What is the purpose of mass transit?

It seems like a simple question:  what is the purpose of mass transit?  And I have a feeling that how you answer this question goes a long way toward predicting how you’ll vote on Prop 1.

Personally, I believe that the purpose of mass transit is to move people from one place to another—between home and work and shopping and recreation, and back again—quickly, conveniently and affordably.  That’s why I prefer grade-separated solutions like rail: they’re fast, comfortable and reliable.  And I’m guessing that a majority of folks who support Prop 1 would give a similar answer.

The No folks, on the other hand, I’m guessing they see mass transit primarily serving a different purpose altogether, namely, relieving traffic congestion.  They don’t envision themselves using mass transit, but for the most part wouldn’t mind paying toward a cost-effective solution that got other people out of their cars and off the roads, preferably soon, and at the lowest possible cost.  Still, their primary concern being freeing up space on our crowded freeways, they’d prefer a more direct solution rather than paying a perceived premium for a transit system other people will use.

I think, perhaps, this may explain why the two sides so often seem to talk past each other.  One side sees transit primarily as a means toward easing traffic congestion for single occupancy vehicles, while the other sees transit commuting as an end in itself.

What do you think?


  1. 1

    thor spews:

    The purpose of mass transit is to move more people more economically and better than the alternatives.

    People who argue that Prop. 1 is better than the alternatives are putting up false comparisons. There are no other alternatives that have even a stitch of the support necessary to start happening any time soon.

    Voters should look at the proposal on the ballot and decide whether it makes sense on its own merits. Do the costs reasonably match the long term benefits?

  2. 2

    Transit Voter spews:

    Rail opponents also view a seat on a bus as essentially interchangeable with a seat on a train. Sort of like saying that a Yugo is the same as a Lexus.

    They also never acknowledge that the cost of rail includes the cose of new transportation ROW, while the cost of more buses includes no new ROW — resulting in more buses stuck in traffic.

    Of course rail opponents don’t care if buses are stuck in traffic since they themselves won’t be riding them. As noted, transit is for the other guy.

  3. 3


    Having lived in a city with a reasonably effective rapid transit system (Oakland, CA with a coordinated network between AC Transit and BART), I tend to agree with you, Goldy.

    I was able to give up owning a car, having found that the few times it would have been convenient were overwhelmed by the amount of time, money and effort involved in owning and maintaining it.

    BUT we have the problem of how Sound Transit is being promoted. It is being touted primarily as a way to reduce congestion, rather than a way to get from point “A” to point “B” quickly and easily.

    I often compare Sound Transit to BART, as I’m familiar with that system. While the actual time on the train tended to be a bit more than the drive time, once I figured in dealing with parking, fueling and maintenance, it actually became more time efficient, and economically, there was no comparison at all. My trips on BART were cheaper than the cost of parking alone.

    Companies often subsidized their employees use of BART because they found it cheaper than supplying parking.

    Not surprisingly, BART even helped in cleaning up the local bus service. Business folks found themselves occasionally riding AC Transit, and somehow, complaints from folks in business suits about bad smells, dirty seats and irregular service got more results than similar complaints from minimum wage workers.

    (There’s also the fact that business folks are more likely to complain about the conditions, and do so effectively, rather than just telling the driver that “this bus stinks!”)

    Perhaps if the proponents of Sound Transit spent less time talking about reducing traffic (which it probably won’t do very effectively, again using BART as an example) and start pointing out the advantages of a clean, fast, effective transit system, we might start getting somewhere.

  4. 4

    SeattleR spews:

    I started riding transit when I began working downtown. Simply, it was too unaffordable for someone right out of college to be able to pay any sort of parking fees on a daily basis. Transit provided an alternative, but I also see it as a lowering of your quality of life. Sometimes it would take over an hour to get to downtown from Ballard and vice versa. If I could afford it, I would drive everyday.

    Thankfully I’m working up on Capitol Hill now which has a slightly easier parking situation.

  5. 5

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    When I worked downtown, I often rode the bus because my out-of-pocket expenses were less. At the building where I worked, the parking alone was over $100 a month.

    But from there, it gets more complicated. First of all, if everyone who worked downtown drove … well, there’s just no way you could get that many cars on the downtown streets, nor are there tens of thousands of parking spaces available downtown — at any price. It just wouldn’t work. So, we’ve gotta have some type of mass transportation to the downtown employment core or this city will come to a grinding halt.

    On the other hand, when you think about building more public transportation, you can’t ignore the fact that a bus ride costs more than just the fare. About 4 or 5 times more, to be exact — and you’ll pay for it one way or another. When you think about it in these terms, mass transit isn’t so cheap after all.

    Another complicating factor is that most people will have to own a car anyway, and most of the costs of car ownership are fixed or overhead costs, so if you ride mass transit you’re still going to have 90% of the car ownership costs you had before.

    Public transportation simply doesn’t work for a lot of things. My job required traveling to locations scattered around King County. It wasn’t practical to ride the bus to those locations — travel times by bus could be 2 hours or more each way. On days I was scheduled to work out of the office, I had to drive.

    Public transportation doesn’t work if you have to take tools or materials with you to a job site. It doesn’t work for shopping if you have more than, say, 1 small bag of groceries. It doesn’t work if transit doesn’t go where you need to go, or run when you need to go there. And if when it does run, you won’t ride it if you’re worried about your personal safety.

    What it boils down to is that, after living in Seattle for 40 years, experience has taught me that mass transit is a good way to move commuters from outlying suburbs to the downtown employment core and possibly the University of Washington — but it doesn’t work for much of anything else.

    And paying higher taxes for more public transportation doesn’t save you money because you have to own a car anyway.

    For people who don’t have deep pockets, which is most of us, this makes it critical to get good value for our limited public transportation dollars. In that context, choosing the most expensive, least cost-effective, and least flexible transportation mode doesn’t make sense. And paying for it with the worst possible tax exacerbates its other deficiencies, making it even less attractive.

    For you, Goldy, light rail seems to be primarily a means to concentrate development density along the light rail corridor — looking 20 or 30 years out. I’m not against that, but as a senior citizen on a fixed income, I can’t afford pie-in-the-sky stuff like that, which won’t even come to fruition in my life time.

    Public transportation should be looked at as a transportation alternative to driving, nothing more or less. Not as a solution to global warming. Not as a growth management tool. Not as social engineering. Because it’s none of those things. It’s simply transportation. And when evaluating it as transportation, we should think in terms of whether (a) it works, and (b) is a good deal.

    We all have to go from Point A to Point B to function in society. You can go in a Ford or a Maserati. Most of us drive Fords or Chevvies because we can’t afford the Maserati. Light rail is the Maserati of public transportation, in Seattle at least, because of the extraordinary costs of building light rail here. We should be thinking buses, not light rail, because buses work better and, more importantly, we can afford them.

  6. 6

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    Anyone who thinks light rail (or more buses) will reduce traffic congestion has his head up his ass.

  7. 7

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    If voters pass Prop. 1 (a/k/a Phase 2), light rail supporters will come back for additional tax increases to pay for Phase 3 — I guarantee it.

    The only thing Sound Transit has done since last year is recycle 2007’s Phase 2 into a downsized Phase 2 to be followed by a future Phase 3 to make it look less expensive. In all other respects, it’s exactly the same costs, the same route, the same lack of parking spaces at suburban stations, and the same tax as in last year’s defeated proposition.

    Light rail makes sense where it costs the U.S. average of $35 million a mile. Here in Seattle, you’ll pay $500 million a mile for the segment from the U District to Northgage. That’s crazy.

  8. 8

    jcricket spews:

    Anyone who thinks that anything will reduce traffic congestion is fooling themselves. We can’t build our way out of it without ridiculous non-solutions (charge everyone $1 zillion/day, build 100 lane highways, have everyone on a staggered work schedule). This goes for transit too. Even countries with lots of transit have traffic + transit congestion (see Japan, NYC, London, Paris).

    But doing nothing is no solution either.

    Wake up. Every piece of shared infrastructure that serve “society” will cost more than it did in the past to build and maintain. There are more of us, materials cost more, labor costs more and we’re already fairly built-up, so rebuilding in place is going to be expensive.

    But not building or maintaining at a level that keeps up with population is a disaster in the waiting. Not taxing people at a level that keeps up with population and inflation is also a disaster in the waiting. Republicans claim there’s always spending to cut, but it’s largely (read: you won’t find real savings, just 5%) not true unless you want to further defer maintenance and needed services. See California’s constant budget crises for our future.

    We’re going to need to build more roads (or at least maintain them, fix overpasses and bottlenecks where we can, etc), more transit (rail, buses and BRT), and we’re going to have to fix water, sewer, garbage, electrical and gas infrastructure.

    This means raising taxes. We can do so regressively or progressively. Those are our two choices.

    I guess the third choice is descend into a state with crumbling infrastructure and sewage in the streets. Is that what we want?

  9. 9

    kirk91 spews:

    If only the monorail could have been built. It would have been filled with people wearing cool tshirts like Darcy Burner’s and the whole thing would have been paid for via advertising.

  10. 10

    Mr. Cynical spews:

    thor spews:
    “The purpose of mass transit is to move more people more economically and better than the alternatives.”

    I believe the purpose of mass transit is to move people more COST EFFECTIVELY than the alternatives.

    It really comes down to a finanical calculation based on PROJECTED Infrastructure Cost, Cost of Operation and Maintenance and Ridership.
    Projections are based on Underlying Assumptions. I always look first at the underlying assumptions. If those Underlying Assumptions are not reasonable or validated, all you have is a bunch of numbers on a paper. Meaningless.

    From what I have seen, that is the case here.
    Meaningless numbers based on wishful, optimism of die-hard proponents who are like little kids who want something…no matter how cost ineffective it is!!

    The Proponents need to grow-up and start living in the real world.

  11. 11

    Gordon spews:

    I always liked Dan Savage’s response on this. A monorail is convenient in and of itself. Congestion still exists. It does nothing too that end. It just allows city and state government to say you are crazy for complaining about congestion when you can just take the subway or train into town. Congestion and traffic problems are a sign of a thriving metropolis (e.g. NYC, Chicago, Bay Area, etc).

    After spending some amount of time in NYC and New Jersey both driving and taking the subway I must say I much prefer the subway and the New Jersey train system. Even if it took me the same amount of time to go from western New Jersey (Princeton area) into Penn Station whether I travelled by car or by train I would simply choose the train. Because then when I get into the city I don’t even have to think about traffic accidents, crazy cabs, or expensive parking. Believe me while driving around Manhattan can be “exhilerating” it is not something I would choose to do everyday.

    Also, I will say that the train system in New Jersey is great but the highways are awesome too. Take the New Jersey turnpike for example. They have these great middle lanes that can only be exited every seven miles or so. If you need to take a Turnpike exit there are outer lanes for that. It really is a nice system. But the train is still better if you need to get into the city from anywhere in NJ. I wish the Tacoma, Seattle, Everett, Bellevue region worked this way. Put up a center lane up I-5 the entire length from Tacoma to to Everett with only about seven exits at keys points along the way. Let the construction workers fast track from way down south to way up north if they have to.

  12. 12

    rhp6033 spews:

    I think Goldy has a valid point, but John Barrelli and Roger Rabbit do, also.

    Perhaps we could divide the voting public into the following categories, based upon whether light rail would (or would not) benefit them?

    (1) People who would use light rail regularly to commute to and from work, and would discontinue ownership of at least one car if they could do so?

    (2) People who would use light rail regularly for commuting, but would still keep their car(s) for other uses;

    (3) People who will not use light rail themselves, but are willing to vote for some mass transit which they hope others will use and thereby reduce congestion making their own use of a car easier?

    (4) People who don’t commute at all, and who won’t benefit from mass transit in any form (retired people, people in exurbs or rural areas).

    Personally, my family of four (two older adults, two young adults) has three cars, and is badly in need of a fourth. I think that’s pretty silly, but it’s currently unavoidable.

    We live in Everett, and the current bus system between Everett and Bellevue doesn’t work for me, not to mention the average weekly side-trips I have to make for my job. My wife works in Edmonds, the bus system doesn’t work for her, either (1-1/2 hours each way with two transfers isn’t reasonable for such a short distance). My daughter attends U.W. and works downtown so the bus works for her, but she needs to get to a Park & Ride, hence the need for a car for her. My son works in Everett ten minutes from home by car, but since he works 2nd shift and gets free parking, it’s hard to justify the total one-hour commute time to take the bus (it would be easier for him to walk, but I don’t like the idea of him walking home at midnight on unlit roads). My wife, daughter, and son have been juggling schedules to get by with only two cars, but it’s been difficult. My son plans to buy his own car by the first of the year.

    So for me, I’d vote for a light rail option in the hopes that someday I can use it to get to and from Bellevue, but I’d still have to have a car available for the days I need to make side trips.

  13. 13

    Brian Bundridge spews:


    That is funny that you mention that because that is the main reason why the Las Vegas Monorail is on the verge of shutdown.

  14. 14

    rhp6033 spews:

    Upon reflection, I guess I should add another category of potential voters:

    (5) Those that use cars regularly, have no intention of EVER using mass transit, and want to have special permits which allow them to use HOV lanes or other methods to avoid congestion, without having to pay for any system which somebody ELSE might use.

  15. 15

    Mr. Cynical spews:

    Roger Rabbit–
    On rare occassions like this, your brain somehow seems to kick into gear vs. most of the time it is flickering more off than on!

    Seriously, you have a great handle on this.
    jcricket is right…we need to spend money on infrastructure. But we cannot afford to make mistakes and waste money on boondoggles and excessive planning like in the past.
    However, before you salivate over tax increases, elected officials MUST review all other expenditures and prioritize spending.
    Gary Locke did a wonderful thing with his Priorities of Government. Gregoire basically shitcanned it and increased spending $8 BILLION in the face of recession.
    We need to take Gary Locke’s approach at all levels of government…even local government.

    There are differences between NEEDS and WANTS. We learned that as kids. We need to distinguish between what is necessary vs. what is desirable.

    I believe the primary role of government is to provide public safety and infrastructure. Everything else is a WANT.

    However, waaaaaaaay too many people on both sides of the aisle have strteched waaaay too many wants in to NEEDS.
    Alas, this is why we are in the mess we are in.


  16. 16

    Mr. Cynical spews:

    The market is tanking again.
    All you stocks are waaaaaaaaay DOWN.
    The only stock up seems to be the only one I currently own…WELLS FARGO!

  17. 17

    rhp6033 spews:

    Since I haven’t mentioned it on THIS thread:

    The mass transit system in Japan is really impressive. Despite a system which discourages flex time (all office in Tokyo seem to open at 9:00 a.m.), it really works, even though it’s crowded. The executive CEO and the lowest office worker stand side-by-side on the trains & monorails.

    When I got directions to take the train & trasfer to the monorail to get to another office at Ryutsu station, and they said (“be sure to get on the 9:51 monorail, not the 9:48 monorail, the earlier one is an express which will miss your stop”), I was worried because I couldn’t read the Japanese signs telling me which train was which. But I found I needn’t worry – when they said one train would arrive at 9:48 and the other at 9:51, you could set your watch by it.

  18. 18

    Marvin Stamn spews:

    3. John Barelli spews:
    BUT we have the problem of how Sound Transit is being promoted. It is being touted primarily as a way to reduce congestion, rather than a way to get from point “A” to point “B” quickly and easily.

    Tell us how mass transit would work for your real estate business?
    Would you use it? Do you use buses?

  19. 19

    Mistamatic spews:

    Quicker, easier, CHEAPER and CLEANER. If I hadn’t made it possible to work from home for the last 10 years, I wouldn’t consider driving around here at rush hour. My blood pressure can’t take it.

  20. 21

    Brian Bundridge spews:


    Between the parts falling off the silly thing, it not actually “serving” anybody or anything, plus people were bent that it was automated instead of hiring people to operate it. Most of the LV trains are now bare as people start to realize what a joke it is. The high fare cost also takes away.

  21. 22

    Mr. Cynical spews:

    18. Marvin Stamn spews:
    Tell us (John Barelli) how mass transit would work for your real estate business?

    That’s funny Marvin.
    Can you imagine John the Realtor taking out his wealthy prospects to see $1 million+ houses on Mass Transit with smelly bums??

    Like most Lefty’s Marvin, John wants mass transit for everyone else but him. He’ll still drive.

  22. 23

    MajorTom spews:

    Anti-transit activists – especially those in the Kemper Freeman camp – see transit as a social program, exclusively for the poor and infirm. (The Bellevue NIMBYs in Surrey Downs would also like you to know light rail is for dark skinned criminals.)

    Don’t take my word for it – read the words of Todd Woosley, a member of Kemper’s Eastside Transportation Association, and very active in all-things-Kemper over in Bellevue:


    “To give Kevin a little help on answering his question, transit to a large degree is a social service. It provides subsidized transportation to people that either can’t or won’t take the automobile . So if you see, you talk about medical services, if you need to get there – now if you’re having a heart attack you’re not going to wait for the bus or certainly not the train to come by and then walk where it takes. But if you’re going in for an appointment and you don’t want to drive or something, then taking the bus may make more sense. So you have ambulatory problems, you have physical disabilities, or maybe some mental disabilities that disqualifies you from a driver’s license, you know there’s a social service aspect that transit provides to the needs of the citizens.”

  23. 24

    MajorTom spews:

    One other key thing to keep in mind: most of the very active anti-rail folks in this town (from the far right and goofy left) don’t believe in the concept of mass transit at all.

    John Niles and his friends at the Discovery Institute opt for mini transit – vans, carpools, etc. Emory Bundy opts for the lowest capacity “transit” possible: Personal Rapid Transit and bikes.

    The right wing, including a bunch of Republican elected officials, and half of Kemper Freeman’s hired guns, seized on Personal Rapid Transit as their pet technology, because it was the closest thing they could find to a car.

    When Discovery Institute / Washington Policy Center hired gun John Niles tells you Vanpools should be considered “mass transit”, you know the divide is very wide between those who support effective mass transit, and those who don’t.

    Fundamentally it comes down to this: cranks of any stripe, paranoid whit middle aged conservatives, and anti-social modernity-hating lefties don’t like being around people. Rail means you gotta be around people who don’t look or talk like you and…gaaasp….occasionally interact with them.

    The experience of light rail, of course, very different from the crime-ridden stereotype Kemper’s friends would like to paint for us. Why do you think white, upscale Republican ‘burbs in Salt Lake and Denver continue to vote for the taxes needed to expand their systems? Think that’s a fluke? And how’s about Phoenix and Charlotte? Think they still hold on to the Mr. Cynical myth that “transit is for losers?”

  24. 25

    Marvin Stamn spews:

    22. Mr. Cynical spews:
    Like most Lefty’s Marvin, John wants mass transit for everyone else but him. He’ll still drive.

    Of course, that’s what makes johhny a lefty…
    His belief in the liberal plank “do as I say not as I do.”

  25. 26


    In trouble here, I am, since I agree with Goldy about everything here EXCEPT the terms. When you use the expression “mass transit” you play into the 1940s demonizing of Soviet Marxism: anything for “the masses” was threatening to the (American) social order. Substitute “public transportation” or (God forbid) “publicly shared transportation resources” or, better yet, “transit” and your arguments become more palatable. Private = selfish & bad; public = shared & good.

  26. 27

    Japhet spews:

    The greatest effect of any infrastructure investment (be in roads, sewers, rail lines, power lines, etc), is to increase the value of the properties it serves. Mass transit infrastructure like rail lines and transit stations, increase property values more intensely; they support much higher concentrations of civilization. As a consequence of high-intensity fixed infrastructure, cities develop intensely productive economies, strong communities and vibrant cultures.

    As long as we have population growth, we will have congested freeways. Freeways tend to concentrate traffic from a wide area, lead to dispersed development (sprawl) and higher transportation cost per individual.

    The debate is essentially between people who think that generating car traffic is a worthy goal of society, and those that think building vibrant communities is a worthy goal.

    And yes, every shred of science and accumulated knowledge I have points to the latter as the better investment of public funds. Also, I hate driving in traffic.