Almost every major U.S. city has seen years of decline in bus ridership, but Seattle has been the exception in recent years. Between 2010 and 2014, Seattle experienced the biggest jump of any major U.S. city. At its peak in 2015, around 78,000 people, or about one in five Seattle workers, rode the bus to work.
That trend has cooled slightly since then, but Seattle continues to see increased overall transit ridership, bucking the national trend of decline. In 2016, Seattle saw transit ridership increase by 4.1 percent—only Houston and Milwaukee saw even half that increase in the same year.
Bus service is crucial to reducing emissions in the Seattle region. According to King County Metro, which serves the region, nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions in Washington state come from transportation and its operation displaces roughly four times as many emissions as it generates, by taking cars off the road and reducing traffic congestion. The public transit authority has been recognizedfor its commitment to sustainability and its bus fleet is projected to be 100 percent hybrid or electric by 2018.
So what exactly did Seattle do to improve ridership in a city famously clogged by cars? Three people with different positions in the Seattle transit community: Advocate, official, and bus driver, weigh in.
On Third Avenue, where Adelita Ortiz’s routes usually begin, her only traffic obstacle is a stream of other buses traveling down the road. The street blocks off cars and becomes a transit-only corridor during the morning and afternoon rush hours (private vehicles are supposed to turn off after a block on the street). Third Avenue is one of a few transit malls in the United States that restrict private automobile use. Only Portland’s streetcar line or Boston’s Silver Line bus tunnels come close to dedicating as much space to public transit as Seattle’s arterial rush hour north-south escapeway.
Ortiz says that not only helps buses to move faster, but it allows drivers to execute a technique called “the weave”—where the buses take turns picking up passengers on the side of the road. Since the buses pick people up at only some stations, they stagger when to yield the right of way, while other buses behind pull over to pick up more people. Without cars in the way, it’s easier for buses to trade off pick-ups.