This is something I wrote several years ago, but the premise is just as sound now as it was then and timely based on the Mayor’s upcoming announcement.
Seattle’s current transit capacity is far below what is needed to serve its population. As population increases our current system will fall even farther behind what is needed. But since Seattle doesn’t currently control its transit future, we are unable to grow the system to meet our needs.
I propose that Seattle take responsibility for transit, in cooperation with other entities like Metro and Sound Transit, by directing Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to hire a Director of Transit who would lead a new division charged with providing transit that meets the needs of Seattleites. Their tools would include re-purposing roads (e.g. making one lane of 1st Ave downtown bus only), funding increased Metro service, building and operating a monorail or trolleys or whatever is deemed to best meet the city’s needs.
This proposal doesn’t call out any particular transit solution or funding mechanism. Those will need to come out of study by professional transportation planners and elected officials. All this proposal does is acknowledge that the current system doesn’t work, and must be changed to better meet Seattle’s needs.
Why Metro Alone Won’t Work
King County is one of the most diverse in the country, ranging from nearly Manhattan densities in downtown and Belltown to rural land in the east (see Table 1). This complicates transit planning due to the equity arrangement: when Metro increases service, 20% of the new service is in the Seattle area and 80% to the rest of the county. This leads to two problems for Seattle: we can only increase the total service to the amount that the whole county is willing to pay for and for every $1 that Seattle increases its tax burden only 67 cents is spent in Seattle.
Every transit line has an ideal amount of service, which depends on many factors, but the single best predictor of how much transit an area needs is the density. Seattle’s density is nearly twice that of Bellevue’s and nearly 10 times the rest of the county. Since per-capita transit ridership increases with density, the ideal amount of transit is higher in Seattle than in the rest of the county. But the current funding formula does not give Metro the flexibility of putting the resources where there is demand.
In addition Seattle voters have shown a much greater interest in funding transit, but transit proposals need to be watered down to win enough votes outside of Seattle. So Metro alone can’t provide Seattle with the transit options it needs. Even if the funding levels were changed to represent the population, Metro would still be unable to provide Seattleites the transit options they want and need.
|Seattle||Bellevue||Woodinville||King Count||King Count minus Seattle|
|Population (thousand people)||582||117||9||1737||1155|
|% of population||33||7||0.5||100||67|
|Density (thousand people per sq mile)||6.9||3.8||1.6||0.8||0.6|
Table 1 Demographics for King County (from 2006 from the Census Bureau)
Principles of Seattle Transit
- Goal of SDOT is to move goods and people, not vehicles.
- No one should have to watch full buses drive past. If a line is that popular more resources need to be added to that line quickly.
- If buses are getting stuck in auto traffic, then a grade-separated solution must be sought.
- When doing cost-benefit analysis, include all costs: include the total cost of driving and pollution.
- We must reduce the number of vehicle miles driven in Seattle even as the population grows.
- Seattle should not be penalized by Metro for providing extra service.