North of Seattle: Snohomish County’s “Swift” Bus Rapid Transit

Swift_bus_tn If you think on-street Bus Rapid Transit can never be acceptable, have a look at the new “Swift” project in Snohomish County, the suburban area north of Seattle.  The local agency, Community Transit, has a slick but very informative presentation, including a great video, here.  People who think BRT can never be good transit really need to watch the video.  It’s definitely a sales pitch, but it gives a good overview of the system and shows some of why BRT projects have such appeal, especially in outer-suburban areas where densities don’t support rail, at least not yet.

Swift embodies most of what BRT can be, toward the higher end of the “look and feel” quality spectrum, even without fully exclusive lanes.  There’s an intention to add some exclusive lanes in the future.  The political reality, especially in postwar suburbs, is that you often can’t win the battle for an exclusive lane until you’re already showing some ridership outcomes.  There is some modest signal priority.

Swift runs for about 16 miles mostly along Pacific Highway, which is a classic suburban strip-development boulevard.  The north end of the corridor is Everett, which mostly developed before World War II and thus has the kind of inner city fabric that people love to gentrify.  The south end is Aurora Village on the county line, where you can connect to King County Metro services (also increasingly fast though not at Swift’s standard) to get on into Seattle.  (Swift is not the meant to be the main service for travel all the way from Everett to Seattle; Sound Transit express buses do that, supplemented by the very occasional commuter train.)

Because it’s the old highway, Pacific Highway has a lot of relatively old car-oriented development.  Before the parallel Interstate 5 was built, anyone driving between Seattle and Vancouver BC went down this street.  This classic old highway from early in the car era offers quite a bit of redevelopment opportunity.  It will be interesting to see if anything happens around stations in response to the sudden increase in mobility.

SwiftschematicSwift looks like an important step in the ongoing effort to reduce the experiential and practical differences between bus and rail.  It has the usual BRT best-practice facilities such as stations of light-rail quality, sleek articulated buses, etc, but it also does a couple of important things that are not yet common practice in the bus industry, notably:

  • Impressively wide station spacing:  Only 12 stations on the 16 mile route, and several of those are clustered in Everett.  On the long suburban part of the line station spacing is as wide as 2 miles.  Obviously parallel local service is still needed, but it means Swift can focus on fast service between the major nodes, including the transfer points.
  • Off-board “proof of payment” fare collection, which reduces dwell by allowing passengers to board and alight all doors.  A few other BRTs do this, such as the Los Angeles Orange Line, but it’s been very slow to develop on bus-based services.

The presentation looks good, the choices they’ve made are understandable given their environment, and I wish them the best.

Graphics: Community Transit

9 Responses to North of Seattle: Snohomish County’s “Swift” Bus Rapid Transit

  1. Alexander Craghead November 29, 2009 at 4:38 pm #

    Swift shows how flexible the term BRT is. This is more akin to an all-day express bus, but with slightly slicker looking equipment.
    Much as I’d love light rail in my neighborhood, I could see supporting something like this. I could also see this being a more politically palatable service upgrade for neighborhoods fearing the redevelopment that often accompanies streetcars.

  2. Cullen November 29, 2009 at 9:16 pm #

    I’m not familiar with the traffic patterns of the neighborhood… but I’ll assume there is heavy car traffic during the day.
    How exactly do the ensure that buses run on-time? What sort of transit priority measures are in place to make this a viable alternative to cars?

  3. Joseph E November 29, 2009 at 10:39 pm #

    Jarrett, do you feel the wide stop spacing is a benefit? I was inclined to think the stations are too far apart. In comparison, commuter rail stops every 1 to 3 miles in most places (well, on the East and West coast), but always has an exclusive right-of-way, crossing gates, and high-speed operation between stations.
    BRT should be capable of accelerating faster than diesel commuter trains, and obviously can stop much faster than even light rail. So why not have stations every 1/2 to 1 mile? It is much easier to walk 5 or 10 minutes to a station than walk to a local bus stop and transfer a mile down the road.
    If the top speed is 55 mph and you have 2 mph/second (1 meter/second) acceleration, and 20 seconds stopped at each station, each station you add only adds 1 minute to the total trip time. You could have twice as many stations and still have a total trip time of 50 to 57 minutes (compared to 38 to 46 minutes now). Meanwhile, twice as many places along the route would be within a 10 minute walk.
    Another way to look at it: if stations are 2 miles apart, you could achieve an AVERAGE speed of 90 mph (150 kph) with high speed rail (max speed 120 mph or 200 kph) and 1 m/s (2 mph/s) acceleration. That would be a good reason for widely-spaced stops. But with highway speed limits, you won’t average any better than about 50 mph with 65 mph max speed.
    I am inclined to think that the cost of stations prevented more from being included in the initial system, though this is speculation on my part. Perhaps someone from Seattle Transit Blog knows more about the politics. Maybe in the future they could get better signal priority, more frequent buses, and exclusive lanes, along with in-fill stations every l/2 mile. Or perhaps there could be two levels of service.
    I would love Long Beach Transit to do this with all their routes, if they kept the stop spacing a little closer, maybe 1/2 mile. Tonight I walked 1/3 mile home with three pieces of luggage and a back-pack, while my 2 year old walked with mom, so that stop spacing is plenty close for me.

  4. Joseph E November 29, 2009 at 10:52 pm #

    There are two key characteristics that make Swift a good example for BRT:
    1) Off-board payment and proof-of-purchase, as you mentioned. Really, any “BRT” that requires everyone to wait in line to board does not deserve the name. I have often waited 3 minutes to board a bus at a busy stop. This improvement is expensive (due to more ticket machines, new buses, and the need for police to check tickets once a month or so), but very much worth it.
    2) High speed
    Usually, this requires signal priority, reasonably wide stop spacing and exclusive lanes in urban areas. However, Swift manages to average 20 mph or so by running in mixed traffic on a major surface highway, about the same average speed as a light rail line in its own right-of-way with stops every 1/2 mile
    3) Good advertising
    The website and videos are slick and user-friendly. This should make a big difference.

  5. Jarrett at November 30, 2009 at 12:23 am #

    @ Cullen.  Good question.  I note an intention to develop transit lanes, but have no details.

  6. EngineerScotty December 7, 2009 at 9:23 pm #

    Sadly, the spambot makes more sense than Randall O’Toole.

  7. EngineerScotty December 7, 2009 at 11:02 pm #

    Of course now that the spam post has been removed, the previous item makes less sense. Simply imagine a random list of keywords… 🙂

  8. John January 6, 2010 at 8:40 am #

    Unfortunately, as an area resident, I can’t really imagine how many people could want to go from one place on that line to another, since it stops about six miles north of the city, and the population density along the line is minimal (the highway itself is mostly lined with car dealerships). I almost used it once, but it turned out there wasn’t really a stop near my destination.

  9. John January 6, 2010 at 8:42 am #

    I guess the operative thing that struck me was when hyou said “between the major nodes”. There really aren’t any, the only ‘major’ stops are the termini, which are both park & rides.