Should Amazon Cover Costs of Intern Bus Crowding?

This story originally ran in Seattle Magazine.

Last month the Seattle Times reported that hundreds of new Amazon interns, each wearing identical company-issued black backpacks, are crowding out other commuters on King County Metro’s Route 70. The overcrowded buses, which forced drivers to skip some stops when full, led Metro to take the unusual step of adding service to the route for the rest of the summer without the extensive public process that typically informs long-term service increases.

Metro service development manager Bill Bryant says the bus agency routinely provides extra service for special events, like Pride or the Women’s March, and temporary disruption such as the periodic closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. “We really do not want to see any situation where specific trips on a route are passing customers by on a regular basis,” he says. “We received multiple reports that people were getting passed by [on Route 70], and we decided to pull the trigger.”

According to Metro spokesman Scott Gutierrez, about 400 more people than usual were riding Route 70 when Metro decided to add service. The current uptick in service during morning rush hour—two extra buses between 6:30 and 10:30 a.m.—is costing Metro about $3,600 a week.

Shefali Ranganathan, director of the transit advocacy group Transportation Choices Coalition, says the “bottom-line question is, should Metro explore a broader partnership with Amazon where Amazon buys service hours from Metro” to mitigate their impact on the system. “Maybe this is something [Metro] should approach not just as a one-off [service improvement] but as a broader partnership that would benefit Amazon and the broader community, which is what Microsoft does,” Ranganathan says.

There’s precedent for this: Back in 2012, Amazon paid for the South Lake Union streetcar to run more frequently, although that money was compensation for land the city gave Amazon to expand its South Lake Union campus.

Microsoft, somewhat controversially, has given its workers a way to opt out of the public transit system entirely by creating a private option, the Microsoft Connector, which has grown into the largest private regional bus system in the nation. Since last year, Amazon has offered its own limited shuttle service, called Amazon Ride, which runs four shuttle buses between the company’s two main campuses in South Lake Union and the University District. The company also spends $12 million on ORCA transit passes for its employees.

Of course, Amazon’s expansion in the city isn’t limited to a few hundred summer interns. Earlier this year, the company announced that it was hiring 100,000 new U.S. employees by mid-2018, and advertised more than 9,000 new job openings in Seattle. Most of those new jobs will be in South Lake Union, meaning that the pressure on Metro service will only grow. “The growth in South Lake Union, just across the board, continues,” Bryant says. “The choice to add service to keep customers moving and to prevent pass-bys is not a hard choice for us.”

As a transit agency charged with getting cars off the roads, Metro wants to make sure all those new customers keep coming back to use its service, rather than giving up and driving to work alone. But Metro has also made a commitment, through its service guidelines, to serve low-income and minority communities, such as Southeast Seattle. When Metro decides where to add service during its twice-annual service adjustment process, it looks not just at demand but at how well the system is serving the goal of racial equity.

A few tens of thousands of dollars shifted over to South Lake Union over the summer may not sound like much. But if Amazon’s growth creates the demand for permanent shifts in service, that could put Metro in the position of choosing between racial equity and full buses passing people by.

Amazon, which provided information on its existing shuttle service through a spokesman, did not respond to a request for information about any plans to expand its shuttle service. Although the company confirmed that it is actively working with Metro to plan for increased ridership from the UW to South Lake Union, Bryant says “we haven’t had any significant conversations with Amazon about significantly increasing their shuttle service.”

16 thoughts on “Should Amazon Cover Costs of Intern Bus Crowding?

  1. Living in Eastlake, I’m just irritated that a known pattern isn’t accommodated by Metro. The 70 is overfull in the summer, and interns make it even more overfull. Two extra runs isn’t enough. But because our service planning is based on averages over periods of time that don’t coincide with the periods of time with higher usage, Metro doesn’t ramp up during those periods. So I can’t make it to my doctor’s appointments without driving, and other residents can’t reliable commute by transit. So we keep our cars for June->September use because transit doesn’t serve our needs then.

    And residents of the neighborhood don’t even get a “we hear you” from Metro, so they become more and more frustrated about anything ever changing.

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  2. The extra service has significantly improved my life because my doctor, therapist, and pediatrician are all on the 70. I had to schedule our appointments to avoid the rush so I could sit. Now I can find a seat. So for those of us who rely on public transit to get around & can’t afford to pay for an uber it really does make a difference. I don’t disagree that they should pay – but don’t discount the effect it has on riders. The bus was packed even before the interns started. Adding extra buses here was justified. We would wait for 2-3 buses after a 4 pm appointment & even then the bus was packed full.

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  3. I find it odd that “racial equity” is at stake here in the transit planning process. If Amazon hired Black interns, would that change your views on the allocation of bus service?

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      • I don’t disagree that social equality (ie. serving lower income areas) should be a priority. However, I think framing the problems in terms of race is counterproductive. Why should transporting Indian/Chinese/White interns from U District be less desirable than transporting Black workers from SE Seattle? Serving SE Seattle, a lower income area with less access to transit, is important. But not because a higher percentage of residents are Black.

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  4. So, running some quick numbers:

    Per https://commuteseattle.com/ORCA/, a discounted yearly travel pass is $709.88/year ($13.65 a week) In your article above, you said, “According to Metro spokesman Scott Gutierrez, about 400 more people than usual were riding Route 70 when Metro decided to add service.” That service cost Metro $3600 a week to add.

    Amazon buys ORCA passes for all of its interns. If all 400 extra passengers were Amazon interns, that’d be $5460 extra in revenue, greater than the extra service costs. That sounds like Amazon is _already_ paying for the extra service, greater than 100% farebox recovery. And all users can benefit from the added frequency, as it’s public transportation, not a private, employees-only shuttle.

    Why would this cause Southeast Seattle service to get cut? I feel like there’s something I’m missing.

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    • If a pass is “discounted,” that’s a subsidy from Metro. Don’t know what discount program you think adult interns would qualify for. A regular pass costs about $1,200 a year, which I know because I purchase one every month.

      My story talks about the potential impact on other neighborhoods when Metro directs new service to wealthier areas. Nowhere do I say they would “cut” service in Southeast Seattle. If you read the article, I describe the twice-annual service adjustments quite clearly.

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      • I got the discount numbers from the https://commuteseattle.com/ORCA/ link, “Businesses in the Central Business District can cover an employee with a full year of unlimited travel for $709.88! The same pass would cost $2,268 per year if an employee had to buy it on their own,” Which doesn’t match your $1200/year number, either. But I don’t really have a better source of numbers to pull from.

        I didn’t mean to imply that Metro was cutting service, and you didn’t say they were. But I feel like the statement “that could put Metro in the position of choosing between racial equity and full buses passing people by,” implied that if only Amazon had built a suburban campus, and had their interns drive cars like most large businesses expect, that Southeast Seattle would be getting better bus service faster than they would otherwise.

        Hopefully the extra revenue Metro gets from ORCA cards exceeds that cost of running the additional buses, and all of Seattle can enjoy greater frequency, not just SLU.

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      • Ah, they must have much fancier passes than I do! I get the basic $2.75 peak rate pass, which works in Seattle, where I do most of my transit riding. I’m definitely not saying that Amazon should build a suburban campus and have their employees drive – as you know if you’ve read any of my transit coverage, I’m not in favor of sprawl and driving everywhere! But I do think that wealthy companies that put a heavy burden on the transit system should consider subsidizing the cost of that burden or (as the story, if not the headline, says) by creating shuttle service options like Microsoft has. (There are obviously downsides to that too, including the impact of additional buses on local streets and on already crowded HOV lanes on freeways). It’s an open question whether this is the best solution, but I think it’s a question worth asking. People in Southeast Seattle are more transit-dependent than people in Ravenna, so under Metro’s service guidelines, they get some level of priority. I didn’t make the guidelines, but I think that’s equitable and fair.

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      • I’d much rather see companies use (and pay for) public goods that all citizens can use than reinvent their own gated services, living apart from the rest of the city. “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport,” and all that.

        As for subsidizing the cost of that burden, I agree, but what’s an appropriate level of subsidy? Per http://metro.kingcounty.gov/am/reports/annual-measures/financial.html#metro-bus-farebox-recovery, King County has a 30% farebox recovery ratio, so Amazon should pay at least 30% of what they use in order to be even with the rest of city city. If the numbers I calculated above are right (And I’m not sure they are, but it’s an honest attempt), then the interns added are actually well over 100% of farebox recovery. If that actually is true, I think that’s pretty not-bad.

        Amazon shouldn’t get super-special deals, (and I’d be a bit cranky if ORCA was negotiating extra-special discounts for some businesses and not others, and I could argue that _all_ passes should be $709.88/year, not just business passes), but I vastly prefer a company to pay into the public system than to run employee-only shuttles.

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      • Ah, they must have much fancier passes than I do! I get the basic $2.75 peak rate pass, which works in Seattle, where I do most of my transit riding.

        The corporate ORCA passes usually cover up to the most expensive CT ride, whatever that is, which would be nearly 2X what a 2.75 pass costs.

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      • The pass that Amazon and some other employers buy is called the “ORCA Business Passport.” It’s discounted off the retail rate, but the catch is that they need to buy it for every employee whether they use transit or not.

        The price is set based on the location of the employer, and it’s based on the actual usage of these passes: if more employees in that area use it, the cost per employee is higher. The cost per neighborhood is listed at http://metro.kingcounty.gov/cs/employer/ORCA_Zones_Locator.html. Interestingly, the highest cost area for these passes is actually SeaTac, likely because a greater proportion of workers in that area whose employers buy into the program are likely to take transit than even downtown Seattle.

        As to the question in the headline, I don’t think Amazon should have any special responsibility here. Most of the people riding the bus at peak times are going to work somewhere. If Amazon should have to pay for two extra runs of the Route 70 bus because that’s how many seats their interns take up, it seems only fair that every other employer should have to pay for whatever fraction of the total bus capacity their employees are using. If you want to make that argument, that employers should pay higher taxes to improve the transit system, go ahead. I love fast, frequent buses as much as the next person. To single out one employer for special treatment just doesn’t seem right to me though.

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      • If Amazon should have to pay for two extra runs of the Route 70 bus because that’s how many seats their interns take up, it seems only fair that every other employer should have to pay for whatever fraction of the total bus capacity their employees are using.

        Yes, this was my point, more clearly stated than I was able to. If businesses should be responsible for subsidizing their employee’s transit use, OK, but to treat the recent increase in use as demanding a subsidy but not the rest of it doesn’t make any sense. It just builds incumbent/first-mover advantage into how we fund transit.

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  5. I worked in South Lake Union three years ago and live in Ravenna – which means that I commuted on the 70. Long waits and overfill buses were normal in the summer. Pain in the ass. Not a new thing.

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  6. It feels arbitrary to me, though. Lots of firms generate tremendous demand for bus service. What principle would justify singling out Amazon to have to pay for it? We need some kind of guideline for when to high ridership for a particular employer demands some sort of pay-off to Metro; singling out amazon feels pretty ad hoc to me.

    It seems to me it makes sense to figure out the tradeoffs between race/class equity and demand during the twice annual service revisions, and then set aside the bonus service-hours primarily for where it turns out a little more service is needed, which is going to be fluctuation in demand. (If changing neighborhood demographics require a shift or increase in service to meet race/class equity goals, that can be handled during the official service revisions–neighborhoods don’t change fast enough for an emergency change to be required for that reason. Consequently, it doesn’t bother me that the 70 service boost serves a particular demographic–the service hour set-asides should be for boosts necessary to serve special events or prevent pass-ups, wherever they may occur.

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