is the smell.

Behind the tents is a sitting pool of water filled with garbage and most likely human waste. It has always bothered me, but upon getting off the bus one morning, I immediately began dry-heaving and gagging, as I couldn’t bear even finishing the bite of food I had in my mouth. It is completely disgusting and makes me sad to know people are living right there among it.

After that “final stop,” the E proceeds a block further west, turns south, and begins the loop route back north. I’d like to ask that you please consider moving the final stop of the E another block further south, where the bus is already circulating on its loop.

One user felt scared in downtown Seattle where they constantly deal with aggressive panhandlers. It was not the user’s first complaint:

“I hope to hear back from you but doubt it. The only reason why I say I doubt it is because a few months ago I had put in a complaint about feces on a bus stop in Georgetown and had to [report] it and month [sic] later because you guys didn’t come out and clean it up.” (For what it’s worth, I’ve almost always received a response when I’ve issued a complaint.)

In Wallingford, a rider complained that the bus stop is disgusting due to human waste and garbage that hasn’t been cleaned for days.

“Please stop contributing to the destruction of our neighborhood and clean up this f-ing mess,” they wrote.

Jeff Switzer, a Metro spokesperson, tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH via email that you should alert the bus driver to any smell — or substance — causing the smell.

“A smell is one thing, and if it is connected to an unsanitary or noxious or waste situation, we want to know about it ASAP,” Switzer explained. “The operator can exercise their best judgment, and depending on the quantity or if a situation presents a risk to customers, they can cover the source with newspaper or a paper towel or request a coach change. Human waste and fluids are the highest priority for addressing. Drivers can advise customers to avoid an unsanitary area and call the transit coordinator. Smells sometimes can dissipate or travel with riders, or take time to locate. Reports of unsanitary or bad smelling coaches are addressed by our vehicle maintenance staff. If a customer gives a specific location on the bus, it helps staff locate and then clean up a mess.”

Metro staff clean buses daily: “Each coach is blown out with compressed air into a gigantic vacuum cyclone, trash is removed, and checked for obvious signs of needing repair.” Buses also get a once-monthly deep cleaning “using detergents, disinfectants and sanitary chemicals that are used to wipe down exposed surfaces.”

Why Seattle is so truly awful at transit

The problem isn’t a result of anything Metro is doing, of course. It’s a symptom of the unaddressed homeless crisis.

Still, I think Metro can somewhat better mitigate the problem. I assume most drivers will proactively address smelly situations because they also have to deal with it; just because I don’t see them deal with it doesn’t mean they don’t when I get off the bus.

But I’ve routinely seen bus drivers let homeless people on the bus without paying or showing a pass, usually (and understandably) to avoid a tense showdown that makes the already-late bus even more tardy to their next stop.

Some of these homeless individuals are clearly causing the stench on board and, rather than getting help, City and County leaders keep them in an unhealthy state, while ruining the Metro experience. But perhaps Metro can better deal with situations like this.

Seattle bus complaints
A bus driver rolls an inebriated customer off the bus in Eastlake. (Jason Rantz, KTTH)

It’s not just the on-board experience people are complaining about. Bus stops are not being cleaned enough according to many complaints.

A rider complained of an experience in Northgate, where they “stepped on a pile of human waste by the bench on Bay #5.” The user thought it was “bad luck,” but complained about the problem remained the next day.

“Don’t you clean those issues or don’t you clean the transit stations at all?” the rider asked.

Another slammed the Northgate Transit Center because of “human feces in the stairwell on the southwest corner…” The rider went on to complain that “I noticed the first pile a week ago and now there’s a second one. There was also a used syringe on the ground the other day which is now gone, but the cap is still there. No one has obviously come to monitor or clean this stairwell in over a week, and it’s the one most commonly used by transit riders to get to the transit center.”

“I do not feel safe at Lake Meridian Park n Ride Stop 60453,” one rider complained. “There are always people sleeping and most of the time very dirty. How can this stop be a safer place again if homeless use the shed as a place to sleep. Sometimes paraphernalia , feces, clothes, garbage are all over the place.”

Another rider complained about the Redmond Transit Center Park and Ride, due to “a pile of human feces on the ground floor of the facility and it has been there for four days now.” At another stop, a rider noted that “this stop has become very dirty and is very hard to sit at to wait for a bus. I’m not entirely sure why, but this stop always smells like garbage and feces. I wish that was a joke. Unfortunately, I think it is a popular spot for some homeless people to stay at, which may explain the feces. I have actually seen poop at the stop before, in a location that a dog would not have access too.”

Metro is responsible for the cleaning, and “have a multi-level service program for stops based on usage.” This likely explains why some problems seem to go unaddressed.

“Bus stops that get dirtier more quickly through use by the public are serviced more often and to a greater degree,” Switzer explains. “Many RapidRide stops for example are getting pressure washed and trash-emptied three times a week. Unsheltered bus stops are maintained on an as-needed basis. Reports of unsanitary conditions are treated as an urgent corrective work order and crews are dispatched to specifically address the situation.”

In the meantime, Switzer encourages people to report the problem, citing the bus or stop number, so they can quickly address the concern.

I have a lot of problems with Metro service that I think they’re directly responsible for (tardiness, weirdly aggressive drivers, etc). But stench isn’t something Metro should be blamed for. While I think we can do more fare enforcement to address these problems, this is clearly a losing battle for Metro. They’re not supposed to fix homelessness. The service is merely falling victim to it.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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