King County Metro was named the nation’s top public transportation agency in 2018, but over the summer, bus routes jammed with cars drove some riders away while others have long suffered from traffic delays.
Supporters of a new downtown Seattle streetcar line say it would attract massive ridership and provide connections to key destinations, but on the existing South Lake Union line, reliability and ridership remain an issue.
The region’s transit system — and efforts to improve it — are a mixed bag. But compared to the rest of the country, the Seattle area scores well for public transportation, said Christof Spieler, who recently visited Seattle as part of a tour for his new book, “Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of U.S. Transit.”
In our latest Traffic Lab Ask An Expert Q&A, we spoke with Spieler, a vice president and director of planning at the national design consulting firm Huitt-Zollars and a senior lecturer at Rice University in Houston, where he teaches about transportation.
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This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Traffic Lab: What does Seattle’s transit system do well?
Christof Spieler: Seattle is notable for its regional express bus network, and the city has done a really good job of integrating rail and bus together. It’s also clear that the different agencies work together in figuring out how their routes meet each other and how different routes are going to serve different purposes.
T.L.: Where could Seattle stand to improve?
C.S.: The local bus network could be a lot better. If you look at frequency, span of service, and reliability — more bus lanes would do a lot of good here. You still have a lot of buses stuck in traffic.
One step further Seattle could take is treating bus facilities with as much attention as rail facilities get. If you walk to a typical bus stop out here, you’re not going to find a lot of information about where that bus goes.
T.L.: How would you rank Seattle’s transit system compared to other major metropolitan areas?
C.S.: Right now, in terms of what Seattle is doing today, Seattle is probably the best in the country in terms of decisions it is making, infrastructure it is building and service it is providing. There are cities that have better transit networks, but those are inherited legacies.
T.L.: How should the Seattle region plan for park-and-ride lots?
C.S.: Park-and-ride lots are one of the few solutions we know works for making transit useful in low density, suburban areas — especially single family, cul-de-sac neighborhoods where bus routes don’t work.
The downside of park-and-ride lots is they are one of the most expensive ways to get a transit rider. The cost for building and maintaining that parking spot, which will get you one trip per day, is huge.
T.L.: How should cities think about nonwork-related trips and making it possible to live car-free?
C.S.: Less than a quarter of transit trips are home-to-work trips, yet we do the vast majority of our transportation planning around that. On top of that, we tend to focus far more on white-collar, 9-5, downtown jobs than we do anything else. Service jobs have totally different hours. You may work downtown, but rather than being a banker, you clean hotel rooms. The system is not designed for you.
Another big problem has been the focus on cost-efficiency. Say you have a 1:30 bus, a 1:50 bus and a 2:10 bus. The 1:50 bus has low ridership, so you cut it. You end up with a 40-minute gap in service. It makes sense from an optimizing-resources standpoint, but you just took that bus route and made it something people can’t depend on in the same way.
T.L.: You wrote that “highway expansion cannot reduce congestion” and creating “induced demand” ensures that “any new lanes will be quickly filled” with more traffic. Does that same principle apply to transit? Does creating routes and increasing transit frequency lead to more ridership?
C.S.: If you plan transit only for the people who are already riding it, you will not increase ridership. If you increase frequency on a route — running a bus every 15 minutes instead of every hour — in a place that has a reasonable level of density, you will get more trips. With transit, your operating costs always get better with more people.
T.L.: You also wrote, “Framing arguments around ‘transit-dependent riders’ gives the impression that the people who need transit are already using it, when in fact, there are many people who own cars but can’t really afford them.” What should we understand about better serving people with lower incomes?
C.S.: There are a lot of people who can’t get to their job without a car. Affordable housing gets placed further out into places where the transit is worse. If there is better transit service, they might have a wider universe of jobs available to them, including better paying jobs.
There’s also a bunch of people who have cars who can’t afford them. If you have a cheap car, the cost of that car is unpredictable. The transmission goes out and suddenly you have this very large, unexpected cost. Transit has a highly predictable cost.
T.L.: Where should Seattle look to learn?
C.S.: No city has a clear twin, but if you break the things down, the same principles apply everywhere. Munich, Germany, operates a really good bus network. Every streetcar has a ticket vending machine on board and a proof-of-payment system. All modes are exactly the same fare. There’s a degree of integration they do I haven’t seen anywhere else.
T.L.: The Seattle area spends more, per capita, to build transit than any other city. How do you advise cities to think about spending money on transit?
C.S.: I would rather have an expensive, over-budget transit line built in the right place than a well-managed, on-budget transit line in the wrong place. Those compromises you make in order to make something more affordable, you’ve got to live with for a long time.