The south half of Metro Route 2 chugs from downtown Seattle to Madrona Park and back via Seneca and Union Streets, a traffic light interrupting its progress on nearly every block. Virginia Mason Medical Center, First Hill, and the north part of the Central District pass by during the leisurely trip. We’ll call this part of the route “Bus 2,” the identity it has taken on in recent years, ignoring for now the part of the route serving Queen Anne. Bus 2 is a Seattle institution.
Its routing hasn’t changed since the 1940 opening of Seattle Transit’s original trolleybus network, except for minor revisions downtown. (Edit: That claim isn’t quite true, as pointed out by eddiew in the comments. The route originally used Madison, rather than Seneca and Union, between 9th and the “bowtie” at Union and 12th.)
As it has for many years, Bus 2 comes every 15 minutes during the day, and every 30 minutes nights and Sundays. Almost every trip on Bus 2 is full between downtown and Virginia Mason, where approximately half of its passengers are headed at most times of day. The passengers are a mix of old Seattle, new Seattle, and everything in between. Bus 2 is a microcosm of its changing city, encompassing in its 40 feet all the decades it has spent trundling back and forth. The remaining passengers leave in a steady trickle between Boren Avenue in First Hill and MLK Jr. Way in the Central District. Few people use Bus 2 in Madrona or Madrona Park. But the driver does get to enjoy Metro’s most scenic layover, at the lake’s edge, if Bus 2 is on time.
Bus 2 is rarely on time, except late at night. The most heavily used part of the route, the seven-block stretch between Virginia Mason and downtown, is often seriously delayed by traffic congestion, especially eastbound toward the hospital. Every rider of Bus 2 knows the drill of sitting through multiple cycles at each traffic light along Spring Street, stuck behind cars trying to get onto southbound I-5 at 6th Avenue. Depending on time of day, the entire three-and-a-half-mile trip is scheduled to take anywhere from 23 to 36 minutes, for an average speed of five to seven miles per hour — and that’s after waiting for the bus. The result: Bus 2 gets its riders where they want to go, but slowly, often more slowly than walking.
Other Metro bus routes, also traveling east and west, overlap with the parts of Bus 2 that nearly all of its riders use. Route 12 runs along Madison Street, within two blocks of Bus 2 all the way from downtown to 17th Avenue. Routes 10 and 11 run along Pine Street, two to four blocks away, as far east as 15th Avenue. All three of these routes are a very short walk from Bus 2, although none serves Bus 2’s exact routing. All of them are faster, and more reliable, than Bus 2, mostly because traffic moves faster along the streets they serve than it does on congested Spring and Seneca.
And yet lots of reasonable people ride, and love, Bus 2. Trying to improve it, even with all its flaws, is a big deal. And the process can be done better. More after the jump.
Metro has proposed to restructure Bus 2 heavily on three separate occasions, always with two goals: 1) take advantage of the faster streets nearby to speed up service, and 2) make buses come more often along those faster streets. The restructure above, proposed for Fall 2012, is a good example; it would move Bus 2 from slow Seneca Street to faster Madison Street, together with Route 12.
Each time Metro proposed a restructure, intense and well-organized citizen opposition arose, seeking to keep Bus 2 the way it is. Bus 2 has inspired a tsunami of protective physical and electronic ink; a new grassroots organization called “Save Bus 2”; and some of the most effective political organizing Metro and King County have ever encountered. Through these efforts Bus 2 has elbowed its way into the consciousness of everyone who follows transit happenings in Seattle, even those who never set foot in First Hill or the Central District. Twice, restructures have been defeated through the political process. Nevertheless, Metro is trying a third time, out of funding necessity; a revised Bus 2 restructure is in Metro’s proposal for service cuts to happen if the April 22 “Save Metro” vote fails.
This repetitive history leads to two questions. First, why do people care so much about Bus 2, which, even its most passionate advocates admit, is slow, chronically delayed, and mostly duplicative? Second, why does Metro keep trying to restructure Bus 2, even after so much resistance and political defeat?
Bus 2 is a great lens through which to look at the restructuring process. It can teach us why certain riders hate restructures enough to organize politically, and why Metro and transit activists doggedly pursue those same restructures even through such intense resistance.
And, I argue, Bus 2 can show us why well-planned restructures have much more to offer, and much less to fear, than affected riders — even the best-informed ones — often think.
The riders of Bus 2 who organize each time Metro suggests a restructure are a friendly bunch. They include elderly residents of First Hill who have lived in the same place for decades, regular patients of Virginia Mason with mobility impairments, and neighborhood activists whose passion for the well-being of their small piece of Seattle is clear. Listening to their arguments, as STB guest writer and general eminence Mike Orr recently did at a meeting about the “Save Metro” vote, one feels sympathy for their fears. Their principal fears about the restructures are these two:
1) it is unfair to take away bus service along Seneca Street and to Virginia Mason that people have relied on since 1940, when ridership is not low; and
2) the restructured service pattern would force transfers to reach some downtown destinations that are inconvenient and may be difficult for those with mobility impairments.
Much of the heated discussion about restructures of Bus 2, here and in other forums, has zoomed in on the validity of these fears, often in foot-by-foot detail. While my personal view is that both of them are substantially overstated, this post is not about debating them. Let’s accept the fears as valid, for the time being.
But let’s also do something which is too rare in these discussions: focus, at that same level of detail, on the potential gains from the restructures.
“Loss aversion” is a widely (if not universally) accepted principle of psychology which holds that people expect to lose more happiness from losing something valuable they already have than they expect to gain from getting something equally (or even more) valuable that is new to them. In any discussion of political change, we see loss aversion at work, as people focus strongly on the losses that change could bring. At the local level, we see this with zoning changes, where the discussion focuses on loss of neighborhood character, and traffic reconfigurations, where people talk about the well-trod travel paths that are bound to change. And transit restructures are no exception, as the most heated discussion is always about whatever will get worse — and, in any budget-neutral restructure, something is bound to get worse.
Because of loss aversion, proponents of restructures have an uphill battle from the start. Too often, both Metro and activists talk in abstract transit-geek terms like “well-spaced corridors” or “lower headways,” which mean nothing to the public. We don’t always bring the improvements into concrete form, so that people who stand to gain but are not transit geeks can get excited enough about what they’re getting to help offset who fear their losses.
So what would Bus 2 riders get from a restructure that moves Bus 2 to Madison Street? Believe it or not, a whole lot of good things.
Faster speed. At PM peak, the one-mile trip from 3rd Avenue to Broadway is scheduled for 15 minutes on Bus 2, and usually takes 3 to 5 minutes longer. Oddly enough, that is a 10-minute trip on Route 10 and a 12-minute trip on route 12, and both of those routes are much more reliable than Bus 2.
Even faster speed in the future. The City of Seattle sees Madison Street as a workable place for a major investment in bus speed. The city is studying dedicated bus lanes and lights that turn green for buses, so that the trip up and down First Hill would get even faster. Because of the I-5 interchange traffic and the narrowness of Seneca Street on First Hill, these are not solutions that could work for Seneca Street or Bus 2.
Less waiting at bus stops. Right now, Bus 2 runs every 15 minutes all day, meaning that someone arriving at the bus stop at a random time can expect to wait about eight minutes for a bus — time that, as any bus rider well knows, feels much longer than it actually is. By moving Bus 2 to Madison Street rather than Seneca, where it would run alongside Route 12, riders could expect an average wait of just four minutes per bus — or two minutes during rush hour. Even if the Save Metro vote fails and Metro has to cut service, the wait on Madison would be shorter than the wait for Bus 2 today — six minutes, or four minutes during rush hour.
Fewer major delays and long waits. When the bus runs every 15 minutes, you are in for a very long wait if a bus has any sort of problem like a mechanical issue, a passenger needing an ambulance, or a police incident. You might be standing at the bus stop for half an hour, causing you to miss a doctor’s appointment or be late for work. That long wait gets dramatically shorter when more buses are available. If Bus 2 were moved to Madison, you wouldn’t ever wait longer than 15 minutes even if a bus went out of service.
A better environment at bus stops. If more buses serve a particular stop, more passengers will use that stop, which is almost always a good thing for passengers. More eyes in an area deter criminal activity and promote a sense of safety. Moving Bus 2 to Madison would roughly double the volume of passengers using Madison stops at all times of day.
These benefits are not unique to proposed restructures of Bus 2. They are the usual motivation behind almost every restructure that either Metro or an interloper like me proposes or executes. And there is often a compelling case to be made that, for nearly all passengers, the benefits outweigh the potential harms that current users fear. There is no way to make that case without making clear exactly what the benefits are, and why ordinary bus riders, not just people who enjoy playing with maps in their spare time, can get excited about restructured bus service. Without understanding the benefits, we can’t say why they are worth the losses that people see so naturally, and fear so much.
Spend more time talking about the good stuff. That is how, just maybe, we can fix some of the longest-standing problems with Seattle transit — problems like the slowness, unreliability, and long waits that affect poor Bus 2 and all of its passengers.