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Don't let RapidRide turn you off of bus rapid transit

The problem-riddled new bus service is doing a disservice to real bus rapid transit. Could the real thing be a solution to Washington's transportation problems?
The speed of Denver's light-rail system has seen huge improvements over the last few years.

The speed of Denver's light-rail system has seen huge improvements over the last few years. Photo: Denver RTD

Riders waiting at a RapidRide stop in lower Queen Anne.

Riders waiting at a RapidRide stop in lower Queen Anne. Photo: Oran Viriyincy

After less troublesome route launches in the suburbs, two new King County Metro RapidRide routes in Seattle have caused no small number of headaches in the wake of their September launch. While the West Seattle-downtown C Line's problems have mostly been ironed out, the companion D Line, between the city center and Ballard, continues to be less than rapid. It has contended with everything from dubiously indirect routing via Queen Anne to high technology that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.

“They have no integration with Google Transit,” Ballard resident Dennis Galvin said, by way of example. Even Metro's own trip planner, he added, hasn't caught up with the new bus. In the case of two recent routine morning-commute itineraries, Galvin was right: in neither case was RapidRide presented as an option. One query elicited an itinerary for the Ballard-to-downtown Route15 express bus instead. That's helpful, since the 15 express is faster in any event, taking 18-21 minutes to get the morning commuter from NW Market and 15th Ave. to Third and Pike. The D line takes 23 minutes for the same trip, according to Metro’s own published schedule.

Even that may be a bit optimistic. Both Galvin and Ballard District Council chairwoman Catherine Weatbrook have put the D Line's actual time much higher, at about 40 minutes.

Over in West Seattle, according to neighborhood activist Chas Redmond, the C Line RapidRide's birthing pains, which included a range of technology lapses, have “settled down,” and the bus is now providing service generally faster than its predecessors.

Metro has listened to the neighborhood's dissatisfactions, he said, and “West Seattle has been very insistent.”

The pity is that the shaky start in West Seattle,and the shakier launch in Ballard, have taken the sheen off bus rapid transit (BRT) in the Emerald City, when in fact BRT may a very good idea.

To begin with, RapidRide is arguably not true BRT, whose premise is elegance itself: to re-engineer every element of urban bus travel to get travelers to their destinations faster. The bus assumes as many characteristics as possible of an urban metro train or subway. In particular, true BRT uses a dedicated, exclusive lane or a completely separate right-of-way, or busway. Running on existing arterials, as RapidRide largely does, dilutes the idea's potential.

Without the cost of adding exclusive RapidRide lanes, the implementation of the service was cheap by transit standards — about $4 million a mile to launch.True BRT is orders of magnitude more expensive. The most comparable estimate, for BRT originating in Bellevue’s central business district, put the cost at $107.5 to $147.5 million per mile, according to a 2005 Sound Transit study. Along the I-405 corridor from Lynnwood to SeaTac Airport, a 2003 WSDOT study estimated that BRT would cost between $13 and $33 million per mile.

The implementation costs of light rail over the same Bellevue route came in at $135 to $185 million per mile, according to the same ST study, and would attract an estimated additional 2,000 daily riders.

Higher capital costs often go hand-in-hand with substantially lower operating costs, however: Pay more and you get something better. The limited federal data available on BRT indicate that it costs $1.20 per passenger-mile, on average, to operate, as compared with $0.80 per passenger-mile for light-rail. Generally, Seattle's operating numbers for transit fall slightly below national averages. 

The speed factor may be a different story. A 2001 national survey from the General Accounting Office, “Bus Rapid Transit Shows Promise,” found that BRT was faster than light rail in Denver and four of five other metropolitan areas that offered both modes of transit. In Denver the BRT line in question ran in a dedicated lane down I-25 and achieved a scheduled speed, the study stated, more than three times that of the light-rail line run by the same agency, the Regional Transportation District (RTD).


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jan 8, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

I've just returned from Bogota' and their model version of BRT, the Transmilenio, is indeed impressive and efficient. But my experience suggests that true BRT has real limitations. It can be implemented on wide boulevards that already have room for two dedicated BRT lanes in addition to space for regular transit. In Bogota', the streets I was on served by Transmilenio had six lanes of traffic in total. If you don't have a street of sufficient width, you'd need to acquire additional property to expand the street, which would get really expensive. As I rode Transmilenio, I kept thinking a really good subway would serve many of those purposes, and apparently this is still being discussed in Bogota' (as well as an expansion of BRT).

pianoboy

Posted Tue, Jan 8, 10:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Subways, like U-Link, cost around $600 million per mile. That is just stupidly expensive, especially in our area.

Surface light rail, like Central Link down MLK JR Way, requires just as wide a street as BRT with dedicated lanes. However, laying tracks for light rail is far more expensive than just using concrete roads for BRT.

Lincoln

Posted Tue, Jan 8, 10:55 a.m. Inappropriate

There is no evidence that passengers are willing to pay the vastly higher fares that would be required to pay for light rail vs RapidRide. Light rail proponents always push for rail because those who use it don't pay for it -- it is massively subsidized with taxes from those who don't use it and don't benefit from it. Central Link is many times more expensive than any of the RapidRide lines, yet the fares are similar.

You can't judge anything from any study by Sound Transit. They live to build rail. Their comparisions between rail and BRT are completely biased towards rail. They are not objective at all.

There are other great advantages to BRT over light rail besides great cost savings: BRT can operate express buses which make few or no stops between major destinations, like downtown Seattle and the airport. The 194 Express bus using I-5 between downtown Seattle and SeaTac airport took about 30 minutes between Westlake station and the airport. Central Link takes about 40 minutes and drops you off 1/4 mile from the terminal, while the bus dropped you off right at the curb of the terminal. Light rail does not have any express trains -- every train stops at every single station, wasting time for those going from one end of the line to the other. At the same time, Central Link's route from Westlake to the airport is about 15.7 miles, while the 194 route was more direct, and thus shorter, meaning fewer miles traveled by bus vs light rail, saving energy.

Also, for far less money, BRT can operate much shorter headways than light rail. You could run BRT buses along the Central Link route every 2 minutes for a fraction of the cost of building Centrail Link, which operates trains eveery 7.5 minutes. And some of those buses could be "express" buses, which skip a lot of the stopa, saving time for passengers making the fulll trip.

Lincoln

Posted Thu, Jan 10, 1:33 p.m. Inappropriate

There is a broad set of data that shows that in a given corridor rail will attract twice as many riders as a bus operating at the same frequency.

The comparison of Link with Metro's old 194 route is silly. First of all, have you seen the airport drive since they implemented the stupid rental car center? It is congested almost all hours of the day. Second Link serves many many more travel connections than the 194 did. There was no direct service from the Rainier Valley to Seatac at all. Link operating every 10 mins on a reliable schedule is a lot more reliable than the erratic 194 ever was. In the evenings the 194 stopped way too early and was often 10-15 minutes late

But the biggest problem of BRT: It's almost always used to justify a reduced investment in transit infrastructure. Dedicated right of way is the big expense, whether operated by BRT or light rail. Often BRT is picked to avoid building dedicated right of way - and then the bus is stuck in traffic, which is exactly what RR C & D experience. Our region needs to push ahead in transportation investments which allow for less energy and greenhouse gas-intensive transportation that cannot be immediately congested by SOVs.

Carl

Posted Thu, Jan 10, 9:30 p.m. Inappropriate

"There is a broad set of data that shows that in a given corridor rail will attract twice as many riders as a bus operating at the same frequency."

That is just an outright lie, if the buses have the same capacity as the rail. One of the advantages of buses is that they can run with much shorter headways than trains, so you can have buses come along much more frequently, with the same capacity, for a fraction of the cost of trains.

"The comparison of Link with Metro's old 194 route is silly. First of all, have you seen the airport drive since they implemented the stupid rental car center? It is congested almost all hours of the day. Second Link serves many many more travel connections than the 194 did. There was no direct service from the Rainier Valley to Seatac at all. Link operating every 10 mins on a reliable schedule is a lot more reliable than the erratic 194 ever was. In the evenings the 194 stopped way too early and was often 10-15 minutes late "

Yes, I have been to the airport several times since the rental car center opened and noticed no increase in congestion at all. You would have at least three bus routes replace Central Link: and express to the airport on I-5; and two routes down MLK Jr Way, one of which went all the way to Tukwila and the airport. Those three bus routes combined would give you the same capacity as Link, with shorter headways, at a fraction of the cost of Link light rail. The 194 was 10 minutes faster than Link and just as reliable. It would have cost almost nothing to extend its hours later into the evening.

Our region does not need stupidly expensive transit systems costing $600 million per mile, like U-Link, or even $160 million per mile, like Central Link. That is just an incredibly stupid waste of billions and billions of tax dollars.

Lincoln

Posted Tue, Jan 8, 11:04 a.m. Inappropriate

There is no evidence that light rail generates any more Transit Oriented Development than bus routes. Just look at all the new developement in Ballard, for one example, compared to almost NO new development around Central Link light rail stations. You think the developers building those huge new mixed-use buildings near Market and 15th in Ballard are worried about the RapidRide routes being changed to no longer serve that intersection? lol

Try to use a little common sense when writing an opinion piece. Getting out and actually looking at what is going on along bus routes versus Link light rail, might help you some.

Lincoln

Posted Tue, Jan 8, 11:34 a.m. Inappropriate

Seattle could route the Ballard Rapid Ride from Elliott along Denney (instead of Mercer Place) and the 2nd/4th Ave couplet. Access to Queen Anne and other N/S Avenues downtown require more frequent service separate from express transit. Metro knows this, but obviously has no intention of implementing effective transit service. Metro is too closely associated with the Military/Industrial Complex instituted by nihilist Boeing corporation cohorts plotting disaster for Seattle.

Why export coal from a Bellingham terminal when a Longview terminal has the least impact at least cost? Why ship via rail when barging reduces impact further. Answer: American Military/Industrial Complex cohorts believe population control by any means is expedient. They plot and initiate war for population control.
You suck Boeing.

Wells

Posted Tue, Jan 8, 12:39 p.m. Inappropriate

I hope one of those nihilists doesn't chop off a toe next time you hop on an airplane. Maybe that is what caused the fire on that 787 in Boston. Lots of nihilists in Boston.

Posted Tue, Jan 8, 12:50 p.m. Inappropriate

I appreciate the data C.B. presented and how the politics play into them, as the Denver example pointed out. For BRT to work, you must have dedicated bus lanes or fewer stops on existing routes to get any benefit. Light rail has a higher cost and doesn't skip stops, making it slower than current buses during non-peak hours. The least expensive of all methods - by far - are van pools, which get very little funding, yet don't solve all the problems either, but could be expanded to get more cars off the road.

The real problem is the Puget Sound region that must talk about problems for a decade before doing anything about it, witness the viaduct and 520 bridge.

What to do in a mostly wet Seattle?

D.Engle

Posted Tue, Jan 8, 8:51 p.m. Inappropriate

The lighting on the new buses is too damn bright. It is like you were in a prison being interrogated. So we have surveillance cameras all over the place on the new buses, seats faced inwards so there is less seating, and the passengers with spotlights glaring at them. Like some kind of moving jail.

jhande

Posted Wed, Jan 9, 2:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Ballard's "Not-so-Rapid-Ride" is a bit of a joke. The article is correct that the technology is flakey too and it is in my experience no faster than the old 15 and 18 locals.

The biggest problem with the D Line however in my opinion is the dog leg up onto lower Queen Anne. I would like to see Metro find another way to connect that area with Ballard and then route the D Line straight down Leary into downtown. If they did that, it would be faster.

nwcitizen

Posted Wed, Jan 9, 6:04 p.m. Inappropriate

I love the term 'true BRT has dedicated rights of way'. That's like calling a dirt road a highway and saying 'true highways' are paved.

It's either BRT or it's not. A fancy bus with fancy bus stops that gets stuck in traffic is just more expensive bus service.

I hope Ted Van Dyk reads this article. I'm still waiting for him to pencil out a BRT route on Capitol Hill that would mimic light rail speeds.

Posted Thu, Jan 10, 11:37 a.m. Inappropriate

You mean the speed of the new streetcar on Capitol Hill? What is the average speed of that "light rail" projected to be?

Or, you mean the U-Link light rail with exactly ONE station for all of Capitol Hill? How long will it take the average resident of Capitol Hill just to get to that one station? Of course, U-Link light rail cost $600 million per mile. The RapidRide bus routes cost about $5 million per mile. So, U-Link is about 120 times more expensive per mile than the RapidRide buses.

Lincoln

Posted Thu, Jan 10, 8:59 p.m. Inappropriate

I know that 'reporters' write the article, and editors pick the headline.

With that in mind, from reading this article, it appears more balanced than the headline suggests, save for the omission of one option on the eastside corridor.

Sometime this year, it might be removed permanently by the City of Kirkland.

The article seems to pit 'light rail' against what is the ever hazy definition of BRT. The two studies Mr Hall refers to, the 2003 WSDOT BRT White Paper and Sound Transit’s 2005 Eastside HCT analysis are two very different flavors.

WSDOT’s version of BRT is a freeway based system that enhances the express bus service, but in critical areas seems to lack the infrastructure to ensure the reliability of a truly dedicated ROW. The Canyon Park stop, for instance.

When Sound Transit looked at BRT on the freeway, they planned on having Bus-only ramps at the major interchanges, but WSDOT insists on them being HOV compatible, which drives the cost of that option up, so they studied another version.

Sound Transit looks to build (overbuild in some critic’s opinions) a robust, long term system by ensuring reliability with completely dedicated right-of-way.

Note that this includes using the eastside rail line ROW from south Kirkland to Totem Lake as shown by the study that has selected BRT as the High Capacity Transit option in the corridor, the I-405 Corridor Program Study FEIS completed in 2002.

Why wasn’t commuter rail in the corridor studied? It duplicates the alignment of the BRT systems suggested, except for the Totem Lake to Lynnwood section.

Lest you think that is a big oversight, if you actually read the I-405 Corridor plan, you will see that instead of adding two GP lanes in each direction between Bothell and Lynnwood, they plan to add only 1 GP lane in each direction.

That is not the heaviest travelled segment even for SOV’s.

When Sound Transit and the PSRC studied putting Commuter Rail on the Woodinville Subdivision, they came up with something that looked like the South Sounder service, double tracked, very robust station structures and frequent service. From that study, completed in 2008, they came up with a $1.3 Billion price tag.

That equates to $31 Million per mile.

It seems like everything has been studied doesn’t it?

Except for one problem, - the Timeline.

The I-405 Corridor Program FEIS –June 2002
WSDOT BRT White Paper – August 2003
Sound Transit’s BRT analysis – August 2005
Joint Sound Transit/PSRC analysis for commuter rail on the BNSF corridor – December 2008

The reason Eastside Commuter Rail on the BNSF corridor is not in the 2002 I-405 Corridor Program’s Cost/Benefit analysis is for one reason.

The City of Renton, and the Kennydale Neighborhood Association submitted a letter to the I-405 Program’s Executive Committee asking that it go no further than what was a preliminary analysis.

Before their request, a Woodinville to Tukwila Sounder connection was showing 3100 riders per day. No cost figure was studied, since BNSF wasn’t talking about selling at the time.

If the Eastside Commuter Rail option is going to be taken off the table by the City of Kirkland pulling up the tracks, and anyone who has lived here and know the politics, it will never come back as any type of HCT option; BRT, Light Rail, Commuter Rail, or otherwise.

If regional planners look at the above timeline, and say the conclusions drawn are valid, it surely won’t be because the numbers are telling them that.

JimCusick

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