The Energy Blog – by Andy Silber

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 Transit

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.

Check out Andy’s other blog on 1Sky

    4 replies
    1. Bill
      Bill says:

      Another principle might be that no-one should have to watch empty busses go by either. I don’t quite understand why metro does not have a diversity of bus types so that during off hours more efficent buses are not used.


    2. Andy Silber
      Andy Silber says:

      I asked a Metro driver in a nearly empty large bus that question once. He told me that most of the buses leave early in the morning and stay out all day, so the size is based on peak needs, not average.

    3. Wells
      Wells says:

      I argue that downtown Seattle transit should operate separately from regional and pass-thru bus routes. It’s a supply/demand consideration. The high demand downtown has to be met with frequent service supply, especially for travel on e/w hills, but for n/s travel as well. The hills make Seattle not very walkable. Motorist should have the option of being able to park at the most convenient garage and finish trips via transit without having to wait 15 minutes. The numerous bus routes passing through n/s could also be consolidated (like a light rail line) to get more people riding, even though finishing most trips would require a transfer. The waiting is what kills transit. If transfers can be made convenient, they don’t discourage riders as much as waiting while buses plow by.

    4. Wells
      Wells says:

      Downtown Seattle needs a better transit design because of its hills, not because of its density. Metro is mired in “Old School” transit theory that simply deposits commuters downtown with no regard for completing trips around the inner-city. With such a system, motorists too could park anywhere and finish trips via transit. Seattle needs a high-frequency downtown transit design that is separate from but integrates into regional transit.


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