Several GGW editors and contributors were in Seattle last week for the Railvolution conference. While there, they’ll offer a series of short posts about their experiences.

The Seattle region has two enhanced bus services, or Bus Rapid Transit “lite” systems, RapidRide and Swift. Built for a few million dollars per mile, both services are compelling examples for urban and suburban transit agencies looking to provide better, more sustainable travel options at a low cost.

RapidRide buses in a BAT (Business Access & Transit) lane. Photo by the author.

While falling short of “gold-standard” Bus Rapid Transit, both services provide a significantly better service than local buses for a relatively small cost. They also both went from concept to reality in a very short time period, and are experiencing major ridership gains over previous service, demonstrating a high return on a modest investment.

Map of current and future RapidRide lines from King County Metro.

Launched in 2010, RapidRide is a new level of bus service with four different lines in King County, which includes Seattle and adjacent communities. It offers several important improvements over local bus service. Buses come frequently: at least every 10 minutes during rush hour and 15 minutes off-peak, and run 24 hours a day. The stops are spaced further apart (every ½ mile on average), and have comfortable, covered waiting areas with real-time arrival screens.

To reduce delays, riders pay off board and enter the bus through three wide doors. King County Metro, which runs RapidRide, also implemented transit signal priority along the routes, extending the length of green lights so buses don’t have to wait. The buses are spacious and articulated, meaning they can carry more people, and have free wi-fi on board.

For about $2-4 million per mile depending on the line, King County Metro built RapidRide for far less than a typical BRT line. Part of the reason is because the agency purchased no additional right-of-way and didn’t have to move utilities or otherwise reconstruct the road. RapidRide falls short of full scale BRT because only about 20% of the routes have dedicated lanes. In those areas, buses use BAT, or Business Access and Transit lanes, where drivers are able to enter the curb lanes to make right turns.

RapidRide apparently doesn’t work for everyone. My cousin, who lives in nearby Southworth, says RapidRide replaced a local bus route he used to take to downtown Seattle. The new service doesn’t serve his destination anymore, so he doesn’t take it.

But it’s clearly working for more people than the lines it replaced. RapidRide’s four lines have seen a 56% jump in ridership over local bus service on the same routes, or about 6,000-10,000 daily riders, depending on the route. King County Metro plans to add two additional lines next year.

Swift BRT. Photo by Oran Viriyincy on Flickr.

Meanwhile, in Snohomish County north of Seattle, Community Transit’s new Swift BRT service has reduced commuting times and increased bus ridership for very little cost since it opened in 2009. Swift’s one BRT line connects King County to Everett, 30 miles from downtown Seattle, along Route 99, a suburban highway lined with strip malls and some dense residential neighborhoods.

About one-third of the line has BAT lanes, while the rest runs in mixed traffic. Swift takes advantage of many BRT features including limited stops, enhanced stations, off-board fare collection and multiple door boarding, transit signal priority, and frequent service. Instead of hanging their bikes outside the bus, cyclists can roll their bikes on and hang their bikes up on an interior rack, reducing delays at stops.

We heard from Swift project planner June DeVoll, who told us about some ambitious goals Community Transit set and achieved. For one, the agency went from concept to implementation in just four years, while many transit projects remain in study phases for years or even decades. In addition, planners wanted to minimize “dwell time,” meaning how long the bus is stopped at the station, to 10 seconds.

While the whole line is not in dedicated lanes, Swift planners have implemented many key features that have cut the trip time 73 to 54 minutes compared to the old local bus service. As a result, 4400 riders board Swift each day, and ridership continued to increase even after budget cuts forced Community Transit to end Sunday service. For just $1.87 million per mile, the time savings and ridership gains are impressive.

So far, the parts of RapidRide and Swift I saw didn’t show a ton of new transit-oriented development. Nevertheless, planners have created new land-use plans for the corridors and apparently many developments are on the way, including one newly-opened apartment building in West Seattle that features a real-time arrival screen for RapidRide in the lobby. The more permanent the infrastructure and high-quality the service, the more development patterns will respond.

Swift and RapidRide may not feel like “light rail on rubber tires,” like Los Angeles’ Orange Line BRT. But given the significant ridership gains of both systems, residents clearly appreciate the improvements. With limited federal funding and tight budgets, these systems provide compelling examples for the DC region, showing what modest investments in bus service can achieve in a short period of time.

Kelly Blynn is a former DC resident and an advocate for sustainable transportation and equitable development. She is now a graduate student in the Masters in City Planning program at MIT and a co-founding member of the pedestrian advocacy group All Walks DC.