King County Metro 120 and 132 in Belltown
King County Metro 120 and 132 in Belltown

Previously, I’ve written about one of Metro’s success stories, the 1997 Aurora corridor restructure, a change to the bus network that traded several infrequent routes for the Routes 16 and 358 that we know today. As I described at length in that post, during the day Metro was previously operating three separate routes on (or primarily on) Aurora Ave, each with different stop patterns, and two closely-spaced local routes in Wallingford; night service followed a quite different pattern.

In essence, this was a tradeoff of geographic coverage (in the form of closely-spaced routes, closely-spaced stops, and different route variants on one road) for improved frequency and a simpler service pattern on the remaining services.  After an initial dip, the two remaining routes have outshone their predecessors in both ridership and rides per platform hour: a win for riders, taxpayers, and the environment.

In this post I’ll discuss another success story, the 2003 Ambaum/Delridge restructure, an analogous change to the bus network, this time focused on Southwest Seattle and Burien, with similarly excellent results, including today’s Route 120. Even better, most of this post is written for me, as I was kindly given a 2005 staff report from Metro analyzing the results of this restructure in detail; I shall quote and paraphrase at length from this report throughout the post.

The Ambaum-Delridge corridor was the major focus for September 2004 service changes that restructured transit service in the Burien, Des Moines, White Center, Shorewood, Highland Park, and Delridge areas of Southwest Seattle and Southwest King County. Steady ridership growth along Ambaum Boulevard SW and Delridge Way SW coupled with stagnant or declining ridership in West Seattle and Burien outside the Ambaum- Delridge corridor provided the impetus for a major restructuring service in the area in the context of no new hours available for the project.

Specific objectives guiding the restructure were:

  • Make the best use of existing resources in a zero-sum budget environment to increase transit ridership.
  • Shift resources within the service area to respond to the ridership growth trend along Ambaum Boulevard and Delridge Way.
  • Improve connections between bus routes through improvements to core frequencies.
  • Enhance passenger facilities at bus stops in the area.

It’s not essential to have a map to get the gist of the next section, but for those who want to see the details, I’ve scanned the relevant portions of Metro’s maps from 2002 and 2005, which illustrate the change (although not very well, as Metro’s system maps make no distinction based on frequency, span of service, or express vs local and thus understate the gains in frequency). Pre-restructure is the left pane; post- the right.

The restructuring entailed reallocating service hours from services that carried less ridership, specifically midday SR-509 express trips as well as hourly local services with close coverage, to a consolidated core service along Ambaum and Delridge. Major aspects of the change were:

  • New Route 120 replaced services generally operating every 30 to 60 minutes with a consolidated service operating ever 15 minutes or better on weekdays, and upgraded most evening and weekend service to every 30 minutes. King County Metro’s new air-conditioned, low-floor articulated buses were assigned to Route 120.
  • New Route 125 provided replacement service to South Seattle Community College with expanded peak 15- minute service in both directions, more 30-minute service evenings and weekends, and later hours of operation. Trips on Route 125 also were through-routed with Route 11 to provide a no-transfer “college-to- college” connection between South Seattle Community College and Seattle Central Community College on Capitol Hill.
  • Less productive midday express trips on SR-509 express services were reduced by 50%, and the three SR-509 routes were renumbered for better distinction between freeway and local arterial services.
  • Local service between White Center, Highland Park, and downtown Seattle was consolidated into a single new route, Route 23, and 30-minute frequency was maintained.
  • Local all-day transit service between Burien and Park Lake (adjacent to White Center) was consolidated from two routes to a single new route, Route 131.
  • Limited directional service on weekdays was provided along 4th Avenue SW between Burien and Park Lake in the form of new Route 134 as a response to adverse public reaction to complete discontinuation of service along a portion of 4th. This street is three blocks from parallel local service in the 1st Avenue S corridor.
  • Facility improvements were made along Delridge Way SW and Ambaum Boulevard SW.

Among other things, those facility improvements included consolidating 24 stops; adding or improving benches, shelters or lighting at numerous stops; and minor aesthetic improvements such as repainting and clearing graffiti. Meanwhile, the penultimate bullet provides another example of a pattern we’ve seen most recently with the 42: when the public complains over loss of coverage, Metro creates a token route with minimal service that withers over the years. Metro is finally going to put the 134 out of its misery in the Fall ’12 service change.

The results are broken out in detail by area in the report. Here’s the bottom line:

Service Area Weekday Saturday Sunday
Systemwide (approx.)
Restructured routes overall 8.0% N/A N/A
Ambaum/Delridge 41.9% 18.4% 46.5%
South Seattle CC 2.3% 24.0% 72.4%
SR-509 Expresses -13.8% N/A N/A
SODO/Highland Park -1.8% -0.9% 6.5%
Burien/Des Moines
(local routes)
-1.2% -8.6% 4.4%

In two years, the Ambaum/Delridge corridor posted gains of more than 40% overall, while the losses due to cuts elsewhere were relatively modest, for a net gain well above system growth levels. The positive effects of this restructure have been durable. From 2005 to 2011, Route 120 has grown faster (or, during the recession, lost ground slower) than the system overall without the input of major additional service subsidy, with weekday boardings up 15% in that time, versus about 10-11% for the system overall.

It’s evident from these results that with some very minor capital expenditures, a willingness to aggressively restructure based on where the riders are and to prioritize frequency over coverage, it’s possible to serve significantly more riders with the same amount of money. Metro knows how to build good bus routes: what’s sometimes lacking is the willingness to take flack from the riders of today in order to obtain the more numerous riders of tomorrow.

22 Replies to “Ambaum/Delridge: Another Success in Frequency over Coverage”

  1. Here, Here! Raise your glass to Jack Lattemann and Ted Day in Service Development for outstanding work. These guys are really good at what they do!

    1. I saw a quote from Jack recently, and can’t find it now, in which he emphasized the importance of not abandoning existing riders.

      1. There is, however, a big difference between being willing to take flack from riders for altering their service and abandoning them entirely.

  2. These were beautiful proposals in 2005. In 2009, an earthquake in the form of the opening of Central Link shifted the center of gravity for transit transers in southwest King County to Tukwila International Boulevard Station and Airport Station. Metro’s southwest King County routes aren’t yet designed to take advantage of the efficiencies enabled by Link.

    Average wait+travel time between Burien and the north end of downtown is a virtual dead heat between taking the 120 and taking 140+Link at nearly all times. (This assumes neither bus route gets stuck in a traffic jam.) If either the 120 or 140 were more frequent on Sundays, the scales would be tipped to the route with more frequency out of Burien. Putting this another way, adding frequency on the 140 might be part of the key to reducing overcrowding on the 120, and would do so at less new operating expense than adding frequency to the 120. Getting to the south end of downtown, 140+Link already holds the advantage over the 120, except during peak hours when the 121/122/123 run.

    The 122 is the easiest Burien express to convert into a Link feeder route, enabling reduced operating costs and/or increased frequency in the Des Moines / Normandy Park corridor. Having the 122 transfer its load at TIBS instead of bending back west to Burien would be another virtual dead heat for getting to the north end of downtown, and a winner for anyone trying to commute to the south end of downtown. It would make reverse-peak directional travel easier as well, which would be nice given all the job sites along the 122′s path. The biggest problem would be whether the 122 picks up significant ridership south of Burien, or picks up most of its ridership at Burien P&R/TC. The proposed extension of the 156 down to 200th and over to the Des Moines waterfront would also factor significantly into this analysis.

    Metro didn’t plan for the City of Seattle to refuse to blink in the game of chicken over replacing the 16th Ave Bridge. Now, the 131/134, having two re-routes due to two major bridge closures, is virtually useless except for someone trying to get to somewhere on Airport Way, and redundant with the more frequent 106 even for that purpose. The 131/134′s primary original source of scoliosis — the jog over to Airport Way to serve the Georgetown saloon district — became pointless once the 60 became a 7-day route all the way to White Center. (The map doesn’t explain that the 60′s south terminus was in Georgetown on weekends.)

    And so, barring a strong lobby effort by the Georgetown saloon district businesses to force Park Point (east White Center) riders to have to ride through the saloon district, the 131 and 134 will both be taken off of life support next year, long after the routes ceased functionality.

  3. One thing that is painfully clear is that riders going between Burien and downtown do not ride the 132. The 132 (analogously to the 16 in the Aurora restructure) serves intermediate trips. Stop data won’t confirm this, and ORCA data doesn’t capture it either without a tap-twice system.

    The 132 is okay for South Park riders who, for whatever reason, want to go to downtown Burien (or vice versa). For South Parkers trying to get anywhere else to the south, having the 132 scoliate over to Burien is aggravating. Straightening out the 132 to get to TIBS would give South Parkers connectivity to nearly all of South King County, and reduce operating costs. Please, oh please, modernize the 132 to serve TIBS instead of Burien. Pretty please, with sugar on top!

    I recall Jack Latteman once admitting at a public meeting that the 132 has been a horrible route for 30 years, but nothing seems to get done about it. Having it go down 4th Ave S is a big improvement over frequently getting stuck in the Safeco Field traffic jam. Having it cross the BNSF tracks on Lander instead of continuing down 4th is painful, but I can live with that for one more year *but* there needs to be a southbound stop for the 132 near SODO Station. The routes continuing south on 4th Ave S have a stop just south of Lander (which is not ideal since riders transferring from SODO Station have to cross the street twice). Moving that stop to the north side of Lander would enable a SODO Station stop for the 21, 22, 35, 56, 57, 85, 116, 118, 119, and 132, all of which do the Lander jog/BNSF crossing.

    The northbound stop on 4th Ave S is beautifully placed for SODO Station transfers. Thanks for the new stop, Metro!! (Just add the complementary stop across the street. Please.)

  4. Why should we accept the notion that frequency and coverage are inherently oppositional – that you can have one or the other but not both? It makes no sense to me to adopt that attitude. It’s entirely unnecessary. Transit advocates should not ever accept that we have to make that choice and we should not ever accept that we only have a limited amount of funds with which to plan a system.

    Alex Steffen put it well recently:

    Most people who believe they’re locked in zero-sum games see the rules of those games as exogenous givens. They almost never are.

    The rules of any human game can be changed. That is the single most powerful thing a person can know.

    Unfortunately, this post assumes a zero-sum game is a permanent fact of life, and that ridership is the only standard one should use to measure transit system success. If your only definition of success if increasing ridership, then sure, starve the hungry and feed the fat like this.

    But should ridership be the only definition of success for a transit system? I don’t believe it should be or that it has to be.

    Thankfully, we do not have to pronounce one measurement alone the most important one above all others. Coverage is important too. As gas prices rise and transit costs go with them, more people in less dense parts of Seattle will want transit service. They should have access to it. Those routes will never compare well in terms of ridership with, say, the Aurora Avenue corridor. But the important point is they don’t have to compare well because by providing coverage to less dense areas as well as frequency for the dense areas, multiple goals are being met, including the socio-economic goals of making the cost of living more affordable for more people by offering a transit option to more parts of the city.

    I know a lot of transit advocates do not want to embrace this thinking. But they have no choice. There simply are not enough votes to fund transit service on the dense, highest ridership routes alone. The Prop 1 voting map proved this. There may be a point 20 years down the road when the densely urbanized parts of Seattle will constitute an electoral majority on their own, and then the approach championed in this post might be workable. But we’re not there yet. This path, initiated by false choices and errant assumptions, is a downward spiral for transit and should be avoided.

    1. Why should we accept the notion that frequency and coverage are inherently oppositional – that you can have one or the other but not both?

      Until Metro budgets actually start increasing (via whatever means), that is *exactly* the choice we have to make.

      1. Metro (or rather, the MLK County Council) could choose to push ORCA use harder. Metro could choose to make the simplifications in the fare system that would make back-door readers feasible. Metro could choose to accelerate stop consolidations.

        The various cities could choose to give the buses more control of ROW and traffic signals.

        I see a simple coverage vs. frequency debate as a myopic false dichotomy.

      2. Stop spacing is a form of coverage. Overly-close stops mean riders have to walk a little less, but the time they save is more than lost by the bus’s travel speed being reduced to a crawl. For all the 358 can be painfully slow and unreliable, I can’t imagine how the old 6 was if it stopped every two blocks rather than every five.

        Similarly with closely-spaced infrequent routes. Riders complain vigorously when Metro deletes one to make another more frequent, but then they go and ride the remaining, more frequent route more often. Consolidating routes and stops also makes serious capital improvements feasible by reducing the number of places you have to make those improvements.

        Coverage vs. frequency is the biggest structural issue with Metro’s network.

      3. From my perspective, I’ve been riding the Eastside network more now that we have more frequent service. I can get to most places, except for Redmond, quickly enough with 1 transfer that it’s worth my while. Still, a former neighbor was affected by the loss of the 222. She’s 90 years old and has to walk further, plus a long flight of stairs, to get to the bus now. I think she’s been managing just fine but for how long?

        Screaming to bring back milk runs, like the old 222, isn’t going to help. She can afford a Taxi – if only Taxis had a place to pick people up at the park & ride and had an incentive to focus on short trips like that instead of the more lucrative Eastside home to airport runs.

      4. Frequency has reached the point of diminishing returns on several routes unless headway control is implemented. I believe it when I’m told the new Onboard Systems will help. But every route receiving headway of 15 minutes or less needs all the headway-control treatments it can get, and these just happen to be the same treatments as are used for reducing travel time.

        Metro ought to name giving up on-street parking and allowing at least an HOV lane on the frequent corridors, along with letting the frequent bus have signal priority, and appropriate stop spacing, as the price of decreasing headway to 15 minutes or better.

        The West Seattle business community’s mistreatment of RapidRide shows why Metro shouldn’t just offer up improved service freely. Neighbors: Want the bus to come more often? Then are you willing to do all the things on the transit service improvement checklist?

      5. “For all the 358 can be painfully slow and unreliable, I can’t imagine how the old 6 was if it stopped every two blocks rather than every five.”

        It took 30-35 minutes from 85th to either downtown or Aurora Village (Sunday morning), now it takes 21-24 minutes.

    2. On you’re social equity point. Here is where I don’t think you’re argument makes sense.

      I think it widely goes without saying that if you own a home in Seattle you’re likely not low income. You may not be rich but you certainly have access to a car. If you take that fact as true (or mostly true), then by the process of elimination multi-family housing is where you’ll find people with a lower income and are more dependent on transit. Those are the people you’re after when trying to meet social equity objectives.

      So when you say that a neighborhood tail of a route, or a duplicative parallel route, both of which go through exclusively single family housing areas, are meeting social equity goals, I completely disagree. They may be targeting geographic coverage objects but that is certainly not the same as social equity.

      1. But not everybody owns the home they live in. An area may be largely rentals which are often cheaper than an apartment if you need extra bedrooms for kids or you house share with a couple of roommates.

      2. Yes that certainly is true, but I think my point still holds water as a way to think about this issue.

    3. Huh?
      You always want to use the available funds in the best possible way, even if you get more of them. Don’t get hung up on the fact that the document quoted happened to be in the context of a zero sum constraint.
      The point to take away from the post is that fewer, but more frequent routes, with a simple schedule provide better overall service than more routes with inconsistent infrequent schedules.

  5. Route 120 created a service for Ambaum/Delridge similar to what route 7 provides for Rainier Valley–a strong spine service on the most popular corridor in the geographic region. Riders can get from point to point along the corridor without having to transfer or wait 30+ minutes for the next bus. Prior to 2004, the transit service in Ambaum/Delridge was focused on getting riders downtown quickly, but not necessarily frequently.

  6. I find that the generalities of this article and the reasons for the last route restructuring don’t mesh with the details of the 2012 proposed changes to bus routes that are currently being vetted.

    The link below takes you to a page from which you can download the current proposal

    Included in this is the change of the 125 bus route from daily to peak hour only and completely removing the link between the South Seattle Community College and the Central Seattle Community College.

    The proposed alternate coverage also reroutes the 128 bus to meet the 120 bus (to which you must transfer to get to downtown) during off-peak hours. What I find discouraging is that the 128 route was the only east-west route that could be easily accessed from White Center or the High Point Neighborhood so that lower income individuals/families could get to the West Seattle Food Bank. The alternative involves at least one transfer each way for a demographic whos primary mode of transportation may be the bus.

    I would also like to address a note made by Brent

    The various cities could choose to give the buses more control of ROW and traffic signals.

    No one type of traffic should be given excessive control of a road. If anything is a zero sum game in Seattle it's how to portion out our streets to get the most from them. That should be left to people who don't represent only buses or bikes or walkers or drivers.

    I realize that King County Metro is in dire straits, so service, convenience and (sadly) frequency will have to be reduced. But it seems odd that a design that was implemented relatively recently, was so obviously successful and provided service to universities as well as lower income area is what is chosen for the chop.

    1. The West Seattle food bank is pretty much in the High Point development. How many people are taking the 128 the one or two stops?

    2. Showcasing the 125 was a little strange. I doubt there’s even one person who attends both Seattle U and SSCC at the same time. But there could be a few students or staff who are split between SCCC and SSCC. Of course, there’s no corresponding route from SCCC to NSCC, and nobody has asked for one. (Although Link will just happen to do it anyway!)

Comments are closed.