One of Metro’s most thankless efforts to preserve neighborhood service on low-ridership corridors in the fall restructure proposal is the proposed route 50. The new 50 would replace route 56 between SODO and Alki, and route 39 between SODO and Othello Station. The downtown portion of the 39 would go away, with the savings reinvested in increased off-peak frequency on the 50, or elsewhere.

Route 34, which shadows the 39 from S Othello St and Seward Park Ave S to Rainier Ave S and S Genessee St, but then expresses downtown with stops by the Mount Baker Transfer Center and the I-90/Rainier freeway stop, is also scheduled to be eliminated in favor of the new 50. The 34 has three northbound runs in the morning and three southbound runs in the evening. It has a unique tail continuing down Seward Park Ave S to S Henderson St, turning west at Rainier Beach High School, and terminating at Rainier Ave S and S Henderson St. Due to being one-way only, it is of no use for anyone commuting to or from Rainier Beach High. It is about 200-300 feet away from Rainier Ave S for most of it’s tail’s length, but access to Rainier Ave is limited by hills and dead-ends.

One of the proponents of the 34 recently laid down the challenge to Metro at the final open house for the restructure: She didn’t need a one-seat ride downtown, necessarily, and didn’t mind transferring to Link. However, she did mind having to make the long walk to Rainier Ave S, and did not feel safe waiting on Rainier Ave S for the 7.

Proponents of the 39 laid out similar concerns: They didn’t mind transferring to Link, but did mind waiting a long time in the dark and rain at Columbia City Station, and that, furthermore, they never knew when the bus would finally show up.

The proposed route 50 is an opportunity for Metro to gain the confidence of one-seat commuters that a smoothe train-to-bus transfer can happen, without an excessively long wait at a bus stop, so that future efficiencies involving transfers to Link can become politically viable.

Three steps would help facilitate the success of the 50, should the county council decide to create it:

  1. List the departure times from each Link station. Currently, Columbia City Station and SODO Station are not mentioned in the printed 34/39 schedule.
  2. Make “Connection Protection” a policy at Columbia City Station and Othello Station. Metro’s new On-Board System will let operators know the estimated time of arrival for key connecting buses at timed-transfer bus stops. Adding southbound Link trips to that list should eliminate the painful miss of having an eastbound 50 take off from Columbia City Station a minute before a slow southbound Link train arrives.
  3. Time train-to-bus connections so that the eastbound bus departures are spread out among the southbound Link runs. This is where scheduling math comes in.

I’ll leave it to the pros to determine whether the third and fourth steps are truly viable, but for purposes of this post, let me offer some fun armchair math, below the jump:

20-minute headway does not mesh with Link’s 7.5-minute peak headway. Riders might prefer clock-face schedules, but a 22.5-minute headway may be the best fit for minimizing average wait time for an eastbound 50.

30-minute headway and 15-minute headway during peak hours may run into the “both/neither” problem, where some southbound Link runs may have two eastbound connecting 50s, and other southbound Link runs in between have none.

I’ll throw the challenge out to my fellow math heads to dissect the math of how best to serve riders of the 39/50 who live east of MLK. I’d also like to see any clever ideas for cheaply providing continued peak service on Seward Park Ave S.

I’m optimistic that the proposed route 50 can be done right. I hope the County Council will back up their professional planning staff, and give route 50 a chance.

54 Replies to “Route 50 is a Chance to Show Train-Bus Connections Can Work”

  1. Hmm… I take route 39 all the way from Beacon Hill to work near Queen Anne. I’m not a fan of this plan, because it looks like it’d take my 1-bus commute to at least 1-2 transfers. Ugh… I’ll have to complain to King County Metro and make my voice heard on this.

    1. RobertK – I mean this in the best way possible: I hope they ignore your complaint.

      We’ll never have a good bus system if the priority is to save a few people’s one seat rides at the expense of a good core system of frequent routes that leverage other high frequency service.

      People around here are afraid of transfers because they are frequently painful given that many of Metro’s routes only run every 30 minutes. If the transfer were between routes that ran every 10 minutes (or better), it wouldn’t be something to fear.

      1. I have to agree with Brett. We cannot keep catering the bus system to the needs of a few – especially when it means compromising the needs of the many.

      2. I hate transfers because transfers suck. They add an extra variable that frequently can ruin your day. Even in hyper-frequent NYC subways, I would choose to walk an extra 20 blocks rather than risk sitting in a hole for half an hour, even if that risk was small.

    2. And no matter what happens in September, I sincerely doubt the 39 will remain attached to the 33. So increased frequency on whatever set of routes wind up serving your trip will be very much to your advantage.

      1. Nope. The 1 will connect with the 14S; the 14N will be renamed (odds are on #47); no official word on what’s happening with the 36, but odds are it will connect with the 70.

    3. The 131 and 132 are coupled with the 24 currently, taking the same path as the 33 through Lower Queen Anne (which it sounds like RobertK’s final destination is).

      If that continues to be the case, then there would still be a 2-seat ride for him, with no more than a 15-minute layover at 4th Ave S. Either way, don’t expect the 33-39 one-seat ride to continue to exist after October.

      The alternative to the 50 may involve turning the 39 and 56 back in the southern portion of downtown, like the 42 does. This is for two reasons.

      First, the service hours don’t exist to run these low-priority routes through the Central Business District. The 50 is an attempt to scrape together enough service hours to keep the neighborhood portion of these routes operating at halfway-decent frequency. It would be nice to actually increase service hours all day on these routes as a reward for the Link transfer, but, again, those service hours do not exist. Metro is under orders from the County Council to significantly reduce total service hours, and they are doing it primarily from underperforming routes like the 34, 39, and 56.

      Second, the Central Business District is overserved. It isn’t just a river of frequency. It is a logjam of frequency, and will become even more so in October. Metro has to find ways to reduce the number of buses running through the CBD during peak hours. The obvious solutions include using Link as the trunk for feeder bus routes, as it was designed to be (especially since it still has plenty of excess capacity); to live-loop routes in a manner similar to ST’s 577/578 (although the 578’s “live-loop” includes a break in north downtown); to couple routes that were previously deadending on the far side of downtown from the neighborhood the route serves; to feed non-full buses into frequent buses so that all the buses headed downtown are full; and to terminate routes with non-full loads at the near end of downtown to the neighborhood the route serves.

      The choice here may be between a one-seat ride between the Admiral District and Seward Park, and having two very-low frequency routes turning back at Pioneer Square. The status quo is not going to survive October, as the service hours don’t exist to keep it.

  2. The entire Metro KC system is based on a hub and spoke model. And while I believe that the east-west connections should be improved, they need to make sense – take the 44, for example. People from the Rainier Valley aren’t traveling to West Seattle and vice versa. This change makes no sense, particularly since most of the riders are heading downtown.

    1. As Link increases in size this point will become mute, because despite where you’re going, Link will be the fastest and most reliable way to get there.

      1. In the meantime, Link already has 7.5 minute headway during peak. The headway is never going to get much better than that on South Link, but having an average wait of 4 minutes or less is not too shabby. (Nor have I heard the 34/39/56 one-seat-ride advocates complain about wait time for Link.)

        Timing the morning buses to drop about three minutes before the unofficial (but well-known between the agencies and publicized on this blog) northbound Link arrival time will hopefully reduce that wait to 1-2 minutes at Columbia City Station. At SODO Station and on 4th Ave S, there are already lots of buses coming every couple minutes heading through the Central Business District. Metro, in its wisdom, sends all the tunnel buses from the south down the Busway, and most of the surface buses from the south down 4th Ave S.

        Feeding passengers from half-empty buses onto Link and other buses at the high-traffic Busway and 4th Ave S stops makes a lot more sense than running lots of half-empty buses through downtown in the middle of rush hour.

      2. @Limes we’re only 4 years away. I see now as a good time to start, especially since in this corridor the communities have wanted better E-W service for years.

      3. Adam: We don’t need to increase Link’s frequency until it branches. With 4-car trains, there’s a good chance that Link will remain at its current frequency levels until 2023.

    2. And most people don’t travel any route from terminal to terminal so that’s a red herring, and the same flawed argument being forwarded by people arguing about the usefulness of the FHSC.

      This route is something like the existing 75, the 48, or the 43/44 when they’re interlined — the vast majority of people would never travel from one end to the other on any of those routes, but there are many reasonable stop combinations within the routing, and interlining the route makes logistical and financial sense.

      1. The “terminal” here would be any stop in downtown Seattle where the majority of transfers would take place, not just the final stop of the route. Other than a few buses on the busway, most transfer points are downtown. (I need one of Bruce’s on/off charts!)

        I don’t see the need for an east-west connection from South Seattle to West Seattle. Nor does the connection point – SODO – provide ample opportunities to transfer without first getting on Link.


      2. I heartily disagree about the traffic at SODO Station. There are a lot more buses than trains passing by there. The wait time can be measured in seconds, not minutes, although, admittedly, it isn’t even headway.

        What you’d be sacrificing to avoid that transfer that takes a minute or two is having to wait a lot longer to catch the bus in southeast Seattle or Seward Park, if the transit-planning-challenged county council decides to scavenge the service hours from the neighborhood portions of the routes to save the one-seat ride.

        On top of that, your one-seat ride may impact the travel time of every other bus going through the CBD.

    3. While folks are correct in pointing out that most riders do not ride the full-length of a route, especially long ones… this has actually been a long time demand for West Seattle neighborhood groups. We WANT more connections between Southwest and Southeast.

      As it stands, our only connections from West Seattle to Rainier Valley or to Link require going Downtown first. That’s a waste of time. And it means choosing to drive for those folks who can make that choice.

      1. This route strikes me as designed to feed people from many different places onto Link. And I think that is a good thing.

      2. Which neighborhood groups are formally advocating the 50? Have they lobbied Metro actively?

  3. I grew up riding the 39 and I’ve seen the multitude of variations that Metro has offered to match riders. I’ll say that this plan looks pretty good to me. I think ideally the 39 should run from Rainier Beach High School to Mt. Baker Station at 30 minute headways, but this plan for the 50 looks pretty good. I did send my approval to Metro via email. The current 39 isn’t very popular, particularly south of the Seward Park PCC, mainly due to in frequent service and the fact that it’s often easier to walk to Rainier and catch a 7 or 9. I won’t lament the loss of the 34 if the hours are invested in 30 minute frequencies on the 50. I did, however, think that the 34 should have started its route at Prentice Street and Metro could have eliminated the 7EX, but that’s in the past.

    Traditionally the 39 has required a transfer to get downtown quickly (via the 7) or stay onboard for a longer, slower ride over the hill and eventually to downtown. One immediate step needed is to improve the bus shelter environment at MLK & Alaska for passengers. The environment at Othello is much more vibrant and some riders may find it easier to get off LINK at Othello, do some shopping, get a bite to eat and catch the 50 northbound instead of making the transfer at Columbia City on a southbound 50. There also has been a lot of criminal activity near the Othello Station and transfer stops will need to be well lighted and under video surveillance to make waiting riders feel secure.

    Some of the 39’s variations over the years:

    During the 1960s it connected with the 14 at Mt. Baker, ran down to Rainier and Genessee, then followed its current route to Rainier Beach, then went south on Rainier Avenue along Lake Washington to the southern city limits.

    It was then revised as a combination of the old 31 Beacon Hill and the 39 Seward Park. It started downtown, went to Beacon Hill and the VA, ran down Beacon Avenue to Rainier Beach and then followed the current 34 route to Rainier and Genessee and turned back in Columbia City. It was during this period that the first 39 Express to Downtown via Rainier Avenue appeared in the schedule.

  4. The devil is in the details! What’s the proposed headway for Route 50? It is a viable option IF headways are improved from the current terrible ones on Route 39, which is generally on half-hour headways.

    I’ve commuted in a structure like for many years in another city. The morning commute usually works great. It’s the evening where the problems materialize. With a half-hour headway, transit riders who just miss a bus are standing at a corner for long periods of time. In contract, a one-seat ride affords a rider can stay indoors at work or run a few errands because the rider can know the schedule. I realize the valiant efforts to propose a mini-timed transfer but reality doesn’t work that way. Unless Metro is going to put that service at 15 to 20 minute headways, the concept frankly doesn’t work. The neighbors might as well move to Issaquah!

    1. According to Metro’s proposals the headways are 20-30 min at Peak, 30 min headways off-peak, and 60 minutes(!) at night. 30 min on Sat and 60 on Sunday.

      1. Oy!

        You can’t half-ass this stuff, or people will learn the wrong lessons about one-seat rides!

      2. Yay! This will be held up as justification for one-seat rides for decades to come!

      1. Oh dear

        To have timed transfers you have to have a schedule.

        Do you think this means that ST will finally publish the schedule for Link again? ST runs it to a schedule, they just don’t post it at stations or publish in their schedule book. Really can’t have timed transfers without a schedule, eh?

      2. And especially evenings when the bus may be hourly you need to know when to board your Link train that will connect!

      3. @Carl. I agree. It’s totally inexcusable for ST not to public a schedule just as it is inexcusable that Metro doesn’t for RapidRide.

      4. If Metro can run at 15 or 20 minute headways at least between 5 and 6:30 PM, it would solve the biggest problem with it — the evening commute. It would take a bus or two getting assigned to this route for a short period of time, but that still would be a savings over the number of buses assigned to this route all day.

      5. It’s much more inexcusable for Metro. Most users of rapid-transit don’t use a timetable — in Boston (which doesn’t publish timetables) and New York (which does, but they have blanks), I’ve never heard a single person complain about not knowing the exact time when a train would come. But in Boston and New York, 15-minute frequency is reserved for Sundays and late nights (after midnight). If the Green Line only came every 15 minutes during rush hour, you better believe people would want a schedule!

  5. I think the idea of timing the bus/train connections is difficult enough when the bus route is serving one station – trying to make it work with three stations (or even the two Rainier Valley ones) seems impossible.

    1. In general yes, but in this specific case, I don’t think it’s that bad because not every possible connection needs to be well-timed. For example, in SODO, all that really matters is the connection between the southbound Link train and the westbound 50, as anyone that could take the 50 east from SODO would do better by just staying on the train a couple more stops.

      Similarly, at Columbia City station, the important connection is a southbound Link->eastbound 50 (*). And the connection at Othello station is mostly going to be useful for going to the airport, rather than downtown. Since we’re talking about occasional travelers here, rather than regular commuters, while not ideal, it’s not the end of the world for people to pull out OneBusAway on their smartphone while on the train and call for a cab if the wait for the 50 bus is unreasonably long.

      While having the bus achieve a timed connection at multiple stations in the same direction is not practical, with only one timed connection in each direction, it ought to be doable.

      The biggest problem I see with a timed connection is Link not publishing schedules.

      (*) Connections from southbound Link->eastbound 50 at SODO or southbound Link->westbound 50 at Columbia City are not that important because the areas the 50 traverses between those two stations include only:
      1) A giant overpass over I-5 with no destinations to speak of around it
      2) Residential neighborhoods that are within walking distance of either Beacon Hill station or Columbia City station, so anybody who lives there that isn’t disabled wouldn’t need to use the 50 at all.

  6. Great post! I wrote a post about the fundamentals of transfers a while back, and pointed at this issue.

    I haven’t seen this anywhere else, but it would be interesting to see ST and Metro work on a timed transfer system where it is very easy to plan ahead of time which train to ride, and once you get to the station, the trains having some distinction that allows you to easy tell that the transfer will work.

    For example if trains leave on the 00,10,20,30,40,50, every other train would have a timed transfer trip with the 50 and all other timed transfer routes synced to that trip. The key is making sure riders are able to comprehended this. This could be done with some kind of special identification for the 00,20,40 Link departures both on the train signs and on both bus and Link schedules. For lack of a better term a “TT” could be used to identify it. The term can’t related to time, because this timed transfer will occur at different times at each station.

    This of course is complicated in areas were trains in both directions do not arrive at the same time, so in those situations you would need to favor one direction of travel, which would probably be towards downtown in the morning and away from downtown in the evening.

  7. A change like this to the main service from the Admiral District would have to be explained with community outreach, explaining timetables and guarantee of short transfer. Right now the 56 is a one-seat ride directly downtown and to Belltown. It’s pretty nice. So the change would be a rider would have to route through SODO (how many RR crossings?) to get to the train. Is this a straight transfer with an ORCA card, or is it an additional cost? I could see it working if the kinks are worked out and Metro does outreach. Right now WS is pretty cut off from using the train in any form.

    1. Well, those people in Admiral District wouldn’t really need the light rail because the new RR C line will serve that purpose (probably) better. The biggest problem is on the east side of route 50 where the time connections are critical. As a rider of light rail, and of the 39 and 7, the safer of the two LR stops is CC. However, not everyone feels this way. I believe shorter head ways and a security infrastructure are required to change transit patterns…

  8. This is my current bus route and I use it to transfer to Link. Time wise, it’s about a wash if I use link or take this bus all the way downtown. But, it makes many stops and navigates a windy route in places. In short, it’s an uncomfortable ride. I’m quite happy to transfer to the smooth as silk Link for a quiet ride where I can read and think without being jarred.

    I would very much appreciate shorter headways. 20 minutes would work nicely. I would like it to operate much later than it does e.g. till at least 11 pm. I use OneBusAway to coordinate transfer times with Link and use either Othello or Columbia City depending on which bus will arrive sooner.

    I would like to ask Metro to seriously consider extending the southern terminus of this new route 50 to Georgetown so that it can connect with a number of routes heading to south West Seattle and other points south. And for those who can’t fathom why anyone from Rainier Valley would want to go there, there are several reasons.

    1) SSCC is the school that offers many trade and technical programs but Rainier Valley residents can’t get there easily by public transit without going all the way to downtown. Some Rainier Valley residents actually take the bus to Renton Technical College instead.
    2) There are many industrial jobs in South Park and West Seattle that people can’t reach easily by public transit because there is no direct east/west linkage.
    3) There are cultural affinities between Rainier Valley and White Center.

    All of these could be met by improved east west connectivity that a Georgetown nexus could facilitate.

    1. I’d suggest to keep pushing for the proposed 40 to reach Othello Station. Deadending the 40 in Georgetown may be the death of the 40.

    2. When is 20 minute frequency better than 15? When it’s connecting with a service that runs at 10!

      I really, really hope that Metro will come to its senses and stop running routes at 15-minute headway if they go anywhere near Link.

      Then, with all the savings from running routes at 20-minute frequency, we can boost a number of others up to 10. Like RapidRide, whose frequency should match Link.

  9. On the question of serving Seward Park Ave… why not just give the 50 the 34’s terminus revised to match the 8 or 9’s terminus?

    1. Good question and the answer is likely it’s 50/50 toss-up whether it’s better to terminate at RB or Othello. I think the 9 has taken most of the 39’s ridership south of Othello St. It’s not that far to walk to Rainier from Seward Pk Ave S in that area and, although the 9 requires a transfer to get downtown, there are lots of good places to make the transfer. Rainier Beach has many more destinations than Othello along with a HS, MS and a library. But there already are plenty of connections from the Rainier Beach commercial loop to RB Station, so I don’t think it’s necessary to add the 50. Other than the 39’s occasional trips, there isn’t any service east of MLK on Othello Street, so with improved headways, the 50 might collect a few more riders on Othello than the 39 collects. Flip a coin.

  10. I recently had occasion to travel to Washington D.C. and one of the things I noticed at D.C.’s suburban rail stations that are really lacking at ours is taxis lined up to pick up passengers. Even if you don’t necessarily intend on using it, having taxis readily available is a wonderful insurance policy against a missed bus connection – simply transforming the consequences of a missed connection from an hour-long wait to a $10-15 taxi expense makes the bus a lot more palatable, provided that, in practice, you don’t actually have to pay for taxi ride that often.

    So, even though Seattle’s ugly cap-and-trade policy with taxi licenses seems unrelated to train->bus connections at first glance, they actually are related when you think of it this way.

    1. To elaborate further on this, I did a brief map experiment and the furthest place I could find from the nearest Link station is the entrance to Seward Park, which is about 2 miles away from Columbia City station. This puts the entire Ranier valley at an under-10-dollar taxi ride away from the nearest Link station at current rates. So, even if once of twice a month, you miss your connecting bus, except for the dirt-poor, it really isn’t that big a deal.

      And that’s before you consider that 2 miles is a short enough distance to be joggable in 15-20 minutes or bikable in 10 minutes, so there are cheaper options avaiable to avoid the hour-long wait as well.

  11. Ack! I see none of the links survived translation.

    To see the details of the restructuring proposal, go here.

    For Admiral District commuters wanting a fast connection to the north end of downtown, the 56X, 57, and 37 will provide such a direct connection during peak hours, in addition to the Water Taxi shuttles.

  12. So let me get this straight: Metro expects a bus to make a timed transfer connection with Link in the middle of a route — and the eastbound route stuck in West Seattle Bridge traffic before the critical timed connections with Link? Yeah… Right… (roll of the eyes)

    1. The critical time for eastbound connections at Columbia City Station (and possibly Othello Station, potentially doubling the number of southbound Link trains having a connecting eastbound 50) is in the afternoon and evening, when commuters are returning home. Congestion on the West Seattle Bridge eastbound is in the morning. By the time frequency drops, the congestion should be over. Westbound congestion on the bridge is worse, due to the lane configuration, but doesn’t cause immediate delays to Link connections.

      Metro isn’t promising these connections. I’m advocating that Metro promise them.

      I don’t have a solution for the BNSF track crossing, but there seems to be a good working relationship between BNSF and the local transportation agencies. I’ve never but stuck behind a train for more than five minutes on my 132, and never during rush hour. The 56 or 50 will continue to cross the tracks regardless of which route wins out.

  13. Logical route–grateful that the Columbia City Station design was shifted toward Alaska to facilitate just such a route. The Rainier Beach segment sure makes sense as well. Good, insightful stuff on this blog.

  14. It’s time for a little scheduling pre-calculus.

    The headway of the 50 should be a multiple of the headway of Link for that portion of the day. Ideally, the eastbound departures from Othello Station and Columbia City Station should be spread out to correspond to different southbound Link runs.

    At mid-day, Link’s headway is 10 minutes. The 50’s headway is scheduled to be 30 minutes. Believe it or not, this is the ideal. A run of the 50 that departs Columbia City Station eastbound at X:00 will reach Othello Station around X:17. The next southbound Link bus after that will depart Othello Station shortly before X:24. So, the bus has an ample seven minutes to take a quick break, turn around, and head east on the next run to the Admiral District. Indeed, it doesn’t have to do the turnaround in seven minutes, since the goal isn’t to leave within seven minutes, but rather *not* to depart before that seven minutes has elapsed and passengers from the southbound train have had a couple minutes to make it over to the bus stop. The operator just needs to look and see there aren’t any stragglers. The result is that two out of every three southbound Link runs off-peak (except late evenings) would have a connection to a waiting eastbound 50 bus.

    The peak-hour math is a little more complicated, due to Link’s 7.5-minute headway. During that time, a bus heading east from Columbia City Station at Y:00 tends to arrive at Othello Station around Y:23 (due to higher ridership and more frequent, longer stops). The next southbound train is at Y:26:30, roughly. But doing a quick turnaround doesn’t do much for frequent, well-spaced eastbound connections unless the 50’s headway during peak hours is 15 minutes, in which case there is an eastbound connection for each southbound train. This would be the ideal, if only the service hours existed to enact it.

    If the headway is 30 minutes, then there would be two southbound trains with a connection, followed by two trains without a connection, followed by two with a connection, followed by two without, and so on. If the turnaround at Othello Station is lengthened to have the bus leave Othello Station 34 minutes after it left Columbia City Station, then we have the problem that every four trains has *two* connections, and all the trains in between have none. So, scratch 30-minute headway as a useful plan for the 50 during peak.

    Having 22.5-minute headway, with a quick turnaround at Othello Station, results in one out of three trains having two eastbound connections, and the others having no connection. So, let’s go with the longer Othello turnaround, four trains after each bus leaves Columbia City Station. That leaves two out of three trains with an eastbound connection. That would get average wait time at the bus stop down below three minutes, *if* Metro can do schedules showing which station to get off at for each southbound Link run. That’s a big if, since it is more complicated than any public printed schedule Metro has produced to date, outside of its pick cards.

    For late evening, when headway is scheduled to be an hour, it isn’t the end of the world. If each bus does a long turnaround at Othello Station, then trains coming every half hour will have an eastbound connection.

  15. It will be a very tough sell for me to consider riding a bus I know has to come from West Seattle first.

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