Ontology and epistemology — on the bus

by Radio Somewhere

First, the definitions:

Ontology is about what is true.
Epistemology is about methods of discovering the truth.

The ontology of buses is that they’re out there somewhere — but I will stick with Seattle, because that’s where I do my bus-riding. As today is the Memorial Day holiday, the buses are on a Sunday schedule, and so a greater number than usual are parked at the bases. But hundreds of buses are out on the streets. The ones that are currently in service are hopefully close to where they are supposed to be; but some are delayed, broken down, hopelessly lost, or have fallen into a worm hole. Some buses are out of service and parked while drivers have a break to use a restroom, grab coffee or snack, smoke a cigarette, make a phone call, take a walk, read the paper, look at Facebook, or whatever.

The epistemology of buses is the challenge you face each time you attempt to get from A to B on one. King County Metro’s slogan is “We’ll get you there!” — they just don’t make any promises about HOW they’ll do so.

Before I proceed, I need to elaborate on the worm hole I mentioned. Seattle is riddled with space-time features that complicate bus ontology. Buses literally disappear. Route 8 is known for this. A worm hole on Martin Luther King Way Jr S swallows the 8 very frequently. The buses do get get returned to this dimension somewhere around Seattle Center — in multiples of three. And from the Montlake Library on 24th Avenue N, you can observe the 43 go by in both directions every few minutes — which does not match the frequency with which the 43 comes by 4th and Pike downtown. A ripple in space-time has the 43 bounce up and down 24th Avenue several times before it acquires sufficient energy to break out of it and proceed to the end of its route, downtown or to the U District. Passengers actually riding the 43 are unaware of this — although passengers on the 8 have suspected something for many years and they are amongst Seattle’s most qualified experts on bus epistemology. Check out @fake8bus on Twitter for more exhibits such as the following:


In simpler times, bus epistemology was essentially the published timetable, supplemented by actions such as gazing furtively up the street for the sign of a bus coming, or asking people at the bus stop if the 56 has been by yet. Then when cell phones came along, you might also call customer service and ask what happened to the bus that you’ve been waiting on for more than forty minutes.

Finally, bus-tracking capabilities took some of the mystery out of it — as long as you had the technology to access it. I first played with Metro’s Bus Tracker in 2005 on my laptop in a coffee shop — and I was rather surprised at its accuracy. Arrival times could be shown for a selected stop, but I enjoyed the map version, which showed the latest locations of buses, identified by route number. One weekday morning, I watched the progress of buses on routes converging on Alaska Junction in West Seattle. Boy, those were the good old days, with the 22, 53, 54, 55, and 570 coming through — and Bus Tracker pretty much nailed arrivals spot on, all the more remarkable because it didn’t use modern locating technology, such as GPS and cell towers. Instead, it relied on radio signals transmitted via beacons along the route and the counting of turns of the bus wheels. If the bus departed from the regular route for any reason, then the reckoning system did get screwed up, but most of the time it did eliminate a lot of the guesswork. In 2007, I got a new cell phone with a very crude web browser, and although the Bus Tracker site was very awkward to navigate with it, I did manage to bookmark my most-used bus-stops.

Metro’s Bus Tracker provided the data for the better-known OneBusAway system that was developed by a research team at the University of Washington, and which has since spawned transit projects around the world. By the time I got my first iPhone in 2010, OneBusAway smartphone apps had been developed for iOS and Android platforms — and these are surely must-have apps for bus riders. OneBusAway information is now displayed at kiosks along Third Avenue in Downtown Seattle, and stops along RapidRide routes also show real-time arrival information. I know, other major cities have had this stuff for years, but rather than complain about how behind Seattle is, I’m just glad we finally have it.

Except — the whole thing breaks down on a holiday! For some reason, Metro Bus Tracker, which still is the source of data for OneBusAway, is somehow confused when a Sunday schedule operates on a weekday. Metro claims that data are unreliable, and so to avoid citywide confusion, the tracking system is shut down — and OneBusAway just shows the scheduled arrival times — thus rewinding all the advances that have been made in bus epistemology in the last decade!

So, for a few days a year, King County Metro reclaims much of its bus ontology for itself, and bus-riding once again becomes a matter of faith — which reminds me of a tall tale I used to tell about how God had incarnated again and was at large in Seattle as a Metro bus driver (I saw him on Fourth Avenue a few times) — and perhaps might by a starting point for an ontological argument for the existence of God.

Myself, I don’t have enough faith in Metro to go anywhere when OneBusAway is down. I’m staying home.