Energy Blog: Why I Take the Bus: It’s Safer, Creates Community, Provides Quality Time

By Andy Silber

Why I’m taking the bus

I’m starting this blog entry as I ride the bus back from my new job at Microsoft. My new commute has gotten me thinking about transportation in King County. Usually it’s pretty obvious whether or not I’m going to take the bus or drive to work. Sometimes there has been a good bus route and expensive parking (downtown/U-district) and in other cases there was an easy drive with free parking and no good bus options (e.g. Kent from West Seattle). The one exception was when I worked in Lynwood, when the options were a bad bus commute or bad driving with free parking.

At Microsoft my option was a soul-sucking drive and free parking or two express buses and an only slightly longer commute time. I also factored in the carbon emissions and the cost of driving. The fact that I’m typing this on the bus tells you where I landed. What tipped my decision was that the 545 I take from downtown to Redmond runs so often that you never need to wait more than a few minutes for a bus. That, and the soul-sucking nature of the drive. Also an NPR pledge drive was upcoming, which really made the prospect of driving inconceivable. But this also has me thinking about some other issues about taking transit here.

Induced Demand and dedicated right-of-ways

My two buses (the 21X and 545) have lots in common: they run often at rush hour and they’re packed. The fact that they both run often is critical to my decision not to drive. If you have to change buses and they only run every 20 minutes, a bad day might mean an extra 40 minutes getting home.

Induced demand is the traffic version of “If you build it, they will come”. It’s usually discussed in the context of roads and that you can’t build your way out of congestion. But what is less discussed is how it can work for transit. Imagine a route with a bus that runs every 30 minutes and is somewhat crowded. If there are sufficient numbers of people going where that bus is going, most will say that the bus doesn’t run often enough, so they drive. If you add more buses, some people will decide that the bus is convenient enough. This is even more critical if you need to take two buses. Imagine a system where every bus ran every 5 minutes. You wouldn’t care much that it took two, since you would never have to wait for a bus or check the schedule.

The other issue is dedicated transit corridors. Several of the reasons that my bus commute isn’t much longer than driving are the dedicated right-of-ways on the West Seattle bridge, 3rd Ave. downtown and westbound SR520. Still, my bus spent 20 minutes today fighting it’s way out of downtown because sometimes the buses have trouble making the right turn from 3rd Ave. onto Columbia.

Orca card

Another thing that can slow the buses is when someone pays cash, which is common at the stop I use in the morning. It takes on average about 20-30 seconds to pay. The regular commuters all pay with an Orca pass, which takes basically no time at all. How much does this fumbling for change cost? Let’s say a sitting bus costs $100 an hour; that’s for the driver’s time, the value of an idle asset (the bus) and the value of the time of everyone sitting in the bus (that’s valuing their time at less than minimum wage if the bus is full). So a minute of time is worth $1.67. The cost of paying $2.75 is about $0.80, counting only the time everyone is sitting and waiting. We have a perfectly good solution to this, the Orca card. So why isn’t everyone using it?

For those who don’t know, the Orca card is a debit card that all of our region’s transit agencies are using. I think it works great and many employers (including Microsoft) provide one to every employee for free. They come in two flavors:

  • A pass for unlimited rides up to a certain cost depending on the type of pass you buy
  • A purse that holds money like a standard debit card and the cost of your bus/boat/train ride is subtracted from your account.

The Orca Pass saves you money if you take the bus more than 18 roundtrips a month. If you ride less than that, you’re better off buying individual tickets or an Orca purse. If you use the Orca card as a purse you don’t save any money vs. pouring change into the fare box, it’s just more convenient. We have created no incentives to get an Orca purse other than convenience and a weak incentive to get a pass. For comparison Boston’s equivalent, the CarlieCard, gives a 15% discount when used as a purse and you break even on a pass if you ride transit for only 14 days a month.

There is a reason to create a strong incentive to buy Orca cards beyond keeping the buses moving. People who have passes are more likely to take transit. Should I drive from my house to the Junction, where there’s free parking, or take the bus? If I have a pass, I might take the bus. If I have to spend $5 round trip, I’ll drive. If someone occasionally takes the bus, they’re not going to buy a pass. But once they have a pass, they are much more likely to move from being an occasional bus rider to a regular bus rider. The same with a purse: If they have $20 in their Orca card, they’re more likely to take the bus. We need to increase the incentives for everyone to participate in the Orca card program.

Here’s an out-of-the-box idea: how about a property tax assessment to pay to get an Orca card for every resident in Seattle. The cost for a business is about $200 a year, but I’m guessing the city could get a volume discount.

Safety

One of the reasons to take the bus that people don’t think about is safety. I’ve often heard people cite personal safety as one of the reasons they don’t take the bus. But statistics actually argue the opposite. Taking the bus is over 10 times safer than driving. An attack on the bus gets lots of news, because it is so rare. A fatal car accident is only news if it ties up traffic.

Community

One of the things I like to do is take the bus with my son. It’s quality time for us to talk or read. When I’m driving he often wants me to look at something, which is generally a bad idea. On the bus, it’s perfect.

I’ve met lots of my neighbors on the bus. This morning I chatted with a neighbor who I rarely talk with other than on the bus. I can’t tell you how often I’m at an event and someone recognizes me from the 21.

Why drivers should support transit

As I sit in a crowded bus, I wonder how we can fund more transit. Looking at a broader view of how to manage our limited resource of road space, I think drivers should pay more to support transit for their own selfish reasons. I have as much right to put my car on the road as John R. Public (you can guess what the R stands for). But by choosing to take the bus, I improve his commute. This is just another variant of the tragedy of the commons, where the road takes the place of the cow pasture. How much is he willing to pay to improve his own commute? Part of the funds from the SR520 toll will be to support transit in that corridor. That is in the best interest of drivers, as well as those who sit in the buses. Someone needs to quantify how much each dollar of transit support speeds the commute for those left in their cars for whatever reason. That would help us gain more support for transit via tolls, or at least weaken the arguments of those who want to end all support for transit.

Why do you take the bus (or rail)? I’d love to hear in the comments section. I promise to read all responses while sitting on the bus.

 

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