ACRS from the bus stop (Photo by the Author)

I feel funny criticizing the much-maligned 42, because it’s a bus I’m on two or three times  a week. It’s the most direct link between the I-90 freeway station and the MLK corridor. On the other hand, having the region’s most prolific transit blogger on board is not in itself a reason to save a route.

The first time Metro tried to kill the 42, there were three basic groups of objections. The first group had reservations about taking the train, because they thought it was going to be too hard to use or much more expensive. ORCA issues aside, this was basically unfounded. The second group was clustered around MLK and Graham St., or south of Henderson, too far to walk to a station and reluctant to transfer to the 8 or 107. The final group was the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), a non-profit organization with a shiny new facility at MLK and Walden St. They put on a parade of testimony to the King County Council, a fine example of how to move the council on small-bore issues.

My map, via Google. Eat your heart out, Oran.

The basic argument was that vulnerable populations needed a one-seat ride to the doorstep of their facility. Metro relented by not deleting the route entirely, instead cutting it down so that it could be served by only one bus, running hourly between Pioneer Square and downtown Columbia City. Cleverly, the new 42 also provided a nice connection between downtown Columbia City and its station for those disinclined to walk.

Although everyone wants to give good options to the mobility- impaired, the entire point of Access paratransit is to provide service to people who can’t walk a few blocks. Although it costs around $38 per ride provided, running a bus 10 hours a day costs at least $1000, so it’s likely that in strict terms of serving the elderly Access is more cost-effective.

For everyone else, there are three pretty good options to reach ACRS from downtown*:

  • Take Link, walk less than 1/2 mile to the ACRS front door.
  • Take Link, walk less than 100m, ride the 8 (15 minute headways) for one stop.
  • Take the 7 from downtown, walk three blocks to ACRS.

Frequent STB commenter Bruce Nourish has obtained the numbers:  there are about 167 boardings per day, or 8 per trip, at a cost of about $6 per rider. There’s no telling how many of them are visiting ACRS, although my anecdotal observation is “few if any,” and many riders (like me) have plenty of other almost-as-good options. At least a seventh of these riders would have to be mobility-impaired, and headed to or from ACRS, to make the 42 cost-effective vs. Access.

We simply cannot construct a sensible system where everyone is within a block of a one-seat ride to downtown.

*Incidentally, that spanking new ACRS facility has its entrance oriented towards its parking lot, as far as possible from the bus stop. See the photo at top. A bad signal about how much the organization really cares about transit access.

36 Replies to “The Case Against the 42”

  1. And to be clear, those walks from Rainier and Walden, or Mount Baker are on wide, new sidewalks and either flat (MLK) or gently sloped (Walden). When I made the walk to the 7 stops I spent as much time waiting for signals as I did in motion.

  2. Access may be more cost effective, but unless things have changed since my days working with the disability community (and I sincerely hope they have), it stinks compared to being able to take regular transit. I routinely heard tales of it being many HOURS late to pick people up, so users would schedule their pick up several hours before whatever appointment they had to go to, in order to get there on time.

    Not that I don’t agree with the idea of route consolidation (and I don’t know enough about the 42 to make an informed choice), but it’s probably good to talk to the folks who regularly use Access to see what they think about using it as an alternative to regular transit to get to their social services appointments. I’m just sayin’.

    1. Most of the people I have seen at public meetings that want to save the 42 are healthy, able bodied people that do not need to use Access. I think Martin’s point is there is a purpose of Access service, to help those that can’t walk long distances, but everyone else, especially in an example like this, can’t have a bus stop right in front of where they want to go. That is not how you build a good transit system.

      1. How many people use the 42 to get to the ACRS? If the answer is very few, then the 42 should go–there are plenty of other options. But if a high percentage of the 167 daily riders are using it to travel to/from ACRS, then there might be a case for keeping the 42.

      2. Seems like it would be a pretty simple matter to see how many people get off and on at the ACRS stop for a day or week.

      3. Adam,

        I assume you mean “one seat ride to downtown right in front” in which case I agree.

      4. Michael H,

        The number of users of the ACRS stop doesn’t tell you how many of those people would actually have a hard time walking two or three blocks.

      5. Martin, aren’t you alleging that very few of the 42 riders are ACRS clients, whether they have mobility issues or not?

      6. I agree–seriously, I live on a route that was clearly designed as a shuttle for a nearby nursing home, so it meanders all over the place and takes a 5-minute detour into a hospital campus so that one or two people can access the stop right at the hospital’s entrance. It’s maddening to ride that route. And like I said, I really don’t know enough about the 42 to make an informed choice about whether this stop is worthwhile or not. But if it IS a destination that those with disabilities go to frequently, then expecting people to be able to get to it just with Access probably means we should invest more in Access, so that it’s really a useful service for the mobility-impaired. Then we can focus on building routes that are efficient for more people. But if we’re not willing to invest in Access, then I think we all have to accept meandering inefficient routes.

    2. I’ve heard those horror stories too. The question I always ask (which tends to end the discussion) is what people who cannot move three blocks under their own power do at the other end of the route. For example, if you’re disabled and walking is hard for you, getting from ACRS to anywhere north of Marion requires a transfer and some unavoidable walking (or wheeling). You are already better off on the 7 than on the 42 because of the much longer walkshed of the 7 downtown.

      If you can’t get from MLK & Walden to Rainier & Walden on your own, I don’t see what fixed-route service has to offer you in general, and unless you never leave a three-block radius of I.D. station, I don’t see what the 42 offers you in terms of getting to ACRS that the 7 doesn’t.

      1. After reviewing the route maps for the 42, I agree it should be eliminated. I think Metro needs to discard the notion of guaranteeing one seat rides to everyone.

        That being said, expecting people to walk up steep grades or even moderately steep grades (e.g. Walden) is not going to be popular. They will and have been opting for other modes of transport. Not everyone is a 20’something sprog. Fortunately, there are bus solutions to get from Rainier to MLK via the 8 from Mt. Baker Stn/TC.

        I think the solution for the “social justice” issue mentioned can be addressed by providing east/west connections between Rainier and MLK in the Rainier Valley. (e.g. Graham, Othello, Orcas, Alaska)

      2. The issue is how many other people do not have bus service because of the 42’s service hours. People in east Rainier Valley have been crying out for a frequent bus to Link, but the resurrection of the 42 took hours away from the planned 39 improvements. Which people are more numerous, the 42 riders who have almost-duplicate choices, the Othello would-be riders who have to wait 45 minutes for a bus, or the Graham riders who have no bus at all?

      3. While I live along the 39 and would benefit from those service improvements, the area also needs east/west connections at Graham for sure and at others such as Alaska (presumably the 39 would still cover that) and Orcas.

    3. It sounds like the real problem is simply that Access blows.

      The part that bugs me is this. We already have a system that can take people directly from their origin to their destination, with a wait time of 5-15 minutes on average. It’s called Yellow Cab. Sure, there are some populations that need all the features Access has, but for many people, a cab would be just fine (if not better), and far cheaper for Metro to provide.

      So, let’s imagine that we picked a taxi company (STITA, for example), and then made a deal. Anyone with a senior/disability RRFP could call a taxi to/from anywhere within a 0.75 mile radius of a bus stop (i.e. the paratransit boundary) at no cost to themselves. Metro would pay the fare, but at a negotiated discount, since they’re a volume customer.

      This seems like it would be both cheaper and better than current paratransit for many people, including some who currently use Access and others who currently use these circuitous routes.

      1. Completely agree–and I think some other cities (Portland, if I’m not mistaken) are already doing this. I am really not knowledgeable about the cost structures involved but it seems like it’s something at least worth looking into for Metro.

  3. Another issue that is tied into this discussion is the siting of social service.

    ACRS obviously has a close connection to the International District (three of their former sites were there) but they decided to move to their current location. I’m unfamiliar with the history of that move but I’m sure that their current site is a cheaper, larger sites than want they could find in the ID. However with this cheaper site, access, especially for those with special needs or no car obviously becomes harder.

    This also happened to the food bank in Kirkland near my office. They moved from a small house on the edge of downtown Kirkland, well served by the transit center, to a larger facility (probably the main reason) in Totem Lake that has one half hour or hourly service route.

    This is kind of a paradox of social services. They need cheap sites/rents, but typically those sites are in areas that have poor access. In the case of ACRS most social service groups would probably kill to be next to both LINK and the 7.

    1. ACRS knew exactly where the Rainier Valley stations would be located when they selected the site. For any able-bodied person, ACRS is less than a 10 minute walk from Mt. Baker station. If that’s too far, they could have purchased a site closer to any of the SE Seattle stations for about the same price or less, especially if they would have been willing to live with fewer parking spaces. As it is, their parking lots sit half-empty most of the time.

      1. They could rent some of their parking to the general public, if they realized how easy it is to walk down the block and ride the elevator up to the station.

      2. SSHHH! You’re letting away their secret. If people are easily walking from the parking lot to the parking lot to the station, especially if they’re visible from MLK, it would dash their argument that the station is too far away. But it could make them a nice little but of money, which I’m sure any social-service agency could use.

  4. I wonder if there’d be any sense in combining the 42 with the 38, and turning the whole thing into one route? If you could still serve it with one bus you’d save some service hours.

  5. As a society, we ought to be investing more in personal transportation technology suitable for the elderly and disabled, but smaller, slower, and cheaper than a car. For example, we have electric-powered wheelchairs. How about electric-powered wheelchairs that can go 10-15 mph and don’t get stuck in potholes? Suddenly, the 1/2 mile walk from the Link station doesn’t look so far anymore. Similarly, for those that can walk a little bit, but need assistance to travel more than a few hundred feet, a low-powered electric scooter with sufficiently good balance should be able to do the trick. Or, how about a golf-cart sharing program where you pay a few dollars for a one-way trip and return the cart next to your destination.

    If done properly, low-powered personal transportation technology can solve last-mile problems far more efficiently than designing bus routes to go to everyone’s front door, or the front door of agencies that scream the loudest, and operating paratransit services. If people are both disabled and too poor to afford the mobility devices they need to get around, then subsidize them. In the long run, offering someone a few hundred dollars off a foldable electric scooter is far cheaper than providing them with paratransit rides for half mile trips.

    1. Have the advocates of personal rapid transit looked at the issues of dueling catenary systems for trains, trolleys, and personal vehicles on the grid?

      Also, there are categories of reasons why people ride paratransit other than mobility issues. You can’t just put people with mental ability issues on PRT. Don’t forget kids and people with limited proficiency in the language used to run the system also need to go places. Oh, and the visually-challenged. Are there visually-challenged people involved in developing PRT conceptually?

      1. I’m not a big PRT fan, but to be fair, there are workarounds that could make PRT possible for the categories of people you mentioned:

        1) Kids: Not an issue. A child who can’t follow the simple directions for using a PRT system probably shouldn’t travel independently anyway.

        2 and 3) People with limited proficiency in the local language and the visually challenged: The issues involved are much the same as with fixed-route transit. The necessary/possible accommodations are similar.

        My understanding of how PRT works is that the tickets are sold by vending machine and encoded with the person’s destination, and the insertion of the ticket into the vehicle tells it where to go. One possible accommodation would be to sell or provide pre-encoded tickets to people in these groups. Social service agencies, for example could provide tickets specifically for travel to the station nearest them. If your first grader needs PRT for school, you could buy his/her tickets in advance pre-encoded with school and home destinations, etc.

  6. “ORCA issues aside …”

    This leads to a larger cost to the decent functioning of Metro in which ACRS may be complicit. A coalition of human service agencies had about as much luck as many of us do in getting Metro to be responsive to their concerns during the run-up to the ORCA rollout, back in 2008. (Have I said many times that ST is far better than Metro at being responsive to the public?) Maybe they should have tried to work through ST instead, but it didn’t happen that way.

    They formed a coalition to try to push solutions for how human service agencies could handle free tickets for their clients without a whole lot of bureaucratic expense. They issued a report that basically sent the message that ORCA is expensive and unfair to the poor. In the fine print, they acknowledged that ORCA would be free for a while, but still scared a lot of people that should have taken advantage of the free period from getting an ORCA. In the end, the only thing that they demonstrated as being unfair to the poor was the cost of *purchasing* an ORCA, not the cost of using it.

    So now, Metro uses the cost of getting an ORCA ($5 plus the $5 minimum load) as the primary justification for keeping paper transfers, and has yet to provide a direct answer to the question of why keeping the paper transfers at two hours (in contrast to every other agency in the ORCA pod) is justified.

    If either the human service agencies or Metro would put a little more focus on the issue, they’d broach the question of why there has to be a $5 minimum load on ORCA. It couldn’t be to reduce credit-card fees since people buy tickets for as little as $2, using credit cards, at the TVMs. I’ve done it myself.

    Human service agencies are focused on the costs to themselves. Metro is just overwhelmed with little and big issues it hasn’t had the time to think through, or if it has thought through them, has gotten vetoed by the county council. They certainly don’t have the staff time to answer every question they get.

    If the cost of an ORCA to poor riders who are not clients of agencies distributing ORCA really is an issue to Metro, why not use their power as a partner in running ORCA to have the minimum load reduced to $2? (Of course, we could ask the same question of ST — the other ORCA administration partner — and probably get an answer.)

    Cash fumbling is costing Metro millions of dollars a year, perhaps almost as much as the value of all the routes being considered for elimination or reduction in February. It’s time for Metro to think about the issue, and not just throw its hands up and declare the issue too confusing to be solved. It’s not rocket science. Eliminate the incentive to use cash, and people will use ORCA e-purse a lot more.

    1. “Cash fumbling is costing Metro millions of dollars a year”

      Cite, please. What is the evidence for this claim?

      1. Pull out a stopwatch and time how long it takes a typical cash fumbler vs. a typical ORCA tapper to get on board. Go with the latest figure that the two groups are evenly split, and multiply by the number of boardings systemwide in a year.

        Alternatively, believe that there was truth to the budgetary projection from 2008 that the ORCA rollout would reduce the number of needed service hours by a noticable amount.

        If drastically reducing cash fumbling reduces service hours needed by just 1% (and I think that figure is low, especially for high-capacity routes), that is 1/17 of the proposed service reduction, or about $4 million a year.

        That doesn’t count the effect of inducing more ridership due to faster travel time, or the value of riders’ time saved.

      2. While Metro would save a lot of money and service hours if ORCA was more widely adopted the other savings aren’t to be overlooked:

        1. Getting rid of transfers means not having to pay to have them printed, distributed, or dispose of the ones discarded on the bus. Fare evasion due to paper transfers is greatly reduced.

        2. Reduced cash handling costs for dealing with fares collected.

        3. Reduced wear and tear on fareboxes leading to fewer broken fareboxes.

        4. Enables adoption of a POP system and off-board fare payment at transit centers and major stops.

      3. How do you have POP for cash paying passengers without some kind of receipt? It isn’t necessary to eliminate paper transfers to have 4 unless you mean the savings from doing so would enable 4.

      4. I would be VERY surprised if the delay caused by cash collection accumulated enough over the course of the route to even save one trip on any bus line.

        The actual wall-clock time incurred by accepting cash payments pales in comparison to the perceived time expense. Now that we have a faster system, people feel put upon when others choose to stick with the slower method. This costs much more goodwill than if the bus had just been caught in traffic for an equivalent period of time.

  7. The fact that a significant number of Metro routes are pay as you leave is more inefficient. Also, the roll out of TVMs or places for people to reload their ORCA cards is weak; not every transit center has one, and especially outside of Seattle they are virtually non existent nor marketed towards all transit users.

    1. The scarcity of physical TVM / ORCA reload stations is a problem.

      The delay associated with reloading a card on the website was enough to eventually make me only manage my ORCA at a TVM. I’m sure many more people than myself shun the ORCA website.

      If cash-fumbling costs as many service hours as Brent claims above (and I don’t think anyone who’s watched a line of riders boarding would disbelieve him), Metro should be able to recoup the costs of installing ORCA machines at every major transfer hub, and enjoy more efficient service for all time.

      My only issue is that there’s virtually no way to load ORCA with cash. There’s a lot of low-income riders out there who do not have bank accounts or debit cards.

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