In my previous post about possible options for revision of Metro service after Light Rail, one that attracted extra attention was the circulator idea, which would route almost all downtown-bound commuters into the light rail. This would add a transfer for many people, but it would also reduce travel time (if done right), maximally leverage the huge capital investment in light rail, and allow more frequent bus service.

Anyway, I haven’t done professional analysis on the viability of this concept, but with the help of STB Flickr Pool superstar Oranviri, I’ve sketched out how such a concept might work. I emphasize that I haven’t heard of anything like this coming out of Metro, nor do I think it likely that such a radical change would occur. However, even if full implementation isn’t in the cards, I think this might be an interesting thing to phase in during off-peak hours, to test its viability and reduce bus operating expenditure.

Maps and discussion after the jump.

First, a reminder of the current service:

As a reminder, the 7 and 36 run at more or less 10-15 minute intervals all-day, every day. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a non-articulated 7! The 48 is frequent, but often stops at Mt. Baker or Columbia City evenings and weekends. The 42 is on the half-hour all the time, and the 39 runs every half hour except evenings, when it stops, and Sundays, where it’s hourly. The 32 and 34 are peak-only. There are also express versions of the 7 and 42 that are peak only. The 9 runs about once an hour weekdays only, except for half-hours in the peak direction (as far as the Valley is concerned).

Concept 1: “Single-loop” Circulator

As you can see, the basic idea is that most service is replaced by three circulators that run between neighboring stations via Beacon Rainier Avenues. The caption has some mistakes, so ignore it. Key features:

  • The 7 terminates at Mt. Baker station. Riders trying to travel between random points along Rainier Ave. can take a 9, whose service hours are extended to evenings and weekends, with half-hour service. The extended 9 also provides a one-seat ride to Capitol Hill, which will be hard to do with light rail before 2016.
  • The 106 and 107 terminate at Rainier Beach (to transfer to Light Rail).
  • The 7X, 32, 34, 42, and 42X disappear altogether, replaced by Light Rail service.
  • All 48 trips service Rainier Beach station, providing coverage between light rail stops and improving connectivity with the Central District.
  • The 36 is scaled back to half-hour frequency to cover trips that don’t leave Beacon Hill, and the section north of Beacon Hill station. All other riders are diverted to the circulator and light rail.
  • The 39 gets full service on evenings and weekends (half-hour intervals), so that the Seward Park neighborhood is connected with Light Rail during its entire operating period.

I’d guess that each of these circulators would take no more than 15-20 minutes to complete a loop, so you could probably get away with 6 buses running simultaneously, one in each loop in each direction. When you effectively take out 2/3 of the runs of the 7 (the 7s become 9s) and 36, and all of the 42s, I think this probably pencils out, and maybe returns an operating surplus to the rest of the city. I’ve asked some sources at Metro to take a closer look at this.

Concept #2: “Double-Loop” Circulator

The idea here is that two circulators cover four stations, allowing longer one-seat rides along Rainier Ave and Beacon Ave. Key features:

  • The 7, 9, 36, 106, and 107 don’t need to service the Rainier Valley at all. Trips along the arterials can be handled by the circulators.
  • 39 and 48 service extends to Rainier Beach station during all LINK operating hours, allowing Seward Park and MLK to feed into the stations.
  • 7X, 32, 34, 42, and 42X are eliminated.
  • 106 and 107 termina
  • There are no other lines in the Valley.

I think this is more elegant than the single-loop scenario because it enables longer one-seat rides. Like the single-loop plan, however, every bus stop in the current situation still gets service (no one loses service because of this plan). I’d guess that each cycle would take about half an hour, so you’d need two buses going in each direction to get 15-minute service intervals, which I’d target. Therefore, you’d need a total of eight buses simultaneously. On the other hand, this replaces basically all other routes in the Valley besides the 39, so maybe someone in the comments can report on how many buses operate in this sector simultaneously today.

I invite your comments on what is still just a particularly well-developed brainstorm. Too radical for an immediate rollout? Up your alley? Let us know.

14 Replies to “Rainier Valley Circulators”

  1. Looks like a nicely detailed solution to the problem. I prefer #1, since it reduces any possible wait for a bus plus has a short travel time to a station. It will require more buses than #2, but still looks like there’s a savings from the current system. Also, short loops make for fewer traffic delay problems.

    #2 is a nice trick, and saves quite a few buses to do almost the same job. It looks like it should give the same frequency of service as currently exists, so it may be a good short term option since KC can use all the buses they can find right now.

  2. Since the mantra of this blog is “train is always better than bus AND buses always get stuck in traffic” then I can’t fathom how the double-loop would even be considered here.

    1. Actually, doesn’t the 7 have a very poor on-time schedule? I may be uninformed since I don’t go to Rainer Valley often, but I think that bus does in fact get stuck in traffic all the time.

      The loop concept seems good to me and might allow better bus service to Capitol Hill by getting the 7 and 9 away from busier streets and difficult intersections.

  3. Here are constructive comments that I hope you will consider in providing input to Metro and Sound Transit. I too hope the agencies (particularly Metro) are bold and do radical things, as long as the radical things will be beneficial to the most number of riders (or future riders).

    The loop routes in either concept would have to be diesel buses for the foreseeable future: the lateral connections of the loops have no overhead trolley wire; the extensions Metro is constructing in time for Link next year do not cross Link light rail. I’ve heard there are issues with the fact that the Link overhead catenary wires carry 1500 volts while the trolleybus wire is 700 volts (1500 volts is a typical for light rail); It would be an exciting fireworks display until one of the systems faults.
    In Concept #1, the 36 routing shown would have to be a diesel bus since there will be no wire south of Othello Street. The route 9, on the other hand, could become a trolley bus, unless you want it to skip stops north of Mt. Baker Station. In which case, all buses would need to be diesel south of Mt. Baker Station (since the #7 would be in the way at most stops).
    Concept #2’s elimination of the 9 and 7 south of Mt. Baker Station and the 36 south of Beacon Hill Station Mt. Baker and Beacon Hill Link stations respectively would mean a complete elimination of electric transit service south of these Link stations.
    Traveling up and down Rainier Avenue in Concept #2 appears to become rather difficult. A trip from Rainier Beach to Little Saigon would require two transfers (either on Rainier or using Link), for something today requires no transfers. If headways are optimized for transfers to rail, then transfers on Beacon Avenue S and Rainier Avenue S would likely be suboptimal.
    I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) will typically be 7.5 minutes for most of the day to S. Henderson Street Station (half of trains would turn back). Would 15-minute headways on buses have sufficient capacity to effectively “feed” Link?
    With the loops, where would bus operators layover? This would be important to identify early on, since some part of the loop would be disrupted by waits of 10-15 minutes; longer than most people will want to sit on a bus that’s not moving. Light rail stations would probably be the easiest to have layover, but it disrupts the concept of the circulators providing intra-valley travel.
    It looks like the best bus service in the valley would be the 39 and 48. MLK consequently has both really good rail and good bus service while Beacon Avenue and Rainier see a significant reduction from today’s service levels (10 minutes) plus more diesel buses than currently.
    Concepts that reduce the number of trolley buses in operation will likely have a negative impact on Metro’s fleet constraint, since the constraint is primarily in the diesel fleet. Trolley buses (and particularly the 60 foot trolley buses on the 7) are far less fungible/transferable than diesel buses.

    1. Multimodal,

      Good, constructive comments. I meant to address the electrification issue, but didn’t get to it. I had suspected that wiring the cross streets would be a good medium term capital project, but hadn’t considered the issue of crossing the tracks. So you’re right, the circulators stick us with diesels. Another drawback, I guess.

      I would dispute your statement that the 39 and 48 would be best. The 39 is half-hour service, the 48 15-minute. On Beacon and Rainier you have at least one, and often two, circulators going by every 15 minutes in each direction.

      It’s true that some trips are going to require more transfers — I believe that’s inevitable when there’s no route that exactly matches LINK, if you’re going to eliminate routes at all. For instance, there isn’t any direct way to get from MLK to the I-90 freeway station if the 42 goes away, which is probably going to happen, and affects me personally.

      To address the specific example that you raise (RB to Little Saigon), if they’re close enough to RB station it’s still a 2-seat ride, and much faster to boot. The idea here is that LR gives you enough time savings over the bus that for really long-haul trips up Rainier and Beacon the circulator transfer (or a bit of walking) probably washes out in terms of time. God knows the 7 takes forever to get all the way uptown.

      1. Re: #39. My apologies. I thought you had upped the headway. So I retract my comment on that point.

  4. I would prefer the 7 stay, and be a feeder to Light Rail as it passes through Mt. Baker Station, and comes close to two other stations. It’s best to keep the trolleys, the way Metro has been complaining they are getting hurt by rising Diesel Fuel. Possibly make the loops trolleybuses where possible. Already have some wire in place. It was a bad mistake by Seattle Transit to dieselize the 7 in 1963, and Metro brought it back 15 years later. Although with the 7, maybe eventually replace it with a streetcar.

  5. I would hope that these would all eventually become streetcars, although the city currently has no plans for streetcars anywhere south of Jackson. And does anyone know what voltage the slu streetcar has, because I know there are a couple places where trolleybus lines cross the streetcar’s overhead wire.

    1. SLU streetcar voltage (nominal 700 volts) is same as Metro Trolleybus system. In theory at least, they can share a power supply system.

  6. I think the #39 would have to be upped in frequency to every 15 minutes during the peak hours to make this concept work, and as proposed, definitely would need evening/nightime and weekened service (every 30 min.).

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