Martin’s post this morning described the trade-offs around Mayor Murray’s decision to redirect some SDOT funds to prevent cuts to Seattle’s Night Owl service. In this post, I want to sidestep questions of whether the city should spend money on more very-late-night (post-1am) service, and where the city could find that money. Instead, I’d like to discuss the structure of the service which the Mayor proposes to buy.
Specifically, I’d like to call out the fact that in the context of 2014 Seattle, the service map above, which comprises a dismembered-flower-petal arrangement of one-way loops, designed to serve the city 60 (or more) years ago, is bonkers. If we’re going to spend city money on saving very-late-night service, we owe it to city taxpayers and transit riders to spend the money effectively, rather than perpetuating a horribly outdated route structure through sheer inertia and loss aversion.
Let’s state two basic transit planning precepts that apply here:
- An effective transit service is a simple, comprehensible service. Ideally, transit should be like driving on a road: you show up and sit down, and it takes you in the same direction, the same way, every time. Riders shouldn’t have to memorize shifting, elaborate patterns of service for different times of day; variations, where unavoidable, should be minimized. While the petal-loops arrangement above is a great way to get a bus within half a mile of most of the people who lived in Seattle during the 1950s, its uniqueness, complexity and indirection detracts from the good work Metro has done over the last two decades, of focusing Seattle’s transit network down to a core of simple, direct, understandable routes.
- An effective transit service connects the areas of highest likely demand. In the era of relatively cheap cab alternatives (UberX, Sidecar, etc.) and convenient by-the-minute car rentals (car2go), the people using very-late-night transit are likely low-income people going home from the city center, mostly after working swing shift, or maybe from a night out, so it makes sense to have the network radiate out from downtown; this much our current night owl service gets right. But those people aren’t then going home to Queen Anne, Broadmor or Madison Park, and they haven’t been for a generation. People working these jobs were some time ago pushed to less-tony areas of Seattle ($) — Northgate, Lake City, Delridge, White Center, and the southern Rainier Valley — if not out of the city altogether. Night owl routes need to reflect this not-really-new demographic reality.
Given the above, what would a sane night-owl network look like? I would start with the Seattle RapidRide network (Lines C, D, E), and then add the primary bus routes from each of the remaining points of the compass that remain unserved: Northgate, Lake City — 41; U-District, Northgate — 73*; Capitol Hill, U-District — 49; Central District — 3; Rainier Valley — 7; Beacon Hill — 36; Delridge — 120; and, if I had any money left, Georgetown — 124. By comparison, under the current 15.6% Metro cuts scenario, Seattle would be left with very-late-night trips on RapidRide lines C, D, E, along with Routes 49 and 120; Routes 7, 36 and 124 would lose their very-late-night trips; and Routes 3, 41 and 73 have never had them (as far as I know).
Here’s the bottom line: The smart way for Seattle to spend any potential very-late-night transit money is not to preserve the existing mess of obsolete Night Owl loops, but to add (or preserve) very-late-night trips on the following services, roughly in order of priority: Routes 7, 3, 73, 41, 36 and 124. This restructure will benefit more riders, make better use of taxpayer money, and be more socially and geographically equitable than preserving the current Routes 82, 83, and 84. If we’re going to spend city money on service at this time of night, we should bring the route structure into the 21st century. As part of any “Save the Night Owls!” effort, the Mayor and City Council should seek to have Metro implement a restructure of night owl service along the lines I’ve described here.
* Note that I’m referring to the post-June 2015 restructured Route 73. Before the June restructure, it would probably be best just to run a truncated 73 to Ravenna Boulevard. For the purposes of this post, the alignments of the other core routes on this page don’t change significantly through the cuts process.