There were many interesting themes in the recent struggle over a legislative “striker” trying to keep North Seattle service hours from moving south. But one of the interesting threads is a shift of emphasis in transit activism from quantitative ridership metrics towards economic and racial equity.
In public comment to the King County Council, Disability Rights Washington’s Anna Zivarts proposed a fairly extreme version of this trend, which deserves to be quoted in full:
The striker would direct Metro to prioritize service hours to an area that historically gets better service. It also directs Metro to prioritize routes that [provide] ‘the highest ridership and route productivity’ to improve ‘productivity and cost effectiveness’ of the service.
We fundamentally believe public transit is about increasing access, and we should be prioritizing providing service to people who are transit reliant. In our very expensive region, this often means prioritizing service to areas that have been historically underserved by transit and underserved by pedestrian investment.
As we have seen in the pandemic, as many ‘choice riders’ have opted out of riding transit, there are many of us for whom transit is the only option. Rather than chasing ‘high productivity’, our elected leaders must center the needs of communities that rely on transit the most. The striker only reinforces the status quo of what communities receive public investment, a status quo that has and is failing us.Anna Zivarts, Disability Rights Washington
This argument may be as compelling as it has ever been. People with alternatives are indeed not riding transit, and patterns of injustice have risen to the top of public debate. And yet, STB has spent 13 years foregrounding ridership and productivity in route allocation.
The old enemy was a hyper-localized view that prioritized squeaky wheels over the system’s overall interest, as we understood it. The new consensus is still system-oriented and still values route productivity, but makes room for new priorities. Indeed, most of the other public comments emphasized the value of the new framework. There is nothing wrong with a framework that is values things besides productivity , as long as it is explicit about its purposes so that we can measure its success.
No magic single metric captures all of the reasons we support transit. To the extent that ridership and rides per dollar disregard those reasons, they are not perfect. By one measure, suburban routes are “unproductive” because they carry a single boarding a longer distance, although in many ways this is a larger social service.
On the other hand, there is no meaningful division between choice riders and the transit dependent. For any given trip, there is a threshold where the cost and inconvenience of driving overtakes that of transit, and people with cars start taking the bus. There is another threshold where the general cost and inconvenience of owning a car exceeds the pain of relying on alternatives for your daily needs . Is an affluent person living downtown who chooses not to buy a car, or the nuclear family with one car because the transit is good, “transit-dependent” or not? A poor family that forgoes necessities to keep the car running might be “choice riders”, but would benefit greatly from a decent alternative.
The benefits of getting people to switch a trip to transit are large and widely distributed. Those for getting them to dispose of a car entirely are higher. All else being equal, it would be easier to convince a poorer person, who is more price-sensitive. Unfortunately, all else is not equal: South King County is far less walkable than North Seattle. The impracticality of serving suburban street grids and land use with transit is one of the great obstacles to creating service that is both equitable and productive. Improving pedestrian routes there is the great, unloved idea that would transform the possibilities.
This discussion is not about Northgate. A region investing billions in light rail there is not “abandoning” that neighborhood, or choice riders. But if we were to give up choice riders, that would have terrible consequences for the air, our economic engine in Downtown Seattle, and the long-term political popularity of transit. Let’s stick to the well-balanced guidelines and stay out of a death spiral.
 Jarrett Walker has made this point many times.
 STB is, historically, extremely interested in this threshold.