Most readers would agree that Light Rail is going to transform the transit picture everywhere it goes. There’s lots of vague talk about how it will allow a dramatic realignment of bus service. With Central LINK now about a year away, what can we expect in terms of changes to Metro service in the Rainier Valley? With the sounding board a couple of months from kicking off, I’ll speculate on what it might look like. We’ll start with the routes likely to be affected, and then discuss some general service concepts.
The Puzzle Pieces
First of all, there’s no bus route that exactly follows the LINK routing, and is therefore clearly a target for elimination. The nearest candidate is the 194 to the airport, with essentially every stop covered by either the train or Sound Transit Route 574. Although it’s a few minutes faster than the train under ideal traffic conditions, it’s reasonable to assume that LINK’s superior headways, reliability, and smoother ride will annihilate the Seatac-Seattle portion of the 194′s ridership, if Metro continues it at all. It certainly will once the airport extension is complete at the end of 2009.
The next two candidates are the 42 and 48, which follow MLK for almost the entire Rainier Valley segment. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 48 terminate at the Mt. Baker station to improve its legendary unreliability. The 42 deviates little from the rail line, except for the portion along Rainier and Dearborn, so it may very well disappear altogether.
However, that orphans a large number of brand-new bus shelters along MLK, as well as stranding residents living at MLK and Graham St, about a mile from the nearest station. Something is going to have to provide local service.
Routes 7 and 36 largely parallel Central Link, along Rainier and Beacon Avenues, respectively. The 7, in particular, is a short and level walk from MLK all along its route. Beacon Avenue is a steep climb up Beacon Hill away; still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see service curtailed on both lines to shore up some underserved areas of Seattle and shift service to East-West.
Much like the 48, the 9 also runs down Rainier from Capitol Hill, and this is other good candidate for truncation at Mt. Baker station.
The 34 and 39 serve Seward Park and Downtown. It would be logical to terminate these lines at the light rail stations, and use the savings to increase the fairly sparse service on evenings and weekends.
The 106 comes up from Renton, and comes near Rainier Beach station before crossing the line at Othello and continuing on via I-5 to downtown.
Lastly, all the routes that come from South King County certainly have the option of dropping riders at Tukwila, Seatac, or Rainier Beach station to get on the train, but I doubt it will happen. Although it would mean a more reliable trip for most commuters, and create tremendous operating savings for Metro and ST Express, transfers kill ridership. Furthermore, none of those stations are particularly convenient from I-5, so the average travel time to downtown would likely be considerably worse. Sound Transit could do a lot more to improve bus access at Tukwila station, but that’s a subject for another post.
Below are a few general service concepts that make sense in the area. An important input is what Metro hopes to do with respect to bus service hours. Will they take them out of the neighborhoods to serve other areas? Keep it the same? Or double down on growth in the Southeast?
These shouldn’t be thought of as mutually exclusive, but are listed in decreasing order of likelihood, in my humble opinion:
1) Preserve the Status Quo. Because people tend to protest more strongly when service is taken away than when it is never provided in the first place, inertia may lead to essentially no change beyond minor diversions to serve the stations. There’s some merit in being conservative; if the vast majority of riders choose to board the train at the earliest opportunity, then Metro can quietly truncate the lines when it’s clear that no one is using the last segments.
2) Peak-only to Downtown. In the peak hours, commuters can still have their one-seat ride into downtown. But the rest of the time, service frequency can be greatly improved by delivering riders to the train, utilizing capacity that will probably be underused. Might as well take advantage of all that capital investment!
3) Shift from North/South to East/West. This would mean reducing frequency on buses like the 7, 36, and 42, possibly by truncating them at stations, and boosting the 39 and 106 to provide more service to the stations.
4) Circulators. For a radical change, Metro could junk the whole route system that exists in the Rainier Valley, and focus on a short-haul circulator system that connects the stations with surrounding arterials. For instance, a bus could run along MLK between Othello and Columbia City Stations, and then turn onto Alaska, go South on Rainier, and then back west along Othello St. Another could cover the West Side counterpart on Beacon Ave. Similarly, a bus could shuttle between Mt. Baker and the International District Stations via Rainer Ave. and Jackson St.
I don’t think the fourth option is going to happen, because it means reducing use of the existing trolley lines, which have their own constituency in Metro. Also, change confuses people and is therefore unpopular.
Metro will start publicly mulling over these issues soon. What would you like to see happen?