Buses Done Right

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As a regular transit user, I could certainly give you an earful on the Seattle-area transit system. I could launch into a litany of my frustrations and talk about the days when I just wish the light rail was here already. But apparently, according to a recent series of articles on Crosscut, the bus system is largely misunderstood, and my disdain stems from a misguided social bias:

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.

The article states that when bus systems are done right, they are our best bet for cost-effective public transportation. And their research made a compelling case, even to an initial skeptic like me:

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.

As I see it, buses aren’t the only solution, but their ability to be flexible and scalable does win them a substantial roll in our transportation future. From my perspective as a bus-rider, the system needs some big improvements to make it more reliable, easy to use and enjoyable. But I do think that those improvements are within our grasp, and the three-part Crosscut series called "Transit Train Wreck," written by Douglas McDonald, addresses those issues in its final installment: “Here’s how to do buses right, the must-do agenda for transit and smart growth.” See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

In the ‘must-do agenda,’ McDonald describes how a well functioning transit system can and should work. Throughout the description he inserts ways that the Seattle-area transit and local officials can take charge to transform the transit system: setting higher goals (together), looking to the future and not dwelling on the past, focusing on service, implementing bus rapid transit and aligning transit and growth strategies.

His proposed strategy is compelling and bold. Not only does he suggest vastly improving customer service and setting targets to double ridership in the region within five years, but he also calls out transit and city officials (with the exception of Ron Sims) for not taking the lead to make decisions that could quickly implement change, especially on issues such as bus rapid transit.

But the part I liked best, and the part that talks most wisely about the future of our city, is the part near the end that illustrates why pairing transit strategy with growth strategy is so essential:

(We need to) 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.

Having the foresight to plan well and to take care of these issues now is the solution, and we couldn’t agree more. Only through smart growth and transit-oriented development will we be able to live in the compact communities that we want while preserving the open spaces we need.

I don’t agree that ideas for extending the light rail should be completely discarded, but I do think that light rail, paired with a bus system done right will be the best solution for the city and for our tax dollars -- for now.