The Transit Now initiative, overwhelmingly passed by King County voters two years ago promised to increase bus service by up to 20 percent. Some riders, however, are still feeling left out in the cold.
With on-time service at only 75 percent and bus riders frequently complaining that buses in the city are packed while others are under-utilized, transit activist Dick Burkhart felt the need to organize.
Nearly 30 transit activists, bus riders, union leaders and concerned citizens met at the Rainier Unitarian Universal Center on Fri., Feb. 1 to share frustrations and ideas about bus service in King County, and to try to find solutions.
Burkhart arranged for the group to watch the 2000 documentary Bus Riders Union, which highlights the struggles faced by riders who organized for better transit service in south central Los Angeles. Transit riders have also had success organizing in other dense metropolitan cities; the Straphangers Campaign in New York City has been instrumental in improving mass transit there.
And while few saw an immediate need in Seattle for a riders' union, many in attendance did want to see more frequent and comprehensive bus service in King County.
"When the standard is buses that stop every half-hour, it makes it extremely hard to use the bus for everyday life," said Burkhart, who would like to see bus service move toward 15-minute pick-ups.
Burkhart expressed concern for low-income, transit-dependent people in particular, because they rely on the bus to take them everywhere. "But it's not just poor people or rich people, it's a broader constituency," said Burkhart. "If we can increase service we can get more people out of their cars."
While bus ridership is up in King County by more than 7 percent in 2007 alone, many worry that the current system simply can't handle the growth, despite the promised increase in bus service through Transit Now.
And as the cost of gas continues to rise and the Seattle area's population grows, the system is likely to be stretched even further.
Transit activist Anirudh Sahni said many of the problems with transit are due to a rigid system of allocating bus service hours throughout the county. And though the city will get 20 percent more bus service from Transit Now, Sahni says it isn't nearly enough to meet the needs of Seattle.
"Even with 20 percent more service, the buses will still be overloaded," Sahni said.
Resident transit expert Carla Saulter, also known as Bus Chick, said even if there isn't an immediate need for a riders' union here, we do need to find better and more progressive sources of funding for transit in Seattle.
Transit Now is funded by an increase in the sales tax, which, according to Sahni, is an inherently unstable source of funding because it fluctuates with the economy.
Metro Transit General Manager Kevin Desmond says he understands the concerns about bus service, but that Transit Now is beginning to show positive results. "We only just started putting out new bus service in '07," he says, "and it will continue to improve."
Desmond says there will be 22 new, 60-foot hybrid buses on the road this coming Spring, and that Metro will continue to improve service on existing routes. He also says he doesn't necessarily see it as a transit failure that the buses in the city are full.
"Frankly, that's what mass transit is all about." says Desmond. "Density means that not everyone is going to get a seat on the bus all the time."
Brian Sherlock has been driving buses in Seattle for 29 years and currently drives the 66 route from Northgate to the ferry terminal. "My bus is usually full up to the stairs," he said.
Sherlock, who is also an executive board officer of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 587, said that although any improvements in bus service are necessary and welcome, he sees the current solution as shortsighted planning.
"There's no excuse for packed buses," he said. "It's a sign of waste that service is not being provided where it is needed."