I have a distinct impression that it no longer serves any unique transit market and in fact diminishes the performance of Routes 3, 8, and 48, all of which serve unique destinations. From 3rd/James to 23rd/Jefferson, the shared 3/4 provide 7-15 minute headways until 1am. Once the 4 turns south on 23rd, it duplicates the 48. From its turn at Dearborn it runs in a couplet on 24th and 26th, needlessly threading the needle between 23rd (Route 48) and MLK (Route 8).
In this post I’ll drill down into the stop-level data to answer a complementary question: Are people using the unique part of Route 4 to Judkins park and beyond? I’ll also examine stop-level data for Route 3, and suggest an inexpensive capital modification to the trolleybus network that could dramatically improve the reliability and almost double the capacity of these workhorse routes.
For those not familiar with this chart format, head on over to my post about Route 36. Here’s what I see in this chart:
- Crush loads from downtown to Harborview in the AM peak. The average load tops out at 45, just off the chart. Keeping in mind that a Gillig trolley nominally seats 42, this means every coach is full as it heads up James. Presumably this overcrowding is already dissuading additional choice riders. This is another point in favor of the First Hill Streetcar: even though it’ll be slower, it’ll be a much more comfortable way for suburban commuters to get from the Downtown Transit Tunnel to First Hill, especially if Metro is unable to add capacity to this route in the near future. More on this below.
- Very little activity after Jefferson & 23rd, except at the two stops on 23rd at Yesler and Jackson. These two stops, in addition to frequent north-south service from the 48, have faster one-seat rides to downtown with similar headways from the 14 and 27 respectively. South of these two stops, loads are light in all time periods; boarding activity and loads increase briskly as the bus heads down Jefferson. (I’m suspicious of the apparently large number of boardings at the terminal stops on Walker; even if those numbers are true, those people have many better bus options to almost anywhere).
- Very little use of the Lighthouse for the Blind stop on Plum & 25th. While providing the ability for people who cannot drive to live and work independently is a vital function of transit, the stop here is so thinly patronized — about 15 boardings and four deboardings per day — as to suggest that, in the context of the minimal use and almost complete redundancy of the long tail of this route, finding alternative ways to serve this facility are in order.
I think Metro’s riders have answered Zach’s question: the long tail is indeed redundant. There is little to be lost and much to be saved by simply terminating the 4 at 23rd & Jefferson, making those trips turnback routings of the 3.
The data for the 3 confirm several trends observed in the data for the 4. Harborview ridership dwarfs everything else; Jefferson performs well. Ridership on Cherry is weak, making a decent showing only in the peak, but, unlike the 4, it does fill what would otherwise be a mobility gap in Metro’s network. Late night ridership seems to be almost nonexistent past 23rd Ave, and it may make sense to trim back service there, although it wouldn’t save much.
Switching from James to Yesler
This chart is similar to the one in my post about Route 16, and you should refer to that post for details on how to read it. The underlying information is time point data for routes 3, 4 and 27. It’s evident that from Broadway to 3rd Ave, the 27 is much faster and much more reliable, consistently clocking three minutes during the day and two minutes in the evening. By contrast, the 3 and 4 averages swing from 6 to 10 minutes, with much larger error bars associated with each run, indicating very unpredictable travel times even at the same time of day. [UPDATE: To be clear, I'm proposing moving only the segment that runs on James down to Yesler. The route on Jefferson would be unchanged. Metro's timepoint data just happens to run from Broadway.]
Of course, this isn’t quite a fair comparison as the 3 and 4 have to make two additional turns, and board and deboard far more riders than the 27. Even so, it’s clear that moving the 3 and 4 to Yesler would make them faster and more reliable. Keep in mind that this doesn’t just improve service for the people who make this trip — the 3/4 continue to Queen Anne, and lateness on arriving at 3rd Ave is likely to translate in the lateness all the way to the north terminal.
There are additional points for this change:
- If the trolleybus replacement program at Metro recommends the correct mix of 60′ and 40′ trolleys, and sufficient additional layover space were found, the peak capacity of this corridor could be doubled at minimal additional operating expense by switching to 60′ trolleys. Routes that use James and other streets with severe hill breaks (such as Seneca and Madison) are constrained to use 40′ coaches, a problem which does not exist with Yesler.
- This move removes one of two lane-blocking left turns that buses have to make on 3rd Ave southbound (the other being the 2 onto Spring). The turn at Yesler has its own lane. Congestion on 3rd southbound was identified as the biggest problem with surface street reliability once the RFA is eliminated.
There are also some downsides:
- The cost is relatively high for a trolleybus project — roughly $12 million according to people I spoke to at Metro. This is because the Dilling Bridge and the bridge over I-5 have some technical issues that make the trolley wire supports difficult to install.
- Yesler has no ADA access to or from surrounding streets between 3rd &
8th6th, only two narrow staircases. Riders currently boarding at 5th & James will have to walk, typically less than five minutes, most likely to the stop on 3rd.
- Riders at 8th & James will have to walk up the steep hill to 9th & Jefferson for the 3/4 or several blocks to Madison for the nearest service on the 12. This creates a small mobility gap in a very steep part of the city that is difficult to address.
On balance, I think the benefits far outweigh the costs for this change. If the city’s $60 VLF were to pass in the fall, the $20 million allotted to trolleybus improvements would make this very affordable, and while projects such as this aren’t sexy, they do improve the transit system and the experience of the people who use it.