Why Seattle is so truly awful at transit

Jul 31, 2018, 7:02 AM
Seattle streetcar...
A key council committee vote on the Seattle streetcar project takes place Tuesday. (SDOT)

The City of Seattle and King County have always touted their desire to get people out of cars and onto buses or light rail. But have you ever wondered why they’re so bad at it?

I recently spent two weeks in European cities — Budapest, Hamburg, Stockholm, and London — that know what they’re doing when it comes to transportation. Their buses run on time and are clean. Their light rail systems move smoothly and are respected by the people who use them (their trains even fit the tracks). Their subways? Top notch, though they could use air conditioning.

Seattle and King County can learn a lot from these cities.

There’s no doubt, local city leaders — from Mayor Jenny Durkan to King County Executive Dow Constantine and everyone in between — want you out of cars and into alternative modes of transportation. And, generally, they’re ready to achieve this by any means necessary, including spending hundreds of millions on projects that don’t ever get done properly. They do this because they have the passion and motivation to stick it to drivers.

Only, they never seem to achieve their goals. Instead, they end up making traffic and the bus or streetcar experience worse for everyone.

They hate cars and drivers

To understand what they’re doing so poorly, you first have to understand why they’re doing it. These leaders push the bus, biking, and walking because of their disdain for drivers and cars. No one has ever accused local leaders of caring about drivers. Still, the level of animus they hold toward those of you who need a car to get around the city, particularly in Seattle, is rather shocking.

The Seattle Department of Transportation will extend bus-only hours on Third Avenue. It’ll be used exclusively for buses and bikes during the day. This move will displace cars onto the already congested surrounding streets (which will be made even worse with the viaduct coming down), with no plan in place to help smooth out the impacted commutes. Indeed, despite a large percentage of folks driving, SDOT cares little about the driving experience: they employ a city traffic engineer who doesn’t own a car.

The strategy has always been to make driving so inhospitable so you end up using an alternative mode of transportation. They’ll pretend the traffic congestion can’t ever be solved (as if that absolves them from trying to make it better), and they hope you’ll take them up on their offer of busing, biking, or walking. Only, when you do, the experience is nearly as bad as driving.

Bus with us (when we show up)

King County Metro is always late. Always. As a frequent rider, I can’t tell you the amount of time I’ve wasted waiting for a bus to show up, angrily tweeting at them (which offers me temporary relief) as I stand there.

There is often no real reason for buses to be late. Some blame cars, but buses are delayed during Saturday and Sunday mornings when there is no traffic. And sometimes it’s Metro causing the traffic, routinely blocking intersections to make a light.

If the goal is to get you on a bus, which is supposedly a stress-free commute you can spend catching up on reading or listening to podcasts, then they’re failing. Because the time wasted standing in the rain or blistering heat for the bus to show up is maddening. Wondering if you’ll make a movie or doctor’s appointment on time because your bus is late, as it turns out, is stressful. And then there’s that whole thing about hoping you don’t sit on used needles left on the seat.

In London, the buses were never late. Literally never. I used it almost exclusively. The bus showed up exactly when advertised, the drivers navigated congested roads without blocking the box, and there were a ton of buses that moved people all over the region.

How is it that a city the size of London can manage buses so effectively when Seattle and King County can’t? You force us to take the bus, then you under-deliver.

Streetcars: we go nowhere and don’t fit our tracks

The city often touts how many users ride the streetcar, though some of the numbers are puzzling.

Few people take the South Lake Union streetcar, yet it’s viewed as a success. Few people use it because it doesn’t go anywhere.

The First Hill line? It has some value if you’re going to Sounders or Seahawks games, so long as you live near the route. Otherwise, it makes more sense to just walk to wherever it is you’re going.

Rather than start slow and go from South Lake Union into Pioneer Square into Capitol Hill, leaders chose to start two lines and hoped to complete the connector in the future. They were so bad with their financial planning, the connector project had to be put on hold.

The city tells us they care deeply about this project and it’s integral in helping get people out of their cars, yet they can’t be bothered to order streetcars that fit the tracks? That’s some high-level incompetence right there.

So what’s the deal?

So why, despite their passion, are leaders so bad at managing the modes of transportation they’re trying to force on us?

Some will say we’d see improvements if we give them more money, but I won’t fall for that nonsense. These people have shown no ability to do a good job with the billions we’ve already given them. And to constantly claim you can do better if you get more money is a recipe for even more of a money pit scenario.

This isn’t a funding issue. This is an issue of politicians being lead by ideology. Blind activism almost always leads to bad policy. To be considered a Progressive, these politicians have to mindlessly check off some boxes and part of that is to push transit by any means necessary. They don’t care about how the services are rolled out and utilized; their inability to fix ongoing problems proves that. They just want to be able to say they support buses and light rail because, after all, that’s better for the environment than a bunch of solo drivers.

When you’re blinded by ideology, you’re unable to see the problems your positions cause. If you want better transit here – the kind we see in the European cities that inspired a lot of our leaders – you should start electing leaders who want to do a bit more than virtue signal.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday mornings from 6-9 a.m. on KTTH 770 AM or 94.5 FM on the greater Eastside.

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Why Seattle is so truly awful at transit