Thursday, December 20, 2007

When your bus breaks down, 11-8-2006

I wrote most of this on the bus more than a year ago, but had not previously published it anywhere.


My bus was late again today. Not just a few minutes late, as is often the case, but more than fifteen minutes late. Under normal circumstances, when I can't see a bus coming, or when I know I have extra time, I will often walk up the bus line to the next stop, opposite to my direction of travel, to get a little extra exercise and also to increase the chance that I'll get a seat. Today I walked 3/4 of a mile where I found my bus, stranded, with a crowd milling around outside it. A motorized scooter and its operator were sitting on the bus' wheelchair lift, which had broken down partway up. The bus driver had called for assistance. Several more minutes passed. The next bus came along, and though it was already full, it accepted a dozen more passengers, to the point where it was so overfull that a woman at the back door screamed to prevent a man from boarding behind her.

A Metro supervisor arrived in a maintenance van, opened up a panel on the side of the bus, and began working on the lift. The hydraulics remained locked up, but a manual crank was available, and after a few minutes the supervisor was able to flip down the barrier behind the scooter, so that it could be backed off the lift. Then he stowed the ramp and the remaining 30 passengers boarded, including a large group of students traveling together. The next bus would be along any minute, half an hour after the ailing bus should have left this stop, but I boarded it anyway. It would be unable to attempt to pick up any more wheelchair passengers, of course.

What equipment or procedures could have been in place to prevent an occurrence like this one? For starters, the likelihood of a lift breakdown would have been greatly reduced in a low-floor bus, which King County Metro has been already been phasing in (though not on my route, yet). In a low-floor bus, a ramp is all that's needed to bridge the several inches in height difference between the curb and the bus floor -- the wheelchair lift is almost unnecessary. This hastens boarding under all conditions as well as reducing the chance for a breakdown like this one. Some other transit technologies like light rail and Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) have an even better solution: a vehicle floor at the same level as the station platform, though a raised curb at every bus stop -- a boarding platform of sorts -- would accomplish the same thing. However, on buses a ramp or lift would still be necessary, since buses cannot reliably stop close enough to the curb to ensure that the ramp wouldn't be needed. PRT would have the additional benefit of being able to carry a larger number of wheelchairs and scooters (and bicycles) -- one per vehicle, with a vehicle going by every few seconds -- than trains or buses could, as space is limited on buses and trains for wheelchairs, bicycles, or motorized scooters -- buses are generally limited to two or three per vehicle.

A PRT network would have the additional benefit for all passengers of not requiring transfers, and of nonstop travel, but these benefits would be particularly great for disabled passengers, for whom every transfer -- and every delay -- has a disproportionate impact.

The European Commission has now committed major funding to PRT development, with systems being built in London and planned in Rome, with test tracks being built all over the world. When the mobility benefits of PRT are considered alongside its tremendous energy efficiency (2-4 times more energy efficient than buses, trains, or cars), it's a wonder that PRT systems aren't being more carefully considered in the Puget Sound region, or in all but a few other locations in the United States.

Monday, December 10, 2007

An early transportation-related Christmas gift

Sometime over the past few months, my lovely wife must've overheard me saying how cool it would be to get a "Share The Road" license plate for my car, and last week she got me one, bringing home the temporary plate that day, with the permanent plates scheduled to arrive in the mail within three weeks. They got here three days later.

So now, in between part-time bike commuting, human-powered errand running, and riding the bus, on those trips when only a car will do, I still have a nice way of advocating for human-powered transportation and bicyclist safety without having to resort to a bumper sticker.

If you're a WA resident like me, you can get a "Share The Road" license plate just like my new one here, and it'll probably still arrive before the holidays.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Taking a bus to the airport, 12-23-2006

I wrote most of this on the bus 11+ months ago, but had not previously published it anywhere. 

I took a bus to SeaTac airport this morning. From North Seattle. It took an hour and five minutes, door to door, about twice as long as it would have taken to drive, but it saved me as much as $200.

I learned a couple things on the trip. First, I had no idea that there was a dedicated bus right-of-way in SoDo, nestled snug between railroad tracks and immediately next to the coming light rail line. In fact, I wasn't even aware that I was on such a dedicated right of way until I looked up to notice what looked exactly like finished light rail station. "Seattle already has a functioning light rail station?" I asked myself. Then I passed a sign informing me that this line would open in 2009, same as the rest of Sound Transit's Central Link line. My bus zipped down the line next to the new light rail tracks for another mile or so before one last stop at Spokane Street, then zigzagged onto Interstate 5, where I rode at freeway speed the rest of the way to the airport without a single additional stop. The bus was mostly full, which I hadn't been expecting on a Saturday morning, but most of the passengers were pulling a suitcase on wheels like I was, and in fact almost every one of them got off at the airport with me. I had no idea it would be this easy. There was some congestion at the airport exit, ironically caused by construction of that same light rail line, which I believe is intended to replace this very bus. Then I realized that this enormously expensive new light rail line would actually be slower than this bus.

My planning for this trip started on very short notice. I checked the King County Metro website's trip planner in the morning, entering the nearest bus stop to my house with the airport as my destination, then fiddled with departure times until I found one that would work pretty well. Until now I had expected to drive to the airport and park at a remote lot, then catch a shuttle bus to the airport. If I was running late, I would park at the airport itself, but that can get expensive for a 9-day trip. Heck, even remote parking can add up. I was not expecting that a bus ride would be roughly competitive time-wise with a remote-parking option, and frankly it wasn't, but it wasn't far off. It looked like the bus ride would take an hour with one transfer, while a drive straight to the airport would take about half that, with remote parking adding another 10-20 minutes. Taking the bus would add about that much more, but it would basically be a free ride. I had to try it.

I'd taken the bus to the airport twice before, a decade ago straight from my downtown office. I'd never tried it all the way from home, which would necessitate a transfer and take what I'd thought would be an hour and a half, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the bus would take a half-hour less than I'd thought, even including a 10 minute wait for that transfer plus a one-block walk between downtown bus stops.

The bus to downtown was far less than half full, which I supposed was normal for non-rush-hour travel. A woman got on a few stops after me, pulling a suitcase much like mine. She got off at the same downtown stop I did, with the bus driver telling her to turn right and walk a block to the transfer stop, which I'd already known from the trip planner. The wait turned out to be about 10 minutes, as advertised, and when I got on (with that same woman plus another man from my first bus) it was mostly empty, but it filled up quickly as we zipped through downtown and into SoDo, where I started writing this.

In light of this trip, what did I think of riding light rail instead? Well, for this trip it would probably be worse than this bus, and hardly a bargain at its multi-billion dollar price tag. For others the trade-off might be more positive, but not for me. The light rail line would usually be about 10 minutes slower, for one thing, as its route would include several stops in the Rainier Valley, whereas this bus was nonstop from Spokane Street. I say "usually" because freeway traffic was flowing freely this morning, while it might not at other times.

This led me to a thought on capacity: buses and light rail that share a roadway with cars basically increase the capacity of that roadway unless their lanes are exclusive. When they have their own grade-separated route, they can increase capacity when they don't do so at the expense of a preexisting roadway. Sound Transit's Central Link adds capacity on its new and mostly elevated route from SoDo to the airport, while buses like the one I took only do so on their short dedicated busway, though of course if buses were on the train's elevated guideway instead, there would be little difference.

For the sake of that enormous initial investment in light rail, I sincerely hope that Central Link will eventually be extended to Northgate, at least as long as much of the funding for it is coming from federal dollars. Extending it further north, much less across Lake Washington, would likely entail dumping billions more dollars down the same sinkhole, and as with the initial route between downtown and the airport, doing so might have very little benefit, especially considering that its operating cost will be a ball and chain to our region's prosperity for decades.

Light rail and buses, along with emerging technologies being implemented in Europe like Personal Rapid Transit (which will be several times more energy efficient than trains or buses), should all be carefully considered when we talk of further extensions to our existing transit infrastructure. Improved transit can increase the mobility and employment prospects of our region's low-income and disabled communitites while improving the quality of life for everyone by speeding us to our destinations while reducing congestion, energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions. By those criteria, Sound Transit's Central Link may be judged a success. But wise investments in transit can also reduce our cost of living by making automobile trips and their related fuel costs and eventual automobile replacement less necessary while not raising our costs in subsidizing transit. And by that measure, Sound Transit's Central Link must be judged a failure, since it may only be a marginal improvement over our existing bus options while costing billions of dollars, with the prospect of more to come.