When I drive my Subaru downtown, which I do several times a week for business, I feel something I don’t often feel as a transit rider: I feel respected. Not only do I have all the traditional power of wielding heavy machinery, but I have vast city resources at my disposal. Despite taking up an enormous amount of space, most of the right-of-way is mine alone. At every major parking garage entrance, a uniformed police officer stands ready to hold others back for my access. Loud, dissonant warnings accompany my every move: “Caution, vehicle exiting!”. And I can drive wherever I please – in bus lanes, turning left on red against a bike lane, etc – with the near assurance that I won’t get caught.
When the grid gets backed up during PM peak, I know that I can cheat a little, blocking the box to make sure I get through during the next cycle. If there are buses behind me crush loaded with commuters, that’s their problem not mine. You see, I have places to be and space to take up.
And so it was on a hot, sunny day last week that I found myself needing to get to Green Lake during the afternoon rush. I left my business vehicle parked in Belltown, thinking that the priority of red bus lanes would make for a speedier trip. How could I have been so foolish?
As I stood in the heat watching 3 individuals in 3 cars claim their entitlement to civic space, backing up nearly a dozen buses and a couple hundred passengers for 20 minutes, I thought of all the officers who helped them out of their garages as an off-duty courtesy instead of enforcing basic laws relating to transit priority.
— Seattle Transit Blog (@SeaTransitBlog) July 26, 2016
And this is the joke of surface transit. The mobility of the many subjugated to the whims of the few, or the one. The integrity of the network dependent on the social cooperation of each individual, each of whom has every incentive to cheat and little fear of getting caught. Hundreds of buses sitting in traffic costing taxpayers $2.50 per minute, and agencies that need to come back to us for more funding because a minority of people claim a majority of space.
And in a backhanded way, all of our efforts into protected bike lanes and bus lanes actually reinforce the supremacy of cars. We only need to carve out small modal slices for non-cars because we assume the right of free car access as the baseline condition. Instead of freedom through open access (woonerf-style calming), we tend to over-engineer our streets (cough, Broadway) and take away their resilience because we are working at cross purposes, trying to be pro-bike and pro-transit progressives while maintaining priority for the movement and storage of cars.
So until we get serious about enforcement and I feel as respected on a bus as I do in my Subaru, I just won’t have much of an ear for “Buses or BRT can be as good Link” type arguments, and if I have the privilege of other options I’ll exercise them. You won’t catch me on a peak hour bus, and definitely not on a streetcar. Give me grade separated transit or give me my bike. But our half-million bus riders a day deserve better.