Pierce Transit Restores and Expands Microtransit Service ‘Runner’ to Ruston and Tideflats

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Pierce Transit Runner van in motion. (Pierce Transit)
Pierce Transit Runner van in motion. (Pierce Transit)

Pierce Transit has restored its on-demand microtransit service “Runner” to the Ruston area and added a new zone in the Tideflats. The two zones essentially cover much of Downtown Tacoma, Ruston, areas near Ruston Way/Schuster Pkwy, and the industrial tideflats of Tacoma. Pierce Transit also operates a similar service to the military bases called “JBLM Runner”.

The service is flexible and provides a public transportation option to riders in areas where traditional fixed-route bus service might not perform well and where service is otherwise limited. Riders can request trips within Runner zones by mobile app, phone, or walking up if space is available. Within a zone, riders can book trips between a preferred pick-up point and destination. One of the pick-up or drop-off locations must be at Tacoma Dome Station or Commerce Street Transit Center. The Runner fleet entirely consists of vans, which can carry a bike and are wheelchair accessible.

  • Green is the Ruston Runner service area and orange is the Tideflats Runner service area. (Pierce Transit)
  • The Ruston Runner service area. (Pierce Transit)
  • The Tideflats Runner service area. (Pierce Transit)

The Ruston Runner zone is mostly a long strip. It includes parts of the Town of Ruston, Point Ruston, Ruston Way/Schuster Pkwy, and Tideflats along the Foss Waterway as well as the transit corridor in Downtown Tacoma and Tacoma Dome Station. Service operates seven days a week from 7:00am to 10:00pm. This service had originally been launched in August 2020 but it was suspended in April of this year due to Covid.

The Tideflats Runner zone is much broader including most of the Tideflats industrial and maritime area along Commencement Bay. This area reaches as far south of I-5 and covers Downtown Tacoma and Tacoma Dome Station. Service also operates seven days a week from 7:00am to 10:00pm.

Riders can make transfers to local and regional transit at Tacoma Dome Station and Commerce Street Transit Center.

Trip requests can be made through the “Goin” app and selecting “Pierce Transit Runner” or calling 253.270.1340. The cost per trip is $2.00 for adults and $1.00 for youth and persons with a Regional Reduced Fare Permit. Since there are no fareboxes equipped in vans, riders can either present a pre-purchased All Day Pass, ORCA card, or valid mobile fare procured through the “Passage: Transit Ticketing” app.

Looking ahead, Pierce Transit plans to launch another Runner service in Spanaway, Parkland, and Midland.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.

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RossB

Whenever I read about plans like this, I wonder where on the flowchart it fits. Hard to say,of course, as that would require real reporting. According to the Pierce Transit website, Pierce Transit Runner is provided in partnership with MedStar​. My guess is it is this company. According to their website, jobs start at $14.50-19/hr. There is no mention of benefits, which suggests there aren’t any. Tacoma drivers have good benefits and make significantly more.

It is pretty obvious now. It is clearly in the “Significantly Lower Labor Costs or Benefits” box, which then leads to “Increased Economic Inequity. Upward Redistribution of the benefits of Public Spending” box. So not only are the workers paid less in the process, but a private company gets to skim a little off the top.

The same may be true of the app, as well. I can’t find too much about the company (other than their website) but they look like a private company (despite the “.org” domain). This would mean they would get their cut.

To be fair, MedStar provides a good service, in allowing those with disabilities to get around. But when it is extended to ordinary people, and becomes a substitute for regular bus service (as this is) it is nothing more than ripping off union workers.

RossB

The flowchart is Walker’s, and comes from this essay. He writes about microtransit enough to warrant its own tag. I think microtransit has slowly transitioned to being an experiment, to a fad, to now a scam. Maybe that is too strong a word, but my guess is there is plenty of money in it right now (given all of the Silicon Valley businesses involved).

Until recently, there was very little in Ruston. It is an expressway, with a very weak tail. Density is pretty weak even in the most densely populated parts of Tacoma, and it is especially weak along Schuster/Ruston. Other than the park/zoo, there is no there there.

Or at least there wasn’t, until recently. All those buildings at the point are new. You can see how Google has trouble keeping up with it. The aerial view shows plenty of buildings being built, along with several obviously new ones. So now you have an isolated community, at the end of an expressway. That still isn’t ideal (you want stuff along the way, like Aurora) but it at least seems worth serving. Pierce County doesn’t have much money though. I’m sure they are dependent on grants. My guess is you can’t get a grant just to run the buses more often (another subject Walker writes about) but you can for BRT, or maybe even microtransit. Hmmm, government money + venture capital + hyperbolic promises based on whiz-bang technology; no wonder I’m suspicious.

Brendan

You may have already seen it, but there was an interesting article in The News Tribune a few years back that laid out what PT saw as the obstacles preventing regular service on Schuster Way/Ruston Way.

Why does Point Ruston not have bus service from Pierce Transit? | Tacoma News Tribune (thenewstribune.com)

AJ M

Why do you think “ordinary people” are more economically advantaged than a unionized public workers?

Given the current operator shortages facing all the transit providers in the region, Walker could probably also add a “existence of skill labor” to his flow chart. Perhaps PT is going with this services because it lacks the drivers and/or buses to provide this service otherwise. Similarly, KCM pre-COVID might find a service like this ‘efficient’ because it lacked the bus base capacity to deploy more buses, and contracting out service to avoid the soft costs and political rigmarole of standing up an entirely new mode of public transit.

“get their cut” is also known as providing overhead, back office services, management oversight, and capital, like how King County’s general fund gets their cut of every dollar ST contracts out to KCM.

I’m generally skeptical of microtransit, and FWIW the linear corridor seems like it could be well served by a fixed route (perhaps the rail ROW or shoreline bluffs inhibit the walkshed of fixed route stops?), but this tone of scandal around contracting out government services strikes me as spurious, in particular when an agency is experimenting with alternative methods of service.

asdf2

The Ruston route really begs the question of why not just run it as a fixed route that follows a published schedule? The entire corridor is just back and forth on one single street anyway. A fixed route makes for pick up times that are much more predictable, allowing people to plan. On-demand means you call for a ride, find out that the van just left, and have to wait 30 minutes for it to go all the way to the other end and all the way back to your end again.

RossB

Correct. That’s because this isn’t about providing a better user experience, it is about paying the workers less.

AJ M

Does driving a minivan for commercial service require different licensing than a bus? Perhaps PT asked the drivers union if it could pay lower rates for drivers operating a vehicle that requires significantly less skill and credentials and the union said no.

RossB

You are missing the point. This is inferior to fixed route service. The only way this makes sense is if they pay non-union wages. Not a couple bucks less than what the bus drivers make, but a lot less. More than 5$ less per hour, and more importantly, no benefits. The private company does not pay a living wage. Of course the union would never agree to that, no matter what the work.

Put it another way — if the union agreed to lower the pay $3 for driving a van instead of a bus (despite the fact that the work is remarkably similar) the agency would abandon the idea, and run a fixed route instead.

asdf2

Ok, so this is a workaround for the bus drivers union. It still begs the question of why the minivan can’t run a fixed schedule. I guess the most likely reason is that the contract with the bus drivers’ union says only union members are allowed to drive vehicles that have a fixed schedule. Except, that can’t be true because, I believe, Trailhead Direct is driven by nonunion drivers and has a fixed schedule.

Another problem with minivans, of course, is lack of capacity. 6 is a very small number. Just two families riding at the same time can easily fill it. You can take it for granted, but a bus has enough seats on it so you can (usually) take for granted the fact that, when it does come, you will be able to actually get on.

RossB

Extending the 10 sounds like the best idea, since it currently doesn’t go downtown. The bus would follow its current path to Point Defiance, then backtrack to 51st, and then follow Ruston Way to downtown (with a small detour to the commercial center of Ruston). So basically this. Not only would this connect Ruston to downtown, but it also connects them to the community college as well as several other routes. A lot of people on Pearl Street would have a one-seat ride to downtown. It would be odd to go north on Pearl if you wanted to go downtown (and it would be a somewhat roundabout route) but the alternatives aren’t great. This is especially true if the 10 kept its service on Westgate Boulevard (which I didn’t draw) since going south and transferring isn’t that fast. Oh, and this would likely be the fastest way to Point Defiance from downtown.

Yep, that definitely sounds like the best routing.

RossB

OK, and here is a variation on that idea. While Schuster Parkway is fast, there is basically nothing on it. So instead, the bus leaves the parkway and follows the path of the 13. This would give part of that route 15 minute frequency, while also connecting Old Town and Stadium with Ruston. That would mean a slower trip from Ruston to downtown, but a trade-off that might be worth it.

Brendan

I think the problem with this from an operational standpoint is that unavoidable delays on Ruston Way makes it extremely difficult to maintain a schedule. There’s some discussion of this in the article I posted earlier from a previous attempt at linking Ruston Way to a longer route.

From personal experience I can confirm that Ruston Way travels at vastly different speeds at different times of the day/year – and because of the lack of any shoulder or alternate route it’s extremely difficult to make adjustments.

RossB

I think you could compensate by doing the following:

1) Have a layover in Ruston itself (in the new development) for an outbound bus (coming from downtown). You will often see this with a Metro schedule (the bus leaves at a particular time, but may arrive earlier).

2) Inbound, just run on the main corridor, and live with the timing. Ruston is the main destination — the stops between it and downtown would be a bonus). Those stops would have a schedule with an asterisk for outbound trips (e. g. “*Bus may arrive later than this”).

This assumes that there aren’t really big backups on 51st. The big drawback with this approach is that it is expensive. You are paying drivers to sit. It would cost quite a bit to serve Ruston, and there wouldn’t be that many riders.

Oh, and another drawback is that it wouldn’t be an express from downtown to Point Defiance. It would be heading back though.

Last edited 23 days ago by RossB
Brendan
RossB

Thanks for the article. The inability to take a bus stop for parking is ridiculous. The rest of it sounds reasonable. At worse you operate as an express to the area that is now developed (which means no stops along Ruston Way or Schuster Parkway itself). You deal with the traffic as mentioned above. The cost is the big issue, which is why service to it is in the long range plan.