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.

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