Photo by Oran

It hasn’t really snowed around here since Seattle won its only Super Bowl nearly 3 years ago. When it snows and sticks, our region has a deserved reputation for basically falling apart, like the multi-day Snowmageddon of November 2010. Paltry amounts of snow bring us to a standstill, and there are many plausible reasons: the rarity of storms, icing due to multiple freeze/melt cycles, a dearth of snow tires, a street grid built for rain (steep and straight instead of switchbacks), lots of poorly-suited articulated buses, and a generally fragile road network full of chokepoints.

With snow in the forecast for Monday and (especially) Wednesday, it’s a good time to refresh your knowledge of transit snow operations in Seattle. The first thing you should do is sign up for alerts. Metro, Sound Transit, Community Transit, Pierce Transit, and WSDOT all provide thorough information on road closures and reroutes. Being a Twitter user often gives you a leg up too; follow @seattledot@kcmetrobus@SoundTransit, @MyCommTrans@PierceTransit, and @wsdot_traffic.

Route 62 Snow Route
Route 62 Snow Route

In major Seattle snow events, there are a few basic reroute principles:

  • First Hill: no service west of Broadway. Trolley routes such as #2/3/4/12 detour all the way down to the International District.
  • Queen Anne: No routes travel up the Counterbalance, with routes 2/13 getting a tour of Kinnear/10th Ave W along the way instead.
  • Capitol Hill/Central District: Route 8 is basically an entirely different route, using 8th, 9th, Pine, and Union between South Lake Union and the Central District. Route 11 skips the steepest part of Madison east of 23rd. Routes 10, 48, and 49 operate normally.
  • SE Seattle: Link usually hums along normally, and Route 7 runs normally except skipping the Prentice Loop. Routes 106 and 107 skip Skyway, staying along Lake Washington between Renton and Rainier Beach.
  • NE Seattle: No service on NE 65th street east of 35th Ave NE. There is a convoluted shuttle system for Wedgwood and Ravenna, and new routes such as Route 62 detour all the way to UW Station.
  • West Seattle: All routes skip the Viaduct and the high bridge, using 1st/4th and the Spokane Street Bridge instead.
  • NW Seattle: The least disrupted area in Seattle, most routes operate normally. Exceptions include Route 5 (no Fremont Ave) and Route 26 (no NE 40th St).

In 2010’s Snowmageddon, Link was the only mode that didn’t fail, With the ULink extension, Capitol Hill and UW riders can now join the ranks of the snow-immunized.

In all likelihood this potential storm will fizzle out as others have, either skipping Seattle by retreating north to the Convergence Zone, or yielding a meager snowfall that immediately melts on warm roads or  is washed away by rain. But once in a while things actually get messy, and with some prior planning you can be ready when it does.

46 Replies to “A Snow Route Refresher”

  1. WTA doesn’t do snow routes. They just put on the damn chains and keep running, and usually on-time in town (although the rural routes aren’t so lucky)

    And Bellingham definitely gets worse snow conditions than Seattle does.

    1. Do Bellingham’s buses travel up hills as bad as Seattle’s, though? Seems to me they mostly go around them.

      1. WTA’s fleet also dosen’t have any artics. Those things are useless in the snow, and since more than half of KCM’s fleet is artics, it puts a big hurt on service when you can’t use them.

      2. Bellingham’s hills are a lot worse. Their busiest transit corridor, WWU, is a terrifying collection of steep hills and hairpin curves. Lots of hills throughout the west and south sides of towns, some of them approaching legit mountains.

        And with the way routes are interlined, basically all of their buses have to navigate it.

  2. And you’re not even going to mention the *two* yuuuuge snowstorms near Christmas in 1996?

      1. December 1990 we had just moved. My dad had to take the leather express from West seattle all the way to our new home in what is now Burien. I remember that storm.

  3. Wonder if city, region, and State wouldn’t save money just to have the Governor declare as state of emergency and order everybody non-essential to life and safety to stay off the roads, period.

    Considering the expense of dealing with accidents, and miles of stuck cars, many abandoned, good chance we’d come out ahead to pay everybody a day’s unemployment compensation.

    At least until we can get LINK built out to where it can make a dent in the damage. Might not be a bad idea for day-long blocked freeway traffic even when it isn’t snowing.

    But still think that if it gets bad enough for WSDOT to close the Express Lanes, like I’ve seen them do on I-5, give them to transit. Short enough headways, tires should keep “bare and wet.”

    And supervisors with flags and flashlights could handle ramps and intersections, like north shore of Ship Canal to the University District.

    In a country whose every other word is “Freedom”, word needs to have some other uses than license to pollute, discriminate against gay people trying to get married, not pay taxes. Because right now, number of cars itself is probably our worst obstacle to the greatest amount of personal liberty.

    Mark Dublin

  4. Out of curiosity, does the 62 on snow route stop on stops served by route 75 on Sand Point Way, and St UW station? I could see that painful detour serving well as a redundant Link connector with route 75, helping to partially offset the dramatic loss of reliability on both routes.

    1. Wow that 62 map is a visual nightmare. Best I can understand it, during snow the 62 terminates around 15th/65th. The snow shuttle is a really large clockwise circle from 15th/65th –> 125th/Lake City Way –> Sand Point Way –> UW Station. Ravenna to NOAA via Lake City is pretty circuitous.

      In a snow event, the 62 shuttle is not a good way to get to UW Station, or really anywhere else. Routes 65/75/372 would all be detoured towards UW station in snow in both directions.

      In fact, I can’t think of a reason to take the 62 snow shuttle. The 71 snow shuttle does a better job of getting to the Wedgwood / View Ridge area and the 75 does a better job of getting to Sand Point.

      1. In the snow you’ll want to take the first bus that comes that goes vaguely your direction because it may be a long time until the next bus comes if it gets stuck somewhere. Schedules go out the window. The 62 shuttle will help circulation on Sand Point Way.

      2. The 62 show shuttle looks like the same as the 75 southbound, so 62 shuttle is as effective as the 75 going from Sand Point to UW station.

    2. And don’t forget that buses will only stop at the bottom and top of hills. They will not stop halfway up or down.

  5. This is the best articulation of the snow problems and the strategy behind the reroutes that I’ve seen anywhere.

    1. Well, you guys all did good this round of comments, but Mike, as First Prize, KC Metro should pay you to organize, and drive at double-time, what you said:

      “In the snow you’ll want to take the first bus that comes that goes vaguely your direction because it may be a long time until the next bus comes if it gets stuck somewhere…”

      Whatever machines can handle streets the Mayor doesn’t live on (considering condition BART is in, there’s probably an opening for another official Seattle snow-removal chief) can chain up and roam around Seattle picking people up. Mostly to keep them warm ’til they can be deposited someplace warm and comfortable.

      Which will be better than taking them to work, where nobody else can get either. Series of coffee shops would be good, re: wi-fi. Some vehicles will be designated for emergency workers. Who can also deal with whatever exposure victims happen to be huddled up along the route.

      With marijuana as an example, State Liquor Control Board should be willing to dispense emergency licenses usable only for “Cognac médical” and only when carried on the collar of pedigreed St. Bernard service dogs. Who can sit on the seats if they want. No need to keep lid on, just barrel tap shut.

      But best of all will be to terminate all these routes at LINK stations, sending ridership stats on all modes into the stratosphere. Also, not bad example for how regional transit should really work all the time.


      1. Oh, there was the time I was working by Seattle Center and walked back to the U-District on Eastlake and say a guy using skis in the snow. And another time I was working on Meridian and waited an hour at Northgate for a bus to the U-District and finally walked home. And the time where a half block from my place at 56th & University Way where I got to witness one of the 70s stuck and it sat there for two days.

  6. I recall that many, many years ago that articulated buses were powered by the center wheels instead of the rear wheels. They were built like regular buses, but with essentially an enclosed trailer attached. This design worked infinitely better in the snow, and very resistent to jackknifing.

    1. Crunchy, it’s been about 25 years since I drove an MAN sixty footer, but this is what I remember. Quality wise, these German buses were some of our best. “Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg AG”.

      My first route had our 1400-1500 series, our earliest ones, whose firm handling I liked better than their successors. Better feel of the road, less bouncing. But no wheelchair lifts.

      The 2000 series diesels, and the 4000 series trolleybuses had more power-assist on the steering, which I liked less than the stiffer ones above. But much worse, these buses, especially the trolleys, suffered from something we called “wheel-hop”.

      Under certain braking conditions center axle- powered on all the MAN’s- would shudder badly. Metro tried a number of fixes, none of which really worked. Last one involved running undersized tires on center axle, which made the buses sag in the middle, like cartoon buses that should’ve had faces.

      My own guess was that when MAN added the lift mechanism, they didn’t modify the suspension as much as necessary, with the added weight (considerable) making a one-seat teeter-totter out of the whole front section.

      After awhile, some of us who picked these buses by choice- many excellent things about them, including last control panel where you didn’t have to look under the dashboard for the speedometer- learned how to use the power pedal and road gradient to smooth out the coach.

      Unlike average trailer, the rear axle was termed “steerable.” Meaning that a linkage featuring a long metal rod, ran between a trailer axle on a vertical pivot and one corner of the front section, passing under the hinge.

      Move the steering wheel and the trailer wheels turned the trailer into the turn, inch by inch same amount, giving terrific control over the bus, and having the trailer “track” around the turn, rather than dragging across the inside of it, as most trailers do.

      However, another effect was that not only did the back corner of the trailer swing like a whip, but most dangerous point was invisible to the driver. A car or a fire plug alongside the trailer would become either a golf ball or a tee planted in cement.

      So every curb approach and departure, and street-to-street turn, had to be steered very differently from a bus with a fixed rear axle. In our fleet, always powered. A fixed rear axle means a classic “button-hook” turn. Turning right, for instance, lay the right rear wheel close alongside the curb, and angle the bus outward to the left. Critical not to let anything or anybody get inside that angle.

      And then pivot the bus around the corner, keeping the inside back wheel as close to the curb as possible. Re: light poles and people’s feet, the trailer wheels have to be kept road side of the curb. But was real advantage was being able to see the critical tire and back corner all the way around the turn.

      With the MAN artics, driver had to “split” inner two lanes, blocking both to traffic, and use center axle for a pivot point. Having memorized anything that could possibly get beside the trailer, and keep listening for car horns. Or conversely, location of all parking meters and hydrants- meaning that less agile passengers had to leave by the front door, because trailer had to be a couple feet out from the curb.

      In those days, none of our fleet hand low floors. As to pavement conditions, steerable and non-steerable trailers alike, neither handled snow very well. They just slid out differently. While when chained, our 40-foot trolleys climbed hills like little white polar bears.

      Any info on Gilligs or new Easter Eggs? (Well I didn’t pick the paint job. Or seat covers either.)

      Artics would have handled snow if it wasn’t under their own wheels. Still think WSDOT should put express lanes bus-only when shut down to car traffic. Pittsburgh has giant sand trucks for their transitways. Chance that at short headways ours could clear their own pavement.

      Kind of measure that could make next 30 years easier for Lynnwood and Everett passengers to put up with. But anybody who says that buses and snowplows can handle a blizzard a fraction as well as reserved right of way rail never drove a bus over a snowflake.

      Mark Dublin

      1. Fascinating, Mark. Thanks.

        Helps the rest of us to appreciate the skills of our drivers (as well as some of the considerations in procuring buses).

  7. I would add that the 3/4 snow route does NOT serve James Street. Buses head down 3rd to Jackson before taking 12th/Boren/Broadway to Jefferson and resuming their normal route.

    1. Snow routing is basically the only time the First Hill streetcar is the most direct route to anything.

  8. Supposedly Thursday rather than Wednesday is the next snow/rain event; but we’re not looking at a snowmageddon.

    1. Walking in highly-trafficked areas where the snow was packed down or worn away was treacherous because of ice. Hills downtown were especially bad.

    2. Haha no. One time I walked on level ground for 3 blocks to a bus stop. I slipped after 2 blocks, and at the bus stop, I noticed my phone was gone, so I had to go back to where I slipped and find my phone (luckily it was a black object on white snow).

    3. Interesting connection, Gordon. About 30 years ago, the East Coast had a winter out of the Ice Age.

      During which zookeepers noticed that the African cats, like lions, leopards, and cheetahs, grew a thick blanket of extra fur under their regular fur, and would not come back inside their buildings.

      Flash to Ballard, except substitute skis for and beautiful knit hats for the inner fur. Worldwide, culture means automatically coping with sudden return of ages-old conditions.


  9. Y’all forgot the big one: hills. There is no major city in the country that is even in the same league of hilliness that gets snow. Maybe Portland, but it’s both smaller and the entire west side is flat.

    Also, having lived in Montana, where my (typical, residential) street was wide enough that I could pull a U-turn even with a car parked on the other side of the street, it’s a whole different ballgame there. Here you hit a parked car or opposing traffic with a little sliding; there it’s just a friendly reminder of where the limits of traction are.

    But, yeah. Watch your snow routes. And don’t expect articulated buses to get up a hill.

    1. The Columbia River Gorge blasts us with ice storms once in a while from east of the Cascades as compensation for not having the same type of hills.

      As a consequence, TriMet’s new fleet has built in tire chains, like school buses have. Some routes, such as the 33, have a different climate at one end than the other thanks to elevation changes. The built in chains help with stuff like that.

  10. You meant North 40th, not NE 40th. The 26X travels only a couple blocks east of where North turns into Northeast.

    1. Correct. Oops! I often ride my bike up Thackeray/Latona NE, so I sometimes forget most of Wallingford is N.

  11. I wonder if Metro will ever think about getting a stockpile of spare snowblades that they could mount on maintenance trucks just in case it snows, allowing them to then more quickly clear snow route streets. In 2010, Metro had many buses that were damages and paid out huge amounts of overtime for drivers to sit stuck in snow-related traffic jams. The need is especially critical for trolley bus routes because those vehicles aren’t as heavy, and critical for downhill segments of any routes.

    Waiting for cities to clear streets with routes can take days, even in Seattle. Being proactive about snow could prove to be cost-effective for Metro and they would only need to add snowblade capability to many types of existing vehicles.

  12. I’m kindof curious if there is any plan to redo the ESN or any of the other snow routes on Capital hill to take advantage of the fact that link is protected from the weather…

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