We shouldn’t lose sight of many ways King County Metro service has improved in the past several years. It is easy to do so in the midst of the constant financial struggles, plans for service cuts and measures to shore up funding (Plans A, B, C and now D) that dominate the news lately. This post catalogs 10 improvements that Metro has introduced over the past years – in case you are new or forgot how it used to be.
I began riding Metro buses around 15 years ago, and for many of those years catching a bus meant pulling out your trusty printed schedule, seeing when the next 30-minute frequency bus was scheduled, walking to the stop at the appropriate time, waiting 0 to 10 minutes for arrival (it was impossible to know when the bus would actually arrive), instinctively knowing whether to pay upon boarding (cash, paper ticket or flash pass ready) or later when exiting, after watching the surroundings carefully to know when I had arrived. Some people in some places still travel this way on transit, but Metro has provided lots of better options.
The top 10 Metro improvements begin after the jump.
1. Third Avenue bus priority
Third Avenue through downtown was a regular, general traffic street prior to 2005, when the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT) was closed for a rehab to accommodate Link light rail. The current daytime restrictions on through traffic were implemented when the DSTT was closed to accommodate a greater volume of buses through the corridor. The transit priority measures worked so well that they were retained when the DSTT reopened in 2007.
2. Longer Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel hours
When Link light rail began service in July 2009, the DSTT began staying open until the end of train service, around 1 a.m., for buses as well as trains. From the tunnel’s opening in 1990 up until Link’s opening, the DSTT closed up shop for the day at 7 p.m. and never opened on Sundays (except for the glory years of 1998 to 2000, when the tunnel stayed open until 11 p.m.). Unless you commuted during office hours, the bus tunnel was useless.
3. One Bus Away & Google Maps Transit
In 2008 the One Bus Away web site and telephone interface went live, for the first time allowing live tracking of buses throughout Metro’s system on a map interface (based on the AVL radio system). The iPhone app was released in 2009, with other smartphone platform apps following. One Bus Away upgraded to GPS tracking as Metro installed the requisite equipment. Around the same time Google developed the gtfs transit data standard and then integrated transit routes, stop schedules and trip planning into the Google maps interface.
4. ORCA cards
From April 2009 onwards, fumbling for change, keeping track of transfers or worry about fare differentials between regional transit agencies became entirely optional, if you set up an ORCA card. Buy a monthly pass, load up some e-purse money, then tap and go. Seattle jumped on the RFID smart card trend early enough to secure a “sea critter that starts with the letter O” name like the London Oyster card or the Hong Kong Octopus card (these days all the good names are taken), and now 63 percent of Metro transit boardings use ORCA.
5. Real-time info at bus stops
One Bus Away on a smartphone is a great tool, but not everyone has a smartphone or available data. In 2010 computer monitors displaying the One Bus Away page for the adjacent stop began popping up in windows downtown. Metro launched Real-time Information Signs at the opening of Rapid Ride A later that year, and the signs have since multiplied at Rapid Ride and non-Rapid Ride bus stops. Now, at certain stops, you don’t even need to carry expensive electronic equipment to know when the next bus is actually coming.
6. Rapid Ride
Beginning with the A line in October 2010, Metro rolled out a new transit brand focused on convenient and frequent arterial bus service. Now six lines strong, Rapid Ride first introduced to bus service in Seattle: off-board ORCA fare payment, Real-time Information Signs and on board next-stop displays and automated announcements. Although it’s not at all a “subway on tires” Rapid Ride brought real frequency improvements and some snazzy IT to the Rapid Ride corridors.
7. On Board stop announcements
The on board next-stop displays and automated announcements that debuted in 2010 with Rapid Ride A were rolled out to the entire Metro fleet during 2011 and 2012. New and experienced riders can watch the screens or listen to the announcements and be confident of catching their stop, instead of relying on surroundings or asking the driver.
8. Frequent service mapping
Prior to 2012, the official Metro Transit system map showed nearly all routes with a solid blue line: peak only routes, DART routes, frequent service spine routes and everything in between. As Jarrett Walker of the Human Transit blog says, “a transit map that makes all lines look equally important is like a road map that doesn’t show the difference between a freeway and a gravel road.” The current official Metro system maps, while a bit busy, identify frequency and span via line thickness and color and label color. And Oran Viriyincy produced a map showing only frequent transit service in Seattle.
9. End of pay as you leave
Historically Metro required fare payment when boarding buses heading towards downtown Seattle and non-downtown buses, and when deboarding buses heading away from downtown Seattle. This arrangement facilitated a ride free area in downtown, but greatly complicated fare payment and allowed for fare evasion. Since October 2012, Metro buses have a uniform pay as you enter policy (or before you enter, at some Rapid ride stops).
10. Better frequency and reliability on core routes
Seattle DOT has been proactive the past few years improving reliability in certain bus corridors with bus stop bulbs, signal queue jumps and transit lanes. In addition, Metro been consolidating stops and reducing route deviations to incrementally improve bus reliability and speed. Metro’s first foray into route consolidation was in 1998 with the Aurora corridor, and success there has led to other reorganizations that focus transit service on direct and frequent corridors.
Metro has been facing financial constraints that have not allowed any broad service expansion, but Metro hasn’t been standing still on service quality. Many improvements in the past few years have steadily improved the transit riding experience, believe it or not.