Grace Under Fire: A Thank You Letter to an Outstanding Metro Bus Driver

Jun 20th, 2010

King County Metro Route #1 Heading for Kinnear (photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University)

This past Saturday I had the single worst public transportation experience of my life to date.  Before the incident, I tended toward a certain transit elitism, and I would often look down upon those who cite fear of crime and assault as reasons not to ride the bus, tending to dismiss such critics as sheltered at best and racist at worst.  While the incident did nothing to dissuade my enthusiasm for transit, it did make me more forgiving of those who would choose not to risk repeating the type of experience we had Saturday.

My wife, myself, and a friend were heading from University St to Belltown to catch some live jazz, so we hopped on the first bus that came along 3rd ave, which happened to be the #1-Kinnear.  At Pike St, we heard a middle-aged white male shouting obscenely before boarding our bus, making remarks about how “I never used to be prejudiced until I moved to Seattle and the n**gers made me that way” and, much to my horror as an Idahoan, “I’m from Idaho, we don’t have to deal with that shit.”  At Virginia St, a drug-addled woman attempted to board without paying.  Though instructed not to stop fare evasion, our African-American driver reminded the woman sternly that payment is required and that she must pay.  The woman responded, in his face, by shouting “You’re a f**king asshole, you know that?” At this point the man shouted, “Just board the f**king bus lady.  We all know he’s a black piece of shit.” Then, under his breath and to my horror, “You know what we need on these god damn buses?  Pocket .22′s.  Handguns.  That’s what.”

We drove on, through 4 interminable blocks to Battery St, the man making ever more inflammatory and threatening statements.  The driver kept a watchful eye on the pathetic shouting man, with a piercing gaze of both boiling anger and immense sadness.  Amazingly, he kept his composure and continued to provide us with first-rate transit service.  When we disembarked, somewhat shaken, we thanked him for his hard work and professionalism, and hoped that his ordeal would come to a quick end.

So to whoever you are, the bus driver on the northbound #1 bus on Saturday June 19th at 7:30pm, thank you.  Thank you for standing up for fare policy in a determined and respectful way.  Thank you for providing top-notch service in an atmosphere of hatred, threat, and intimidation.  You are a pro of the first degree.


God Bless Seattle: Gregoire Visits the City of No Freeways to Learn How to Build Freeways

Jun 18th, 2010
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Washington Governor Chris Gregoire

We seem to love depressing irony.  We enact stupid “sin taxes” on things like candy and soda while subsidizing the soy and corn that make them cheap in the first place.  Well, I can’t help but wince at Governor Gregoire’s itinerary yesterday. After an Amtrak Cascades trip north of the border, she toured Vancouver’s Canada Line – a wildly successful rapid transit line carrying more than 90,000 passengers/day – to learn how to build freeways (!) more cheaply.

Since the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, like the downtown section of the Canada Line, will be a twin-bored tunnel, I suppose that Gregoire can learn a bit about cheap tunneling and effective public-private partnerships.  But otherwise the projects couldn’t have less to do with each other, and the Vancouverites she is ostensibly “learning from” would never build a car-only, downtown freeway without a single exit.  It’s pretty embarrassing.  This investment will set back transit funding in Seattle by 5-10 years, and serve simply to subsidize those driving through downtown.  It’s a debacle of the first order.  Notably, Mike McGinn, Seattle’s clumsy mayor and opponent of the tunnel project,   was the only Seattle big-wig not to attend the hob-nob.

Someday we’ll learn, but alas not yet.  While I grant British Columbians no inherent moral superiority – outside of Vancouver they are even more attached to their cars than we are -they do know how to build transit right.


What the Gulf Spill Means to Me

Jun 9th, 2010
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We live in a hyper-technological age in which information is cheap and ubiquitous.  I am no Luddite, and I have benefited greatly from social media, but we must remember that both cheapness and ubiquity are traits indicative of  poor quality.  Not only do our Twitter-fried brains have 140-character attention spans, but I am convinced that the availability  of instant information has caused us to overestimate the possible and underestimate our fallibility.

In reaction to the Gulf oil spill, pundits of all stripes have scored points by calling both BP and President Obama “incompetent.”   Increasingly in our cultural environment, incompetence is a term synonymous with failure.  The two words mean, and should mean, radically distinct things.  Incompetence denotes a person or institution’s inability to achieve something that is readily possible, while failure simply denotes the inability to accomplish a goal, whether possible or not.  Our information environment makes us feel like anything is possible, and we generally wait in impatient incredulity when someone tells us they’re doing “everything they can.”  We have lost the cultural ability to accept that failure is possible, or indeed frequently inevitable.  There is much that remains beyond us.  To quote a certain POTUS, sometimes there are just no ‘asses to kick’.

The reality is hard:  it is the nature of machines to break, the nature of accidents to happen, the nature of humans to fail.  In our history conflict, deprivation, and terror are the rules not the exceptions.  Entropy is both a physical and anthropological reality.

Recognizing the fundamental darkness of the world is terrifying, and it is the antithesis of much progressive thinking.  But it also produces a useful humility and skepticism.  When institutions and cultures succeed, as they have so remarkably often throughout our history, I rejoice at the unexpected.  When they fail, I solemnly accept the expected.

When I think of oil, three basic traits stand out:  necessity, scarcity, and dirtiness.  We desperately need it, there’s not much of it, and it’s nasty stuff.  In this light, and with a pervasive sense of Kantian Universalizability (or, if you prefer, the Golden Rule), it is my absolute moral duty to use as little of the stuff as possible.  I must do unto others as I would have done unto me.  Yet I must also realize that wealth is a peacemaker.  Nothing brings out our terrible baseness like poverty, so we have two conflicting yet simultaneous moral demands:  we must reduce consumption while becoming rich.  We have a duty to achieve the highest possible living standard for a given unit of oil. That is the definition of efficiency, and the essence of a sensible conservatism.

Waste is morally inexcusable.  Oil has done a fantastic job elevating people from poverty to affluence, and that is its proper use.  Yet in my rich corner of the world we just don’t need that much of it.  We don’t need cars, or 2,500 sq. ft. houses, or parking lots, or deepwater wells at the limits of our technological abilities.  We can actually live better without these trappings of waste.


Pet Peeves That Matter: Sloppy Publication Language

Jun 8th, 2010
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(I apologize for the 3-week blogging hiatus…I have been moving from Vancouver BC back to Seattle.)

Public agencies generally fail to market themselves adequately.  The unique (and frequently perverse) social incentives of government agencies often privilege breadth of communication at the expense of depth and structural clarity.  Official correspondence between agency and customer can thus be muddled or unnecessarily opaque. Government websites are notoriously – almost comically – difficult to navigate, the user too frequently being assaulted with dozens of uncategorized hyperlinks in no sensible hierarchical order.

Recently while settling into my new city, I quickly noticed two examples of poorly chosen transit language.  First I picked up Sound Transit’s new Ride the Wave timetable book.  Knowing that they had recently implemented a new fare structure, I flipped to the page about fares and found the following paragraph:

The fare you pay to ride an ST Express bus changed on June 1, 2010. Your fare is based on zones. So, for example, trips within Pierce or Snohomish counties are one zone. However, if you cross a county line, an adult trip could cost $3.

There are two problems with that last sentence:
(1. The use of conditionals, such as “if” and “could cost”, is inherently confusing and completely out of place. People hate fare uncertainty.  I read that and I think, “So I can sometimes cross a county line and NOT pay $3?  How?”
(2. Doesn’t it make crossing a county-line sound wrong somehow? As though the $3 fare were punitive?

Then while waiting for a LINK train in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, I absentmindedly read the information board on the platform.  There I saw more conditionals to muddy the water, this time about Metro’s Peak/Off-Peak fare structure:

Generally, peak fares apply Monday through Friday, 6-9am and 3-6pm.

If you’re going to say “generally”, I expect the exceptions to be clearly spelled out just below. But no such luck.  Why not just refer the rider to the shaded (peak) trips on the timetable?

Maybe it’s a small thing, but unnecessary complexity is my biggest transit peeve.  Transit agencies should take time to review their official publications from the perspective of the end-user, taking great care to ensure publications that improve clarity, system transparency, intuitiveness, and the rider experience.  Making careful language choices is a good place to start.


6 Minutes of Hell: King County Metro’s “Rider Information System”

May 17th, 2010

Metro #101 at Renton Transit Center (Wikimedia)

In these heady days of smartphones and OneBusAway, there isn’t really much of a purpose for call-in bus schedule information. Most of the time, a combination of printed and online timetables is sufficient. But occasionally some people might still need to call.

King County Metro has an antiquated call-in system with recorded schedule information. It is tedious to navigate, is not updated regularly, and is often wildly inaccurate. This audio clip (warning: only for masochists) is 6 minutes of hell: my unsuccessful attempt to call in and get schedule times for a very simple trip between Renton Transit Center and Renton Highlands.

I first tried bus #105, but upon selecting my bus stop (the first one they offered me!) I was told that my selection was ‘invalid’. So I tried the next one they offered me, and they proceeded to give me times for buses 143, 148, and 240, but NOT #105. So I tried another bus, #909, which I knew would bring me within two blocks of where I wanted to arrive. The same bus stop that was invalid before was now magically valid, yet then they proceeded to give me information for bus #921, a route from Bellevue to Factoria.

My point is simple. To all those who maintain these systems at King County Metro: if you’re not going to update the system, and if you don’t care about accuracy, please just shut it down. Perhaps there are legitimate excuses for not providing sufficient information, but there is absolutely NO excuse for misleading or inaccurate information.


O Canada, I Hardly Knew Ye

May 13th, 2010

Sarah and I are moving back to Seattle.  Sarah has followed a great opportunity in Seattle, and is now working for the EPA Library.  We’re heading back to the Emerald City in just 4 short days.  This brief post is addressed to Canada:

Canada, I’ll miss you.  Staid competence never looked so good.  While our stars-and-stripes flailed under the weight of subprime loans, your maple-leafed self  hummed along with a conservative competence the rest of the world can only envy.  Your unemployment rate is far lower, and your debt burden lighter, than us lowly Americans.  You may complain about Stephen Harper and the parliamentary eccentricities involved in that wonderful verb “proroguing”, but really you don’t know just how good you have it.  You legalized gay marriage with a shrug in 2005, while our cultural obstinance on the issue is as embedded as ever.  Your single-payer healthcare system treated me efficiently and thoroughly, and I greatly appreciated its administrative simplicity.  You are the size of America with the population of California, and the resulting breathing room is magical.

Vancouver, I’ll miss you too.  Your transit is frequent, fast, and intuitive.  Your neighborhoods, though sometimes disgustingly dripping with money, are simply amazing urban spaces.  You pull off the trick of density without making anyone feel crowded. Your diversity is both incredible and illusory:  While polyglot tongues are heard everywhere, it seems like no one is actually FROM here.  Vancouver is a place you move once you’ve already made it.  Someday maybe I’ll make it back.

I wish you’d look more kindly on us humble foreigners.  With nationality preference laws (the “labour market opinion”), you make it incredibly hard for us to find satisfying careers.  Thus I’ll walk back across the 49th parallel feeling a bit like an outsider.

Overall, Canada, thanks for a short but incredibly pleasant 4 months.  Compared to the chaotic dynamism, diversity, and dysfunctionality of my beloved USA, you’re honestly kind of boring.  But I’ve got to tell you, you’re better where it counts.


Stehekin: Washington’s Perfect Carfree Vacation

May 6th, 2010
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Lake Chelan Looking Toward Stehekin, Winter

One thing I’m keen to do in this blog is diversify people’s perceptions of the car-free life.  It isn’t just for faux-European types living the bi-coastal liberal dream, or for crunchy urbanites who have forsaken our rural, pastoral, or forested landscapes in favor of the concrete and steel of the city.  If my goal of evangelizing this lifestyle is to succeed, I’ve got to transcend the reductive and the sanctimonious.  Too many people, usually well-meaning but silly environmentalists, have made such lifestyle asceticism into a deflating postmodern virtue, telling us to just take the proverbial medicine (the spoonful of sugar be damned).

Rather, I want to convince people that the carfree life liberates our pocketbooks, deepens our experiences, heightens the senses, improves our health, and is just plain fun.  Earlier I focused on rural transit in Washington State, trying to show that carfree rural travel, while sometimes difficult, is quite possible.  But what about having fun?  Feeling radically free?

Thus I’ve decided to do a series of occasional posts about carfree excursions and vacations, usually drawing from my own travels.  Today’s post is from perhaps my favorite locale on earth:  the tiny hamlet of Stehekin, Washington.

Glacier Peak from the summit of Mt. McGregor, by Zach Shaner

Stehekin is the most remote community in Washington State, a small village made all the more diminutive by the massive scale that surrounds it.  Part of the North Cascades National Park complex, the populace is evenly split between Park Service employees and 60 or so hardy locals who live there year-round.  Tucked between glaciated 9,000′ peaks, fjord-like Lake Chelan, and the low valley of the Stehekin River, Stehekin is a stunning study in environmental contrast.  If you’re standing on the valley floor, amidst dry Lodgepole Pine parklands, the scents of Eastern Washington prevail.  Adjacent to the river, cottonwoods and maples add lime-green accents to the sea of evergreen. Walk for 30 minutes up the flank of any of the adjacent mountains, and the pines fade to Douglas Firs and moisture slowly returns to the nose.  Continue upward to 4,000 feet and the needle-like steeples of Subalpine Fir appear, anchoring carpets of short-lived wildflowers and the the glaciated remnants of the last Ice Age.   In short, it’s paradise.

Zach and Sarah on the Stehekin River at Harlequin Bridge

My wife Sarah and I lived in Stehekin for 5 short months in 2008, and it was an unforgettable and sublime experience.  Since Stehekin is 12 gorgeous hiking miles from the nearest road, the only access for most people is the Lady of the Lake ferry, a two-to-four hour daily cruise up Lake Chelan. Every day in summer (and thrice a week in winter) the ferry delivers the mail, brings groceries and critical supplies, and brings scores of fannypacked and awe-struck tourists.  Arriving at the ferry dock, you are greeted by the dedicated staff of the Stehekin Landing Resort, offered the requisite cheeseburger, and shuttled up the valley for a quick tour of 312’ Rainbow Falls.  Most people mistakenly stay just a couple hours, experiencing only the hustle and bustle of the ferry sailings.  But if you go, do stay overnight.  The real uniqueness of this place arrives at sunset, when the silence is beautifully deafening and the sunset behind Mt. McGregor bathes the sky in tangerine and velvet.  On precious wind-free days, a solo kayak across the lake allows you to hear nothing but your paddle strokes and your panting breath.  In early autumn, as the apples ripen and the community takes to the cider presses, the river turns blood red with the arrival of hundreds of sex-crazed Kokanee Salmon keen to just get-it-on-and-die.  Black bears are always just a step off the trail, while silent cougars watch you vigilantly but don’t allow you to return the favor.

Lost Bear Cub in Winter, by Heidi Bozard

Stehekin is also an interesting place to experience the strange legacy of land-use management in the West.  Never have I seen a place in which two groups so mutually interdependent are so hostile towards each other.  The Park protects the land and offers locals a monopoly of business opportunity, while without the locals Stehekin would just be woods, a wilderness paradise to be sure but one incapable of being experienced by the general population.  Locals are resourceful and incredibly entrepreneurial, offering not only top-notch restaurant meals, but also a full-service bakery, a ranch, cabins, horseback rides, rafting, kayaking, etc… and that’s just one family. Locals are generally outspoken, fierce libertarians under the unfortunate tea-party illusion that they are self-made men who don’t need anything from their government.  But they’re just so incredibly good at what they do, and they clearly love doing it.  They really make Stehekin what it is.  For its part, the Park Service offers quality interpretive services, operates a visitor center and a 10-mile shuttle up and down the valley, and provides limited law enforcement, while bringing the inevitable trappings of stale bureaucracy along for the ride.  They occasionally thumb their elitist nose at the locals, making critical land-use decisions from offices in Oakland and evincing clear condescension towards a local population that top Park administrators sadly view as nuisances.  (Park employees that actually live in Stehekin are wonderful.)  The two camps need each other and benefit each other, but you’d never know it from their banter.

Empire Builder through the Mountains

So how to get there car-free?  Here’s a 5-day, 4-night sample itinerary…

Seattle to Stehekin by Train, Bus, and Ferry

Along the Sound, Across the Mountains, Up the Valley, Up the Lake…

Day 1

Depart Seattle’s King Street Station at 4:40 pm.  Amtrak’s Empire Builder will take you along the Seattle waterfront and the gorgeous shore of Puget Sound, and at Everett the train will turn east to cross the Cascades.  You’ll travel through the old railroad town of Skykomish, through the northern fringe of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, underneath Stevens Pass in an 8-mile tunnel, and then finally into the Bavarian town of Leavenworth before descending into the dry Columbia River Valley and into Wenatchee.  Arrive at downtown Wenatchee’s Columbia Station at 8:42pm.  Walk to the hotel of your choice.

Days 2 and 3

Walk back to the Wenatchee Amtrak station and catch Link Transit’s bus route #21C at 6:30am. (or 7:15am on Saturdays, no Sunday service). For a low fare of just $2, the bus will take you 39 miles along the Columbia River and into the town of Chelan.  Tell the driver you need to get off at the Lady of the Lake ferry dock.

Once at the ferry dock, you can take the slow boat (4 hours, $39 round-trip) or the express boat (2.5 hours, $59 round-trip).  From June to September, both boats depart Chelan at 8:30am.  (In May the express boat only runs on weekends). The 55-mile ferry begins in the dry low hills and orchards of southern Lake Chelan, and along the cruise the trees slowly begin to colonize the hillsides until you arrive in Stehekin flanked by forests and glaciers.  Arriving at “the Landing” in Stehekin, check into your room ($100-$200) or set up your campsite (free!), and get ready to play. Have lunch either at The Landing (burgers and fries, etc..) or the fantastic Pastry Company (a scenic 1.5-mile walk, bike ride, hitchhike, or shuttle trip).  Now just play for two days.  With the rest of Day 2 you can kayak, walk the Lakeshore Trail or the Rainbow Loop, visit the Buckner Apple Orchard, visit Rainbow Falls, and have a fine steak dinner at The Landing or the Stehekin Valley Ranch.

With Day 3 you can be more adventurous.  Take the first shuttle of the morning, grab a cinnamon roll and coffee when it stops at the bakery, and ride to the current end of the road at High Bridge.  Walk the 5-mile roundtrip along the north ridge of spectacular Agnes Gorge or pick huckleberries along the trail to the unfortunately-named Coon Lake.  Check in at the Ranch about rafting the river, a breathless experience when the river runs high in late Spring.  Adequately sore and tired, come back to the Landing and watch the sunset with a couple glasses of wine.  If it’s a summer weekend, you might even get some live music from the local makeshift cover band.

Day 4

Sleep in late, grab a breakfast omelette, people-watch, and wait for the arrival of the ferry.  Take either boat back down to Chelan, catch Link #21 back to Wenatchee, and check into a hotel.

Sarah in the Alpine Meadows at Cloudy Pass

Day 5

Catch Amtrak’s Empire Builder back to Seattle.  Depart Wenatchee bright and early at 5:35am, ride back to the mossy side of the mountains, and arrive back in the Emerald City just after 10:00am.

In 4 days and 4 nights, you will have crossed the Cascades 4 times, with any luck seen a couple of bears, and had an experience you’ll be telling everyone about for years.  No car required!

*Optional Change for the Adventurous:  If you’re feeling fit or have someone with a car willing to pick you up, on Day 5 you can hike out of Stehekin.  From the shuttle stop at High Bridge, it’s a 6-hour, scenic 12-mile hike to the North Cascades Highway at Rainy Pass.  Surprisingly, you’ll get back to Seattle more quickly than taking the ferry/train combo, and you can forego the second night in Wenatchee.


A Unified Amtrak/Sounder Timetable

Apr 28th, 2010
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King Street Station at Night – Photo by Brian Bundridge

I thought I’d pass this timetable along.  I made it a couple of days ago when I got tired of trying to remember both Sounder and Amtrak schedules.  I find these sorts of unified timetables pretty useful, and I hope you find them useful too.  For instance, making Sounder/Amtrak connections is quite possible, but given the limited service hours it is often difficult to conceptualize just how such connections might be made.  With all trains on the same sheet, it’s easy to see how to take connecting trains to/from otherwise unlikely city-pairs, such as Auburn to Everett (90 minutes), Kent to Centralia (90 minutes), or Mukilteo to Portland (4.5 hours), etc…

Teal represents Sounder commuter trains, beige represents Amtrak Cascades, red is Amtrak’s daily Coast Starlight, and purple is Amtrak’s daily Empire Builder.  Together this timetable represents all train service available at Portland’s Union Station and Seattle’s King Street Station.


What Should ‘Reliability’ Mean?

Apr 27th, 2010
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I am a huge fan of Amtrak Cascades, and as a car-free resident of Vancouver BC who must frequently travel to Seattle, the two daily trains to Seattle are a lifeline.  I’ve made 8 round-trips in the past 9 months, and I find it to be a generally enjoyable service with unparalleled scenery.  People may rightfully drool over the West Highland Line in Scotland or The Canadian into Jasper, but for my money Cascades just south of Bellingham is as scenic as they come.

Last Saturday, however, while stuck in a siding in the agricultural hinterlands of Delta BC, waiting interminably to proceed toward Blaine, I got to thinking about just how subjective and equivocal “on-time performance” is as a metric of reliability.  Of the 16 one-way trips I’ve taken in the past year, not a single one has arrived on-time.  Seven trips have been late by 10-40 minutes , and nine have been 5-20 minutes early.  By Amtrak’s on-time performance definitions, in which trains can be 10-30 minutes late and be considered “on-time”, my trips would have earned an 81% on-time rating and garnered them significant press for ostensibly improving their service.   But shouldn’t “reliability” mean more than merely “not being late by X minutes”?  Shouldn’t it mean consistency of journey time, whether early or late?  If so, Cascades has a very long way to go, and much of the blame lies north of the 49th Parallel.

Check out the following chart.  Using data from the invaluable Amtrak Train Status Archives, I analyzed the performance of the two morning trains (#510 Seattle to Vancouver BC, and #513 Vancouver BC to Seattle) for every day so far this year.

The chart depicts actual deviance from scheduled arrival time in minutes.  Each red-green data pair indicate one day. Green lines denote arrival into Vancouver, while red lines denote arrival into Seattle. Gaps indicate days in January and March in which service was shut down due to mudslides.  A negative bar indicates an early arrival.  Notice two things:

(1.  EXTREME VARIANCE.  Trains arrive anywhere from 25 minutes early to 4 hours late, but journey times from one day to the next are incredibly volatile.  On a chart like this, one should ideally see a straight line.

(2.  COUPLING.  Notice how delays on #510 cause reciprocal delays on #513, and vice versa.  I chose these two trains for a reason; they run on single-track rails and must pass each other in a siding near Mt. Vernon.  If one is late, the other train will automatically be late as well, and the effects ripple throughout the system.  Very rarely on the chart is there a day in which one train arrives early and the other very late.

Thus if there is one word to categorize Amtrak Cascades service, it is inconsistency. Cascades is not slow.  Cascades is not fast. Its defining characteristic is its variability…it is slow, then fast, then slow, then fast.  And not just from day to day, as in the chart above.  Within each run there is incredible variability as well.  So check out a second chart.  Using real-time data I gathered from my trip last Saturday, it shows average speed between selected segments of the route.  I generally dislike using anecdotal trip reports as an inductive measure of general performance, but I’m confident that this chart illustrates a structural truth.

The Canadian section is embarrassingly slow, and there are frequent calls for British Columbia to invest in upgrading its decrepit infrastructure.  While in this post I don’t wish to discuss the many technical fixes and reroutes that are needed, you may read them in the Amtrak Cascades Long-Range Plan.  My broader point is merely that Amtrak operates its service as a match an inch from the fuse.  Things are always a minor error away from causing major delays.  Thus I suppose they deserve a certain bit of praise for offering the service they do on deficient trackage.  Cascades frequently runs close to on-time, offers a comfortable and even luxurious service on comfortable Talgo trains, and offers a gorgeous alternative to I-5.  But in the most robust sense of the word, let’s not call it reliable.


A Tale of Two Cities: Vancouver, Seattle, and the Perils of the One-Seat-Ride

Apr 22nd, 2010

I hate to beat up on Seattle.  I love the Emerald City, and I have lived there quite successfully without a car.  But after living here in Vancouver for 4 months, I am unequivocally convinced that Vancouver offers far superior bus service.  Yet it isn’t immediately clear why this should be so.  Transit is everywhere in Seattle, and the five primary agencies that offer bus service (King County Metro, Sound Transit, Pierce Transit, Community Transit, and Everett Transit) cumulatively offer just as many annual service hours (5.86 million) as Vancouver’s TransLink (6.18 million).

Yet the qualitative experience of transit in the two cities is incredibly different.  In Vancouver there’s just a real je ne sais quoi; I really feel like I can go car-free, put on my backpack, and walk anywhere I want and take transit anywhere I want without planning any of my journeys.  The routes are intuitive, frequent, and they just work.  In Seattle, even though I know I’m surrounded by options, they somehow seem indecipherable.  I decided to search for reasons why.  And I want to disregard the most obvious reason:  the dearth of rail service in Seattle.   It is very obvious that SkyTrain anchors scores of bus lines, provides a backbone and decipherable structure to the network, and delivers complete reliability. But for the purposes of this post, on a bus-for-bus basis, why does Vancouver do so well and Seattle so poorly?   Daily bus-only ridership in metro Seattle – defined roughly as Snohomish, King, and Pierce counties – is roughly 530,000.  Bus-only ridership in metro Vancouver is roughly 825,000.  Despite offering only 5% more bus service hours, TransLink attracts 55% more ridership.  How does it do this?    After crunching some basic numbers, I have three answers: FREQUENCY, BRANDING, and TOPOGRAPHY.


Simply put, Seattle offers too much of the wrong kind of service.  While TransLink provides 215 bus routes, the 5-agency Seattle area provides 83% more, an astonishing 395 separate routes.  Of these, a whopping 37% are commuter routes without any mid-day service at all.  Only 13% of TransLink’s routes (29 total) are commuter-only.  With very few exceptions, in Vancouver you know you can catch any bus reliably throughout the day.  While Seattle offers the commuter market a wealth of one-seat rides to the downtown core, it does so at the explicit expense of the system’s intuitiveness and its ability to compete with the spontaneity of the car.

And the problem goes deeper.  Seattle has an unfortunate affection for the 30-minute headway. Even during peak hours, 50% of its routes run at 30-minute headways, compared to 30% for Vancouver.  And Vancouver does even better with its busiest routes.  During mid-day hours, Seattle’s bus service falls off a cliff;  only 10% of routes run every 15 minutes or better, 20% run every hour or less, and as already mentioned 37% don’t run at all.  At noon, 28% of Vancouver’s routes run every 15 minutes or better, and a couple dozen (such as 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 99 , 145 etc…) run 8 minutes or better.  In short, Vancouver provides those along its busiest lines the ability to travel spontaneously, the crucial factor that takes modal share away from cars.


The structure and politics of transit governance in Seattle is complex and difficult to understand.  For some reason, counties are the political unit of choice for transit planning, leading to 20+ transit agencies in Western Washington.  Lack of coordination and excessive administrative overhead have led to duplication of services and poor regional connections.  The creation of Sound Transit, a competent and impressive regional body responsible for regional planning and light rail expansion, has helped matters greatly.  So has the implentation of the ORCA smartcard for fare payment, which has greatly reduced what used to be 300 different kinds of transit passes and transfer slips.

Yet difficulties abound.  Each agency produces their own timetable literature, maintains different customer service centers, and offers online trip planners that offer insufficient information about connecting services (Community Transit has the best trip planner).  Regional travel remains remarkably opaque, especially for tourists.  Seattle offers no day-passes to tourists, and their well-intentioned Ride Free Area backfires, as confused customers sometimes have to pay when getting on, sometimes when getting off, or sometimes twice.  By contrast, TransLink offers a $9 day pass, offers automated next-bus information at each stop, has realtime GPS stop announcements at every stop on every route, and keeps fares to a simple 3-zone system ($2.50, $3.75, and $5.00).

However, Seattle’s in a bind.  Transit politics being what they are, with the faux-libertarian anti-transit activists always eager to stifle investment, Seattle’s compartmentalization has kept it alive.  A consolidation of transit governance would leave service levels even more vulnerable to changing political winds.  At least as separate entities there are more proverbial moles for the autophiles to whack.  The price is a chaotic framework with mediocre service.  But brand consolidation could be done without affecting the underlying funding of each particular route.  Why not take the Sound Transit name, make all buses carry its livery, fare structure, etc…  and distribute the proceeds to counties as necessary?  Make things more intuitive for the rider!


Lastly, it is well-known that Seattle is just a physically difficult place to get around.  There are huge lakes, steep hills, ship canals, and an overall dearth of flat land on which to build grids or arterials.  As Jarrett at Human Transit succintly put it:

Nowhere in Seattle can you travel in a straight line for more than a few miles without going into the water or over a cliff.

While Vancouver has hydrochallenges of its own, the land itself is quite flat, especially in the densest areas. This makes grids function well, makes the city easy to understand, and allows a broader range of equipment to be used in all weather conditions (as opposed to Seattle’s blizzard nightmare of 2008).

For these and other reasons, Vancouver’s just got it.  Seattle can make up for probably 80% of what it lacks through visionary planning, and if it does, its physical quirks can be charming rather than infuriating.  Both cities have dedicated operators and planners, and both cities provide competent service, but Vancouver just continues to astonish me with an abundance of the one thing Seattle lacks:  ease.