Slow, often overloaded, and seemingly always late, Metro Route 16 is nevertheless one of the workhorses of north-central Seattle. Starting downtown, heading through Queen Anne to Fremont via Aurora Ave, thence to Wallingford, Greenlake, North Seattle Community College and Northgate, it connects lots of dense neighborhoods and transit destinations. Its roots go back a long way: streetcar service circled Green Lake and connected to downtown via the Fremont streecar bridge, and frequent service has existed on Aurora since the construction of the Aurora Bridge. The 16 was interlined with what was then route 6, the predecessor of today’s 358.
The Seattle Center Detour
According to some Metro planners I chatted with, Route 16 formerly ran out of a bus base, known as North Base, which was located on the east side of what is now the Seattle Center. It was presumably convenient to route the bus past this base, which explains the first oddity on the map above: rather than run straight up Aurora like today’s 5 and 358, the bus serves the stops on 5th Ave N, which, in the northbound direction, requires a stopless loop-like detour of just over a mile and roughly five minutes when traffic is moving freely. This detour is actually much worse than it looks on the map: due to the construction work on Mercer, that road is congested most days and is invariably a parking lot during the afternoon commute. This sitation is going to persist for years, and if the Mercer West project is funded, the construction disruption will probably get worse before it gets better.
Let’s look more carefully at the consequences of this detour on travel times and reliability. The following graph, generated from Metro’s official timepoint data, plots the average measured travel times for routes 5 and 16 throughout the day, between 3rd & Union (Route 16) or 3rd & Pine (Route 5) and Fremont Way and N 38th St. Error bars indicate the standard deviation of the measured travel times, a statistical measure of the variability of those times, and hence the of the bus’s reliability. Chart below the jump.
Two things are evident from this graph: route 16 takes longer — sometimes much longer — to to make this part of the trip, and the trip times during the day are highly variable, making it impossible to schedule the bus accurately. It seems obvious that for all riders who are not using the stops on 5th Ave or Broad St, it would be a tremendous gain and no loss to straighten this alignment. We must now ask how many riders would be impacted and in what way by such a change, given that the northbound bus travel time will decrease by at least five minutes.
Heading northbound out of downtown, four* stops are affected, accounting for 9% of the 16’s northbound boardings and deboardings. The first three, 3rd & Vine, Cedar & Denny, and 5th & John are a simple three block walk to either 3rd & Bell and Aurora & Denny. Those short walks pose no problems for the vast majority of riders, who will be able to complete them in less than five minutes; thus riders boarding in at these stops experience a net savings in travel time, while riders from downtown disembarking here may have slightly longer trips. Similarly, I’ve timed the walk from the stop at 5th & Mercer via the underpass to Aurora & Mercer, and that’s just over five minutes at an easy pace. The only people who lose are at the 5th & Thomas stop, who will probably take six to eight minutes to reach the Aurora & Denny or Aurora & Denny stops.
Heading southbound, the 16 turns right on Valley St and heads down 5th. This routing incurs only a small time penalty and doesn’t suffer the serious reliability issues of of Mercer St; moreover people who use these stops will typically have to walk about five minutes to get to the new stop, so the tradeoff for this routing change is a likely travel time penalty for these riders, who comprise about 11% of the 16’s southbound boardings and deboardings.
NE Northgate Way
The other strange thing you may notice on Route 16’s map: the long loop up Meridian, along Northgate Way and down 5th Ave NE to the Northgate Transit Center. This alignment takes about 11 minutes, versus a more direct routing along 92nd St, which would probably take four or five minutes. Once again, this oddity has its origins in the past: before the Northgate Transit Center was constructed, the 16 terminated and laid over at a pullout near a totem pole** at the north entrance of the Northgate Mall. After the Transit Center was constructed, Metro chose to extend the route in order to avoid complaints from existing riders, rather than impose a quicker and more direct routing.
Making this routing change now would force about 16% of the 16’s riders to walk five to fifteen minutes or transfer in order to reach the Transit Center; the payoff is a five or more minute reduction in bus travel times.
Five minutes here and there may not sound like much, but when you consider that a 16 run is about 45-50 minutes, long, a 10-15 minute reduction is a 20% – 30% speedup and cost savings. In fact, the 600k hour cut scenario from Metro identified the 16 as an underserved corridor, and suggested improving daytime headways from 20 to 15 minutes. It’s possible that the routing changes I’ve suggested here could make such a change revenue neutral, and an increase in frequency could help mitigate the concerns of those who are inconvenienced.
* Google Maps and One Bus Away show a northbound 16 stop on Dexter & Harrison, but the official Metro map does not show a stop there, and it does not appear in my boarding data.
** The pullout is still there, although it’s coned off, but the totem pole has been moved. However, another novelty is in its place, namely a bus stop sign which shows “Local & Express” as subtext under the “16”, even though the 16X was discontinued years ago.