A Tale of Two Cities: Vancouver, Seattle, and the Perils of the One-Seat-Ride
I hate to beat up on Seattle. I love the Emerald City, and I have lived there quite successfully without a car. But after living here in Vancouver for 4 months, I am unequivocally convinced that Vancouver offers far superior bus service. Yet it isn’t immediately clear why this should be so. Transit is everywhere in Seattle, and the five primary agencies that offer bus service (King County Metro, Sound Transit, Pierce Transit, Community Transit, and Everett Transit) cumulatively offer just as many annual service hours (5.86 million) as Vancouver’s TransLink (6.18 million).
Yet the qualitative experience of transit in the two cities is incredibly different. In Vancouver there’s just a real je ne sais quoi; I really feel like I can go car-free, put on my backpack, and walk anywhere I want and take transit anywhere I want without planning any of my journeys. The routes are intuitive, frequent, and they just work. In Seattle, even though I know I’m surrounded by options, they somehow seem indecipherable. I decided to search for reasons why. And I want to disregard the most obvious reason: the dearth of rail service in Seattle. It is very obvious that SkyTrain anchors scores of bus lines, provides a backbone and decipherable structure to the network, and delivers complete reliability. But for the purposes of this post, on a bus-for-bus basis, why does Vancouver do so well and Seattle so poorly? Daily bus-only ridership in metro Seattle – defined roughly as Snohomish, King, and Pierce counties – is roughly 530,000. Bus-only ridership in metro Vancouver is roughly 825,000. Despite offering only 5% more bus service hours, TransLink attracts 55% more ridership. How does it do this? After crunching some basic numbers, I have three answers: FREQUENCY, BRANDING, and TOPOGRAPHY.
Simply put, Seattle offers too much of the wrong kind of service. While TransLink provides 215 bus routes, the 5-agency Seattle area provides 83% more, an astonishing 395 separate routes. Of these, a whopping 37% are commuter routes without any mid-day service at all. Only 13% of TransLink’s routes (29 total) are commuter-only. With very few exceptions, in Vancouver you know you can catch any bus reliably throughout the day. While Seattle offers the commuter market a wealth of one-seat rides to the downtown core, it does so at the explicit expense of the system’s intuitiveness and its ability to compete with the spontaneity of the car.
And the problem goes deeper. Seattle has an unfortunate affection for the 30-minute headway. Even during peak hours, 50% of its routes run at 30-minute headways, compared to 30% for Vancouver. And Vancouver does even better with its busiest routes. During mid-day hours, Seattle’s bus service falls off a cliff; only 10% of routes run every 15 minutes or better, 20% run every hour or less, and as already mentioned 37% don’t run at all. At noon, 28% of Vancouver’s routes run every 15 minutes or better, and a couple dozen (such as 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 99 , 145 etc…) run 8 minutes or better. In short, Vancouver provides those along its busiest lines the ability to travel spontaneously, the crucial factor that takes modal share away from cars.
The structure and politics of transit governance in Seattle is complex and difficult to understand. For some reason, counties are the political unit of choice for transit planning, leading to 20+ transit agencies in Western Washington. Lack of coordination and excessive administrative overhead have led to duplication of services and poor regional connections. The creation of Sound Transit, a competent and impressive regional body responsible for regional planning and light rail expansion, has helped matters greatly. So has the implentation of the ORCA smartcard for fare payment, which has greatly reduced what used to be 300 different kinds of transit passes and transfer slips.
Yet difficulties abound. Each agency produces their own timetable literature, maintains different customer service centers, and offers online trip planners that offer insufficient information about connecting services (Community Transit has the best trip planner). Regional travel remains remarkably opaque, especially for tourists. Seattle offers no day-passes to tourists, and their well-intentioned Ride Free Area backfires, as confused customers sometimes have to pay when getting on, sometimes when getting off, or sometimes twice. By contrast, TransLink offers a $9 day pass, offers automated next-bus information at each stop, has realtime GPS stop announcements at every stop on every route, and keeps fares to a simple 3-zone system ($2.50, $3.75, and $5.00).
However, Seattle’s in a bind. Transit politics being what they are, with the faux-libertarian anti-transit activists always eager to stifle investment, Seattle’s compartmentalization has kept it alive. A consolidation of transit governance would leave service levels even more vulnerable to changing political winds. At least as separate entities there are more proverbial moles for the autophiles to whack. The price is a chaotic framework with mediocre service. But brand consolidation could be done without affecting the underlying funding of each particular route. Why not take the Sound Transit name, make all buses carry its livery, fare structure, etc… and distribute the proceeds to counties as necessary? Make things more intuitive for the rider!
Lastly, it is well-known that Seattle is just a physically difficult place to get around. There are huge lakes, steep hills, ship canals, and an overall dearth of flat land on which to build grids or arterials. As Jarrett at Human Transit succintly put it:
Nowhere in Seattle can you travel in a straight line for more than a few miles without going into the water or over a cliff.
While Vancouver has hydrochallenges of its own, the land itself is quite flat, especially in the densest areas. This makes grids function well, makes the city easy to understand, and allows a broader range of equipment to be used in all weather conditions (as opposed to Seattle’s blizzard nightmare of 2008).
For these and other reasons, Vancouver’s just got it. Seattle can make up for probably 80% of what it lacks through visionary planning, and if it does, its physical quirks can be charming rather than infuriating. Both cities have dedicated operators and planners, and both cities provide competent service, but Vancouver just continues to astonish me with an abundance of the one thing Seattle lacks: ease.