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The ongoing fiasco of mass transit in Seattle


When I was in Seattle this summer, I saw a number of the fancy new stations showing on 15th NW in anticipation of the launch of Rapidride D, ostensibly a new Bus Rapid Transit service that will replace the old, slow 15 local for service to Ballard from downtown Seattle. It seemed like a good line to try such a venture; Ballard is seeing major increases in density, and is awfully slow to get out of for a major urban neighborhood, and it’ll be a long, long time if ever before the new light rail system comes anywhere near it.
Unfortunately, it’s looking more and more like a poster child for everything wrong with Bus Rapid Transit. This captures nicely the problem with BRT; it’s not so much that BRT can’t significantly replicate rail service in theory (or in South America), it’s that, it’s much easier to cut corners and chip away at the quality of service. What’s wrong with the Rapidride D, set to launch next month?

*Terminates too soon. The current 15 can get you to the southern part of downtown and the stadiums. With RR, you’ll have to transfer or walk the last 1-2 miles.

*No off board payment downtown. This is huge, and is compounded by the end of the ride free zone, which means at the downtown stops, the buses will have to wait forever while everyone gets on board and pays on board. (The needed card readers will allegedly be in place by mid-2013.)

*The Orca cards, which make payment much faster than fumbling around for $2.25, are still not free and not convenient to acquire. If you’re going to make people pay on board, at least incentivize abandoning cash payment so that as few people as possible waste everyone’s time fumbling around for another quarter.

*Even at the stops with off-board card readers, there is no ‘pay cash, get a ticket’ option, so cash customers will slow people up in both directions, all the time.

*15 minute non-peak headway: very borderline for BRT. Should be no more than 10. The decision to not publish a schedule is idiotic, especially given the percentage of riders who’ll need to make a transfer to a bus with infrequent service. Going without a schedule is a viable option for less than 10 minute headways. It also signals a lack of confidence in their own rhetoric about improved reliability. Metro promotes this as “service so frequent you don’t even need a schedule”, which is curious, since they provide schedules for many routes with headways of 15 minutes or less.

* Signal priority may not be happening at the stops that need it the most.
In fairness, the elimination of the free ride zone is a big part of the problem here, and not just for rapidride–for the afternoon/evening commute, getting buses out of downtown–both the tunnel and the surface streets–needs to be as fast as possible to prevent massive gridlock, and the “pay as you leave, only once we leave the downtown area” system expedites that. Everyone should be terrified of what’s coming for the afternoon commute out of downtown. The decision to scrap the RFA was political concession to Republicans on the King County Council who would otherwise have allowed massive service cuts by withholding needed funding. It’s looking like a classic penny-wise pound foolish move; the 2.2 million a year in fares may well be dwarfed by efficiency losses or other riders abandoning their buses because decreased efficiency. The BRT planners had no reason, 5-6 years ago, to expect the end of the RFA at the same time BRT would go online. The launch of this fancy new line may well coincide with travel times *slower* than the old 15 on the afternoon northbound routes. Riders may not appreciate the buses would be even slower had they not upgraded to rapidride. The A line, which went online two years ago, turned a 45 minute route into a 40 minute one. I’m not confident we should expect anything that impressive from the D line.

Metro King County GM Kevin Desmond gamely attempts some spin, avoiding claims with any specificity quite deftly.

Fans of sensible transit policy seeking a palate cleanser may enjoy Jarrett Walker’s appreciation of Portland’s transition to a simple, functional, user friendly bus grid, which is turning 30.

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  • Amanda in the South Bay

    I’ve never gotten the anti-rail bias it seems that is behind BRT advocates. Maybe its something in the liberal psyche that is anti-the fruits of the industrial revolution? Anyways, I remember when that man of the people and know it all about public transit Matt Yglesias opined several years ago that the great thing about BRT is that, compared to light rail, its quick and easy to implement for transit agencies. Meanwhile, since then, my local transit agency has added only one BRT route (the soon to be added 523 here in Santa Clara County this fall). I just think its not all its hyped up to be.

    • NBarnes

      I don’t know that whatever anti-rail bias exists would matter if it weren’t for a bunch of tribalist Republicans who are opposed to any sort of mass transit because SOSHIALIZM!1!! If there were reasonable agreement on the US’ traffic and car problems and reasonable dialogs about how to deploy mass transit to address those problems, we’d have less problems with anti-rail bias as well as more reasonable, better spoken anti-rail activists. As it stands, pro-mass transit advocates don’t have time or money to spend having internal debates.

      • spud

        You would think acolytes of Atlas Shrugged would like trains. According to Ayn Rand they are the way of the future!

  • shah8

    It *is* quick and easy to implement. You need that tangent to subvert most of the convenient and overt rationales that support covert anti-public transportation racism.

    I can only dream of an alternate future where MARTA expanded into Cobb, Gwinnett, and deeper into what was Milton Ct (before becoming the northern part of Fulton Ct) in the 80s. Cobb Ct would have so many more businesses. It would be easy to get anywhere on the Northern Rim of Atlanta. Ga 400 wouldn’t be a nightmare at inappropriate times (or maybe it will, still, but less). Life would certainly be more different and suburbian town centers would be so much more developed instead of the bucolic waste of time they are today…

    • Tell that to all those white supremacist suburbs who voted down funding for MARTA expansion to keep their suburbs lily-white.

      • Josh G.

        I live in north Georgia, so I can testify to just how insane traffic is on 400. And there are a lot of people who live in the suburbs and commute downtown. MARTA would save these people a lot in transportation costs and usable time. There really isn’t any reason besides racism why MARTA hasn’t been expanded north of exit 5. Just ask any older white person in this area what MARTA stands for, and their motivation will come through loud and clear…

  • jeer9

    Visited Portland for the first time this summer (then traveled down the coast from Astoria to Crescent City)and it was very easy to get around in compared to Seattle. What an incredible foodie town, too. Didn’t have a single bad meal (mostly places in the NW near 23rd). And that Japanese garden is a hidden treasure. I thought the Huntington Library’s was special.

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      Bleh, NW 23rd and NW 20th are all full of hipster yuppies. Shit, my sorta hometown is getting all gentrified (though to be fair those areas were that way in the 90s).

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      At least you got out in those parts of Oregon that Bay Area and SoCal transplants dare not go to.

  • Patrick Pine

    As a former longtime resident of Hillsboro OR where my spouse first commuted to downtown Portland using ‘express bus’ service until light rail was extended near us and I used light rail and either walked to work in NW Portland if good weather or transferred to a bus in bad weather – the Portland system has been improved – later lived in Seattle area and commuting and transit in King County was much less convenient – relatively speaking – than in the Portland metro area.

  • Henry Holland

    To say that getting around Los Angeles by any means is a nightmare is to state the obvious. One example though:

    I live a 5 minute walk from a Red Line (light rail) station > take downtown and transfer to the Blue Line > then transfer to the Green Line > which….stops about 1/2 mile outside of LAX where you have to catch a bus because the cabbies union will fight to the death before they let the Green Line end at LAX. It has taken me up to 3 hours to take that trip vs. 20 minutes driving (if the 110 is OK).

    There’s better non-car options (the FlyAway bus at Union Station), but that’s just one example of how badly thought out public transportation has been here since at least the 1950’s.

    Another example: My job is 4 miles from where I live. I can a) drive surface streets and take 15 minutes to get there or b) take two buses, one of which will take 45 minutes to an hour to arrive i.e. I’d have to get up 1:30 earlier than do to guarantee I get to work on time.

    • Do you live in the basin but your job’s in the Valley?

      Just curious. I’ve been in L.A. since 1973 & have never owned a car.

    • LeeEsq

      Public transport has been poorly thought out nearly every where in the United States since the 1950s even in the places with good public transport. Even now, too many Americans swear by their cars as a matter of religion and prevent decent transit from being built without epic struggles.

      • Metro Transit in the Twin Cities is very good. And I’m not just saying that because I work for them :) I’m a regular user of the service, too.

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  • JoshA

    Just as a point of reference: I live in LA, but travel a fair amount for business. In the last 2 months, I’ve been to a number of places, including Philly, Denver, Seattle, San Diego, and Austin.

    Seattle’s public transit worked best for me, by far, from either those 5 or my home base in CA. Not saying it can’t get better, but comparing it to other cities it doesn’t come across badly.

    • djw

      I don’t mean to pick on Seattle excessively; the bus system is good, and the regional system (Sound Transit, a new regional agency that also runs the light rail) does a very good job. Many routes in Seattle are excruciatingly slow, but there’s nothing to be done about it: traffic is terrible, and there’s no practical way to get buses out of traffic. (the 44 from Ballard to the University District is a case in point here). The post about the Portland grid hit home because for a good chunk of my time in Seattle, I often found myself trying to make E-W trips in North Seattle, and unless you’re on the 44 line, options tend to be very limited or entirely nonexistent, even though there’s good fairly frequent N-S routes every 8 blocks or so.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t blame anti-rail on liberals. Not saying there aren’t a few Luddite liberals, but Republicans/libertarians are the ones who don’t like mass transit–some would like to abolish it completely.

    • Norah

      Sorry about the anonymous comment.

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