Every so often, I’m asked why I care so much about Metro, writing at possibly-exorbitant length about everything from huge structural changes to the bus network, to minutiae like pointless crossbucks and crazy vestigial terminal loops. With about the same frequency, I overhear transit advocates suggest that going into bat for better bus service isn’t worth the effort, because, well, it’s hard, progress is slow, and anyway we’re going to build rapid transit and then we can “forget Metro” or something to effect. I encountered some of this at the Ballard High Capacity Transit open house, and I want to address it.
Think about any first-world city, which exists in a comparable political culture to that of the US, and that’s generally regarded as having good transit, given its size and density: for example, London, Boston, New York, Vancouver, BC. These cities are rightly known for their rapid transit systems, which in many cases have become not just part of the city’s identity for residents, but an iconic part of those cities’ presence on the world stage. But all of them also have an unsung, yet crucially important bus network that, overall, usually hauls more passengers than the rapid transit network.
For example, Translink’s 2011 bus ridership exceeded its SkyTrain ridership by about 70%, and bus ridership will likely remain about 40-50% higher even after the Evergreen Line and UBC-Broadway Corridor are built out. These buses facilitate trips that aren’t possible, or would be slower or less convenient, on the rapid transit network, because no city has infinite money to cover all its densely-urbanized parts in rapid transit, and most rapid transit systems, of necessity, trade off some amount of local access for speed, by having stops outside the city center spaced further apart than many people can (or want to) walk.
To the people behind these excellent transit systems, the bus network is absolutely not an afterthought, or something they are just keeping alive until they criss-cross the city with trains. You can see this in Translink’s great network maps and seamless bus-rail interfaces at every SkyTrain station; and Transport for London’s design and purchase of a unique and beautiful model of double-decker bus for London, and implementation of a cashless zone and extensive network of bus-only lanes in the city center.
More after the jump.
If we aspire to be one of those places where it’s possible to travel spontaneously through all the densely-urbanized parts of the city, without a car; and be a place where families can choose to not own a car without having to specially structure their entire lives around this choice, we need a similarly high-functioning bus system. Not a bus system that’s largely operating routes similar to the ones from 1942, which mostly drop to 30-minute headways at 7:30 PM, because current riders like their routes just the way they are, and nobody likes open houses or hearings full of angry people. We need a bus system full of frequent, direct, reliable, readily-comprehensible routes, that complement the rapid transit lines we are building, and an agency that’s committed to going the distance and getting us to that point.
This means more than just cutting out the worst-of-the-worst empty buses like the 38 and 42 (although that is an essential part of the work, and I give Metro credit for doing a pretty thorough job in that respect). It means the political and managerial leadership of the agency committing to continual attempts at improvement in the bus network, wherever and whenever the opportunities arise. It’s not enough that a bus route not be blatantly underutilized or duplicative. The fact that it could be better, within the constraints of the current budget, is reason enough to try and make it better.
Trying is a crucial point. Metro is a public agency, with an established rider base, politically both a blessing and a curse, and there are limits to the amount of popular opposition that Metro and the King County Council can stare down. The original proposed changes to Route 2 were an example of a change that had a lot of merit for the larger network, but generated overwhelming opposition from 2 riders. So while I was upset to see that change scuttled, I can’t fault Metro for backing down there; but Metro tried, and that’s what I ask, and what everyone who cares about making Seattle a car-optional city should ask, too.
I do fault Metro for not trying in a disturbing number of recent cases, for example RapidRide E, where the sounding board has been dismissed and no substantive restructure will be attempted, and the I-90 capacity fix, where Metro elected to make the bus network worse by having Route 216 not serve Eastgate in the afternoon, rather than look to cut underperforming routes on the I-90 corridor and put those service hours to work on overcrowded routes like the 216. Similarly, Route 16’s bizarre spiral outbound routing has failed the deviation criteria for years, yet it seems the agency is waiting until the last possible moment to formally announce the elimination of the deviation due to construction on Mercer. Things like that seem like the agency is not trying; and I could forgive almost anything else.
What I’m suggesting here is that more people should care more about Metro, but it should be a care that cuts two ways. I want to see Metro amply and sustainably funded; expanding, not contracting; but my great fear is that I will advocate and vote for revenue for Metro, only to have the agency leadership decide that, well, nobody likes open houses or hearings full of angry people, so there just won’t be any major restructure proposals for a year or ten. Frustrating and vaguely Sisyphean as it seems, I think everyone who cares about Seattle evolving towards a future as a car-optional city should care about Metro in a similar way.