Last month, in one of several posts on Southeast Seattle service changes, I mentioned Metro’s attitude towards frequent rider requests for a local circulator:
Furthermore, after to talking to some of the Metro planning staff, it’s an article of faith in some quarters there that “circulators don’t work.”
My throwaway remark prompted a comment from Jarrett, linking to his extended response on his blog, “Human Transit”. He critiqued my circulator concept as a way of debunking the entire idea of circulators. In his comment thread a bunch of Metro commenters form an amen corner, pretty much proving the limited point I made above.
Jarrett’s piece, all the way from Australia, is eloquent and informative. Some key grafs:
Forgive me if this seems obvious but: People get on a bus because it takes them to (or at least toward) where they’re going. The shorter a route is, the fewer places it goes, and thus the fewer people will tend to get on it. Very short routes, say under 3 mi, tend to do very poorly unless they’re the sole means of reaching a major destination (such a shuttle between a major hospital and a nearby rail station.) Metro’s own experience with a circulator route in West Seattle is a good example.
If a neighborhood is served only with a circulator, this also puts the area one connection further away from most destinations. Metro’s proposed structure keeps the Rainier Valley connected to the rest of the city by continuous north-south lines, increasing the likelihood that only one connection will be need to get most places…
There’s a much broader lesson here that I’m sure I’ll come back to. Localized interests (such as developers, community groups, and small city governments) tend to invent short routes — “circulators” or “shuttles” — because they are thinking about their particular transport problem in isolation. Successful transit agencies, though, are always looking for how to serve these localized needs using longer routes that do many other things. It’s by combining markets, not by serving them separately, that successful transit corridors are made.
I think I’d concede the larger point Jarrett is trying to make. The classic circulator, which takes a scenic route through the neighborhood before getting to the transit station (or what have you), is a terrible route. First of all, it doesn’t really take you anywhere you want to go beside the station; secondly, due to its milk-run nature, it’s actually a pretty poor way to get to the station if you have any alternative.
In spite of all that, I think the “double loop” concept I put on the table (see map above) is not that classic circulator, because of transit usage in the Rainier Valley, the non-trivial geographic span of the proposed lines, and certain dynamics of travel within the valley:
- As has been pointed out many times, in the Rainier Valley buses are as much a way to complete mid-day grocery shopping as get to work. If a route serves the main retail centers, it will attract riders irrespective of its connection to light rail.
- The double-loop configuration allow rapid travel along the key Rainier Ave retail corridor and the heavily populated Beacon Ave corridor, while also ensuring reliable, quick connections to the nearest rail station, which in time will become important business and residential concentrations in their own right.
- Most importantly, the circulators enable seemingly obvious trips that are totally impractical today. Someone living at a random point on Beacon Ave attempting to reach a random point on Rainier Avenue, today, is typically looking at a three-seat ride. For obvious reasons, the two corridors have become silos where bus-mobile residents rarely interact, in spite of the fact that they’re perhaps a mile from each other.
A common theme during the service change process was “East-West connections.” I think Metro understood that as new ways to get out of the Southeast without going downtown. While that’s important, they neglected the fact that it is very hard to go East-West within the valley, unless you happen to live on one of two or three widely dispersed cross streets. The current service plan doesn’t do much to change that, although it does preserve parallel service to downtown 3 or 4 blocks from a light rail line.