Movable public space: An ethnography of King County Metro Routes 7 & 271

Jenna Boule & Jennifer Sandberg
Spring Quarter 2005

The King County Metro bus system is the most used form of public transportation in the greater Seattle area. In the year 2000, the Metro hit 100 million boardings. Every demographic uses the bus, and there are not very many public spaces that are used by so many groups, so consistently. This is what sparked our interest in doing research on the bus as a movable public space, where people can mingle and mix and be.

We observed two routes, one to downtown Bellevue (271) and one to downtown Seattle (7). Our research focuses on the interactions and mannerisms of the riders as they make their journeys to their destinations. Our methods consisted primarily of participant observation which were supplemented with casual interviews and some background research.

Selected excerpts follow...

route 7 teaser clip

The 271 runs a route from the University district (9th Ave and 47th) to Issaquah (Eastern King County). We followed this route from 15th Avenue NE and Campus Parkway to the Bellevue Transit Center.


The first ride on the 271 was on a rainy, grey, Sunday afternoon. I remember thinking that the demeanor of the bus was going to be as solemn as the weather. However, upon boarding the bus, me in the front and Jenna in the back, I began to observe a conversation between two riders who seemed to be strangers making small talk. I was fascinated to have such good material on the very first ride and even more fascinated that their banter lasted the entirety of the ride. The woman was relatively young looking, maybe late 20s-early 30s, with the man significantly older in appearance, late 40s-early 50s in age. She carried with her a stylish umbrella; he carried a backpack. Though I felt I was eavesdropping on what seemed to be something personal, I was trying to observe the bus a public venue, making their conversation (the only one on the bus) a very public display. They spoke volumes about their lives in the somewhat short ride from the University District to the Bellevue Transit Center — the end of both their and my journeys. Topics touched on included: the weather, their families, her attending the Art Institute of Seattle, finances, home and gardening, sleep habits, and diets. By the end of the ride, he new she and her boyfriend lived together, and she new he was on a raw food diet for a while and only needed four hours of sleep.


The second ride we did to Bellevue was quite a different scenario than the first. It was a Thursday afternoon in the middle of rush hour traffic, on an unusually hot 90 degree day. The bus was close to being full when we boarded at the corner of 40th Ave, and 15th Ave, and with each stop the bus became more full. Passengers on this ride didn’t have the luxury of preserving their personal space. I was once again positioned in the back half of the bus, and there were only 5 open seats that I could count. This time the bus was filled with riders who appeared to be coming home from work. There was a construction worker complete with hard-hat and work boots, a couple older gentlemen in business suits with briefcases, and the biggest indicator was the huge influx of people that boarded the bus at the University of Washington Medical Center stop. One gentleman that sat adjacent me, was reading some kind of medical journal for the whole duration of his ride. This same gentlemen was seated on the side of the bus where the sun was hitting. As soon as a passenger on the shady side left, he promptly moved. The bus was uncomfortable to the say the least. It was hot outside, hot inside, packed, without air conditioning and devoid of motion for the majority of the bus ride. I saw a few passengers fanning themselves, and even more with their eyes closed resting. The heat seemed to have drained them of their energy. There were more passengers on this ride reading books, magazines and newspapers. I saw very little cell phone or electronic device usage, except for one gentleman close to me. He got a call on his cell phone when we were stopped in traffic. He took the call and proceeded to talk to his friend for 2-3 minutes. He was the only person talking on the bus for the whole period, and I learned a considerable amount about his life in that short time.

route 7 teaser clip

The 7 runs a route from the University District to Rainer Beach (Central Seattle). We followed this route from the NE Campus Parkway, through Capital Hill, to the Convention Place stop in downtown Seattle.

Ed. Note: Shortly after this project was completed, route 7 was split into two separate routes, the 49 and the new 7. The portion of the route observed in this project is now the 49.


I sat in the swively, non-windowed area of the old and rickety, brown bus. No one sat across from me the entire ride to downtown except one older couple, who quickly moved to two available, forwarding facing seats later on in the ride. The first thing I observed was the abundance of men to women. I counted ten men to three women, one being myself. Initially most of the men were white looking, with one being Asian in appearance. Every rider had an open seat next to them except for two young men, who later got off at Seattle Central Community College together. Subsequently, they were the only people chatting in the back of the bus. The rest found other things to occupy their time — three with headphones on, one of them reading while listening. We were passing stops on the road to Broadway, and no one got off or on the back of the bus. As soon as we approached Broadway (an extremely busy street, buzzing with shops and restaurants), the traffic on an off the bus was hectic! An African-American man joined the back, making the male population eleven. Soon after, two white men departed. When the bus rolled into the stop next to the Broadway shopping mall, the couple once across from me, as well as the other two females left. After that, another stop, and then another. An older black gentlemen with a straw hat and headphones got on and sat by the window — then we hit Seattle Central Community College, and most of the back of the bus departed. After that stop, the energy of the bus faded — it was calming. The demographics: one Latino looking male, two African-American looking males (one old and one young), two white women (including me), and two white males. No one was talking or sitting together as we headed toward downtown. I took comfort in the silence and the chance to rest my cramping writing hand. At the next stop, both the white males left and a third African-American looking male entered carrying a large pack and wearing headphones. The stop after that, the only other female departs. At the moment, just before the end of my ride, I realized how much things had changed. Though there was not much interaction, the utter and complete change in ethnic makeup was astounding. In the beginning there were nine, white, males, two other females, and me. At the end of the ride, I was still there with three African-American looking males and one Latino looking male.


It was again a very hot day, in the middle afternoon and the bus was fairly crowded. Right off the bat, upon boarding at Campus Parkway and Brooklyn, there was much more to observe. It was definitely stimulus overload for me the entire ride, from start to finish. The front of the bus when we first boarded had some interesting people. There was a young Japanese-looking man, dressed in definite Japanese style. He had a guitar, camera, and was listening to music on headphones. There was a 10-13 year old young boy riding by himself, what looked to be a mom and daughter headed to shop, and a group of 4 young hipster looking men. At each stop we made, a new set of interesting and diverse people would board, as an equally intriguing group would leave. It was amazing the turnover of riders at each stop. It was almost too much for me to write down. The use of cell phones on this ride was limited to two that I could count. And they were only being used for text messages/internet or something of that sort that didn’t require an actual verbal conversation. Towards the end of our ride I had an interaction with a middle-aged mentally impaired gentleman. He boarded the bus and began asking questions like “Hot out, isn’t it?” His attempts to address the entire bus. Only one kind gentleman responded to his question about the weather, and I was the only one to respond when he asked what time it was. After I reciprocated the gentleman kept firing away random questions. Some of his questions included; “Are you from Texas?”, “Do you smoke?”, “Have you had any teeth pulled”, and “Do you have a boyfriend?” This encounter was towards the end of the ride, and I remember feeling really embarrassed by how loud and exposed our conversation was. It was in no way private, in fact it was the only conversation taking place on the front of the bus at that time, and everyone could hear this exchange. I remember trying to act with compassion, and try to act calmly. I was glad that our stop was the next stop up.


Route 271: Based on background research on the demographics of Bellevue, we can conclude that most people riding the bus are commuters. Their diversity suggests that the riders are commuting to work in Bellevue, or using Bellevue as a stop along the way to a further destination. We were surprised that on a newer bus that travels long routes, and services mainly upper-class areas, there was no air conditioning. We noticed that there were very little stops being made in the upper-class residential areas, this leads up to believe that very few residents of these neighborhoods are using this bus route at this particular time of day. We feel there might be some correlation between the populations of men and women in Bellevue and the ratio of men to women riding the 271.

Route 7: Capitol Hill is a thriving urban area, so our expectations of diversity on the bus were met. Because C.H. is located near downtown Seattle, its wide variety of restaurants, shops, schools, banks, churches etc. suggest there would be more on and off traffic on the bus — and there was. The energy on the bus was high, but we were surprised not to witness more human communication/socialization. Though it is common for quite a few people to wear headphones on the bus, they're letting in music but impeding human interaction.


After looking at our testimonies as riders, we found that there were a lot of overlapping observations. We also found that intentionally striking up a conversation on the bus, whether it be an interview or impulse, is a particularly awkward situation. We were very disappointed to not see as much communication as we thought. It's bizarre to think that with such a captive audience, no one takes initiative. You never see people pass our flyers or ask for money or advertise at all on the bus. There's very little preaching or political speech made — what does this mean? Electronic devices were also not used to the extent we expected. Comparing the amount of people riding the bus, and how many rides we did to the number of people using cellphones, the number was very small. This prompts the question: is the bus a place where people prefer to just withdraw into themselves, to have some personal time without being forced? Is it an unspoken truth of the bus that one can come aboard and do absolutely nothing and the space still serves its purpose? One thing is for sure: a bus ride is a personal experience that requires no preparation -- just a bus pass or a $1.50...and an open mind.


route brochure cover

Click on image for full brochure ( pdf 327K )