The C is for Crank

Budget Shortfalls Pit Daytime Bus Service Against Late-Night Transit Needs

By Erica C. Barnett December 29, 2010

One of the problems with Mayor Mike McGinn's nightlife initiative, as we noted in Fizz this morning, is that one of its key planks---expanded transit service during late-night hours, after bars close---is that Metro is cutting transit service, not expanding it. There are potential solutions to this problem, but all of them involve trade-offs, and all are massively complicated---by transit priorities, questions of equity, and union considerations.

First, Metro could choose to cut routes that have been made (somewhat) redundant by Link Light Rail. As Seattle Transit Blog has pointed out, "the bulk of I-5 routes from South King County continue to run into downtown Seattle, at great cost and with a parallel Link line able to carry those people at nearly zero marginal cost." The tradeoff is that they would have to transfer at Link's Rainier Beach station, adding some time to their commutes (not to mention a transfer penalty). On the other hand, I-5 is frequently congested, making bus service on the freeway less consistently reliable than light rail.

Second, Metro could cut routes that aren't widely used. This would probably entail cutting routes to outlying areas in the middle of the day---eliminating service for people who are especially transit-dependent, like elderly retired people who no longer drive.

Both options have obvious downsides. And both highlight the fundamental debate McGinn's proposal inevitably (and probably inadvertently) stumbles into: Who is transit supposed to serve? And when transit service is limited by budget concerns, who takes precedence?

I'm torn. On one hand, it's in the public interest for government to give drunk people alternatives to driving (and potentially harming or killing others). On the other, transit systems have an obligation to serve their customers---and transit-dependent customers need that service most of all.

Ultimately, I guess I come down on the side of serving people during the day: Most people who drive to bars in Seattle's nightlife areas have enough money to pay for the occasional cab, and the existence of transit is not, itself, a deterrent to driving. (Also, McGinn's nightlife proposal includes some smart steps to encourage people not to drive drunk---including allowing drivers to park their cars at meters overnight and pick them up in the morning without penalty). But, of course, this should be a false choice: In a perfect world (or city), transit service would be frequent, go everywhere, and run 24 hours a day, and everyone would have the option of not driving any time (and anywhere) they wanted to.
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