All over our country, as well as all over Cascadia, transit systems are dealing with the same increasing operating and fuel costs as do individual drivers.  At the same time, those drivers are realizing the need to switch from their personal vehicles to public transportation.  This has, of course, caused an increase in transit usage, which in some cases is starting to tax the limits of these systems.  Both the Greater Seattle and Portland areas have been dealing with bus and train overcrowding recently, resulting in less reliable schedules and the discomfort of standing on the bus.

Much of our problem stems from a reluctance in the past to increase the size of our transit fleets.  The cause of this has been a lack of funding to keep up with transit’s needs, and we are beginning to see that more investment will be required.  Of course, these are lean times for all government functions, and some creative solutions may be required to solve our immediate problems.

It is notable that the recent “fuel price crisis” has done exactly what city planners have been hoping would happen for a long time.  Commuters are giving up their automobiles and switching to transit for some of their transportation needs.  In our minds, this is just what was needed to get public transit going.

Certainly we need some solutions to bolster the amount of transit available to the public.  One Seattle-based group, the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center For Regional Development, has recently distributed an opinion piece on how they think some of these problems should be solved in the Seattle area.  While on the face their arguments seem well intentioned, there are clearly some issues there that cannot be let go without question.  I would like to respond to a few of their statements:

Sometimes Metro buses don’t show up at all, or arrive far more than five minutes late, which is the system’s on-time standard. Yes, Metro buses, and those of most other local transit agencies, are overloaded and behind schedule.  We can agree on that.  We should have been foreseeing this problem years ago.  But a solution now is better late than never.

Stiff fare hikes seem a small price to pay, if Metro can figure out a way to winnow its routes and improve consistency. These folks propose not just raising fares by 25 cents, they want to see the bus fares start at $3.50 or so.  Their argument is that bus riders would still be getting a bargain and it would increase revenue.

I am wondering why, at this time when we clearly are getting more riders interested in transit, we should be doing something to give them pause and discourage them from using the transit system.  More riders bring in more revenue, so a huge increase in fares is asking these riders to pay a greater share of the transit bill.  My tax dollars have already gone to purchase these buses, just as it goes to build new lanes of freeway.  While a modest increase to cover part of the increasing operating costs may be in order, changing the dynamic in price or convenience of riding the bus should not be on the table at this time.

One of the purposes of transit, beyond that of actually getting people from point A to point B, is to encourage more people to use the system.  More transit riders translates directly to fewer cars on the road, less pollution in the air, and less costs in building new highway lanes to transport more cars from one place to another.  If what we see is true and fewer people are driving and more are taking the bus, this should be justification for taking some of the highway funds that would have built new lanes and using them to buy more buses and trains.  Our governments have had a stated goal for years of getting more people to use public transportation.  Now that they have reason to do so, we should be doing everything possible to encourage this behavior.  Including holding the line on fares.

Cut the lowest-ridership routes, let’s say the lowest one-third, and re-deploy the buses and drivers to the busiest runs, where riders are most often bypassed. On the face, this statement seems obvious.  Cut the route that few people ride and add that bus to a busier route.  This is true to a certain extent.  It is always good to maximize the efficiency of the system’s resources.  However, we cannot forget one important factor:  The smaller feeder routes are an important link in the system.  One of the reasons that some people will not take the bus is that they live a long distance from a mainline route.  These smaller routes are an important link in the chain.  They get the riders to the busier routes.  In any case, if it is easy to get to any point in the Metro area, the system will be of more use to more riders.  Many trips involve a transfer between two buses, and these are the routes that feed into the larger routes to make public transit available to all.

That being said, Portland’s Tri-Met has found that offering “Frequent Service” at extended hours of the day will encourage greater ridership.  This occurs because a potential rider is more likely to take the bus if they know that it will not be a hassle to get a bus home at any time of the day.  (Tri-Met speaks of every 15-minute service where a timetable is not required.  If you know you can just stand at the stop and the bus will come, more people will ride.)

We will need to come up with some solutions to the recent increases in transit ridership in an effort to keep the system from becoming overloaded.  In this process, we cannot lose sight of the goals we had when we started encouraging transit use for the social good.  Transit offers not only transportation.  It reduces road use, it helps reduce pollution, and it allows us to plan for better and more efficient cities.  In this time when our citizens are motivated to give transit a try, I would hope that we take steps to encourage this behavior.  It will require quite a bit of investment that we have deferred for a long time.  This is an opportunity we need to aggressively take advantage of, not snuff out.