How did a transit-backward town become a national poster child for ridership success?

So asks CityLab; since 2007, the fastest-growing city in the country has added nearly a quarter million jobs (thanks in considerable part to Amazon), and has grown in population by more than 15 percent since 2010.

Remarkably, though, Seattle has not gained more cars in its most congested areas. The number of commuters driving private vehicles downtown has declined by 10 percent since 2010, even as new residents and workers have spiked. 

By and large, new arrivals are instead choosing to ride the bus. Seattle’s King County Metro has seen an 8 percent increase in bus riders over the past nine years, and gained about 700,000 rides between 2016 and 2017 alone.

“… buses are often the fastest means to equitable and efficient transit for large numbers of people. In that respect, Seattle’s example as an overnight bus haven seems incredibly useful. It demonstrates a simple and powerful truth: Build a system that works, and riders will come. …”


(Madison McVeigh/CityLab)

“It comes down to math,” said Andrew Glass Hastings, the director of transit and mobility at the ‎Seattle Department of Transportation. “At the pace we’re growing, we can’t move people in cars. That is hugely involved in success. If we let buses get mired in congestion, we wouldn’t see these ridership increases.”

Translation: People wouldn’t take the bus if it didn’t travel through Seattle’s core employment centers this rapidly and frequently. By keeping high-capacity modes moving swiftly, transit-only lanes keep riders happy. The first lesson for any transportation planner looking to reverse-engineer Seattle-style success — make room for buses. …

Seattle’s downtown transit tunnel is the only tunnel in the world where buses and trains share right-of-way.
https://giphy.com/embed/2A83ZHgpJy3T8EEPJo

Laura Bliss/CityLab, via GIPHY

Among the transit experts I spoke to, that was the top recommendation for other cities. Dedicated right-of-way, after all, is perhaps the top distinguishing factor between buses and the “first class” mode of public transit in most cities—heavy rail systems such as trains and subways, which don’t mix with traffic. Their right-of-way is for safety, but it also allows trains to offer fast and frequent service.

“That’s become inherent to the way we use subway systems, while buses have taken on this stigma of being smelly, slow, and unreliable,” said Kari Watkins, a professor of transportation engineering at Georgia Tech who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Washington. “But there’s nothing inherent to a bus that makes it that way.” Breaking the bus/rail paradigm is central to what Seattle has achieved.

Part of that’s been by force, since Seattle lacks a legacy rail system. Historically speaking, despite its progressive bonafides, the city has not been much of a transit leader. …

The ground began to shift in the mid-1990s, when Washington State set up some the most restrictive land use laws in the country. Middle-class exurbanites fed up with the horrendous traffic and degraded wildlands created by Seattle’s 1980s population boom got state legislators to rein in traffic and sprawl with the Growth Management Act of 1990, now famed in urbanist circles. Seattle followed suit by designating 30 neighborhoods as “urban villages,” where growth and density would be concentrated to produce more walking and fewer vehicle-miles traveled. …

That might be the next tip for transportation planners in other cities: Get your land-use laws in line. And get on the phone with the private sector, where benefits departments may also be looking to get employees to work faster and cheaper than subsidizing parking. …

That’s another key thing a city needs to avoid a transit death spiral: money. Historically, Seattle has received little transit funding from the state, which famously lacks an income tax.  … In 2016, voters said yes to Move Seattle, a nine-year, $930 million transportation levy for street safety improvements and redesigns that give pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders more room. Meanwhile, King County Metro has been systematically upgrading bus fleet and shelters: In 2015, the agency retired 146 buses and replaced them with 179 new ones. It promises a fully electric-powered fleet by 2034. …

Seattle has made moves to limit the presence of Uber, Lyft, and other on-demand vehicles on city streets, and to require the companies to share trip data so that public officials can understand their effects on transportation systems. Meanwhile, transit leaders are also focused on providing service that keeps better-off riders from being easily lured away. There’s another important lesson from Seattle: In an era where many cities are freaking out over Uber’s effect on public transit, it may not be enough to play defense by tamping down regulations. Play offense by building a transit system that people actually want to ride.

The culture definitely helps, they felt. On the other hand, “people that care about transit philosophically still wouldn’t take it if it didn’t actually work,” Lobo said.

In Seattle, the usual vectors of transportation inequality may be becoming freakishly reversed. …

Will the arrival of trains at scale change the role of buses in Seattle? Transportation advocates are hoping that the light-rail system can be a “gateway drug” to other modes of transit for suburban commuters accustomed to driving. But there’s concern that a glitchy transfer or long wait at a bus stop could be enough to dissuade them. “We are kind of banking on having this complementary system, and there are still issues about connecting trains and buses,” said Serebrin. “We have to make this as intuitive and easy as possible.” …

More broadly, as lower-income households are priced out of Seattle’s spendy core, they’re also getting pushed further away from frequent bus service that is being cultivated there. While some of the planned Sound Transit stations reach historically underserved neighborhoods, some residents worry they won’t be able to stay in place once the train, and its gentrifying baggage, arrives.

(Madison McVeigh/CityLab)

In Seattle, the usual vectors of transportation inequality may be becoming freakishly reversed. “My concern is whether we are pushing people to buy a car where they’ve never had to,” said Giulia Pasciuto, a policy and research analyst at Puget Sound Sage, a research and activist organization focused on racial justice and equity in the region. In other words, while affluent urbanites enjoy the benefits of Uber-competitive bus service, poorer riders in distant suburbs will be forced to shoulder the financial burden of car ownership. …

Clearly, Seattle needs more buses, not fewer, and it needs them everywhere. Another threat to the so-far positive trajectory of bus ridership is the incredible demand. In and around downtown, it’s not uncommon for riders to have to wait for multiple buses to go by during rush hour before they’re able to board. Chronic overcrowdedness can be a pretty strong cue for riders who can afford other modes to ditch transit, something King County Metro and SDOT are keen to avoid. Cooper and Bryant said that they’re increasing service as quickly as they can, but with the pace of population growth, it’s not easy to keep up.

A few weeks later, Nashville’s big ballot measure got clobbered at the polls, especially among suburban voters. In post-mortems of the loss, some analysts noted that the plan may have erred by emphasizing an ambitious slate of expensive light-rail lines instead of a more modest alternative scenario of bus-focused expansion.

Despite population growth, bus ridership in Nashville has dipped slightly over the last two years. “If your biggest immediate transit problem is inadequate bus service, it does not necessarily follow that the only solution to your problem includes spending $5.5 billion…constructing light rail,” concluded Jeff Davis of Eno Transportation Weekly.

In that sense, the lesson in Seattle is less about trains and more about their less-glamorous counterparts. In so many cities with rail transit systems new and old, buses are second-tier transportation.

But Seattle has built something remarkable, and much of it quickly: a bus system that people choose to take. It’s not perfect, and it will need to maintain and expand the level of excellence found downtown as the city grows, morphs, and becomes less equal. But passengers are showing support by riding in larger shares.

Borrowing a phrase from the transit consultant and writer Jarrett Walker, Watkins sums up why Seattle’s frequent, well-maintained, and funded buses are working as well as they do. “Transit has to respect me,” she said. In turn, by and large, Seattle riders are respecting it back.