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The ongoing fiasco of mass transit in Seattle

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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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