Zach Shaner has a very provocative and well-researched post on the advantages of Vancouver’s bus service over Seattle’s. The post is wonderfully quantitative although its central thesis is kind of squishy and subjective:
In Vancouver there’s just a real je ne sais quoi; I really feel like I can go car-free, put on my backpack, and walk anywhere I want and take transit anywhere I want without planning any of my journeys. The routes are intuitive, frequent, and they just work. In Seattle, even though I know I’m surrounded by options, they somehow seem indecipherable.
The key is that King County places more emphasis on peak-only commuter routes and geographic span of service, while Vancouver has more frequent all-day routes. Shaner comes up with a bunch of good reasons, and there are several more good ones in his comment thread. ECB at Publicola piles on some more.
I don’t have much more to add, but few rail corridors, a robust highway/HOV network, and at-grade light rail are a combination that will perpetuate this problem. Unreliable buses create reluctance to transfer and increase demand for one-seat rides; freeway routes straight into the city mean that indirect routes are not competitive, time-wise, with driving; and although it serves many other objectives, rail routes that are on-paper slower than express buses make it hard to divert bus hours to serve rail stations. That’s a shame, because as a rail advocate I’m really about having excellent service in a few key corridors rather than marginal service everywhere.