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?
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Riders waiting at a RapidRide stop in lower Queen Anne.

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?

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).

Of course, the value of real-world comparisons between transit modes readily succumbs to variances in how, when and where costs are measured. Robert Rynerson, a veteran schedule cruncher at RTD, noted that the GAO study compared a single freeway BRT line with the city's initial light-rail service, which circulated in clogged downtown streets.

As of 2012, he said, the Denver light-rail system, now including many miles of separated right-of-way in outlying areas, was running at 90 percent of the speed of regional buses that use highways predominantly. “And if [the regional buses] had to stop once or twice in the inner urban area, the two figures would be identical,” he said.

Why the apples to oranges comparison? Perhaps because the study, was ordered by four congressmen, including Tom Tancredo, a Republican representing Denver suburbs, who once stated that “it makes almost as much sense for Congress to subsidize Nike sneakers as it does for us to ask taxpayers to subsidize rail service.”

From the commuter's perspective, the BRT-lightrail comparison is easier. In general, the more isolated the right-of-way and the higher the capital cost, the more time commuters save. In Seattle, a variety of sources anticipate light-rail transit times as good or better – and sometimes much better – than comparable BRT or express bus times. BRT from Bellevue to Seattle would eat up nine to 13 more minutes than light rail over the same route, according to another 2005 Sound Transit analysis. The future lightrail line from Lynnwood to SODO will take 37 minutes, according to Sound Transit projections; a time that today's fastest alternative, the Route 511 express bus, can only beat when making very limited stops during the wee hours. During the day RT 511 takes as long as 49 minutes.

All of which adds to light rail's appeal. Whether it is worthwhile to bump up capital expenditure for the increment in social and environmental benefits remains a very subjective question, however. BRT does save money in the short run, and busways can be repurposed as light-rail corridors when future circumstances so recommend – a factor that makes the choice even more complicated. Decision-makers, voters included, can find themselves lost in a miasma of very large intangibles, where decisive criteria are difficult to grab onto. What is the social value of five minutes shaved off the schedules of 20,000 commuters every morning?

Choices are born somewhere, however, and population density furnishes the most obvious starting point. Oregon's Lane Transit District, which serves the 355,000 residents of the relatively smaller Eugene-Springfield metropolitan area, used that criterion in opting for BRT rather than light-rail.

In Seattle, Sound Transit opted for light rail on the Eastside “in the context of the expected population growth of 1.2 million in the Sound Transit district by 2030,” spokesman Geoff Patrick stated in an email interview. “The Board’s conclusion was that the only way buses could offer significantly improved travel times in the corridor was to make significant capital investments to keep buses from getting stuck in increasing traffic.”

In defense of BRT, the GAO study called attention to the flexibility of buses, with which a vehicle operator can more or less extemporize a detour if a route is blocked – a convenience light-rail vehicles can't duplicate. Rail proponents, however, see that flexibility in a very different light: since it allows for ongoing route changes, no one can count on the line staying put and fueling the transit-oriented development that often surrounds rail stops.

Seen in this larger context, RapidRide doesn't do much except quicken the commute a little bit – maybe. Compared to other accelerated transit modes, it presents only one unchallengeable advantage: its price. According to an email from Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer, “RapidRide is not intended to be a replacement for high capacity rail corridors and its costs are pennies on the dollar compared to projects requiring the acquisition and creation of new rights-of-way for transit.

“Based on successes so far,” he added, “we see the possibilities of applying this BRT concept in several additional similar corridors in the future (e.g. the Ambaum-Delridge Route 120 between Burien and downtown Seattle, and others).”

The success he alludes to remains open to debate. When technology-heavy solutions fall short of promises, they plead the case for the more certain benefits that dedicated lanes, exclusive rights-of-way or light rail would yield. Four million dollars a mile for a system that doesn't get you there any faster becomes pure waste. The far larger sums that true BRT eats up would at least hold the promise of fast buses that are almost trains – which is the whole idea.


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