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“Competitiveness” is commonly used when we want to describe how transit matches up with other modes, particularly the automobile.  The value of transit competitiveness can be quantified in different ways, but travel time is most often used as the proxy, at least in the simplest terms of discussing how transit competes.  If a rider expends 10 minutes traveling between Point A and Point B aboard transit versus 12 minutes driving, we like to say that transit is competitive in that instance.

Of course, using travel time alone is probably a poor way of describing the breadth of how transit competes.  Cost, comfort, reliability, etc. are all variables that should be taken into account.  As such, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) does have what’s called a Transit Competitiveness Index— a composite index that takes into account a multitude of factors in quantifying how transit competes with automobiles for any given origin or destination in the region.

At any rate, the problem with using competitiveness as a measuring stick of success is that it’s constructed on the basis of a singular rider experience, instead of an entire population, which is what transit is designed for.  If we try to minimize the travel time for that rider between A and B, it’s probably at the expense of the riders who live in between those two points.  Similarly, if we try to maximize comfort for each individual passenger aboard a transit vehicle by providing cushy armchairs, it means less people can get on that vehicle.

I think that where applicable, transit competitiveness can be appropriately used as a marketing tool, but it shouldn’t be the be-all end-all of how we plan our network.  Ultimately, people care less about lining up their mode choices side by side and judiciously selecting the most optimal one, and more about whether or not transit can meet their needs.  As long as that criteria is fulfilled, then our primary concern should be maximizing it for as many people as possible.

72 Replies to “Does “Competitiveness” Really Matter?”

  1. I think that given how slow some routes are on our bus network, it absolutely is the biggest factor. It may not mean as much for commuters taking an express to and from downtown, but when it takes an hour to get from Ballard to Northgate mall on the 75, it absolutely matters.

  2. “Ultimately, people care less about lining up their mode choices side by side and judiciously selecting the most optimal one, and more about whether or not transit can meet their needs”

    …wouldn’t one decide if it met their needs by lining up their mode choices side by side and judiciously selecting the most optimal one? How else would you define “meet your needs”?

    1. Um, what FC said. I know people aren’t entirely rational, but when it comes to “does this meet my needs” it usually is done by comparing the options the person can think of.

      So I guess advertising the existence of an option is important too, but apart from that I can’t tell what the difference betwene “competitive with the alternatives” and “meets people’s needs” is!

  3. “Competitiveness” isn’t just important in getting people to choose transit. It’s also important in incentivizing people to choose the transit option that leaves the most resources so that other people can be provided transit.

    If we can make the fixed routes safe and competitive with, say, taking a paratransit ride, then it is very much in the interest of taxpayers and fellow riders to encourage riders who are qualified to and capable of taking either to take the sunk-cost option of the fixed route, provided, of course, that that trip in a wheelchair or other device (if that happens to be the case) doesn’t cost $38 to the system in slowdowns, etc. I don’t know how much more a low-floor bus costs over a lift-equipped bus, or the difference in liability-insurance costs for a lift-equipped bus, or whether passive restraint has a high opportunity cost (I suspect it doesn’t, at least until the cost of retrofit is incurred), but before simply saying this or that passenger can take paratransit when analyzing bus re-routes, consider that if that passenger is a 5-day-a-week rider, the cost to taxpayers to provide those rides is roughly $20,000 per year.

    There are numerous one-seat rides that compete with Link or Sounder, and could be better-designed to not compete (i.e. feed into the train line), but still be competitive with taking a car. Yeah, I know there will always be riders who will huff and puff that they’ll just start driving if they lose their one-seat-ride. I say call them on their bluff. Who wants to ride the bus with such rude passengers anyway?

    ST and Metro are looking at how to better feed buses into Kent Station next year. It’s long overdue, but it’s a good start toward making use of our high-capacity investments.

    On a side note, I don’t consider a route that just runs between two stations on the same train line as being duplicative, since riders will generally not choose to take that bus if they are trying to get between the two stations (unless the train is not operating). It becomes duplicative once the bus line goes into neighborhood service beyond the station-to-station stretch.

    But even then, taking the avoidance of duplication to an extreme leaves bad results where, for example, the 120 can come without shouting distance of the airport, and force riders to choose between a couple clunky half-hourly and poorly-interlined options to get the rest of the way, or to take the F-Line to TIBS as part of a 3- or 4-seat ride. 3- or 4-seat rides, BTW, are *not* competitive when someone has the option of driving, unless they are doing it everyday and have timed the routes to fit their needs (which is where schedules would come in handy in selling the transit option).

    Metro may consider making the 120 run between downtown and the airport as creating competition with Link, but given the difference in travel time and comfort, I would beg to differ. I think such a routing improvement would merely attract more riders from the ranks of West Seattle car drivers.

    The same logic may be keeping the 132 from reaching that tantalyzing last mile to TIBS. But really, who in their right mind would ride the 132 all the way from downtown to TIBS if that were an option? There is one facility of note (and zero apartment complexes) that would lose bus service with such a re-route. It’s a rehab clinic.

    And then there’s my hair-pulling exercise regarding the failure of Metro to fully embrace the power of ORCA. Let’s see. Pay with cash, or pay the same fare with a $5 card I have to go find. Get an electronic transfer or get a paper transfer of roughly the same length. Have something that cost me nothing to hand to the first panhandler I see, or get one of those angry looks. Do I go get an ORCA card? Nah.

    1. First, I don’t think the majority of Access passengers necessarily use the wheelchair lift. Having to use a wheelchair in and of itself will NOT qualify a user for ADA paratransit. I would venture the majority (80%) are using Access due to a cognitive or physical impairment that makes using the fixed-route system dangerous.

      Second, what’s with this “reroute the 132 to Tukwila Link” garbage? Do you even ride the 132, let alone live on the route? They tried a variant on your idea called the 129 and it failed miserably. That “rehab center” (actually a mental health center) produces a fair amount of ridership, and is also geographically isolated. The changes for September rationalize the 132’s service pattern in a fair and equitable manner. If somebody on the 132 wants to go to Tukwila Link, they can transfer in Boulevard Park or at Burien TC.

      1. Thanks for the response, Brian.

        I know there is a lot of diversity in Access ridership. Some (not all) of those with mental challenges are capable of riding the fixed routes, if properly accompanied. Some have physical disabilities, and have issues getting to fixed routes.

        More than a few times, I’ve seen people on this blog blithely say that if someone with mobility issues loses bus service, then that’s okay, because they can just use paratransit. There is a lot of misunderstanding about paratransit here.

        The idea of rerouting the 132 has a lot of interest in South Park, where I live. Yes, I am a prisoner of the 132. A 132 extended to TIBS bears no resemblance to the 129 loop. The 129 served neighborhoods generally already served better by the 128.

        I’m not opposed to serving the mental health center. I just don’t think it makes sense to then have the 132 veer away from TIBS to go to out-of-the-way Burien. South Parkers have multiple good options for getting to Burien. Getting to the airport pretty much means backtracking downtown.

        We’ll see if the 128 and 132 get timed well for transferring between the two routes, but the history of scheduling at Burien TC suggests we’ll be very lucky if that happens. I’m getting really tired of 3- and 4-seat rides to get anywhere in South King County other than Burien.

      2. As for the mental health center, if I worked there or lived in one of the two or three dozen houses along the 132’s unique south Riverton path, I’d much rather have access to both Burien and TIBS than to a slow bus through South Park.

    2. “who in their right mind would ride the 132 all the way from downtown to TIBS if that were an option?”

      Nobody, they’re on the 124. The 124 goes between downtown and TIB in an almost-straight line. I doubt “competing with Link” would be a reason not to extend the 120 to SeaTac. Link is well-established now as the downtown-airport route, and it’s the only one visitors know about. The 120’s problem is that there has never been a route between downtown, White Center, and the airport so inertia is against it.

      I do think it makes sense to focus on the 120 as the next major route in West Seattle and extend it to the airport, even if there’s no money to officially make it RapidRide. That can come later, and many people would rather just have the frequency than the red buses and new stations.

      1. There actually has been a downtown, White Center, to airport route. It was called ST 570. It was an absolute dog, and was truncated years ago.

      2. That route was the fore-runner of the 560. That dawg isn’t dead yet.

        Or maybe it’s just a parrot… a dead parrot, nailed there on a stick, appearing to be alive because of ridership numbers on the eastern end of the route.

        Infrequent flyers from western West Seattle just don’t produce the same ridership numbers that workers from Delridge would.

        And, of course, the 560 suffers circuitous routing getting to the airport, in order to serve Vashon riders — when Vashon isn’t even in the taxing district. The 560 routing decision is out-and-out robbery, long carried on by politicians who serve areas outside the taxing district, but serving on the ST Board.

    3. I think you’re more likely to see eventual frequent service on the 180 than an extension of the 120 to the airport. The 120 is long enough as is; extending it would have an impact on reliability.

      1. I don’t expect the 180 to be a long-term trunk route. Once Highline Station opens, most Kent residents heading to the airport will take a trunkline bus to that station.

        I also don’t see the ridership to justify increasing frequency on the 180 to match the 120’s frequency. 15-minute service to get to Burien Forced Transfer Center, and then waiting up to 30 minutes to watch the 180 pull up, with the 560 a couple minutes right behind it, is a major miss.

      2. The 180 is certainly being set up for trunk status. Ridership on the southern half of it is extremely high, and 15-minute service would be warranted down there today. Ridership on the north half is moderate and growing. The route is a top 25% route and is arguably (depending on how you look at the data) the second-best-performing south end local route after the 169. It’s about on par with the 128 and 140, one of which is getting converted to RapidRide and the other of which has already been slated for 15-minute service when funding becomes available.

        Moving the 132 terminal from Burien to TIBS might be convenient for airport service, but it would be inconvenient for just about everything else. Burien has far more services and amenities than TIBS.

      3. I always hear riders describe ridership on their own route as “high”. I’ve been on the 180 more than a few times, and never been on one for which I could honestly describe the ridership as “high”. I’ve never seen it come close to having someone stand.

        When I’ve ridden west/north/west from Kent, most of the rather paltry ridership got off at the airport. Maybe the airport is still undervalued as a major employment center and a hub.

        I’m not against increasing its frequency to try to develop the market, but the continuation to Burien is a mostly-empty tail, just like the 560 that rolls in two minutes behind it.

        When I ride to TIBS, I don’t go there for the amenities in Tukwila (which do include a supermarket, a library, and two of the worst Indian restaurants I’ve ever tried). I go there because it has connectivity to the rest of South King County, which Burien really does not.

        Burien suffers from the edge problem. It has a very limited connectivity shed, which is why the only reason I ever go there is for the local amenities or, more often, the annoyingly long forced transfer.

        Do you ride the 132, Brian?

      4. The largest ridership on the 180 is in the portion between Kent and Auburn, which is a replacement for the southern part of the old 150. I’m not a regular rider, but that portion of the route carries enough riders that I’m sure with 40′ buses running every 30 minutes it’s standing-room-only on a regular basis. But there is also plenty of ridership on the north half. I don’t know when you rode… was it during the late morning? All airport routes have very low ridership during that time of day, because there are fewer flights and airport employees don’t change shifts. Ride at 5 a.m. or 3 p.m. and you’d see a few more bodies.

        The tag to Burien is an effort to address exactly the lack of connectivity you’re talking about. It’s cheap to provide, especially because laying over at the airport is a big challenge.

      5. Let me get back to the reliability argument first. The 120 is 48 minutes end-to-end most of the day, and would barely go over an hour adding the last stretch to the airport and Airport Station. Layover space is a solvable problem. We do have buses laying over next to the south terminal stop.

        The 180 is 1:21 most of the day. So, the reliability argument doesn’t hold water. And I’m used to the 180 being several minutes late, especially at Airport Station. But at least the 560 comes dependably bunched behind it ;

        I understand Metro wants to increase connectivity between Kent and Burien. They’ve done that not only with the 180, but with a 1-seat ride on the extended 161, which is more likely to become the long-term trunk route for Kent east-west riders once Highline Station opens.

        I get it that there is high ridership on the 180 south of Kent for the 30-minute headway capacity, and like that Kent has a direct line to the airport and Airport Station. That still doesn’t explain why the pent-up demand for a better direct line from West Seattle to the airport (on the much more frequent 120, for example) should have to suffer a really awful transfer in Burien that makes taking transit to airport jobs noncompetitive.

        There is also the comfort factor. Which is a bigger nuisance: transferring a load of luggage between buses, or transferring at the airport on a non-flight-related trip?

      6. The 180 and 120 are both roughly the same length. The 120 has congestion bottlenecks downtown and in SODO which don’t have any equivalent on the 180. However, the issue is, which trips are we trying to facilitate? There’s pent-up demand for more service between West Seattle – SeaTac. There’s similar demand between Auburn – Kent, Kent – SeaTac, and Auburn – SeaTac. But I doubt there’s much demand for Auburn/Kent and Burien. So extending the 120 would match demand better than making Burien-SeaTac part of the 180 more frequent.

        Looking at South King as a whole, it would probably benefit from an X pattern superimposed on a traditional grid. The 180 forms the northwest-southeast part of the X. Metro’s September changes will beef up the southwest-northeast part, I think. That may be the direction Metro is headed.

        Kent is more complex, so I’m not entirely sure what would best work there. A traditional grid would argue for an east-west route on SeaTac-Covington, and a north-south route on Rainier Beach-Auburn. That contradicts the 180, which goes north, then northwest. I don’t know whether the 180 best matches people’s trip patterns, but I don’t know that it doesn’t either. All I know is that the 180, 169, and 168 make a complicated non-grid.

      7. Just to clarify on the airport layover issue…

        The zone you are talking about immediately outside the airport belongs to Pierce Transit and is used to lay over the 574. It doesn’t have a lot more capacity for Metro to add a frequent route like the 120.

        Back in the day when both the 560 and the 570 terminated at the airport, ST rented space from the Port in the lot where charter buses wait. That was a bit of a pain… it was about a 4-5 minute drive on each end of the route to get to and from that lot. By the time you add that much time, you’re more than halfway to Burien, where you can lay over in the transit center or on the very next block.

        Since the 120 has considerably more trips than the 560 and 570 did combined, and since it’s using 60′ buses, I don’t even know if the Port’s lot would be an option.

        On the “X” shape and how to handle East Hill… I think the 169 is already doing that. It’s the single most successful South End route that doesn’t go downtown. It needed to go RapidRide before the 140… it has *much* higher ridership.

      8. As a frequent (former) 12 rider, I can promise that I never thought the ridership was high, except during Hempfest.

      9. I think the 169 ought to get upgraded before the interim version of the 180 does. That upgrade ought to include extending to Rainier Beach Station and increasing frequency. The forced transfer in Renton seems gratuitous.

      10. I wasn’t aware of the layover arrangement outside the airport. I do see buses laying over almost in front of the terminal, a couple bus lengths upstream from the stop. I believe there is a sign there marking the waiting area.

        As the terminal expands toward the station, it may make sense to move the terminal stops to be along the north terminal extension, which makes it easier to have more buses laying over upstream.

      11. “On the “X” shape and how to handle East Hill… I think the 169 is already doing that.”

        The X I was thinking of is Renton to Des Moines and maybe Federal Way. That would complement the 180. Extending the 169 to Highline CC would do this. As for the other “X” improvement I mentioned, I was referring to the 156 (Southcenter – SeaTac – Des Moines – Highine CC in September).

  4. Competitiveness matters if you are trying to increase mode share, yes. However, in many instances transit is competing against walking, rather than driving. Many riders don’t have a choice and at low frequencies of 30 minutes or worse, an able adult can walk 1 – 2 miles before the next bus arrives if they miss one. Almost every day I miss my bus home by 5 minutes (this is the 3rd bus in my trip). Some days I shop or grab dinner while waiting, but mostly I walk 1.2 miles in about 17 minutes rather than wait 25 for the next bus. It’s good exercise. Does it matter that I’m walking instead of being counted as an additional (unlinked) trip on transit? How much effort should the agency spend to capture those local trips versus regional trips that really are competing with cars?

    In general, I think the factors important to understanding (time) competitiveness are:
    1) Coverage/access – how long do I travel to get to transit (at walking/biking/mobility device speed)
    1) Travel time (in vehicle) – is the route direct (from origins to destinations, not just straight lines on maps)
    2) Frequency and reliability (frequency can be imagined as if you were driving a car and when you turned from one arterial to the next you had to stop and wait X minutes before continuing… also it’s the flexibility to leave when you want or be tied to a schedule that may not match other activities on your agenda)
    3) Connections – wait time is perceived as longer than it really is (transfer quality is influenced by planning and engineering – stop locations, scheduling – what direction of transfer has preference when 2 routes cross, frequency – makes up for narrowly missed connections and, reliability – ensures that the schedule works as intended)

    I would also agree other factors play a role beyond simple time comparisons.

  5. Which is why the feds are thankfully moving to use basic ridership numbers to grade transit projects, instead of the Bush-era measure of how much they reduce travel time. The end goal is to attract riders, so this lets the local transit agencies determine how best to make that happen.

    1. I thought the Bush-era measure wasn’t even travel-time, it was “reducing congestion”. Any transit that doesn’t make it easier to drive need not apply.

      1. No, the Bush-era measure was “shorter commute time”. Specifically, dollars spent divided by minutes of time saved.

        This caused crazy biases towards outer suburban lines, because due to stop spacing it is really hard to make an inner-urban commute much faster. Even if the inner urban commute was suffering from gross overcrowding, the Bush administration would refuse to fund rail service on the route, instead preferring to fund outer suburban expresses. There was simply zero funding for improvements in *capacity*.

        Kind of a “screw the cities” attitude there.

  6. I strongly disagree. Competitiveness should be one of the primary metrics for transit. This in what drives increases in mode share—and moving more people out of their cars should be the primary goal of transit. If this means increasing stop spacing to make the routes go faster, then great, even if that means people at intermediate stops need to walk further.

    Also, total time needs to be the factor, which includes average wait time. So routes with 30 minute headways would have an instant 15 minute penalty. Routes with 10 minute headways only have a 5 min penally etc…. Too often, I think people ignore this when evaluating competitiveness with other modes.

  7. I think a lot of factors go into the decision to take transit vs. a car, and travel time is just one of them. Roughly in order, I think this is a bunch of the factors in my calculus:

    – Will I be able to get home afterwards? (lots of ST routes stop at 8ish)
    – Are we in a Snopocalypse? (I have a Subaru, Metro doesn’t)
    – How much stuff am I carrying? (I will probably never ride transit to play hockey in Seattle, though I did see a guy with sticks & a hockey bag on a NYC subway, once)
    – Do I need to be there ASAP?
    – Do I plan on drinking? (We’ve made the 522->Woodinville wineries trip multiple times)
    – Is this a trip I make every day? Will taking transit regularly save me significant gas/mileage? (I think I’ve saved $10-20,000 by not commuting by car since arriving in Seattle)
    – Am I going to be able to park easily/cheaply when I get there?
    – Am I going to be able to get out easily, without leaving halfway through the 8th inning?
    – Will I need a car, today, before I get home?
    – Do I plan on doing something before I get home where a car will be a burden? (like going downtown, or drinking with coworkers after work)
    – Do I need the ‘locker on wheels’ functionality that a car provides?
    – Are the trip times convenient, or will I be twiddling my thumbs for 20 minutes once I arrive?
    – Will I have to transfer at (stabtastic) 3rd and Pike?

    This list doesn’t include whether or not to bring my bike, or whether to just bike the whole way. A deal-breaker for a lot of people at work that I’ve spoken to at work is their kids: if their kid gets sick, hurt, or in trouble at school/daycare they can’t be stuck ~40 minutes of mid-day transit away, when they could be there in < 15 minutes by car.

    1. We think alike.

      I also consider the likelihood that my trip will “fail” and what would be the consequences of failure. Car trips have extremely low fail rates compared with transit trips. I estimate that 3-5% of my transit rips “fail” due to some external factor, such as:

      – Overcrowding (both for delays and skipping stops)
      – Breakdowns (4 of my buses have died just this year)
      – Police/fire activity (avoidable in a car, not really in a bus)
      – Power outages (fatal to trolleys, not to cars)
      – Severe traffic along the route (again, more easily avoidable in a car)
      – Fights/arguments among passengers requiring police intervention (yes, maybe in some cars, but sadly more common on transit)
      – Operators making irreversible wrong turns (I had a 13 turn onto the 2 line on Queen Anne – bad news if you wanted to get to SPU)
      – Operators stoping mid-route (food, Starbucks, restroom breaks)
      – Delays to the bus in front of your bus due to any of the above
      – Missed tranfers caused by any of the above

      When failure is not an option (wedding, job interview, flight, etc.), I feel more comfortable in a car.

      1. What Stephen said.

        Taxis — and in particular, Uber — are virtually guaranteed to be the fastest way between any two points. No time wasted parking (or walking from a distant parking spot); no need to take a slow route for safety concerns; if you use Uber, not even a need to pay the driver (since everything happens automatically).

        Plus, for stressful occasions, I rest easier knowing that I’m in the hands of a skilled driver. One time recently, our cat accidentally ate an Advil (super toxic to cats). We requested an Uber, it arrived within 5 minutes, and we were at the hospital within 20 minutes. If my girlfriend or I had had to drive, distraught as we were, it would have been a disaster.

        So, yeah, I wouldn’t take transit to an interview either. (I do regularly take Link to the airport, but I leave myself enough time to switch to alternate transportation if necessary). But even by your criteria, transit is still perfectly acceptable for most trips.

    2. And after a few decades of such seemingly rational decisions, the air burns the lungs, and the water displays a lovely iridescent sheen of oil. Heart attack rates are high, but we can quibble over genetic predisposition and the stresses of driving versus breathing that which shall not be named as causes. Anyone up for some fishing in the Duwamish? No?

  8. I can’t help but feel this post was partially inspired by a certain Facebook post/discussion last week. ;) All good points, Sherwin. Thanks for the PSRC link!

  9. The problem is not competitiveness in itself. Competitive just means that the route is successful and has lots of riders, which is what we want. Of course the route may be inefficient (a peak express paralleling Link or Sounder), but efficiency is a separate issue from competitiveness. It would be efficient to replace the route with a feeder. The competitive part is making the feeder come every 10-15 minutes, so that the quality of the trip is equal to or better than the previous service. (Or at least no more than 10 minutes worse.)

    There may be problems with measuring competitiveness from the individual-trip perspective rather than the overall benefits of a robust transit network. But this needs to be fleshed out. What are the aggregate benefits for a population that are being ignored?

  10. Does “Competitiveness” Really Matter?


    The average rational-acting Seattleite has very little basis on which to choose transit at this point. Transit operators and bloggers alike need to get that through their heads if things are ever going to improve.

    And yes, I do think myself irrational for living car-free here.

  11. If point-to-point time competitiveness is all that matters, why are our most successful routes interminably slow milk runs? The 7 and 48 aren’t anywhere close to “competitive” with driving, yet they’re two of our most successful routes!

    I want to write a long, rambling post in defense of milk runs here, but I’m on lunch and don’t have the time.

    1. You are mistakenly defining “have many transit-dependent people along their routes who currently lack any non-terrible options” as “successful”.

      1. The 7 is more successful than the 7x, which might meet your definition of non-terrible. They both serve the exact same corridor, the same transit dependent population. We keep cutting underutilized trips on the 7x, and the 7 has overcrowding.

        Is the 7x a bad route, too, and Metro’s just doing it wrong, or is there just more demand for slow local service?

      2. The trouble with the 7X is that the 7 corridor is about the least commuterish corridor Metro has. Peak demand to downtown is not as high as all-day demand going every which way. Furthermore, the 7X is set up to serve areas that already have other service, and skips the most stops in the part of the corridor where the 7 local is the most useful.

        If you canceled the 7X, put the 7 local on a serious stop diet, and built bus lanes on Rainier from Dearborn to Jackson (I know, good luck), the 7 corridor would be served far more effectively.

      3. Are you looking just looking at those farebox-recovery charts in your attempt to define “successful”?

        The “X”s pretty much all perform less well than their non-“X” counterparts, no matter how packed they are, thanks to all the deadheading waste.

        Metro offers no “successful” services by any non-straining definition. Express services may be competitive with driving, but only on an extremely limited schedule, in one direction, and to downtown.

        There are no all-day services make life as simple or easy as driving does, which is the true definition of “successful” transit.

      4. Then you’re defining it wrong.

        Vehicles full of people rueing the experience is not success.

      5. Why isn’t the 7X successful? Maybe because:

        – It runs only during peak hours, and then only in the “normal” direction.

        – Even when the 7X is running, the 7 runs 2-3 times as often. If a bus comes, and it’s going to your destination, you’re going to take it.

        – Conversely, if your destination is one of the stops that the 7X skips, you will wait for the 7.

        – As other commenters have mentioned, the 7X is an express, not a rapid. Express service is characterized by a long nonstop segment, with local spacing on either end. In contrast, rapid service has consistent, even spacing, but where the spacing is wider than local service. South of Graham, the 7X makes all the same stops as the 7 — hardly what you’d expect from rapid service.

        So yes, the 7X is a bad route — worse than the 7.

      6. I’m willing to give you that the long local tail is bad. But that’s just kind of a Metro-ism that we can’t change, so I’m mostly ignoring that section of the route. The stop spacing in the express portion, from Graham to downtown, is pretty much BRT-worthy, with the served stops being generally the busiest ones of the 7.
        * I-90
        * Walker
        * MBTC
        * Andover
        * Genessee
        * Edmunds (Columbia City)
        * Orcas

        It ranges between 1/4 and 1/2 mile spacing, with every stop in a high-pedestrian-activity area. Even if it skips your stop, it’s a short walk to your destination. I suspect that if our best and brightest BRT advocates drew up a “rapid” for this corridor, it would be strikingly similar to the 7x.

        Yes, it only runs a couple times a day, and only in the peak direction. But it used to run more frequently – exactly how much more frequently I don’t recall – and it still underperformed enough to have trips cut in multiple service changes. I don’t doubt that it would be more popular if it ran all day, and that would be a valuable addition to the system. But I don’t think it ever would actually compete with the 7 proper for ridership. People just always seem to be willing to pile on long local routes.

      7. What y’all call “milk runs” are also known as “local circulators”. In an actual city with an actual downtown they’re key.

        The error is in making them so long as to make them unreliable.

      8. “The 7X is an express, not a rapid.”

        Actually, it’s a rapid, because it stops every mile or so along a corridor. It would be a good candidate for all-day two-way service… if Link weren’t running parallel next to it. The local stops at the end of the route don’t change its nature. A limited-stop or “rapid” route is like a moving walkway: it’s faster than plain walking but you can still get off at major points along the way. An express is like an airplane: you can’t get off until it reaches the far end of the route. If the 7X were nonstop between Graham and downtown (or Graham and Jackson), then it would be a full express.

      9. Nathanael: The difference between good local service and bad milk runs are the extent to which the services form a logical grid. Show me another city which has a street layout as sensible as Seattle’s and a bus network as schizophrenic. Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, DC… in all of these cities, buses (even the local ones) run as straight as possible. Only in Seattle do we think the best way to serve neighborhoods is with routes like this.

        Lack and Mike: First of all, as far as I’m aware, the 7X has always been a one-way peak-only service. That alone is a major ridership killer.

        Second, the 7X is not sufficiently faster than the 7 for waiting to be worthwhile. That is, if you’re at the bus stop, and you want to get downtown, the best choice is almost definitely taking the first bus that comes.

        And finally, I completely disagree with Lack’s claim that the 7X spacing is “BRT-worthy”. Many of the gaps — for example, McLellan to Andover — are almost a mile. If your destination was smack dab in between the two, on Rainier, that would be an 0.4 mile walk, which is already longer than most people would walk for bus service. But what if your destination was, say, 33rd and Horton? Now you’re at a half mile walk, compared to 0.2 miles if you take the local. So if your destination is one of the intermediate stops which the 7X skips, you will probably *not* take the 7X.

        Therefore, the 7X ridership consists of people:

        – Who understand the bus system well enough to risk taking a bus which might skip their stop
        – Whose origin/destination is within walking distance of a non-skipped stop
        – Who are travelling towards downtown during the AM peak, or from downtown during the PM peak
        – Who are waiting at the bus stop such that the first bus that arrives is an express

        Is it any wonder that it sees abysmal ridership?

        In contrast, consider the 71X/72X/73X. These are all-day two-way expresses, on routes where the intermediate stops really don’t have that much demand — most people boarding a 70-series bus at any time of day are heading to the U-District or points north. They are noticeably faster than the local at all times, but dramatically so if your trip gets to use the express lanes. And they run much more frequently. And yes, it’s the express routes that have blockbuster ridership, not the local.

        Oh, and something else — when you can’t use the express lanes, it’s often the case that the 49 is the fastest trip between downtown and the U-District. Yet even at those times, it’s the 70-series that sees the crush loads. Could it be because the 70-series buses are more frequent and more familiar?

    2. Milk runs will never increase either mode share or the total capacity of the transportation system.

      1. Good-quality local-stop transit service is an efficient way to serve a wide variety of trips of intermediate length. Seattle has no problem with geographical coverage by local-stop transit, so adding more local-stop routes wouldn’t increase mode share or capacity. But in key corridors improving the performance of local-stop transit can. That’s why SDOT is doing its current work along the route of the 44. If bunching is reduced, that’s even a capacity improvement.

        To be sure, circuitous routes are often pretty useless. But there’s a reason that direct, straightforward local-stop routes along corridors with lots of destinations perform well.

      2. Milk runs may increase mode share by diverting short local trips (in car terms) to transit.

        I would suggest that it might be most beneficial, when extending service to new or underserved areas, to chart a slow local route down the most active corridor available.

        The other option is running an express route to a satellite Park & Ride in the new area. I think the slow local route does more to drive all-day modeshare and decrease resistance to just hopping on the bus than the commuter-centric express.

        When the route is new and lightly used, the small stop spacing will not hurt travel times much. Once the route has had a chance to bed in and start filling up, you can look through the boarding data and give it a good, well-informed stop diet. Then, you can use that same data to devise a peak-time express variant.

        And if the route never fills up, you picked the wrong corridor.

      3. Milk runs obviously increase more share if they’re ridden, but not if they’re empty. The 7 is a very successful milk run; the 25 not so much. The problem is that milk runs divert resources from potentially more productive routes, and that’s where Metro is losing potential ridership. For instance, the Genessee & Othello segment (#39 now, #50 in September) sorely needs more frequency to bring people to Link. Long redundant milk runs tie up service hours that could go to this. Some milk runs may be necessary or desirable to avoid cutting people off from transit altogether, but we also have to weigh them against unmet trunk needs.

        Capacity is a less useful issue. If the same bus is moved from one route to another, capacity remains the same. But one route may have a greater network effect than the other, and thus serve the county’s citizens as a whole better.

      4. One thing is that milk runs *shouldn’t be long*. Too long and the milk spoils… oh, wait, anyway, really, too long and they start developing unreliability, and/or start extending beyond the area where “local” capacity is needed.

      5. A circulator is not a milk run. A circulator addresses demand for local transit within a smallish area. A milk run is so long or circuitous or slow that nobody would take it between its purported destinations; they would look for something faster, or get angry if nothing faster is available. A milk run’s sole purpose is to serve the (usually low-density, single-family) locations in between. Metro is fond of consolidating several minor tails of routes into a milk run, as in the 226 in Bellevue.

        The 7 subsumes several potential circulators: Intl Dist-Columbia City, Mt Baker – Rainier Beach. What makes it a milk run is it goes all the way from Prentice Street to downtown, when the saner way to go from Rainier Beach to downtown is to take Link. (This comes back to the need for more east-west transit in the valley, to make it easier to get to Link.)

    3. The 48 isn’t really that slow. I use it all the time. It’s fairly direct and quick to the U District/Montlake from Greenwood. Almost as fast as driving. Faster if you count searching for on-street parking. And, just way less hassle.

      1. Stephen, that depends heavily on the time of day. Midday and in the evening, you’re right. At any time when UW students or kids from one of the five (count ’em) high schools along the 48 are riding in numbers, it can get extremely slow. I used to have a 48 trip, back in the day when it went to RB, that picked up kids from five separate schools. I operated that one foot to the floor, and I don’t think I was ever less than 15 minutes late by the end of it.

      2. The 48 is often late, yes. But, I don’t ride it terminal to terminal and since there are plenty + the magic of real-time data from OBA, it doesn’t really affect my commute or travel when it is “late”. I just adapt to the schedule accordingly when at home, making an alternative connection, or extending my stay wherever I’m already at. All the same, when it is late, it’s still not slow.

      3. I don’t know… to me, adding 15 minutes to what should have been a trip of about an hour means the trip was pretty slow.

        In addition to driving it often, I used to catch the 48 as a passenger to ride it from my place near East Green Lake to the UW. Trips home around 5:30 p.m. were sometimes slower than walking. The bus would make every stop along 15th, have to wait multiple cycles to get through the 15th/50th and 15th/65th lights, and then get caught up at the lights at 12th and Roosevelt.

        The 48 is a terrific line from a coverage perspective, but I think it needs S&R help.

      4. The 48 is really that slow. I got a lot of experience riding it between S Jackson St. and Green Lake on a pretty regular basis. It was not uncommon for this trip to take well over an hour. Including wait time, it took over 2 hours several times.

        And once, when the bus broke down, and then the replacement bus broke down, it took 3 hours.

  12. A lot of comments on this thread have suggested a lot of goals for transit. In my opinion, they’re all missing the big picture.

    The goal of transit (and improvements to roads and human-powered infrastructure) is to create a better transportation system. Better means faster, more capacious, and more environmentally friendly. Improving “competitiveness” of transit is valuable where an increase in transit mode share can help improve the transportation system as a whole.

    An increase in transit mode share is particularly necessary along corridors where bottlenecks, crowding, and traffic congestion make the transportation system ineffective. And so those are the places where we should focus on the competitiveness of transit. Too often we get bogged down trying to be competitive in a place where cars work well already, and it looks to me like PSRC’s metric is just lumping the entire region together. I’d like to see a particular focus on corridors that aren’t working.

      1. Disqus’ lack of compatibility with some of our platforms makes it noncompetitive. That’s not irrationality.

      2. Disqus caused severe unreliability. I don’t remember exactly, I think it lost comments periodically, or you’d post but it wouldn’t take, and then you’d have to reenter your comment and remember what you said. Us comment junkies couldn’t tolerate that. When you have something to say, you want to say it now and get replies soon, not spend all day trying to get a comment entered. Otherwise you lose the conversational ability that’s an important part of the site’s value.

  13. I strongly agree with Jarrett Walker’s thoughts on this subject. The best measure of transit is how many places you can get to from each other within a fixed period of time, say 30 minutes. And not necessarily raw area, but the number of destinations, such as places of employment, restaurants, concert halls, sports venues, etc. The great thing about this measure is that it incorporates all the fundamentals: travel time, frequency, and network design (a radial system would fail miserably, because this measure is based on a complete graph).

    It doesn’t matter how comfortable the seats are if the bus doesn’t get you where you need to go when you need to be there.

    1. Actually, I take that back. This measure doesn’t take reliability into account. A system that looks great on paper does no one any good if the buses don’t show up when they’re supposed to.

  14. Agree.

    This is why I think people should be able to take their fully subsidized transit fare, and use it for privately owned taxis.

    So, say 4 people get on a bus stop, or are simply there, and the bus is running slow.

    They should be able to take the fully subsidized cost of them riding the bus and apply it towards using a shared taxi cab…assuming they are going to similar destinations.

    1. As heretical as that might sound around here, I actually sorta like this idea. It would go along way to solving last mile access and east/west access to transit corridors. And it could help solve late night safety problems. Considering that KCMetro reports that hourly operating costs for a bus is in the neighborhood of $200/hr, there could be something to be said for the economics of tis idea.

    2. It does make sense to bring taxis into the transit system with some kind of revenue-sharing agreement. But we’d have to do it without starving the bus system. The half-hourly bus has to be paid for, whether you ride it or not, otherwise it’ll disappear entirely. Otherwise it turns into a bad charter-school scenario, where the best students get diverted to for-profit entities with state subsidy, and the result is higher shareholder dividends rather than higher-quality education.

  15. I’ve actually used the TCI to plan bus routes in a different city. I didn’t initially see it on the PSRC website, but I think most commenters here are missing the point entirely on how to use the planning tool and the TCI.

    Stop thinking about existing corridors for a second and think bigger picture. Where are markets not being served right now that where transit can be successful? The TCI and planning tool can help identify that.

  16. Yes it does. Speed, reliability, comfort, and safety/cleanliness are all important factors. I regularly take Sound Transit express buses and the Sounder and Link, but I often WALK, even a few miles, rather than take KCM buses.

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