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Rantz: Here’s why so many Seattle buses smell of human waste

(KTTH, Jason Rantz)

King County Metro has a problem: Many of their buses smell of human waste, a lingering scent that can ruin many rides. And one simple, easily abused policy is partly to blame.

Klein: Why I don’t ride the bus to work

Last week, I told you that KTTH and MyNorthwest reviewed over 15,000 complaints filed with Metro online throughout all of 2018. We noticed a trend of users complaining of the smell of human waste, an unfortunate byproduct of the region’s unaddressed homelessness problem.

After the piece was broadcast, a number of bus drivers contacted me to explain what part of the problem is a policy that lets anyone ride the bus for free.

Bus drivers, by policy, will not enforce the fare. If you don’t want to pay, the bus drivers won’t stop you from boarding. That’s not their job; fare enforcement officers handle that. Consequently, homeless individuals ride the bus, for free, and some with little regard for other passengers. One bus driver told me she routinely deals with this issue — one, she says, that makes driving a bus difficult.

“Our policy says that operators can state the fare amount once, if they feel it is safe to do so, that they should refrain from escalating the risk of assault or injury when faced with unruly customers or fare evasions,” confirms Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer. “The policy also instructs operators to not get into disputes regarding fares and passes.”

How often does this happen? Switzer didn’t have data. But I’ve seen it happen many times on the routes I take most, with drivers not following protocol at all, simply waving them on.

But is it a policy that only benefits the homeless? Nope. It applies to anyone. To test it, in a very unscientific way, I sent Producer Tom Amato to the bus stop across our street. Luckily, the bus was running without their normal long delays and he was able to get on board on schedule.

On the first ride, Tom told the driver, “Hey, I don’t know how much it costs. Is it cool if I not pay?” The driver just said “it’s cool” and waived him on.

On the return ride, he didn’t have to ask at all. The driver got off the bus to reconnect the bus trolley poles (every bus, at the same stop near our office, the polls disconnect; Metro insists there’s no problem).

Tom just walked on and didn’t have to pay. I initially felt bad for stealing the ride but, hey, some Metro drivers can be the worst so they owe me a free ride for one stop because #journalism.

Why Seattle is so truly awful at transit

So what does this mean? Well, for starters, if there’s no fare enforcement on board, you can hop on for free and not worry.

But, it’s also responsible for a good portion of the human waste smells on-board.

I understand the policy: Bus drivers don’t want to get into an argument that could get physical, with a homeless person over a small fare. It can be dangerous. It can also make Metro run even later than it already does.

But, this permissive policy is being exploited by people who aren’t using it to get to services, health care, or job interviews, no matter what some Twitter social justice warrior will pretend.

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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