Harbor Island, Google Maps

Among Metro’s routes that head downtown, we’re about to lose the worst performing bus, the #35.  This will cut off Harbor Island, leaving an over 1 mile walk for the dock workers on the north end.  If you care about system efficiency, it’s hard to argue that keeping a service with 1.4 passenger miles per platform miles is a good use of resources.  Passenger miles per platform miles means when you count all of the time the #35 is running there’s an average of 1.4 people on board at any given point.

Although not a perfect case, the #35 does bring to mind an important point.  Details matter.  When you cut a bus service down below a frequent schedule, some people find it inconvenient to have to wait so they find other ways to travel.  When that schedule drops to a few times per day other riders find there’s not enough of a backup plan in case they miss the last bus, so they start driving to be sure they can get home.  And when these few buses arrive at strange hours of the day (the #35 arrives at 3:39 and 4:09 in the afternoon, and that’s it), it may drop almost all of its ridership since there are far stronger factors that affect work hours than just a bus schedule.

I’m not saying that ridership at Harbor Island would be amazing if it were served by more buses, or even with buses that travel at more reasonable hours (apparently those earlier hours are preferred for shipyard workers).  Or even that the #35 should be saved (I don’t think it should).  But it is a good lesson that cutting service to low levels is often a recipe for ending that service in the next round.

What would my solution be for the #35?  Vanpools make sense for small ridership.  Or the Port could pay for a little shuttle bus to run back and forth across the island.  Another option would be the West Seattle Ferry – it really wouldn’t be much out of the way for a few routes per day, especially compared to all of the extra time a bus needs to spend to serve this stop.  I won’t even mention the potential gondola stop on the way from West Seattle.

41 Replies to “The Tragedy of the Infrequent Route”

  1. Or perhaps extending the N. Sounder line onto the island. If you’re going to waste buckets of money, this is probably as good a dumping ground as any :).

      1. Brilliant. That would bring Kitsap County into the fold, they get their rail line, everyone is happy.
        Well played Sir!

      2. That could be a solution to the trucking problems at the port.

        Transfer everything to rail on harbor island, and move to trucks somewhere useful – like Boeing Access road, Interbay, and maybe somewhere in Everett.

        Solve all the HW-99 transport issues in one step, and the port could sell some of the now excess harbor island land for condos.

      3. @psf That’s not terribly efficient. You want to minimize the number of times you touch a product (shipping containers, in this case). Unloading from a ship, onto trains, moving those trains, then unloading onto trucks adds too many steps.

        That said, as gas prices go up we’ll see more cargo loaded onto trains rather than trucks.

      4. The big question is where the containers are headed after unloading from ships. For most destinations local to western Washington State, unless there’s a single destination getting a very large number of containers (which there might be — anyone know?), truck is the only reasonable option.

        However, anything going further ought to be running by rail to intermodal sites at Vancouver, Portland, Spokane, or beyond.

  2. I would buy “The Consequence of the Infrequent Route,” as a title, but “tragedy?”

    Here’s my inexpensive solution to this specific problem. Bike lockers. With several routes serving near the south end of the island, encourage workers to ride bikes from their worksite on harbor island to the bus stop, lock up their bikes, and hop on a bus, and vice versa.

    1. Rather than bike lockers, an even cheaper solution is the bikestation downtown we already have. Seriously – if you’re already going to hop on your bike for the last mile, who is going to bother waiting for a bus to get just 2 miles closer? You may as well just hop on the bike downtown and save yourself a connection.

    2. +1. This is a perfect example of where cycling can substitute for more expensive public transportation options.

      With the new trail system headed down that direction, it’s an easy, flat, and relatively safe bike ride. There are still a couple of driveway cuts to cross carefully with all of the port traffic but it’s quite comfortable. (I rode all the way down to the West Seattle Bridge in street clothes to check it out one night when I had time to kill downtown.)

      As for the Bike Station / Bike Port, while it is still an excellent idea, it is closed.

    3. When I needed to be at Harbor Island for a work-related tour last Fall I rode my bike down from Beacon Hill. Pretty easy ride actually. Not much bike parking, so I just didn’t bother to lock up my bike.

  3. Please do not deviate the West Seattle ferry to serve harbor island. Compared to buses, boats are very inefficient at stopping to load and unload passengers and a single stop on the way downtown would delay passengers by 10-15 minutes to serve almost no riders.

    If we absolutely insist on deviating something to serve Harbor Island, I would vote for the 50, since it’s already enough of a circuitous milk run that almost nobody in there right mind would ride it anyway. Which means almost no one would be affected by the 10-15 minute delay this would impose.

    1. The 50 is significantly more useful than the 56. The 50 ties West Seattle together, while the 56 is a separate milk run from downtown to Admiral and Alki. Also, there’s no other way to get to Alki except the water taxi when it’s running.

      1. The 50, as it is, contains two sections which seem moderately useful for coverage reasons – the tail on Admiral Way to Alki and the section between Othello station and Columbia City station via Seward Park.

        What the 50 attempts to do is to connect two weak tails together that might be too short to operate as a standalone route into a longer route. However, with the deviations to Lander St. in SODO and the VA hospital parking lot, the 50 wastes service hours on trips that either duplicate other routes (the SODO deviation) or could be served much more efficiently with a 5 minute walk or, for the truly disabled, a golf-cart shuttle (the VA hospital case).

        With all its circuitousness, the 50 is still marginally faster than going through downtown to get from the RV to West Seattle, but that’s the best I have to say for it. Rather, I think Metro should ask themselves the direct question of whether cross-town West Seattle->RV trips are important or unimportant. If such trips are important, keep the 50, but keep it on a sane route. This means one quick stop on Spokane St. with no deviation to Lander, and if you can’t get on/off ramps built in such a way to allow this, just express over SODO and don’t stop at all. Anyone who really wants to go to SODO from West Seattle can take the 21 or 22. Anyone who really wants to go to SODO from the Ranier Valley can take Link. Unless you have a huge glut of people who work in SODO and live in Alki, the 50’s SODO deviation wastes rider’s time and Metro’s service hours and provides very little passenger value. Or, if we believe that West Seattle->RV cross-town trips are unimportant, then get rid of the 50, and truncate the 39 to operate between the VA hospital and Othello station only, using the VA hospital as the layover/turnaround point (the only way to maintain front-door service without pissing lots of riders off). Then, replace the West Seattle section of the 50, along with routes 773 and 775 with a year-long shuttle connecting Alki, the Water Taxi, and West Seattle Junction. This should consume fewer service hours than the current system, which could be re-invested to boost frequency.

      2. I wish the 50 would stay on the Bridge and go up Columbian Way, skiping SoDo.

        That said, I don’t envision many riders riding from end-to-end. This is one bus route serving multiple travel needs, although there HAS been a long-expressed desire for WS-RV direct service.

        It will be interesting to see what ridership looks like on different segments after a year.

  4. Perhaps one answer to infrequent routes is taxis integrated into the public transit system through information systems (Wheeels) and/or subsidized fare structures.

    What Taxis Add to Public Transit

    …New York City taxi cabs appear to work within the existing transit network, not against it:

    This matters because it means that individual’s travel journeys are multi-modal. If we want to have transit oriented cities we have to plan for high quality, door-to-door services that allow spontaneous one-way travel. Yet for all of the billions of dollars we have spent of fixed-route transit and the built environment we haven’t spent any time thinking about how taxis (and related services) can help us reach our goals.



    1. Me agreeing with Sam & John in the same thread? What is this world coming to?

      With a meter drop fee of $2.50 plus $2.50 per mile, buying taxi fares for everybody going to Harbor Island would be far less expensive than running the 35 down there. But how would you setup a system that allows for that? I also doubt taxi drivers are interested in quick trips like that – trips to the airport are probably more profitable.

      1. It’s more of a hypothetical idea although creating incentives for Taxis/Jitneys to serve these kinds of areas might not be so bad. Maybe taxi stands? Advertise taxi services? Whatever works…

      2. Taxis would theoretically work if you can get the price down. But at $2.50 to start and $2 per mile, it’s not something people can take every day unless they’re rich.

      3. I think it would be worth subsidizing from the standpoint of being able to say…hey, if you take transit at least close to the destination, we will not let it disappear on you because of late hours.

      4. … and if a taxi extension service was offered, it would be easy to gather data from those trips to add future bus service when the cost/benefit ratio works out, if ever.

        As for only the rich taking taxis, that may be so. However, it IS less expensive to transport those 1.4 passengers by taxi than by bus, even if we can’t figure out a workable system here. There are programs like the Home Free Guarantee that give taxi rides to employees who take transit to work but then need to go home in the middle of the day. That program obviously doesn’t serve the needs outlined here but is one example of extending transit service with Taxis.

    2. I love the idea of integration between taxis and public transit, but there are three things I think we need to do to make the system work.

      First, we need to get rid of artificial caps on the number of taxis allowed in our city and let the free market and the laws of supply and demand determine how many taxis there are. Artificially limit the number of taxis to what’s necessary to satisfy the long-distance airport demand and you get drivers that aren’t interested in any other trips. Let as many people open a taxi service as the market will bare and you’re have a lot more drivers doing local trips, maybe even some hanging around at major bus and train stations, looking for passengers coming off who just missed their once-an-hour milk run home.

      Second, we need to at least think a little bit about private car pickup and dropoff at Link stations and other major transit nodes, such as freeway stations. I’ve taken many trips to Issaquah by riding a taxi past downtown to the Ranier freeway station, then catching the 554 from there (about 30-40 minutes faster and much more reliable than taking another bus to get downtown). However, the lack of a good place for the taxi to drop me off at I-90 and Ranier makes this unnecessarily cumbersome.

      Third, we need a public education campaign that the notion of combining public transit and taxis is something possible and something people should consider doing. As things stand today, the entire population of the Ranier Valley and get a door-to-door ride to/from the airport for as little as $15 each way, by riding a taxi to the nearest Link station and riding the train from there. Similarly, anyone who lives in the U-district and already has a transit pass, but doesn’t want to mess with loading luggage on an overcroweded 71/72/73 can get to the airport with taxi + Link for just $18’ish each way – cheaper than parking and both faster and cheaper than Shuttle Express.

      Ideally, the taxi companies themselves would be paying for advertizements to encourage such trips, since it would be their bottom line that benefits the most. However, for some reason, taxi companies today never seem to bother to advertize (I can’t recall ever seeing any advertizement for any taxi company beyond than the markings on their cabs themselves). I believe a lot of this goes back to point #1, that when you artificially limit competition in a market, the people who are in it get lazy and stop working to obtain new customers.

  5. I used to drive that bus, what, 30 years ago – and it was full then. The crowd then was anxious to get downtown on time to catch a ferry (suggesting vanpool is a really good option if the same holds true today). I wonder how much less employment there is today than before, or whether the shifts still are as uniform or synched to the bus schedule?

    It was a rowdy crowd too! They would pop the beer caps and light up a joint or two in the back of the bus, shouting at me the whole time to “put the pedal to the metal!” Since the route was through-routed to the 11 Madison, there were undoubtedly a number of proper older folks wondering what the stink and commotion was all about.

    1. There are fewer shipyards and fewer workers on Harbor Island than there used to be. The ones that are left are paid well enough to afford cars and there is plenty of parking. (though I know one longshoreman who rides his bike to work)

    2. The 35 did have a much more glorious past. In the early 80s it operated mostly as a shuttle between Harbor Island and 4th & Spokane with peak hour service every 10 minutes and middays every 30 minutes. There also were additional Express buses that went to downtown Seattle during peak hours.

      During the 1920s the Harbor Island industrial area was considered so important that there were plans to build a light rail/subway line into the Harbor Island/Duwamish area.

  6. It seems like it would be a good idea to plan a new route. This new route would hit weird parts of the City, like Harbor Island, and other out of the way, or not in demand areas, and complete a loop, which goes through Downtown.

    This new route would attract new riders, and promote the development of infrastructure.

    1. Route Deviation with the new RFA shuttles.
      How long can it take to get down there and back?
      The regular riders would love getting out of town once in a while.

  7. “But it is a good lesson that cutting service to low levels is often a recipe for ending that service in the next round.”

    I wonder if there are people in the Rainier Valley muttering “42” under their breath right about now…

    (I’m not opposing the destruction of the 42, I’m saying that the lesson people in East and Southeast Seattle probably took from that debacle is that when Metro wants to cut a route, they’ll just make it as useless as possible so they can hide behind the resulting low ridership next time they try to cut it. Ergo, the way to save their favorite route is to get Metro to care about keeping it, and not accept insulting token service. The broader implications of the whole “useful” and “useless” distinction are left unsaid.)

    1. The 42 one-seat riders lost their opportunity to save the 42 when the 8 was selected as the Link shadow bus.

      That said, some advocates of the 42 offered potentially-service-neutral proposals for keeping the 42 and increasing the service hours (involving truncating the 8 at Mt Baker Station).

      I don’t think the hard-core opponents of the 42 here ever discussed alternatives that would have had the 42 taking over a chunk of the 8’s path. Given that the 42 proponents haven’t given up, and the hard-core opponents here haven’t shown up to publicly testify against the 42 (while the proponents show up in force), it may be a matter of overconfidence to consider the issue finally resolved.

      I prefer the 8, as it provides relative straight-line service between three high schools. One high school kid showed up with a petition urging that the 42 be saved lest a one-seat ride between those high schools be lost. Nobody on the council had the courage to ask the kid to clarify what he meant, since his argument obviously made no sense.

      But we still haven’t solved the problem of the 8’s infamous unreliability (which 42 advocates harped on).

      1. The 8’s infamous unreliability is (as I understand it) largely due to its Denny segment, and the riders of that segment are willing to accept it because it remains by far the most convenient way to move along that corridor.

        The problem is that the two different 8s are the same bus.

  8. During WWII Harbor island had plenty of ridership, and i think even trolleycoaches to serve it (i dont remember offhand, it was either todd or boeing or both who had trolleycoach service). Would it make sense to detour a couple of trips on a non rapid ride route each way at shift time to serve harbor island (two trips each from west seattle, and two trips from the east). I dont think it would be a significant drain on service hours, although it might make the scheduling a little bit more difficult and make for a slightly longer ride on those few trips.

    1. The Google photo was take at mid day on a Friday. There’s only about 180 cars in all the parking spaces combined on the island. Even if 10% shifted to transit, it’s still a pathetic number of riders for any service.

  9. Matt, the shuttle bus idea sounds good.

    And yes, the time of day is key. The current service requires leaving work early for some people, or more likely not using the bus.

  10. One alternative to the tragedy is substituting lower cost fixed route van service for more expensive transit bus service for marginally performing routes. A NJ Transit route with 9 daily trips was replaced with a van service operating only two trips but retained 50% of its 65 daily passenger trips, allowing transit dependent persons to keep working.

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