Pandemic brings renewed focus on equity at King County Metro

SEATTLE — Terry White is the new leader of King County Metro. He was named general manager in December.

“I grew up in transit, rode transit,” White said.

White’s mother, who was disabled, relied on the bus to get them to church, the zoo and museums from their South Seattle home.

“Walking around with big stacks of timetables, she made sure I got the same thing everybody else was getting culturally,” he said.

She sent him to school in the north end for a better opportunity.

“The (route) 7 was my mainstay. She told me to sit up front, make eye contact with operators, they’ll take care of you. They did.”

He helped the drivers switch the signs.

“I’d get on with my backpack, climb up on the seat and start working. I felt valued, I thought this was so cool, and they would let me keep my 20 cents. That meant a lot to a kid from the projects.”

Now, after 34 years working his way up at Metro, White has the top job.

His experience using the system keeps him focused on equity.

He considers mobility a basic right.

“Mobility is a human right: food, water, shelter, mobility. If you can’t move, you’re not going to have opportunities,” White said.

Opportunities created by transit have never been so clear.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, overall Metro ridership has plummeted 70%. But every weekday, more than 100,000 people still ride.

“The pandemic is showing us who is out there that still needs to ride,” White said.

Many are essential workers and people of color. Awat Gardi lives in Tukwila and rides every day.

“I go for shopping, groceries, appointment, doctor,” she said.

Emeri Davis does logistics work, not the kind of job you can do from home.

“No I can’t,” Davis said. “I have to actually go there.”

The trip involves three buses and a 15-minute walk to work.

Terry White says he’s motivated by the stories of riders who need Metro.

“There are a lot of folks using the system now because they have no choice,” he said.

White says Metro’s most dependent users don’t have time for public meetings and surveys.

So the agency started an equity cabinet, to hear from people representing different communities to tell Metro what they need.

They’re addressing service gaps, such as in places far from Seattle, where people move to afford housing.

There are also places where the bus runs to Seattle, but not the neighboring community.

Skyway and Tukwila are close together, but there’s no direct bus route.

“Even though Tukwila is next door, the bus route takes you around the world,” said James Sears, a pastor in Skyway. He said a direct option would help.

“What does Skyway need, what does Tukwila need? How do we connect communities better, and does it always have to be (a) traditional, big fixed bus?” White asked.

White said Metro is looking to test ideas like small shuttle buses. The goal is to be more flexible and responsive than Metro has been in the past when it shuffled routes.

“We were more, ‘we understand it, our system tells us, the data says. We’re going to move your coach, it’s going to do this now, you’re going to love it, just go enjoy it.’”

When the pandemic ends, it’s not clear how much demand there will be for buses, nor how King County Metro will both serve the people riding now and those returning to transit after working from home.

Last spring, county officials talked about a big ballot measure to pay for a long-term vision called Metro Connects.

COVID-19 put that on hold, probably for at least another year.

“We still need to fund the Metro Connects vision,” White said,

That vision calls for frequent and reliable service all day, which is critical for moving people who don’t work 9-to-5.

Terry White’s first job at Metro, three decades ago, was in a call center helping people figure out if the bus would get them to a new job.

Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t; but always, the stakes were high.

“I know in their voice it’s life-changing,” White said.