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Originally published July 24, 2013 at 4:32 PM | Page modified July 26, 2013 at 11:52 AM

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A reluctant transition from the bus to the driver’s seat

Living in Seattle without a car is hard. Editorial writer Thanh Tan tried it for seven months and offers advice on how it could be easier.

Times editorial columnist

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Seattle is a hard place to live with a car — and without one.

Traffic here is among the worst in the nation. Getting people off roads and using public transit is an obvious solution, except King County Metro faces a $75 million shortfall and 17 percent cut in services by next summer.

Average weekday transit ridership reached a record 408,418 boardings in May, yet one-third of King County Metro routes are on the chopping block and dozens of the busiest routes might be reduced.

When I sold my car in Texas last summer before moving to Seattle, I envisioned joining a community where it would be easy to end my gas-guzzling ways.

King County Metro became my main form of commuting between home, work and play. I learned quickly about the hidden costs of a car-free life when your family lives an hour away.

Like a growing segment of urban Seattleites, I turned to Zipcar, Car2Go, Uber, taxis, Amtrak and weekend rentals from Dollar and Enterprise. The cost and amount of time required for me to get where I needed added up to hundreds of dollars every month. Good for the local economy. Great for the environment. Bad for my pocketbook and schedule.

Smartphone-tracking apps like OneBusAway helped with planning, but they couldn’t make up for the loss of autonomy I felt when the system was unpredictable. The route between Capitol Hill and South Lake Union would get so full that new passengers could not board.

I remember waiting in the dark alongside a man trying to make the night shift. He was desperate to get to work on time. I needed to get to the Central Link light rail to the airport. The bus arrived several minutes later than expected. Two people in different situations, bonded by the same frustration.

Between 2011 and 2012, the percentage of Metro buses arriving on-time fluctuated between 73 and 79 percent. Remaining routes either arrived early or at least five minutes late. So far this year, buses appear closer to meeting Metro’s 80 percent target.

That’s progress, but I have a hard time dealing with 20 percent uncertainty. Metro’s reliability will only be further compromised if routes are cut.

The state Legislature didn’t help matters by waiting until the very end of the second special session before taking up a critical transportation-funding package. It adjourned without giving city and county governments local taxing authority, meaning King County voters don't get the chance to decide whether they want to pitch in some extra funds to fix decrepit roads and preserve Metro routes.

The only way out of this conundrum is for legislators to meet in the interim — if they do their negotiating beforehand, they could vote in one day — and give King County permission to make its case to voters in a special election in early 2014. Preserving and expanding Metro is something we all should invest in.

A family emergency last March prompted me to relent and lease a car so I could get home faster. Yes, mobility is freedom. Driving entraps me in other ways, though. Chronic congestion. Fluctuating gas prices. I've already been rear-ended. Three parking tickets and one toll bill later, I'm feeling considerable regret and ready to sign up for that bike-commuting class I’ve been putting off.

Cyclists don’t have to worry about this city’s scarce parking or exorbitant fees in commercial lots. (Their battles? More bike paths and not getting hit by inattentive drivers.)

Since 2010, U.S. Census figures indicate Seattle’s strong job market has helped attract at least 25,000 new residents. A growing segment of the population values transit and pedestrian sidewalks over shiny new wheels. Scarborough Research reports that driving as a primary mode of transportation among Seattle-area adults 35 and under declined by about 10 percent in just five years, between 2008 and 2013.

Public policies should reflect changing demographics. The local city and county races on the Aug. 6 primary ballot are a key opportunity for voters to evaluate leaders on their commitment to improving transit, cycling and walking.

I’m looking to give up my car. But my experience shows that many of us won’t do so until the alternatives get better.

Thanh Tan's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed reporting to this column. Her email address is ttan@seattletimes.com On Twitter @uscthanhtan

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