Opinion: Sorry, but Seattle does not have the best public transportation

Sep 10, 2019, 12:13 PM | Updated: 2:52 pm
Seattle bus, public transportation...
A driver of a King County Metro Bus rolls a sleeper off the bus, onto the street in Seattle. (KTTH, Jason Rantz)
(KTTH, Jason Rantz)

I’m conflicted. You see, on one hand, I have this guilty pleasure when it comes to rankings and “best of” lists which often get sent to reporters from public relations firms. And beyond that, I am a regular user of Seattle’s public transportation and hype it to others.

But on the other hand I have to admit something. I am sorry — Seattle does not have the best public transportation in the nation.

Yet, if you ask the folks over at WalletHub, Seattle ranks as number 1 in the nation when it comes to public transportation. This is the conclusion of five experts (including four PhDs), considering 17 factors from relative commute times, connectivity, peak hours in congestion, transportation costs, safety, resources, or the share of commuters who prefer public transportation.

Seattle is the seventh worst city to drive in

The data apparently points to a handful of conclusions:

  • Seattle has the third best commute times via mass transit.
  • Seattle ranks third for public transportation resources.
  • Seattle ranks third for safety and reliability.
  • Seattle ranks seventh for accessibility and convenience.

This is not the first time I’ve objected to the act of looking at data from a distance, void of context, and drawing too many conclusions. After all, Sammamish is frequently noted as a “best place to live.” Nope. Even Gee Scott and John Curley agree with me on that.

Anecdotal public transportation

My initial conclusion is that for Seattle to rank so high, every other city must have really terrible public transportation. But there’s this — from my personal experience, Portland’s public transportation is far greater than Seattle’s. It’s leagues ahead. Yet, Portland comes in at 10th on this same list.

Once upon a time, I lived in Portland. I had the experience of both regularly commuting by car and commuting by public transportation. There was no competition. Aside from an awkward experience with a guy smoking meth next to me in the back of a bus, public transportation beat out using a car in Portland hands down. I hear Portland traffic has only gotten worse since then.

Portland’s connectivity was amazing. The efficiency was top notch. I had multiple options every day — take the bus along one route, or perhaps walk a couple blocks and take the light rail. Or maybe even take the bus this far, and then hop onto a light rail car. Then again, I could ride a bike part way on a sunny day. Or again, I could aim for the street car.

My experience in Seattle has been quite different.

  • Seattle’s streetcar line is disconnected into two parts, the city is having trouble connecting them, and even ordered new streetcars that were too large for the existing tracks.
  • Bus routes have proven limiting. There once was a bus line that ran from North Seattle, through the U-District, onto Eastlake Avenue, and then into downtown. A commuter could conveniently take one single bus from the north into downtown. That made sense. But that route was canceled for what I assume is an effort to force people over to the new U-District light rail station — which does not run all the way to North Seattle (yet) and does not run through Eastlake. Now, if a commuter wants to make that trip, they have to take two buses, switching in the U-District.
  • Of course, that’s if the buses even come. Because, as many have found out, if King County Metro doesn’t have enough drivers, or has some other disruption, it simply doesn’t run some buses. Not that riders would know this. On a handful of occasions, my bus app told me that the bus was just around the corner. Then it never arrived.
  • A bit of a side note: There seems to be some philosophy in Seattle that bikes and cars should compete with each other on main routes.

Jobs, etc.

Let’s take the experience of fellow MyNorthwest writer (and my boss) Stephanie Klein, who has tried to make the commute into Seattle from Snohomish County. One of the criteria for Seattle’s top ranking spot is “accessible jobs.” She might differ on this point.

In short, public transportation is not meant for someone who has to manage a family and a job. If you have to get your kids to school, you can forget about catching an express line.

Seattle’s transportation system gets praise, but does it deserve it?

On one occasion, she walked onto a bus at a stop and waited for it to continue along … and she kept waiting. Eventually, she found out that the particular bus line “sometimes” uses that stop. Though no one told riders this. Apparently, they have to walk a few blocks to an active bus.

Like myself, Klein also experienced phantom buses on her smart phone app — the buses just didn’t arrive when they were supposed to. In all, her commutes were two hours in each direction.

10 best cities for the Seattle commute

I regret sounding too harsh on public transportation in the Seattle-area. I would much rather have what we got than nothing at all. And I should note that just about any other option is better than driving in the city (which doesn’t say much for Seattle driving). I’ve had much better results using options that are not related to King County Metro — bikeshare, rideshare, LimePod.

But the best? Seattle has has considerable room for improvement. We have a long way to go.

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Opinion: Sorry, but Seattle does not have the best public transportation