I think that the underlying emotion behind the recent flap over RapidRide ORCA readers is, as Adam hints in his clarification, disappointment with what was sold to us as “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT). It’s a denunciation done not with glee but with anguish.
It’s true that BRT is a continuum rather than a specific set of criteria, but that doesn’t mean that the term has no content and can be assigned to any new bus brand. At the least, it should incorporate at least some of the elements that make North American rail service traditionally much, much better than its bus counterpart:
- Service all day and deep into the evening
- Separation from traffic/signal priority.
- Frequent Service
- Off-board payment
Aside from the first, which was present in all six RapidRide corridors before RapidRide, the new lines largely fail to provide any of these.* Let’s take them in order:
Separation from traffic is largely a function of the cities that control the roadways the buses run on, and they’ve largely done a poor job by adding this priority where it’s easiest rather then where it’s most needed.
That said, I’ve come around to the idea that ultimately the agency whose reputation is at stake needs to step up and make a project work. Failure at Mt. Baker Station had many fathers, but ultimately it’s Sound Transit that was responsible for the success of the Light Rail project and should have filled the gaps to make it work correctly. Likewise, when a municipality’s priorities are elsewhere, Metro** should step up to make sure their flagship program isn’t a fiasco, especially since they will reap the financial gains of faster buses. Of course, like every other problem with Metro, this circles back to their budget problem, on which more below.
Frequent service. It’s true that Metro added some buses to existing routes to improve headways in isolated cases. Looking at frequencies on the four existing or imminent lines, it appears that we’re assured of 15 minute headways 7am to 10pm anywhere in the system, with 10-minute headways in the peak.
15 minutes is a good interval in many respects; but having personally experienced unreliable 15-minute intervals (the 8) and reliable 10-minute intervals (Link) all day, there’s a world of difference. If the objective is rail-like service without the capital cost, 15 minute headways are at the absolute edge of what’s acceptable.
Off-board payment. On a crowded route, on-board payment is one of the most egregious annoyances for the frequent customer. Metro hired fare inspectors, absorbing the most significant operational cost of off-board payment, and providing the only consistent brand differentiation with plain old Metro service. However, they haven’t followed up with the relatively cheap capital investment to really make this pay off.
Adam groused about off-board ORCA readers, which would help out a bit, especially if they were to be deployed uniformly rather that at select stops. But the real operational gain is in handling cash payment offboard. Buying simple ticket vending machines, as the Seattle Streetcar and Swift have done, isn’t free, but not doing so is financially reckless in the long run.
The Budget Dodge
The response to most of these complaints is that Metro is in a budget crisis. And as large service cuts continue to threaten, that’s undoubtedly true. Sophisticated Metro critics understand that cake for everyone is not an option and there are hard choices to make. The criticism is that those choices have consistently prioritized everything but high-quality bus corridors, neglecting in particular capital expenses that would save operations money in the long run.
OK then, Metro’s defenders ask, what routes should Metro cut? To a large extent Bruce Nourish’s entire body of work is about efficiencies to be had by reorganizing the system. In addition, of the new service hours delivered by Transit Now but not subsidized by other entities, fully 80% are not RapidRide, but “other core routes” or “developing areas” — read new routes to the exurbs. This service does not have deeply entrenched constituencies, and is vastly preferable to RapidRide as a budget casualty. With 40/40/20 gone, it’s not even required by policy.
There are other particular efficiencies, like truncating buses at light rail stations, that would save gobs of money. These changes would certainly create losers and bring a stream of complaints to the County Council, but one is either willing to pay the price for high-quality bus corridors or one isn’t. The answer has been, up to now, “no.”
Finally, recall that there are a total of six RapidRide lines. A system with a focus on quality over quantity might have looked at the budget situation and cut one (or two) of the lines, to reinvest the capital in the remaining five. Perhaps the victim would be the line least supported by city road investments — giving Metro leverage over the budgets they don’t control. But Metro chose to emphasize spreading the benefits around over making sure they’re good benefits, which is the antithesis of the rail ethic that BRT is supposed to mimic.
All of these are value judgments, and if the King County Executive and Council are OK with these priorities then that’s their prerogative. Seattle voters, when last asked, didn’t seem to care much about bus improvements. However, I’d have more confidence in BRT as a true complement to Light Rail if Metro was willing to prioritize it even when revenues aren’t increasing endlessly beyond its costs. At the moment, it doesn’t even merit inclusion in the discussion about major transit corridor investments.
* Let’s give Metro credit for 24 hour service on RapidRide lines [except RR B], even if it’s hourly.
** Throughout this post, “Metro” refers to the staff of the King County transit agency, as well as its executives and its governing bodies, the King County Executive and Council.