A joint regional transit agency news release provides the first, rough estimates of transit’s contribution to the estimated 700,000 who showed up for the Seahawks’ parade. The numbers, especially bus numbers, are largely guesstimates, but here are some ridership highlights:
- Link had over 75,000 boardings, over double the average weekday and well over the previous record of 51,000 on opening Saturday in 2009, when rides were free and certain transit nerds boarded again and again.
- Sounder had about 20,000 boardings in the morning and “a similar number” in the afternoon.
- Combined CT and ST bus service into Seattle totaled 22,500 boardings, 5,000 above the average; there were a record 55,000 boardings in Snohomish County.
- PT estimates that there were 6,500-8,500 more boardings than normal at the Tacoma Dome between 7am and noon.
- The West Seattle Water Taxi carried 4,600, compared to a January average of 416. Vashon foot ferries were up 20% to 928.
Across all agencies, there were more vehicles, more trips, and (in the case of Sound Transit) longer trains.
In all, a memorable day for transit. All transportation modes were overwhelmed beyond their capacity. Things might have been much worse had it not been for crowds of riders in good cheer, orderly, and forgiving of systems well beyond their design limits. Moreover, agencies showed uncommon agility in mobilizing for Wednesday on short notice, and the efforts of foot soldiers controlling crowds at Westlake station and other places were nothing short of heroic.
As a Seattle sports fan, I hope this is a problem we have many times in the years to come. The best news of all is that Seattle’s transit capacity is set to increase. As University Link cars continue to arrive, ST’s surge capability will increase incrementally. And in two years, U-Link will effectively quadruple the ability to get people out of downtown over the current Central Link standard, by doubling both directions of travel and train length.*
However well Wednesday made the point that Seattle’s transit capacity is valuable, there were certainly some suboptimal operations. In particular, joint tunnel operations are severely capacity-reducing when demand reaches these levels. Your humble correspondent arrived at Westlake a little before 5 pm; lines criscrossed the mezzanine as police limited access to the platform for safety reasons. These volumes compounded the usual bus friction, with restricted movement on the platform, Metro’ s insistence on adding congestion at the point of maximum stress, and the apparent breakdown of Metro’s sequencing system for southbound buses. It was clear that the surge of novice riders was largely waiting for the train, well in excess of the share of platform time granted Link.
Moreover, the consistent weakness of rider information arose once again. The tunnel message boards spouted useless platitudes. The crowd got restless as train headways widened, with no real-time information to satisfy them. Moreover, the instinct of a savvy rider, knowing that full trains will pass up riders further South, is to head to Westlake, which no doubt added to the overflow there. Sound Transit, in a brilliantly creative move, sent some trains “out of service” through Westlake to clear out the other crowds and ran some trains between Stadium and Seatac only. It might have relieved some of the pressure to let people know that taking relatively empty buses a few stops would not maroon them, and in fact might get them home sooner.
For all that transit was absolutely vital Wednesday, I’m not sure it won itself many new riders with the overall experience. Here are some suggestions in the hope that there’s a next time, perhaps within the next year:
- Nimble Rider Communications. No amount of tweeting helps people in the DSTT. Sound Transit was extremely agile in responding to conditions, but didn’t leverage the tools in the tunnel to allow riders to exploit it.
- Suspend fares. For any large event like a parade, there’s a budget to pay for police coverage and the rest. It should be part of the package — whether covered by the City, the team, or whomever, to deliver a lump sum to transit agencies and suspend the fare on buses. While there are first hand accounts that ST staff waived fares at times, there have been no reports of Metro doing the same. Fare collection is one of the main reasons that buses don’t scale and that tunnel operations were slow. Moreover, complicated transfer policies discourage transfers, which interferes with…
- Getting creative with truncations. Link is the most efficient way to move large numbers of people through downtown, for several self-evident reasons. Under the current configuration, it would be operationally simple to have 100-series tunnel buses terminate at Stadium or Sodo, and accept their riders from 3-car Link trains. This would increase throughput in the tunnel, and therefore overall capacity.
Transit agencies reacted forcefully to an event thrown together at the last moment with no reliable estimate of how much demand there would be. The creativity and hard work of staff saved the network from total collapse, but by examining lessons learned the future can be bright.
* And a 25% increase in trains per hour, from 8 to 10 per direction (see p.106).