Last of three parts
Part 1: Ridership today and the suggested Sound Transit sales tax increase.
Part 2: Real riders speak, and Sound Transit's model isn't what they want to buy.
Part 3: The must-do agenda for transit and smart growth.
Public transportation in metropolitan Puget Sound today achieves something like 540,000 boardings a day. That's with a narrow definition that doesn't include vanpools or special handicapped or elderly transportation, or getting kids to and from school on school buses, or ride-sharing, or private shuttle vans to the airport, all of which it should. It also leaves aside walking and the bicycle, the healthy, low-fat transportation alternatives.
All these things can contribute more to the transportation task. But to keep it very simple, we'll concentrate here just on so-called "fixed route" transit systems.
Even though the daily boardings seem like a big number, transit's role in the overall daily job of personal transportation is pretty modest. It has a long way to go to play the role it should in an end-of-cheap-oil world. Yet our regional transit network is strong compared to most other places. We have dedicated funding from the slice of the sales tax that goes to transit. Voters will approve more if they see a sensible plan.
Transportation is on the threshold of dramatic changes as we lament the lost luxury of cheap oil and worry about the future. Things need to be different. That includes cars that run on renewable energy and more efficient roads to continue to carry freight as well as a lot of daily personal trips for many people. Changes at the margins of accustomed ways of doing things, however, won't be enough. There needs to be a big shift of trips to shared-vehicle transit.
Transit also must play a key role in shaping and serving communities' growth in housing and jobs. We need compact, transportation-efficient communities that are both desirable — people's first choice — and affordable to people who today are all too literally driven to live in distant and sprawling residential areas. Social engineering is a bad idea for pushing change. Good transit is a good idea. We need to put our energies into the good idea.
Set a goal, take names, and kick butt
Progress must be made with urgency, and it can be if we set a goal and fix accountability for performance. Today, the overall system of transit in the region has no such goal and no effective accountability for an overall program of change.
It's not even clear that King County Metro, Pierce Transit, Community Transit, and Sound Transit are seen by one another, let alone by anybody else, as custodians, together, of a single system working toward a single goal and vision for transportation in the region.
Let's first take the entrepreneurial step of setting a goal. The winds of change will be pushing in the right direction, so let's make the most of our opportunity.
Here a goal: A million total daily transit boardings in the region within five years — 2013.
That's a far more ambitious and useful call to action than embracing the hope of seeing 120,000 new daily riders on Sound Transit's sub-system midway through our children's lifetimes in 2030! It's more in line with Community Transit's announced intention of growing ridership by 50 percent by 2012. That's the spirit we need.
We should judge our plans and results against our ambitious goal and speak plain English to the public about how it will be done and what progress we achieve month by month and year by year.
Look to the future, not the past
It's an open secret that in transit circles and among transportation progressives there's not much enthusiasm outside Sound Transit itself for its current plan. Ask, "Why should we go with the Sound Transit plan?" The most common answer is this: "We've been trying to get this done for a long time and if we don't get it done, we'll never get anything done."
Against that answer comes that verity of transportation planning for as long as people could walk: If you're on the wrong path, it's never too late to turn back.
That does not mean back to the old roads-versus-transit wars. Roads have their own issues — one of the most important is to make sure they can handle transit. But our topic is all about transit. What kind of transit, and where, and how, to deliver transit's promise? There is no weaker retort from Sound Transit to transit-oriented critics than the lame: "If you criticize our plan, you're just for roads." Forget that one. That's not what we're talking about.
Does Sound Transit have a role to play? Yes, but it has to change if it wants to be helpful. A Sound Transit internal budget document contains an interesting mission objective for Sound Transit's combined Public Relations and Planning Department (an unusual and probably un-wise organizational co-habitation):
Establish Sound Transit as the regional think tank for research, analysis and development of strategic policy initiatives that advance the way the industry approaches the provision of public transportation services.
We could use that. But it isn't happening.
Now, Sound Transit recognizes only one brand in the region: Sound Transit. Its corporate strategy and its big advertising budget — who has ever seen its tax-funded equal? — focus overwhelmingly on a single product: rail transit. That won't do for a truly regional-minded transit agency.
Successful organizations build their strategies around meeting customer-driven needs. The customer-driven mission here is to help move ordinary people where they need to go. It's not to lay a few ribbons of expensive rail lines where it seems suitable and convenient to engineering firms, public relations consultants, contractors, and rail buffs.
Sound Transit has to back off the merchandising of this expensive and one-dimensional plan that most people don't need and won't use and enter a collaboration to see how all transit can best work for all the people of the region. The ridership numbers for all the systems are the best place to start the planning.
Regional leaders have to step up
Last year, King County Executive Ron Sims got it right when he broke ranks with the wisdom of the establishment and called out the bankruptcy of Proposition 1, the big tri-county roads-and-transit ballot measure that failed in November. He was met with tongue clucking and even a short-lived shunning. But his focus was clear and correct, and he put the first cracks in the Kool-Aid pitcher.
Other voices around the region are now starting to ask the right questions about the son-of-Proposition 1 transit plan from Sound Transit. This plan will not deliver what needs to be done to help our voters and our communities.
As those rumblings build, the county councils and the other county executives and municipal leaders have to come together with a voice that insists: "Let's do this right!"
Better transit service — especially on the buses
Buses are the workhorses of transit. Even if the most ambitious Sound Transit light rail vision were ever achieved, buses would carry the vast majority of transit riders every day for the entire foreseeable future. The regional statistics put this point beyond debate.
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