Better Buses Can Build a Better City

How Seattle can do transit-oriented development on a budget.

Over at Crosscut, David Brewster has an article on transit-oriented development. There are parts of it I agree with so much that I wish I’d written it myself. To wit:

…simply finding the bus transit routes that are most promising, and where people are already committed bus-users, and then doubling down on those routes. More frequent service. Faster service with more express buses. Better amenities at the bus stops, and maybe some modest stimulus for more development of housing and workplaces at some of those stops.

Such an approach is more gradual, more widespread, and much less costly.

Yes. Yes. And yes.

This stuff isn’t rocket science and it’s not expensive. Most of Seattle’s best bus routes are already over-subscribed standing-room-only affairs. Many of these routes serve areas that are adding many new residences. And the easiest way to serve in-city residential growth—and to encourage even more low-cost transit-oriented development—is simply to add more bus service in the places where it’s working best.

It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. Yet uncomplicated improvement does not seem to be a hallmark of Seattle transit planning.

To take just one example that I think is telling, Sound Transit’s Central Link line replaced Metro’s 194 and 174 bus service to the airport. What used to be a 30 minute trip from downtown to SeaTac on the 194 now takes 38 minutes and costs more at the fare box. (Never mind the billions spent on building the rail itself.) By the same token—and to be horribly parochial for a moment—plain vanilla express bus service from central Ballard to downtown Seattle now takes 27 minutes at rush hour. But last time I heard anything about it, the planned RapidRide line will actually lengthen travel times on that segment. (Metro won’t publish a timetable until mid-September.)

It’s not that rail and BRT don’t have some advantages, it’s just that better bus service is cheap, readily available, and may actually serve transit riders better in a lot of cases. I’d argue that incremental investments—in low-cost, un-sexy, no-ribbon-cutting bus service—are probably the smartest dollars we can spend to encourage transit riding and greater urban density in Seattle. So kudos to Brewster for nailing it on the importance of better bus service.

Yet I think he overlooks the other half of the equation for fostering transit-oriented development: zoning.

In a word, you can only build what and where you’re allowed to by law. Without zoning policies that support transit-oriented development, you won’t actually see any transit-oriented development, no matter how well-intentioned everyone may be. Seattle and other cities in the region are making halting progress toward better zoning, but there’s more to be done to provide the kind of housing that consumers want (and can afford) in transit-rich areas.

With those two ingredients alone—better bus service and better zoning in bus-rich areas—Seattle and other cities really create transit-oriented development on a budget. As Brewster notes in the comments thread:

…bus stops are, in practice, not very moveable at all. Just ride Metro in Seattle and you will see residual commercial nodes from way back at the current bus stops. Such stops develop a constituency of users and development that makes them very hard to change. The great majority do very nicely in shaping land use.

A lot more could be done to make them even more permanent. Encourage nearby coffee shops to mount signs that give the countdown times for the next bus to arrive, for instance. Provide safe places for kids to wait, out of the rain. More services for bus drivers at the end of their routes. Better kiosks.

I’ll say it again: yes, yes, and yes.


Post-script: I can’t keep myself from picking one nit in the piece. Brewster writes:

…the usual fight between those who want [transit-oriented development] and those who want transit stations to create amenities and open space, keeping traffic out and keeping property values low.

That doesn’t make much sense.

As a general matter, you don’t keep prices down by suppressing supply. Housing affordability can be complex, but it’s almost certainly not the case that zoning transit centers for open space keeps property values low. Instead, by reducing the supply of housing, it probably just confers a property-value windfall on nearby incumbent property owners.

It’s a point that Brewster almost acknowledges later when he writes, “housing around transit stations is normally not high-end, in part because the market attracts those who can’t afford cars.”

That’s not quite the way I’d phrase it, but the point is basically there. Transit-oriented development, when done right, can be part of the solution to Seattle’s affordable housing problem.

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  1. Matt the Engineer says:

    “better bus service is cheap” Not really. I believe bus systems in the US spend a majority of their funds on labor. Adding buses seems cheap, but labor costs go onward in the future, and over time increasing service on a single route can cost multiple millions of dollars. If we were talking about the energy world, you’re telling people to install single pane windows because double pane windows are expensive – sure, they’re expensive in first-cost, but not when you look at the long-term energy cost.

    Let’s pretend you could improve the corridor enough to double bus speed. Doubling speed doubles your capacity, since each bus (and bus driver) can run the same route twice. And because each bus is running the route twice, you’ve also doubled the bus’s frequency. Double speed, and get double the frequency and capacity for free.

    • Eric de Place says:

      On cost, I think it would be interesting to dig into the question more deeply. (I don’t have plans to right now.) My belief is that bus service would prove to be much cheaper than rail-based systems when one factors in the capital costs of each plus the O&M costs for each. Rail systems aren’t labor-free, after all, and upfront costs are enormous.

      On speed, I think we agree. I’d love to improve the speed at buses run and you make a great point about the “free” frequency and capacity it can yield. (That said, I suspect doubling speed/halving travel times is probably unrealistic in most corridors.) I’m a big fan of the stuff Metro is doing on the 44 and other routes: signal prioritization, curb bulbs, jumper lanes, etc. (A lot of that stuff is happening with RapidRide too, of course, but I finding myself alarmed and perplexed that it doesn’t appear to be yielding travel times that are any faster.)

      • Matt the Engineer says:

        I visualize this in steps. Increasing speed takes curb bulbs, signal prioritization, etc. Doubling speed takes transit-only lanes, signal prioritization, proof-of-payment, increased stop distance, and level boarding. Increasing past that takes grade separation. At that point you’re spending enough that you might as well make it rail.

        Seattle just skipped a few steps when building our Light Rail line. That seems foolish if you’re just looking at the near term. If you gaze at the horizon you’re more likely to feel that we should have done this a few generations ago.

      • Eric de Place says:

        I’m not sure I totally agree, Matt, but I suspect it’s a topic better suited for discussion over beers sometime.

        For now, I want to concentrate on my point with this post: spending money on bus service is cost-effective and (with the right zoning) can leverage TOD to boot. I know we agree about that much!

      • Matt the Engineer says:

        I want to say yes. But “cost effective” is tricky. Compared to what? If we had a new revenue source and were looking for ways of spending it, I’d look at making our existing service faster before I’d just look at running more buses.

        But if we’re looking at adding any bus service by itself, looking at value added to an economy compared to money spent on transit, I’d definately give that a yes. As for your other point, of course TOD requires transit, and more transit gives you better TOD.

    • Adam Parast says:

      Eric that is a big and incorrect oversimplification. The 2012 operating budget for metro is $642 million dollars, with an additional capital budget of 365 million for the biennium. Those cost will extend into perpetuity. At that rate the entire capital cost of central link would be covered in less than 3 years.

      Your point about Link and RapidRides travel time compared to express service is horribly misguided, uniformed and counter to the very things you’re arguing for.

      Sightline needs to take another look at its sourness towards Link, because if these are your foundational beliefs your misguided.

      • Eric de Place says:

        Adam, I don’t think you’re quite being fair on the cost side. What I said I’d like to see is: capital (and financing) costs plus O&M costs compared for bus service versus rail.

        I’m not exactly sure what your argument is about travel times. I fully acknowledge that there are benefits to fixed rail — you can scan the comment thread here to see that — but I’m mystified (and concerned) when folks don’t acknowledge that replacing our investment in buses with investment in rail also yielded some downsides.

        As you know, I’m a big believer in building car-lite and affordable cities. That’s why I’m rah-rah for buses. And it’s why I’m bothered when “improvements” to the system make travel times slower for key blocs of travelers on key segments. That’s not an unreasonable concern is it?

      • Adam Parast says:

        For your first point yes I agree it would be nice to know the lifecycle cost per trip for some measure like that, but my point is bus service isn’t cheap as you just assert as a common fact.

        My point about travel time is you can’t compare express transit service to core transit service. That is the underlying message of the second article. Comparisons of point to point travel time from the airport to downtown ignores the fact that from other areas outside of downtown were Link goes, Link is more than likely faster that bus.

        Core, frequent service, whether it is BRT or LRT is not about getting from one place to one other place as fast as possible, it’s about getting from many places to many other places as fast as possible. Good transit networks are about fast multi O-D travel, not singular O-D travel.

        The third fundamental issues I have with what you wrote is you focus only on travel time not travel time plus frequency of service, because that is really what determines total door to door travel time.

        Fore example lets say the 15X comes every 30 minutes but the D Line comes every 10 minutes. If you just missed both are you going to wait 30 minutes for the next 15X or 10 minutes for the slower but three times more frequent D Line? Easy answer to me.

      • Eric de Place says:

        On costs, we may be able to do something simpler than a life-cycle analysis. Can we just compare Metro’s capital, financing, and O&M costs to Link’s? Then we could factor in ridership levels (or whatever other metrics we like) to get a sense of relative cost-effectiveness. Anyway, I think that would be a pretty fascinating analysis.

        I think I’m starting to see where we disagree. You seem to be saying that it’s not fair to compare travel times on point-to-point service between two major centers like downtown to the airport. But why?

        By my way of thinking, Link conferred a bunch of advantages, including a better rider experience, better reliability, and some network benefits. (Now, maybe there’s an argument about whether that stuff was worth the cost, but let’s ignore that for now.) Let me be the first to say that Link provided some real, tangible benefits. It’s a fact! On the other hand, let’s also acknowledge that dis-investing in the 194 (or, if you like, failing to quadruple frequency on the 194) resulted in slower travel on a very important segment. That’s a bad thing, right?

        I realize there’s a rich debate about this but… to me one hugely important function of transit is getting me from one point to one other point as fast as possible. There are lots of riders like myself — particularly in a city like Seattle where car ownership is common — who’s transit riding habits are dictated by speed on individual segments, not by the density of the network. (To be clear, there are hugely important benefits to a well-functioning transit network. But when our network density goals sacrifice speed we should at least acknowledge that it’s a sacrifice.)

        I don’t think we’re disagreeing about frequency. The main point of my post was to argue for greater frequency. What I’d like, however, is to increase frequency without also decreasing travel times — and that’s the concern I have with the Link/194 tradeoff and the RapidRide/15x tradeoff.

      • Bruce Nourish says:

        I think we’re conflating two topics here:

        * The very high opportunity cost of building rail on a corridors which haven’t tapped out the capacity of buses, and on which much cheaper transit priority improvements could ensure decent speed and reliability.

        * The network design benefits of having routes that serve diverse destinations quite well versus one that serves one particular trip really well.

        On the first, I think we agree, but not the second.

        Let’s take a simple example. Setting aside the technology used, and supposing all the routes were reliable and running at 10 minute headways, then given the following two hypothetical transit networks:

        a. One with a single route that served Downtown, Beacon Hill and Rainier Valley and the Airport but took 38 minutes to the airport.

        b. One with two routes, the first serving Downtown, Beacon Hill and the Rainier Valley, and the second serving Downtown and the Airport, taking 30 minutes.

        I’d argue that option (a) is demonstrably superior, even before we get to the fact that it would cost less than half as much to run. (a) provides more mobility, more ability to get around, to far more more people than the second, at the small cost of eight minutes for the, say, ten round trips or less the average person makes between downtown and the airport in a year. When you add in real-world costs, option (a) becomes even more appealing as you could run that single route at five minute frequency or better for less than the cost of (b).

        As Jarret Walker points out (and you should really read his book if you haven’t yet), building transit networks the way habitual motorists think you should build a network leads to really shitty networks that aren’t actually convenient to use at all, because they prioritize low travel times between marquee regional destinations (e.g. between downtown and the airport, which is a trip the average person in the city don’t make very often at all) over high frequency, good transfer points, and serving the hearts of dense urban centers, which is empirically what works best for all-day (i.e. non-9 to 5 downtown commute) service.

        Every time, every single time that I know of, when a transit agency has (budget-neutrally) restructured a bus network to cut infrequent but fast one seat rides in favor of more frequency on a core network on simpler routes focused on ridership centers, they have increased ridership. In the case of the 194, there was a technology change which conflates the matter (and a massive cost associated with that tech change) but it’s fundamentally the same idea.

      • Eric de Place says:

        Great distinction, Bruce. That’s helpful.

        I’ll put Jarrett Walker on my reading list and we’ll see if he can overcome my skepticism about point #2.

        In the meantime, I hope this post can be taken largely in service of point #1, which you nicely characterized as: “The very high opportunity cost of building rail on a corridors which haven’t tapped out the capacity of buses, and on which much cheaper transit priority improvements could ensure decent speed and reliability.” I like that formulation.

  2. Matt the Engineer says:

    I also wanted to address the old “Link is slow compared to the 194″. You’re not comparing apples to apples. We didn’t build an airport express train. We built a train that serves a much larger population, and will act as the backbone of a much larger system in the future. Same with Rapid Ride – by diverting through Queen Anne they’ll get a much larger ridership and stronger transit connections.

    A smaller point, but worth mentioning: Even with Link being slower than the 194, it has much better ridership even when just looking at airport trips. It’s not only a boost from the psychological effects of being a train, it also runs at a consistant speed and is easier to travel in with luggage. I’ll never forget the time it took over 2 hours to get to the airport on the bus from Queen Anne, mostly due to traffic on I-5, and I had to run through the airport and barely made my flight.

    • Eric de Place says:

      I will probably go to my grave muttering about the halcyon days of the 194, so perhaps I’m biased. But I will say that, sure, Link boosted ridership… in comparison to a bus that only ran every 30 minutes. I have to believe — and please convince me otherwise — that it would have been cheaper to quadruple bus serve on the 194 to 7.5 minute headways (comparable to Link service) and make a few select improvements to notch up reliability.

      Anyway, my intent with the 194 comparison isn’t to compare apples to apples. I agree that I’m not. But I do think it’s worth remembering that we once had fast transit service between two first-tier major destinations and now we have only roughly 30% slower transit service between them (plus a surprisingly long walk from the train platform to the terminal on the airport end).

      In other words, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have invested in rail service — that’s an argument for later — but I am saying that not investing in (or even maintaining) our bus service made things a little worse in at least a few important respects.

      • Bruce Nourish says:

        “we have only roughly 30% slower transit service between them”

        I quibble with the the 30% number. A bus that gets you there 8 minutes faster 75% of the time but runs >10 minutes late in the remaining 25% is not any better for you if you care about arriving on time, especially if it runs every half hour. Reliability is even more important than travel time in a transit network.

        Moreover, we do not “only” have “30% slower” transit to the airport. We have a great transit connection to the Rainier Valley. The great failure of Link, however, was the choice of MLK as a compromise between building going down I-5 or 99 to South King (as we would if we were going to build a BART-like regional system) and building down Rainier (if we wanted to build an urban Rapid Transit system).

        MLK manages to miss the population centers of the RV by just enough that tons of people still ride the painfully-slow and unreliable 7, while still making Link so slow as to make it non-time-competitive with regional buses south of Federal Way. This illustrates the dangers of “just missing” population centers, which is a mistake that (amazingly) Metro is not going to make with RapidRide D in Uptown, but that the city is going to force Metro to make on the waterfront by not allowing them to run buses through Pioneer Square. It also illustrates the hazards with having a regional transit agency that’s dominated by suburban interests being the primary builder of rail in an urban area.

      • Eric de Place says:

        I should have said 27% slower, but I stand by the claim. What I mean is that taking transit from downtown to the airport now takes 27% longer than it used to. Plus one now has a longer (and luggage-unfriendly) hike on both ends of the trip, down into the tunnel and then all the way through the parking garage from the platform to the terminal.

        Look, I agree that the Link gets you better reliability and it certainly get you a better rider experience. (Plus all the other non-trivial benefits you mention.) But I wish rail supporters would acknowledge more clearly that our choice to replace bus service with rail service has had a few notable downsides. For my money, the 194 is sort of an exemplar case.

      • Bruce Nourish says:

        Yes, I agree that rail supporters frequently fail to acknowledge the opportunity cost of spending stacks of money on rail, or the finite taxing and bonding capacity of a medium-size city like Seattle. I think my ire is, however, more directed at rail projects which do virtually nothing for mobility (First Hill Streetcar being a great example) rather than Link, which on balance improves mobility — although it could have been much better.

        And yes, I should have said more clearly, that I’m absolutely in agreement that we need to improve our local bus service in Seattle, as it’s the fastest and cheapest way to improve mobility for everyone. Virtually everything I’ve written on STB has been dedicated to doing just that — and doing it as efficiently as possible.

      • Matt the Engineer says:

        “Plus one now has a longer (and luggage-unfriendly) hike on both ends of the trip” I think you’re having trouble seeing past that bias of yours 😉 The 194 was in the tunnel as well. And if you fly Alaska, the walk is the same distance from the Link terminal as the old 194 bus stop. That said, it was closer for International flights.

      • Eric de Place says:

        Maybe I’m semi-blinded. If memory serves, the 194 was on the surface at some times and in the tunnel at others.

      • VeloBusDriver says:

        “I have to believe — and please convince me otherwise — that it would have been cheaper to quadruple bus serve on the 194 to 7.5 minute headways (comparable to Link service) and make a few select improvements to notch up reliability”

        Two large costs of operating buses today are labor and fuel. As you add more buses to a corridor you ramp up your costs faster than with rail since you have to hire more drivers (yay!) and purchase more fuel (boo!). Assuming the rail is in a corridor where you can fill the cars, you just add more cars operated by the same operator. Incremental fuel costs will be minimal and relatively stable vs. diesel.

        The real issue with buses is that there isn’t enough political will to cut the poorly performing routes and move those service hours over to better performing corridors where, as you’ve pointed out, those empty buses are desperately needed. That, and there is little money in SDOT’s budget to streamline operations. That said, there are improvements coming on the 44 and other routes.

  3. Bruce Nourish says:

    I would echo Matt’s comments about the 194 versus Link, and extend them to RapidRide. Designing good transit networks is not about building fast one-seat rides everywhere, it’s about building high-frequency, reliable bus networks that get you between ridership centers. The slightly slower ride to the airport is more than made up for the improved connectivity that Link provides, quite apart from it operating at a higher frequency, in an exclusive or semi-exclusive right of way (making it very reliable), and (by virtue of being a train) providing much higher capacity and guaranteeing level boarding.

    Similarly, RapidRide will deviate to serve Uptown because it’s a moderate-size residential and commercial area with high ridership and even higher ridership potential. I’m not sure who told you that RapidRide will make your express slower — the expresses (15X, 17X and 18X) are staying, although the 15X (which serves the same corridor as RapidRide) will be cut back to only a few trips. The 17X/18X will (IIRC) maintain or improve their level or service.

    I also think you’re been much too charitable about Brewster’s article. He spends a lot of time spreading FUD about rail-oriented TOD while making counterfactually-optimistic statements about Metro’s current bus service on Aurora. There is absolutely, positively, no fixed route service on Aurora that’ll get you from Greenwood to downtown in 15 minutes. Moreover, there’s no reason moderate-intensity TOD around improved local transit service and high-intensity around rail stations, except possibly in the minds of Crosscut’s writers.

    As the region builds out grade-separated rail backbones, the infrequent radial routes into downtown Metro spends so much money on can be turned into high-frequency feeder services into rail stations, and the corridors those improved buses serve can become the kinds of development Brewster is advocating here. I look forward to his support for lowrise/midrise/NC-85 upzones along those outlying corridors when the time comes.

    • Bruce Nourish says:

      Correction: “…there’s no reason moderate-intensity TOD around improved local transit service and high-intensity around rail stations” are incompatible, “except…”

    • Eric de Place says:

      Good comments, Bruce. A couple of replies here…

      My point isn’t that the RapidRide won’t make the 15x slower, it’s that it will reduce service on the 15x, and yet — if rumor is any guide — actually have a slower travel time than the current 15x. Argh.

      (BTW, I think you’re right about the 17x and 18x, though the 15, 17, and 18 locals are all being vaporized and only partially replaced by RapidRide D and other reconfigurations.)

      On the 15 minutes from Greenwood to downtown… okay, fine, that was a silly inclusion on Brewster’s part that could have used some fact checking. Metro says that the 358 will take you from Greenwood to Fremont in 8 minutes and all the way to downtown in about 27. That said, my sense is that the new southbound bus-only lanes on 99 are speeding things up a hair.

      As for zoning changes — and the general squeamishness about them from so many purported bus advocates — of course I wholeheartedly agree! TOD only happens with the right zoning. And yet getting the zoning right even in places where we’re investing huge sums in fixed rail is devilishly hard. Cf. Beacon Hill, Roosevelt, etc.

  4. Dan says:

    The only thing easy about transit and transit oriented development is criticizing them.

    • John Niles (@JN_Seattle) says:

      TOD proceeds apace if you don’t complicate it with train station development. I just today previewed a transit-oriented but bus-oriented residential rental apartment development described at and nearby Key Arena at 118 Republican Street, lower Queen Anne. Check it out. No trains in sight. A parking space is not included in the rent.

  5. John Niles (@JN_Seattle) says:

    My incremental BRT studies posted at — done with colleagues from Breakthrough Technologies Institute in Washington, DC, supported by Mineta Transportation Institute and Federal Transit Administration — align with the points made by David Brewster and Eric de Place.

    Eric’s focus on performance measurement and cost is key to making transit better in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue-Everett region.

    Making buses work better incrementally has been historically revealed in our region as a superior choice if one has the patience to dissect the formal alternatives analyses that sandbag bus alternatives with excess cost, concocted poor performance, and phony assumptions, all advanced by rail advocates who know the final answer they need given that the public has voted for trains without ever being told the full story of what they do and cost.

    The rationalization of rail over bus has already happened with Link Initial Segment, with North Link to Northgate, with East Link, and it’s in the process of happening with North Link to Lynnwood.

    Sound Transit is gold-plating a few corridors with passenger rail service at cost and taxation levels way out of proportion to the incremental ridership that trains yield. Buses in general beat trains on riders per dollar and geographic coverage per dollar.

    Sound Transit’s desperate hope for a noticeable bump in train ridership is now focused on the fall of 2016 when the next increment of light rail opens in Seattle. Our rail agency expects weekday light rail ridership to double. We shall see if that really happens, unlike all the unmet promises of the twenty years since 1996 when the plans of Sound Transit were first accepted by voters.

    Even if light rail patronage were to double after 2016, digging subway tunnels for light rail like Sound Transit is doing generates more permanent greenhouse gas than will ever be saved by people parking their cars and riding trains. That’s on record in the environmental impact statements where the selected rail alternative is heavily documented after the better bus alternative is dismissed.

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