Transit train wreck: Revealing bus-route ridership

We've got buses going everywhere, and guess which routes are logging the biggest increases in ridership? Not the route that would become light rail to the Eastside suburbs. Part 2 of 3
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We've got buses going everywhere, and guess which routes are logging the biggest increases in ridership? Not the route that would become light rail to the Eastside suburbs. Part 2 of 3

Second 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.

Sound Transit wants to hear from people about a plan for a 30 percent to 40 percent (depending on where you live) increase in the sales tax slice devoted to transit. The plan would put billions of dollars into the lap of the board of directors to spend on capital projects for Sound Transit's 10 percent share of the region's transit service. The big investments would be 18 miles of light rail extensions, serving just a few communities, and station improvements and beefed up frequency on the Sounder commuter rail train through Puyallup, Sumner, Auburn, Kent, and Tukwila, from Tacoma to Seattle.

Riders could first use the big projects in 2020. Ten years later, by 2030, 22 years from now, the new projects would have produced a gain in daily ridership, according to Sound Transit, equal to about 20 percent of today's daily regional transit ridership, although many of those riders would just be shifting their transit trip to a rail car from a bus.

Meanwhile, the rest of the regional transit system — 90 percent of today's current ridership — operated by King County Metro, Community Transit in Snohomish County, Pierce Transit, Everett Transit, and Washington State Ferries, already with hundreds of thousands of daily boardings, is bursting at the seams with near double-digit annual ridership gains pressed on existing services by gas-price woes to which no end is in sight and, at least for now, traffic congestion.

What's right with this Sound Transit plan?

Not much. Because it would fail to leverage much of Sound Transit's huge proposed tax-funded spending in the markets where transit growth is happening today and where the most important opportunities and needs for transit improvements and growth are presented tomorrow.

The best proof of the plan's failings lies in little-noticed but critically important details of Sound Transit's reports on its own growth spurt in transit ridership. And looking at the evidence from the other parts of the regional system and other places around the country just underscores the flaws in Sound Transit's approach.The big route connecting Bellevue and Seattle isn't where the riders are

You can start right at the top by laying Sound Transit's own ridership reports against the plan's main event: $2.1 billion in spending to serve Bellevue-Seattle customers (with Mercer Island riders to boot) with a light rail extension between downtown Seattle and Bellevue and Overlake.

This light rail line would replace the Queen Elizabeth II of Sound Transit's regional express bus system, the Route 550 express bus. Today, the 550 makes more than 60 trips each way every day, every few minutes during rush hour. It has been Sound Transit's biggest express bus route, and with travel times just about the same as light rail, it defines the case for Sound Transit's approach of building out an east-west light rail main line. It would connect up with Central Link light rail, which runs north-south, basically paralleling Interstate 5 through downtown Seattle on which construction is moving ahead to a hoped-for mid-2009 opening.

But there's a stark message drowned out in Sound Transit's crowing over an overall 2007 to 2008 jump of 16 percent in overall ridership.

Which Sound Transit express bus route in that period produced growth less than half the rate [PDF] of the Sound Transit system average? Hint: it's the same route that shows lower daily boardings today than in 2001.

Yes, it's Route 550 between Bellevue and Seattle on the I-90 bridge, drifting for years between 5,000 and 6,000 daily boardings and, even with infusion of a few new riders this year, not yet recovering the peak ridership level of 2001.

The riders are flocking instead to stronger transit routes all over the region

It's not hard to contrast that performance with the routes — Sound Transit's own and others — where ridership is surging. They're different.

Take, for example, Route 535, Lynnwood to Bellevue, Sound Transit's top growth performer of any route, rail or bus, with a 31 percent one-year jump in passenger boardings for the first quarter of 2008.

Or Route 554, Issaquah to Seattle via Eastgate: only 35 or so round trips a day, but a 17 percent one year jump in ridership.

Another big winner was Route 545, Redmond-Seattle, operating over the Highway 520 bridge. Last quarter it added twice as many new riders compared to a year ago than Bellevue-Seattle Route 550, at twice the percentage gain (14), and it has now all but overtaken the Bellevue-Seattle Route 550 in total ridership.

Also in contrast to the lackluster Sound Transit Route 550 on the I-90 corridor, where the big light rail line would be, are King County Metro's routes in the Eastside suburbs and connecting them to Seattle. They, too, showed dramatic increases:

  • Route 245, Kirkland to Factoria via Overlake. was up 24 percent (December 2007 over December 2006).
  • Route 253, Redmond to Seattle via Crossroads, Bellevue, and the 520 transit stops was up 22 percent.
  • Route 255, Juanita to Seattle via Kirkland and the 520 transit stops, was up 10 percent.
  • Route 271, Issaquah to the University District, was up 12 percent.

Each of these routes gained more riders over the course of a year than did Sound Transit Route 550 back and forth between Bellevue and Seattle across Mercer Island.

It wasn't just nearby routes serving the transit markets on the Eastside that smoked Sound Transit Route 550. Consider Sound Transit Route 522, Woodinville to Seattle, 33 round trips a day along the Lake City Way/Bothell Way corridor. An 11 percent year-to-year increase in daily boardings since 2007.

Or Sound Transit's own express bus service on the I-5 corridor, between Seattle and Tacoma and Lakewood (reported collectively by Sound Transit as Route 590/592/594/595) . That route showed an 18 percent gain in first-quarter ridership. It actually pushed aside Bellevue-Seattle Route 550 at the top of the Sound Transit ranking table, with almost 5,200 boardings a day.

Blue-ribbon honors, though, go to Pierce Transit's Route 1 into and through downtown Tacoma, joining it to Tacoma Community College on one end and Spanaway on the other. More than 60 trips each way daily and over 8,000 daily boardings. Last year, Pierce Transit increased service on this route by four percent and harvested a 12 percent ridership increase, amounting to almost 1,000 additional daily boardings.

Another blue ribbon winner, Metro Route 358 on Aurora Avenue North, most recently reporting more than 9,600 daily boardings. Even that pales before Metro workhorses like Route 48, connecting areas of the city west and south via the University District, and Metro Route 7 connecting Rainier Beach, Rainier Avenue South, and the International District with each other and with downtown Seattle. Both are recording well more than 10,000 daily boardings. These are just a few highlights from many good examples.

Invest in transit where transit works best

What's going on here?

Sound Transit argues for putting most of its transit investment chips on a bet that just a couple of light rail corridors connecting just a few big destinations will be transit's wave of the future. But riders are turning out in droves to use a much richer network of routes with the capacity to crisscross the region in response to today's real-world travel patterns and markets.

Some of those strong routes join centers with each other. Some connect a string of destinations along suburban corridors. Some are urban cross-town routes, like Seattle's busiest ones. Some perform a mixture of these functions, like Pierce Transit's Route 1. Riders are seizing and exploiting the capacity of that rich network of routes. They're not voting for the worn-out flagship Sound Transit Route 550, which the Sound Transit Eastside light rail program would upgrade.

The patterns of the routes that work best are no fluke. They stem from the way the region has grown in recent decades.

The pattern of commuting from the main suburbs to the big city must have seemed immutable more than two decades ago, when Sound Transit's model first gained favor among a faction of transportation planners.

But our region didn't turn out quite they way they expected, either as to where all the people would live or where all the new job locations and other transportation destinations would expand. Bellevue wasn't just going to funnel into Seattle. And Redmond wasn't just going to funnel into Bellevue to get to Seattle.

King County Metro keeps statistics on the growth of boardings in the various communities. Bellevue's boardings last year were up a not-insignificant 10 percent. But the important fact is the shape of that growth as Bellevue's transit needs develop and mature.

Tomorrow's patterns of travel will show how differently the story is developing from what was envisioned years ago when the kinds of plans now engraved in Sound Transit's vision were first made. Puget Sound Regional Council projections now show that by 2030, only 5 percent of journey-to-work trips to Bellevue will come from the west across the I-90 corridor from Seattle and Mercer Island. Bellevue is now its own regional job and employment center, not a satellite of Seattle. Issaquah, Redmond, Sammamish, Factoria, and Renton will be the transit markets to emphasize in and out of Bellevue — not the trip to Seattle, let alone Mercer Island. Interstate 405 will be much bigger in Bellevue's main game than I-90.

Seattle, for its part, last year added about 12,000 daily boardings. Transit grows more important every day, as citizens are demonstrating by getting on the bus to take themselves to every corner of the city. It's Seattle's own neighborhoods and near-in heavily residential suburbs that will most need and can best exploit transit improvements. A segment of riders going back and forth on what once seemed like an all-important transportation spine between the Bellevue Transit Center and downtown Seattle is now the all-important route for hardly anyone.

Meanwhile, the locales in King County that showed the largest percentage jumps in transit daily boardings last year were Issaquah, Bothell, Woodinville, Auburn, Burien, and Kenmore. Issaquah's gain in boardings was 85 percent. Bothell's was 60 percent. Redmond had an 18 percent gain, adding a thousand daily boardings. Transit service across the Highway 520 Bridge is a huge regional transportation need.

The same patterns of developing needs and markets can be seen, for example, in Snohomish County. Community Transit Routes 201/202 [PDF], between the Lynnwood Transit Center and Smokey Point in Arlington through Everett and Marysville, connect communities that are critical to Everett-area everyday travel markets. And Community Transit Route 101 [PDF] in South Snohomish County, connecting Aurora Village in Shoreline along Highway 99 through Edmonds and Lynnwood to the Mariner Park-and-Ride lot in Everett. In Pierce County, we've already seen the importance of Pierce Transit Route 1. Pierce Transit Route 2 connects downtown Tacoma and Tacoma Community College with the Lakewood Transit Center via Bridgeport Way. Ridership is up 11 percent from a year ago. Pierce Transit Route 53 connects Tacoma Mall with Tacoma Community College through University Place. It's a smaller route, but daily boardings jumped in a year by more than 30 percent.

That's a rich spread and variety of routes. Even if every mile of light rail now proposed by Sound Transit were built, the overwhelming majority of transit use in the region will still be provided by buses and the bus network.

This is absolutely clear from the existing data and from the modest scale of Sound Transit's own predictions of future light rail ridership.

Other regions: it's the same story

Other cities' recent experience underscores that the kinds of services bus networks best provide outperform the limitations of light rail corridors, if the goal is to serve as many people as possible.

Denver has built a lot of light rail. Like metropolitan Seattle, it has witnessed a big recent surge in transit ridership. In March 2008, Denver had daily boardings of about 65,000 on the light rail system. Up by a little over 7 percent from a year earlier. Its bus system, on the other hand, had daily boardings of about 215,000. It grew not by 7 percent, like light rail, but by more than 9 percent from a year earlier on a much larger base. The total number of people joining the daily bus boardings was greater than for light rail, and the percentage growth rate was higher, too.

In Portland, in March 2008, the MAX light rail system had daily boardings of 104,000. In Portland, as in Denver, the bus system nevertheless carries a much larger market share than light rail. Daily boardings on the buses in March were 211,000. Transit has not surged quite as much in the Portland area as in Seattle, an interesting fact in its own right. In any case, light rail boardings in March grew by 2.1 percent from a year ago. Bus boardings, on twice as large a base, grew by nearly twice as large a percentage, at 3.75 percent. However attractive Portland's light rail system, a much bigger gain of actual ridership went to the kind of transit network a good bus system provides.

The mismatch of huge investment on cross-lake light rail with the makings of a transformational leap in transit ridership is evident from every angle. Money is scarce and needs are high. We shouldn't be putting up big tax increases and project spending for the most expensive menu items that provide the least nourishment to the ridership.

Sounder south: transportation's ultimate irony

What about spending a billion dollars on Sounder? That, it turns out, is downright bizarre.

It's time to call Sounder south by its right name: Sprawl Rail.

The biggest challenge to the region's Vision 2040 growth management goals is to favor more growth in more compact communities at the more central areas of the region's population and job locations. The idea is not to favor the continued fever pitch of development at the fringes of the designated Urban Growth Area with the long and inefficient transportation requirements that always accompany that pattern of development.

Why, considering our land use and growth strategies, would we spend our money on a transit investment to make trips halfway across the region and to support its market appeal, expand sales tax-funded free parking at Puyallup (already 546 spaces; more in the plan), Sumner (already 327 spaces, more in the plan), Auburn (already 676 spaces; more in the plan), and Kent (already 1,100 spaces, more in the plan)? Today, those spaces are being filled by commuters driving to the stations from east of the Kent Valley all the way to Covington, Maple Valley, and Black Diamond, as well as unincorporated areas on South King County that are not even within the designated Urban Growth Area. And south and east of Puyallup to South Hill and beyond in Pierce County. At the station, they can hop the long train ride for the rest of their marathon commutes!

This is a transit vision promoting long-distance separation of housing and jobs, fueling the wrong kind of development in the wrong places. It works at cross-purposes with the growth strategies to which the leaders of the region are committed.

Would well-informed voters vote for this? Only if they live where they can drive to one of the new parking lots and use a transportation route to their far away destinations.

But even many of Sounder's riders won't vote for it. They won't have to. That's because they actually live outside the boundaries of the Sound Transit taxing district in places like Covington, Maple Valley, and Black Diamond! Get it? The city mice raise their own sales taxes to get transportation funding for the future sprawl of the country mice. Now there's a smart growth plan if ever there was!

When we are presented with the moment to make transit investments on the scale of hundreds of millions of dollars, we should focus the money where it will support, not undercut, good regional growth strategies. And help many tens of thousands of citizens, not just a few.

Climate change action for greenhouse gas reduction?

Greenhouse gas reduction from the transportation system matters. It's time for real action to make daily travel less of a threat to the planet.

Sound Transit offers this climate-action advertisement for its plan: "One of the most important things people can do to reduce their carbon footprint is use public transit. By expanding regional transit, this [Sound Transit] proposal would bring about 110,000 new daily riders to Sound Transit's services — an increase of 55 percent or more — by 2030." (Repeating an earlier side note, many of these riders are already transit riders Sound Transit wants to switch from express buses to light rail! But we'll leave that detail aside.)

To buttress the fragile enthusiasm of the Sierra Club for the plan, Sound Transit has promised sometime soon to produce an "industry-leading GHG emission analysis."

Here's the creative challenge the authors of that analysis will face if they want Sound Transit to be pleased with their report:

The plan makes no real impact on ridership until 2020, and the growth number of 110,000 new transit riders is not to be achieved until 2030.

That is not the urgency the case requires!

The plan in truth grows today's regional transit ridership by 2030 by only 20 percent — and probably not even that — compared to today's total regional ridership. Not 55 percent, as Sound Transit suggests by using only its own small fraction of regional transit ridership as the denominator. Indeed, in the overall picture of needed greenhouse gas emission reductions from the transportation sector, the mark of this plan will be so miniscule and so long in coming as probably to be below detection.

This is not enough! Not for billions of dollars in projects and a big new sales tax slice for transit — but only for Sound Transit.

The epigraph for the greenhouse gas analysis on the Sound Transit plan should probably be the sound bite from the bad news scouting report on the basketball recruiting prospect: "He's slow, but he's short."

Indeed, a greenhouse gas proposition offered in Sound Transit's promotional material is so weak that it must yield one or the other of only two conclusions:

  • One merited but unfortunate conclusion would be: Why bother?
  • The alternative and much more appropriate conclusion is: For that much money, we must not rest until we find a way to do much better!
Benefits, costs, and chutzpah — you've got to be kidding

Recently, Sound Transit issued a press release promoting the supposedly happy conclusion by its consultant that 15 years after the projects in this plan were completed — that would be in about 2035, a date the release manages not to mention — the value of the benefits resulting from the plan would finally catch up with the costs of building the projects. Without the tweaking of every assumption in its favor, the magic year — if ever — would have been even farther away.

The devil was really in the details of the consultant's report, however. The most startling was this: According to the consultant, the plan would cut the otherwise projected daily total of vehicle miles driven in the region in the year 2030 by a whopping 180 million miles a year. Sound like a big number? Well, the forecast for 2030, to which the reduction would be applied, is about 95 million miles a day. So the good news for $6 billion of spending and a big tax increase is that, according to its own consultant and Sound Transit, not its critics, the region would see about two days' worth of reduction in miles driven, or about one half of one percent.

The real stunner here, however, is actually a bit of inside baseball. Even this tiny shred of good news ginned up by the Sound Transit consultant depends on the assumption that when the cars come off the highway because riders shift to transit, nobody else decides to drive in the now freer flowing lanes. There is, in other words, no recongestion effect from latent demand.

Every environmentalist in America, and a lot of other people, too, believe that the best case against building more highways is that latent demand will recongest the new capacity. That's the basis for the expression everyone's heard a thousand times: "You can't build your way out of congestion." Are you prepared to believe that the largest single slice of benefits the consultant identified in its report for Sound Transit is the benefit to car drivers who will be able to get places faster, because there will be a little more space on the road, and that no recongestion effect will apply? That's got to be a head scratcher of mind-melt proportion for any environmentalist. But it's actually in the report — as Casey Stengal would have said (and if you have a good eye for the fine print): "You can look it up." [PDF]

Equity and common sense

Why are there so many disconnects and perplexities in this assembly of projects that prompts Sound Transit to raise and spend billions of tax dollars?

Ask insiders that question, and apologists mutter, "sub area equity." That's not the whole answer, but it's part of it.

No one seems comfortable trying to explain the baroque complexities of sub area equity. Generally, it has to do with the notion that the benefits of taxes should turn up in Sound Transit project spending in the areas within the parts of the Sound Transit taxing district from which the taxes were generated.

As a rule of the project selection game, sub area equity seemingly trumps ordinary considerations of political equity, as in who gets to pay for this and are the benefits being sensibly distributed to people and communities who need them? It trumps common sense, as in why can't we achieve a better fit of projects that would actually promote serious and prompt greenhouse gas reductions?

Nobody seems very happy about it.

The fundamental reason it leads to such bad results is that Sound Transit's rules so limit the kinds of transit projects it can consider. Therefore, to raise taxes enough to generate the money for good but expensive projects in one area, it has to find a whole lot of equally expensive things to do from its limited project menu in other areas. How different it would be, for example, if in areas like Pierce County or Snohomish County new sales tax revenues in a Sound Transit package could be spent on extending regular bus routes to places that need them, in true collaboration with Community Transit or Pierce Transit, rather than pouring money down the Sounder drain.

Flawed rules always lead to bad outcomes. Sub area equity ought to be changed so that a plan sent to voters can truly achieve regional benefits from region-wide taxation.

Get a better plan

A better plan would build a transit system that would be used by many more people, make transportation more efficient, and help everyone adjust to an end-of-cheap-oil world. And cut greenhouse gas emissions by dramatically increasing shared vehicle ridership. And support the growth strategies that will build more compact communities, reducing unwelcome auto dependency and contributing to the protection of our region's environment, especially the ecosystems of Puget Sound.

By the way, a part of that plan — just a part — might well include extending light rail to Northgate, if more federal money can be found to help do it.

The public should be beating down the doors at Sound Transit. Not for Sound Transit's plan, but for a better plan.

Next: The must-do agenda for transit — and smart growth.


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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.