How Seattle Is Turning Around Its Public Transit System

Written by DDS Wireless

December 21, 2018

The city of Seattle is one of the most popular and fastest growing cities in the United States. Ranked among the top four cities for population growth for five consecutive years, Seattle has grown by more than 114,000 residents since 2010. Given the city’s strong economy, concentration of high-paying jobs in the tech sector and high quality of education and healthcare, it’s no surprise that the city is growing. But what impact has this popularity had on Seattle’s transportation system? And how are officials responding to the city’s resulting transit challenges?

Growing Pains

As a result of rapid population growth, Seattle’s roads have become notorious for congestion. According to the Global Traffic Report Card, of the top 25 most congested American cities, Seattle comes in at number nine. When UPS, an innovator in the transportation space, is looking at abandoning vehicles in favour of tricycles to avoid congestion in the city, there is obviously a problem.

Seattle has taken a number of different approaches to deal with their traffic troubles. First and foremost is getting people out of cars and into public transit. In most American cities, transit ridership is on the decline. Not so in Seattle, which has seen the highest rate of transit ridership increase compared to all other major metropolitan areas in the U.S. Here are three simple strategies that King County Metro, Seattle’s public transportation agency, is using to get drivers out of their cars.

1. Prioritizing Service

Making transit faster is a strategy that Seattle is using to encourage commuters to hop on board. One way to accomplish this is by way of a “transit mall”, an approach in which certain roads are entirely closed to regular traffic access, allowing buses to have free reign of streets without fighting congestion and traffic lights. When buses have priority over cars, they move faster, and commuters are much more likely to choose transit over their personal vehicles.

2. Increasing Access

Flashy, expensive solutions like high-speed rail lines can garner a lot of attention, but these solutions are geographically constrained and serve a limited number of people. In Seattle, King County Metro has instead focused on investing money into expanding frequent bus service to a wider geographic area. For example, between 2015 and 2017, the number of Seattle residents who live within a 10-minute walk of a bus stop with service that arrives in 10 minutes or less increased from 25% to 64%. It’s a straightforward approach that has been proven to work, and is especially important when addressing transit deserts where commuters simply don’t have enough access to regular and reliable transit.

3. Getting the Public on Board

Funding is a major challenge for many transit agencies. In the face of increasing budget cuts, how can transit agencies provide a level of service that meets the needs of customers? Seattle has taken the bold move of asking voters to fund transit improvements with tax increases. While asking the public to voluntarily fund transit can be a recipe for failure, as shown in cities like Nashville, Tennessee and Vancouver, British Columbia, the voters in Seattle have approved multiple tax increases to fund transit. Seattle’s transit agency successfully made the case to voters that transit is an essential service, rather than an optional one. Even private companies like Amazon are getting behind transit in Seattle, having recently contributed $1.5 million.

Following Seattle’s Lead

Transit agencies in both the U.S. and abroad should look to Seattle as an example of how to provide effective transit in the face of growing needs and complexity. Whether or not your city is facing a population surge as disruptive as Seattle’s, transit agencies need to take the following steps to ensure their transportation offerings appeal to all travellers:

  1. Prioritize transit: make transit the number one choice for commuters by giving buses priority over cars.
  2. Think smart, not big: you don’t necessarily need to complete massive infrastructure projects to increase your customer base. Simply rolling out more frequent bus services to a wider area of the city is a proven method to boost ridership.
  3. Get creative with funding: transit agencies need to be a champion for the service they provide. Communicate clearly, and don’t be afraid to ask for support.

The best part about Seattle’s methods is that they are transparent and achievable. Transit agencies need to remember to stay flexible and creative, and to focus on what works best locally. With this mindset, and the timely lessons coming out of Seattle, public transit is sure to become a more popular choice in your jurisdiction.

See how DDS can take your transit service from good to great. Leverage our apps to make your transportation offerings best-in-class.

Image: Shutterstock / Ceri Breeze

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