Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
How did a transit-backward town become a national poster child for ridership success?
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—David Ibrahim loved his 2005 Toyota Camry. When he moved to Seattle from Northern California last summer, he would have brought it with him, if his sister hadn’t totaled it.
So Ibrahim reluctantly arrived car-free in the booming tech capital. He had no choice: The recent college graduate had accepted a job as an Amazon software engineer. But once he arrived, to Ibrahim’s own surprise, he never felt pressed to buy a new set of wheels. In nearly a year of daily commutes to Amazon’s Bellevue campus, weekly shopping trips, and weekend social calls, he has found that Seattle’s buses serve him well.
“I honestly take them everywhere,” he told me on a clear, spring-like Saturday in March. I’d approached him among a group of riders clustered at a bus stop in Seattle’s International District, where he was standing to catch the 14 to watch a game at a friend’s house. A few minutes later, Ibrahim’s ride pulled up, and he was on his way.
In several respects, this young man is the face of Seattle’s growth. Since 2007, the fastest-growing city in the country has added nearly a quarter million jobs (thanks in considerable part to Amazon), and has grown in population by more than 15 percent since 2010.
Remarkably, though, Seattle has not gained more cars in its most congested areas. The number of commuters driving private vehicles downtown has declined by 10 percent since 2010, even as new residents and workers have spiked. By and large, new arrivals are instead choosing to ride the bus. Seattle’s King County Metro has seen an 8 percent increase in bus riders over the past nine years and gained about 700,000 rides between 2016 and 2017 alone.
Meanwhile, bus popularity is plummeting in most major cities. Some 31 out of 35 high-ridership metros watched annual trips decline last year. Nationwide, ridership on rubber-tired fleets is at its lowest level in 30 years. Dips in the gas prices and new train openings help explain the trend. But the most important factor, analysts have found, is declining bus service—specifically, the mess of route and schedule cuts that started around the Great Recession and were never stitched back. It’s a vicious cycle. Declining bus ridership feeds the narrative that transit is a waste of money; more people take to their cars and Ubers; traffic gets worse and the buses run slower; repeat.
But when transit works well, the cycle turns virtuous. And buses are often the fastest means to equitable and efficient transit for large numbers of people. In that respect, Seattle’s example as an overnight bus haven seems incredibly useful. It demonstrates a simple and powerful truth: Build a system that works, and riders will come.
The story of the Emerald City’s love affair with the bus can be approached from many angles. Road space and funding have been dedicated, frequent bus arrivals and pleasant service have been prioritized, and bridges between agencies and local employers have been built. I’ll go through them all. But perhaps the best place to begin a survey of what’s working in Seattle is by witnessing the sheer volume of coaches running down Third Avenue in the heart of downtown on a Friday afternoon.
Some 250 local, regional, and express buses travel this corridor every hour during the weekday rush hour—more than two buses per minute, the most of any street in North America. They carry 52,000 daily riders. The crisscrossing buses and streaming riders almost feels like a plein-air Penn Station, if the trains in New York ran on time.
Surrounding King County has grown about 9 percent over the past decade, gaining some 360,000 new residents between 2010 and 2016. By itself, the swelling of the region (concentrated in the city) accounts for some portion of the spike in bus ridership. Across modes, there are simply more people trying to get from A to B. And traffic is undoubtedly getting worse. But growth does not make for a bus renaissance in every successful city. Minneapolis, Denver, and Austin are seeing ridership declines even as their populations swell.
So imagine how much worse the traffic would be if Seattle had not taken steps to prioritize transit on clogged corridors in recent years. On all four lanes of Third Avenue, cars are banned during rush hour (and will be banned all day starting this fall). Ditto for a southbound lane on Second Avenue, a northbound lane on Fourth. Two lanes of First Avenue will be devoted to a new streetcar project (when it gets off the ground). All told, eight lanes across six of Seattle’s busiest surface streets will soon be transit-only. On Westlake Avenue through the heart of South Lake Union, home to Amazon’s downtown headquarters, there are two more lanes where streetcars and buses move free of private vehicles.
“It comes down to math,” said Andrew Glass Hastings, the director of transit and mobility at the Seattle Department of Transportation. “At the pace we’re growing, we can’t move people in cars. That is hugely involved in success. If we let buses get mired in congestion, we wouldn’t see these ridership increases.”
Translation: People wouldn’t take the bus if it didn’t travel through Seattle’s core employment centers this rapidly and frequently. By keeping high-capacity modes moving swiftly, transit-only lanes keep riders happy.
“That has to continue if we’re going to continue at our rate of growth,” said Carol Cooper, a King County transportation planner focused on commuter markets. Earlier that day, Cooper and I had taken a bus-only journey up Fourth Avenue from King County Metro’s offices in the historic Pioneer Square district to downtown. At the platform near Union Station square, she guided me through my purchase of an ORCA card, the tap-card fare payment system that’s usable across multiple area transit agencies. King County Metro (which runs most of the buses), Sound Transit (which runs the budding light rail system), and the Seattle Streetcar can all be accessed with the card, as can three suburban agencies and two water taxi services. (You could say that Seattle, which practically rises from the sea, has always been multimodal by its water-bound nature.)
When Cooper and I got off the bus near Fourth and Pine, she took me around the corner and through a passageway hidden near a Macy’s entrance, where we descended into the downtown transit tunnel, a 1.3-mile underground tube that opened in 1990 beneath Third Avenue to accommodate bus traffic. Nowadays, about 40 to 50 buses run in each direction during peak hours, and Link light rail trains (which opened in 2009) connecting downtown to the University of Washington and to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport arrive every six minutes.
A few hours I’d return to the transit tunnel to marvel at the diversity of riders at the various bus and rail bays inside—tech professionals in puffy jackets, tourists in Space Needle hats, uniformed service workers, students lugging backpacks, elderly folks with canes.
“I think 85 percent of riders are ‘choice’ riders,” Cooper said, citing a 2016 survey that found only one out of 10 riders rely on Metro for all or most of their transportation needs and do not have access to a vehicle. “They don’t have to ride the bus. It’s not a transit-dependent-only system, which is what you find in a lot of places.”
Downtown Seattle doesn’t even have that much street space devoted to transit. But enough room has been cleared to create a positive feedback loop, Glass Hastings told me. As Seattle Transit Blog has estimated, dedicated bus lanes can reliably carry twice as many people per hour than even the most freely flowing car lanes. In Seattle, when local leaders or opinionators complain about proposals to eliminate parking spaces or car lanes, which is often, transportation leaders are increasingly able to show that the “war on cars” isn’t political. It’s practical.
“It’s becoming easier to show the public all the time,” he said.
That might be the first lesson for any transportation planner looking to reverse-engineer Seattle-style success: Make room for buses. Among the transit experts I spoke to, that was the top recommendation for other cities. Dedicated right-of-way, after all, is perhaps the top distinguishing factor between buses and the “first class” mode of public transit in most cities—heavy rail systems such as trains and subways, which don’t mix with traffic. Their right-of-way is for safety, but it also allows trains to offer fast and frequent service. “That’s become inherent to the way we use subway systems, while buses have taken on this stigma of being smelly, slow, and unreliable,” said Kari Watkins, a professor of transportation engineering at Georgia Tech who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Washington. “But there’s nothing inherent to a bus that makes it that way.” Breaking the bus/rail paradigm is central to what Seattle has achieved.
Part of that’s been by force, since Seattle lacks a legacy rail system. Historically speaking, despite its progressive bonafides, the city has not been much of a transit leader. Its streetcar network disappeared after automobiles took over the streets in the post-war era. In the late 1960s, King County voters shot down the bonds that would have paid for a 47-mile, 30-station underground rail transit system—twice, in 1968 and 1970. The federal dollars that would have gone to building it eventually went to Atlanta’s transit system. In the 1980s and 1990s, Portland became the transit darling of the Pacific Northwest as its built out one light rail and rapid bus line after another.
The ground began to shift in the mid-1990s, when Washington State set up some the most restrictive land use laws in the country. Middle-class exurbanites fed up with the horrendous traffic and degraded wildlands created by Seattle’s 1980s population boom got state legislators to rein in traffic and sprawl with the Growth Management Act of 1990, now famed in urbanist circles. Seattle followed suit by designating 30 neighborhoods as “urban villages,” where growth and density would be concentrated to produce more walking and fewer vehicle-miles traveled.
Seattle’s approach to land use has had a mixed legacy. Like most West Coast cities, the vast majority of its neighborhoods are made up of single-family homes and small-scale apartment buildings—you get a feel for that as you stroll between leafy Craftsmans and dingbats in neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Fremont, and Beacon Hill. Exclusive zoning for single-family housing (inextricable from racial covenants earlier in the 20th century) is now implicated in Seattle’s affordable housing crisis. But tightening the growth belt also worked in a pretty fundamental way: About 75 percent of the city’s growth has poured into the “village”-designated areas since those laws passed, and mostly in downtown and adjacent South Lake Union, now home to Amazon.
Indeed, by pushing many of the region’s largest employers into just a few areas, strict land use laws created fewer nodes of employment than in other cities, Glass Hastings said, making transit a more attractive option. The city and county’s strong partnerships with local companies help with that, too. According to a recent survey of 249 of the city’s largest employers, 91 percent offered some kind of transit benefit to their employees (from a small subsidy to a fully paid-for ORCA card), and 69 percent physically provided transit passes to employees. The ubiquity of free transit passes is especially useful as Seattle grows: Research shows that it’s easiest to convert commuters from driving to transit when they’ve switched jobs. “It’s the number-one time to get ‘em hooked,” said Hester Serebrin, the policy director of the Seattle advocacy group Transportation Choices Coalition.
That might be the next tip for transportation planners in other cities: Get your land-use laws in line. And get on the phone with the private sector, where benefits departments may also be looking to get employees to work faster and cheaper than subsidizing parking. “We are not the only ones talking about buses,” Cooper told me.
Most commuters who can afford other options won’t choose to ride buses, though, unless the buses work to their advantage. So Seattle and surrounding King County have been making sure that they do. In 2014, the city of Seattle voluntarily pooled its financial resources with King County Metro, the county agency that runs most of the city’s public transit. With Metro facing a serious budget shortfall, Seattle voters approved a ballot measure that raised car tab fees and sales taxes to generate some $45 million a year.
That money has poured into improvements within a special “transportation benefits district,” including subsidized ORCA cards for low-income workers, families, and students, and, most notably, the largest increase in frequent bus service in the city’s history. In the first year alone, the city’s investment resulted in roughly 270,000 additional annual hours of bus service spread across 68 routes, aimed at relieving crowding, improving on-time performance, and boosting the frequency of high-traffic routes at peak hours as well as night and weekend service. The percent of Seattle households within a 10-minute walk of 10-minute or better transit service—the city’s established metric for judging success—grew from 25 percent in 2015 to 64 percent in 2017. The lines that received the heaviest city subsidies have seen ridership spike as a result.
That’s another key thing a city needs to avoid a transit death spiral: money. Historically, Seattle has received little transit funding from the state, which famously lacks an income tax. And again, counter to its progressive reputation, Seattle has the most regressive taxes of any big city in the country, with high-earners paying much lower rates than the poor. That too is starting to change, with voters rubber-stamping nine new property-tax levies in the past four years. (A more recent “head tax” would put the squeeze on the region’s largest employers, who have enjoyed generous tax breaks for decades. Amazon has balked.) In 2016, voters said yes to Move Seattle, a nine-year, $930 million transportation levy for street safety improvements and redesigns that give pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders more room. Meanwhile, King County Metro has been systematically upgrading bus fleet and shelters: In 2015, the agency retired 146 buses and replaced them with 179 new ones. It promises a fully electric-powered fleet by 2034.
“We pay attention to cleaning our buses, to having security cameras on every bus on the fleet, to making them pleasant,” said Bill Bryant, the manager of transit service development at King County Metro. “People expect more these days in terms of customer service. And that includes transit.”
He also keeps an eye on the competition. Seattle has made moves to limit the presence of Uber, Lyft, and other on-demand vehicles on city streets, and to require the companies to share trip data so that public officials can understand their effects on transportation systems. Meanwhile, transit leaders are also focused on providing service that keeps better-off riders from being easily lured away. There’s another important lesson from Seattle: In an era where many cities are freaking out over Uber’s effect on public transit, it may not be enough to play defense by tamping down regulations. Play offense by building a transit system that people actually want to ride.
On one of the days I was in Seattle, I encountered its signature precipitation. That was the afternoon I accompanied Rachel Lobo and Hester Serebrin, the education manager and policy director of Transportation Choices Coalition, on their way to talk about an ORCA pass program with a University of Washington student club. On the way, I asked if Seattle’s progressivism predisposes folks to ride transit and bikes in ways that less-crunchy towns might be challenged to replicate.
The culture definitely helps, they felt. On the other hand, “people that care about transit philosophically still wouldn’t take it if it didn’t actually work,” Lobo said.
Still, there’s nothing like crappy weather to expose the flaws in a bus system. When Lobo, Serebrin, and I emerged from the transit tunnel at the University of Washington station to connect to a bus, we had to walk up a long flight of stairs, travel across a plaza, and cross the street amid whipping wind and rain. My umbrella flipped inside out. There was little signage directing us to the correct bus stop. Are “choice riders” still willing to wait for buses when the weather turns ugly?
I know, I know: Hardy transit users in inclement East Coast cities, where one might get rained on even inside subway stations, might scoff at that last point. But as Seattle strives to convert more commuters to transit, it’s the un-seamless connections it might need to worry about.
Especially in the near future, as the bus faces a fresh rival. Currently, there is just one light-rail line within city limits. But in 2016, Seattle area voters approved Sound Transit 3, a $50 billion plan to add 62 miles of new track and 37 stations over the next 25 years across the Puget Sound’s suburban communities and job centers. The largest transit referendum in the city’s history will also install three BRT lines and a chain of park-and-ride stations across the region’s urbanized counties by 2041. The city will finally get its transformative rail transit backbone, decades after it rejected the concept.
Will the arrival of trains at scale change the role of buses in Seattle? Transportation advocates are hoping that the light-rail system can be a “gateway drug” to other modes of transit for suburban commuters accustomed to driving. But there’s concern that a glitchy transfer or long wait at a bus stop could be enough to dissuade them. “We are kind of banking on having this complementary system, and there are still issues about connecting trains and buses,” said Serebrin. “We have to make this as intuitive and easy as possible.”
There are other worries as the Seattle transit landscape transforms, especially in terms of racial and economic equity. For one, a recent audit found King County’s transit fare evasion enforcement is disproportionately hurting the poor. The city and county have focused transit investments in areas where the most job growth is occurring, but not every rider works at Amazon or lives in the hottest parts of town; there are gaps and “transit deserts” throughout the metro region. In some communities, including super-diverse Rainier Beach in southeast Seattle, light rail and rapid bus lines have threatened to replace local bus routes that act as lifelines to riders in those neighborhoods who don’t have other options.
More broadly, as lower-income households are priced out of Seattle’s spendy core, they’re also getting pushed further away from frequent bus service that is being cultivated there. While some of the planned Sound Transit stations reach historically underserved neighborhoods, some residents worry they won’t be able to stay in place once the train, and its gentrifying baggage, arrives.
In Seattle, the usual vectors of transportation inequality may be becoming freakishly reversed. “My concern is whether we are pushing people to buy a car where they’ve never had to,” said Giulia Pasciuto, a policy and research analyst at Puget Sound Sage, a research and activist organization focused on racial justice and equity in the region. In other words, while affluent urbanites enjoy the benefits of Uber-competitive bus service, poorer riders in distant suburbs will be forced to shoulder the financial burden of car ownership. This scenario seems to be borne out by demographic changes across King County’s population and transit ridership. As the above chart shows, between 2012 and 2016 a rising share of “regular” riders (people who took five or more trips per month on a bus or streetcar) came from households bringing in more than $100,000 per year. But the share of regular riders from households making from $35,000 to $75,000 per year dropped.
Clearly, Seattle needs more buses, not fewer, and it needs them everywhere. Another threat to the so-far positive trajectory of bus ridership is the incredible demand. In and around downtown, it’s not uncommon for riders to have to wait for multiple buses to go by during rush hour before they’re able to board. Chronic overcrowdedness can be a pretty strong cue for riders who can afford other modes to ditch transit, something King County Metro and SDOT are keen to avoid. Cooper and Bryant said that they’re increasing service as quickly as they can, but with the pace of population growth, it’s not easy to keep up.
Then again, voracious demand for bus service sounds like a problem a lot of cities would like to have. In the few days I visited, I wasn’t the only out-of-towner inspecting Seattle’s mass mobility success. Ahead of their city’s May 1 vote on a $5.2 billion light rail referendum, a 130-person delegation from the Nashville Chamber of Commerce had flown out to see how Seattle’s investments in transit were paying off, with a focus on the Sound Transit light rail expansion. On their way to pick up coffee at Pike Place Market one morning, a handful of Tennesseans were so shocked to see the endless river of buses running down Third Avenue that they Instagrammed pictures. “They were just struck by the amount of people being moved,” said Andrea Albers, the director of public relations for the Chamber.
Later, on a tour of the transit tunnel, Albers told me that another attendee asked a rider stepping off a bus what Nashville, another booming city, should do to model its transit system after Seattle. “‘Keep it bright, keep it clean, keep it exciting,’” the rider said, according to Albers.
A few weeks later, Nashville’s big ballot measure got clobbered at the polls, especially among suburban voters. In post-mortems of the loss, some analysts noted that the plan may have erred by emphasizing an ambitious slate of expensive light-rail lines instead of a more modest alternative scenario of bus-focused expansion. Despite population growth, bus ridership in Nashville has dipped slightly over the last two years. “If your biggest immediate transit problem is inadequate bus service, it does not necessarily follow that the only solution to your problem includes spending $5.5 billion...constructing light rail,” concluded Jeff Davis of Eno Transportation Weekly.
Now it’s up to elected leaders and advocates there to figure out how to cultivate broader support for transit in a sprawling city with a heavy reliance on cars.
In that sense, the lesson in Seattle is less about trains and more about their less-glamorous counterparts. In so many cities with rail transit systems new and old, buses are second-tier transportation. But Seattle has built something remarkable, and much of it quickly: a bus system that people choose to take. It’s not perfect, and it will need to maintain and expand the level of excellence found downtown as the city grows, morphs, and becomes less equal. But passengers are showing support by riding in larger shares. Borrowing a phrase from the transit consultant and writer Jarrett Walker, Watkins sums up why Seattle’s frequent, well-maintained, and funded buses are working as well as they do. “Transit has to respect me,” she said. In turn, by and large, Seattle riders are respecting it back.