Car-free commute shows society at its best

The other night, as I was sitting on the water taxi on my way home to Vashon, I struck up a conversation with a couple from Cambridge, England, who appeared to be headed to the island for a visit. As it turned out, they didn’t plan to set foot on Vashon. They were simply taking a sunset cruise on the water taxi. A ride on the King County-owned catamaran, they noted, was as lovely as a cruise on one of those big, tourist-filled commercial boats and a lot less expensive.

The other night, as I was sitting on the water taxi on my way home to Vashon, I struck up a conversation with a couple from Cambridge, England, who appeared to be headed to the island for a visit. As it turned out, they didn’t plan to set foot on Vashon. They were simply taking a sunset cruise on the water taxi. A ride on the King County-owned catamaran, they noted, was as lovely as a cruise on one of those big, tourist-filled commercial boats and a lot less expensive.

Now that I’m no longer employed on the island, this is my life: Commuting every day via a boat some ride for the sheer pleasure of it. In the weeks after I left The Beachcomber, people would often ask me how my commute was, sometimes in a sympathetic, almost rueful tone. The answer: The commute is really quite lovely, and I’m often torn by my choices: Do I read a book, talk to a fellow commuter or simply stare out the window at the glassy blue water and the forested flanks of Blake Island?

Granted, this commute is still new. At some point, it will become mind-numbingly familiar. I’ll arrive to the dock in the dark, shivering in the rain, not drinking in the morning sun. Even so, even though I know it won’t always feel so sweet, I’m struck by how lucky we are on Vashon to have a water taxi that whisks us across Puget Sound to downtown Seattle, a water taxi that is served by a public bus that drops us off minutes before the boat’s departure or picks us up at the end of the day. I rarely drive anymore. My daily routine involves buses, boats and my own two feet.

This boat, and these buses, are of course supported by tax dollars. Indeed, I see my commute as government at its best. The boat is nearly always full. While the cost of a ticket is not inconsequential — $5 per trip — it’s certainly affordable (and heavily subsidized by many employers who realize the benefits of encouraging their employees to leave their cars behind). And get this: The bus that picks me up at the corner of Bank and Vashon Highway is almost always on time, as is the water taxi it delivers me to. The crew on the boat is warm and friendly. And unlike the former Vashon passenger ferry that sank off the coast of Zanzibar, a boat that was overloaded and employed on a route for which it was ill-equipped, this journey feels utterly safe.

Blasting government is a sport these days. And for sure, government isn’t perfect. The other reality of my commute is the one I face as I walk each morning through City Hall Park, living quarters for a small but constant collection of homeless people who sit on the benches with their bags and blankets. Often, a woman who looks racked by drugs asks me for a penny. Once, more poignantly, I heard her say to someone eating a sandwich, “You gonna finish that?” Despite our best efforts, the epidemic of drugs and the pain of untreated mental illness are a drama that plays out on our city streets every day, a reminder of our limits as a society.

Even so, my daily commute has given rise in me to a deeper appreciation for what it is that we can achieve when we work together, which, ultimately, is the definition of government. We, not them. Collective action, not finding our own way, separate and apart. And often, it’s at the local level that we see our greatest successes: Libraries and schools, parks and sewer systems, land protection and water taxis that run on time.

What’s more, these aren’t just luxuries. These are amenities, for sure, but with benefits to society that are profound: cleaner air and water, wildlife habitat and playgrounds, public safety and roads that aren’t so clogged. We all stand to gain from effective and efficient government. And the water taxi – well-run, much-used and serving a clear and immediate need – is a great example of government that works.

So my commute is good. In fact, I wrote this entire commentary while riding on the water taxi, though it took a while to finish it, as I found myself often wanting to chat with fellow commuters or stare out the window at Puget Sound. Who knows? One of these days I might spot a killer whale or a pod of porpoises as I make my way to work.

— Leslie Brown, the former editor of The Beachcomber, works for King County’s Department of Public Defense.

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