Map showing frequent bus routes operating until 10 pm
Frequent service for nights on the town or workaholics.

How late should “frequent service” operate for the purpose of defining a standard span for a frequent transit network? I have found that it varies for each city but I looked at our neighbor Portland for an answer. Before the budget shortfall forced cuts, Portland’s twelve Frequent Transit bus corridors plus MAX light rail offered service every 15 minutes or better until 10:30 pm, every day. TriMet chose that time since it “corresponds to end times for evening activities, based on a survey of evening college classes, movie theaters, shopping and event centers.” Compare this to King County Metro’s quasi-standard of frequent service until 6 pm Monday-Saturday and 5:30 pm on Sunday*. How many of Seattle’s main bus routes meet the Portland standard for Frequent Service?

As you can see from the thick lines in the diagram above, within Seattle itself, there are eight bus corridors plus Link light rail that meet the criteria. While the geographical extent is similar to routes within Portland, all but one go through downtown, limiting easy crosstown travel. Here’s the actual coverage of the Seattle routes on a map. Outside Seattle, there are the RapidRide A (Pacific Hwy) and B (Bel-Red) lines. That’s a total of ten bus corridors plus Link.

What is disappointing is the proposed night** headways for the upcoming RapidRide C (West Seattle) and D (Ballard) lines do not appear to be frequent at all. In conversation with a Metro planner at a recent open house, they were being conservative with the frequencies since they barely have the resources for it, which explains the “15-30” numbers for some routes. It means they want 15 minute headways but might not be able to fund it. Then there is the C Line has which has a night headway of “30-60” minutes. The planner told me those figures might include the late night trips they are adding to the C and D to replace the Night Owl routes.

RapidRide, in its role as a trunk line, should be a guarantee of service at least every 15 minutes until 10 pm every day. The way night frequencies are presented in Metro’s restructure proposal dilutes the RapidRide brand that Metro advertises as its “fastest and easiest way to travel, with service so frequent you don’t even need a schedule.” If that is what RapidRide is supposed to be, then what do you call routes like the 7 and 70-series that run more frequently than RapidRide both during the day and later into the night?

*the Frequent Transit Network in Seattle’s Transit Master Plan has a target service level of 15 minute or better frequency, 18-24 hours a day (6 am to midnight), every day.

** The “Night” time period is defined in Metro’s Service Guidelines as 7 pm to 5 am all days.

44 Replies to “Evenings in Seattle and RapidRide”

  1. Until Seattle can invest in bus rapidization infrastructure, service hours is a zero-sum game. The cost of getting 7-10 pm frequency on the Line C/D, for example, might be giving up night owl service, or giving up early morning runs.

    Since we can’t afford the traffic signal priority devices, let’s at least push the cheaper option, namely, bus lanes. It’s time to start buying back service hours permanently rather than annually.

  2. So, playing the zero-sum game, it occurs to me that 15-minute frequency on evening bus routes, and 10-minute frequency on Link, is poor sychronization.

    I’d find 20-minute frequency on most of these routes to be acceptable after 7 pm (depending on ridership), and then the schedules could be better synchronized for Link connections. Headway would also be easier to maintain, so that the schedule becomes more reliable.

    Given the choice between on-time 20-minute frequency and no-schedule 15-minute frequency, I’ll take the former.

    1. The only way I believe such synchronization could actually work is the bus would have to sit at the platform until the train actually arrives and everyone coming off the train who wants to board the bus has had the chance to do so. Otherwise, a two-minute delay in the tunnel caused by the train being stuck behind a bus loading a wheelchair means 20 minute wait for the bus. Of course, this could potentially create reliability issues for anyone boarding the bus after this point.

      1. For Link synchronization, I’m mostly thinking about at-grade stations. For example, the 36 and 39 at Othello Station could be set better to leave a couple minutes after a certain train.

        Do we still have buses with lifts in the tunnel? Don’t we have enough inventory to only have low-floor buses in the tunnel? When a lift malfunctions on a neighborhood arterial, it brings the commute of those on board to a screeching halt. When a lift malfunctions in the tunnel, it brings the commute of a few hundred riders to a screeching halt.

      2. The new Radio system has a “connection protection” feature that could address this but we’ve been told it won’t be ready for “a couple of years”. I don’t know if that means when all buses have the new radio or if there is another piece to the puzzle.

        In training, the feature was pretty easy to use. I’d punch a button and see a list of connecting routes and how long I needed to wait. Easy, assuming it all works.

      3. I like the idea of a “connection-protection” feature on routes where the bulk of the ridership is expecting to be transferring from some other bus or train. However, anecdotal evidence of it isn’t enough to get people to trust it.

        For example, if Metro could provide a written promise in the schedule that if you’re in Westlake station at 8:34 P.M. and take the first Link the train that comes to Columbia City station, you’d have a #39 bus waiting for you, no matter how much the train is delayed, that would be a connection I would be willing to count on. Of course, promises like this have the inherent side effect of making service less reliable for people who aren’t transferring, so this would have to be used very sparingly, only in cases where you’re sure the number of riders who would benefit from the timed connection greatly exceeds the number of riders who would be inconvenienced. A #39 truncated to the VA hospital->Othello station segment only would be a good example of a situation where a timed connection like would make since.

    2. 100% agreed.

      I would *love* to take the current 15-minute routes and change them all to be either 10-minute or 20-minute (as required by budget). 10-minute is actually frequent enough that you don’t need a schedule (for real), and you can combine two 20-minute buses (or three 30-minute) for frequency that matches Link as well.

      1. Er, and part 2 of that is that, at either 15 minutes or 20 minutes, I believe most riders will treat the service as scheduled (i.e. go wait for the bus a few minutes before it’s coming) rather than frequent (i.e. random wait times). Thus, the loss of frequency (from 15- to 20-minute) is not nearly as bad as the gain (from 15- to 10-minute) is good.

  3. Defining 7 PM to 5 AM as one time period is absolutely ridiculous. There are tons of people traveling at 7 PM, and in many corridors, 7 PM is still rush hour (e.g. 520 westbound). By contrast, between midnight and 5 AM, most roads are almost empty.

    Traveling in the evening, especially between 7 and 10 PM, is not an edge case, and treating it as such simply reinforces the notion that the role of the bus is to get to work and back and, for all other trips, you’re supposed to drive.

    Similarly, the allocation of evening service by days of week also doesn’t seem to really match demand. Travel demand in the evenings is greatest on Friday and Saturday nights, followed by Monday-Thursday, with Sunday nights being lowest in demand. However, Metro allocates service as if Monday-Friday nights are the highest demand, with not much difference between Saturday and Sunday. Makes sense if you believe your evening ridership is coming from people in office jobs working late, but doesn’t make sense if your evening ridership comes from social or entertainment-related trips.

    I think a label of “frequent” service should follow the precedents of the A and B line and run at least every 15 minutes until 10 PM 7 days a week, or at least until 7-8 PM on Sundays. Moving to every 30 minutes as early as 7 on a so-called trunk line makes a mockery of the label.

    Furthermore, for evening service, holidays should be considered on a case-by-case basis and should not automatically be treated as Sundays. Treating Christmas and Memorial Day as a Sundays is reasonable. Treating 4th of July and New Year’s Eve as such is stupid. We should have more buses on the 4th of July to get everybody home from the fireworks, not less, which forces everybody to drive and fill up every parking space within two miles of the viewing area.

    1. Likewise, Monday and Friday commuter ridership is down from Tuesdays through Thurdays, as more employees shift to 4×10 shifts.

      Creating Friday schedules that differ from Monday through Thursday schedules would be a lot of work for service planners, but could pay off in better platform-hour resource distribution.

      1. The water taxi has extra trips that operate only on Fridays, Saturdays, and Mariners/Sounders game days. If we can’t afford 15 minute evening service every day, the RapidRide C should at least do the same. 30-60 minute headways after a Mariners game simply does not provide the capacity needed to get people home and it is not acceptable to ask people to wait a whole hour downtown because a crush-loaded bus had no room for them.

        Anybody with a car and a brain will realize this after a quick glance at the schedule and choose to drive and pay for parking to avoid this risk. Maybe if the percentage of people who choose to take the chance on the bus is small enough, there actually will be enough capacity to get those people home. But, either way, this doesn’t speak well for our transit system.

      2. As an addendum to the Friday night idea, have runs that are designated to run only on game nights (for whichever pro sport teams aren’t in lockout mode — which, unfortunately, wreaks havoc on some picks). I believe ST already does this, to an extent, with ST Express on game nights, but doesn’t publish the extra trips, since they are on standby mode.

    2. First, 15 minutes is not frequent. We all think it is because it’s the best Metro gives us, but it’s not. 10 minutes or bust.

      Second, I totally agree with you that many of Metro’s scheduling details are wrong. But I really don’t think the solution is to tweak things more. The solution is that trunk routes should be frequent (10 minutes) all the time. That’s worth much more than any money we’ll save from running fewer buses on Monday night or Sunday morning.

      1. Ideally, I agree with you about not tweaking things too much. But if we can’t afford to have frequent service every night, I’d rather see it on Friday and Saturday night than not at all.

        While 15 minutes is not frequent, it is an improvement over what people in Seattle are used to. A few years ago, it was extremely rare for any bus route to run better than every 30 minutes outside of the peak.

      2. 15 minutes is OK though. Yes 10 is better but we can keep that argument going forever. The Metro in Toulouse comes every 1 minute.

        I think at 15 minutes I stop looking at the schedule.

      3. Grant: You may stop looking at a schedule at 15 minutes, but the research I’ve seen suggests that 10 minutes is a better measure of the point at which most people will stop consulting a schedule. (bottom of page 8)

        Conversely, 10 minutes is also something of a breaking point for how frequently you can effectively space buses without bunching, assuming that buses are travelling in mixed traffic with no priority, and that buses can’t pass each other (which is true by design for the trolleys, and by policy for other routes).

        And finally, 10 minutes is Link frequency. That counts for something, right? Why shouldn’t frequency on the 44 or RapidRides C/D — corridors where we’ve talked about building rail — be as frequent as Link?

  4. I think that Metro should be less flexible with their route schedules. They should define a few different classes of routes such as:
    Trunk (At least every 15 mins, 6am-12am, 7 days a week, <= 10 min freq. peak, 30 min freq 12am-6am)
    Frequent (At least every 15 mins, 6am-10pm, weekdays, 15-30 mins weekends)
    Local (Every 30 mins, 6am-10pm, 7 days a week)

    Then as a rider, all you really need to know is which class a route falls into. You could create straightforward maps that show route frequency by coloring the routes appropriately. Then riders don't need to memorize frequencies or spans of service per route. This way, also, there wouldn't be separate night owl routes. The assumption would be the trunk routes would serve the essential highest-ridership areas and thus be the best night routes as well.

    Ultimately, I think you'd want to brand the trunk routes, and only the trunk routes, as RapidRide. It might also be beneficial to create branding to separate the frequent and local routes as well.

    1. I general, I like the idea, but the devil is in the details. The appropriate level of night service in an area depends greatly on the land use and places that need more day service don’t necessarily need more night service. For example, commercial districts with a lot of shopping and entertainment at all hours need a lot of night service. Residential areas also need some because that’s where people going to those commercial districts are coming from. Suburban office parks, on the other hand, might get decent ridership during the day, especially during the peak, but demand on evenings is likely to be next to zero. This is a significant issue with the B line going by Microsoft – lots of people there during the day, but on nights and weekends, the area is deserted.

      1. That’s why RR B should cross SR-520 at NE 37th St and stay on 148th where the west side is lined with apartments that have a large number of people who use transit throughout the day and on weekends. And then get on 520 at 51st and go through Redmond Town Center to DT Redmond instead of wandering through more acres of office parks and light industrial.

      2. The only important level of service here is trunk. We need a core network of routes which run every 10 minutes from 6am to 10pm. I’d rather run less productive service, and maintain the service standard, then confuse and annoy riders by having lots of little scheduling variations. Conversely, a bus whose ridership is primarily commuters is not a trunk bus, and should not be scheduled as one. (In all likelihood, those buses don’t have much mid-day ridership either.)

      3. I agree with Alek’s principle that the stuff that goes to suburban office parks should be more commuter oriented, with the trunk route going by places that are more likely going to be generators of all day demand.

        I also feel that the B line has way to many kinks in it for a trunk route. However, I don’t see a good way to avoid them (except the stupid 152nd jog) without bypassing important destinations, like crossroads mall.

      4. How about this. I think it takes about 10 minutes off the route time and does a better job of putting stops where people are likely to use this all day and weekends.

      5. Bernie, I don’t think it is a good idea or politically feasible to have RR B skip OTC. Yes I’m aware it is a dead zone nights and weekends.

        I do think cutting the jog to overlake village and through the warehouses on willows would be a good idea.

  5. First money we can find for night service should go to restoring 24-hour phone information. To add insult to injury, present automated message also takes several minutes to tell a caller service is closed.

    For a major city in the First World- or is that status a necessary casualty of the “Re-set” The Seattle Times wants us to face?- no night phone info spells “Po” with a capital “Dunk”.

    But maybe I’m behind the new Ap-related times as usual. I’ve still got a Nokia built by whoever was Finland’s Alexander Graham Bell. Tell me, what percentage of our ridership can now get rider info on cell-phone?

    Mark Dublin

      1. All you have to do is pay $100/month for a data plan and hope that Metro hasn’t broken their feeds again this week.

      2. screw the data plan – I use OBA’s SMS interface

        Just text (case sensitive)

        onebus [stop#] [route#]

        to 41411.

        If you don’t have a text plan, you can use the touch-tone service at 456-0609 instead.

        I don’t mean to imply that this in any way excuses Metro. You shouldn’t have to use 3rd party services to get this information.

      3. OneBusAway is not a trip planner. It does not answer questions other than “where is your bus?” assuming the rider knows what they’re looking for.

        I take that “$100/month data plan” as a joke. Some people can barely afford to ride the bus, let alone spend on frivolous things like a smartphone, as useful as it could be.

  6. This dicussion is a great illustration why transit is so ineffecient, and such an enormous waste of tax dollars.

    Determining frequency by some arbitrary numbers at set hours of the day is incredibly wasteful. Trains and buses should never run around mostly empty. But, they do all the time. That is obviously just wasting energy — whether diesel or electricity — and tax dollars.

    How to set the frequency of various routes? By the break-even point. Don’t operate any transit that loses money. Run it like an actual business. If there aren’t enough passengers to break even running a route every 15 minutes after 7 pm. then dont do that!

    Pretty simple.

    1. Why run buses at all then? If they’re not there when you need them, why not cancel all the buses and everybody can drive or walk. People choose whether to ride a bus based on whether they know it’s likely to come in the next ten or fifteen minutes. People who have no other way to get around and absolutely must make the trip will wait 30 or 60 minutes for a bus, but people who have choices won’t.

    2. Norman – your logic ignores an important fact, which is that people value a bus being there, available, even when they’re not riding it. Even if you ignore the impact taking cars off the road (which is, admittedly, not that much for a half-full bus off peak running every half hour), there are still several reasons why people who aren’t riding the bus place a value on the bus being there, and are willing to pay for it with their tax dollars:

      1) Redundancy. If a car breaks down, the bus provides a valuable backup option available to get where you need to go. The amount of money the typical person pays through their taxes to fund Metro is a fraction of what it would cost to buy, insure, and maintain a second car just to use as a backup for when the regular car is in the shop.

      2) The ability to make one-way trips, or trips that don’t begin and end at home. For example, going to a repair shop to pick up a car, or traveling to the airport. Yes, these one way trips can be done by getting someone to make a special trip to drive you places. However, it is important to remember that lots of people don’t have someone to drive them around and, even those that do, that person may not be available when you need to make the trip, and even if your driver-friend is available, you are still imposing a burden on them that is not necessary in a world with a functional transit system. Even people that only use the bus for such purposes a few times a year still place a value on having it available for such trips when the need arises.

      3) Not everybody is in a physical state where they can operate a car safely and comfortably. Even people who currently have no trouble driving might get into an accident, suffer an injury, and suddenly find themselves unable to drive for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Having the bus there, even if you don’t ride it, is an insurance policy against being completely at the mercy of friends and relatives driving you places should such an injury occur. I experienced this firsthand a couple of years ago when I had an elbow injury and, for a few days, gripping the steering wheel of a car or the handlebars of a bike was impossible without severe pain. I used the bus quite a bit those days for trips I hadn’t been planning on using the bus for. And having the bus route available those days that I almost never used other days was well worth the tax dollars I had been paying the rest of the time to fund.

      4) Having transit available improves health and reduces obesity by making it easier to walk and bike places. Why? Without transit, you can’t walk/bike further than you are absolutely sure you are willing to walk/bike back. Having the bus available means you can walk or bike further because the option of hopping on a bus to go back remains. Even on trips where you don’t actually use this option, you still benefited from having it there.

      All of these benefits of transit apply whenever a bus is operating, regardless of whether it is full or empty, and everybody that lives in an area well served by transit enjoys these benefits, whether they regularly ride transit or not. This is why King County voters have stated that transit is something worth paying for, including the 80% majority who barely use it. A statement that fares should cover the entirety of the operations costs ignores these residual benefits, before you even get to standard stuff like fewer cars, less parking, and less pollution.

    3. I wholeheartedly agree with Norman. In fact I think that we ought to extend that philosophy to roads as well. Whenever a new road is built or a current road needs maintenance we should do a life cycle calculation to see whether the work can be done with user fees it helps generate and without any subsidies from the taxpayers. If, as is the case with the Alaskan Way Viaduct or 520, it is obvious that the road requires subsidy beyond the tolls and gas tax that the project generates then we should shut the road down. With this morally just market based transportation strategy it should only be a decade or two before we have a third world economy.

    4. I think we should shut down all freeways and city streets that don’t at least break even. And schools, airports, police departments, fire departments and what else? Norm has gone from hating little trains to hating all services.

  7. There are at least two places in the world where large sectors of public transit exemplify the exact type of system that Norman advocates.

    Seattle needs a firsthand report on the “Matatu” industry in Kenya, and the “Dolmush” fleet in Turkey. Talk about an efficient business-model for public transit! Passenger vans of various sizes either swarm through crowded streets at terrifying speed or sit waiting with a destination sign in the window until they are completely full. “Dolmush” or “Dolmus” comes from Turkish word for “stuffed”. Then they take off in a cloud of smoke and dust.

    Efficient? Often they don’t even stop. You wave, the van swings over, desperate to beat out the dozen other vans headed for you, the conductor opens the door and drags you aboard to take your fare, and you’re on your way. Look these services up on Wikipedia. And you can read about these and other similar bus services in a great book called “The Lunatic Express”- Carl Hoffmann, I think.

    After all these years of slow, passive-aggressive public transit thinking, I think this proven transit mode could be just what Seattle needs for a stunning revival, especially if experienced drivers from these countries get visas to come drive them. If we really decide to do capitalism, we can also import Kenya’s enforcement and regulatory mechanisms too. I would especially recommend this mode for the Waterfront if decision is made to go with pedicab and small-vehicle transit.

    Out of gratitude for calling attention to this perfect form of service, I think STB readership should set up a fund to buy Norman plane fare to both Nairobi, Kenya, and Istanbul, Turkey- and a supply of coins in local currency. And be sure to also find him an airline chartered in some country where the government doesn’t over regulate private industry.

    Mark Dublin

    1. I know it was all tic Mark but Mexico City has 28,000 Peseros that roam the streets. The driver drives and someone else hangs out the door yelling out the destination and they pick up anyone from just about anywhere (no real bus stops) and sometimes only slow down for the passengers. The Peseros carry somewhere around 5 billion people per year and currently carry more than the subway (which is amazing), light rail, suburban rail, BRT, Metro Buses and taxis combined. The driver has to pick up a certain number of people per day and everything over that they get to keep the fare so they WANT you to ride. Not like here where they will refuse to pick up a paying rider if you aren’t at the exact location of the stop at exactly the right time wearing exactly the right clothes with exactly the right attitude with exactly the right amount of change.

      Not that I ride them because they’re always jam packed, dusty and very hot. The people in them usually look very uncomfortable. However you can go 12 km for about 35 cents. You can’t beat that.

    2. I have ridden the mutatus in Nairobi (and elsewhere in Kenya) and it makes for a very efficient transit system. The City operates standard buses on a handful of routes. These same routes are plied by a variety of privately-owned minivans (mutatus), marked with the number of the bus route they shadow. When you come to a marked bus stop, either a municipal bus or a mutatu will come within 2 minutes. Extremely frequent.

      At the stop the bus or van conductor will open the door and give a hand signal for the number of seats available. People climb aboard, the conductor raps the window and the driver takes off. Then the conductor slams shut the door, and collects cash fare from the new passengers once they are settled it. Some mutatus are equipped with LCD screens and state-of-the-sound system for playing the latest in hip hop.

      The municipal buses are highly efficient as well. Standing is not allowed and seats are alloted the same as on a mutatu. On outbound buses, the drivers will simply stop and kick everyone off once the passenger load drops below the minimum. The bus turns around and heads back into town. Highly cost efficient.

      From what I have seen in traveling the world, if transit subsidies are not available, shared van transit service is the most cost efficient, i.e. lowest capital/operating cost per passenger. Vans can carry one-quarter as many people as a bus, at far less than one-quarter of the cost.

      1. As usual, Jarrett Walker has a great article on this.

        The real reason jitneys are so cost-effective is the operating cost. The drivers get paid much, much less.

        Note that it’s possible to implement something similar here. As Mr. Walker notes, Vancouver has a “community bus” service, where drivers earn about half wage to drive small buses on low-traffic routes. I think that such a system would be ideal for routes like a West Seattle circulator, to handle all the areas where we should provide service on social-justice grounds but not productivity.

        But implementing such a system on major arterial corridors really just means cutting driver pay. To which I respond, first, good luck, and second, think long and hard if that’s really what you want to do.

  8. Where is the 43 on this map? The 44 is throughrouted with the 43 on Sundays, and it says the 44 is every 15 minutes every day, so wouldn’t the 43 also be on here? Am I missing something?

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