Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Walkable Tacoma: The Problem of Mass Transit

It's no secret that I like mass transit. I ride the Link 2-4 times a day (I live at one end and work at the other), and I would be very happy to see it extended into other areas. Most months I buy a bus pass to cut down on my need for quarters (I'd rather hoard them for laundry, anyway) and to get me to out of range locales (comic book store, clothing stores, parental homes, etc). If it weren't for Sound Transit express buses I wouldn't have been able to take Greek class last year, or go to a meeting at the Bellevue library a couple weeks ago. These services fill a need that exists in our current society, and I hope they continue to expand.


There are certain flaws in this paradigm that need to be addressed. Mass transit, while improving congestion, reducing pollution (theoretically), reducing oil use and providing outward mobility for a variety of carless populations, does NOT fundamentally build a sustainable transportation network.

Public mass transit is designed for one thing: to allow people to function in a car-based geography without a car. This is important because that's what we live in. Our cities have, for the last century or so, been designed to cater to the automobile. The farther people are able to travel, the farther out a retail company can build their outlet, away from the big city where the land is cheaper (key example: Ikea... no way it would be in Renton if they thought that distance would be prohibitive to Seattle and Tacoma residents).

So governments see the congestion caused by the cars and the rising gas prices and decide to add a bus route, or build a commuter train. And we pedestrians and environmentalists are happy to see progress being made, and fail to recognize that it is a fundamentally temporary solution. The core problem with a highway-centric economy is not that pedestrians can't get far enough. It's that things are too far away. That may sound like the same thing, but it's not. Pedestrians shouldn't need to be forced into highway economy, any more than drivers should be forced to give up their cars.

Instead of trying to make it easier for the population fit into the design, we should be trying to make designs that fit the population. Adding buses runs into the same problem that adding lanes does: it becomes a war of escalation rather than compromise. We are continuing to say to businesses, urban planners and landowners "You don't need to change what you're doing. We'll just keep figuring out more ways to move more people longer distances." And so we have retail stores flooding remote malls and shopping centers and a barren downtown. A lot of people can walk to downtown, or drive there and walk the length of it, but the stores aren't there, because farther away is cheaper and the geography is no obstacle. (And yes, I know that some of the blame for high downtown rents goes on out of town landlords, but I suspect that even a reasonable rent in Tacoma's downtown is going to be trumped by a location out in Puyallup or Lacey or Kent).

Are buses better than cars? Certainly (as long as people use them... a bus with one person on it as a horrible waste of resources in many different ways). Could I do all the things I like to do without them? No. I just think that it's important for the city planners and the businesses to realize that, at a fundamental level, mass transit is a part of the same problem; that they will run into all the same issues of rising gas prices that car-owners do; and most importantly, that the real answer is not finding new ways to pile it on, but designing within a paradigm that will allow us to scale back motorized transit of ALL forms, personal or public.

In practical terms... given a choice between a bill that spends our tax money to extend the Link to places that I go with frequency (up 6th, out toward the mall and so on) and a bill that spends that same money to do whatever is needed to give us a functional downtown in the area where the Link already runs, I would go for the latter in a second. The goal shouldn't be to get us to other places that have what we want, it should be to put what we want where we already are. So says me, anyway. I know that there are at least three people who will read this and have opinions on this, whether similar or different, and I'm curious to hear what they are.


Jen said...

I don't know if I really disagree all that much about long-distance mass transit. Although, for now, with such a lack of well-paying jobs in Tacoma it is a necessity if we want more people out of their cars.

Where I think Mass Transit can and should be a number 1 priority, however, is in connecting the central, walkable neighborhoods within Tacoma's core. I'm talking about Proctor, Lincoln, McKinley, areas like that, that are a very reasonable distance from what should be the employment center, downtown. There is no reason it should take a 30 minute wait to get a bus from downtown to the University of Puget Sound.

Theoretically, we have a large population of pedestrians living there right now, who'd like to be able to get outside the 6th Ave bubble from time to time.

Yes, we should have groceries, services, schools, etc, all located within walking distance. At some point though, going downtown ought to be desirable, not just for fun but for the economic health of the city. The neighborhoods are there, like spokes on a wheel, just waiting for that connection.

frinklin said...

Interesting points. I have only one question:

Greek class? Seriously?

izenmania said...

@frinklin: Seriously. Four semesters of Ancient Greek at PLU, then I spent most of last summer getting up at 6AM to catch three buses to the University Village area for a Conversational Greek class. And guess how much Greek I know now... little to none. Such is stuff.

@Jen: I think you're right on most points. Even if I had a comic book store down the street, and could walk to all my major weekly points of purchase and my job, I think I'd probably go a bit nuts if I couldn't get on a bus and go SOMEWHERE different, at least some of the time.

The biggest negative issue in building transit is, as you say, the long range: the pieces of the system that allow for shopping centers in the middle of nowhere that require you to leave local businesses behind, rather than integrating thoroughly with them.

I guess where I disagree with you most is in the belief that the Tacoma bus network is all that weak. I think that a half hour difference plenty. Just look at the bus use. Yes, the 1 route on a weekday at 5:30 is packed to the gills, but that 16 bus that goes from UPS to Downtown, timed for you to make it to UWT for the talk, would have been nigh empty, MAYBE topping out at 10 people for some fraction of the journey, but probably mostly 4-5 (I'm basing this on my experiences with the 11, so let me know if me guesses on the 16 are way off). To me, it seems like a massive waste of resources to up that bus, or any of the others that traverse primarily residential neighborhoods, to every 15 minutes. Yes, it might have encouraged you to take it on that occasion, but would it really up the ridership that much? or would it be those same five people, spread across two buses instead of one? A bus is fundamentally more expensive and less clean to run than a car... more weight, bigger engine, more stop and go driving. It gains its greatest benefit when it is full, which means sacrificing a bit of punctuality.

Part of it is just that I've gotten used to the way it is. I almost never spend half an hour waiting at a stop. If I'm going to be using a stop consistently, I find that most buses in Tacoma are reliable to within about five minutes either way. So I plan my day ahead, to best use that time so it's not spent waiting.

The car culture, I think, has gotten people used to leaving when they are ready. To function with buses, it's more about being ready when it's time to leave. Which I know is counter to what I said in the post about changing the system to fit society rather than molding society to fit the system, but... it's much easier to look at the geography of a community and figure out where something should go than it is to look at the schedule of a community and figure out when something should go.


That was way longer than it needed to be. The short version is that the half hour gap is there because people don't use that bus enough to merit it being more frequent. They'll up the bus schedule when the bus is too full, which I genuinely think is the most responsible course, considering the costs of running a bus up and down the hills of Tacoma.

Which of course brings it back to... make downtown a place people want or need to go, and they'll start riding the buses there more often.

Jen said...

Infrequent buses work much better when you are in a position to control the timing of your day. Add in variables like kids or express bus connections and it just doesn't work that well anymore.

I do think ridership on the 16 would increase if:

- they upped the frequency to 15 minutes
- they actively promoted this fact to the populations that would use it: UPS, TCC students, and residents along the route.

With gas approaching $4 a gallon, people will use it.

My route is just one example, I'm sure there are others (like the 11) that are similarly ripe for such a move if Pierce Transit will seize the day and the public will fund it. Not enough to just do it though, you have to have that communication element and it doesn't have to mean traditional expensive advertising, either. UPS students get welcome packets, I'm sure. TCC must have some mechanism for communicating with it's students. This is information I would think they would want to put out there.

Anonymous said...

The most intelligent comment that I can think of right now is that it is tough to catch a bus when you are trying to gauge how long it takes to walk a mile including waiting for lights, possibly stopping to chat with a neighbor or re-tie a shoelace. For me, it is 1.3 miles to catch the #13, 1.2 miles to catch the #16, and .8 to catch the #1. Of course, I can walk half of a mile to catch the #10 and transfer at TCC to get downtown. This only takes an hour (plus the walk). Maybe I should forget about downtown and start working on making Westgate MUC and Tacoma Narrows MUC more walkable and liveable.

izenmania said...

Ah yes, the one thing that I meant to put in, and then forgot about as I got wrapped up in rambling (as I often do) is that I do recognize the fundamental difference between you and I, which is that as a functionally single guy my schedule is dependent on me and no-one else.

As far as express bus connections... it's just a matter of planning for it. And yes, you do have to wait in between, but most people, if they plan ahead, have things they can be doing. For example, I actually misspoke above... my trip to Greek classes in Seattle was four buses, not three... the 57 from where I lived at the time to downtown, the 594 up to downtown Seattle, the 72 to UW, and the... something... over to U Village. So there was a lot of time on the bus, and all told about 30-40 minutes of waiting at various stops. Fortunately I was going to class, so I had studying. I just made a point of doing things that I could do at other times AT other times, and saved things that work on the bus, knowing that my range of activities there was limited. It's all just a bunch of little adjustments to make a schedule work efficiently around a bus lifestyle, all of which unfortunately rely on you having the power to make little adjustments, which is much easier when you're a lonely hermit like me :)

That said... I think we're just going to disagree on this one. I don't think it matters how often buses go from UPS or TCC or wherever to downtown if downtown isn't a place people want to go. Routes like the 16 and the 11, since they don't travel major rush hour lanes like 6th Ave, Bridgeport, etc. just don't get that kind of traffic. Most of them are operating under capacity as it is, and though it may up the ridership somewhat, to be a practical move it would have to at LEAST double the number of riders, preferably more so to bring each bus closer to being cost effective. And I just don't think that will happen. There are certainly marketing steps that can be taken as well, but I still don't think it will be enough without making the other end of the route a viable destination.

izenmania said...


That's about frequency of use more than anything. I couldn't tell you off the top of my head how long it takes me to walk a mile, or what precise distance it is from one point to another, but any bus that I use frequently I know simply out of habit how long it will take me to get there, whether it's leaving at 7:41 in the morning to catch the downtown Link at 7:49 (by my watch) to be at work by 8, or leaving my apartment right when the 1 is scheduled to leave downtown so that I get to my stop with minimum wait time, or leaving my office 7 minutes before the 11 leaves the T-Dome station if I'm going to catch it at 24th and Pacific to go to my dad's house. Since it is my primary mode of transportation, I just know from experience, even factoring in lights, just as many people with cars can tell you approximate drive times on routes they travel often.

The lonely hermit thing mentioned above also helps... I don't have friends among my neigbors, so I don't have people to stop and talk to. And when I have run into that, like when I lived in a house with friends, I find that as long as you're willing to forgo the conversation yourself, others are pretty accepting of "Sorry I can't chat, I have a bus to catch."

That said... I'm all for making the Westgate and Narrows Plaza areas a more friendly environment. They're both surrounded by pretty good neighborhoods, and could both use the same kind of love that downtown needs.

Anonymous said...

Izen, you are right of course. I guess I was just trying to make the point that a mile+ is a long way to walk to catch (or in my case, miss) a bus that comes every half hour or hour. Seems like whenever I walk to catch the number 1, I barely miss it and then it just happens to be one of those times of day when there is a 30 minute gap instead of the normal 15 and I'm sitting on a very ugly and unfriendly stretch of Sixth Ave. That bus seems to always be packed. If that one route could run consistently every 15 minutes all day (and into the late night) it would help.
I guess that one of your main points is that if I rode more often, I'd be more familiar with my walking pace, the routes and schedules, and would eventually start to catch buses instead of miss them. This is very true. But the learning curve is frustrating and my little car is oh so convenient.