A long-range battery-powered bus that Metro has recently been testing (image: King County Metro)

Metro’s proposed budget greatly reduces most capital outlays over the next several years. The RapidRide expansion has shrunk to just three funded lines, and base expansion plans have been mostly suspended. But there remains a $270 million investment in battery buses and associated charging infrastructure, $93 million of that by 2022.

Into the budget debate comes a remarkable report from Metro, laying out the steep opportunity costs of a transition to all-electric. Under the most likely assumptions, battery electric buses and infrastructure are 53% more expensive than a diesel hybrid fleet. Even with societal benefits including emissions priced in, it’s 42% more expensive. The added cost of a 100% transition from hybrid to battery is enough to buy 237,000 service hours annually through 2040.

The report shows the costs of electrification within Metro’s latest fleet plan. The fleet plan itself is remarkable, making stark how Metro’s plans have shifted with COVID and the recession. The number of buses operated by Metro will fall by more than one-fourth through 2026, and no service expansion is projected beyond that.

With budgetary reductions to the fleet plan amplified by the costs of electrification, Metro service levels will be reduced unless higher revenues are forthcoming. As Executive Constantine warned when transmitting the budget proposal a month ago, “Additional investments in electrification of the fleet [beyond 2028] will require a new revenue source, significant increased revenue forecasts, or a reduction in service levels”.

Battery bus economics

The Metro report updates an earlier analysis from 2017. Two scenarios are described. One is a “moderate case”, reflecting Metro’s current experiences with battery buses. There is also a “favorable BEB case where input variables were adjusted to favor BEBs.” The report doesn’t spend much time justifying the assumptions in the ‘favorable’ case, which include improved pricing for capital, fuel and operations vs current data, and also assume BEB operating costs decrease considerably as the technology develops. It is perhaps not so much a forecast as a description of the future technical progress one would need to see to make electrification cost-neutral. Metro’s conclusion: “Metro feels confident that the current modeling for the moderate scenario is an accurate estimate for the cost to procure, maintain, and operate a fully BEB fleet”.

Metro’s experience since 2017 has generally made their projections more pessimistic, largely because the earlier report seriously underestimated the costs of charging infrastructure. The assumption then was for charging equipment resembling that for cars and light-duty vehicles. The developing industry standard is overhead gantry systems at bases and layovers with a blend of slow overnight charging and fast daytime charging for the same vehicles. Metro’s updated numbers are based on contractor estimates and the experience of other agencies with more advanced construction projects.

Capital costs for battery electric are higher in either the moderate or favorable case, mostly reflecting the higher purchase price of the vehicles and the charging infrastructure. In the moderate case, it’s a $331,000 or 41% cost penalty for the battery buses.

The moderate case projects 56% higher operating costs vs hybrid. The favorable case has 18% lower operating costs. The wide range is mostly a debate around maintenance costs, with the favorable case reducing maintenance cost assumptions by more than half vs the moderate case. The moderate case estimates are based on higher costs observed to date, but this experience with battery bus technology is short enough to support a range of reasonable estimates for how maintenance expenses might evolve in the longer term.

Cost difference between battery-electric and diesel hybrids on 2040 electrification plan (table: King County Metro)

Metro’s scaling back of the fleet does reduce the total cost of electrification. But it incidentally tilts the economics against battery buses because the base infrastructure for hybrid buses already exists. The battery buses will need expensive new charging infrastructure. Hybrid buses already have all the conventional infrastructure they need, excepting relatively modest spending on maintaining base facilities. The case for battery buses would look better if Metro were expanding and both hybrid and battery needed new base capacity.

The bottom line is that a BEB fleet is more expensive in budgetary terms in either scenario. In the favorable case, the increment is just 6%. In the moderate case, they are 53% more expensive. Adding in societal benefits such as noise and emissions reductions, the favorable case flips to 1% less expensive, and the moderate case is 42% more expensive. Neither calculation seems to include lost ridership from budget-driven service reductions which would make the societal benefits of BEB smaller.

The reduced fleet plan

The fleet plan underlying the proposed budget projects a cumulative 27% reduction in the size of the Metro fleet. About half of that occurs in 2020 and 2021, as service is reduced to a lower post-COVID baseline. By Spring 2021, just 1% of the remaining fleet will be ‘retirable’ under FTA requirements. The remaining reductions mostly follow in 2025-2026, after the opening of several ST2 Link extensions allows Metro to retire older buses and reduce service hours. After the reductions of the next six years, the fleet plan anticipates no service growth from 2027 through 2040. In all, the Metro operated fleet will shrink from 1,671 buses pre-COVID to 1,224 in 2026.

Metro’s capacity to serve the travelling public will be dramatically smaller. This will leave Metro unreachably far from the goals of Metro Connects. The plan had envisioned 70% more service hours by 2040 serving double the ridership of 2016. Meeting those goals would have required 625 more buses and corresponding base capacity.

Political choices

This has appropriately made some King Council members ask harder questions about electrification, while others are determined to plow ahead. The questions need not be resolved in this budget cycle, as Metro is already committed to the purchase of 40 battery buses to start service in 2021. The larger uncommitted investments in the Capital Investment Program are preparing for 105 battery buses at South Campus by 2025, and another 155 at South Annex in 2027.

The County Auditor’s office is reviewing best practices for electrification. That’s an ongoing study, but the interim report released in August asks the right questions: “Given budgetary constraints, Metro Transit will have to balance bus service and electrification in order to work toward climate goals”. Metro is a large percentage of King County government emissions, but a tiny part of overall emissions in the County which are far more related to driving.

How much will the political commitment to battery buses subtract from Metro’s resources to provide transit services? The 2040 requirement for electrification (and aspirational goal for electrification by 2035) forces near-term procurement to be nearly all-electric because buses purchased today will be in service for a minimum of 12 years, and generally longer. It’s not yet clear how ready the technology is, and Metro’s testing to date reveals awkward questions about performance on hills and in cold weather. However, Metro’s reduced fleet plans makes some decisions less urgent by cancelling purchases that would otherwise have taken place in the next few years. At this time, the only hybrid purchases still scheduled are for 13 coaches on the Madison G line opening in 2023.

65 Replies to “Metro’s fleet will be all-electric, also much smaller”

  1. Someone help me with the terminology. Electric, battery, battery electric … Are the words battery and electric being used interchangeably? And how is the Proterra bus different than the top post pic bus? Both are rechargeable battery, correct?

    1. Electric also includes trolley. The trolley fleet is staying about the same size, about 15% of the total post-2026.

      Proterra is the largest part of the Metro battery fleet right now, but they’re also testing New Flyer and BYD units.

      1. The size of the trolley bus fleet should also be questioned. Perhaps it should grow. All three sub fleets could be studied for life cycle cost. The hybrids for Madison take the two agencies a bit backward. The area has trolley bus overhead.

      2. eddie, the complicated overhead in Downtown and First Hill is not very amenable to BRT speeds. Running electric east of Broadway and using the connection to charge the batteries would make a lot of sense.

  2. So as a whole, the electrification of the fleet is going to result in reduced mobility and more car trips replacing transit trips? Got it.

    1. Yup. I’m keeping my diesel truck and gas SOV. They are getting more miles since my bus service to Seattle was redirected to UW anyhow.

      We’ll have an electric fleet powered by coal plants in Montana that has few priority lanes in traffic, while SOVs and trucks have clear sailing to pollute.

      1. Um, er, ah, you DO know that the windmills and solar farms in EWa and EOrg spill billions of kwh down the Intertie every year to California, right? But the Intertie can’t send it all, and Cali has its own renewables so it doesn’t need us as much as it used to. True, getting the power to Puget Sound will mean at least two Megavolt lines, but that’s a small price to pay for an electric transportation sector.

        And of course the batteries in all those cars, trucks and buses will provide the very storage that everyone is worried about.

        What’s not to like?

  3. I like the idea of bus electrification, but paying for it be reducing bus service decades after COVID is long gone should be a nonstarter.

    Ideally, the costs of charging infrastructure should be coming from sources like federal grants, since 1) lower carbon emissions is a global benefit and 2) if transit agencies all over the country are doing it, rather than just King County Metro, economies of scale start to kick in, and the cost goes down.

    Not sure if the $2 trillion Biden climate plan includes money for decarbonizing public transit. Hopefully, it does. (although memories of 2010 still leave me deeply skeptical that congress would actually pass such a plan, even if there is Democratic Senate).

    1. Your last point seems very important. While I hate to wait for a new, potentially nonexistent funding sources to materialize, it is impossible to imagine there will not be new sources of funding for electrification in the near future. There should be an electric fleet plan that is developed and implementable, but hopefully it can be realized through new state and federal grants, not through reducing service.

  4. This must have been covered here before, but how does the cost of battery-electric compared to overhead wires? Or, phrased differently, are we rejecting overhead wires due to cost, or due to aesthetics and convenience?

    Is it even possible for buses running at highway speeds to use overhead wires?

    It seems like the heavily bus-oriented nature of our transit system (necessitated by having to bolt it onto several decades of car-oriented development, which continues even now) is about to bite us in the ass.

    1. Depends on the service pattern. If all the buses are concentrated into one, relatively short route, overhead wire is cheaper. Of the routes are scattered all over the region, batteries are probably cheaper. And, out service pattern much more closely resembles the latter.

      Another thing to consider. When you rely on overhead wire, your bus routes are set in stone, and you can never restructure them later without paying millions to relocate trolley wire or add junctions. This is a large reason why the 2 and 13 end half a mile away from Fremont, without serving it, and upper Queen Anne has no bus service whatsoever to the north.

      The flexibility to restructure bus routes in the future is worth a lot, and shouldn’t be given up without a clear cost advantage.

      1. I’m not sure why I can’t reply to your reply. I wasn’t for a moment suggesting using trolleybuses on a route like the 271. If you read my post again, I suggested trolleybuses for frequent, heavy and hilly routes (essentially the type of routes that they are already on) and battery buses for medium and lighter routes and ones where flexibility is at a premium.

        But I do wonder whether the existing trolley overhead infrastructure could be exploited by battery-trolleybuses to electrify some more routes.

      2. Martin Wight: it’s so good seeing someone else here trying to go to bat for IMC Trolleybuses, I’ve screaming into the void about them since I’ve returned to Seattle.

        Also austerity bad, very ****ing bad.

    2. In a system like this, there’s scope to use both trolleybuses and battery electric buses. Trolleybuses excel on heavy duty routes, hilly routes etc. but for less frequent routes, or routes that are not fully established, battery buses are more suitable.
      But battery buses aren’t necessarily any cheaper than trolleybuses when systems scale up. First, modern trolleybuses are battery-trolleybuses and only need a proportion of routing to be wired, so savings can be made there. Secondly, what battery buses save on overhead wires, they lose on the cost of bigger batteries and on needing much bigger power installations such as transformers. This is because BEBs only have a maximum of a few hours to charge up, whereas trolleybuses are charging up their batteries all day. Contrast a BEB getting a six hour overnight charge at the base with a trolleybus getting its power over say 18 hours.
      Incidentally the cost of wire isn’t that great: about $1m per bi-directional mile. If you amortise that over the number of buses travelling that mile (in both directions) over the 30 year life of the wiring you get a cost of tens of cents per bus/mile, easily sent off against the savings in energy cost and vehicle maintenance.

      1. Of course. I don’t think ripping out existing trolley wire in favor of battery buses makes sense, and a few targeted investments in wire, for example, route 48, may be appropriate. But, building trolley wire for the 271, all the way out to Issaquah, cannot possibly be an effective use of money.

  5. Is there anything in this that compares the cost of converting to battery electric to converting to trolley buses? It’s infrastructure to build and maintain but it’s also a mature technology

  6. This starts to make me wonder if trolley wire would be a more cost-effective way to improve electrification. It might save on bus procurement, but would also amortize the cost of base infrastructure on even fewer buses.

    1. It depends on what your goal is. If you want to reduce emissions per dollar spent, than laying more wire is likely the best way to go. But if you want to reduce all emissions from buses by an arbitrary date, then the only way to do that is to change out the whole fleet.

      Which is why the current plans are bad. There is no consideration as to what is the best bang for the buck. For example, it might make sense for express buses to be diesel-electric, since mileage is better on the freeway, while slower buses are either converted to wire, or run as battery buses.

      1. Ross, that is a very good point about the express buses. I find it hard to believe that battery-electric is a good match with freeway running. One of the great things about BEB’s is regenerative braking and one is (hopefully….) not “regenning” much juice in an HOV/T lane on a freeway.

      2. Addendum and partial correction of the previous response.

        Mark’s overhead juicing segments could be just the thing for BEB’s in express service. Vehicles higher than buses are excluded from HOV/T lanes so putting the intermittent charging catenary segments above lanes on the median side of freeways (e.g. I-5 and coming on I-405) would interfere with nothing.

      3. This sounds sensible. Perhaps too much so for the Powers that Be. Hybrid-diesel for the time being on express routes and BRT. Trolley wires on more local routes. Battery busses being the exception where wires are not practical for whatever reason. Hopefully battery tech improves faster especially if a hypothetical Biden administration puts $$$ into R&D.

      4. Hybrid-diesel for the time being on express routes and BRT. Trolley wires on more local routes. Battery busses being the exception where wires are not practical for whatever reason.

        Yeah, exactly. It is a matter of getting the most bang for the buck. Worth noting: while I think it would be great if we get a grant from the feds to speed up the transition to battery buses, the same formula applies. I would rather spend federal grant money on better service, while making the most cost-effective changes towards a zero-emmision fleet.

  7. The buses may be more expensive to buy, but won’t they be cheaper to power and to maintain. They also should have a longer life.

    Maybe if Federal policy changes, grant or loan programs could be coming to at least help with the initial coast.

    1. Certainly cheaper to maintain, though the number or recharging cycles a battery can survive is a pretty sticky problem.

    2. I would have thought that in the PNW where we have one of the lowest electrical power prices in the United States that would be the case. But according to the moderate case numbers it’s $295 million more expensive. Trolley wire is expensive to maintain which is why they were replaced by dino burners on all but the steepest routes where they were required. For battery buses all I can think is the replacement cost of batteries outweighs the fuel savings. If it’s a hard sell here it doesn’t bode well for adoption in other cities which means the buses will remain at a premium price. You also have to factor in the carbon cost of generating the electricity. Although we send electrical power to CA in the summer pretty much all of the electrical demand is going to require additional generation and solar/wind isn’t going to replace fossil fuel any time soon.

  8. A few thoughts: the electrification plans are just not worth it. It is quite possible that it will increase global warming. When service suffers, ridership drops. Those that used to take the bus drive instead. It is quite likely that driving emits more CO2 in the air than if they rode the diesel electic bus. Electrification is quite possibly net negative as far as CO2 goes.

    The total number of buses change the nature of peak service more than anything. In theory, it means the elimination of all peak-only service (everything looks like it does in the middle of the day). This would definitely be the case if we had money for service, but not for new buses. Realistically, I don’t think that will happen. I think there will be buses that operate only during rush hour.

    If nothing else, these buses will have to be efficient, to avoid crowding. That means an end to express buses to downtown in various areas. All the express buses that go over SR 520 get truncated at the UW. No buses over the ship canal bridge (making the Northgate restructure plans even more of a bad idea — https://seattletransitblog.wpcomstaging.com/2020/09/13/truncate-metro-buses-after-northgate-link/). With East Link you end express buses over I-90.

    The challenge occurs in the south. It would take less time for Renton buses to terminate in Rainier Beach, rather than downtown. Unfortunately, that would cost riders a lot of time. The same is true further south. The good news is that at least with the Federal Way Station there will be a good intercept. Other areas benefit from Sounder, which cut down the need for more express buses. Overall though, if the number of buses is reduced, peak service will take a big hit.

    1. Let’s never consider the cost of the coal emissions on the power plants in Montana and Utah. Let’s never consider the costs to the salmon from damming the rivers. Let’s never consider the inefficiencies of transporting tons of batteries. Let’s never consider the toxic metals and chemicals that are in the batteries.

      And let’s never consider the increase in single vehicle traffic and its pollution when we reduce transit service.

      Oh, and let’s make sure that we also impose costs on the remaining riders when we eliminate fares for certain riders but don’t pay for that out of general revenues, but increase transit fares or don’t replace forgone revenue.

      If we do all those things, then we can mandate electrification and social fares. And we can blithely increase greenhouse gases while feeling like we are environmentally and socially superior.

      1. You have a good point about the overall footprint of batteries. They have to be produced and shipped, quite possibly somewhere that relies heavily on fossil fuels. Not even accounting for the rare earth mineral extraction, which is surely heavy on carbon pollution. Not so sure it’s a good time to go “all in” on battery busses. Especially if the end result is a dramatic reduction in bus service and increase in car use.

  9. Will they be buying more 60 foot buses? That might help offset the reduction in fleet size, and make social distancing easier.

  10. This passage is odd: “The remaining reductions mostly follow in 2025-2026, after the opening of several ST2 Link extensions allows Metro to retire older buses and reduce service hours.”

    but for the recession, Metro would have been maintaining service levels and restructuring the network around Link and not reducing hours. Service hours were not reduced in 2009 and 2016 with Link; the networks were changed. Metro ought not “want” to reduce service hours.

    A political question: will a local option measure fund more service? This has been an issue since 2009 with the AWV deep bore project. In the 2015 statewide package, the focus shifted to ST3 and away from Metro service. Metro Connects requires more service subsidy; it is an unfunded vision.

    1. This goes back to what I wrote up above. After Link expands, I can imagine a reduction in fleet size, while at the same time an increase in all-day service. Express buses are truncated, or eliminated. That service savings are put into all-day service. My guess is this is more or less what happened after the 70 series buses were truncated at the UW.

      For this to play out in a good way, there are a few assumptions. First, that there are no additional peak-service routes (truncated or not) that we want to add. The other is that we don’t want to increase frequency during rush hour. Or rather, that the savings from truncation more than cover that.

      In both cases though, it comes down to overall funding. If service levels drop, then I think the assumption is correct. If we have limited funds, I don’t see us putting it into relatively low performing express service. Or rather — I would not want us to do that. As it turns out, Metro planners are quit comfortable doing exactly that (https://publicinput.com/B1882).

      But if there is plenty of money, then increasing frequency during rush hour, and adding some new peak-only routes is quite reasonable (although I still wouldn’t add those express routes from Link stations to South Lake Union and First Hill — those are stinkers).

      1. RossB: hopefully, you provided comment to that effect. The proposal to the Exec and Council will begin to be formed.

      2. Ross, there will still need to be extra peak service, even in truncated-Link-feeder land. The peak is the peak almost everywhere.

      3. I’m not saying there wouldn’t be extra peak. I’m saying it is conceivable that the number of buses specified will be adequate given the amount of money we want to spend on service.

        For a simple example, consider Northgate Link. Assume we make a very simple change: Truncate the 41. Every other route stays the same. It used to run a lot during rush hour. Many of those runs started at Northgate itself. Just by getting rid of those runs, we can get rid of buses used during rush hour. Of course we also save money. That money could be used for service during the day (since the normal 41 ran quite often during rush hour). That still means the 41 runs more often during rush hour, but you need fewer buses.

        I’m not saying that is ideal. I think it is still quite possible we will need as many buses as we have now.

  11. Christopher, I linked this yesterday and will do it again:


    Because the snow proves how easily Snoqualmie Pass could handle the new ST 550 Ellensburg.

    And Glenn and Martin, exactly contemporary with automobiles, the world’s first trolleybuses ran under wire on hard-rubber tires. Go to Antique Trolleybus Images and find the Siemens pics. We’ve known this stuff backwards for a hundred years.

    Since I’ve been challenged on the example I’ve been offering for a major single-linesman’s shift advancement in our own ETB operations, I may need to violate Doctors’ Orders and go Walk-The- Wire between First and Marion’s Colman Dock ramp and the King County Courthouse.

    Thirty years’ Design Intent was an on-wire ride from First to Cherry to Second to James to Third. Thereby connecting Bremerton ferry passengers with every inch of Metro’s existing overhead map.

    Needed hardware, switch at First and Cherry, switch at James and Third. Last I checked, all the rest of the wire was already hanging there. And as San Francisco pioneered for cable-car-to-trolleybus conversion, a further switch at Third and Yesler could in all senses electrify the Route 27.

    Google Map clearly shows an “Old Cable Car Trail” with potential to finally propulsion-update the Route 27 the rest of the way down to Leschi. Though in a pinch, Lake Dell Avenue to East Alder Street to Lakeside Avenue South will work just fine too.

    And if Boeing could do Vertol light-rail cars a world better than the Breda fleet that replaced them in SF, Kenworth can also branch over to reduce transit’s cost by producing our next electric bus fleet in the new Boeing-Free Renton.

    Especially when the four miles of lakeside trolleybus wire I’m advocating will once again connect the Renton plant with Rainier Beach, Columbia City and the rest of Rainier Avenue south and east of IDS.

    Which can also be run with hybrids and even plain old diesels for a few shake-ups just to check out passenger approval. Anyplace we can find a route map of my mid 1990’s DSTT Route 107? In times like these, STB’s for what we CAN do with transit, not everything we CAN’T.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Very cool, Mark. The intermittent catenary used to top up the batteries from time to time while rolling along is a great idea. It seems eminently applicable to BEB’s. Anywhere there are overlapping routes have a segment of charging wire. I wonder if ETB wires are spaced far enough apart for BEB’s to charge using them as well. That would mean that filling in sections of ETB overhead like 23rd Avenue would be a worthwhile investment because the filled gaps could charge buses as well.

      Thanks for the link.

      1. Just study European systems where battery-trolleybuses have In Motion Charging and new routes can have wired percentage of 50% or less.
        Here’s a video from Italy of trials of battery trolleybuses under the European Union’s ZeEUS project. An existing trolleybus route was extended to a beach resort without any new wiring and performance comparisons were made between:
        a) diesel buses (Mercedes in a sort of orange color in the video)
        b) existing trolleybuses with auxiliary diesel for off wire running
        c) new battery-trolleybuses with In Motion Charging.
        Needless to say c) had the best results.

      2. Shorter- and medium-length gaps in the trolleywire network aren’t as limiting as they once were. I live adjacent to Route 44 trolleywire in Ballard, so I had a birds-eye view of the trolleypole/trolleywire replacement work that was done along NW Market Street west of 24th Avenue NW as part of the Ballard Multimodal Project. It was fun to see the New Flyer trolleybuses navigate the construction mess off-wire. Westbound on NW Market Street, Locks-bound buses typically went off-wire around Ballard Avenue and stayed off-wire all the way to the terminal stop at NW Market Street & 32nd Avenue NW, about .75 miles. Eastbound/UW-bound buses from the 32nd Avenue NW terminal would start their runs off-wire and go back on-wire on NW Market Street east of Tallman Avenue near Swedish Ballard, about .85 miles. While major expansions of the trolleywire network aren’t cheap, the ability to go off-wire and on-wire through trolleywire gaps makes me think about places around Seattle where trolleybus routes could be modestly extended/rerouted to off-wire destinations nearby without compromising battery reliability.

  12. One half of the 27% reduction in Metro’s fleet — from 1671 to 1224 buses — will occur in 2020-21, which is clearly Covid related, and Metro apparently thinks is likely long term when it comes to the work commuter. Overall this is a positive because if there are fewer commuters there are fewer peak buses needed and fewer costs for Metro, and fewer CO2 emissions, and working from home benefits the worker. There should be plenty of buses for non-peak loads.

    However, the statement Metro plans no service growth from 2027 to 2040 seems incongruent with the PSRC’s 2050 Vision Statement and Cascadia report that predict very large population increases for the region, which I always questioned. At the same time I have always thought it a waste of time to make predictions out to 2040 or 2050 when technology changes so fast these days. The PSRC’s 2050 Vision Statement, predicated on transit and TOD, was based on 2018 data and assumptions (although IMO skewed), but who would have thought all those assumptions would have to be rethought due to Covid-19 and WFH two years later?

    The other half of the reductions will occur in 2025-26 after ST 2 links open, which suggests this is not a reduction in total transit service, but a switch from buses to rail (and of course ST has a better funding source than Metro). My guess is the concurrent construction of several large park and rides on the eastside is an acknowledgment that first/last mile access in East King Co. will be primarily by car, not feeder bus. Going north from Northgate to Snohomish Co. I think park and rides will be the primary first/last mile access as well, at least until driverless technology. Metro needs density more than rail.

    Since Metro is county wide I don’t think WFH will have the same funding effect for Metro as Seattle, but apparently Metro is expecting less revenue through 2040.

    It is certainly an expensive proposition to switch over to electric buses, and will take a lot of planning and time. At the same time, based on California’s recent decrees for electric cars, I think there will be more state and federal mandates for electric cars, carbon taxes, better batteries, and a fairly dramatic switch by 2026 because electric cars, depending on range, are simply better in every way, from acceleration to maintenance to emissions.

    It costs a citizen nothing when it comes to convenience to switch to an electric car once range gets to around 500 miles, and charging is faster, both of which are just about here. It wouldn’t look good if transit in 2026 emitted more CO2 emissions than cars, (or park and rides were more environmentally friendly than feeder buses), and that claimed benefit of transit was going to disappear anyway with electric cars.

    What I would like to see in these long range vision statements is some kind of discussion about driverless technology. Some think driverless technology will be the end of transit, but others think just the opposite: it will just mean the end of large buses.

    There will still be rail because it has certain advantages, especially for longer runs to dense city cores. But a fleet of driverless electric cars will need to be run by someone, and provide first/last mile access to the poor. Plus there isn’t the road capacity for everyone to have their own electric car buzzing around all day long, which means congestion pricing. d The whole point of driverless technology is you don’t have to own the car but still have door to door (or train) service. Finally transit will meet its societal goal of providing the poor with the same mobility as the rich.

    Before Metro spends a fortune on electric buses, which simply repeats the technology and vision from the past, I hope some long range thinkers at Metro wonder what a Metro with driverless, electric cars (and some buses on very specific and dense non-rail routes) would look like.

    Someone is going to have to oversee a vast network of driverless cars to control congestion and provide service to the poor.

    Some think it will be rental car companies because Uber and Lyft don’t have the capital ability to buy all the cars needed and simply rely on their drivers’ cars, but the idea is citizens won’t have two cars, they will have one for non-transit trips, and sign up for a monthly lease for driverless cars in the urban and suburban cores, which would replace park and rides.

    Before Metro spends a fortune on electric buses, and cuts service 25%, I hope it imagines what it would be like if Metro oversaw the fleet of driverless, electric cars, to transit and everywhere else. Some think rail is yesterday’s transit but I just think it is expensive. Buses are yesterday’s transit, but someone still has to oversee tomorrow’s transit, although and government agency like Metro is usually much more expensive than a private company. But most of that is labor, and there will be no drivers, Metro’s largest recurring cost.

    The reality is someone is going to run the fleets of driverless cars in the pretty near future, so if Metro thinks it should be in charge it should begin to think about that. At least try a pilot program.

    1. Overall this is a positive because if there are fewer commuters there are fewer peak buses needed and fewer costs for Metro … The other half of the reductions will occur in 2025-26 after ST 2 links open, which suggests this is not a reduction in total transit service, but a switch from buses to rail (and of course ST has a better funding source than Metro)

      Right, but as I wrote up above, this assumes that we don’t want to add rush hour service beyond the levels gained by truncations. That is a huge assumption.

    2. It’s not just that there are now fewer suburban peak transit commuters, from an equity standpoint, Metro wants to serve that kind of rider much less going forward, so they won’t need as many buses.

    3. very large population increases for the region, which I always questioned

      Well, that’s not news is it? Climate denial sets the a prioris for lots of good things on “Bah! Humbug!” doesn’t it?

      There are 25 million people in Southern California who are going to be in flight mode when the Colorado River largely dries up later this decade. There are another 4 million in Arizona sucking on the same sandy straw. Lost Wages will be a phantasmagorical collector of dried up tumbleweeds.

      WHERE are all those people gonna go? The “wet side” of the Pacific Northwest, that’s where. Puget Sound will have to accommodate 10 million of them at least.

      So, yeah, those “very large population increases” are going to look ridiculously conservative. It’ll be sort of like “The Rapture” only the angels won’t have any wings.

      1. So, Tom, you’re saying the Puget Sound region is going to become the Bay Area … x 2 … in the next couple of decades? That means we’ll get a second NFL team!

      2. I wouldn’t be surprised. The Tacoma Chargers?

        I will cop to over-enthusiasm when I said that the Colorado would be running dry “by the end of the decade”. It will be more like 2040 than 2030. But it will be increasingly unpleasant to live in LA well before then.

    4. “the statement Metro plans no service growth from 2027 to 2040 seems incongruent with the PSRC’s 2050 Vision Statement and Cascadia report that predict very large population increases for the region”

      This plan is based on Metro’s diminished revenues and prioritizing the first dollars for converting to electric buses. It has nothing to do with the PSRC projections. Diminished revenues is an absolute limit, and electrification is a values choice by the county. The county could change the electrification mandate or find additional revenue, but absent those, this is what we get.

      “The PSRC’s 2050 Vision Statement, predicated on transit and TOD, was based on 2018 data”

      PSRC’s estimates are updated periodically. We won’t know until 2021 or 2022 what the long-term impact of teleworking, decentralization, and fear of transit cooties will be. If they turn out to be vastly different than expected, there will probably be pressure for a midterm PSRC adjustment, or cities will ignore the PSRC projections. The diminished budget in the late 2020s is based on growing from a low starting point (now), and assumptions about how fast the economy (sales tax revenue) will rebound.

      In 2014 there was an ultra-fast, ultra-large recovery and boom. That’s unlikely to be repeated because there’s no company like Amazon that will grow so fast so quickly then. Amazon’s growth was pent-up demand, a planned consolidation in SLU, and the fact that Amazon’s new cloud-computing services were gigantically successful and created a new industry. There’s no known company now with a similar pending explosion in growth or a consolidation in an urban center. We can speculate on an AI breakthrough, biomedical growth, a green new deal, etc, but those are just wild speculations, not particular companies with known concrete plans.

      Driverless technology is too immature to put all our eggs in that basket now. Electric buses are certain: we already have drivers who can drive an electrically-powered bus. Driverless buses depend on a quantum improvement and testing of the driverless technology on a widespread basis, on all the county’s bus streets, with their various local conflicts and our rainy/snowy/icy weather. No-steering-wheel cars are just being tested in San Francisco now. It’s a long way from there to it being ready for countywide bus use. The most likely path is to convert a few low-speed, low-volume routes, as was done several years ago on the 226 and another coverage route for electric buses. I invite you to suggest which routes would be suitable first. Mercer Island might be a good place to start, since all potential routes are short, low-speed, and low-congestion. And Mercer Island is wealthy enough to contribute to the costs.

      I won’t accept any idea of shifting from buses to on-demand taxis. If some coverage buses should be smaller vans, they’re still buses, and should have regularly-scheduled runs. They can have some padding to deviate from the route to nearby destinations, but they should have a baseline route. The Snoqualmie Valley Shuttle from North Bend to Duvall does this. It’s a van and has scheduled runs, but each run has 10-minute padding at each end for off-route destinations in North Bend and Duvall. That’s a reasonable compromise between fixed-route buses and on-demand taxis.

      If the PSRC growth occurs but Metro’s service hours remain lagging, then we’ll have a situation with overcrowded buses and an increasing percent of driving.

    5. You can fit about 9 cars in a Seattle city block per lane of traffic. If you convert a busy pre-Covid bus with 40 people on it to driverless cars, you now need about a mile of street instead of 40 feet.

      As long as car users are willing to pay enough money to cover the huge road expansion projects they are going to need, then maybe driverless cars work.

      For the most part? Self driving cars will be just another place that will suck huge amounts of money out of the public funds.

      1. Not only do you have to be willing to build and maintain the additional lanes including bridges–which we seem to have a particular problem with around here. You need to be willing to demolish half of the city to make enough space for this, and the parking. Seems that we did this experiment in the 1970s, and it didn’t work out well.

  13. The reality is someone is going to run the fleets of driverless cars in the pretty near future.

    Most likely the first thing that is driverless on a large scale will be trucking. Once that becomes commonplace, transit agencies will transition to driverless buses. This transition could result in a huge expansion of transit service. It could also change the nature of the fleet, with smaller vehicles. When there is no driver, a bunch of vans may be a better deal than a bus. When you add in the service improvement, it certainly is.

    What happens in the private automobile market is tougher to predict, in my opinion. Uber is planning on converting to a bunch of driverless cabs. My guess is they will continue to represent a small part of the marketplace. People will still own cars. Park and Ride lots will become obsolete. Why park, when the car can just go home (or do something else during the day). Even if it does park, in most proposed park and ride lots there is plenty of parking just a short distance away.

    You still have the scaling problem with cars though. As a result, the government will still try and deal with it appropriately. That means more transit and BAT lanes along with tolling (i. e. congestion pricing). This in turn means that riding transit becomes more attractive, especially if we do see an increase in service due to the savings from automation.

    1. “Once that becomes commonplace, transit agencies will transition to driverless buses.”

      Possible, although a more likely outcome might be transit buses becoming one of the last vehicles to automate. For starters, the bus drivers’ union would fight any automation attempt tooth and nail, and councilmembers who need their $$ for their re-election campaign won’t want to cross them. Public agencies tend to be very risk-averse, in general. Then, there’s other problems. Wheelchairs could also be a problem, without a human bus driver to strap them in. And security could also be a problem without the presence of a human bus driver to deter bad behavior – especially late at night where one person might have the entire bus all to themself.

      Waymo cars could theoretically have the same “bad behavior” problem too. But, in practice, the need for a smartphone and credit card restricts the service to people who are mentally capable of holding a job, which makes that far less likely.

      1. The transition would be gradual, so the union wouldn’t mind. For a city like Seattle, it would basically mean they wouldn’t hire anyone new, and just lose people through attrition. Or they offer early retirement and big buyouts.

        Bus drivers are not in charge of security. If anything, security would likely increase, as you increase the number of fare enforcers. You would probably have plenty of cameras as well, to alert people about problems. The idea that being on the street or in a car is less safe than a bus is a stretch.

        Wheelchair riders can be handled with access vans, or assistants that help them board (drivers could transition to this role).

        Think of it like a subway system. There are a lot of subway lines that are automated right now. Even those with drivers operate with driver independence (i. e. the train could be operated remotely and it wouldn’t matter).

      2. “The transition would be gradual, so the union wouldn’t mind.” I expect the unions to fight tooth and nail to prevent driverless technology from being introduced. Same as they have elsewhere in the US and Europe, such as BART where the trains have been functionally driverless for years but the unions insist on drivers staffing every single train. The only operating automated mass transit lines started out that way when they opened.

        If you think ‘attrition until oblivion’ is a good way to deal with unions, public or private, I don’t think you’ve ever had to negotiate with a union.

      3. For every 5 or 6 bus driver jobs that go away if buses go to driverless, there will be a security job watching cams or patrolling in the field. That ratio could even be less.

        Further, I think many drivers really dislike having to do two jobs currently — driving and security.

        Finally, if savings per route is achieved, then more frequent buses can be put in the street so that the same number of employees is needed for something like 10-minute service rather than 15-minute service. Because of these issues, driverless buses don’t seem to trigger a rapid loss in employee numbers as much as may be initially feared by driver unions.

        It really seems to come down to job descriptions, unions for non-driving employees and service frequencies of driverless buses.

      4. If you think ‘attrition until oblivion’ is a good way to deal with unions, public or private, I don’t think you’ve ever had to negotiate with a union.,

        It is very common for the first cutbacks to be in the form of attrition. You start with a hiring freeze. Then you offer early retirement incentives. By the way, this is probably how Seattle will end up cutting its police force. Not with big layoffs, but with attrition (and that is without additional retirement incentives). Here is a quote from this article — https://crosscut.com/news/2020/10/ahead-seattle-police-layoffs-officers-are-leaving-their-own

        Councilmember Andrew Lewis said the attrition does have a positive side in that it can help the council achieve its budgetary goals without ugly fights with the police union.

        Again, this would be a gradual thing. Initially you don’t fire anyone, you just dramatically improve service. Some routes become automated (running a lot more often) while drivers shift to other routes (running those a lot more often). So even with the same number of drivers, you dramatically improve service levels.

        But you don’t replace your entire fleet at once. You still run the old buses (with the drivers) for years. As time goes on, both the buses and the drivers retire.

      5. Or we could *not* fight the union and just go with attrition and a hiring freeze.

        It’s not actually *required* to be combative with unions, you know.

  14. Interesting piece. Thanks, Dan!

    “After the reductions of the next six years, the fleet plan anticipates no service growth from 2027 through 2040. In all, the Metro operated fleet will shrink from 1,671 buses pre-COVID to 1,224 in 2026.”

    “This will leave Metro unreachably far from the goals of Metro Connects. The plan had envisioned 70% more service hours by 2040 serving double the ridership of 2016. Meeting those goals would have required 625 more buses and corresponding base capacity.”

    This all comes across as a big exercise in cognitive dissonance by Metro (and by extension, the King County administration). Hopefully the KC Council members are on their game and will question many of the assumptions being made here. Frankly, the ones being made to support the “favorable scenario” seem questionable.

  15. I wish Metro would update its long-range plans assuming fewer service hours, so that we’d have a starting point for considering the tradeoffs and how urgent finding additional hours are. Daniel T once suggested STB should propose some austerity restructures and first corridors to cut, but it would be better coming from Metro because it has the professional planners and data and can make a more comprehensive view. It could add layers to its existing planning map so that we could compare between 2040 Optimistic and 2040 Austere.

  16. The pre-covid plan also included a new maintenance base besides the charging infrastructure. For frequent lines, it might make more sense to switch to urban gondola technology as it provides a separate right of way, no need for maintenance base, cabins are lighter and therefore more efficient, don’t need heavy batteries, and therefore offer increased efficiency and reduced operational cost.

  17. Speaking as someone who’s spent thirteen years at the wheel of sixty-foot accordion-joined buses with and without poles on the roof, who also lives five minute’s drive from where two crowded major freeways intersect at angles that’ll eventually make a liar out of somebody’s rear view mirror:

    For me, minimum requirement for transit that does not have a human driver actively at the controls whenever the vehicle’s in motion is personified by Vancouver BC’s SkyTrain. Chance of intrusion on foot or any other way…what ARE SkyTrain’s casualty stats, anybody know?

    Experimentally, I might give over-the- road freight trucking a chance. Major cause of death has long been falling asleep at the wheel. Reason the guy in “Six Days on the Road” is “Poppin’ Little White Pills” so his eyes stay “Open Wide!”

    Meth’s been illegal for awhile before Joe Biden attached a mandatory life sentence to it, which is why Dave Dudley didn’t name the label on the bottle.

    Minimum condition for me: a whole interstate highway for nothing but trucks, through some really lonesome mountain scenery. Since COVID’s rendered driving my own quarantine-on wheels, I’d now pay taxes and fees to be able to share those roads with the eighteen-wheelers-and-counting.

    But there are just too many variables for any programmer to have any idea in advance of what all CAN be in your blind-spot. Which itself is legitimately a form of Black Hole in Space. Carl Sagan….any thoughts?

    Mark Dublin

    1. Mark, SkyTrain is all on separate right of way (elevated or tunnel), I don’t expect any problems except in the stations which probably can be dealt with via video. I don’t expect downtown buses to be driverless for a long time but trucks on long distance routes. We may get driverless cabs to bring people to a station in a quiet residential neighborhood though.

      1. Thanks, Martin Pagel. Over the years since its opening, I’ve visited SkyTrain enough to really appreciate it. From what I also recall, though, it’s not exactly “driverless”.

        There are personnel aboard who not only provide passenger assistance, but when necessary can pull off a panel under the leading windshield and take the controls if the robot “drops them.”

        All through college I thought I wanted to be a long-haul trucker. Which is really a lot more a way of life than the average trade. My first post-grad education was truck-driving school in Battle Creek, Michigan.

        Left me convinced that like a lot of factory work, no matter how well-paid, long-distance truck driving really should be done by machinery that a mechanic can re-attach. Unlike a finger.

        If the Swedes had invented those over-the-road pantographs yet, might’ve stayed with trucking. So good thing, I guess, that the Downtown Seattle Transit Project beat them to it. Sixty feet long, wire overhead, and first step in a regional railroad. Mine All Mine. Patience and its rewards.

        Truly driverless taxi-cabs can still generate noise complaints when they crash into something. All those sirens. Any way I can make sure that the neighborhood Jeff Bezos’ cabs practice on is the one where he lives?

        Too bad Dave’s passed on, though. A few edits to the lyrics and both ST and KCM can update this one to attract drivers to transit as they did me to trucks.


        Mark Dublin

  18. Battery technology is rapidly changing (prices will go down), and no one knows what commute patterns will be like after we get some return to normalcy. It’s a waste of time and money making big changes to future planning.

  19. To me the issue is more than just electrification but also available fleet type. Right now there is only one bus manufacturer (New Flyer) that makes articulated buses that meet Buy America.

    New Flyer is also the only one that produces an articulated battery electric bus (which has had issues). Hopefully the massive G Line order by LA Metro will work out any remaining issues.

    The pool of available fleet is small as it is for battery electric. But when you include articulated buses there is only one option currently.

    1. Any law says that can’t change? And if there is one, is there any law that says it can’t be repealed? I forget where I read this, but it sure “says it:”

      “Depression” can be defined as “Learned Helplessness.” Kind of looks like we’ve been studying nights. Might be worth it to “found” the manufacturing plant we need just to show ourselves we can do it.

      And would anybody like to tell me how much worse a bus we can build than the ones we essentially started Link with?

      Mark Dublin

  20. Any law says that can’t change? And if there is one, is there any law that says it can’t be repealed? I forget where I read this, but it sure “says it:”

    “Depression” can be defined as “Learned Helplessness.” Kind of looks like we’ve been studying nights. Might be worth it to “found” the manufacturing plant we need just to show ourselves we can do it.

    And would anybody like to tell me how much worse a bus we can build than the ones we essentially started Link with?

    Mark Dublin

  21. Repetition neither my intention nor my idea. Every single thing is screwed up now. Really would be good if we DON’T build a bus or anything else anytime soon. I’m outtahere.

    Mark Dublin

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