I don’t know who this young man is, or the woman he is writing to, but he speaks for multitudes:

I felt your pain trying to get somewhere on time on that bus. Not only is it slow as hell, but it's never on time. I hope you made your destination on time tonight. Sucks to see such a beautiful gal look so pissed.

He’s right: The 16’s reliability and travel times are absolutely pathetic. More galling is that those problems are obvious, must be known by Metro, are entirely within Metro’s capacity to fix (without requiring any significant expenditure of capital money), and yet Metro has utterly failed to do so when given the opportunity. The 16 is so bad that it inspired me to write my first blog post for STB, wherein I examined the problems at length. In this post I’ll extend and update that original discussion.

To recap, the 16 is crippled by two terrible routing choices, one in each direction, near each origin, which destroy its reliability, in both directions, for the remainder of the route. Both of these routing choices would never be made if the 16 were created today, but it always seems to require Herculean effort to fix vestigial bad design in Metro’s bus network, no matter the merits of doing so.

More after the jump.

The Seattle Center Detour

Northbound, instead of getting directly on Aurora like the 5 and 358, the 16 follows the path of the East Queen Anne buses on 5th Ave N until Mercer St, where it then drives in a giant circle to get back to Aurora. This is slow and annoying enough, even when traffic is moving well, but during the weekday, Mercer is a traffic disaster area, and the bus can take several minutes to crawl a hundred yards between 5th and Dexter.

Inexplicably, even though Metro made far more controversial suggestions during the Fall 2012 restructure (including a change to the 16’s Northgate routing, discussed below), Metro did not propose fixing this detour even in the most ambitious initial proposal. But, for the future, I have both good and bad news about this detour. The good news is that it will almost certainly go away around 2017, if not before; the bad news is that it’s going to get even worse in the interim.

The SR99 Deep Bore Tunnel, constructed as part of the SR99 viaduct replacement project, will have its north portal at Harrison St, three blocks north of the current Battery Street Tunnel’s portal at Denny Way. WSDOT will rebuild the city street grid in those three blocks, and those three rebuilt non-highway blocks of Aurora Ave will have continuous bus lanes from the new SR99 ramps to the existing bus lanes and queue jump on the Wall/Battery couplet; there will also be new bus stops near Harrison Street. You can see what all this will look like on WSDOT’s great interactive simulation of the construction process.

The given rationale for the 16’s current detour is to improve rider access to the Seattle Center, avoiding the need to use the inadequate sidewalks in the Mercer underpass to reach the northbound stops. (Why the 16 should be uniquely singled out for this has never been adequately explained to me). Once the street grid rebuild is complete, there will be good pedestrian access between the new Aurora & Harrison stops and the Seattle Center, and that issue should be moot.

Unfortunately, as the WSDOT simulation shows, the next five years of open-heart surgery on the street grid near the tunnel portal are going to make traffic in the area, and particularly on Mercer, suck even more (if that’s possible). Notably, it looks like eastbound Mercer St will be reduced to two lanes for at least a year, starting in 2014. Granted, some of these problems will also affect buses that go directly onto Aurora, but the impact to the 16 seems likely to be much more severe.

NE Northgate Way

I discussed in my previous post on the 16 why it uses Northgate way rather than the faster, more reliable, and more direct 92nd St. Metro did propose to fix this in the Fall 2012 restructure, but I’m told by people at Metro that the proposal was shot down by community opposition, particularly from seniors in Wallingford and Green Lake who wanted access to social services on Meridian, near the community college. I don’t know much more about this, or if there’s any hope of finding an alternative that Metro could stomach.

The Wages of Unreliability is Unspectacular Ridership

There are real consequences, beyond Craigslist posts, to atrocious unreliability such as that exhibited by the 16. In my case study of the 1997 Aurora restructure, I presented this chart showing the productivity (rides per platform hour) of the routes on this corridor:

Aurora Corridor Historical Weekday Productivity
Aurora Corridor Historical Weekday Productivity

Post-1997 productivity on the 358 has grown significantly faster than the 16. Comparing two routes in this way is subject to a raft of caveats, but I think there is some validity to the comparison: both routes serve roughly the same geographic part of the city, and although the demographics and built environment of the walksheds are different, that difference is arguably baked into the 1998 initial numbers.

I’m convinced, and I think the anonymous man and woman on Craigslist would agree, that the 16’s unreliability is a major reason why more people don’t use it. Metro could fix these problems, drive ridership, save money, and make Wallingford and Green Lake more accessible via transit if they so chose. So far, they haven’t.

44 Replies to ““Sorry the 16 sucks””

  1. According to the schedule, it takes an hour to get downtown from Northgate on that ridiculous bus. And we all know how accurate that schedule is. This is the problem with having long routes that stop every 2 blocks, they take FOREVER and then nobody wants to ride them.

    1. I don’t think anyone is expected to actually ride the 16 all the way from downtown to Northgate. That’s what the 41 is for. The 16 is supposed to be for intermediate trips along the way.

  2. Working at 5th and Mercer, I always laugh at the fact that walking is always faster than driving in that area, no matter which route I take home. I see people hop on the 16 at 5th/Republican, but as soon as the bus turns onto mercer I’m passing it on foot. Between 5 and 6 traffic in that whole area is a total nightmare, between Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funneling all exiting traffic directly onto Mercer and people trying to escape Amazon.com for the night.

    If I walk my normal route home up Denny, I can beat the 8 on foot from 5th/Denny all the way until the I-5 overpass. That’s the bus I should be taking to/from the office, but why bother dealing with that crowded, generally unfriendly crowd when I can have the freedom of walking? I can even make a quick stop at Whole Foods and still manage to outrun the bus.

    This is why I have to laugh at any transit proposal that is called “rapid” if it shares any right of way with all the private cars people here love. It’s shocking how low transit ridership is given how nasty the traffic can be.

  3. When I first moved to Belltown I made the mistake of taking the 16 home from Northgate. It arrived at the Transit Center 5 minutes before the next 41, so I told my wife “why don’t we just take this one, it drops off at Cedar by our house”.
    By the time it got to 5th Ave & Mercer, I went berserk (my wife’s words) and got off. Between the 4 different wheelchair riders and the circuitous route, we were on that bus well over an hour. I just couldn’t take it any more!
    I walked over to LQA and took the 18 home. I’ll never make that mistake again.

    It’s routes like this that make me so frustrated because the fixes are obvious, the reasoning behind leaving it this way are absurd (especially the Mercer/Aurora circle), and yet nothing ever changes.
    Is there some reason the 16 doesn’t take a left on Dexter, and then a left on Valley? It seems obvious, and I don’t think there’s any hills/turns that are worse than the right from 3rd onto Marion. Surely the 16 has to wait for a green light from 5th onto Mercer anyway, so I don’t see why it couldn’t just pull into the left lane.

    1. It used to make the left from Mercer to Dexter but they changed it because it was taking so long for the bus to get over to the left lane from the right lane on 5th North. What might make sense at peak times doesn’t make sense universally – minimally I’d like to see them give the drivers the autonomy to make the left if traffic isn’t too bad.

  4. I think I was sitting across from the woman in the ad (and the guy who is still apparently trying to get into her pants). If it was the same bus it was particularly slow even for the 16.

    This is a great summary of the challenges with the 16. I’m a regular rider from Downtown to Wallingford and can attest to the glacial speed of the 16 through the Seattle Center area and the overall lack of reliability. Even on typical days the bus isn’t particularly reliable but throw in any event at the Center or just tourist season where scores of people who seem to have never taken a bus before anywhere are trying to figure out how to pay the fare (this is why we need a day pass Metro!) and the speed and reliability get even worse.

    This also impacts Metro’s efforts to restructure service in North Seattle – particularly around efforts to discontinue or reroute the 26. If the 16 were more reliable a lot of folks in Wallingford might have been more open to the proposed changes – as long as it serves the Center I will be among the folks fighting like hell to keep the 26. I’ve spent too many rides stuck on 5th N when events are letting out and the bus can’t move forward because of all the traffic merging in from the parking lots.

    1. Agree about the day pass–they used to have them when I was a kid and my family would buy them rather than drive to events at the Center. For tourism alone it would speed things up on painfully slow routes like the 16 that go to tourist areas, especially after ride-free goes away. I just don’t get why they can do paper transfers but not a paper day pass.

  5. On top of that, having everyone pay at the front, with no real financial incentives to individual riders to get an ORCA card (and a rather strong disincentive of a $5 fee for joining the courtesy club), every downtown route is going to feel like it is detouring to serve the Seattle Center. The 16 will feel like it is making the detour twice each way.

    With the 3 and 4 already serving the east side of the Seattle Center, the 30 providing a good connection between UW and the Seattle Center, and the 1, 2, 8, 13, 18, and RapidRide C Line serving the west side of the Seattle Center, how many routes does the Seattle Center really need?

    1. Agreed, there are already a ton of buses serving Seattle Center. Rerouting the 16 away from there doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to me.

  6. Examples like this are what gives Metro the reputation its “Mehhh, good enough” reputation. Metro is always excellent at telling you what they can’t do, and horrible at telling you what they can do. Some of that is money but not all of it. I want a transit agency that has a can do spirit. If that means reducing service hours to invest in capital investments like bus lanes, real-time info, TSP, wire, etc please do it!

      1. Metro can use capital funding to pay for these improvements but instead they use it to buy more buses for slow service.

      2. @Brent You’re correct Metro doesn’t “buy” traffic lanes but Metro can give SDOT money for improvements like bus lanes, TSP, etc. In some places these changes might be political but I would say that by in large these projects are more constrained by funding not politics. There is just so much low hanging fruit especially on the edge of the downtown core and in surrounding center city neighborhoods.

      3. As of late Metro hasn’t been buying new buses but deferring capital expenses in an attempt to maintain the operating budget. Which of course in the long run is really the same thing as increasing debt.

      4. “As of late Metro hasn’t been buying new buses but deferring capital expenses in an attempt to maintain the operating budget”

        Really? Metro is replacing all of their Gilligs with Orion’s, the 2300s are gone from East base and I’m seeing more 6900 hybrids, Trollies are due to be replaced soon… Am I missing something? The equipment I’ve been driving has been getting refreshed, but I’m open to you having a view of the broader picture. Other than the Bredas, does Metro have a significant number of coaches older than 12 years old? ( The FTA’s recommended coach lifespan)

      5. Don’t have a more recent source but I’m just thinking back to the budget debates that lead up to the $20 tab fee:

        As expected, cuts to the Metro system were the focus of the proposal. These cuts include:

        Deferring bus expansion: While the new RapidRide(link) services will continue full force, taking 4.5 cents of the total 5.5 cents from property taxes, Transit Now service investments are being deferred as well as investments in scheduled maintenance. Desmond noted that this does not mean Metro is favoring the specific RapidRide routes while cutting overall service.
        Capital program cuts: Metro will greatly reduce the number of buses it purchases, and speed, reliability and asset maintenance programs will be cut.

        I don’t know how old the last 255 I was on was but it sure felt and sounded like it was long overdue for the reader board to be switched from “Brickyard” to “Boneyard”. In contrast the 249 was a smooth 40′ coach with the automated inside display. Yesterday the 40′ ST 235 and RR B were deluxe.

        BTW, still no sign on NE 8th at the BNSF crossing. Kirkland has posted Abandon ROW signs at all RR crossings so the buses don’t have to stop and open their door.

      6. Other than the Bredas, does Metro have a significant number of coaches older than 12 years old?

        The 2300’s (New Flyer D60 high-floor artics) might be gone from east base, but Metro has 274 of them, more than of any other model, and there’s still a bunch of them bombing around other parts of the system. Those are all 12-14 years old. They’ve actually held up pretty well, but their transmissions are all shot, and they’re starting to burn exhaust valves pretty frequently. They have a horrid tendency to come back to base only running on 5 cylinders. The 48 in particular has been cursed with these as they become increasingly unreliable.

        They’re being replaced, but slowly. I think Metro is going to be able to stretch a couple more years out of them. If they do a fleetwide engine/transmission rebuild on them they could probably get another decade out of them with little trouble. But extending their lives that long could be considered a bad move in terms of county air quality – they use the old Cummins M11 engine, which is a much bigger smog offender than anything built after 2002.

  7. The 60 only serves the VA knot on weekdays. Perhaps the 16 could serve the Seattle Center detour only on weekends?

  8. The 5th N / Mercer situation is horrible for 3/4 riders as well – EB Mercer traffic usually “blocks the box” during rush hour so no traffic can proceed on NB 5th N.

    A big issue is no/minimal SPD enforcement – a cop on foot could probably write an entire traffic ticket with license, registration, and insurance check while the offending car was stuck in traffic. I’ve nearly been hit walking to QFC and I see ridiculously dangerous drivers on a regular basis.

    1. I’ve always been amazed as to why they don’t just put a camera there. They could probably recoup the cost of the camera in a couple days time based on how many tickets they would be writing for blocking the box. The signs are there, just start enforcing!

    2. City Council needs to hear these kinds of things, otherwise it’s not going to change. Which is not to guarantee that it will change just because they hear about it – but we need to be talking about these sorts of things.

  9. Amen. I live in Fremont and work downtown, and quickly learned to never hop on the 16. It is worth it to wait a few extra minutes and take the 5 or 26E. I’d even rather take the 28 or 26 local buses before getting on the 16.

  10. My rule is to never live near the 5, 16, 26, or 28, and always live near the 15/18, 358, 71/72/73, or 41 instead.

    1. I do not recommend living near the 358. I mean, the frequent transit service is great, but living near Aurora comes with other problems. Like crack whores turning tricks in front of your house, and leaving their condoms behind. Or crack heads smashing in the window of your car looking for enough money to get their next fix. (Yes, I speak from experience. Sigh.)

      1. Hmm, I live two blocks from Aurora and have never experienced these things. Maybe they happen further north? I’m near the Wallingford Inn.

      2. I’m up near Bitter Lake. If you’re looking to hire a lady of the evening, they appear to be hanging around 125th & Aurora these days. It seems to come and go in phases around here–the worst for our neighborhood was while the Seattle Motor Inn (aka The Black Angus) was at its worst a few years back. After it closed, we saw a dramatic decrease in sketchy folks buying drugs along 125th, and a lot less break-ins and car prowls. The last couple of months, things have gotten worse again. Our neighbor had his car broken into last week, and another neighbor had to call the cops when a pimp got belligerent when asked to vacate the neighbor’s driveway a couple weeks back.

        Personally I don’t mind the prostitution (other than the condoms left behind, GROSS) but it’s the scary pimps and the “I need money for drugs” crimes that come along with the prostitution that makes the neighborhood feel unsafe.

  11. The number one change for the 16 should be getting rid of the insanely long route up College, over Northgate Way and back to the Transit Center (10 minutes on a good day)
    Just stay on 92nd, put bus shelters between Meridian & College and let the students walk a whopping 1200 feet (1/4mi) into the center of the campus. Oh the horror of it! – Not the walk, the removal of a few on-street parking spaces for the pullouts.
    Add some trips to the 75 if service on College Way mandates it, and bag the rest of the hours for something useful.

      1. I am sympathetic to old people going to doctor appointments, but I still think it’s a bad idea to screw up an entire route so that a few people can reach a facility. I feel the same way about the 345, which takes a half hour to go from the designated urban hub of Bitter Lake, to Northgate, because it is serving as a nursing home shuttle for the people at Four Freedoms to go to Northwest Hospital, so it meanders through both the Four Freedoms parking lot and the Northwest Hospital parking lot, then goes all the way down to the community college and across 92nd. It’s faster for an able-bodied person to walk from Bitter Lake to Northgate than it is to take that ridiculous bus. Folks in the south end had to give up their one-seat ride on the 42, I think folks in Wallingford and Green Lake can live without their one-seat ride to the Northwest Hospital outpatient facility on the 16.

      2. Ideally it would be split into two overlapping routes, with the longer 16 going on 92nd and a shorter route from Greenlake (or 45th) going on College Way. But that would require more money, which Metro doesn’t have right now.

  12. What I saw from the #2 restructure proposal was that while there are folks who instinctively get these issues, there are plenty of others who do not, and will fight like hell to keep exactly the service they already have. Metro planners can propose all the changes they want; if the folks who show up at the meetings and talk to County Councilmembers and make noise about things really do NOT want to see something happen, they generally get their way.

    If you really want to see route changes, it’s going to take a lot more neighborhood-level activism and involvement, to provide the political cover. Otherwise I just don’t see a lot of these issues changing.

    On the 16 specifically – in the late ’80s I had to take that bus from downtown to Northgate on a snow day, as it was the only thing that showed up. I *wish* that trip had only been an hour.

  13. I echo the sentiments of other Wallingfordians about the 16. I need it sometimes to get to my doctor at Northgate, and have on a number of occasions gotten out at NSCC and walked to Northgate Group Health, beating the bus by a hefty margin. Taking it north from downtown is also a complete crapshoot depending on what the traffic is on Fifth and on Mercer. I have fallen asleep on it before it gets to Denny and awakened half and hour later and not been on Mercer yet. It’s basically not transportation at all; it’s a “well, it’s pouring so it’s better to get on some bus rather than no bus” route for the most part.

  14. I agree. However, Seattle Center does need service from Northgate and even beyond: perhaps Metro can serve it southbound only? It’s not unprecedented – it was just announced that RapidRide E would use Linden going north and Aurora going south by Green Lake. As for Meridian, how about going north up to 117th, heading eastbound and south onto 1st NE (going south). It depends on whether the corners are navigable and, of course, the folks living on 117th, who probably would nix the idea, however. Another option might be to turn around: within the medical facility on Meridian, which as I recall has its own traffic light (north end) and plenty of parking lot…

    1. Interesting ideas. There are a couple of obstacles on the north end. 117th isn’t classified as either an arterial or a transit street:


      So it’s unlikely the city would allow buses to run there, as the streets probably aren’t built to an adequate standard to survive buses driving over them every 20 minutes.

      Similarly, the weight of a Metro bus exceeds the design load of many private parking lots.

    2. As I read the announcement, the proposal to the Council is for RR E to go both directions on Aurora, but that depends on a street change to allow a southbound stop at 66th & Aurora. If SDOT is not willing to build a short bus lane, the southbound would go on Linden and the northbound on Aurora.

  15. I used to live on Meridian near Northgate and I can personally attest that the 16’s unreliability caused me to gradually stop using it. A couple times, after waiting several minutes for a 16 and not seeing anything, I actually gave up, turned around, and took my car instead.

    Eventually, I came to realize that just about any trip one could take on the 16 could be done faster and more reliably via either another bus (such as the 41, or even 358) or a bicycle.

    Sometimes, even running can be as fast or faster than the 16. I once did an experiment and concluded that if I was on the 545 heading into Seattle, getting off at Montlake and running 5.5 miles home would take the same amount of time as staying on the 545 into downtown, then riding the 16 home (naively assuming the 16 runs on time).

    Now, I’ve moved so I hardly ever have to deal with the #16 anymore. The rare occasions I travel down the #16 corridor, I almost always pretend the bus doesn’t exist and ride my bike.

  16. Not sure about up by NSCC, but the easiest fix for the 16 (which is generally OK southbound and generally horrible northbound) is simply to keep its current route to downtown and then move it to the same northbound route as the 5 and 358. If you are downtown, you can get to the Seattle Center. If you live in the Wallingford/Green Lake area and need to get to the Seattle Center, take the 26 or 16 or 5 or 358 (all evenly spaced east to west on Latona, Meridian/Stone and Aurora).

    This seems like such a no-brainer. Service to the Seattle Center from the North, and take any of a number of other buses (or the monorail) from downtown and let the 16 get the hell out of downtown and avoid the Mercer mess on its northbound trips.

  17. Well, I have to say that I think the #16 serves a customer base that isn’t being served by other bus routes. What other routes go on the East side of Seattle Center and then go across the Canal? Maybe there are some people who don’t want to walk all the way to Aurora and Denny to catch a #358(who REALLY wants to ride that bus anyway?) or a #5? When you’re finished at the Seattle Center and want to go back home to Greenlake or Wallingford, why should I have to walk those blocks to catch a bus when there can be one right across the street? Why should I have to take a bus to downtown Seattle–the OPPOSITE direction I want to go?–to then catch another bus that will finally take me home? I think there should be MORE busses that go to the Seattle Center, not less. Everyone wants that area to be more dense, but yet you keep saying you want less bus service to that area, that just doesn’t make any sense. Sure, the bus routing can be crazy at times, but the street layout was put in place long before Metro was in existence and Metro can only run busses on streets that are already there.

    1. “2-leg journey that could be made easy?
      Or 1-seat ride that is a guaranteed nightmare?

      2-leg journey that could be made easy?
      Or 1-seat ride that is a guaranteed nightmare.”

      Only in Seattle is this even a debate.

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