Image of a darkened stage with a folk band of six with various stringed instruments and 2 clog dancers.

Public transit is shortchanged. Where’s the news in that? If you follow this blog you know, and you have the numbers to back you up. Public transit in the United States is underfunded. And what’s with the folk band? Where’s the bus, the train, the ferry, the beautiful route map? The graph? Was the wrong image downloaded? Where’s transit?

Standing on the stage. In 2014, Poetry on Buses, a collaboration of King County Metro and 4Culture, was awarded the #2 spot in the Top 10 Collaborations of Art, Music and Local Businesses judged by DO206, the Seattle Chapter of DOSTUFF. This is an image from the Poetry on Buses kick-off event that year. I was there. That evening The Moore Theater rocked with music and the spoken word. It was the first year the annual project really reflected Metro’s riders with poems in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian and Somali, the five most spoken languages in King County. Metro transit riders, some of whom had never written poetry before but coached in workshops put on all over the county, proudly read their poems with family and friends filling the theater to capacity. It was a brilliant, powerful night.

Now back in 2014 we could be forgiven if we didn’t believe in the power of poetry. But in 2021 a young woman with a glorious red headband and bright yellow coat believed otherwise. Amanda Gorman reminded us we are a storytelling people.

Back in 2014 we had not yet experienced the power of narrative in derailing a public health based response to Covid-19. No avalanche of statistics, the latest that 1 out of every 500 Americans has died from Covid-19, will change the minds of our fellow Americans who are refusing to vaccinate.

So, what is the lesson in this for those of us who love public transit? That we, the advocates for public transit, have done our share of shortchanging public transit. We bury the story of public transit beneath our graphs and matrices and maps and projections. It’s there but barely breathing. In this, we shortchange its powerful story. Or in the more acceptable civic language, the narrative.

The narrative of public transit as a vehicle for opportunities. The narrative of public transit at the intersection of societal change. The narrative of public transit in fueling creativity. The narrative of public transit in connecting community. The narrative of transit in driving solutions to climate change.

“We do not credit easily the claims of poetry that are against the hardware of the day.” Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann, a wise interpreter of stories, warns of the need for poetics to move people beyond the present reality to the possibilities of a different future. For America to move from loving cars to loving public transit, it will take those who believe that to be a possibility to move others to believe. And storytelling may be the most powerful tool we have in our toolbox.

But do we have the skills to effectively use narrative to change minds? How do we move from shortchanging public transit to enriching the story? Before picking up the tool I think we have to regularly engage with storytelling. It’s a slow start for sure, but people know a truth-telling story when they hear it. Real stories come from deeper down than real numbers. Tomorrow, before clicking on the link to that beautifully designed transit map or that discussion of the latest bus design, the “hardware of the day,” consider picking up a book of storytelling or better yet, start with the poems from the 2017 Poetry on Buses. These are our transit customers telling us their stories. Click here for a poem for each day of the year.

Reading a poem doesn’t take long, but if it is a good poem, the questions it leaves you with, the images it uses will stay around, expanding your thinking beyond the binary and into narrative. With regular exercise, it could sneak into your thinking about transit, allowing you to dig out the story buried beneath the graphs and maps, and bring life to your advocacy for public transit. Elevate the powerful narrative of public transit, so we can hope for a future where public transit rules America’s heart.

20 Replies to “To save transit, tell the story”

  1. Thank you, Melony, for a much-needed departure from the wonk and circumstance of the transit blog and for reminding us about the importance of story and art.

    Private automobiles have been very effectively sold to the public over the last century with a story of freedom and independence obtained via car ownership; specifically, via the myth that the cost of car ownership (to individuals, society, and the planet) are negligible compared to the value supposedly inherent and unique to cars.

    As we’re seeing today with public health and the environment, minds are not changed with cold logic or quarterly reports – they’re changed with personal experience, relatable anecdote, emotion and belief.

    Public transit needs the support of the community that needs it, wants it, and rides it. I’ve grown to like the term “collective transit” as a way to get around a fear of the word “public” and as a way to include a sense of community and belonging that truly is inherent in riding a bus or a train.

    A great place to start is Nathan Vass’ book of stories from his time driving the 7:

  2. There was one STB commentator who used to post transit poems. Are they still around? Or anyone want to try writing some transit haikus?

  3. There is a folk history scattered around; it just needs to be collected. There are Seattle Times articles about drivers like Nathan, avid transit-fan passengers, and passenger experiences on a route or corridor. There’s Bus Doggy Dogg, the drivers who tell jokes, and the driver with lots of soccer scarves. Metro’s Driver of the Year and Maintenance Employee of the Year awards may have other people worth featuring. Some STB commentators have collections of old bus schedules and maps. The STB Flickr pool has photos.

  4. Has Metro or ST considered a program to allow poets to read their poems on the bus or on Link, and maybe even sell collections of their poems? It would give these aspiring poets some exposure, and remind riders of the narrative of transit rather than just have their noses buried in their phones and laptops.

    1. Doubtful. The volume necessary would violate RCW 9.91.025 (i), unreasonably disturbing others by engaging in loud behavior.

      And before phones and laptops, people had their noses buried in newspapers on transit. You’re complaining about a human behavior observed for over a century now.

      1. Well, I work in downtown Seattle and would love to see R.C.W. 9.91.025(i) enforced.

        “i) Unreasonably disturbs others by engaging in loud, raucous, unruly, harmful, or harassing behavior”. That doesn’t sound like the definition of poetry to me. That basically sounds like all transit.

        I would also like to know how many transit riders have been prosecuted under RCW 9.91.025 — Unlawful transit conduct.

        I have a hard time imagining reading poetry on a bus was the focus or purpose of R.C.W. 9.91.025(i), or that reading a poem unreasonably disturbs others. At least not at the poetry readings I have been too. The public announcements on the bus or train are louder than someone reading a poem unamplified.

        At the most, can’t we just have one of our “transit ambassadors” ask the poet to speak softer if someone complains (and has actually bought a ticket)? Are transit riders such philistines they can’t spend a few minutes listening to a poem, even if the poetry isn’t exactly Roethke? People who drive cars listen to books on tape all the time, voluntarily. It educates them.

        People have had their noses buried in something or other since the beginning of time. Would it be so terrible if they spent a few minutes of their day listening to a poem? Of course, the poet might get beat up or spit on, but if they are brave enough to read some poetry on a bus about transit I doubt R.C.W. 9.91.025 would prohibit that, and if I were on the bus or train I wouldn’t mind listening. Of course I love poetry, so maybe I am different than the average transit rider.

      2. I employ a several hundred dollar active and passive noise canceling suite to block out the obnoxious volume of people on the trains/busses, and the announcement system is still annoyingly loud. You won’t find me supporting an increase in urban noise pollution.

        Besides, I remember the Poetry on Buses program and the “works” that came out of it. Elementary school haikus were more deep and meaningful. Reading such poetry on mass transit is a) not what transit is for, b) against the RCW, c) annoying to many passengers, including myself, and d) would primarily result in people falling asleep due to boredom.

        You’re a lawyer, right? Why does it matter how many people have been prosecuted under RCW 9.91.025 (i)? Isn’t a law a law? Aren’t all laws equal, with none special over another (and no, the misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor, felony system does not count)? Who cares who the law was/wasn’t intended for? The important part is what the law is. And the law is plain and simple in this matter.

      3. I don’t think reading poetry on a bus would fall under the RCW, and it sounds like there were prior programs for reading poetry on transit.

        That being said, if transit riders would prefer to not have public performances — even the reading of poetry — on transit that is a valid policy decision. It is true there is no guarantee on the quality of the poetry, and very good poetry is rare, and probably very rarely found on public transit. I could also see the poetry becoming very ideological.

        I think our cell phones and computers more than anything else — even on public transit — have made us much more insular than in the past, even to the point we spend hundreds of dollars to silence the world around us.

        Public Transit is often extolled as building a community compared to cars but we tend to live in our own little worlds, even when surrounded by others, or maybe because we are surrounded by others and social norms have degraded so much. I think the one poster is correct: transit is just another way to get from A to B.

        I still highly recommend reading some very good poetry to see what some can do with language.

      4. They installed thousands of square feet of pointless mezzanines in Link stations. Maybe consider doing it there?

        On the trains or buses means taking up space already in tight supply. It also means having a captive audience, which also creates problems.

      5. I would argue that the increase in overall noise pollution in our cities is causing more isolation than electronic devices. Even in the 1980s, 30 decibels was considered the average conversational volume. Now it is 40 decibels, a perceived doubling of volume. While I do not have the necessary equipment to be certain, I would estimate the announcements on current transit vehicles to be 50 decibels or more. In 2009, Reuters found the average volume on a bus to be around 75 decibels, truly an insane number when you think about it. The world is literally screaming at us, day and night. If you want to make transit more pleasant and desirable, I suggest shutting it up, not making it noisier.

      1. I agree. No. No music, no reading, if I am on a bus, it is to get from point A to point B, leave me alone. Heck, in this pandemic, if I am on a bus, it is most likely out of desperation, against my will, and with an N95 mask and safety goggles.
        For all of you on here who conduct yourselves like the pandemic is *magically* over, here is some insight into what health care workers are dealing with right now:
        Your actions DIRECTLY impact this. Perhaps you are vaccinated. But are you actively working to ensure that you don’t spread COVID? How do your actions impact kids under the age of 12 who can’t even get a vaccine? or people who have been vaccinated but have weak immune systems & have a poor immune response? or people who are unvaccinated, get COVID, end up hospitalized, and take a bed away from somebody who has had a heart attack, cancer, or been in a car accident? and completely overwhelmed nurses, doctors, and other hospital staff?

        I’m sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but stay home. Unless you need to be out for groceries and work. And no, no unnecessary accessory riders (poets, wanna-be “artists”). It really should still be essential trips only. The governor, county, and city officials have all given in to political pressure. Don’t expect any help from healthcare workers to do any favors any time soon. This society has had the opportunity to do their part, and chose “medical freedumb,” “unmask our children,” and re-open all of the restaurants instead of following the science. In this family… no more “extra shifts,” no more responding to text messages from work, no more overtime, nothing beyond the bare minimum contract requirements. Society had an opportunity and squandered it. My advice, don’t get sick, don’t get injured, don’t get into a car accident… because the hospitals do NOT have the capacity to take care of you right now, at least not at what is considered an acceptable level of care. Healthcare workers are burned out and sick of it all.
        To summarize what Neil Young had to say about it, it is all about greed. Every millionaire recording artist should have cancelled every concert and tour date… (Dave Matthews, Trevor Noah, etc) Their choosing to tour on, in a pandemic, with Delta variant, is a choice of greed, no different from what we’ve come to expect from Amazon and Boeing, no matter how “woke” or “progressive” they present themselves. That’s all.

      2. It is not reasonable to expect everyone to just stay home indefinitely, until the pandemic is completely over. Because it will never be over. Ultimately, we have to accept some risk, we just try to minimize it as much as we can, starting with vaccinations.

        And vaccinated people should definitely not be burdened with staying home to protect those crazies who think the vaccines are embedded with Bill Gates’s microchips.

      3. I thought poetry on buses was those written poems in the advertising slots near the ceiling. I’ve never heard of a spoken performance until now. I lean toward mostly no because it’s similar to somebody playing a boom box. Different people like different kinds of sounds or different poetry, so forcing them all to listen to one at a time they can’t control when their trip may be essential, that sounds open to problems.

        If there are spoken poems they should be in the afternoon or evening, not in the morning. In the morning I especially don’t want to hear people’s phone conversations or esoteric discussions or boom boxes or spoken poetry; I want to quietly go to work and maybe rest or meditate on the way.

      4. I think the idea was that, to communicate the benefits of transit to the public, the technical-heavy transit blog post we all love on STB isn’t as effective as something that tells a story of why transit can be a meaningful part of one’s life. That doesn’t have to be spoken verse on transit (I certainly appreciate quiet on my transit rides) but there’s a wide spectrum between analyzing the details of transfers or real-time arrival systems and beat poetry.

        As for Engineer’s qualms about considering transit discretionary, that ship sailed 15 months ago when the “essential trips only” signs came off the buses. As asdf2 points out, we have the tools needed to make transit safe (vaccination, masking, ventilation), and at no point during the pandemic has there been any evidence that transit has a potential to be a “superspreader” environment even when some of those safety measures aren’t implemented perfectly.

  5. Carla Saulter used to write a guest column for the Seattle PI back when it was around, and now writes the Bus Chick blog ( She had some great perspectives on the joys and challenges of living a car-free/transit-ful lifestyle in Seattle, and it looks like she’s still writing too!

    1. The Transit Traveler blog ( is another good blog I just remembered, and it looks like the writer is back on the bus again as of this month! The premise for his posts are chaining together long trips using local transit, which are pretty inspiring to read.

  6. I’m not big into poetry these days, but we have to come to the realization that if we don’t invest in telling transit’s story… transit opponents – some of which bankrolled by purveyors of single-occupancy vehicles like a certain Seattle newspaper + auto show sponsor – will tell transit’s story for us. Defending public transit in the public square is a moral responsibility at this point.

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