The Last 42
The Last 42

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.

77 Replies to “Metro and the Future of Seattle Transit”

  1. Great subject Bruce and I mostly agree with all you have stated. That said, I seem to always harp on productivity and efficiency as a way to cure a lot of what ails transit in King County. Simply ratcheting up taxation to ‘not have to cut too deeply’ is depressing, and finding a tax level in the Goldilocks Zone to continue to increase mode share seems like launching a mission to Mars now. Watching PT and CT and soon MT cannibalize themselves to late 20th century levels is heart breaking.
    When discussing King County, I think many conversations need to acknowledge the fact that Sound Transit is the step child of Metro. The RTA was born on the 4th floor of the Exchange Bldg. Both MUST be considered as one unit when it comes to setting fare rules and rates, integrating services to promote efficiency of operations and maximize overall ridership, and YES, to make hard choices over capital v. operations decisions.
    Most cities have only one transit agency doing it all, and I think we would be seeing different outcomes happening if both ST and MT had to balance the same decision matrix as one agency. As it stands now, both answer to different masters in the narrow sense (their Council or Board), but both to a single master (the tax payers) in the broader sense.

    1. Before you think of combining ST and Metro, ask yourself this:

      Do you want the same voter base for whom we end up proposing things like Everett Boeing Link and Fife Link to be the voter base governing most of Seattle’s internal transit?

      I like ST’s leadership, but the ST voter base gives me nightmares and I want to keep Metro bus routes far away from it.

      1. So very, very true, and something not to be forgotten or neglected in discussions about reforming KCMetro’s route and financial structure.

      2. On the other hand, the Sound Transit district doesn’t include the vast eastern rural reaches of King County.

        While King County Metro does.

        You have crummy political boundaries; the counties are where they are for archaic 19th century reasons.

        Perhaps the best option is to resuscitate a City of Seattle transit agency?

      3. @Nathanal: Nobody much lives in the vast eastern rural reaches of King County and very little KCM budget is spent there; the ST district contains lots of exurbia.

        Anyway, I’m not sure a Seattle agency would be a lot better than KCM. Seattle’s city boundary is where it is for a variety of more recent political reasons.

    2. “Most cities have only one transit agency doing it all”

      I don’t think that’s true. Lots of downsides to consolidation of agencies. We can have KCM and ST coordinate better, but much of the willpower has to be generated by advocates outside the agency staff. However the agencies are structured, they operate at the will of elected officials & voters.

      1. Yeah. Somehow LA makes it work pretty well for public transportation, though, even with the zoo of agencies.

  2. I really regret that I did not attend the particular community meetings at which my elected officials and their staff were intimidated out of creating a sensible bus route between Ballard and Downtown Seattle via Magnolia.

    However, there’s no reason why an equal amount of citizen organization and participation couldn’t use the same process to convince these same officials to change their minds.

    I can’t believe that business communities in both Magnolia and Ballard don’t see mutual benefit in attracting customers from across the Ship Canal. And Ballard is certainly gaining large numbers of new young residents with little patience for a host of existing things that no longer make sense.

    From my observation, ridership stats on the 61 are already making an extremely persuasive case for using those buses some other way. Any advice on how to start campaign appreciated.

    Mark Dublin

    1. “there’s no reason why an equal amount of citizen organization and participation couldn’t use the same process to convince these same officials to change their minds.”

      Absolutely true. Sadly, there’s a strong force working against this. People will fight for what they have. But it’s harder to find people that might benefit from a change, get them to understand these benefits, and then get them to show up to meetings. This is the same reason there will always be more NIMBYs fighting against a new apartment complex than potential future renters fighting for it.

  3. “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…”

    Considering the outcome of the C/D restructure, I can’t blame them. After all, RR E is basically the 358 in shiny new paint, no thanks to Metro figuring the paint is the most important aspect of “bus rapid transit” (not, say, frequency, dedicated lanes, TSP, off-board payment…). Given that, it would be quite odd for Metro to use its rollout to attempt a large-scale restructure, especially one designed to dump people onto the E. The FHSC, U-Link, and other Link expansions are lower-hanging fruit for restructures.

    1. Dedicated lanes and TSP: require city approval and SDOT to build. Frequency and off-board payment: requires more money than Metro had. Although why are we talking about frequency? The E will have RapidRide’s target frequency (15 min until 10pm) as far as I know. It’s other routes like the 5 that need to be brought up to that.

      1. “Dedicated lanes and TSP: require city approval and SDOT to build.”

        Which raises the question of why most of your bus routes are run by the county and not the city.

      2. “Frequency and off-board payment: requires more money than Metro had.”

        And Metro’s answer to that was to spend what money they had on a shiny new coat of paint and discount all the elements that actually make BRT more than just another bus route, instead of waiting until they had the money not to half-ass it or at least could spend it on more than bells and whistles.

        “The E will have RapidRide’s target frequency (15 min until 10pm) as far as I know.”

        The question is, should that be RapidRide’s target frequency? When you compare the “so frequent you don’t need a schedule” rhetoric with their recent decision to back down and provide C/D schedules, I’m guessing not.

    2. I ride the 358 daily, and I see absolutely no point in the rebranding of it to Rapid Ride E. It will stop at practically all the same places, offer pretty much the same frequency it currently has, and most likely will still be filled with crackheads. And the time to get downtown will be barely improved, certainly not enough to be worth the amount of money being spent on the project. We’re broke, why are we doing this with our money? I mean, I’d love a shiny new bus with wifi, and a bus shelter at my stop, but really, please just take that money and do something more useful with it. (And for the record, I actually advocated to Metro that they eliminate my stop on the 358. I’d walk a few extra blocks if it meant we’d all get where we’re going faster.)

      1. Second the counter-proposal. What would this really do? How much money are we spending on it that could be better spent on… oh, extending the trolleybus lines for RR Madison?

      2. The RR branding exercise is responsible in part for the following improvements:

        – TSP (I don’t recall whether that’s on already, coming with RR, or coming before RR)
        – Bus lanes in Shoreline and south of the Aurora Bridge inbound — these are open today and are certainly an improvement
        – Elimination of the Linden deviation southbound
        – Off-board payment at many of the busiest stops
        – New three-door low-floor buses that are easier to move around in under heavy loads and should generally make boarding for people with disabilities easier and faster

        I think addressing boarding delays will be pretty important, especially since so many runs on the 358 today use old high-floor buses that don’t handle heavy boarding loads well. Also RR, for all its shortcomings, got Federal money, so it costs Metro rather little compared to the status quo.

        And there will still be lots of shortcomings. It’s hard to get anywhere fast on Aurora between 85th and 145th, and without ROW I don’t think TSP will get us there (the main obstacle there is political, not technical — the design we want is pretty obvious). Speed/reliability will also remain an issue south of Mercer; IIRC the Mercer and DBT projects don’t include any help (and might actually make things worse by putting more cars on the surface streets downtown), but I could be wrong. Anyway, there have been several improvements recently and will be a few more in the next year.

      3. The buses and stops for Rapid Ride are paid for by federal grant money which Metro has been very successful in competing for. The feds like it because they have funded the six rapid ride lines for $30 million each, instead of $2B for a rail line. You do get what you pay for, but Rapid Ride is a good investment.

      4. Incremental improvements are a good thing, even though it’s less than we would like. Amtrak Cascades taught me this. Because of incremental improvements we have faster trains and more frequent service than we did in the 1990s when it crawled in a lot of places. Seattle-Portland travel time is already down to 3:30, which is competitive with driving and flying. Not as fast as driving yet, but close enough to not be a deterrent. Florida put all its eggs into high-speed rail and got nothing. We’ve got a nice Cascades service to tide us over until high-speed rail is feasable.

      5. TSP: How much of it is there, and how effective is it?

        Off-board payment at many of the busiest stops: Too bad the fact it’s not “all” largely defeats the point.

    3. What kind of restructuring do you think could happen as a result of the FHSC? Only thing I could think of would be elimination of the 9 and truncation of the 60 since those could be replaced by quick transfers in Little Saigon, but that might not be politically feasible, and wouldn’t save that many bus hours.

      1. The fact that no restructuring can occur as a result of the FHSC just shows how badly the FHSC was planned.

        It would have made so much more of a difference to just run a streetcar on Jackson from Alaskan Way all the way to MLK, but we had to paper over the deletion of the First Hill station instead.

      2. Link will come on-line just two years later. Metro won’t want to do a big restructure now only to have to do a second one two years later. People don’t like big disruptions, and they especially don’t like big disruptions multiple times in a decade. It’s obvious the FHS is not enough to truncate the 60 or 9 or 49 or 36 or 7. It serves a specific market, Broadway to Intl Dist/Pioneer Square, a market which those routes don’t serve.

  4. It’s expensive to operate an urban bus system because of the labor costs. Drivers and mechanics are public employees, like teachers, librarians and policemen. As long as there is pervasive culture in the media to demonize any public employee or investment, keeping what transit service we get is going to be an increasing harder struggle. Sure, Metro can — and should — “speed up” the buses, redesign or drop under-performing routes and runs, and look for new revenue sources to ease the pain of service cuts. Still, the big “enemy” is not roads (which are also increasingly failing because of inadequate maintenance funding that also stems from this demonization) but is instead this nutty attitude that having public employees is bad.

    1. There is also a form of myopia specific to transportation. People always ask indignantly why bus drivers are paid $21+/hour, because “driving a bus is easy,” and think the high labor cost of bus transit is just a racket.

      Well, driving a bus is, in fact, not that hard (although bus passengers can be exhausting at times, so can any other segment of the public). The hard part, which people fail to consider, is finding people who are reliable enough to avoid costing Metro additional money and exposing Metro to negligent hiring cases. People you can hire for $12/hour likely don’t have a long track record of reliability and responsibility, a good driving record, the willingness and ability to take and pass random alcohol and drug tests at almost any time, and the ability to show up every time when hours are constantly changing and dictated by occasionally byzantine procedures.

      When the economy was good, and Metro wages and benefits were comparable to today’s when adjusted for inflation, Metro had trouble finding enough drivers to get the scheduled service out! In 2004, it actually canceled some trips for lack of drivers. More recently, there has been no problem hiring enough drivers, but it’s still not like the agency could dramatically drop wages and keep the standard of employee it needs. Only a small portion of the hordes of unemployed resulting from the recession qualify for the job.

      You can see the results of hiring to a lower standard in a lot of contracted service; the local example is the commuter service that First Transit runs for CT. Turnover is high (even in the recession); the safety record is worse than Metro’s despite the service pattern being far less prone to accidents; and the customer service and reliability can be spotty. This is not to impugn most of the contract drivers, who show up and do their best — it’s just impossible to get the level of consistency Metro has. (And if you go further to the bottom of the barrel, like many “taxpayer advocates” seem to want, you end up with Fung Wah Bus and lots of severely injured passengers.)

      It’s important for those of us who know to educate people whenever possible about why it’s reasonable that a driver with lots of overtime might make six figures or that the starting wage is $21/hour. I’ve found that when I explain everything above, even anti-tax conservatives start to understand.

      1. FWIW, if you’re complaining about employee costs, benefits are a much more serious issue than wages. And specifically, the cost of health insurance is a humungous issue. For absolutely every employer which provides it.

        It’s causing market distortions. Ones which *do not occur in Canada* where they have single-payer health insurance.

      2. Driving a bus isn’t that hard? I think being responsible for a large piece of rolling stock worth a half a million dollars in Seattle traffic and ensuring the safety of passengers who stand, board and deboard, and often misbehave is a damn tough job. Probably tougher than yours. You get what you pay for. Metro has excellent drivers compared to most places I have lived.

      3. I drove for Metro for five years, so I’m not just some random commenter. Yes, there’s a lot of responsibility. Yes, it takes a couple of years and some dedication to develop real skill. But I’ve had much harder jobs in my life (including my current one) once I’m at work. The thing that makes it hard to hire a good Metro driver (and hard to be a driver) is the need for utter reliability and consistently excellent judgment despite crazy hours and scheduling, not anything difficult about the job itself.

    2. What percentage of Metro’s labor budget goes to drivers and mechanics and what percentage goes to administration? If the ratio is anything like Seattle School District, we could significantly cut the budget without touching a single hands-on Metro employee.

      1. I don’t think we can just assume that “administration” is pure waste, or even significantly waste. It’s head office people that plan the routes, make the maps, clean the bus shelters, do the public outreach, sell passes, and so on.

        And obviously, and organization with thousands of employees needs managers.

      2. Metro has cut over 200 administrative and management positions in the last five years as part of reform efforts. There are far more drivers and mechanics than support staff.

      3. I think what Metro really needs is an audit (State or internal) on what non-transit King County government overhead Metro should not be paying.

  5. You very eloquently elaborated something that I have been wanting to say for a while. I think what I’ve learned over the last few years watching Metro is that the first step in anything ever improving is the result of Metro first taking the initiative to propose a change in the first place. Bus stop consolidation is a perfect example. It’s become routine for Metro to do that, but for a very long time they didn’t. It isn’t a huge win but it’s lots of small wins like that, year after year that builds a great transit system.

    1. I would add one of my major concerns is that as HCT is built out the bus network will not be adjusted to fully maximize the utility of both the rail investment and the bus network. I hope my concern is unfounded.

      1. We’ll see – North Seattle is the perfect opportunity to grid the system once HCT opens – Link in the center, Lake City Way (Rapid Ride? someday rail?) to the east and Aurora RR to the west as major, very frequent N-S corridors (15th NW as well). 145th, 130th/125th, 105th/Northgate Way, 80th/85th, 65th, 50th, 45th and NE Pacific/Fremont/NW Leary as E-W corridors — most of which intersect all three/four major N-S corridors for easy transfer. Secondary corridors on other arterials, such as 15th NE or 35th NE. It makes sense, which tells me not to hold my breath.

  6. I’d add that “not trying” obscures important political information for voters. If Metro makes good proposals and County Councilmembers shoot them down, it would be good to know who the obstacles to progress are. If Metro doesn’t try, we can’t.

    1. Unfortunately, in a district-based system, the best thing for Metro to do may sometimes be to take a proposal off the table before a particular councilmember can take credit for killing it. The same behavior that may make the councilmember a goat in the eyes of those looking at the whole network can make the councilmember a hero in the eyes of the small set of his constituents that is most vocal within the district. Better to deny such a councilmember an obvious victory.

      1. I disagree. It’s far better to have a councilmember on record as opposing a restructure than to have Metro quash it because of behind-the-scenes pressure. Let’s have the blame laid at the feet of someone on the ballot.

      2. The risk is that among the narrow electorate in one district killing a restructure will be seen as a good thing and the councilmember as a hero, encouraging others to resist attempts at improvement that affect a few riders in their own districts.

      3. among the narrow electorate in one district

        Council districts aren’t that small. Bruce and I both live in Larry Phillips’ district, for crying out loud.

        The Queen Anne restructure got shelved and the folks on 6th Ave W got to keep their bus. But SPU students got screwed. We took away the 17, but the 13 didn’t get its frequency bump.

        The 24 restructure got shelved and the nonsensical Magnolia routes preserved. But late-night service was cut as a result, and now a different group are crying foul.

        We could have a transit system where the decisions are made by staff. Or we could have a system where the decisions are made by elected officials who will have to answer for them at the ballot box. But having a system where the elected officials make the decisions, but in a way that is opaque to the public, is unacceptable.

  7. While this in no way undermines your primary point, and while I am fully aware that Seattle falls far short of the necessary density — never mind the resources — to ever replace bus with rapid transit on all but the busiest corridors (leaving Metro to do much of the heavy lifting in perpetuity, I do feel the need to point out that

    all of them also have an unsung, yet crucially important bus network that, overall, usually hauls more passengers than the rapid transit network

    is not accurate.

    I looked up the numbers, and they confirmed my anecdotal experience that buses in Boston and New York remain fundamentally fringe. MBTA buses carry 378,000 riders daily — fewer than KC Metro — compared to 530,000 on the subways plus 232,000 on the Green Line. The New York Subway handles 8.5 million riders daily, while the city buses (local and commuter express) carry only 2.5 million.

    It is not uncommon to encounter full-time transit users in either city who will go months, if not years, without setting foot on a bus. And this has, of course, contributed to a long-term devaluation of solely bus-served constituencies from Dorchester to Watertown and from Queens to Staten Island that is only beginning to be addressed.

    The systems you cite are definitely making strides towards better integration. Fares and passes have been streamlined and transfers have been streamlined. Frequent bus corridors have begun to appear on subway maps, and service levels have ramped up significantly. But the fact remains that if your origin point and destination are rail-served — and through a very high percentage of both the inner three New York boroughs and the inner Boston area, they probably are — you’re going to get there on the train. This is facilitated by stop spacing that pointedly is not “spaced further apart than many people can (or want to) walk.”

    Still, as it regards low-density, bus-as-baseline Seattle, this post is spot-on.

    1. New York is also a lousy place for bus service, because of the amount of congestion. It’s been repeatedly demonstrated that there are several New York bus routes that are slower than walking.

      1. Most cities, by this point, are full of congestion points that are lousy places for bus service. Which is why the implication that it should ever be a “necessity” to force people onto parallel mixed-traffic services just to gain access to the primary mass transit services, within the built-up areas of the city, is incredibly problematic.

        Not to harp too much on what was a minor aside in Bruce’s post, but I fail to think of a single successful mass-transit city on earth where the rapid transit lines are not accessible at walking distances within the built urban area (not throughout the entire system area, but well beyond just the center-city). Even the deepest Soviet systems, which valued monumental appearance over user convenience, or the younger, cost- and regional-service-conscious systems like Skytrain very rarely break the one-mile mark between stations.

        Link manages to break that threshold on its very first stop out of Westlake. As more than a few people have noted, people on Lower Capitol Hill will face an unpleasant uphill-walk vs. unpleasant-cross-freeway-walk vs. still-stuck-on-the-bus conundrum from the very day U-Link opens. That’s insane.

        Jarrett Walker takes great pains to explain the pleasure and freedom of being able to get anywhere in an urban area with a single, painless transfer. Suggesting that it may be “necessity” to use mixed-traffic buses for parallel access guarantees that most two-leg trips become three, with the access leg invariably the weakest and most infuriating link.

        Again, this runs counter to the experience of the best systems everywhere — including the London and Vancouver examples that Bruce rightly cites for the heavy use of buses for cross-connecting travel.

      2. @d.p.: Ha, I had forgot it was so far from Westlake to Cap Hill Station. On a map they look so close compared to the gap between Cap Hill and UW. Ugh.

        The stop spacing on the R.V. section is also a failure. On most of Chicago’s L lines you can’t live next to the tracks without being a short walk from a station (a few sections have excessively close spacing, particularly the Red Line in Uptown and north). In the R.V. lots of people fall in the gaps. I’ve recently been given directions to one place with an MLK address and another just a block from MLK, both halfway between stations, and in neither case was the train even mentioned in directions.

      3. Well, again, I feel a bit bad about the tangent, because all of the post’s primary points are correct: Seattle will never be dense enough to support rail as the primary method of getting around most places; Metro will continue to carry more passengers for the foreseeable future; we should be supportive of Metro when they’re making an effort to make getting around Seattle easier.

        Bruce’s point that buses are a real workhorse even in some iconic transit cities is also valid. Transport for London buses apparently carry twice as many daily passengers as the Tube, owing partially to the Tube’s notorious lack of South London coverage, but also because there are many crosstown trips north of the Thames for which bus routes are actually far more convenient than trains.

        On the other hand, I simply couldn’t let slide the mistaken suggestion that buses are doing the real urban lifting in all urban settings. It speaks to how warped Seattle’s transit discourse and frame of reference has become that even someone as intelligent and generally well-informed as Bruce could fail to imagine cities where subway-only trips to within walking distance of most of your daily destinations is the norm. But the list of example cities is statistically and empirically wrong.

      4. p.s. Al, I just heard that the supposedly very good combination dim sum & doughnuts place at MLK and Graham just went out of business. Shame, because I’d been meaning to try it for a while. But, y’know… Graham!

      5. d.p.: The other thing about London buses is that they’re actually good.

        First of all, bit by bit all the congested streets where buses ran were given exclusive bus-only lanes.

        Well, almost all. In the ancient parts of London, the streets are frequently one lane wide, or two, total. Not this “four driving lanes plus two parking lanes” thing you have in Seattle — one or two lanes TOTAL. Putting in bus lanes would have removed all local access for cars and trucks, which was considered unreasonable.

        Hence the Congestion Charge district. Its original purpose was to make the buses run on time. It worked. They run on time.

        Second, the bus stops are *extremely* informative, telling you the route number, where it goes, the schedule, etc. etc.

    2. “I looked up the numbers, and they confirmed my anecdotal experience that buses in Boston and New York remain fundamentally fringe. ”

      Well, they’re crappy.

      I was with a large group of people going from Hynes to Porter once. Some of them waited for the direct bus. After a couple of minutes, Iand a couple of us went to the subway. Notice that I had to change subway lines. Then *the Red Line was bustituted across the river*.

      We got there OVER AN HOUR EARLIER than the people who waited for the direct bus.

      Nobody in their right mind takes the Boston buses if they can possibly use the trains.

      1. This. For all the failings of Metro, buses here work far better than buses in Boston. It’s both a network design issue similar to, but worse than, the one we have (many bus routes have not changed in over 50 years, sometimes despite the introduction of rail lines) and an operational issue. The bus system there is just not operated well. Equipment is poorly maintained and unsafe, drivers are unreliable and the system does a poor job of covering for them, and the schedule is a ludicrous joke. It has gotten better in the last decade or so but has a very, very long way to go.

        It’s fortunate for Bostonians that most of them have such good train service.

        New York’s system is much better designed and operated, but surface congestion in Manhattan just does not allow for reasonable speeds.

  8. Thought experiment:

    What if LINK or RapidRide had never been built and all that same money had been plowed into regular bus lines and ST Expresses?

    1. That’s a castles-in-the-sky question.

      The Link money would never have been available in the absence of Link. Voters would never have voted for that sort of tax increase for buses only.

      Most of the RapidRide money would never have been available in the absence of RapidRide, because it was federal “BRT” money.

      1. So it’s about getting money from the Feds, not building the correct engineering solution?

      2. The choice was between “money from the feds” and the status quo, not “money from the feds” and a “correct engineering solution” the state will not allow us to vote on.

    2. OK, I’ll play along, but let’s scale this back a bunch.
      What if N.Sounder had never been funded and the nearly 1/2 billion invested in capital and operation were put into CT bus service?
      That would have bought about 4 million service hours, or more than 1,000 hours per day, including purchasing a hundred more buses.
      What could that have done to increase ridership?
      No poison pen letters, please. I know I picked the most toxic example.

      1. It would have increased ridership on those and only those bus routes which aren’t stuck in traffic.

    3. Then we would have spent a few billion dollars on bus service that, while hopefully more frequent, would still get stuck in traffic.

      It would arguably be rational to first max out bus capacity by transforming general purpose or parking lanes into bus-only, and adding aggressive transit signal priority, but in practice, it seems politically easier to get voters and politicians to approve (partly) grade-separated rail.

      1. Exactly. Kaiser engineers has the DSTT study completed showing how LINK would transform 2 of the reversible lanes into rail lanes. That’s why it’s aimed at them, plus the buses coming to and from those very lanes.
        Somehow that concept got dropped because the DOT/Seattle and politicians didn’t want to take away lane space from cars, even though the capacity would be much higher.
        Therefore, we get tunnels and one lonely stop on Broadway as the ‘justification’ for doing so.

      2. “It would arguably be rational to first max out bus capacity by transforming general purpose or parking lanes into bus-only, and adding aggressive transit signal priority, ”

        London actually managed to do this, with bus lanes everywhere. (There are actually websites by drivers complaining about the bus lanes and the aggressive fines levied against drivers in the bus lanes.) I can’t think of any other cities which did this, though there are probably some in Europe.

        Result: London has one of the few genuinely decent bus systems in the world.

      3. Since nowhere other than London has managed to convert general-purpose lanes to bus lanes on a large scale, it seems politically much easier to get (partially) grade-separated rail. You get somewhat more riders with rail anyway (maybe a 10% bonus).

      4. Yes, look at 45th. It’s easier to get a subway built there than to convert the parking lanes to transit lanes. The city could build a garage to replace the Wallingford business district parking, but that’s not happening.

      5. “Somehow that concept got dropped because the DOT/Seattle and politicians didn’t want to take away lane space from cars”

        A study showing how it could be done is not a commitment that it will be done this way. It was just a pie-in-the-sky idea. Transit fans argued loudly that any subway had to stop directly on Broadway and University Way or we’d miss the biggest opportunity there was. That was known at the time, but it was filed away under “Issues to be decided later”.

  9. As long as all Metro Transit buses go “the Scenic Route,” I am all in. All buses to and from West Seattle, should be routed via Alki Beach or by the Admiral Viewpoint. The darn Alaska Junction DOES NOT CUT IT.

    See Mark Dublin for details…

    -Hoss Cartright

  10. Thanks for mentioning the stop deletion on the 216. I’m still dumbfounded that Metro did that.

    1. The 216 stop deletion was because riders to Eastgate were taking up space and leaving people heading to Issaquah off the bus. There are still plenty of frequent buses to Eastgate.

      1. The issue is that it leaves folks at Eastgate/BC without any semi-reasonable way of getting to Sammamish in the PM peak.

        I don’t think anyone has any issue with taking the 218 out of Eastgate, since the 554 still covers its ground. It’s the 216 that’s the issue.

  11. “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.”

    The London bus system is excellent. The Vancouver, BC one I can’t speak to.

    The Boston and New York bus systems… well, it would have been better if they’d never replaced the streetcars with buses. It seems to be completely impossible for either system to provide satisfactory service. It’s been over 50 years — it’s worth trying something else.

  12. All I ask from Metro is extended 301 service from Shoreline. It peeves me that Federal Way, 22+/- from downtown Seattle, gets regular express bus service via the ST 577/578 to downtown Seattle, while Shoreline gets shafted with a milk run down Aurora that normally takes an hour. When I take the 301 or 304 to and from downtown, it’s slammed with riders. Many times, it’s standing room only. Both the 301 & 304 are great, but they are only available during the morning and evening peak. Granted, the evening peak wouldn’t be very beneficial given the direction of the I-5 Express Lanes.

    I’m a little dismayed that Seattle, Metro or ST has not made the investments needed to make Rapid Ride on Aurora viable. You need transit signal priority, a dedicated lane, pedestrian facilities, etc. Make the system inviting, user-friendly, and maybe the corridor will clean itself up.

    The problem is, Metro has an image problem. Crowded, high-demand Park and Ride Facilities, poor operating Rapid Ride system, and some routes that just don’t perform up to par. Plus, I’m sure many of the articulated Phantoms are diesel guzzling beasts. Isn’t a portion of Vancouver’s TransLink bus fleet using natural gas? …and aren’t those cheaper to run?

    1. Metro has tried operating some off-peak 301 service in the past. No one rode it. Today, they don’t really ride the reverse-peak service, but it’s super-cheap to provide, so it sticks around.

      People actually rode the old 194 off-peak, and so now they ride the 577/578 (which, by the way, are operated by Sound Transit, not Metro).

      As Bruce points out, Metro has a mixed record with restructuring, but they are very good about ensuring that only service people actually use gets retained.

      1. I think the 578 is one of ST’s worst-performing routes. South of Federal Way, ridership is almost non-existant. The problem is, you can’t cancel it without leaving lots of people with no bus service at all within 10-15 miles.

    2. Seattle has a problem banning parking on Aurora and finding off-street parking for the businesses. That’s the main reason why Shoreline has full BAT lanes and Seattle has only bits of peak-direction lanes. The stop issue is a cultural one: Metro is getting better at eliminating stops but still backs down too easily. Let’s just accept RapidRide as a minor improvement and work on making it better over time.

  13. Bruce, this is a well written post. However, your frustration with no major restructure with Rapid Ride E is misplaced. I would suggest that instead of focusing on Rapid Ride E as the catalyst for a restructure, it would make more sense to wait until the tunnel is done and the street grid is reconnected between LQA and SLU. There will be more opportunities for changes to the 16 and many other buses at that time.

  14. In the United States, rail-based transit systems are the exception, bus based systems the norm. New York, Boston, and Washington are, I believe, the only American metro areas where a preponderance of transit passengers use rail. In the dense city of Chicago, with a strong rail network, 60% of transit trips are taken on the bus. In the Bay Area, with fast (if abysmally coordinated with other systems) BART, a bit under 60% of transit trips are taken by rail, including non-BART rail lines.

    None of this is to say what the balance between bus and rail should be in Seattle. Some regions, most notably Los Angeles and Denver, are significantly expanding their rail networks. It’s more to say that your transit issues aren’t because it’s a bus-based system, they’re because the bus system isn’t performing optimally.

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