I come with priors into this discussion. For years detractors said we didn’t need light rail, that theoretical arrangements of bus service could do the job. If only WSDOT demand managed road capacity on I-5 properly, rapid buses would serve the UW-downtown market much more cheaply than U-Link. And with open BRT those buses could fan out to destinations all over Seattle and the Eastside without forcing a transfer.

Without actually running the numbers, I suspect that argument is broadly true; and yet I feel absolutely sure that if our strategy was to “pressure” WSDOT to do the right thing this transit trip would be just as aggravating in 2016 as it is today.

As the region discusses Sound Transit 3, local decisionmakers are showing a clear preference for light rail over freeway-based BRT solutions, along the I-5 corridor and elsewhere. This is presumably in response to input from constituents. And once again, skeptics are making completely valid technical points about what buses could accomplish.

Freeways are a form of grade separation, making them seductive for rapid transit. However, freeway expresses rely on our brittle highway system, which does not truly insulate transit operations from meltdowns of various kinds. In practice they are not run for rapid transit, resulting in suboptimal operations:

  • WSDOT doesn’t manage High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes to ensure free-flowing traffic, partly due to resistance from existing carpoolers.
  • In some cases, HOT lanes will inject more traffic into HOV lanes. More generally, tolling instituted for demand management (as opposed to revenue to pay off projects) hasn’t materialized at all. When the system is most under stress, the optimal toll will likely exceed an arbitrary peak toll set by the legislature for PR reasons, resulting in congestion.
  • WSDOT doesn’t go out of its way to ensure HOV and transit priority during construction episodes, again discouraging transit use when the system needs it most.

These problems will only get worse as the region continues to grow, and inadequate upzones in transit-rich areas force people into cars.

In summary, WSDOT simply isn’t responsive to the needs of transit users in the way that other jurisdictions are. It serves a more car-centric population, its central purpose (highway building) is the opposite of urbanism, and it answers to politicians with fundamentally different values. And we’ve had Democratic Governors since 1985; a Republican will eventually win, and his or her WSDOT appointee will be happy to tell us where we can put our transit petitions. For all the ways that Sound Transit, Metro, and SDOT disappoint urbanists, they are fundamentally in the business of providing a decent transit experience and are responsive to rider organizations.

For all these weaknesses, bus investments are absolutely worthwhile. Rail won’t work in every place and in practice we can’t afford to put it everywhere. If the choice is truly between a huge amount of medium-quality BRT and a modest amount of high-quality rail, reasonable transit advocates can disagree. I can certain imagine bus-intensive packages that I would prefer to rail-intensive ones, though really I want to see both. And of course true traffic-separation, such as the Westside Transit Tunnel, invalidates this critique insofar as buses remain in that stretch of guideway.

It wouldn’t be right to say that we should build everything people want, even if we could. Different people will have different thresholds on how much they’re willing to spend on transit.  And of course some projects are higher priority than others under any sensible criteria. But it’s healthy to recognize the reasonable sources of people’s preferences and not simply dismiss them as irrational or ignorant.

113 Replies to “Puget Sound Rail Bias is Rational”

  1. Well said Martin. We should also note that time isnt the only factor in transit choice. Rail provides a smoother, more comfortable, ride. It isnt irrational to prefer that.

    On the Eastside we still think rail improvements such as this: https://seattletransitblog.com/2014/07/23/better-eastside-rail/
    Would not just serve to gather votes, but would really serve their transit users.

    We’re still a bit confused about why ST didnt study anything like it and why 405 BRT seemed to be annointed as “the plan” in advance.

    1. If that could be built cheaply, it would certainly be popular. I doubt that would be the case, which is why I doubt that most rail plans for the suburbs would be popular. The exception is the extension of East Link into Redmond.

      With the exception of Sound Transit 2, voters on the East Side (and suburban voters in general) have preferred express buses and commuter rail over light rail. Three attempts at light rail failed, until voters approved a regional package that had very little light rail. Proponents of the ballot initiative made it very clear that if it had more rail, it probably would have failed in the suburbs. Sound Transit 2 certainly had rail, but it had plenty of express bus service and commuter rail.

      Without further polling, we have no way of settling this argument. History provides a bit of a guide, but is not conclusive (perhaps East Side voters find rail more popular now). Perhaps there is no rail bias anywhere, and people simply support projects that make sense for their area. I do think it is fair, though, to assume that suburban voters are more frugal, and less likely to support transit measures in general. I think it is a combination — voters in Seattle are more likely to support a transit system, even when it is flawed (e. g. monorail) while voters in the suburbs are more likely to decide based on value. If that is the case, then the key everywhere is to build systems that provide the most benefit for the money, regardless of mode. With few exceptions, that means more commuter rail and bus improvements in the suburbs, along with some light rail and bus improvements in Seattle.

    2. Yep. The key is value and unfortunately I don’t see this Eastside proposal providing that. ST3 needs to include solutions that help people now, not promises solutions from ST4 (if that ever comes). It needs to follow the Eastside’s complex travel patters. And finally it needs to focus on expanding the coverage of frequent service across the Eastside including commuter-oriented service. This won’t create an “ideal” system but it gets at the current needs of the Eastside.

  2. No one ever said that rail couldn’t be rational. To the extent that this article implies otherwise, it is simply one extended and not especially interesting straw man.

    “Bias”, by the very definition of the word, is not rational.

    Oh, and http://www.soundtransit.org/Rider-Community/Rider-news/March-28-29-Downtown-Link-Shutdown

    Nothing to see here: http://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/WASOUND/bulletins/100084b

    And, of course, the bias coup de grâce: https://twitter.com/zachshan/status/583412801630183424

    1. Those are the scheduled outages. One advantage of rail is that it doesn’t get shut down because of accidents or police actions. Oh, wait, it does:


      I agree, though, the straw man is kind of weird. They are just different tools, and sometimes one makes more sense than the other. Basically, the argument can be extended to its logical conclusion:

      “They used to tell me that I can just put in my screws with a hammer, but I bought a more expensive drill and screw driver instead and it worked out great. So now I put in my nails with a screw driver.”

      In so far as this is a complaint about WSDOT and their handling of HOV lanes, I think that is a strong argument. But to simply throw up our hands and then say that nothing can be done to leverage a superior (and largely existing) bit of infrastructure and that we need to build a much more expensive, and ultimately much less useful rail line instead seems like overkill, to say the least.

      1. My 2nd and 3rd examples were of course not scheduled outages either, but examples of the total absence of “inherent to rail” immunity from any sort of reliability infringement.

        I would also note that this weekend’s rail-preparatory I-90 work is just as much a “scheduled” service interruption as the rail-preparatory downtown Link closure in March.

      2. These unscheduled outages would not have happened if Link were completely grade-separated.

      3. But grade-separated Link could as easily be delayed or disabled by someone jumping in front of a train or driving a car into the DSTT or shooting someone on a platform.

      4. Perhaps not the MLK crashes, but power/security/vehicle-malfunction outages still will. And didn’t we have a retained-cut flooding shutdown in our first year of operation?

        Just as there is no form of potential intrusion or outage that you can entirely prevent, there is no form of interruption to which you cannot apply due diligence in order to minimize.

        The irony of Martin decrying a planned highway-borne transit interruption for the explicit purpose of constructing rail should not be allowed to escape notice.

      5. If an at-grade line causes 100 unplanned outages and a separated-bus-accessible line (e.g., in a trench) causes 10 planned outages, and a separated-but-inaccessable line (e.g., in a tunnel or elevated) causes 3 planned outages (e.g., train breakdown or somebody climbing up the scaffolding), then isn’t it better to solve most of the problem even if you can’t solve all of it.

      6. Someone down-thread wrote:

        I rode the 550 Saturday. There were no bus slowdowns either way.

        So exactly what are we debating here? Whether by design or by accident, bus transit was apparently faster this weekend than driving through the work zone. Which unfortunately no one could know before electing to use it for a trip.

        Rail-as-built-right-here-in-the-very-town-that-is-under-discussion is often interrupted for the most preventable of reasons. Which unfortunately no one can know before electing to use it for a trip.

        So perhaps it’s time to throw out the whole stupid premise of Martin’s trolliest post ever. This town provides approximately zero substantiation for rail bias.

    2. Have we just been imagining Kemper Freeman Jr’s rantings about light rail being irrational all these years?

      Or his bias for BRT? Oh, wait, that part, at least, really was fake.

      Now, I almost expect anyone pushing a good BRT plan to say, “I am not pushing this just because I don’t want light rail. I have nothing against light rail.” And then to take pains to say how valid the LRT alternatives are. PKFSD.

      1. No one who is being honest thinks rail cannot be rational.

        That includes all of the regulars on this blog, whom Martin is addressing in a way that is itself an example of disingenuousness.

  3. Martin, I think some of the frustration that took place in the ST3 initial offering was that from a cost/benefit/bang for buck point of view and with limited resources for Seattle, West Seattle somehow got preferential treatment vs. Ballard and the WSTT. Cynics would argue that Dow Constantine played a heavy role (which is why I keep asking STB to ask Murray/Kubly for their stance) in getting LRT for West Seattle while Ballard got a street car. While the ST guy helped, folks still want to know how this original presentation saw the light of day.

    1. That’s part of it, but as I’ve tried to explain below, the best thing for “West Seattle” is not light rail serving only one or two communities, but bus improvements (whether you want to call it BRT or not) for the entire peninsula. The three most iconic, if not most popular locations on West Seattle are the college (my alma mater, back when it was called SSCC), Alki, and the junction. West Seattle rail can’t possible serve all three. If it could, we would have an interesting discussion. But it can’t, because it is just too expensive. So, the idea (instead) is to pick one of those spots (and it won’t be Alki) and serve it. Meanwhile, the other spot gets nothing. For someone in Alki (or the other location) you are better off today — even as your bus slogs through downtown. Meanwhile, you would be much better off with the WSTT and similar improvements being made on the surface streets and the freeway (which, of course, would cost a bunch less than a “starter rail” line to only one corridor of West Seattle).

      This would be OK if the one destination that will have improved service was actually much more popular or populous than the other spots. But there isn’t a spot like that in all of West Seattle. Alki is as significant as any other spot, and it is left out. The Delridge Corridor is just as significant as the 35th corridor, and you can’t serve them both. Meanwhile, there is a huge swath of nothingness between the first possible stop in West Seattle and SoDo. This swath of nothingness means literally miles of (very expensive) light rail with no stop. So, someone riding the bus from Delridge, being forced to transfer to the train, can say “well, I now have to take the train, which costs me an extra five or ten minutes, and is inconvenient, but I get to stop off at … SoDo, along the way — wait, the bus stopped there anyway!”.

      The problem with the current ST3 plans is not that West Seattle jumps to the front of the line, but that the plans for West Seattle don’t serve the vast majority of those that live there. The fact that it does so when better ways to serve it are actually cheaper makes the idea even more ridiculous.

      1. That’s a point that I press with politicians all the time, without getting a good answer.

        West Seattle has small or large transit markets at Admiral, Alaska Junction, High Point, Avalon, Westwood, Delridge, and along California Avenue. You can’t hit them all with light rail. The old Monorail Project took some grief about this dilemma, by the way.

        The ST3 concepts tunnel to Alaska Junction, which is the biggest single stop, and it would catch the big “triangle” growth area just downhill. But it gets built in 2030 at the soonest, still leaving other neighborhoods to a two-seat ride.

        The WSTT is one idea, as is my pet concept of building a cantilevered bus lane on the loop ramp from WS Bridge to NB 99, where buses no merge into general traffic for a 5-minute slowdown. Fortunately, Dow Constantine has fought to at least keep a waterfront bus lane past the ferry terminal for 120 and C to use after the 99 tunnel opens in 2018 or so. But it will be slowed by stoplights and mixed-traffic areas.

        Anyway, it’s not a foregone conclusion that LRT tunneling is the best move for West Seattle, even though it personally would benefit me more than anything else in ST 1, 2, 3, or 4. STB , Seattle Subway, and everybody else ought to debate it heatedly.

      2. A cantilevered bus lane attached to the current loop ramp would be fine.

        But imagine how much the situation would improve with a dedicated and direct flyover ramp that eliminated both the need to cross general lanes and to spin 270 degrees.

        This would still cost about 1/1000th of just the acquisition and engineering prep for a dedicated rail line. And it would accomplish far more.

        Rail to a West Seattle, in any possible permutation, is indefensibly exorbitant and ineffective to boot. If it finds its way into the next formal proposal, that plan should be vigorously opposed.

  4. There are some places where buses on highways are appropriate and some places where rail is appropriate. Generally, this depends on:
    1) How much ridership is expected – is the extra capacity that rail provides over buses actually needed?
    2) How fast can a bus operating along existing roads and freeways actually move (how congested is it)?

    For downtown->UW, it should be pretty clear by now that the demand levels are high enough and I-5 unreliable enough to warrant rail. Similar for Ballard->UW for lower Queen Anne/Belltown/downtown.

    However, when you get further out into areas like Everett or Bellevue, the case for rail is a lot weaker – existing HOV lanes move a greater percentage of the time, and the need for the capacity that rail offers is a lot less. Areas like the Eastside or West Seattle, in particular, are too dispersed for rail to serve effectively.

    I also do not buy the argument that rail which is slower than buses 99% of the time is justifiable by the remaining 1% of the time when there really is a total meltdown on the freeway. Arguments like this, which have been used to justify extending Link to Federal Way and Tacoma essentially means designing a rail system that very few people will use 99% of the time.

    In the right areas, rail can be quite useful. However, with very few exceptions, the areas in Puget Sound (outside Seattle) where rail is justified are already getting rail in ST 2, which, by necessity, means any sensible ST 3 proposal should be mostly bus-based.

    1. Except that freeway meltdowns happen more often than people notice. There are accidents and unusual backups several times a week, like the honeybee one last week. Most of them don’t affect my buses because I use the DSTT and I-5 to 45th, but if I were coming from Federal Way or Lynnwood they’d affect my buses a lot more.

      1. “Thus, for most corridors, only between 1 and 10 percent of peak period delay is caused by lane blocking incidents. In part this is due to the high level of “recurring congestion” on the area’s freeways and the relative infrequency of lane blocking incidents during the peak period…” http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/research/reports/fullreports/568.2.pdf

        Let’s tackle the reoccurring congestion first.

      2. Delays are delays no matter what causes them. Lane-blocking incidents happen a few times a week. and add to recurring congestion.

      3. I completely disagree. Reoccurring delays can be address through investments like HOV lanes or bus lanes, non-occuring delays are much harder to deal with.

  5. There are pros and cons in investing huge sums of capital into an inflexible fixed route system.

    Where we really are failing is in routing new lines adjacent to freeways – sewers for cars and providers of childhood asthma. Places most people won’t want to live and are poor pedestrian environments.

    1. We aren’t just routing transit to the freeways. We are also pushing what new density SFH neighbors will put up with up against freeways, creating the feedback loop that will have a larger and larger chunk of the population living where the air is most toxic. And these upwardly mobile neighborhoods stand little chance of getting lids over the freeways their residents will be avoiding, but having to live next to.

  6. Rail also promotes property values in the surrounding area by signaling public investment in the neighborhood. Check out the property values near subway stops in Astoria vs land near buses. It’s night and day.

      1. Those pictures show what is there the last time Google photographed the area, not what the value of the land is. As you know, some property owners will hold off redeveloping their property while they try to get it upzoned. Can you blame them?

      2. That public investments of this type (at least speculatively) increase property values isn’t simply a canard. What is debatable is whether these public investments bring about land value increases substantial enough to spur redevelopment. That question speaks to the actual utility of the public investment.

        You pulled up some pretty damning examples, but there are at least as many stations areas along those same lines that have seen increased property values such that redevelopment made sense.

      3. If you had opened them, you’d know that those photos show:

        1. Rainier Beach station, where precisely zero conditions for large-scale redevelopment nor demonstrable evidence of a demand for such exist, despite the presence of recently-built rail.

        2. A rail corridor constructed in Portland solely for the sake of expedience, and knowingly far from any area that would likely be desirable for redevelopment or liable to experience a value surge by virtue of rail’s presence. The line in question also has atrocious off-peak frequency that entirely gives lie to the idea that rail is indicative of any kind of preferential access treatment. If you’d like, though, I can show you where the “redevelopment”-oriented streetcar in the Lloyd district snakes past a Burger King and two gas stations.

        3. The Benson Streetcar terminus. Because “signaling permanence” or something.

        There is no verifiable link between “rail”, in and of itself, and property values in the real world. There are very desirable locations on the El on Chicago’s North Side, and plenty of bombed-out husks next to stations in the South. For every Astoria-access example Zach L may point to, there is an East New York or a (less extreme) Far Rockaway. And even if ST3 crashes and burns, Ballard will remain infinitely more desirable than Angle Freaking Lake.

        It is past time to retire this canard.

      4. [The above was for Brent.]

        Shane, my point has always been that a cocktail of factors influence urban livability and thus property values. The quality of transit service can most definitely be one of them.

        But that is simply not the determining factor — the one that switches an area from “off” to “on”, ceteris paribus — and any argument that relies on such a premise needs to be nipped in the bud.

        This is a town where people still pull out the “rail = permanence / expectation of service” canard, while both the Benson and the FHSC platforms sit empty half a block apart (whereas the accursed 2 bus has remained stuck on Spring Street for 75 years). There are apparently no limits to the willingness of Seattleites to stare truth in the face and straight-facedly regurgitate lies.

      5. …though it does seem the paradigm of rail = permanence/excellent service is changing (at least when it comes to streetcars) as more focus is brought to the attributes that actually make a useful service and don’t come stock because you put rails in the ground. Recently and locally this shift is reflected in SDOT’s admission that the SLUT ain’t all that and a bag of chips, leading to the decision to pursue improvements they hope will boost speed and reliability. So, maybe they don’t quite understand what makes useful service yet, but they recognize the SLUT with its rails alone ain’t it.

      6. Sure, except that as pretty much everyone (Martin included) admitted, the true benefit of those SLU lanes is going to be on the exponentially more useful 40 and C Line buses that will also get to take advantage of them.

        (Though if it turns out the lane proposal was merely Murray’s attempt to set out napkins and silverware for the shit sandwich that would be a Ballard streetcar, I will be less inclined to believe that the powers-that-be have learned much of anything.)

      7. So adding the transit-only lanes for the SLUT is also going to make the it the worst way to get through SLU by virtue of the much broader range of destinations afforded by the C and 40? And the C and 40 will duplicate most of the streetcar’s service through SLU while operating at much higher frequencies? Can we scrap it? Case seems pretty clear. How’s that for permanence!

      8. I specifically said property value, not optics. I’d be willing to bet that that land is more valuable than land not near the rail.

        In another comment, you mentioned land near far rockaway station isn’t more valuable than land that is. That’s patently untrue. My parents house in syosset is right by the LIRR station, and is so much more valuable than houses far away from the station.

      9. If land is more valuable because of better transit, or rail service in particular, I haven’t seen it. d. p. showed some examples of land that clearly hasn’t increased in value. Meanwhile, the opposite is true. The South Lake Union area is terrible for transit, and it booming like crazy. This includes the Cascade neighborhood, which is obviously not influenced by the the streetcar. If you looked at development, you really can’t see the influence of the streetcar, or light rail in general, while places like Ballard and Lake City are booming like crazy. I think the area around gasworks has more cranes than Rainier Valley, which is crazy considering how far it is from any train.

      10. No Ross, d.p. didn’t show examples of land that hasn’t increased in value; he showed land near stations that hasn’t been redeveloped, potentially because it hasn’t increased in value to the extent redevelopment makes sense. The point was that public investment in the form of a transit line isn’t usually the magic development catalyst people imagine it is. When a transit line does seem to catalyze development it usually does so because it’s paired with a smart location with “good bones” and a suite of up-zones and incentives. Transit can and does increase land value but it alone cannot catalyze development.

        You bring up a number of appropriate examples—Ballard, Lake City, Lower Wallingford/Fremont, SLU—where transit service is mediocre but furious development occurs. Given these examples showing rail transit is completely unnecessary for an area to boom, rapid development in Ballard, Wallingford or anywhere distant from rail service shouldn’t baffle at all.

      11. Shane V, this brings up an interesting legal question:

        If nearby investments increase property value, but zoning laws prevent any uses of that land that make sufficient profit to pay the increased property taxes, is the zoning law (which was in place before the investments) a legal taking?

      12. Far Rockaway (the neighborhood on the outskirts of Queens) is famously both persistently cheap and more than a bit rough-and-tumble.

        And that is not only in spite of very frequent service a long a primary subway line with a one-seat ride to much of Manhattan, but also in spite of being gorgeous seaside real estate!

        What Far Rockaway has not had going for it for most of its settlement existence, is that for a city-proper neighborhood it happens to be… well… “far”. That’s why it was cheap in the early era of city sprawl (despite rail), and why the NYHA saw fit to stash large amounts of social housing within it.

        Queens has many less aesthetically impressive middle-class neighborhoods with equal density and no rail.

        Real-estate desireability is a cocktail, and transit is just one of the ingredients. Rail might be a garnish — hardly essential.

      13. Brent,

        I haven’t come across a case where an increase in property value (and a resulting increase in property tax) but no change in zoning has led to an inability to pay the increased taxes. I’m not sure what municipality would be stupid enough to allow that to happen. Large public investments usually come with up zones and other incentives to further raise land value such that its not only possible but makes financial sense to build densely, allowing more people access to whatever public investment.

        But to get to your question, this situation might MIGHT be able to be argued as a Per se takings, which is broadly defined as some regulation—in this case the land use zoning—that permanently and totally deprives a property owner of all reasonable economically beneficial use of the property. But that’s a stretch as the occupant is still able to generate income under current regulations—per your scenario—just not enough to operate profitably.

      14. Wait a minute: I thought they said “quack quack quack! Oh, wait a minute. I thought you said “mallards!”


      15. In the Portland case shown, there are actually two fairly good sized apartment complexes just north of there.

        However, thanks to the road bias of transit construction here, three of the six stations on that line serve parking lots. That happens to be a station that is one of those parking lots, and not easy to access unles going there for park and ride reasons.

        Then, there’s the problem that nobody in their right mind lives anywhere near I-205 unless that is the only place they can afford to live.

        Also, the MAX line wasn’t necessarily a huge improvement. From the areas shown, the 4, 17 and 9 can be a better choice, depending on where you need to go. They are slow during the peak period though.

      16. d.p. Sorry. They’ve done actual studies. Statistically valid and everything.

        If you control for other factors (redlining, police policies, etc. etc. etc.), rail stations do increase land value nearby. And bus stops don’t. Yes, even stupid rail stations on poorly-thought-out lines. Yes, even really well-thought-out bus stops on really good lines. :-P

        Obviously it’s still inappropriate to build rail to areas which will never have the demand to support it. The property values still go up if you do so, though.

  7. Any detractors who said we didn’t need light rail must have been focused on the suburbs, or they really liked bus tunnels. I’ll admit, I love the Seattle Transit Tunnel (formerly the bus tunnel). I believe it has provided the greatest improvement in the lives of transit users over anything that we have built so far (and that includes Central Link, which leverages it heavily). More people have saved more time on buses in that tunnel than anything else we have built. If not for the expansion of Link, it would take twenty or thirty years (if not more) before light rail caught up with it.

    But Link is expanding, and I think you can make a solid case that UW to downtown light rail will be the greatest transit accomplishment for this region. This makes sense, since we have been talking about that corridor since the monorail was built (seriously — ask my mom).

    But UW to Capitol Hill to First Hill to downtown is just one of many bus tunnels that would have to be built if we wanted to have a full BRT network without light rail. There is also Ballard, which would have to be served with both the WSTT and another tunnel from Ballard to the UW. Of course, you would still need to replace the Metro 8, so you would build a tunnel for that as well.

    But that would be silly. It doesn’t make sense to go through the very high cost of building a tunnel on a very dense corridor (like UW/Capitol Hill/downtown) and only put in buses. That is not a shared corridor (like the West Seattle Freeway or much of I-5) but a dense corridor. There is a difference, and it is worth noting. The UW to downtown corridor probably should have a couple more stops, but as it is, each stop is right next to a popular or populous area. There are lots of people who will walk to or from a station. The same can’t be said for most places along a freeway. For example, along the West Seattle freeway, there are no logical stops until you get to Delridge. This means that the train goes right through or over two miles of the city (at great expense) without stopping. Even at Delridge, you don’t have a very densely populated or popular area. If you put a station there, not many people would walk to it (it would be a bus feeder station). Which leaves the area up on the hill as the closest area that would get you significant walk-up ridership. Not ridership even close to Capitol Hill, First Hill, the UW or South Lake Union, but ridership in the same league as Roosevelt or Northgate (if that). So that is about three miles of very expensive light rail before you get one station where light rail actually makes sense (and even then, not to the same degree as any of the stops I mentioned).

    With any light rail line, it is always good to look at the combination of stops along the way, and try and determine if there is an alternative. For example, for U-Link, you have:

    1) UW to downtown — This is a popular connection. An alternative exists right now, which is not too bad as long as you are going with the express lanes. But it is terrible the rest of the day.

    2) UW to Capitol Hill — This is a popular connection. No good alternative exists.

    3) Capitol Hill to downtown — This is a popular connection. No good alternative exists.

    Now, compare this with a West Seattle Junction/Delridge/downtown rail line:

    1) West Seattle Junction to downtown — This is a popular connection. The alternative is clogged in the morning, but otherwise outstanding.

    2) West Seattle Junction to Delridge — To the Delridge stop proper, this is not a popular connection. This is because (as mentioned) the Delridge stop is a feeder stop. The connection between the buses that would serve this station and the junction is somewhat popular. There are alternatives that are roughly as fast (depending on where you are trying to go).

    3) Delridge to downtown — This is a popular connection as part of the Delridge corridor. The alternative is fast (HOV lanes almost the entire way). Since this is a feeder station, the alternative is not only fast, but faster (no transfer).

    So, obviously, unless light rail to West Seattle could be built really cheaply, it doesn’t make sense. There are similar examples in other parts of the city. For example, the folks in Northgate who are trying to go downtown in the morning, may miss the old 41. The bus passed one traffic light before getting on the express lanes and quickly getting to downtown. But this only worked in the morning. In the afternoon or evening it was terrible. But more to the point, the trade-off will be excellent service to very popular stops that are difficult to get to otherwise. Northgate will soon be connected extremely well to Roosevelt, two different parts of the U-District and Capitol Hill. These are very popular trips (the UW and Capitol Hill certainly are) so the trade-off is obviously worth it. Northgate itself is reasonably popular — not just the mall, but the college as well as the medical facilities. This means that the combinations work both ways (e. g. plenty of people will ride from Capitol Hill to Northgate or UW to Northgate).

    As mentioned, a West Seattle Junction light rail line is the opposite. For riders on a Delridge bus, the added connectivity to the junction (if it exists) is not enough to make up for the loss in speed to downtown. Those by the junction will benefit, for the brief period in the morning (assuming they are headed downtown). The rest of the day it will be the same (because, again, they get nothing out of the stops along the way).

    So, basically, you have a commuter rail transit pattern (everyone trying to get to one destination). Building a very expensive light rail line to serve a commuter rail transit pattern is not a good idea, especially when the alternative (BRT) would be cheaper and faster for the vast majority of riders. Similar analysis for similar areas (areas that share a common, but unpopular corridor) will probably lead to similar conclusions.

    1. Sensible analysis. First rule of thumb for rail service: rail is less expensive than the alternatives for high volumes of passengers (or freight), but more expensive than the alternatives for low volumes of passengers (or freight).

  8. Saying bias towards rail is rational is like saying bias towards a big flatscreen TV is rational. Of course it is, but does that mean that everyone has the money for one, buys one or even needs one? No!

    I lived for nearly 5 years without a TV and was totally fine with it, watching TV on my computer over Netflix. This is the buses on HOV lane solution. It wasn’t the highest quality solution, but compared to nothing it was the best fit. Now, five years later I own a big flatscreen TV but I also make more money and watch more TV.

    My point is that high quality solutions are obviuosly desired but they need to be taken in context. What works for Seattle might not work for the Eastside. Saying bias towards rail is rational oversimplifies a complex decision and is a straw man argument.

    PS I say all of this while still agreeing with your assessment of HOV lanes and WSDOT. It’s the extrapolation and implied relationship which I find wrong.

    1. As the last two paragraphs make clear there’s a world of difference between regretfully saying we don’t have enough money to serve a place and saying the freeway expresses are just dandy.

      Although my title arguably has too few words, from the context it’s clear I’m actually comparing Link light rail and freeway express buses, not rail and buses in general.

  9. This time around, the 550 and 554 are getting priority since the the Rainier Flyer stop dumps in at the head of the car queue. That said, I’m sure this is pretty much accidental. Sound Transit and WSDOT have never seemed to work together to make transit a priority in such circumstances.

  10. As the circumference of the urban core about a city approaches 0 the competition for space increases. This is evident by property value increaing as well as availability for street space for buses and autos. As this circumference becomes smaller the need for alternative accesses to the center become greater. If we build dedicated tunnels and elevated lanes for buses we could circumvent this contraction. We could make it flexible enough to increase capacity by adding more coaches, increasing frequency or making necessary upgrades for speed increases. If we added a guide way system and regularly spaced intervals for stops we could organize accordingly and synchronize with all other transportation connections. You know, kind of like LR accept with a higher maintenance cost.

    LR serves a purpose done right. The important thing is to recognize where the usefulness of a bus ends and a well thought-out LR begins.

  11. Gratuitous fare comment warning…

    WSDOT shows up to vote at ORCA Joint Board meetings. I’ll give them that. (Technically, it is Washington State Ferries, but WSF is just a branch of WSDOT.)

    Their rep even votes to allow the other members of the pod to do what they want with PugetPass, the regional day pass, and whatever else is going on. WSDOT just doesn’t partake of the rest of what the pod is doing.

    And so, even the ferries have an anti-transit bias. WSDOT takes pains to try to improve conditions for the cars on their ferries, and thinks little of the additional passengers the ferry could carry (some who are unnecessarily bringing their cars because the pricing structure leads them to that decision) for the cost of a few more lifeboats and orange vests, if the ferries’ passenger fares were integrated with the regional fare system. I know they need money. But I would suggest that pricing to encourage a lot more walk-on passengers would achieve that goal more effectively than gouging pedestrians.

    Washington State Ferries isn’t known as the state highway with a heavy pedestrian toll for nothing.

    I bring this up as one more example of how WSDOT creates an anti-WSDOT bias, fueling the fear that any BRT proposal for the eastside that uses WSDOT right-of-way is doomed to poor implementation.

  12. This is the WRONG argument. It’s just too attractive to argue whether one mode is better than another or whether people are biased – it’s like scratching an itch.

    The right argument is WHERE rail is the best choice. Where does it advance a strategic objective or outcome that buses can’t achieve. Where is the massively high capital cost worth the incremental benefits? There was no feasible bus alternative between UW and downtown, and I know because I’ve followed that debate over the years. There is currently no way to have mass transit in Seattle without protected rights-of-way at minimum. There are many things rail has inherent advantages for. The question is whether we’re using it for those – instead of trying to solve the problems we’ve already spent the last 30 years solving (the distant suburb to city commute) over and over again. The rail we’re planning in the region is, unfortunately, focused on the places where buses are most effective and where rail has the least advantage. Even on the land use side; the development suburban officials are hoping rail will spur will be high density in freeway rights-of-way where pedestrians least want to be.

    I hope you’ll switch someday away from the culture wars around transit modes and start focusing instead on what strategic outcomes we should pursue. All-day mobility in the urbanized area would be a good start – something we have yet to turn our attention to. Putting stations where pedestrians most want to be and buses have the hardest time penetrating. Creating rights-of-way where existing ones won’t do. Those are things rail can do that buses can’t, and there are places where they’d be worthy.

    1. I agree. For areas where the corridor is along the freeway, there are several choices:

      1) Open BRT using brand new lanes (that only serve the buses).
      2) Grade separated light rail.
      3) Open BRT using the existing HOV or HOT lanes.

      The first and second are expensive, and one makes more sense than the other, depending on circumstance. If the freeway happens to have lots of people, and you have the volumes to support it, then light rail makes sense. If most of the people are coming in from the more dispersed area anyway, then the second makes more sense.

      The third choice is just a scaled down version of the first. It might not be ideal (just as Link running down Rainier Valley is not ideal) but it is much cheaper, and can be made better by changing the legislation. So, assuming that the first choice is the ideal choice (which I believe is the case for the bulk of our suburbs) this suggest that the best course of action is building new freeway lanes. Is the best use of our money? I don’t think so — I think there are better ways to improve the ride — but I can see how one might think so.

      1. I’m an advocate for converting HOV lanes to express toll lanes. The primary motivation for that is to restore speed and reliability for transit.

      2. I would prefer straight up conversion to HOV 3, but if HOT is the only way (politically) to do that, then I will accept it.

    2. Yeah, you guys in Puget Sound really do seem to keep getting these poorly-thought-out suburban expressway-rail proposals which will never carry enough riders to justify them

  13. His definitions seem spurious.

    The argument is that a bus in a segregated lane doesn’t work because HOV lanes don’t work.

    However, you could say, what would an LRT be like if it were forced to drive in the same lane as cars, or many other trains.

    And a BRT can also have it’s own lane. (Assuming they ever would build it one.)

    The then goes on to save that WSDOT favors highways.


    Then why, after a doubling of population, mostly in the regions of King and other countries outside Seattle, has Washington State built no new highways, nor converted any busy route into a limited access highway?

    I do agree with the basic premise of high quality rail. The only candidate in that category right now is Sounder, and specifically South Sounder.

    Not only does South Sounder serve a well used corridor, but it provides the rapid regional rail that people are willing to, and did, pay for starting in the 1990s, (LINK does not meet these criteria by a long shot).

    What this Region needs is more Sounders, like an Eastside line that is neither highway bound, nor neighborhood bound, but cuts its own fast path, hitting only the most major destinations, and yet extending out to many areas that are becoming Regional Growth centers.

    More Sounder, please!

    1. Sounder is plagued by the same problem as BRT and the DSTT: shared right-of-way.

      And so, last Sunday, ST had to choose between just one run on Sounder each way to serve the Mariners, or one run each way to serve the Sounders. You know who they prioritized.

      You asked for the region to have more Sounders? You got it. ;)

      1. Why they ever tore up the Eastside rail corridor is beyond me.

        Couldn’t we have extended it and run a Sounder on that, like immediately?

      2. Unfortunately, the tracks and the bridge over 405 would have needed to be replaced. And I imagine the crossings would need to be upgraded, too. Still worth thinking about, though, and still is for the part south of Bellevue.

      3. Consider that each time ST has rolled out a new Sounder segment, it has “upgraded” (replaced) the track. So, tearing out old track is not necessarily a killer for new track.

        But, really, what major eastside destinations would that line have served?

      4. While it is a shame that the track has been removed and replaced the track on that line was so severely deteriorated that it needed as John Bailo notes complete replacement. You couldn’t even run freight trains safely at 25mph on it, much less passenger trains that have more stringent requirements.

        The study done a decade or so ago was that basic track and restoration work would run 200 to 400M on the line. One major advantage of the corridor is that trains could run at all hours, with there being no freight interference and full ownership by the agencies.

      5. The removal of the bridges was the crime on the Eastside corridor — that, and chopping it up into the ownership of a dozen different agencies. Removing the actual tracks wasn’t as big a deal.

    2. Commuter makes sense for the suburbs. But if built from scratch, it is expensive. That’s why hardly anyone does it (BART being an exception). As BART has shown, even if you run it an area with a lot of people (a lot more than us) and design it from scratch to be fast and serve good spots it doesn’t perform as well as a good bus. The Metro 41 (not the most popular Metro bus) carries more people than the Fremont station (Fremont being a city of around 400,000).

      But yes, spending more money on Sounder would probably be a good investment (in part because it doesn’t cost that much).

      1. The argument against any opinion that makes rational sense but is opposition to the wishes of the unseen hierarchy is always “costs too much”.

        Yet, inevitably, the “smart” solution (that is, the one that benefits them) ends up dragging on forever, not meeting the needs of the public and costing ten times what was projected.

      2. I’ve not been to Fremont, Calif. However, in looking around the BART station it looks a lot like downtown Federal Way: a large office building or two surrounded by acres of parking.

        I’m not saying we should necessarily built light rail all the way out there, but from what I have seen even Issaquah has more of a downtown core than Fremont, Calif. does. A place like Tacoma, which does in fact have a core downtown would be radically different than what is around the BART station in Fremont, Calif.

      3. I think that is, or used to be, the Bank of America information technology building. (They built a huge office park at the end of BART).

        And I say, great idea. If people want to reverse commute by car, to suburban high paying jobs, why not make transit go there as well.

        Transit makes sense anywhere there are centralized destinations.

        I don’t have a problem with people driving and parking at other (suburban) transit stations to get to these destinations whether in the downtown or in BFE.

      4. Maybe if Tacoma were anywhere within the reasonable range of all-day “there and back” journey needs. Or if there was anything to speak of along the 33-mile journey, so that the line could do more than merely and poorly connect endpoints.

        But that isn’t the case.

        Tacoma is neither large nor dense nor vibrant enough to have comprehensive urban transit connectivity, so its function on Link would be as little more than a (minor) commuting endpoint for the infinitesimal portion of its workers with access to the line, and as a park-and-ride source not much different than on existing buses and Sounder today.

        Tacoma is a real city with the bones and some of the meat of a comeback-worthy city center. But the proposed line is about intercity long-hauls, and urban-style rail is fundamentally the wrong form for that.

        For the same reasons, you can expect to see BART to San Jose (city of millions, ugly but economically sound downtown) crash and burn just as surely as our spine would.

      5. @Glenn — I said Fremont had 400,000 people. That was wrong. It has half that, or around what Tacoma has.

        But as far as density goes, the area around the station is actually bit more dense than anything in Tacoma. It may be ugly, and Tacoma may be charming, but more people can walk to that station than any they could put in Tacoma (although placement, as you mentioned, means they will walk a bit further). Of course, like all similar commuter rail stations, lots of people take a bus or drive.

        The biggest contrast is that BART is fast — really fast. As fast as driving (to San Fransisco or Oakland) even with no traffic! Link to Tacoma will never be that (quite the opposite). Even commuter rail to Tacoma will never be that fast. So I really don’t see how any station in Tacoma will be as popular as the station in Fremont, CA, which carries only 8,000 people per day. By the way, there are much worse ones on BART — Fremont is actually top twenty and the second highest performing station outside Berkeley/Oakland/San Fransisco. But that right there tells the whole story — there is only one station for all of Fremont — it is located in a very dense area of Fremont — it has a big parking lot and feeder buses — it is smoking fast — and it still isn’t as good as some of our buses. This suggests that while Tacoma will perform better than the surrounding stations (Federal Way) that is only because Federal Way will perform really poorly.

      6. BART has monumental stations though, and other features that prevent frequent stations when desirable. If Link were built to Tacoma (not that it should be) I would think you would want at least three stations.

      7. If Fremont had 3 BART stops, they would still add up to only 8,000 riders.

        This is not the North Seattle (130th) issue. For trips of such an extended intercity distances, the chance that you can substantially improve the access of any potential customers by rearranging the stops from one piece of Fremont sprawl to a similar one, or from one part of central Tacoma over another, is virtually nil.

        Never mind that ST overbuilds stops and gloats on their website about how far apart they are, just like BART.

      8. I don’t see how you wind up with a result like that.

        There’s definitely a reason why a number of the 500 series buses turn north and go into downtown Tacoma. You could transfer to something else, but then you wind up with a transfer penalty. At the very least a Tacoma line should have at least two stations: one reasonably close to the UW Tacoma campus and another towards the north end of downtown Tacoma.

      9. When you say Sounder doesn’t cost that much do you mean capital or operationally?

        Sound Transit paid BNSF $185M for the use of the north line, that’s not a small amount. Especially considering average ridership is about 1,200 people per day right now. Now they are investing millions more in fighting the landslides and other activities and spending many more millions supporting the installation of a new signaling throughout the entire corridor (though WSDOT/Amtrak is picking up some of it due to Cascades)

        Operationally Sounder is also relatively more expensive than buses or light rail at an average cost per boarding price of $12.14 in 2013. That’s compared to $6.38 for ST Express and $5.51 for Link.

        We might want to build more commuter rail but we need to be a bit more selective about where we do it and have a long hard look at the relative capital outlays and operational expenses. There has after all been much discussion (very justified discussion IMO) over the last few years about whether we should even continue to throw money at North Sounder and if it makes better sense to spend that money on better bus service.

      10. Check your figures:

        per the ST 2015 SIP, Sounder North is $17.17 subsidy per boarding while South is $6.65 subsidy per boarding, which would put South within the realm of Link and Express and what what we deem acceptable (except subsidies for those services are actually $4.38 (Express) and $4.03 (Link) and vary wildly among ST Express routes).

        But the point is there is an immense fixed cost for Sounder. However Link has a fixed cost which is probably proportionally greater than Sounder because often a new right of way has to be constructed. Which begs the question: if we have to construct new right of way for Link, why do we only consider putting it in places where other modes can already do the work better than Link will ever be able to?

  14. I felt like reading the NYT in six different languages this morning, but found out I could not. So, I am going to get pedantic about language.

    What the heck is “rail bias”? Is it bias toward putting transit on steel tracks?

    Or do you mean something altogether different, like grade-separation bias, or dedicated-right-of-way bias? Even Save Our Valley understood these nuances enough to know that not all rail is equal. They just dumbed down their language, and the financial numbers were not on their side.

    Given this is Seattle, can we graduate to bigger phrases than the horribly imprecise “rail bias”.

    (Okay, this is really a call for coming up with phrases that do a better job of selling what we want in BRT and LRT, so that we don’t get dud proposals like the Ballard Rapid Streetcar. “But, it’s on rail!”)

    1. “rail bias” means that there are a bunch of potential customers who will preferentially ride trains and avoid buses. It seems like a pretty substantial number of people, maybe 10% of the population. It doesn’t really matter why they have this preference — they DO have this preference, it’s shown up repeatedly in studies for over 100 years, and none of the BRT crap which has been built anywhere in the world has changed that preference.

      It means that if you’re estimating ridership for a train route vs. an “identical” bus route with the same characteristics (grade separated or not, mixed traffic or not, etc. etc.), you need to add about 10% to the projected ridership for the train route.

      1. Note that this certainly doesn’t mean that you should build stupid, poorly designed, underspecified rail lines.

  15. Where the “rail bias” hits home for me is one agency (Sound Transit) getting to spend all of these billions of dollars while the agency that moves people that “last mile” (Metro Transit) scrapes by and has to empty its capital expenditures budget for a decade just to keep the fleet on the road.

    I don’t mind a preference for rail. I do mind that the local bus agency seems to be perpetually beat down and underfunded with no money for anything besides “the wheels on the bus go round and round,” while the express bus/rail agency finds money under the couch cushions.

  16. Disruptions independent of highway incidents are better than those 100% correlater with them.

    Moreover Link reliability will improve while HOV reliability worsens.

    1. How so? You equally don’t get where you’re going, and may equally choose not to bother with transit the next time.

      1. Disruptions unrelated to incidents at least tend to be predictable (construction, morning and evening congestion) so you can avoid transit/traveling or at least be prepared when you know it’s going to be bad.

      2. Right… but the very highway disruption Martin cited at the launch of this post was scheduled and was 100% predictable*. That makes it functionally no different than a scheduled service disruption on a rail-exclusive corridor.

        Just as an unexpected subway security incident or MLK crash is not much different than an interruptive incident in the HOV lane.

        *(Never mind the irony that this I-90 shutdown is, ultimately, in the service of laying precious, precious rails.)

      3. To have redundancy in the transportation system! If you’re trying to get somewhere and would usually use a car, but the highway either is planned to be a disaster or quickly turns out to be one, you might choose to use transit if it provides a time advantage.

        But not if it’s even more hosed than the cars by the same issue.

      4. If the vast majority (and by definition most disruptive) of the disruptions are the unplanned ones — and they are — then you cannot have the foreknowledge to choose a different mode or a different route in order to avoid them.

        Agencies that care about their customers sometimes have to be adaptive. Your issue with this weekend’s backups reflects the failure of both WSDOT and ST to adapt appropriately. It has has very little to do with modal preference.

        I’m in Boston right now, and a Red Sox-Yankees series is occurring. If you want to see how rail operations may also be required to fly by the seat of their pants — unscheduled short turns, radioed decisions to go skip-stop, etc. — this would be a fantastic time to witness it.

        Frankly, every 550 bus this weekend should be traveling via 520, with an auxiliary bus bridge between Bellevue and Mercer Island. If I were driving between Mercer and Seattle right now I’d go around — what’s stopping them?

      5. DP, I assume you’re on the Green Line where *every day* is fly by their pants. At 50 second headways with three branching junctions they’re winging it all the time. The trains *barrel* through tunnels there, making ours feel like disneyland. I sort of like scrappy transit, where they do what they need to every day to make it work. I love the Boston system – you really can get almost everywhere on it. It’s for transportation, not just commuting to the central city.

      6. Oh, you don’t need to tell me. I grew up here. Though pre-game operations seem even more seat-of-pants this week than usual.

        The scrappiest transit experiences I’ve ever had have all been in Chicago, though. There is literally no expectation among CTA employees that some “wise authority” is going to make everything hunky-dory, and so every employee in that organization is a de facto handyman.

        My favorite is the time a booth operator chased after myself and a wheelchair-using friend to let us know that the elevator was out at the Midway terminus. His solution: knock on the glass of the driver’s cab as we approached the end of the line, and ask to pull the train into the 3rd platform (which had a ramp).

        I still can’t believe that worked.

      7. I rode the 550 Saturday. There were no bus slowdowns either way, but on the Seattle end I saw cars sitting still on the entrance ramps for a long distance.

      8. “If you’re trying to get somewhere and would usually use a car, but the highway either is planned to be a disaster or quickly turns out to be one, you might choose to use transit if it provides a time advantage.”

        If this is our target audience for Link, it’s not going to work. The number of days out the year when the freeway is really a total disaster is small. And even then, people are creatures of habit. When the mad on the radio says traffic bad, switching to Link will be the last thing on the minds of habitual car commuters. And besides, once you’re already on the freeway and stuck in the traffic jam, it’s a bit too late to change your mind and switch to the train.

    2. So you are saying we should build our own bus lanes? If so, that makes sense. But my guess is that, for the same amount of money, we can make bigger improvements in other areas (like the surface streets leading up to the HOV lanes).

      Building light rail makes sense only where you have the volumes and pattern to justify it. There just aren’t that many people next to the freeway outside Seattle.

      I disagree with the idea that HOV will always worsen. HOT may be a success. The HOV 2 lanes could get changed to HOV3. It won’t without public pressure, but that is true of everything. Why is the monorail authority studying ORCA? Is it because the city council suddenly figured out that they should make them do that? No, it is because folks wrote in and told them we wanted it. The same could easily happen with HOV 3. It might happen because of a lawsuit. It is my understanding that we got federal dollars by promising that the HOV lane would move faster than it does now. Of course, the combination might be the key. A little legal pressure would give the state the excuse to change the limit at the same time that other people push them to do it.

      1. Ross,

        The public pressure is clearly in favor of keeping it HOV2 — or doing away with them completely. Nobody except transit users — and they don’t count in DOTland — is going to agitate for higher standards.

      2. 520 westbound approaching the bridge is a good example of an HOV lane done right. At 3+, it actually moves reliably, even when the other lanes are a complete standstill (which still happens regularly, even with the nearly $4 bridge toll).

        Over there, The HOV lane is a huge success, and during rush hour, actually carries more people per hour than either of the two general-purpose lanes. And it’s all done with just buses.

      3. +1. The only problem is that HOV lane doesn’t go far enough. I’ve regularly been caught in jams during the afternoon rush hour from 405 to the start of the HOV lane. Sometimes, drivers will take the 108th Avenue exit and merge back in from the HOV entrance; I wish more drivers would do that.

      4. Driver education does seem to have improved in this regard over the past several months. Last fall, only about 1 in 4 bus drivers would take the 108th Ave. exit, while the rest would just sit in traffic. Today, when traffic is bad, at least 80% of the drivers will take the exit.

        I can only assume that this is something the bus drivers are expected to learn for themselves on the job, and the 20% that choose to sit in traffic are new hires who do not know any better.

        All I can say is – thank god the 108th Ave. entrance ramp is HOV 3+. If it were only 2+, lots and lots of car drivers would be doing this, and the exit ramp would be just as backed up as the regular highway lanes.

    3. I’m not convinced Link is designed to be failure-resistant. Most modern rail systems would have more frequent cross-overs, but they’ve been an after-thought in central link. As trains age there will be equipment failures (doors stuck open locking the brakes, etc.), and one train stopped can bring the whole system to a standstill without the ability to use cross-overs to isolate individual platforms.

      1. Cross-overs can be added anywhere except track-in-roadway overnight with proper planning.

  17. This is an argument for better (or more) bus lanes, not an argument for rail. Rail makes sense when the capacity is needed. Otherwise, even in we didn’t have any bus lanes, it is probably cheaper to build them. If this isn’t the case, then correct me, but it is my understanding that building a new lane on the freeway is cheaper than building light rail along the freeway. That basically means you have made a strong case for Sound Transit building its own bus lane for the freeway. Fair enough.

    But the counter argument is that we should simply leverage the existing HOV lanes. Change them to HOV 3 or HOT. By law, we may be forced to do this (since when they were built, the promise was that they would move at a certain speed). We can’t build everything everywhere for everyone, so maybe the best thing to do is improve things as cost effectively as possible. So someone in Martha Lake has to catch a bus to Lynnwood. The bus still averages over 30 MPH on the freeway (on a bad day), which is a lot better than a bus in Magnolia (to say nothing of a bus in Wallingford, which travels in the single digits). That is rush hour, of course; in the middle of the day the bus Martha Lake bound goes the speed limit (while the 44 still crawls). Maybe we should spend the money where it can do the most good and make the biggest improvement, which means building light rail in areas like Ballard before spending it on light rail to places like Martha Lake or one tiny part of West Seattle.

    1. but it is my understanding that building a new lane on the freeway is cheaper than building light rail along the freeway.”

      That depends entirely on whether there is existing, unoccupied later room for the lane(s). If there is, yes, building a roadway is a bit cheaper than building a trackway, especially if there are no stations involved as there aren’t with express buses.

      However, if there is no more lateral room and the freeway is going to have to be widened significantly, then adding lanes may become catastrophically more expensive. It all depends on the design of the crossing-bridges. If they’re the old-fashioned ones with sloping erosion barriers then a lane can usually be added without interfering with the existing bridge structures.

      If the freeway has already taken the slope area or the bridges are the more modern design with vertical slabs right next to the shoulder, then the bridges will have to be replaced to add lanes, and that is a budget buster.

      1. Right, but isn’t that true of light rail as well? There are simple, easy sections, where the light rail can run on the ground, right next to the freeway. Then there are tougher sections, where you need to build a viaduct or go over or under a bridge. Keep in mind, a bus lane doesn’t have to be right next to the rest of the freeway (we have counter examples of HOV lanes between Seattle and Tacoma that don’t) so I guess I don’t see the difference. I would imagine that in general, building light rail is tougher, because you have more limitations in terms of grade. So, I would think that in just about all the cases, a new lane or busway is cheaper to build than light rail. Sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot.

        Which means that it makes sense to build rail where it makes sense to have rail. If you are dealing with moderate volumes, especially if ridership is primarily by feeder buses, then I think new roads will always be cheaper and better.

      2. RossB: it’s proven quite consistent that if you have to BUILD bus lanes out of freshly laid concrete (as opposed to converting car lanes or shoulders), they cost more than building a railway line.

        There are two reasons, basically.

        The first is that trains run on tracks. Therefore they sweep out a *smaller width*. Buses weave back and forth across the road, so they need more width.

        The second is that trains have more axles, so they have less weight on each axle, so they pound the track less than the buses pound the pavement. The track can be built lighter than the pavement.

        Actual Technical Advantages Of Trains

  18. Some important points about trains and buses for carrying passengers.

    1. Buses cannot be coupled without seriously complicating their ability to run non-guideway traffic.

    So to carry the same number of people, a line of buses that could occupy the same length of platform as a train carrying the same number of people.

    But since for safety, standard buses require six seconds of following distance between coaches.

    So while a train of any number of cars is always the same length, a “platoon” of buses runs like an accordion, as its length of lane space changes with its speed.

    Resulting in some serious problems with capacity.

    2: While buses can’t handle train capacity for above reason, they can certainly run as fast as trains. However, to achieve this, they have to be given the same fully reserved right of way. Once that unvarying expense is factored in, cost comparison deprives buses of any advantages.

    3. In fact, since standard unguided buses need more side-to-side space than trains, for the same speed and reliabilty, a busway will have to be somewhat wider than structure for trains. Light-rail is probably most neighborhood friendly type of transit. Busways tend to “present” more like freeways.

    However, it could be very advantageous to copy the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel- lay the structure wide and strong enough for buses, and then use the transitway for trains when the time comes.

    I think a lot of riders, myself especially, get really mad when we think that the rail of the future is being used as an excuse to leave express buses stuck in traffic.

    Calling to mind a mallard going “Meh! Meh! Meh!”

    “Pre-rail” bus service will give us not only greater capacity short-term, but riders who have developed the habit of using transit along same corridors.

    Mark Dublin

    1. I agree on all counts. And, I think the WSTT would be a perfect place to build such a pre-rail busway. A second choice would probably be the eventual East Link guideway through Bel-Red – it’d let buses avoid getting stuck in traffic, as well as kick-start Bel-Red redevelopment.

    2. Unfortunately there are still some neanderthals that think Guatemala City’s transit system is utopic.

      1. Not necessarily negative, Wes, on at least three counts:

        1. What is the evolutionary level of the rest of Guatemala? (Legitimate Guatemalan comeback? Spanish for same question about out former industrial heartland.)

        2. Wikipedia suggests that Neanderthals possibly had a longer “run” than we have, and about fifty thousand years ago, simply interbred themselves into more or less us. How good this was for them has yet to be determined.

        3. Compare Guatemalan system shown on Wikipedia with 70-series express route on Eastlake Avenue at pm rush hour. Amoebas probably moved faster for much more history.

        Also, check out Wikipedia for transit in Quito, Ecuador. Compare equipment and operations with our own, and try to keep from going “Ook ook ook meh.)


  19. as Martin writes, both modes are needed. the main issues are right of way and the degree of grade separation; that helps both modes. Rail has a clear advantage in capacity; but the Latin American Metro like BRT show a very high capacity. note the odd aspect of capacity; it does not attract ridership; service frequency, speed, span, and reliability attract ridership; but, the lack of capacity repels ridership. (is ST ready for U Link?). Cost is very relevant. building ROW for rail is very costly. it is very important not use high cost rail ROW where it is not needed. Spine any one? With a cost constraint, is the choice between one rail line and 10 bus lines?

      1. Wow — Mountain View is seriously considering doing bus lanes the right way, and the low-cost way (converting car lanes to bus lanes). I’m not surprised that there’s a huge outcry from the auto-lover crowd.

  20. WSDOT does what the Legislature and Governor demand. They have not allowed WSDOT or the commission to impose region wide variable tolling. decades ago, the State Senate forced WSDOT to shift the I-5 HOV lanes to two from three plus.

    1. Decades ago, there were probably not enough buses down I-5 to justify 3+. Sound Transit, and even freeway-running routes like the 41, are relatively recent inventions.

      Today, the biggest problem with I-5 is not the HOV lanes being 2+. Where the HOV lane exists, the general-purpose lanes tend to move pretty consistently. The big problem today is that the express lanes are single-direction, and there is no way to avoid the traffic in the reverse-direction. That, at least, is a problem that Link should solve pretty well, once it gets built out to Northgate.

  21. It’s hard to discuss the role of bus and rail without looking at the technology. The big advantages to rail seem to be:

    1. Higher ridership per driver (multi-car trains as opposed to buses) IF demand is high enough..
    2. More capacity In a fully-used right-of-way IF demand is high enough.
    3. Paid platforms with multi-door boarding IF demand is high enough.

    Other factors are not directly linked to demand yet attract people to rail (even though bus can accommodate some of these things):

    1. Exclusive or at least priority tracks.
    2. Smoother ride.
    3. Identifiable system structure.
    4. Assurance that rail won’t move, encouraging adjacent real estate investment.
    5. Pretty stations that are designed and monitored for better security.

    (The major challenge to rail is usually the cost. Because train wheels are heavier per square inch than rubber tires, the investment in tracks will always be more expensive. There are other challenges too — but frankly this appears to be the major one.)

    Unfortunately, the public tends to message our decision-makers to focus more on the sexiness of the last category items, and not enough talking about what is required to get to the first ones. The chant of “we want rail to …” is endemic of this. That’s why transparency on land use forecasts, feeder bus strategies and availability of modes of access are so important.

    I’ll be curious to see how ST deals with cost-effectiveness questions in the months ahead.

    1. Al, the advantages can be described more effectively as strategic outcomes rail can achieve that buses are poorly suited for. They can get into and out of locations pedestrians want to be, which are the most congested places for buses to traverse. They can be fully automated if in protected rights-of-way, allowing for operation sustainable from the farebox and a constant headway at all times of day. They can provide new accessibility that’s difficult by car (depending on where they’re located). They can provide higher capacity if (and only if) they’re fully utilized. It’s a lot more useful to look at outcomes rail can accomplish than to use engineering measures.

      The savings on drivers is not convincing (unless automated) because the O&M cost saved by having fewer drivers is usually offset by the increased cost of operating stations, paying roving fare inspectors and maintaining the right of way.

    2. Worth noting: exclusive or priority tracks (or lanes) are generally justified if there’s enough competing autos along the route — which tends to correlate with demand being high enough. This is why rail service usually has dedicated tracks and bus service usually doesn’t; if the situation calls for dedicated tracks, demand is generally high enough to require rail.

      Also, pretty stations are only built when demand is high enough, which gets us back to the same first three items.

      There’s a reason “other factors” #1 and #5 basically end up being associated with rail exclusively.

  22. Something else that needs to be brought up, is the fact that many, MANY buses were leaving the DSTT south bound, headed for Bellevue Base, Empty, while hundreds (including me!) waited for a 550 in Chinatown.

    This is a bit extreme, I understand, but I think making it illegal for ST&Metro to deadhead buses over 520 and I-90 isn’t that bad of an idea, the demand is there all day, and there are way too many buses (even rush hour!!) that run that corridor with the “TERMINAL” sign up…

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