Much of the debate surrounding many of the recently-proposed Metro restructures boil down to frequency versus coverage: given Metro’s tightly-constrained operating budget (among other reasons), Metro can’t operate numerous frequent closely-spaced fixed-route services. Rather, Metro must choose between numerous infrequent routes that attempt to provide service within a few minute’s walk of almost everyone’s doorstep, and a smaller number of frequent routes that focus service on ridership centers, serving riders in less-productive areas either with peak-only service or requiring them to walk further.
In addition to policy concerns and value judgements, there are some general empirical observations that can inform these debates. One I wrote about recently is that more-frequent routes are often much more efficient to schedule than infrequent routes. Another, which I plan to address in this post, is whether riders — regardless of what they tend to say in public hearings — prefer frequent, direct routes, with simple schedules and service patterns, or a selection of less-frequent routes that might minimize walking or slightly reduce travel time but run less frequently and only at certain times.
Conveniently, Metro performed a restructure that can serve as a test case for this question more than a decade ago one of its most important and highest-ridership corridors, and I have obtained historical data to show the results of this change. History, data and analysis after the jump.
The corridor in question is primarily Aurora, but due to the historical and current structure of service, it is tied in with service to Wallingford, Green Lake, and Northgate. Oran’s beautiful map shows in three panes the evolution of service on this corridor, including some possibilities for future service changes; note that the map was created before Metro announced its proposed 2012 service changes, so the “Future?” pane does not include any information from that proposal.
First, a description of the service pattern prior to the 1999 restructure:
- Route 6, derived from the historic streetcar alignment that encircled Green Lake, served Aurora at roughly two-block stop spacing every 30 minutes, deviating off Aurora to serve Stone Way, Woodland Park, and Linden Ave before returning to Aurora at Winona. During the weekday, Route 6 terminated at 145th St; nights and weekends, it extended to Aurora Village TC.
- Route 16, with a similar history, also operated every 30 minutes, staggered to provide 15-minute headways as far as Stone Way, before heading up Wallingford Ave to join the current alignment of the 16 at 45th St. At night, the 16 was replaced by the 16-Shuttle, which provided a timed transfer to the 6 at Stone Way. Both Routes 6 and 16 served the Seattle Center deviation.
- Route 359X operated during the weekday, again with 30 minute headways, with limited stops between Denny and 45th St, then five-block stop spacing all the way to AVTC. The bus deviated from Aurora to serve Linden Ave before rejoining Aurora at Winona (the “Linden deviation”).
- Route 360X operated as a one-way peak service during rush-hour. Its alignment was very similar to Route 359X, except the 360X did not serve the Linden deviation, and skipped all stops south of the ship canal.
This pattern is very heavy on coverage over frequency, with only one brief section of high-frequency all-day service, and providing closely-spaced service in Wallingford, even though Wallingford Ave was not particularly well patronized. The service pattern is also complex, seemingly attempting to provide a route tailored for every desire. The 1999 restructure created the service pattern most of us are familiar with:
- Route 358X serves essentially the same alignment as route 359X, with the 359X’s wider stop spacing, but made full-time and improved to 20-minute headways during the weekday, subsequently improved to 15-minute headways in 2003.
- Route 6 was deleted; Route 16’s section on Wallingford Ave was moved to Stone Way, picking up the most productive section of Route 6. The 358X continues to serve the Linden deviation.
- Route 16 was improved to 20-minute weekday headways; Route 16-Shuttle was abolished in favor of full-time direct service to downtown.
- Route 358X was renumbered from 359X , that number being retired due to the shooting of Metro driver Mark MacLaughlin on the Aurora Bridge in November 1998.
This restructure collapsed a set of six distinct route patterns — 359X, 360X, 6 (145th St), 6 (AVTC), 16, 16-Shuttle — into two routes that cover Wallingford slightly less thoroughly, and make some trips slightly slower (e.g. riders on the prior 360X), but do so at higher frequencies with simple schedules. The following chart shows what happened.
[UPDATE: Chart scale corrected.]
Combined ridership dropped from 1998 to 1999, recovering above its previous levels in 2000; some ridership shifted categories permanently. Between 2000 to 2008, ridership increased 34%. 2008 was a systemwide peak for Metro ridership; since then, the Great Recession has sapped ridership. Between 2008 and 2011, ridership declined 7%.
Of course, these numbers need a frame of reference to be meaningful. An ideal comparison dataset would be the average weekday ridership for all routes in North Seattle. I don’t have that information to hand, but I was able to obtain the following natty chart from Metro’s excellent systemwide statistics page. Reading from the chart, Metro’s systemwide boardings increased roughly 17% from 2000 to 2008, then declined roughly 8% from 2008 to 2010, suggesting that ridership improvements on this corridor — mostly on the 358 — have outpaced the growth of the system overall.
The reader may well ask at what cost these additional riders came; after all, it’s possible (to some extent) to stimulate ridership on any service no matter how well or badly designed, simply by throwing money at the service to increase frequency. Fortunately, I have productivity data for the Aurora corridor, in the form rides per platform hour, a metric that captures the full quantity of service hours (including deadhead time) per rider.
As the following chart shows, performance generally increases after an initial steep drop in 1999, although again the 358 leads the way while the 16 improves only modestly. Two notable data points are 2003 and 2004: new service subsidy was added to the 358 in 2003, boosting midday headways from 20 to 15 minutes, which resulted in both more riders and better productivity, suggesting it was a smart investment.
I’m going to venture a few conclusions based on the data I’ve presented above:
- Riders flock to routes that are frequent, direct and straightforward. Contrary to much of the feedback at public hearings, riders value these attributes more than service to their doorstep. These features are, not by coincidence, many of the features that make rail systems much more attractive than bus systems in the public mind.
- Very high frequencies may not matter much for developing ridership. The 358 began with 20-minute frequencies; more service subsidy for 15-minute headways came four years later. At least in this case, 15- or sub-15-minute headways were not a prerequisite for success.
- Wide stop spacing doesn’t hurt ridership. Stop reduction programs invariably draw vocal opposition from existing riders, but switching from the two-block stop spacing of the 6 to the five-block stop spacing of the 358 has simply led to a smaller number of very-well-used stops. For all that the 358 can crawl sometimes, it’s painful to imagine what it would be like with more than twice as many stops.
- It takes several years for major route changes to “bed in”. Performance and ridership initially declined before exceeding prior levels.
As most readers probably know, the next steps in the evolution of the Aurora corridor will take place in the next few years, with the proposed Fall 2012 service change and the opening of RapidRide E in 2013. RapidRide, put forth as Bus Rapid Transit, is regularly derided in the comments of this blog as little more than what all local service should look like. It’s hard to disagree with that, but only if one overlooks the financial chasm Metro has fallen into since 2008 and the protracted effort required to point a large public-sector institution on a new and different course.
Personally, I’m very optimistic about the potential for RapidRide E to drive ridership on this corridor. A very similar route in South King, RapidRide A (previously Route 174) has posted good gains in ridership, and anecdotally has become a much more pleasant route to ride and drive due to the presence of uniformed fare inspectors. Some off-board payment, better quality, well lit stops, the presence of fare inspectors, deleting a few little-used stops, and adding slightly more service in the evenings and Sundays will make Route 358 even more popular and productive, for very little money.
To round out this piece, I’m including a ridership chart based on the usual format:
I’ve marked the stops tentatively slated for deletion with an asterisk, and stops where the exact location is still undetermined with a question mark. Here’s what I see in the chart:
- Excellent performance as far as Shoreline. South of 145th St, almost all stops are very well used, loads are high, many stops exhibit the churn that is a hallmark of popular urban service, especially where there is connecting service at 105th/Northgate and 85th. This is enabled by the “Main Street” character of Aurora, where commercial properties abut the road, and moderately-dense residential property extends back from that.
- Good performance through Shoreline. North of 145th St, loads are good and stops are well used, although the pattern changes to a mostly-suburban pattern of loading up inbound and unloading outbound, except at the terminal stop.
- Bidirectional demand in all time periods throughout the route. This bus isn’t just used as a work shuttle — riders use it thoughout the day and evening. Interestingly, bidirectional night demand continues into Shoreline, something usually hitherto only seen in truly urban routes.
- Stops deleted for RapidRide won’t be missed. Most of the stops slated for elimination are quite close to other stops and underperform significantly compared to their peers; of the remaining stops, only Galer street is relatively lightly-used, and it arguably has significant geographic value, due to the presence of a pedestrian bridge and staircases that extend the walkshed into Queen Anne and Westlake.
Two sections of the route are worth discussing in detail:
- The Linden Deviation. The precise fate of the Linden deviation is unclear. Northbound, adjacent to Green Lake, there are no sidewalks, and only one crosswalk between Woodland and Winona, making it unacceptably difficult to access any stop located on the east side of Aurora. Therefore, I suspect the choice Metro will face is between keeping the deviation in both directions, or creating a reversed couplet where southbound buses stay on Aurora and northbound buses serve Linden.
- South of Mercer. In 2016, the AVW replacement project will rebuild the street grid between Harrison and Denny, allowing the stops over Mercer to be moved south to the reconnected Harrison, a much nicer pedestrian environment altogether. When that happens, the current southbound stops on John and Wall will be replaced by one stop near Denny.
The Aurora corridor is just one in Metro’s large system, but trading coverage (closely-spaced stops and close parallel routes) and schedule complexity for frequency and simplicity has been a success here, a process I expect to continue with the introduction of RapidRide E; this result should inform future debates about ridership-oriented restructures such as Metro’s initial proposal for Fall 2012.