On Saturday, I woke up early to take the light rail down to Tukwila International Boulevard Station and take the A Line of RapidRide down to Federal Way Transit Center. It was the first day of operations for RapidRide, and while I'm not nearly as wonky as the good folks at Seattle Transit Blog—read their account of RapidRide here—I am a bit of a transit nerd in that I like to try out new public transportation options as soon as they're available.
And to hear King County tell it, RapidRide is the next big thing. The A Line is the first in a series of 6 bus rapid transit (BRT) lines that will be opening in and around Seattle and Bellevue between now and 2013. (Here's a PDF map of all the lines.) The selling points: BRT runs frequently (every ten minutes during peak times, every fifteen minutes for the rest of the day, every half hour late nights, and the bus stops will be equipped with real time information about the arrival of the next bus); is more accessible for the handicapped and infirm; will come equipped with sensors that will cause traffic lights to favor the buses (green lights will stay green for longer); and all the payment is done at the dedicated bus stop "stations," which means that all three bus doors will open at every stop, supposedly solving the bottleneck-at-the-front problem Metro currently has. The stops, too, are spaced further apart—about a half-mile apiece.
The rapid part is all in theory right now. As I understand it, the traffic-light-changing technology was not up and running yet, and there were of course a lot of first-day glitches (the A Line replaces the old 174 route, and confused regular 174 riders were waiting at the decommissioned stops), which made the RapidRide trip to Federal Way Transit Center about forty minutes long. (According to schedules, the 174 took 45 minutes to do the same route.) And while the people who will depend on the A Line for their rush-hour commuting will no doubt become very good at boarding and deboarding quickly and in the pay-at-the-station style RapidRide requests, there will no doubt always be a series of confused people who will need the experience explained to them.
The bottom line is this: Except for the shiny, fancy stations at each stop, the RapidRide experience is basically the exact same as riding the bus anywhere else in Seattle. It may shave minutes off the trip—which, don't get me wrong, is important!—but it's still going to get stuck in traffic jams, it's still going to fall prey to problematic riders, and it's not going to change anyone's mind about taking the bus in Seattle. The thing that worries me is that anti-transit politicians will point to BRT as a reason why we don't need light rail service in Seattle, and that's bullshit. BRT will hopefully alleviate some rush-hour commuting problems Seattle is facing, but it should just be one item on a broader menu of options, including rail and streetcars. It's not a solution to transit problems.
Still, I really enjoyed the opportunity to spend the afternoon walking around Federal Way. Did you know that the World Championship of Sand Sculpting is going on there right now? And that the Federal Way Commons—a mall with lots sad-looking closed storefronts—has a pretty nifty arcade and a big movie theater? And that they have a creepy Mormon thrift store (side note to Mormons: I know it's your history and all, but has it ever occurred to you that making a beehive your logo sends a really disturbing message to outsiders?) And lots of Canadian geese? This kind of exploration—22 miles from my house and back, for $4, round trip—is why I think public transit is awesome.