Route 29 at Market & Ballard
Route 29 at Market & Ballard

We’ve written before about SDOT’s long-running efforts to improve transit speed and reliability, and the rider experience, at heavily-used stops on key corridors, by constructing sidewalk extensions (or transit islands) to improve bus speed and reliability, reconstructing the sidewalks at and around the stops to improve pavement quality and accessibility, and installing or upgrading shelters. For maximum efficiency and effect, these small projects have often been combined with Metro stop consolidations (e.g. Market, Rainier) or SDOT repaving projects (e.g. Dexter, 85th, Northgate).

Soon, riders will reap further rewards from this low-profile but important work: 25 new real-time arrival signs on the Jackson/Rainier and Market/45th corridors. SDOT is currently working on the 13 signs on Jackson/Rainier, and will install the Market/45th signs as funding permits.

The stop locations slated for real-time signs are as follows:

  • On Jackson, serving Routes 7, 14 and 36, eastbound at 12th and Maynard.
  • On Rainier, serving Routes 7 and others, at the following cross-streets, northbound only except where noted: Walker (also southbound), Forest (also southbound; transfer point for Mount Baker Station), Walden, Andover, Genessee, Orcas, Graham, Rose, Henderson.
  • On Market/45th, serving Route 44 and others at the following cross-streets, in both directions except where noted: Ballard Ave, 15th Ave NW, Phinney Ave (eastbound only), Roosevelt/11th Ave, University Ave.
  • On 15th Ave NE in the U-District, at all stops in both directions between Pacific and 45th.

To give a sense of what these things (and public works generally) cost, from the numbers SDOT gave me, a three-line realtime sign and a pole to mount it on costs just over $6,500 — not including installation or setup. These signs require a fiber drop to be in place to deliver data, so their installation must almost always be preceded by a complete rebuild of the stop. A stop reconstruction, including a fiber drop but minus the cost of poles, shelter and furniture, is roughly $100,000 (if it’s not included in a larger paving project, in which case it’s effectively free).

More after the jump.

I’ve raved before about SDOT’s bus priority work, but I’m going to do it again: this work is unsexy and thankless, but it’s essential to our transit future. We need Seattle buses (and for that matter, Seattle trains) to be more like trains in other cities with high transit mode-share: frequent, direct, reliable and comprehensible; riders should always feel they know when to expect the next bus. Real-time signs, bus bulbs and stop consolidations get us incrementally towards that goal, and SDOT deserves praise for making this happen on a tiny budget. Between Metro’s RapidRide and SDOT’s efforts, maybe a third of Seattle’s top-tier all-day routes will have real-time signs at major stops, and while this is not a substitute for real rapid transit, it is not an insignificant achievement.

I will offer a few constructive criticisms as a rider of these routes. I’m sure SDOT is correctly interpreting the boarding numbers they have, although I’m not sure if they include all routes, or just the 7 and 44, but there are a couple of things that perhaps could make things better for riders which may not be evident from the data. The first one is adding a pair of real-time signs between Stone Way and Wallingford Ave: these stops are common to the 16 and 44, and some of them, especially those outside Wallingford Center and QFC, are quite busy. The 16 schedule is not worth the paper it’s printed on for much of the day, so real-time arrival would really help those riders, and any stop with real-time signs would likely become a preferred stop and transfer point in short order.

Similarly, the signs at Rainier & Forest will work great for people catching the 7, 9 or northbound 8, but do nothing for those catching the 14, 48 or southbound 8, as those routes serve the Mount Baker Transit Center, not the street stops; and the number of riders for the 8 and 48 are substantial. SDOT would do those riders a huge favor if they could find some way to add a sign to MBTC. Of course, the ultimate solution to this problem is eliminating MBTC and its associated headaches, replacing it with the transit-contraflow bowtie Martin wrote about, but that could be a while.

54 Replies to “SDOT Getting Crazy with the RTIS”

  1. 12th and Maynard? those are parallel streets. I assume you meant 12th and Jackson?

    1. Those are both modifying “on Jackson.” You get signs at Jackson/12 and Jackson/Maynard (which really shouldn’t be a stop anyway).

  2. I’m a big fan of SDOT’s work on this stuff as well – the bus only lane westbound on 46th by Green Lake Way is one of the best things to ever happen to the 44. Having a sign at 45th and Wallingford would be great. I think a focus on these at key transfer points would make a lot of sense.

    In other 16 news it looks like the construction reroute (at least for now) will essentially be the route as it was before the loop – it will stay on 5th N and then from Mercer go north on Dexter and west on Valley to get onto Aurora so I wouldn’t expect any increases in reliability anytime soon.

    1. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Apparently Metro has the brains of a horse.

      1. Although this may not speak directly to the 16, the stop improvement treatments that would yield the most bang for the buck are those that would eliminate loop-de-loop off-street stops. The examples I can think of in Seattle off the top of my head are the VA, the West Seattle Junction, Arrowhead Gardens (next to Olsen-Meyer P&R), NSCC, and MBTC. Indeed, I think any more investment in MBTC only cements the mistake of its creation. “We can’t get rid of that nice facility! We spent so much money on it.”

        For starters, Metro should implement a moratorium on new off-street stops that aren’t the terminus of all the lines serving it.

    2. We could make a very good “20 Baffling Questions about Metro” series. “Why are they so dead set that the 16 must provide door-to-door Seattle Center service no matter how huge the downside?” would be somewhere near the top of the list.

      1. I think I can answer nearly all of them before I hear the questions.

        The county council won’t let them do that.

      2. I’m wondering if they’ve been getting pressure from the Seattle Center folks and/or the Gates Foundation to keep the 5th N routing. It has to be someone who doesn’t care about getting north of 5th N and Mercer.

      3. @Kevin: It would be people that don’t care about going south of Denny-ish. There are other routes between downtown and 5th Ave N, but the 16 is the only one coming from north of the ship canal. In some ways you can’t blame ’em because it’s so unpleasant to walk between the Center and the Mercer/Aurora bus stop (particularly the northbound one). That’s going to get better with the Mercer project.

        If frequency/reliability were sufficient you might see people transferring between the 5/26X/358 and 16 at common stops along Aurora to mix-and-match destination pairs (some people do this in Chicago at common Red and Brown Line stations). I don’t see a whole lot of this sort of thing, though — we don’t have Red Line-style frequency (particularly on the 16) and the stops along Aurora aren’t pleasant places to wait (along with other odd problems — if you’re on a 16 and some other bus is coming just behind, sometimes the trailing bus will skip the stop if there’s nobody already waiting there).

    3. To convey a sense of how frequest than stop is used at 45th and Wallingford, one time I was on a rather late night 16 and didn’t pull the cord for the stop because I’d never had to. As the driver dropped me off at the next stop I mentioned that I was surprised he hadn’t stopped in front of Wallingford Center, either to drop someone else off or to pick someone up. He said, “you know, I don’t think I’ve ever missed that stop before either.”

  3. Backing up stop consolidations with capital investment for the most important remaining stops… Now that’s “doing density right”.

    1. Thanks for posting this. I hadn’t heard about the planned improvements for the 7 and was interested in what else would be accomplished with the expensive paving…

  4. While this is definitely a step in the right direction, it’s kinda disappointing that providing this kind of information requires an expensive stop rebuild in order to add a fiber drop. We’re not talking about simultaneously streaming hundreds of channels of high-definition video to the stop and it seems like some sort of wireless/cellular technology would be more than adequate (the usefulness/popularity of OneBusAway shows that). Hell, make a deal with one of the cell carriers to provide the connectivity for free in exchange for some sort of advertising at the stop…

    1. Woah woah woah, this is Seattle. Citizen’s eyes can’t be assaulted by things like ADVERTISING!

    2. Schuyler is right. Most forms of outdoor advertising are illegal in Seattle, including shelter ads of the sort that, say, got SF MUNI its shelters replaced for free by ClearChannel, complete with lighted maps and real-time arrival displays. The city council periodically talks about changing the law to allow precisely this sort of thing, but invariably does nothing, citing worries about constitutionality of a law that allows some (but not all) street advertising. Apparently the fact that Boston, NYC, SF, LA, etc, etc, have all gotten away with it for decades isn’t enough to assuage their fears. The Seattle Process at its finest.

      1. I’m not sure if the constitutionality is the main issue on this even if it is the reason given. Many folks – myself included – hate the idea of handing over the public right of way to multinational corporations for increased visual blight (especially given the recent move to more digital media). I’ve seen many of the advertising and street furniture programs around the country and I’m not a fan of them. The Boston one in particular is a mess – huge 17′ advertising pillars around the City along with fully wrapped bus shelters and ads on “City Information Panels” around town (the ones in the middle of the street in Downtown Crossing seem particularly obnoxious).

        Seattle put out a RFI last Fall and got a number of responses for a similar program but I haven’t seen any additional activity since that closed at the end of last November. Hopefully if anything does come of it folks will be able to stop it.

  5. A complete rebuild of the stop at $100K for a fiber drop? Who spec’d the sign? Truly incompetent use of taxpayers dollars. There isn’t a wireless version available that couldn’t be put up for a few hundred or thousand dollars? There’s only a few kb of data going to these signs. Ughhh….

    1. Generally these are being done along with other paving projects or stop rebuilds. That said, I absolutely agree. An option that didn’t require rebuilding the bus stop would allow these to be put up in places where they’d be useful but the existing bus stop doesn’t need to be rebuilt.

      1. 45th/Wallingford, mentioned in the post, is a good example of such a location; some of the in-lane stops in the U District might be also. Elsewhere in the system there are plenty of popular stops that don’t need to be rebuilt but would be good locations for arrival signs… including some that were rebuilt recently without signs.

        And this extends beyond just arrival signs. Off-board payment downtown (and a couple other places) is waiting on SDOT for fiber. A wireless solution for off-board payment could allow quicker, more flexible deployment.

  6. First time poster….

    I imagine the cost of all of this is a drop in the bucket, but as an ordinary taxpayer it is kind of frustrating to hear about this. Weeks before you hear Metro talk about having to cut 65 routes because of lack of funding. Then you hear about it spending money on projects like this.

    I would love to have real time information at bus stops and I am sure others too. However, it’s a bit annoying to go through this cycle where you hear the local government spend money like this and then come election time… schools, police, fire and bus services are held hostage unless taxes are raised. When it comes time to vote at the polls, I end up being a lot less sympathetic for levies and tax increases when I recall things like this.


    1. Not to derail your main frustration (which I suspect many people share), but I believe the work Bruce is describing is being done by SDOT, which is a separate entity from Metro. I know it’s easy to lump all government spending into one big bucket of frustration, but different agencies have different mandates and different budgets.

      One thing that wasn’t clear to me from Bruce’s post was whether the stops mentioned were already slated for rebuilding/improvement for other reasons and the RTIS additions were just icing on that cake or if adding RTIS is the sole reason for those stops getting attention.

    2. The money for these stop rebuilds comes from Bridging the Gap, not from Metro’s budget, so different pots of money. Maybe it’s bad that we have so many different agencies and so many pots of money, but that’s a larger, separate problem, not one of SDOT’s creation.

      To put $100,000 in perspective, that’s about 800 hours of bus service, or about three hours and ten minutes of bus service per weekday for a year. That’s maybe the cost of two trips per day on a downtown commuter express for a year. By contrast, Metro is facing cuts of about 600,000 hours if there is no new revenue source.

      This collection of capital improvements, however, will be around for 20+ years, and has already made the 44 noticeably faster; the realtime arrival signs are just the icing on the cake.

      1. And a significant number of folks have cellphones that can provide this service for next to no taxpayer cost. I’m sorry but this isn’t good stewardship of public funds and poor prioritization. At the end of the day, taxpayers don’t want to hear about lack of coordination between different buckets of money as being a reason for duplication and waste. Can you really afford icing on the cake when some folks are standing out in the cold do to lack of service?

      2. The icing on the cake is $6,500 per stop. The cake — the the speed and reliability improvements, so people aren’t standing out in the cold waiting for a late bus — are $100,000 per stop. So yes, this is not only justifiable, it’s essential.

      3. Has everyone here noticed that SOV-driving taxpayer angst is inversely proportional to the cost of the non-SOV-oriented project? i.e. “That $200 green paint job for bikes is proof that the City is wasting money hand over fist!”

      4. The London Underground has these things that say “Circle Line 3 min; Circle Line 7 min”. BART has these things that say “Richmond 13 min”. Nobody says that these are a waste of money because some passengers have smartphones. They say, “This is a major part of the system’s quality, and all transit systems should have them.”

        At bus stops, you’re often the only person there so you can’t ask somebody to check One Bus Away. And the times you’re most likely to be the only person are the same times when the buses are least frequent.

    3. I hear the frustration, but I think there’s also some confusion here: This is a project being done by Seattle DOT using Seattle DOT budget funds, not King County Metro or Metro capital budget funds. Metro’s capital budget is pretty much maxed out on replacing their aging bus fleet, what little is left is spent on basic shelter maintenance stuff.

      Projects like RapidRide are almost entirely funded by Federal grants, with some money coming from a ballot measure that passed a few years ago.

      Washington’s tax system is horribly broken, and the reason agencies have to keep going to voters for funding is a combination of inflation effectively shrinking their budget to the point that existing tax sources aren’t enough, and those taxes generally being unstable sources that fluctuate wildly based on the economy. It’s a great irony that at a time when government services are under the most demand – an economic contraction – their budgets are likewise being squeezed by the same contraction, and the resulting fall in sales tax income.

      As for parklets: [they are off-topic]

      One of the money quotes from the King 5 article is that “Seattle is still, contrary to what the ‘powers that be’ downtown may think, a driving town. We drive places. It’s how we get around.” What’s interesting is that it’s presented as a hard fact, as if modal choice (driving vs. transit vs. walking, et. al) is set in stone and cannot nor should change. The reality is that modal choice is, in fact, a choice – one influenced by external factors, yes, but still optional. Making shifts in our built environment to give people the freedom to choose more than a car to get around isn’t a bad thing – it’s badly overdue.

  7. “(if it’s not included in a larger paving project, in which case it’s effectively free).”

    This gives a hint as to the source of the cost. Paving is expensive. Removing paving is expensive. Actually, this gives an indication that paving should be avoided unless you really value it.

  8. Will the signs at Mt Baker have RTA info for Link?

    As a matter of reciprocity, will ST consider RTA signs at Mt Baker Station that include RTA info for buses? (and post mappage at the station for how to get to those stops)

    1. I doubt the signs would have Real-Time data for Link – there isn’t any real time data available. The 2-minute warning function, as it has been described to me, is basically ‘When the train passes over this sensor, we know it’s 2 minutes away, so play this message.’ I imagine there’s a bit more scripting/logic to it, but that’s basically it.

  9. Riders should always feel they can expect the next bus at it’s scheduled time! Knowing when a bus will arrive determines when you leave to go to the stop (i.e. One Bus Away). Once you’re there it’s not very helpful. More important than number of riders using a stop is how many useful options does this present at the stops where Metro is burning money?

    1. Getting the bus there at it’s scheduled time is what all the bus bulbs, queue jumps, signal priority and stop consolidations are all about. Most of the stops where the signs are being installed are in places with a decent amount of street life, where people will already be outdoors and able to see the signs. More than that, not everyone has a smartphone, or wants to wave it around in the U-District late at night.

      1. I don’t have a smart phone but I still use OBA. “Dial” 206-456-0609, push 3 to get to your bookmarked stops, press the number for the stop you’re interested in, listen, “hang up” the phone. A lot of keeping to the schedule can be solved simply by printing the information they know to be true rather than a fantasy they wish were possibly. And there’s no excuse for delaying buses up to 6 minutes at the start of their run because they have to wait for a train in the tunnel.

      2. I think this has been mentioned in previous threads, but one of the best uses of RTIS I’ve seen is having a RT board for the Portland streetcar inside one of the breweries in the Pearl District (Bridgeport?). Having RR info where there’s a fair bit of street life is great – having it before you even get on the street (and have a beer in front of you) is even better. :-)

      3. Stops with ID numbers seem to be a north end amenity, targetting neighborhoods that already have a high density of pricey phone ownership. Can we get some nice modern stop signs, with theze snazzy numbers and directions on how to call for RTA, in the poorer parts of the county?

        Also, how about plastic schedules instead of these standard paper 4-ups that blow away in the rain within a week?

      4. Riders should always feel they can expect the next bus at it’s scheduled time!

        Not in our system.

      5. Brent: All stops have ID numbers, even the old ones that don’t have it up on the face of the sign. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look.

        The very top of the schedule on the post has a number, format XXXXX-YYYYY-ZZZZ. YYYYY is the stop number.

      6. While using OBA without a smartphone is technically possible, it doesn’t realy work in practice. If you’re out on the street next to a real bus stop, there will usually be way too much background noise to hear what the electronic voice is saying. A few months of this was one big factor in convincing me to buy a smartphone.

    2. Not every rider is a 1-seat rider. RTA signs help with the transfer experience. You’ve just gotten off the first-leg bus. Do you have time to step into the store and buy something, or maybe stop at that ATM in the credit union next to the stop? Outside of this blog, I think a strong majority of riders don’t have pricey phones.

      I would agree, though, that RTA signs are most useful at transfer points, and not necessarily at the most-used stops. The 50 stops at Columbia City Station, for example, are poorly used, but the former 34/39 riders begged and pleeded with Metro to put RTA info there. Such signage could significantly improve use of those stops, and ridership on the 50.

      I also detect a disconnect between Seattle’s TMP and Metro and ST’s corridor work. Putting the finishing touches on the existing high-capacity lines ought to be a higher priority than it has been. That includes declaring MBTC to be a failed experiment and realigning the roads to optimize the transit and transfer experience. It also includes recognizing the incompleteness of the Link corridor, and adding amenities at nearby stops to make the transfer experience as compelling as possible.

    3. On the contrary, I use OBA information while standing at a bus stop every single day. Do I take the slower bus that comes now, or do I wait for the faster bus that’s behind it? The difference can come down to whether one of the buses is 1 or 2 minutes late.

      1. Although I can take the 26 straight downtown (or as straight as its route allows), if all the stars are aligned my fastest way is to take a 31 or 32 to Fremont, a 40 to the stop past Mercer, walk a block and take the SLUT. In part this is because the 40 moves faster down Westlake than the 26 down Dexter, and in part because my office is located literally overlooking I-5, so a bus down Third Avenue doesn’t get me that close (historically, when the 26 went down Westlake and stopped at 5th and Pike, that was damn close to door-to-door service, but that was a long time ago). In any event, without OBA I would never even attempt that, particularly because if you just miss the SLUT it can be a long wait til the next one and any time savings is out the door.

      2. While I agree, it is very nice when the stars do align like this, how often does it actually happen. My guess would be that if you commute to work every weekday, it would happen maybe once or twice a month.

    4. Another “OBA”-ish example. I sometimes find myself at Broadway and John trying to get downtown (or uptown) so as to transfer to a low-frequency bus. The 43 and 8 use one stop; the 49 a separate stop the better part of a block away. Schedule reliability varies between the rather shaky (49), very shaky (43), and horrible (8). Good real-time arrival information tells me which stop to wait at in order to maximize my chance of making the subsequent transfer (or whether I should run a couple of blocks to try and catch the 47, which had good schedule reliability). Lacking a cell phone, even a RTIS display at the 43/8 stop (the least reliable buses) would be very helpful.

    5. I was just arguing the principle of the thing, but I like reading these use cases, so I’ll share mine. In the morning peak I can use either the 306/312 or the 522. The 306/312 has 5 extra stops (120th, 105th, 95th, 85th, Convention Place). If OBA shows a 306/312 4 minutes ahead of the 522, it will get downtown first. If it’s 2 minutes ahead of the 522, the 522 will get downtown first. 3 minutes is a tossup. It’s remarkable how accurate this rule is, and my most frequent time to commute has a 312 scheduled one minute in front of a 522…

    6. People make spontaneous decisions when they’re not at home. “I want to take the 16, but I wasn’t planning to when I left home so I didn’t write down the times it comes.” If they don’t have a smartphone and don’t know the stop number, all they can do is go to the stop and see if the bus is coming soon.

  10. Another benefit of real-time arrival information is, thanks to Car2Go, if the wait for a bus is too long, you are never really stuck waiting. I have made several trips over the past few weeks where OneBusAway determined my decision of whether to wait for the bus, or walk to the nearest Car2Go and drive.

    Similarly, there are also a lot of short trips on slow routes where running can be faster than waiting for the bus, depending on how long the wait is. For example, I discovered that for travel from Green Lake and Wallingford to 15th and Ravenna, it is actually faster to just hoof it all the way and run, rather than wait for the 48, if OBA indicates that the 48 is more than 5 minutes away.

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