48 Replies to “Sunday Open Thread: Busting the Empty Bus Myth”

    1. Going by the pictures, the busway looks like both Portland and Vancouver, BC’s urban bus alleyways, which also seem notable for their grim design, cut rate thrift stores and prodigious amounts of trash stuffed into receptacles.

      I like transit centers, but for some reason busways don’t come off as panned in downtowns.

      1. Curious about 3 things, John.

        1. What exactly is “grim” about the design of either busway you mentioned? Maybe we should open them to funerals- maybe only Friday afternoon rush hour.

        2. Your complaint about “cut-rate thrift stores is- what? That thrift stores in bus malls should raise their prices?

        My problem with the ones here in Olympia, both urban and suburban malls- neither of them reserved for buses- is the suspiciously good quality clothing at very modest prices.

        To any mystery writer, or reader, it’s obvious that a lot more men of my age and tastes seem to be dying here- along with our ages and tastes.

        My own suspicion is that behind this phenomenon is a plot by the petroleum industry to seize these innocent stores and turn them into outlets into huge outlets for imitation 1970’s leisure suits- fed by an enormous PR campaign themed on massively reported Sonny Bono sightings in clouds and yogurt.

        As enormous numbers of gullible higher income people- think Tom Cruise and JZ Knight- mob these stores, prices for all goods rise out of sight, including the pathetic English wool sports jackets which will return to their original eight hundred dollars- the price for a chartreuse pair of polyester bells.

        Which, due to their need for secrecy, the Koch Brothers won’t wear- as now seize busways to reconvert hybrid engines to coal. Would this fix your transit and commerce objections?

        3. Would you rather the rubbish remain outside the bins? Grab them and pet them and racoons will handle this for you just as a favor. Along with all your fingers.


      2. I grew up before the Mall Era.

        “Shopping” for me as a child meant my Mom taking us four kids on the bus (she didn’t drive) and going up to Liberty Avenue, the main district near our home in Queens. We used to walk daisy-chained, with each brother and sister holding the other so no one would get lost.

        Liberty Avenue was a street packed with shops. The extra wide sidewalk was always full of people on shopping days and evenings. It was also one terminus for the elevated A line so half of it was in the shadows, but it also provided a bit of shelter from rain and snow.

        Every shop on Liberty Avenue was different. From the Woolworth’s to the camera shop, to the clothing shops that my Mom would drag us for endless sessions of trying on new pants and shirts. And of course the toy shops which we the best of all.

        In the span of walking a few blocks, you could gather up many of your basic Big Shopping items and head back on the bus. When I was older I’d head up to Liberty on my bike for model airplanes, and other hobbyist do-dads.

      3. Portlander here – I would say our transit mall is anything but “grim”. It has a very pleasant design, that the locals are rightly proud of. Nor is full of “cut rate thrift stores”. In fact retail downtown (including along the transit mall) is thriving. Indeed Apple just opened a large new store right at the intersection of the transit mall and the MAX lines.

  1. Apparently, German football clubs love to have extravagant events for everything, including their team buses. From Mönchengladbach to Munich, I think transit agencies could always make announcing their new fleet more exciting.

    I’d be pretty great to see something high-profile for the Sound Transit Double Tall Wave’s debut next year.

    1. Street rail systems in several northern European cities have at least one charterable pub car each. Which one should we do first: South Lake Union, First Hill, or LINK? I’d favor East Link for the scenery and the number of Andy Capp lookalikes riding through Medina in their own rolling pubs.

      Meantime, how about a hybrid or two through the DSTT? Especially at Friday PM rush with a game in town? Unless the beer is non-microbrew, will definitely take car of the grimness problem. Legal pot would be even better if you didn’t include the new dealers who look more like their names should be Mr. Peterson, or “Doc” than Freewheeling Franklin Freak.


    2. The Bayern München presentation was much nicer. Is it any coincidence that both teams got MAN coaches? Is it more of a manufacturer thing than a club thing?

      Of course, ST will not get the same enthusiasm as that from football fanatics. Maybe in the US you might see the same enthusiasm for the unveiling of an MLB or NFL or NBA team’s charter aircraft. ‘Cause you know they won’t take a bus very often.

  2. PSTA is Clearwater, Florida’s transit authority

    PSTA ramping up its DART transportation program

    Shevitski uses the Demand Response Transportation (DART) program for rides. PSTA contracts with Yellow Cab to pick up and drop off disabled customers. Shevitski said in May that cab rides were hours late or didn’t even show.

    Today, she’s seeing improvements.

    “With Care Ride, they’re on time or a little bit early,” she said. “I think what happened was the news segment ruffled a few feathers.”


    PSTA reports record ridership in June

  3. So what he’s saying is during certain parts of a trip a bus will have less people, and at other times, more? Thank you, Captain Obvious.

    1. Please tell your friends in Bellevue to watch that video, because it’s not obvious to them.

      At a King County transit hearing a couple years ago, two people testified that they see “a hundred empty buses a day” from their office window in downtown Kirkalnd, and said that Metro should delete those kinds of routes before asking for more money. But those buses were at the very end of their route or on layover, so exactly the same situation as in the video.

      1. They were probably seeing buses leaving and entering east and bellevue Base. Obviously empty buses.

      2. When people talk about empty buses, I wonder how they can tell. From the outside, you can’t really tell how many people are actually on the bus. It’s only if you get on the bus and ride for a while that you can give an anecdotal report on how busy the bus is.

        I suspect that many folks who report empty buses don’t ride them regularly.

      3. These same problem probably talk about what a failure Link is when they see empty trains go by between Westlake Station and the Pine St. stub tunnel!

      4. The speakers said Kirkland. This was during the hearings for the 2-year bridge funding.

  4. Efforts to build affordable housing in Portland’s Pearl District fall short:

    In the meantime, efforts are underway to alter Oregon’s laws that prohibit local governments from requiring large developments to have some affordable housing. Buried deep in this article
    you will find that Oregon and Texas are the only two states that prohibit affordable housing requirements.

    So, presumably, Washington has a way for local governments to require affordable housing should they be so inclined.

  5. It seems like most people on this blog support transit restructures that improve mobility by removing duplication routes and making routes more frequent and simple. In general, I am also very supportive of these types of restructures. However, the issue of providing basic coverage concerns me as well, since Metro’s service guidelines do not seem to mention it at all. While productivity/ridership is certainly a valid goal of transit, transit is also necessary for other purposes, such as providing basic mobility for those who may not have other options available (i.e. youth, seniors, people who cannot afford a car, people with disabilities, etc.). Of course, coverage vs. ridership is always a tricky trade-off especially if an agency is forced to implement service cuts, but coverage services do serve crucial purposes and it may be a mistake to cut them just because they don’t get as many riders as other routes.

    As an example, Vancouver’s transit service guidelines mandate that “at least 90% of all residents and employees in urbanized development areas* should have less than 450 metres walking distance to a bus stop.” (page 5 of http://tinyurl.com/lxllche) I believe that Toronto, Ottawa, Zurich, and other cities also have similar standards for coverage that are even more robust than Vancouver’s. It should be noted that all of those cities get MUCH higher ridership per capita than Seattle, so providing broad transit coverage does not need to hinder the creation of an efficient transit network.

    Do you think that Seattle should implement similar coverage standards? Something like ___% of population living in continuously-urbanized areas should be within _____ meters of a bus stop with all-day service? Some GIS analysis along the lines of this post (https://seattletransitblog.wpcomstaging.com/2014/08/16/transit-geography-from-30000-feet/) would be quite helpful for this.

    1. In general, standards like “at least 90% of all residents and employees in urbanized development areas* should have less than 450 metres walking distance to a bus stop” mean a lot less than they might appear. Even if the bus stops right by your house, if it doesn’t go where you want to go travel, or doesn’t run when you want to travel, it’s useless to you. Similarly, if the only useful place the bus does go is such a short distance that walking gets you there just as fast.

      I use buses quite frequently, but for reasons stated above, it just so happens that the 3 bus routes which, on paper, pass within 1/4 mile of my home, I almost never use. (One is useful only for extremely short distances, for which it’s no faster than walking; one operates only two trips per day, usually while I’m still in bed; the last is weekday only, glacially slow, unreliable, and severely overcrowded). On the hand, lots of much better bus options exist with distances ranging from 1/2 mile to 2 miles, which I do use regularly.

      1. TransLink has most of the bus routes operate seven days a week, all day, and most of peak bus routes have other routes that require a transfers to get to your point of interest. TransLink also has peak bus routes that service the same corridor of another bus route that runs seven days week and all day.

      2. In general, standards like these assume that the bus system functions as a network with all services connecting to each other, so you can typically connect to anywhere in the metro area. This is generally true for Seattle, even if these connections are not implemented well (but that’s a separate issue). Also, Vancouver’s service standards also mandate that the vast majority of residents have a one-seat ride to the “nearest regional center,” so you won’t get bus routes that don’t run anywhere useful.

        The part about buses not running “when you want to travel” can be easily addressed with minimum service standards, such as (for example) service every 30 min or better throughout the day, and a minimum span of 6am-10pm 7 days a week. This would probably cover the vast majority of potential trips.

        Of course, I admit that drawing a hard line at 450 meters (or any other distance) is problematic, as most people are willing to walk farther if there is good service or if they do not have other options. Perhaps for purposes of basic coverage, the walking distance could be relaxed somewhat, maybe to 800 meters/0.5 miles or even 1600 meters/1 mile? Nevertheless, I don’t think this detracts from my main point, which was that coverage services do serve crucial needs and their importance should not be obscured by a sole focus on productivity.

    2. Rephrased, transit should emulate Lincoln, Nebraska: http://www.lincoln.ne.gov/city/pworks/startran/routemap/weekday/pdf/allroute.pdf

      Sure, a strictly radial, hourly off-peak, no service after 7 pm “network” is completely useless to 95% of the potential customer base, but at least 95% of the population is within 1/4 mile of a bus route!

      One approach is to start with plans inspired by two different paradigms; one treating transit as a social service (service prioritized to inelastic demand, but low in absolute population numbers [coverage], low fares over expanding service, etc), and one treating transit as a business (service prioritized to the masses, fare increases preferred over service cuts [ridership]). From these two competing paradigms, establish the social-service network as an absolute baseline, but attempt to overlay the business network to the maximum extent practicable.

      1. Actually, the approach that you recommend is exactly the one I would advocate for: provide a basic “social service” baseline level of service for the entire urbanized area (with the possible exception of remote exurban areas which are almost impossible to serve), and then add frequency in response to demand. Frequency and span of service are obviously important, but so is ensuring that almost all residents who need transit have access to it.

        With Lincoln, Nebraska, the main problem is that there are simply not enough resources to provide both broad coverage and high levels of service on each route: this is definitely a difficult situation. However, with Seattle, Vancouver, Zurich, etc. there are enough resources to cover almost all urbanized areas AND to create a strong network of frequent services (designed around ridership).

        My main concern is that Metro’s Service Guidelines only emphasize productivity and don’t mention “coverage goals” at all, when they are in fact valid. For example, there is a strong case for keeping buses like the 27 (at least the Leschi portion) and 61 for coverage reasons even if they do not achieve good productivity. Of course if severe service cuts are necessary, they might have to be dropped, but if the funding measure passes there should not be a need to delete them.

      2. Coverage is important, and you just hit on a key point – that when enough money isn’t available to provide both a frequent all-day network and universal coverage, throughout the area, something has to give. Vancouver is an amazing city, which has somehow managed to find a way to do both. Unfortunately, the money to do both in King County was never really there, even before the recession, and it is certainly not there now. (At best, you could maintain good frequency, span, and coverage within Seattle, at the expense of gutting service in the suburbs).

        The key to coverage is that you have to distinguish between routes which genuinely provide coverage to areas that would otherwise have no service vs. routes that merely allow people to avoid walking a couple of blocks. Given the hilly terrain, I think one can definitely make the case that the 27 provides real coverage. The 61, however, not so much, as every #61 bus stop on 32nd Ave. (the “unique” area) is within a 1/2-mile of a #40 stop and 3/4 mile of either a #44 stop or a #48 stop. Unlike the 27, The walk between the #61 and alternative service is gently sloped and, given the #61’s abysmal ridership numbers, it looks like nearly everyone in Sunset Hill who does ride the bus is already doing this walk anyway.

      1. For rural areas, I like the Whidbey Island model of service. Buses there do make “flexible” route deviations, but only to pick up or drop off paratransit-eligible customers. Everyone else needs to walk to the regular route (although they can flag down the bus in between posted stops). This strikes the appropriate balance between maintaining reliable service vs. being accessible to the disabled, while avoiding the expense of operating separate shuttles just for paratransit. The assumption here is that anyone not disabled can easily walk 3/4 mile, hence doesn’t need a special deviation. (The bus will still deviate to serve regular bus stops in front of important destinations).

      2. Deviations (to serve disabled people or others) would be useful for for some rural routes. However, the main problem is that you would need quite a lot of extra schedule padding to account for unexpected deviations, which would make trips significantly longer: this makes this type of service impracticable for urban areas in general. It is a decent way to provide basic access in rural areas though.

      3. That’s also how Metro’s dial-a-ride works. There’s a nominal fixed route from a low-densty area to a transit center, and it makes inbound deviations by preappointment or outbound deviations I think on the spot. The padding is that it runs hourly and makes at most three deviations per run if I remember.

    3. I’ll buy the idea of a coverage standard based on some portion of the population of the urban area only if certain types of developments don’t count toward it. Counting gated golf communities (The Highlands, Inglewood, Broadmoor), mountainside greenfield cul-de-sacs (Cougar and Squak Mountain developments), or other deliberately hard to access view homes (Perkins Lane in Magnolia, North Beach and Blue Ridge, Salmon Creek Ravine, Holmes Point) against a transit system’s coverage metrics makes no sense and serves no social justice purpose. If a non-US city with fewer people living in these sorts of places and more living in walkable neighborhoods planned around transit access scores better on coverage metrics, let’s not respond by dumbing our transit system down to the level of our land use.

      I also wouldn’t use walking distance, I’d use something like straight-line distance vertical distance multiplied by some appropriate factor based on how hard climbing hills is. That’s because it doesn’t make sense to count some neighborhoods’ intentionally broken pedestrian networks against the transit system’s coverage metrics, either while coverage on both the top and bottom of a very steep ridge might be important. If those neighborhoods (places like the Bridle Trails) want better transit access they should advocate for a connected pedestrian network that allows transit service to be provided efficiently.

      1. This is a difficult issue. Even in the most transit-unfriendly and wealthy areas, there are still people who need transit–for example, children and teenagers need to get around and parents are often unable to give them rides, and seniors and disabled people can be “trapped” in suburbs as well while being unable to drive. I guess you could argue that these people should move towards transit-friendly areas, but being forced to move (due to an unexpected need for transit or a loss in transit coverage) is rather difficult.

        Still, I can see that in some areas, demand for transit is so low that providing transit really provides negligible benefit. The real problem is that so many developments in Seattle are not built in ways that could support relatively-efficient transit. I believe Calgary has a regulation that mandates that new developments be built so that every house be within a certain distance of a future bus stop: this might be a good idea for Seattle.

      2. I’m not talking about excluding 32nd Ave NW, the vast majority of Magnolia, or even the majority of Laurelhurst from a coverage calculation. I’m not talking about excluding Lake Hills or Finn Hill or Kent East Hill or Clyde Hill or the Renton Highlands or the big area bordered by I-90, Coal Creek, and Cougar Mountain (except that in parts of these areas poor pedestrian connectivity shouldn’t be held against the transit system’s benchmarks).

        I’m saying that if you live on the slope of Cougar or Squak Mountain, or in a golf club, your transit service will have to be justified by ridership, not a coverage standard.

        Development standards are one thing, but… this is America, and I’m comfortable not prescribing a way of life for people as long as the consequences for people’s choices are clear. If you want to live in a low-density cul-de-sac on the side of Squak Mountain, fine, but be prepared to pay for parking, pollution, and congestion, and don’t expect the bus to come to your front door.

      3. There’s also the temporarily disabled. A family friend broke her leg and wasn’t able to drive for three months. She says it made her partly wish they hadn’t bought a house in an out-of-the-way area not near a bus stop (somewhere around north Renton or Kennydale), because she was basically stuck in the house when her husband was at work.

    4. There is no new coverage service; just legacy corridors that die hard. The 61 is not new service, it’s a partial reduction (truncating a downtown milk run to a shuttle). Seattle is firmly in urban village mode, and transit upgrades start with “study areas” (Ballard-downtown, Madison-BRT), which imply both frequent transit and upzones. The ritzy large-house neighbors (Magnolia, Madison Park) ask to be excluded from the study boundaries. This means no upzones for them, but no transit increase either.

      Jarrett Walker recommends that cities decide what percent of their transit budget to reserve for coverage service (usually 25 to 33%), and to dedicate the rest to productivity service (a frequent network connecting neighborhood centers). I don’t know if Metro has a specific percentage, but its shift to performance metrics is a step in that direction.

      1. I’m not sure what you’re referring to; since Metro isn’t anticipating increases in revenue, of course there would not be “new coverage service” (although when more funding is available, it might be a good idea to restore coverage to western West Seattle and other areas that are currently cut off). What I am arguing for is that coverage be taken into consideration when cutting service. As you mentioned, I don’t believe Metro even acknowledges coverage goals at all, so some of the cuts do cut lower-performing routes that provide crucial coverage. While these cuts may be justified if Metro must cut a lot of service, if the funding measure passes in Seattle there is certainly a valid case for preserving coverage to almost all areas in Seattle.

      2. King County Metro engaged in essentially nothing but the preservation and perpetuation of a basic coverage network for the first four decades of its existence.

        From preserving each unexamined quirk of the über-radial streetcar network — even as autocentricity death-spiraled the demand>frequency>demand for these routes until we had nothing left but useless and uncoordinated half-hourlies — to the 40/40/20 disaster that swallowed up multiple tax/fare hikes and promised service expansions in the 2000s, Metro couldn’t possibly have been more of a coverage-obsessed network of the sort that has failed American cities for half a century.

        The result was bottom-of-the-barrel transit failing to help a city with real, acute, and compounding mobility troubles.

        Only in the last decade has Metro even begun to pay the faintest lip service to forging a legible, cohesive frequent transit network that would actually enable large numbers of people to efficiently get around. And they haven’t yet done much of anything toward this goal, contortionist-approved RapidRide “improvement” metrics be damned.

        There’s no need to “advocate” for a coverage focus, because that’s all this city fucking has! We’re decades past due for the planning pendulum swing the other way!

      3. (Sorry for the late reply)

        Note that when I am “advocating” for coverage to considered, I am *not* opposing most of the rational restructures proposed on this blog that create more simple and frequent service without cutting people off from transit entirely (such as the Queen Anne restructure, 2S/Central District restructure, 73 restructure, eliminating the 19th Ave part of the 12, etc.). It’s great that Metro is building up a legible frequent transit network throughout the denser areas of the city, and I’m optimistic that further progress will be made upon Link extensions. However, I am simply asking that Metro avoid completely cutting off transit to people who need it greatly. Just because Metro historically focused too much on coverage and redundant/irrational service (to the detriment of the frequent network, as you pointed out) doesn’t mean that we should stop considering coverage altogether.

  6. All right John! I must have been about the same age when we lived in Chicago- where life often included scenes like the really great one you describe. When I was eight, every Saturday I used to ride the “El” downtown for drawing lessons at the Art Institute- which makes SAM look like one of its closets.

    With experience like this for comparison- you’ve truly gave me the right answer about the two bus malls you gave me being grim- which doesn’t have to include skulls and black drapery. That’s Goth. Which really always was fake death.

    What’s happened to a huge number of this country’s cities is the real thing: an eternal condition of stagnant boredom.

    However, boring bus malls have never been cause of death here- just results, or at best pathetic attempts to fight back against the real killer. The collapse our cities was very largely caused by our country’s abandonment of the industries that really were the heartbeat of the cities you and I loved.

    Pretty much the same has happened in both Portland and Vancouver BC- though Portland still puts a lot of effort into keeping its parks beautiful. But a lot of industry that used to be there is gone- as in many other cities. Downtown Seattle really is an exception among US cities.

    So every time you see someone in shabby clothes with nothing productive to do…imagine them in good work clothes with their hands on a machine. Where they or their fathers and grandfathers would have been in our un-grim days.

    I remember that at PM rush hour, the CTA cars, which had no air conditioning, always smelled like sweat- not Ripple. When I was five, my mother insisted that I always give my seat to a lady. Because being a social worker, she understood that the woman had either spent her day in a factory or scrubbing floors.

    There was no such thing as a baby carriage designed for propulsion by jogging.


  7. This blog, from time to time, let’s people know of jobs in the transportation field. I have an exciting opportunity for someone who is looking to be a part of my respected and influential comment section empire. I am looking for an online assistant. This is a non-paid intern position. Your duties will include doing transit research for me. Interested parties leave your email address below.

  8. Hee hee hee! “respective and influential” ha ha! Sam you’re the best! Keep up the. Comedy!! I love the humor you bring to the comments section!

    1. Sounds suspiciously like the Seinfeld episode where Kramer hired a young man to be his technical assistant- building something in his apartment out of chicken wire, I think. But let’s not be too hard on Sam. His company will not be spending anywhere near the fees people educated enough to know better but too rich to care pass along to their own clients.

      If the law mandated that every consultant work for the wages Sam is offering, a systemic parasite will be purged from the management body of America, especially transit. Which will leave us enough revenue to build and operate anything we want until the sun freezes. Let’s put Sam’s statue somewhere inside the latticework in the roof of Tukwila International Station- where it will attract not just one pigeon but thousands of them on their constant pilgrimage to die up there.


  9. Anyone who lives near a metro base sure sees a lot of empty buses go by. Also I’m wondering to what detail metro has about people’s origin and destination pairings. That information I’m sure would help guide future service changes.

  10. Possibly stupid question – how do you insert multiple images into a Page 2 post? I get an error when I try to upload pictures, and I am uncertain how to externally link to an image hosted elsewhere with WordPress.

    1. You can just cut and paste the URL if it is reference to particular websites, of which Flickr is one if you use the real URL.

      I’m not sure what you see with your permissions, but if you use the “text” editing window you can put in HTML to display an image. I’d post an example but WordPress will try to turn that into an image. :-(

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