The Bus Has Never Been Such a Great Value

The last time I flew out of Seattle, last week to visit family for Thanksgiving, I opened the Lyft app on my phone. For the roughly 18-mile trip to the airport, I was quoted $73 for a basic ride or a premium “Lux” car. More luxurious “black” cars were $90 or $107. None of the rates included a tip. Then, at the bottom, a little section labeled “transit” suggested that I could instead take a bus to a light-rail train to the airport for $3. The choice for me was clear.

Uber and Lyft for years had been disrupting public transit with their user-friendly, relatively safe, and very inexpensive rides. Before COVID forced us all to work from home, I had a few coworkers who took shared Uber or Lyft rides to and from the office most of the time; at about $7 they were cheaper than solo rides or parking fees, and faster than the bus which cost $2.75. Facebook offered its employees free shared rides every day, making the narrow avenue near its Seattle office a traffic-choked nightmare as cars dropped one or two employees off at work at a time, then drove away with no passengers. Despite their popularity, shared rides lost big bucks; prior to suspending shared rides due to COVID, Uber was reportedly losing $1 billion per year on its UberPool service.

Earlier this year, Kevin Roose of the New York Times bid farewell to the “millennial lifestyle subsidy” that let everyone enjoy underpriced taxi rides thanks to free-flowing venture capital money and unbounded promises of automation that would eventually come. In most U.S. cities, taxis were regulated generations ago with the expectations that rates would cover a driver’s expenses and that the market (and the roads) would not be flooded with cars seeking passengers. Leaders at transportation network companies (TNCs) largely ignored these licensing rules and set rates that would compete with the bus, rather than with premium sedan services. For a few days in 2013, all UberX rides up to $20 in Seattle were free; I remember taking trips everywhere, and booking them for friends, at no cost to me. Some of my fellow techies told me confidently that the low rates would be sustained by replacing those expensive human drivers with automation; as late as January 2020, commentators suggested that Uber could only be profitable by making its cars autonomous. By the end of 2020, Uber would sell its automation unit to a start-up, getting driverless cars off its own books. (The start-up, Aurora Technologies, is partly backed by Amazon. This article reflects only my views, not those of Amazon.)

Meanwhile, what about the bus? Early in the COVID pandemic, some Seattle-area transit became free as ridership plunged and as people feared that paper money and paper transfers might spread the disease. All able-bodied riders entered and left buses through rear doors to minimize contact with drivers. Half the seats were blocked off. By the summer, masks were required on board, although compliance was less than total and drivers couldn’t force people to mask up. Most of the objections I heard about public transit came from people who hadn’t chosen to ride it long before COVID and lamented having to fund it. Some studies disputed a link between transit riding and COVID spread, especially when riders used personal protective equipment like face masks.

In the Seattle area, fare collection resumed on all services on October 1. Earlier this year, local transit retained the mask mandate but opened up all seats. Our COVID cases in King County are at about 260 per day and falling slowly, and hospitalizations and deaths have been falling faster than case counts have. Covid Act Now rates King County as a “high” risk for the unvaccinated. Mask mandates and vaccine mandates supposedly cover many businesses, but in my neighborhood, life has in many ways returned to pre-COVID norms. Meanwhile, in downtown Seattle, tourists are returning but most office workers are not, and few large companies are ordering their office workers back into the office. T-Mobile, which is ordering its office workers back, is the exception, not the rule, in 2021.

After dropping service levels and suspending fare payment for a time, King County Metro restored transit service to 95% of prepandemic levels last month. Three new light rail stations in Seattle opened on October 2 to great fanfare and big crowds; additional extensions will also open in 2022, 2023, and 2024. With roads and highways still prone to traffic jams — especially when drawbridges malfunction — I’ve found that separated transit moves faster at rush hour. The city also plans to crack down on people using transit lanes illegally and on drivers who “block the box” by obstructing intersections, two problems which I saw daily the last time I worked in high-traffic South Lake Union. Unlike TNC rates and car registration fees, transit fares have remained steadily cheap — there aren’t many places I’ve been to where I can go from downtown to the airport for $3. As long as Uber and Lyft have to price their rides to be profitable, transit can complement them; taking a $2.75 bus ride halfway to my destination, then transferring to a Lyft car, makes the latter ride tens of dollars cheaper. TNCs are also moving beyond car rides to also offer e-bike and scooter rentals; I’ve seen quite a few savvy Seattle Kraken fans park a mile or more away from the arena, grab a scooter, and avoid the heaviest traffic and the highest parking fees closest to the arena. The money they save might just buy them a beer inside.

At this point I’m treating flights that leave at transit-unfriendly hours as if they cost more. Sometimes this still steers me to a late-arriving flight; if I have to pay $65 for a car ride to save $200 on a flight, that’s worth it. Avoiding the peak holiday traffic on the roads is still very valuable.