Transit train wreck: Here's how to do buses right

They aren't the only solution, but they are the most flexible and potentially most attractive solution if they are used well. Bus lines are flexible, scalable, and can touch more people than rail, and they don't have to be a pain to use. Part 3 of 3
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They aren't the only solution, but they are the most flexible and potentially most attractive solution if they are used well. Bus lines are flexible, scalable, and can touch more people than rail, and they don't have to be a pain to use. Part 3 of 3

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.

Unfortunately, that fact is discomforting for an elitist ideology deeply entwined in today's transportation gestalt. A car at best is a necessary evil. A bus is always better than a car but not actually good. A rail car is good and better in every way than a bus.

That bias isn't helping. And it isn't even valid. The real question is what works best where. Carpools, vans, and ride share can be very important and should get more attention. Walking is a major transportation mode. There are places where rail will be cost-effective. And buses are crucial.

Buses can be energy-efficient and cost-effective ways of getting people conveniently from place to place. Bus systems offer great capacity, easily scaled up by increments, and great flexibility in deploying and routing equipment to meet needs that change not just from day to day but even as communities' growth changes their transportation needs across years and decades.

But we need a modern bus ride — the best. We should be prepared to pay taxes to help get it. The transit agencies and local governments need better cooperation to overcome challenges and speed up changes.

Here is what modern bus systems offer. Check what we already have and what we need to improve:

  • Most important of all, frequent, frequent, reliable schedules. Where we've offered good schedules, ridership has soared. It's the single attribute of a transit system that always returns the biggest ridership dividend. We need to do still more.
  • Safe, clean, comfortable buses. All around the world the industry standard is improving. We need to show people the best in passenger comfort and convenience from this country and abroad. Our region is already one of the very best in using electric trolleys and hybrid buses for energy efficiency, and more can be done there, too.
  • Covered bus stops with benches and suitable security systems. And information displays that announce when the next bus will arrive. And modern electronic systems so everyone settles up their fare before boarding so that trip times are shorter than today — with, please, the inexplicably delayed regional fare card.
  • Roadways designed and managed to work for transit. Priority at traffic lights to give bus riders the fastest possible trip. Unclogged travel lanes for buses; some curb lane parking will have to make way! HOT lanes on freeways with variable tolls to clear congestion out of lanes that buses share with cars. These are all tried and true practices around the country and the world. Some we are already doing them here, but, especially in Seattle's neighborhoods, clogged streets are slowing buses and trying riders' patience, and we need to do more.
  • Information on the Internet for bus riders as good as what car drivers now get on traffic cam sites, flow maps, and message displays. Look at Busview to see rudiments of the promise, but that is a long way from what it could be! Check out Next Bus on a cell phone the next time you are in Vancouver.
  • Helpful drivers. Courteous fellow passengers. These things exist now, and they can become the norm if we set and enforce the expectation.
Bus rapid transit

Put together the best of buses and bus technology for fast, reliable travel times with faster boarding and less waiting on free-flowing corridors that support frequent service. That's called bus rapid transit [PDF].

With bus rapid transit, you can match and sometimes surpass all the service attractions of light rail. And at a fraction of light rail's cost, because buses can use a lot of right of way we already have, including the existing HOV lanes. They cover a much broader geography than light rail. And at a fraction of light rail's start-up time, because you can implement these kinds of bus solutions with much less capital spending, and you can do it in quick, affordable steps.

To see the action today, you go to cities already seizing bus rapid transit to solve problems like metropolitan Seattle's. Bogota, Colombia, moving more than a million people a day. Nine cities in China. London. Vancouver, B.C., Brisbane [PDF] in Australia. Las Vegas, Cleveland, Eugene [PDF], and Boston [PDF]. This is just a brief selection. This month's news: Bus rapid transit is the preferred choice for a big Metro extension in Los Angeles. International engineering firms [PDF] tout bus rapid transit's ability to attract new riders by combining the high performance characteristics of rail with the flexibility and economy of buses.

To envision how basic bus rapid transit will work here, there's not long to wait until Community Transit in 2009 christens its SWIFT service over a 16-mile, 15-station route from Aurora Village through Shoreline, Edmonds, and Lynnwood to Everett Station. Every 10 minutes, another bus! New, easy-to-board buses. Large and comfortable bus shelters, and more. For a start-up cost not of billions, or even hundreds of millions, but $25 million to $30 million.

King County Metro's first bus rapid transit RapidRide services are planned for five routes: Aurora Avenue North between Shoreline and downtown; downtown and West Seattle across the West Seattle Bridge; Redmond to Bellevue through Crossroads and Overlake; Federal Way to South 154th along Pacific Highway South; and Ballard/Uptown to downtown. But RapidRide on Metro won't be seen on even the first route (Pacific Avenue South) until 2010, with years of implementation for the other routes. That's too slow for a RapidRide.

Even Sound Transit knows about bus rapid transit. It's never been willing to put on the table a first-class bus rapid transit option with HOT lanes for future Interstate 90 service between Seattle and Eastside communities (including Bellevue), for fear the comparison would blow away the expensive light rail plan to Bellevue.

But on Highway 520, Sound Transit agrees bus rapid transit is clearly the wave of at least the foreseeable future, and it offers at least someday (after the new bridge is built) to spend for a new transit center somewhere in the corridor.

As already noted by community members, that's too little, too late in improving transit in the corridor. Advocates for plug-in hybrids have shown how a transit center could be built in South Kirkland that would gather riders from a host of adjacent areas and send them on their way to all the key destinations — while their cars would spent the day at the park-and-ride connected up to the regional power grid. Wouldn't that help shorten one-driver-per-car commutes and seize just one of the opportunities environmentalists have spotted for big greenhouse gas reduction from bus rapid transit?

Eavesdrop on the buses and at the bus stops and you might be surprised that regular people have heard about bus rapid transit and want to see how it can improve their trips. We need to hear the riders themselves and deliver bus rapid transit service that will vastly help those riders and attract many more.

Data and vision should direct transit service expansion

Good examples for service expansions are easy to find. They are too numerous to list in their entirety. If the transit and transportation agencies were working together, both on planning and implementation, and money came available to support a coordinated vision, all kinds of things could be done in short order.

Examples abound.

  • Issaquah is an oddly neglected stepsister in Sound Transit's plan. It's a prime market for expanded service right now (together with Sammamish), but all it gets in the current plan is a promised "light rail feasibility study." It needs new service to Bellevue and Redmond on the Eastside and to downtown Seattle, the University District, and North Seattle across the lake.
  • Pierce Transit Route 53 from University Place to Tacoma Community College isn't as big a route, but it just delivered a 20 percent one-year ridership jump. Look there.
  • Bellevue needs new service — focused on where demand is growing in its own daily travel profile, not on the throw-back vision that the highest need is for suburban suits to commute to their Seattle bank high-rise offices. Bellevue needs service to and from the locations where people live who are working in the new jobs in Bellevue. Last year, Sound Transit's Everett-Bellevue route showed a ridership jump of 24 percent. Lynnwood-Bellevue jumped 31 percent. Auburn-Bellevue jumped 18 percent. There are more riders where those riders came from.
  • In Snohomish County, Everett needs better service to areas east of Interstate 5, south on the Highway 99 corridor, and north to Marysville, Arlington, and Smokey Point, in addition to more service to Seattle locations downtown and to the University District, as well as to the area served by the north portions of the Interstate 405 corridor.
  • In Seattle itself, bus overcrowding on many routes is already holding back ridership growth. Metro rules may have to be stretched (there will be some political heat) and buses shifted from a few underutilized routes elsewhere in the system to meet demand where it's highest.

The list goes on and on. It's important to say that the transit agencies themselves know these opportunities and needs. They may require more money for faster implementation and to keep pace with their own rising fuel costs. They need to be cheered on by the public and supported and encouraged by elected officials so they can meet the market's demonstrated need for service improvements — to say nothing of supporting greenhouse gas reductions much larger and much sooner than hoped for in the Sound Transit go-it-alone plan.

Line up transit with the growth strategies that will really make a difference

Our region faces huge population and job growth right now and in coming decades. Probably even larger than we had thought if a previously unforeseen wave of climate refugees sifts population into the northwest and away from water shortages and the energy-wasting futility of air-conditioning the hot southern deserts.

The challenge: to grow and to prosper and all the while to preserve the values of our environment and, specifically, the irreplaceable ecosystems of the Puget Sound basin. That's what makes ours a unique place where people want to bring their businesses and families to live and work, or stay here if they are already so lucky — if we can preserve what's different and special about this place! There's no other place anywhere in the country like here.

The strategy: change the way we grow so that our rural and natural areas will always be there to enjoy and share, because more people want to and can live more closely together in and near the cities with homes, shopping, schools, and daily recreation at hand. Trips necessarily made today by car, serving people in sprawled exurbia, are placing excessive demands on time, space, the ecosystem and, now with the gas crisis, on money. We should not tolerate growing into a future where we will live in barren bunkers witlessly carved from our beautiful setting, as eternal hostages to the mistakes of our own bad planning.

Regional officials have mostly embraced the right direction in the Puget Sound Regional Council's new Vision 2040. But we are not yet successful in making the strategy happen, especially in bringing the appeal of compact communities into reality in and close to Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, and Bellevue.

Transit has a huge role to play. Transit oriented development is planner jargon, but everybody gets the idea. Build a transit station and people will want to come to live nearby for the convenience of their commute, and soon enough there will be a QFC, a Walgreens, a locally owned video store, and even that most recently listed endangered species, a neighborhood hardware store! Housing for a mix of incomes. Where you could even conveniently walk to shop or even enjoy a meal out with friends — assuming someone had given forethought to good sidewalks and a pleasant environment to travel around on foot, and even local streets with room for bicycles, not just cars.

Imagine further. This place we need is not just a light rail station, or even a half dozen of them, strung like widely separated big beads on the necklace of a couple of light rail lines. A light rail station isn't either the necessary or sufficient transit condition for forward-looking transit oriented development. A lot of money spent on a new light rail station won't turn downtown high-rise Bellevue or already condo-ized Mercer Island into a new mixed-housing urban village.

You also can bet that a new light rail station in south Bellevue won't be surrounded with a lot of transit-oriented development. The light rail station for Tukwila, now almost fully shaped abreast Highway 518 near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, will be no catalyst for an urban village. More promising results, happily, seem to be emerging near the new light rail stations in the Rainier Valley.

But light rail stations with a small pocket of surrounding development will always be too meager in number and too long in coming to bring about a transformation in regional land use. It's also clear that vibrant and compact growth can as easily spring up where there is no light rail now or in the foreseeable future, as in booming Ballard or in Renton.

The key to vastly more positive results is to envision the desired kind of development laid out along an entire transit corridor. Instead of small clusters of development around isolated stations, imagine an extended boulevard of housing and shops and sidewalks with high-quality bus transit carrying people to it, within it, and through it. And to bring the concept to a regional scale, imagine not just one or two such corridors, but a multitude of them.

You can see what such a corridor might look like today in a few neighborhoods on Capitol Hill in Seattle. You can see it coming into being right before your eyes on the revitalized Pacific Avenue in Tacoma. On Phinney Ridge and Greenwood Avenue in Seattle, the vision is half-realized. On Aurora Avenue North — now there's an opportunity, just waiting to be spurred by vision served by, yes, bus rapid transit, and seized upon by developers.

To see a real diamond in the rough, look at Bothell Way, Highway 522, north of Lake Washington. It hardly gleams like a jewel today. Mile after mile of roadway clogged with cranky, impatient drivers and bordered by used car lots, muffler shops, auto parts stores, and little strip malls, all surrounded by acres of asphalt as far as the eye can see. It's the broken and forlorn landscape of late-20th century Car World. Who would want to live there? But Lake Washington sparkles just blocks away! And the existing bus route — Sound Transit Route 522, in this case — already demonstrates a logical route linking all the way from downtown Seattle to Woodinville, with a host of intermediate destinations.

What if Sound Transit or King County Metro or both together were talking with citizens and local officials about the potential of bus rapid transit on that route? If we look ahead five, 10, or 20 years — who knows then what the price of gas will be or whether regular people will be able to afford it at all — could that mess of asphalt be encouraged to take new form with a forward-looking upgrade of Sound Transit Route 522 to bus rapid transit? Could new families want to live between Woodinville and Seattle on a magnificent avenue where every change you make from today would only improve our use of the impervious acres of asphalt already there?

Or is it easier to punt? Leave the current transportation/land use picture in its current dispirited Car World condition. Then watch with indifference as unsustainable low-density development continues to sprawl into the distance between Woodinville and Sultan, where every new house, driveway, parking lot, and strip mall scours forest, pasture, and field, inexorably destroying piecemeal the sustaining ecosystems of Puget Sound?

Of course, if Vision 2040 is to be achieved, we need the totally transformed Highway 522 corridor of which today we can only dream. And a lot of other paces like it.

How many times do we utter or hear the platitude that we must link transportation and land use? Really good bus service is a transportation investment that unlocks the opportunities of transit-oriented development in dozens of locations in and near all the cities of Puget Sound where growth should be happening.

Even if we started today, we wouldn't be the first to get it. For example, Ontario's York Region suburb, Canada's fastest-growingmunicipality, is proceeding with Viva, an elegant four-corridor, 60-station, 54-mile bus rapid transit system. It serves the region's own suburban canters and, as could be done here to Sound Transit's now a-building Central Link light rail, connects to the rail system to downtown Toronto. Early phase operations began in 2005, expeditiously and cost-effectively delivered by a fast-moving, design-build, public-private partnership. The next phase is proceeding to 2012 with the expectation of serving 155,000 riders by that date.

Viva is the talk of the industry [PDF] for showcasing the ability of phased-in bus rapid transit to stimulate smart growth development. The region brought its transportation investments together with good zoning solutions and tax-increment financing around a "centers-and-corridors" smart growth strategy. Private real estate investment in the brand new York Region Markham Center is expected to produce 4,000 residences and more than 4 million square feet of office space. In Cleveland and in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles, you can see other versions of the same exciting opportunity tied to bus rapid transit.

Recently, a new coalition has come together in the Puget Sound region calling itself the Quality Growth Alliance. The idea is for the region's most creative and forward-looking architects, developers, and planners to spur local officials and citizens into action that will lead to attractive new compact communities for good lifestyles for the 21st century.

Here's how those quality growth experts should bring high theory down to real world action: They should get on the good bus routes and use their eyes and imaginations to look out the bus windows, prospecting for the locations where transit is already working and surely can be the catalyst for the urban boulevards of the compact communities in our future.

What they discover will lead them in directions that will make our cities better places to live, our transportation investments more people-friendly and more planet-friendly, and our land uses truly supportive of the protection, not the destruction, of the ecosystems of a healthy Puget Sound basin.

One immediate question they might answer is this: If you were Sound Transit, and all the rest of the regional transit system together, what would you do with a sales tax increase and $6 billion to spend on projects? Sound Transit and local officials need to hear their answers. Regular citizens should chime in, too.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Doug MacDonald

Douglas MacDonald

Doug MacDonald is a pedestrian activist who once served as the Secretary of Transportation for Washington state.