Today is the last day to fill in Metro’s Late Night Transit Service Survey if you haven’t already. It takes only a few minutes. Notably absent from the list of routes in the survey, which includes the streetcars and other ST buses, is Link light rail, despite a public petition calling for expanded service hours.
Sound Transit says it needs the few hours when Link is closed for system maintenance. Reducing maintenance hours increases costs not just for operating later service but also for the maintenance itself. The challenge of dedicating enough time for essential maintenance is why many cities around the world shut down their subways overnight. It is not unique to Seattle.
What other cities do instead is run night buses that emulate rail service. Philadelphia, the Bay Area, and Toronto take this approach and it works well from my limited experience. After a night out on South Street in Philly I had to get back to my hotel which was on the other side of town off the Market Frankford Line, which closes between midnight and 1 am. As soon as the last train left the station, buses start running, serving all stations along the line every 15 minutes until the first train of the next day. The buses were well used enough that SEPTA began running all-night train service on weekends (once again). For people who are concerned for their safety of walking at night, the bus also stops in between stations.
In Toronto, I had to catch an early morning flight at Pearson and was staying near Ossington Station on the Bloor-Danforth subway. Not a problem. Thanks to Toronto’s comprehensive Blue Night network I was able to complete the early morning trip to the airport on a one-seat ride. The 300 Bloor-Danforth night bus extends to the airport, eliminating a transfer that is required during the day.
Seattle already has the basis to do the same. It is called Route 97, the Link shuttle. Whenever Link service is expected to be disrupted for an extended period, a bus bridge is created to fill the gap or completely replace service. Route 97 operated for an entire day when Link was closed for system upgrades. An emulator bus like the 97 is easier to understand for most people than a combination of existing routes like the 7, 36, and 49 because of consistency with regular service. It serves the same stations and can accept the same fare media. A Link night bus could extend from Husky Stadium to the U District, filling the gap handled by other buses during the day. Imagine how liberating having Link, our busiest transit line, available 24/7 would be.
The Link night bus would be slower than Link light rail because it can’t use the fast running ways that the train has. I estimate an all-stations trip from UW to the airport to take about 74 minutes, including 30-60 seconds dwell time at each station. That’s 30 minutes slower than Link but with better access than current night bus service. By my really ballpark estimates, if the service ran every 15 minutes between Angle Lake and U District stations from last train to first train, at least thirteen buses would be needed to operate the service and it would require at least 19,000 service hours annually. At $142 per vehicle hour, it would cost at least $2.7 million or about seven percent of what ST has budgeted to pay Metro for Link operations in 2016. Service every 15 minutes all night may be overkill but it would be needed when everyone is going home after the bars close; less frequent service could be run at other times.
Keeping our transit system in a state of good repair is necessary. Meanwhile, people want to be able to use transit around the clock for work and play, a sign of a increasingly vibrant city. Running a Link night bus is a promising solution that could balance both needs. Sound Transit is studying the feasibility of extending Link’s service hours. Whether it is a bus or a train or a combination of both, the goal should be to expand late-night transit service.