Here’s a stat that’s making the rounds, thanks to the good folks over at Commute Seattle: Seattle has the lowest percentage of commuters who drive alone of all cities without a “robust subway system.”
Seattle’s been successful in luring commuters out of their cars for several reasons: our highways are packed, downtown parking is expensive, the Flex Pass program has been really successful, and we’ve built a lot of HOV lanes. Add to that the now-abandoned 40-40-20 rule, which ensured that a lot of commuter service got built out in the ‘burbs, and you have the situation we’re in now: commuter service is amazing. Really top notch. We have one-seat rides into downtown from as far away as North Bend. Getting downtown by bus from Northgate (8.2 miles) is often faster than coming in from Madrona (2.5 miles). It’s what you’d expect given a transit agency whose political support base extends from Puget Sound to Snoqualmie Pass, compounded by the land use patterns of the greater Seattle area.
One one hand, that’s great! Getting workers to their jobs in the region’s employment centers by bus is fantastic. It takes cars off the roads during rush hour and reduces the need for parking. But providing John Q. Office Worker with a one-seat ride to downtown during rush hour is just one of many use cases for a transit system. Many people rely on the bus for all-day transportation to doctor’s appointments, school, and entertainment. These types of trips don’t happen during rush hour and they don’t happen between the ‘burbs and downtown.
In a world of unlimited resources, we’d improve these all-day trips by amping up the number of one-seat rides between various neighborhoods. Delridge to Kirkland every 10 minutes! In the real world, the world where Metro on the brink of another huge service reduction, we have to make choices. One choice that Metro is starting to make – wisely, in my view – is to expand all-day service by relying more on transfers. If we move to a grid system, we can greatly expand the frequency and reach of the network without increasing costs. The downside is that you’ll have to transfer more often.
The challenge is that most bus transfers currently suck. When you’re riding a subway in a city like New York or London, it’s like entering the warp zone from Super Mario Brothers: you enter the system, and then you bounce around from line to line until you get to your destination. You don’t give much thought to the transfer. Follow the signs, walk through the tunnels, and you’ll get to the next train. The system puts the rider at ease. Bus transfers, on the other hand, cause anxiety. Get off at a random intersection, walk across the street and stand next to the pole, where it’s probably raining and there may not be a shelter. Wait some indeterminate time, all by yourself, for the next bus to arrive.
In fact, one of the more common themes I heard among opponents of restructuring Route 2 last fall was that they were afraid to transfer on 3rd Avenue to get to Queen Anne. It’s hard to blame them. This is the Catch-22: a better bus network will necessitate better transfers, but many riders won’t support a better bus network until the transfers are better.
In the meantime, there are a couple of things that the city and SDOT can do to improve the transfer experience. The first and most basic is to ensure that transfer points are dry, well-lit, safe, and with good signage. The second is to increase frequency. If both the line you’re on and the line you’re transferring to have 10-minute headways or better, the transfer will be relatively painless. As Adam has pointed out in the past, you don’t even need both lines to have short headways for a more pleasant transfer experience.
Getting to a world where transfers are decent and there are grids and we can warp zone around the region will be tough. But that’s the world we have to get to if we want a bus network that can support all-day ridership on high demand corridors. We may lose some one-seat rides into downtown, but the result will be a more useful system that gets more people to more places more often.