Commentary: How to fill the gap between home and destination

A hybrid of ride-share and small transit vans could better connect commuters with where they want to go.

By James Robert Deal / For The Herald

Transit agencies are suffering from reduced fare revenues because of the coronavirus pandemic. But there is a deeper problem, and that is that even in healthier times the transit agencies are wasting their money by running buses that are mostly empty much of the time.

Only the freeway and daytime buses in downtown Seattle buses run full. In every other part of Washington, and even in Seattle at night, most buses are mostly empty most of the time.

Conventional transit planners draw lines on maps and operate buses along these lines for 18 hours daily, at a cost of around $150 per hour, even when buses run mostly empty. Even worse than the waste of money is the fact that underused buses deliver a mostly unwanted service.

Only around 6 percent of us ever ride buses, in part because buses deliver a fragmented service. Buses do not pick us where we are, nor take us all the way to where we are going. We must take a hike to get to the bus and another hike when we exit the bus. Mass transit will never reach its full potential unless we make it easier to get to and from the mass transit.

Experts say there is no solution and that traffic congestion will only get worse.

But there is a solution: an Uber style, on-call, door-to-door transit service using what I call flex-vans that pick you up wherever you are and take you where you need to go, to transit centers and local destinations, to the post office, the doctor, the grocery, and home again. Flex-vans would offer a complete alternative to driving. We could leave the car at home, or sell a car or two, saving – according to the IRS – $773.50 per month for each car we would no longer own.

Areas would be divided into zones, with flex-vans orbiting each zone. You would summon a flex-van by phone, computer, pager, or ride-share-style app, or by flagging down a passing flex-van, or by walking to a bus stop and pressing a button.

Trains were the first mass transit. They could not leave the tracks, so they had to run fixed routes. When buses replaced trains, buses imitated the trains and also ran inflexible, fixed routes.

Along came Uber and proved that flexible, door-to-door transit was feasible.

Flex-vans would work like Uber, but would carry five or more passengers. The operating cost of a five-passenger flex-van would be one-fifth the cost of a solo Uber ride. Most flex-van rides would be short, interconnecting rides. A charge of $1 per mile with a $2 minimum might cover operating costs.

Buses would continue to run on well-used routes. Flex vans would feed passengers to the buses and help fill them. Flex-vans would take over whenever a bus line were underused, especially at night. Flex-vans would improve transit security. Women, children and actually all of us would appreciate a door-to-door service, instead of walking and waiting at bus stops in the dark and the rain.

Flex-vans could even replace school buses. They would carry children door-to-door from home to school, day care, and soccer and then back home.

Critics say a van service would be more expensive. My response is: More expensive than buses being driven mostly empty? Than gridlock in downtown Seattle? Than impaired freight mobility? Than hours wasted in traffic? Than widening the freeways? Than building more transit center parking garages?

The flex-van solution is the only way to eliminate traffic congestion, meet the mobility needs of those who do not drive, and reduce carbon emissions. It would be the least expensive and quickest solution to implement.

Flex-vans would be called into service in proportion to demand, which would control costs.

Driver payroll expense would rise, but flex-vans would fill up with paying riders, and in turn fill up buses and trains with paying riders. At the end of the bus or train ride, other flex-vans would fill up with paying riders going on to ultimate destinations out in the various zones.

While each five-passenger van would add one vehicle to the roads, it would also take five vehicles off the roads, yielding a net reduction of four vehicles.

James Robert Deal lives in Lynnwood. Read more about his proposal at comprehensive-transportation.blogspot.com/. Email him at James@JamesDeal.com.

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