How Seattle Avoided the Transit Death Spiral to Turn Around Its Bus System

Since it raised funds to expand transit service in 2014, Seattle has made big strides where other cities have mostly lost ground.
Since it raised funds to expand transit service in 2014, Seattle has made big strides where other cities have mostly lost ground.

In 2014, King County Metro was facing a revenue shortfall, thanks to declining sales tax receipts following the recession.

But unlike other cities, Seattle didn’t settle for service cuts, which reduce ridership and lead to further cuts — the dreaded transit death spiral.

Instead, Seattle voters invested more in transit by adding $60 to vehicle registration fees and increasing the sales tax by 0.1 percent. Not long after, sales tax receipts roared back to life as well. As a result, Seattle was able to improve bus frequency, expand service hours, and offer cheaper fares to young people and riders with low incomes.

The measure was called Prop 1, or the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD). Stephen Fesler at the Urbanist explains how it paid off:

In the first year of the STBD, the city invested the equivalent of 270,000 annual service hours into the Seattle bus system. That was spread across 68 routes, boosting frequency on a lot of routes and restoring others (e.g. Route 47) that had been eliminated. Service hours also went toward reducing crowding at peak times, improving on-time performance, and making routes more frequent when demand is highest. The STBD has put a particular emphasis on some core routes such as the 5, 10, 48, and RapidRide C and D Lines. Annual service hours paid by Seattle now total more than 308,000, an astounding sum that in a number of cases is backing more than 30% of the total service hours for city bus routes.

Transit ridership is seeing healthy growth in Seattle. A significant amount of this has been on frequent transit bus routes and light rail. In fact, bus-based transit has seen some of the largest gains on the RapidRide C, D, and E Lines. The RapidRide C Line, for instance, has experienced a 40% growth in ridership since 2015. This growth was partially induced by 71,000 additional service hours (21% of the new service hours funded by the STBD in 2015-2016) that were showered onto the RapidRide lines during the first year of STBD investments. The net result was more frequency and higher ridership. But another feature of ballooning transit ridership has been led by light rail with more than 100% growth since 2015. Two new stations in Capitol Hill and at the University of Washington are the primary drivers of that.

Without that investment at that key moment, says Fesler, Seattle may not have managed to reduce drive-alone rates to downtown to an all-time low. Seattle is succeeding at the same time other cities have lost ground. Cities like Washington, DC could learn a thing or two from this.

  • TakeFive

    Seattle has Boatloads of money – more power to them. Not just STBD but in 2015 Seattle passed the $930 million Seattle Moves prop. ST2 provided the funding for the Rapid Ride routes which was a big part of their redesigned bus network. To their credit these routes have All The Enhancements except dedicated lanes aside from a few blocks downtown on two nearby streets..

    It’s amazing the difference being flush with transit funding can make. 🙂 Sadly I’m hearing stories of some yuge escalation for project costs.

  • cooljames

    Hmmm. This is really a glass-half-full perspective on how the city reacted to poor funding in the early 2010’s. Lots and lots of regional bus lines were cut, and the Rapid Ride buses replaced them to provide what by and large amounts to the only way to get from home to work. Not all bad, but far from all good.

    What do we have now vs. what we had then? Buses are crowded as hell. It’s unreal and there’s no end in sight. Also, the legacy system provided a lot more geographic coverage with a scheduled approach. Your neighborhood’s line came by once an hour, but you knew to be out there. Now, we have the Rapid Ride system where the buses come every 10 to 30 minutes, and you can’t predict when. In a town infamous for rain, you wind up spending a lot of time outside in the weather. Also, I’d bet that more than half of the savings that Metro retrieved by cutting regional lines now goes to personalized transport for those with disabilities.

    The quoted story reads like a self-assessment of the King County Metro system, with no rider impact or feedback mentioned.

  • Steven E. Callihan

    They’ve sacrificed coverage somewhat for frequency, and eliminated stops to speed up service, with commuters favored over the elderly and disabled, who might find themselves out of reach of a convenient route or stop (with ACCESS their only resort). Of course, with housing inflation as it is, many will be run, er hobbled, out of town, anyway, to be replaced by even more Amazon “brogrammers” and their ilk. Hopefully as light rail expands, with more north-south commuter routes converted to east-west feeder routes, coverage will be re-expanded (bring back the #17!).

    I, being able, although a senior, can live quite happily without a car, with frequent cross-town service (the #44) just a block away. I no longer have a one-ride trip to Downtown (the #17), but wouldn’t have much need for it, since I’m retired.

  • Drew

    The RapidRide buses still run on a schedule; it’s just that traffic has gotten quite a bit worse so schedule reliability may have gone down. Luckily all the RapidRide buses have GPS tracking so you can check the OneBusAway app (or Google Maps) to see how far off schedule the bus is and plan when to arrive at the stop!

    Ideally Metro should run both express and local service along arterial routes, the Express with sparsely-spaced stops for commuting and long-distance trips, and the Local serving all stops for those with reduced mobility.

  • Southeasterner

    Metro may end up being victims of their own success.

    Buses at capacity often pass stops leaving people to wait for the next bus or the next bus or the next bus…sometimes 30+ minutes until a bus with room actually makes it to your stop. How do you schedule your work day around that?

    There is so much pent up demand but instead of introducing higher peak rates and providing the additional service we all want to have, they are introducing a flat fare that will just make the problem worse, as people using the system more who travel greater distance will have more incentive to use transit and have first access to the seats and standing room we need closer to downtown.

    It’s only a matter of time before Google and Uber introduce a private bus/shuttle solution on the core routes that are so poorly under served during the peak periods.

  • Henry

    I’m not sure if you take the bus in Seattle, but bus routes downtown are designed so that that never happens. For example, a big choke point for Buses terminating downtown and heading out or buses going through downtown is 3rd Ave, which is Transit only during Peak hours. Even though there is a stop every block (or more often), a single bus route will only stop a few times (less than 5) on the 15+ block stretch. This ensures travelers within downtown are limited to not all get on one bus and the bus isn’t stopping often. There’s only been two times I’ve been on a bus in Seattle in which they closed the doors in someone’s face or drove by a stop, and those two times were when the Seahawks were in a big playoff game, and on a bus route that went by a ~1500 high school (the next bus was coming in less than 10 minutes and was dedicated for the school, but our low-capacity bus got there first, so all the kids crammed in the tiny thing).

  • Henry

    Yes, and the RapidRide buses always come every 15 minutes or less (down to even every 6 minutes per line). The whole point of them is that you can just show up and get on a bus within 15 minutes, you can still use schedules though. Guess what? The City is getting more populated, commuter buses get crowded. You can’t even possibly make an argument that RapidRide is worse than an hourly service, but RapidRide never replaced hourly services, so this comment (the original one) is a gross misrepresentation and exaggeration.

  • disqdude

    The “Google and Uber” shuttles you speak of is a service called Chariot, which is now owned by Ford. Considering its rocky road in San Francisco and the failure of all its competitors, I would not get my hopes up for a glorified jitney service anytime soon. After all, if public transit were a profit-making enterprise, it wouldn’t be public transit.

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