The B.S. Bus Solution
I made the mistake of reading the Seattle Times over breakfast on Monday, April 24. I quickly lost my appetite. The editorial board at the Seattle Times heaped praise on Ron Sims's latest transportation plan—buses! More of them! Lots more! Everybody get on the bus!
"[A] fast-growing region cannot afford to be blasé about transportation planning," the Seattle Times wrote. "This is a smart time to invest in transportation. Buses are a flexible, useful way to move people around. Riders in key areas would not need bus schedules, as buses would arrive every 10 minutes throughout the day."
Yeah, a fast-growing region cannot afford to be blasé about transportation planning. Tell us all about it, Seattle Times. Because while we're really great at floating around transportation fixes here—and yakking about them, and studying them, and trashing them—what we're not so good at, as you know, is actually fucking building them. Witness the monorail's collapse, which the Seattle Times did everything in its power to bring about dating back to 1997. So now we're never going to have a real rapid-transit system in this city—and by "real rapid transit," I mean a system that is grade-separated, a subway system or an elevated system, a transportation option that can't get stuck in traffic, one that would be faster than driving. Since we've kissed that possibility goodbye, we're left with... buses.
Buses—the public-transportation option favored by people who do not take public transportation. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that no one on the Seattle Times op-ed board commutes to work by bus. And Ron Sims? Like most pols, he only boards a bus for photo-ops. Fact is, people don't like riding buses, which are notoriously slow, noisy, dirty, and unreliable. Putting more slow, crowded, stinky buses on the streets isn't going to do anything to address Seattle's transportation problem or provide a transportation option attractive enough to get people out of their cars.
Only grade-separated rapid transit can do that. People don't take the subway in New York or the "L" in Chicago because it's virtuous. They take public transit in those cities because it's faster than driving. Buses—slow, stuck in traffic, unpleasant—can't offer commuters speed in exchange for sacrificing the autonomy and privacy of driving solo. So putting more of them on the street won't change a fucking thing—and it's certainly not worth raising taxes to do so, as Sims is proposing.
But, gee, what about Bus Rapid Transit? What about dedicated bus lanes?
What about it? As Erica C. Barnett reported a few months ago, "BRT draws far fewer transit riders—and, importantly, far fewer new transit riders—than light rail or other fixed-rail systems. In a 2001 study, the Seattle Department of Transportation found that elevated transit like the monorail or elevated light rail would add about 56,000 daily riders to the North Seattle-to-downtown corridor; BRT would add just 32,500. From West Seattle to downtown, the disparity was even more startling: nearly 28,000 riders for elevated rail, and just 10,000 for BRT." ["Fast-Lane Fallacy," Nov 24, 2005.]
Why doesn't BRT draw as many new riders as fixed rail? Because—wait for it—taking the slow, stinky, unreliable bus sucks.
Oh, and those dedicated bus lanes that BRT requires?
Never gonna happen. One of the complaints about the monorail—and the Seattle Times never met a complaint about the monorail that it wouldn't splash all over its front page—was that it would take a few lanes away from cars on a couple of downtown streets. This, of course, annoyed drivers, who are encouraged by the Seattle Times to think that they own the streets. Can you imagine the outcry if Sims actually tries to take lanes away from cars on dozens of streets running all over the county so that buses can use them exclusively? The few HOV lanes we've got make drivers crazy—those same drivers are not going to smile on dozens and dozens or even hundreds of miles of dedicated bus lanes, and they will punish any pol who proposes such a scheme.
Let's face it, folks. We blew it—elevated transit was our only real transportation solution (tunnels are too expensive), and the shortsighted mendacity of our elected officials (fuck you, Greg and Ron), the bungling at the monorail agency, the greed of Second Avenue property owners, and the furious cluelessness of the know-nothing, build-nothing media did it in. The least we can do now is refrain from pretending that buses are going to make things better. Get used to those long commutes, folks, whether you're sitting alone in your car or sitting next to some street lunatic shitting himself on the bus. Or move closer to work. Those are your only options now—thanks, in large part, to the Seattle Times.