Community Transit’s Swift BRT

As I covered in East Link Light Rail, we are big fans of the Central Link service that launched in Seattle in 2009, however we are frustrated that it will be ten years or more before we see East Link in Bellevue. A large part of the ‘pull’ we felt towards the Seattle region when we decided to move here was the opportunity to adopt a more eco-friendly and sustainable lifestyle than was possible for us in south Florida.

A major goal we set for ourselves in moving to Washington was to break the automobile stranglehold and to a very large degree we have succeeded. We left one family car behind in the sunshine state, and since arriving here we downsized our 10-year old Accord to the more economical Honda Fit. And, by living within walking distance of the downtown core, we have reduced our reliance on a car still further.

Living here is much more like my experience in England and it makes me recall the many conversations I had with people in Florida who were amazed when I told them I never possessed a driving license until I was 25 years old. They were incredulous when I explained that in England I was able to get along quite happily using public transit – it was only after I got a job in outside sales that I needed to drive.

satelliteSo what was wrong with Florida? Well, just consider this: when you drive north along US Highway 1 from Homestead to Jupiter you travel a little over 120 miles through three counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach; essentially unbroken concrete the whole way.

This urban strip stretching along Florida’s southeast coast shows up very clearly on satellite photos. One after another the cities of Miami, Hollywood, Ft. Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, Deerfield Beach, Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, West Palm Beach, etc., all blur together.  Yet, while more than 5.5 million people call this region home, what passes for public transit is pitiful.

There are three separate local bus agencies each with their own limited schedules, their own fare structures, and their own passes. There’s Metrorail in Miami, again with separate fares, and there’s Tri-Rail, the regional commuter rail service that hardly anyone can use unless they drive to a station.

There is no overall region-wide transit agency, or fare structure, or common fare collection system, and very little  coordination between the multiple agencies and transit modes. As a result, for 14 years we had to have two cars to get to and from work, and we had to drive everywhere to do anything.

Now, let’s contrast the Puget Sound region, our new home, with south Florida. The urban corridor from Olympia, through Tacoma and Seattle, up to Everett stretches around 90 miles. By latest census estimates around 3.3 million people call this region home – about half the entire state of Washington – which itself isn’t much greater population-wise than the tri-county region of south Florida we left behind. Yet, despite its smaller geographic area and smaller population, and consequently smaller tax-base, public transit here puts Florida to shame.

The four local bus agencies’ services (including Kitsap on the other side of the Sound) are fully integrated with Sound Transit regional express bus services, Link light rail, Sounder commuter rail, and Washington State ferries. An online journey planner automatically maps out schedule times and transfers. And, by using the Orca smart card, pretty much any journey from point A to point B within the region is charged as a single fare no matter how many inter-modal and/or inter-agency transfers take place. I have put this to the test and I am yet to come up with an itinerary Orca didn’t price correctly.

Link light rail expansion is perhaps the most significant long term transit initiative in our region but it is by no means the only one. In the space between Link and local bus services two other developments – namely Seattle’s Streetcar, and RapidRide BRT, are being rolled out. And these are coming much faster than Link expansion – later this year in fact, and in phases through 2013. Metro Transit will be introducing six RapidRide (as Seattle’s version of BRT will be branded) BRT lines. The first, the A Line, will be a BRT extension of Link light rail from Seatac airport running south to Federal Way. However, it is the second, the B Line, that interests us. It will run between downtown Bellevue and Redmond, serving areas we already travel to on foot, by bus, or by car. And these areas will not be served by East Link when it comes online.

When Metro’s RapidRide service starts it will not be the first BRT to launch in our region. Community Transit earned that honor by launching their Swift BRT late in 2009 along the 17 mile corridor between the far north Seattle suburb of Shoreline and Everett. Of course I had to go and check it out: so far I have ridden Swift three times; twice northbound and once southbound.

OK, so what’s my take on BRT? Well first off, a lot of stuff has been written suggesting that BRT can serve as a lower cost alternative to light rail. However, to me, using the term “rapid transit” for anything that does not have a dedicated right of way with complete separation from car traffic is a misnomer. For me rapid transit should only be applied to a mode of transport that will get you from A to B quicker than you can walk, cycle or drive. BRT, at least at this early stage of  this region’s implementation, falls short of rapid transit by my definition.

While Swift incorporates transit priority lanes along roughly 40% of its corridor, and has the ability to engage signal priority at  some intersections, it does not have a dedicated right of way, and consequently during each of my experiences, it was negatively impacted by traffic congestion.  In one instance my Swift bus was held up by a slower-moving local bus that was using the transit priority lane and stopping at the more frequent conventional bus stops along the way. The swift bus eventually pulled out into the normal traffic lane to pass the other bus – no mean feat for a 62 ft long articulated vehicle. So therein lies the problem – BRT is not true rapid transit. For that you need a fully grade-separated light rail system like Link.

Swift, however, is a huge improvement over conventional bus. The bottom line, based on my three experiences, each under different traffic conditions, is that you will not be able to drive between Shoreline and Everett along the Swift corridor any faster than the Swift bus – in fact you’ll have a hard time keeping up, without breaking some laws. Furthermore, in situations where enhanced bus service can be used to attract new ridership, particularly when funding for light rail is not available, or where ridership volume doesn’t justify the higher capacity of light rail, then investing in BRT is a smart move. For all these reasons Swift BRT earns the Paul seal of approval. I only hope RapidRide matches the  high end approach to BRT that Swift represents.

Just out of curiosity I Googled to see what similar BRT systems might be rolling out elsewhere in the US or in Europe. One of the closest matches I found to Swift is the Wrightbus StreetCar that First Group has launched in York, Leeds, and Swansea.

The StreetCar vehicle, like the Swift bus, is 18.7 m (62 ft) long. StreetCar vehicles manufactured by Wrightbus are built on a Volvo platform and have been heavily promoted in the UK – such as in this photo of a demo bus supplied to Reading Buses for evaluation.

StreetCar vehicles are making inroads in the US market as well – such as on the new ACE BRT in Las Vegas – quite a coup for the Ballymena, Northern Ireland-based company.

Here are the Swift features that I feel are most important, and I have heard RapidRide may not be planning to incorporate.

  • All stops are at dedicated stations with raised platforms for easy access to the low-floor buses.
  • Fare prepayment is by ticket machine or Orca card – no onboard fare collection to slow down the bus.
  • Bike riders roll bikes onto the bus and stow in racks inside – no delaying bus while deploying external rack.
  • Fast deploy roll-on ramp and passive restraint system facilitates quick boarding and greater independence for wheelchair users.
  • General boarding/deboarding is through all three doors simultaneously to minimize station dwell times.

Here are some photos I took during one of my trips on Swift…

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