Pierce Transit should dump the commuters.

Pierce Transit in Tacoma, Washington is a model of service planning at a small-to-medium-size transit agency. Every good idea you’ve read on Jarrett Walker’s blog, chances are Pierce Transit was doing it 15-20 years ago. Transit Centers are strategically positioned at 5-to-7 mile intervals, so that local bus transit time from one to the next is on the order of 20-25 minutes. This lets the entire network operate on a 30-minute time interval, with fleets of buses leaving every major transit point at 15 and 45 minutes past the hour. Everything connects to everything.

Alas, that network has shrunk. Historically, Washington State’s transit agencies gleaned revenue from two major funding sources, sales taxes and motor vehicle excise taxes (car tabs). Successive initiatives reduced the car tabs to 30 dollars, leaving only sales taxes. Most of the smaller Washington agencies went from 0.3% to 0.6%, Pierce Transit included. But a funding model dependent entirely on sales taxes left these agencies ill-prepared for either the great recession or the continuing shift from brick-and-mortar to online retail.

In 2011, Pierce Transit went to the voters to ask for a second tax increase, to 0.9%. (By way of comparison, Austin’s Cap Metro operates at a full 1.0%, and Houston has historically operated with an effective .75%). The increase passed handily in the Tacoma City Limits, and was a tossup in the multiethnic, inner-ring suburbs of Lakewood, Parkland, and University Place. But it was a bitter pill to the predominantly white, middle-to-upper-middle-class residents of outer suburbs like South Hill, Orting, Buckley, and Bonney Lake.

In response, PT did the unthinkable – they shrank their service area. Using the 2011 election maps as a rough guide, the PT boundaries were collapsed from “the developed part of the county” to “Tacoma and inner-ring suburbs.” Service to outlying places like Buckley and Graham was gone. The same tax increase was put on the ballot again, and failed… again. By 750 votes.

Ouch.

So now come the cuts. And I’d just like to make this suggestion: Dump the commuters.

The reasoning is fairly simple. Most transit metrics look at things like ridership per service mile, ridership per service hour, etc. Take the number of miles the bus travels or minutes it’s running and add riders. But not all route-miles are created equal. A solid local route like the 204 is the essence of simplicity. Two buses leave the depot at around 6am and head towards opposite ends of the routes. These then shuttle back and forth between the two endpoints, passing each other in the middle. At some point in the middle of the day, a van shows up from the base with new drivers. They swap out, the run continues. In practice, it’s a bit more complex, since there’s some interlining with the adjacent 410 route, but that’s all you need to run that service. Two vehicles. Four shifts. 30-minute coverage all day.

By contrast, a commuter run like the 102 from Gig Harbor to Downtown Tacoma only has four trips a day. Average headway is 50 minutes. Assuming the buses turn around in Tacoma and immediately deadhead back to Gig Harbor, this also requires two vehicles. Evening runs require three. This requires at least three drivers, working split shifts, most of which is spent deadheading. Deadhead to Gig Harbor in the morning, deadhead back to Gig Harbor to make the second am run, back to base, back to Tacoma, back to Tacoma again for second run, back to base. Between labor and O&M costs, a route like the 102 approaches parity with the 204. Except the 204 provides 15 hours of service on 30-minute headways. The 102 provides four peak-hour trips.

And it’s not like Gig Harbor people don’t have other options. The 100 local serves the same destinations, as well as a variety of educational, retail, and residential destinations in between. It’s a fairly regular fixed-route local offering hourly headways over 13-14 hours of the day. Like the 204, it takes two buses and four shifts to run. Granted, it’s a little slower. A 102 express will get you from Purdy to 10th and Commerce in 49 minutes. A 100 local with a change to the 2 will get you there in about 97. Sure, “choice riders” will balk at the doubled trip time, and probably opt to pay for parking and bridge tolls instead. But these “choice riders” are the same crew that keeps downvoting Pierce Transit’s ballot measures. Meanwhile, people who actually need the bus will just wake up a little earlier.

This same dynamic plays out all over the system. The 497 provides a convenient rush-hour connection from the Lakeland Hills development to the Sounder commuter rail, timed to meet the trains. Lakeland Hills voted against both ballot measures. So, dump Lakeland Hills, kill the 497, sell off a couple buses. The 495 serves the same commuters further south. But those guys could just wait for the next 400 to come along, so fuhgeddaboutit. The 62? The 62 is over.

Eliminating the regular-fare peak services doesn’t get you all the way there, of course. But consideration of the vote total should also guide other route decisions. In particular, South Hill and Edgewood went nearly supermajority against, so the 402 should be considered for expulsion. A rerouted 400 could abandon the 9th/Fairview routing to pick up the apartment and hospital ridership along Meridian between Downtown Puyallup and 43rd. Other rejiggerings could happen in areas that went 50-50. There’s fair amount of overlap between the 42, 54, and 56 – these could probably be rejiggered from three routes to two.

Any of these would be better than, say, a blanket elimination of Sunday service.

5 thoughts on “Pierce Transit should dump the commuters.”

  1. I’ve heard the claim made that due to the higher prices they can charge for commuter service the commuter lines are the primary moneymakers for Houston Metro.

    Have I been mislead?

    Or, is this true for Houston but not this case?

  2. That would not surprise me. Pierce Transit charges the same flat $2.00 for both locals as well as the above referenced expresses. METRO charges $1.25 for locals, while commuter expresses range from $2.00 to $4.50 depending on distance, which approaches parity with Kansai private railway operators.

  3. From what I saw in a different transit agency, commuter routes had by far the highest farebox recovery ratio of all routes, since they only have to be run in peak hours, and there were few intermediate stops for riders to get on/off at (i.e. the bus was always full of people paying the highest fare).

  4. It would make sense for the commuters to pay higher. After all, while not making sweeping assumptions, I think it would be safe to say that people in the suburbs probably have more money to spend than people inside the city.

  5. In the case of the 102, the route crosses the Narrows Bridge which is a $5.00 roundtrip toll (collected eastbound). Since there’s basically no other toll roads in the Seattle-Tacoma area, you could raise the one-way fare to $4.50 and it would be the same value proposition as every other route in the rest of the county.

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