Hurray for mass transit, but it's no silver bullet

For one thing, bus and rail ridership represents only a fraction of trips now, and that's not likely to radically change soon. A Seattle think tank believes a balanced approach is called for, accepting the fact single-occupancy vehicles will play a huge role in years to come.
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Not so merrily we ride along. (Chuck Taylor)

For one thing, bus and rail ridership represents only a fraction of trips now, and that's not likely to radically change soon. A Seattle think tank believes a balanced approach is called for, accepting the fact single-occupancy vehicles will play a huge role in years to come.

With U.S. gas prices blowing through the roof, transit ridership is growing along with enthusiasm for green vehicles that will run on electricity and liquid fuels, aka plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or PHEVs. The Cascadia Center for Regional Development in Seattle has championed expanded transit for Central Puget Sound through proposals for an Eastside commuter rail line adjoining a walking and biking path and regional passenger-only ferry service.

We will continue to do so. We also back more and better bus service across the region, employer-provided transit such as Microsoft's outstanding Connector service, car- and van-pooling, and telecommuting. We see variable-priced highway lanes as essential to capping peak-hour solo drives, and also highlight improved roadway and vehicle technologies to ease congestion and pollution.

But all that said, vehicles are here to stay, and we'd better make them clean and green. That's where Cascadia Center's support for PHEVs comes in.

We need green vehicles in part because expanded transit is no silver bullet. Here in environmentally aware, pro-transit metro Seattle, it's important to note that although the numbers are ticking upward, transit is used on only a small percentage of all trips within the region. This past October, the Puget Sound Regional Council reported on its 2006 Household Activity Survey. In the fourth item from the top, you'll see that across the four-county Seattle region, transit's share of 2006 trips is in the low single digits, about 4 percent based on the bar graph. Single- and multiple-occupant vehicles accounted for 84 percent of trips, with transit, walking, and "other" dividing the remaining 16 percent. The 4 percent estimate is confirmed on page ES-6 in the survey's executive summary [PDF].

Urban affairs and transportation writer Miro Cernetig of the Vancouver Sun earlier this year discussed Vancouver transit ridership in light of British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell's bold $14 billion plan to beef up rapid transit rail and bus service in the next 12 years:

The premier hopes that by 2020 at least 22 percent of all our travels in Metro Vancouver will be on public transit, up from our current 12 percent.

Far-reaching Campbell is one of our favorite public officials, a North American leader on curtailing man-made greenhouse gas emissions who is using innovative public-private financing models to pay for transit and highway improvements. The current 12 percent transit share for metro Vancouver is quite impressive, and 22 percent or 25 percent would be outstanding.

Especially considering the baseline. A recent USA Today story accenting new highs in transit usage contains a sobering counterpoint left out of most similar stories.

Still, only 5% of workers commute by public transit, according to a U.S. Census survey in 2006. [American Public Transit Association President William] Millar says no more than 20% of households have easy access to buses or trains.

Thanks in part to the gas price jump, which is likely permanent, transit's share of trips within regions is growing. But many recent media reports focus on percentage growth in transit use versus the recent past, rather than the more revealing share of trips for transit, which remains exceedingly modest in most metro regions.

One response is that increased density will change that. Except that in Puget Sound, as former state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald painstakingly documented on Crosscut, newcomers are moving to the edges of the region more than the inner rings. There is a limit to the coercive power of the government, and also a wide gap between transit advocacy and current transit market share in most locales.

Suppose transit use in the four counties grew five-fold from the PSRC's 2006 survey levels, due to high gas prices and growing concerns about man-made greenhouse gas emissions. That would still leave at least four-fifths of trips occurring via non-transit travel modes.

How do we approach this broad segment of intra-regional non-transit using travelers, while easing traffic congestion and carbon-bearing vehicle emissions? In a wide variety of ways, including more robust promotion of ride-sharing and telecommuting; regional expansion of variable pricing on highway lanes; and encouraging automaker success in developing affordable, reliable green vehicles such as PHEVs. (A PHEV-centric discussion of clean-source electricity versus fossil fuel-derived electricity is found toward the end of this post).

In the meantime, take this to the bank: Beware the man with the silver bullet.

This article first appeared in the blog Cascadia Prospectus, of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development.


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