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Seattle transit system offers insights for Twin Cities

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: July 3, 2014 - 2:33 PM

What does it take to boost bus ridership? I recently visited one peer city which offers some clues.

Seattle is among many cities across the country that have been experimenting with enhanced bus lines, which are similar to the changes Metro Transit is planning for St. Paul's Snelling Ave. and several other corridors. It was also the fastest growing city in the United States last year, expanding its population by 2.8 percent between 2012 and 2013.

Below are some observations about the bus -- and other transit options -- from this MPLS blogger's trip. 

Seattle and the Twin Cities are often considered peers because they share a metropolitan area of just over 3 million people. The Seattle area sits just one spot ahead of the Twin Cities in a list of the country's largest metro areas (UPDATE: Some readers have pointed out that the Seattle area's population is more concentrated).

Yet Seattle's transit system averaged 62 percent more average weekday riders than the Twin Cities in 2012, according to the National Transit Database. In both cities, most of those riders took the bus.

The most obvious difference between the two bus systems is the use of electrified overhead wires that are weaved across Seattle to power the trolley buses. The electric motor makes the buses nearly silent when stopped, much quieter when driving and eases their travel up hills.

But in the last several years Seattle's King Country Metro Transit has also begun to roll out RapidRide. The series of enhanced bus lines boast 10-minute frequencies during peak hours, traffic signal priority, onboard wi-fi, real-time arrival information at stops, more space between stops and pre-boarding payment systems (right).

RapidRide now consists of six routes, the latest of which was launched this June. King County Metro Transit has seen major ridership increases along each of the corridors, which collectively now account for 12 percent of total ridership in the bus system at 50,000 rides a day. The program's total budget is $212 million.

Some have criticized the lines for not being rapid enough, which appears largely the result of operating primarily in mixed traffic and some problems with signal timing.

My travel partner and I were most impressed with the prominent bus stops, which featured maps of the route and real-time arrival information. The ride itself from Seattle's Ballard neighborhood into downtown was smooth and uneventful, though the on-board wifi did not work.

Another interesting component of Seattle's bus infrastructure -- unrelated to the RapidRide -- is a five-stop, 1.3-mile downtown transit tunnel (left) that allows buses and light rail vehicles to move easily through the city's core. The $455 million tunnel took three years to construct in the late 1980s.

Also, electronic signs at the front of most buses we rode on prominently displayed which stop was aproaching, making it easier to avoid missing your stop -- particularly at night.

Seattle remains largely a bus town, though rail is quickly growing. The city's one light rail line is currently being extended 3.4 miles north of its downtown terminus (through a tunnel) to the University of Washington for a cost of $1.8 billion. Much like the Hiawatha line in Minneapolis, Seattle's current light rail line travels from the airport into downtown.

Perhaps more striking, however, is the growth of streetcars. It's hard to turn a corner in some parts of Seattle without encountering tracks or a station along the winding route of the First Hill streetcar line, slated to open later this year. Station areas have been redesigned in several cases to include protected bike lanes (below). 

The first line, the South Lake Union Streetcar, opened in 2007 and runs a short distance between Lake Union -- home to many floating houses and sea planes -- and downtown. Payment turned out to be the most complicated part of the short, somewhat jerky journey, as neither us nor a fellow passenger could determine how to use our fare cards to pay at the station or aboard the vehicle. 

The South Lake Union line was built largely because Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, whose company Vulcan Inc. owns much of the property nearby, pushed for it. About half of the $50 million cost was paid by adjacent property owners. Vulcan has since rapidly developed the area, including the construction of what has become Amazon.com's corporate campus.

It's worth noting that Seattle is also in the middle of a transit funding crisis that is likely to result in service cuts, which the agency is warning passengers about in a hard-to-miss advertising campaign (right). A referendum to increase sales taxes and vehicle fees to cover costs failed, as has a more recent attempt by the county council to cover cost overruns.

Transit funding is very different between Seattle and the Twin Cities (see chart at right in this article). Seattle-area residents are currently paying a 1.8 percent sales tax and vehicle registration fees to the two transit agencies that oversee buses, streetcars, light rail and commuter rail..

In the Twin Cities, Metro Transit operations are funded largely through fares and a 6.5 percent motor vehicle sales tax, while a .25 percent sales tax funds new projects and supports rail and bus rapid transit operations (page 11).

Both cities' major transit agencies collect around 28-29 percent of their revenues from fares, as well as benefiting from federal funds that support new projects.

So what about cars? About 49 percent of Seattle commuters drove alone to work in 2012. In Minneapolis that figure is about 61 percent. But Seattle also has some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, ranking far ahead of the Twin Cities.

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