WHY DON'T more people use transit?
That's a question that leaps to mind as Seattle prepares to build a $2 billion new light-rail system at a time when public transit ridership remains stagnant.
Think of transit as a business, say experts, and look at the competition—the private automobile. A car of one's own offers convenience, privacy, and door- to-door service, plus it's surprisingly cheap to operate. The U.S. government has built a huge interstate road system and maintained low gas taxes by international standards. When adjusted for inflation, gasoline prices in this country are actually lower today than four decades ago. "I don't blame individual households—they're behaving rationally," says a public-transit planner who asked to remain anonymous. "It makes sense to buy a sport utility vehicle if gas is cheaper than it was in 1960 and there's free parking and you want to protect your family from collisions."
Factor in growth as well: In the second half of the 20th century, the suburbs and smaller suburban cities have grown rapidly as the populations of large central cities have stayed stagnant or shrunk. In 1960, Seattle had 557,087 residents, or 59.6 percent of the 935,014 people living in King County. By the 2000 census, Seattle had 563,374 residents—or 32.4 percent of the King County's population of 1,737,034. Serving these far-flung denizens of King County with transit is a far more difficult job than establishing good bus routes in the center of Seattle. "I don't know how you'd make downtown Seattle work without a good transit system," says Aubrey Davis, a former federal- transit bigwig. "On the other hand, [transit] doesn't have a lot to deal with the way Tukwila works."
Beyond that, people have just gotten used to driving. Back in 1945, when public transit accounted for about half of the total trips in this country, wartime gasoline rationing policies were still in place. With gasoline flowing again, transit's share of total trips fell to 30 percent by 1950, to 19 percent by 1955, and was in single digits by 1970. Today, transit's national share of total trips is around 4 percent. In most cities, including Seattle, there are more cars than there are people.
That doesn't mean transit is irrelevant. For instance, Seattle transit serves about 41 percent of downtown commuters and 31 percent of commuter trips to the University District. Imagine your morning commute if all those bus riders decided to drive that day. "If you took transit out of that equation, it would be an unbelievable nightmare," says Aaron Ostrom, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Washington.
AND THERE are some good trends on the transit front. In the last few years, growth in transit ridership has actually outpaced growth in auto use for the first time since the 1970s gasoline shortages. "There has been a slight increase in transit ridership," says transit consultant Preston Schiller. "At the same time, there's been a general leveling off in auto use, and the increase has been greatest in the cities with rail systems."
Which is especially good news to rail advocates. Although many major cities began building light-rail systems during the 1980s, dramatic increases in auto use meant that transit's share of total trips kept falling even as the trains rolled in new city after new city.
Why are rail systems so popular with transit planners? It's a better ride, and therefore better competition against the almighty auto. Buses have to deal with traffic tie-ups, stoplights, and other motorists and make a plethora of stops. Rail isn't necessarily that much faster, but it is more consistent and the ride has fewer interruptions.
"In a way, a rail system can help create some orderliness and transparency to a system," says Schiller. New Yorkers may know the subway lines by heart, but they'd be hard-pressed to memorize Metro's 266 routes. "I don't know anyone in our area who's walking around with the Metro map in their heads," he says.
Rail systems can also contribute to creating the increased population density that transit needs to survive. Schiller, who has extensively studied the transit systems in Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, B.C., says that when Vancouver officials proposed an extension of their elevated Sky Train system, developers expressed eagerness to build around the transit stations. When officials offered to simply expand bus service, developers couldn't have cared less. "There does seem to be something that speaks to permanence when you commit yourself to rail," he says.
What's more, both studies and experience have shown that people just enjoy riding trains. "There's a bit of mystique in the real world—which is sort of irrational in a way—but more people would think they were having a good time riding a train than riding a bus," says Davis.
However, rail isn't the magic tonic for reviving transit use, says Schiller, who supports a range of transit alternatives from vanpools to smaller buses. While the idea of free transit has been considered and discarded in Seattle, he proposes the creation of a King County transit utility not unlike the U Pass program used at the University of Washington. If every county household was taxed $3 per month and in exchange received a bus pass, Metro would receive the same amount of monthly revenues it now gets from the fare box. This would eliminate fare collection (a major slowdown on buses), end the scramble for correct change, and get people at least thinking about riding the bus.
Schiller acknowledges that this innovation wouldn't convert everyone into transit users. "If you're living out in Sprawlville," he says, "the transit pass should be recyclable."