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January 25, 2018




If we were to design a transit system that would be difficult to use, we could not design one more difficult to use than the one we have now.


Our transit system does not pick us up where we are, nor does it take us all the way to where we are going. It is not easy to get to and from transit centers and rail stations.


Unless we live close to a bus stop and unless our destination is close to the bus stop where we get off, buses are inconvenient. We do not like to wait for buses in the dark and in the rain. We do not like to be leered at by drivers passing by. Many of us do not feel secure standing at bus stops, which is necessary multiple times if a transfer is involved. We do not like taking a hike from home to the local bus stop, a hike from the exiting bus stop to the destination, and more hikes on the return trip, sometimes with a load of groceries. Hikes are necessary because buses do not deliver door-to-door service.


So, most people commute single occupancy, driving almost everywhere they go, filling roads and freeways. Only six percent of us here in the Seattle area ride the buses and trains.


Mass transit, whether by buses or trains, will never realize its full potential unless we develop a better way to get to and from the mass transit. Our transit system is disconnected. We have a last mile problem that we fail to acknowledge.


Many buses are driven mostly empty, particularly in the suburbs and even in Seattle at night, wasting fuel, wasting labor cost, depreciating valuable equipment, and failing to deliver services to the many people who need them. I refer to these as “ghost buses”. When you see a bus go by, look up into the bus to see how many or few riders are on board. You will be surprised at how many buses roar by mostly empty.


Why do our transit agencies offer such a fragmented and disconnected transit service? It all goes back to the trains. The first mass transit was trains. Trains had to run fixed routes because they could not leave the tracks. When buses replaced trains, they were set up as imitation trains, also running fixed routes. Trains picked people up and dropped them off only at fixed stops, and so buses did the same. The trains did not deviate from their fixed routes and pick up and drop off passengers, so neither did the buses.


We are backwards thinkers when it comes to transit. Experts draw bus lines on a map that come within a half mile of all parts of the service area. The experts drive buses along those lines for 18 hours per day and claim that that they have provided transit services, even though many buses are driven mostly empty much of the time.


Turning our backwards thinking around means focusing first on what people need in terms of mobility. People need complete and comprehensive trips instead of fragmented trips. They need a service which picks them up at home or at the restaurant or grocery store, and which takes them to wherever they need to go. Such a system was not feasible until portable phones came along and until Uber proved that an on-the-fly pickup and drop off ride hailing system was possible.




The solution is a flexible van service using an Uber style app for ride hailing, with vans which would provide door-to-door service from wherever we are to wherever we need to go, from front door to transit centers, to train stations, to major BRT bus stops, and to local destinations. The number of vans in service and the size of the vans would vary with demand.


Flex vans would initially be paid for as an add on service, with a swipe card initial charge that I would estimate at $1 per mile, with a $2 minimum fee. The vans should cover their operating costs, and this is my place holder estimate of operating cost.


A van with six passengers would in theory cost one-sixth of the per mile cost of riding solo. The vans would deliver mostly short, connecting rides. They would connect up our disconnected transit system and solve the last mile problem. They would gather riders and carry them to transit centers and train stations, as well as to local destinations.


The vans would fill up and pay their own way. The vans in turn would fill the freeway buses and light rail trains. Money would not be wasted on ghost buses. Bus and light rail ridership would increase, and revenues would rise. Negative cash flow would be reduced or turned positive. More money would be freed up to make capital improvements.


A system with buses running fixed routes on a full day schedule is not scalable. Buses must run for 18 hours per day even if there are few riders on board. A van system would be scalable, with more or fewer vans called into service as requests for rides rises and falls during the day.


With more people using transit, we could take a third of the cars off the roads and freeways and put an end to traffic congestion.


When I propose a flex van solution to transit leaders, they sometimes say it would be too expensive. My response is “More expensive that what?” More expensive than ghost buses being driven mostly empty? More expensive than widening the freeways? More expensive than building multi-story park and ride structures. More expensive than tens of thousands of hours wasted by people stuck in traffic? More expensive than impaired freight mobility?


The flex vans would also provide portal to portal local service, from wherever we are to wherever we need to go, a complete transit service. It would no longer be necessary to own a car to get around.


Local buses that are currently underused would be moved to the freeways, where they would run full. Underused bus routes, particularly at night, would be covered by flex vans delivering secure rides. Bus routes with heavy usage would continue as before, with flex vans available to bring passengers to meet them.


We Fail to Make Good Use of Our Transit Assets


In terms of roads, we do not have a capacity problem. Seattle area freeways are twelve lanes wide in some places. Some highways are seven lanes wide. Our roads are gigantic.


In terms of vehicles, we do not have a capacity problem. We have thousands of buses on the roads, although many of them are driven mostly empty. We have tens of thousands of private cars on the road, although most are driven with three seats empty. We have enormous spare capacity, but we misuse it.


And in terms of parking, we have excess capacity. Every business is required to have ample parking. Shopping centers have acres of parking. The Boeing plant in Everett has 21,000 parking spaces, which are often full by 7 a.m. Excess parking is waste of real estate assets. A van service could reduce the need for such much parking and make this land available for tax paying development.


Proof of Concept – Home to Transit Center


When I discuss door to door transit to transit leaders, they look at me as if I were from the moon. This is not the way they have done business, and they have difficulty changing. So, a proof of concept is needed


I suggest home to transit center and from transit center back home as the first test case because it is easy to visualize how such a flexible van system, powered by cell phone app, would increase transit ridership and reduce the number of cars on the freeways.


It is also easy to visualize because it is already in use. In the San Francisco Bay area Uber vans pick people up at their front door and carry them to the nearest BART or MUNI station. At the end of the day these vans carry people back home. It costs less per person to ride in an Uber van than to ride in an individual Uber car because multiple riders are sharing one vehicle and the services of one driver.


Proof of Concept – Local Flex Van Service


A door-to-door van service delivering local service is more difficult to visualize. The test case could be set up in select neighborhoods in which users could not only get a van ride to the transit center but also get a ride from the front door or from wherever they are to local destinations – to shopping, restaurants, work, ferries, car rental, church, school, day care, soccer practice, child visitation, and back home again.


Our local bus system is ineffectual. For example, to shop for groceries means taking a hike to the bus stop, taking a bus to another bus stop, taking another hike from the bus stop to the grocery store, and then reversing the process carrying heavy bags.


There are a lot of people who do not like to drive, who do not see well at night, who are too young or too old to drive, who cannot afford a car, or whose licenses have been revoked.


The same vans that carry riders from home to transit center could also be delivering local service, charging the same $1 per mile fee with a $2 minimum fee. Rides would be summoned by an Uber style app or by flagging down a van. Ghost buses, those driven mostly empty, would be replaced with vans delivering complete transit services.


A local van service would enliven the local economy. It would be especially popular at night. It would increase dinner business. Riders would not have to worry about traffic and parking or about drinking too much and being charged with DUI. They would not have to worry about getting lost in an area they might not know well, especially if they are newcomers to the area.


Door-to-door Transit Would Solve the Last Mile Problem


To travel the last mile or two to the transit center, you can drive your car. But you may find that the transit enter parking lot has been full since 7 a.m. You can ride a local bus to the transit center, but that would involve studying schedules, taking a hike to the bus stop, and waiting in the dark and the rain for a bus. The bus might be late. Or you might be late and miss your bus. In no case would the bus pick you up at your front door or deliver you back to your front door. I would not want my wife or daughter standing at a bus stop in the dark.


There Was No Solution to Traffic Congestion Until Cell Phones and Uber


There is continuing debate over what we could do to alleviate traffic congestion. The Seattle Times, for example, runs a series of Traffic Lab articles. They are a constant lament about how bad traffic is, how traffic is only getting worse, and how nothing can be done to make it better.


However, smart phone technology plus an Uber style app applied to a system of vans of different sizes would solve the last mile problem.


Now days, most people have smart phones. Some still have cheaper flip phones. Either could be used by riders to hail a ride and get picked up wherever they are.


Door-to-door service is now completely feasible, and the only reason public transit does not provide it is conventionality.


Van Pools Show That Flex Vans Would Work


Van pools work. I support van pools. Microsoft, Amazon, and other companies offers rideshare programs in the Seattle area. According to the Washington DOT Congestion Report, around ten percent of commuters use van pool programs, while only six percent ride buses. Around 74 percent drive their own cars. I support van pools. A six-person van pool takes five cars off the roads.


However, van pools are limited in that they only carry a fixed group of people and they only carry them to and from work.


Motivations to Use Flex Vans


When I speak with transit gurus, they question whether people would use the vans. There a several factors which would motivate them to do so.


According to the AAA, it costs on average around $706 per month to own, drive, maintain, and insure a car. That figure assumes one is driving around 15,000 miles per year, which a lot of people do. A van system could provide door-to-door service for much less than $706 per month. Some families own a fleet of cars, one each for husband and wife, and one each for each child of driving age.


If a van service were implemented, many families would sell off most of their cars. They might even become no car families. They would ride door-to-door flex vans, buses, and trains. When they needed to go solo, they might ride a taxi or take Uber or rent a car, all of which would be available by app or at transit centers. The family savings would be enormous.


Another factor motivating us to use the vans would be to avoid the hassle and anxiety of bumper to bumper driving and to avoid having to find and pay for parking. We could take a nap on our way to work instead of struggling to keep our sleep deprived eyes open.


As stated previously, many people do not like to drive. Many do not see well at night. Many are too old or too young to drive. Many would prefer not to own a car if there were some alternative. Many people cannot afford a car.


Charging an $8 fee to park at the transit center, a fee that would exceed the cost of riding a flex van to the transit center, would add additional motivation to use the flex vans. Doing so would ration use of transit center parking, meaning that those who really need to park there would be able to do so.


If even more incentive is needed, we could charge a per mile fee to drive on freeways or an odometer tax on all road usage. This should be a last resort.


So, in response to those who question whether the vans would be used, it is clear that there would be ample incentives for riders to do so.

A Flex Van System Would Facilitate Urban Development


City planners have been reluctant to approve construction of apartments and condominium buildings that have relatively few parking spaces or even no parking spaces, lest on-street parking be maxed out.  


With a flex van system that would make it possible to get around without owning a car, more such no and low parking apartment and condominium buildings would become feasible.


A Flex Van System Would Offer Greater Security


Commuting by bus in winter, when the days are shorter, involves waiting for rides in the dark and taking hikes in the dark. A van service would eliminate the hike to the bus stop, the waiting at the bus stop, the hike from where you dismount the bus to your ultimate destination, and the same hikes on the return trip. Thus, a door-to-door, portal to portal system would be more secure.


Flex van drivers would be vetted and trained, and all would be members of the transit union. Riders would be less concerned about troubled people and drunks because such people could be shunted into separate vans or receive rides from Uber or taxi drivers, who would be trained in how to handle them.


A Flex Van System Should Work in Coordination with Uber and Taxis


A comprehensive and connected transit system should cooperate and coordinate with taxi drivers and Uber drivers, provided they too would have to be members of the transit union.


The role of a union is to negotiate fair wages and working conditions, train employees, insure their good behavior, eliminate irresponsible employees, and assist management in improving service. I suggest across the board union membership because it would allow all transportation providers to work cooperatively. This does not mean that Uber and taxi drivers would necessarily work directly for transit, but simply that certain quality and training standards would apply along with a reasonable level of compensation.


Kyoto And Paris Protocols


Transportation produces around 43 percent of all Washington carbon emissions. If we were to implement a flex van system, we would drive fewer vehicles, drive them fewer miles, burn less fuel, and do our part to reduce carbon emissions.


Door-to-door Transit Would Work for Children


We have thousands of school buses that sit around mostly idle most of the time. Schools should get out of the transit business. Flexible vans, driven by professionals who would be trained and vetted to guarantee child safety and security, could do a better job of transporting children.


Flex vans would pick children up at the front door and bring them home to the front door, instead of at school bus stops. Parents would worry a lot less.


Children also need rides to day care, soccer practice, piano lessons, and parental visitation. Parents tell me they get tired of serving as taxi driver for their children. Flex vans could deliver such helpful services.


Flex Vans Would Improve Life for the Poor


Some people cannot afford a car. The poor need a ride to their local jobs, to the post office, to church, to the grocery store. It is difficult to impossible to use our existing fixed route bus system to run errands and make several stops. To do so involves making careful transfer plans, waiting for long periods of time to make bus transfers, taking hikes to areas poorly served by buses, and having to carry heavy groceries and other loads from bus stop to home. Flex vans would be a blessing to the poor.


The Best and Only Solution


A flex van solution would be the easiest, quickest, and least expensive to implement.  It is the only solution that could be implemented without widening roads and freeways and without building new multi-story transit center parking. It is the only solution that would eliminate traffic congestion, reduce carbon emissions, and make it possible to be mobile without owning a car.


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