You’re standing at 3rd and Union. You want to go to 23rd and Jackson, the commercial heart of the Central District. Or you want to go home, in the dense housing near Washington Middle School. What’s the quickest way to get there?
The answer is “Who knows?” And this common trip between major destinations may be Metro’s best example of bad network execution.
You might walk to the Benaroya Hall bus stop, to catch route 14 or 4. Both will get you there. But the 14 runs every 20 minutes, the 4 runs every half hour, and their schedules aren’t coordinated. So it’s reasonably likely that you will have to wait 20 minutes for a bus. Or you might walk to the IGA bus stop, where route 27 stops — but only every half hour, so your wait could be even longer.
When you want to go back downtown, the situation is even worse. Now you have three different bus stops you might want to use: westbound on Jackson for the 14, northbound on 23rd for the 4, or westbound on Yesler for the 27. You may have to wait 20-30 minutes at any of these bus stops, even though there are seven buses per hour between them. If you have a smartphone, and OneBusAway happens to be working, you can use it for help. But taking the bus shouldn’t require knowing three different routing options, having a smartphone, and being ready to run between stops a block or two from each other. .
This situation got worse with the recent Southeast Seattle restructure, as an unintended consequence of the very welcome frequency increase on route 124 to Georgetown and Tukwila. The explanation of how that happened is a bit wonky, but the consequences aren’t: route 27, which previously picked up at the same 3rd Avenue stops as route 14 and 4, moved to different stops, even though it serves many of the same places.
For routing consistency, Metro through-routed the newly frequent 124 with routes 24 and 33 to Magnolia, which share a common route all the way to the Magnolia Bridge, at most times of day. But during peak hour on weekdays, routes 24 and 33 together run much more often than route 124. So at peak hour only, Metro kept route 33 on its old through-route, with route 27.
But this created something Metro saw as a problem: route 33 trips would have dropped people off at different stops downtown, depending on whether they were continuing as route 27 or route 124. Metro’s Scott Gutierrez confirmed to me by email that Metro saw the potential confusion to both riders and drivers if route 33 trips had inconsistent drop-off stops as a worse problem than having route 27 pick up at different stops from routes 4 and 14. Metro didn’t address other through-route possibilities, such as through-routing peak-hour 33 trips with route 125, or returning to the former service pattern of partially through-routing peak-hour 33 trips with route 37.
I think Metro’s judgment about this was wrong. East Magnolia riders could adapt to one-block differences in their dropoff location. That is a less severe consequence than making the already confusing bus trip between downtown and the Central District even more obtuse.
In the long term, this is a prime opportunity for Metro to restructure service in a way that makes it obviously better, without many negative consequences. Metro’s proposed Metro Connects network gets most of the way there, deleting the S-shaped route 4, which is sparsely ridden south of Garfield High School, and putting the service hours into much more frequent and predictable service on better-used routes 3 and 14. For trips between the area around 23rd and Jackson and downtown, route 14 would become the obvious choice. For coverage reasons, Metro proposes to leave route 27 running infrequently on Yesler, although it would stop going downtown and serve First Hill and South Lake Union instead. Riders in the south Central District will also have a frequent and very fast trip to downtown available on Link light rail starting in 2023, by walking or taking route 48 to the new Judkins Park station a half-mile to the south.
In the meantime, though, Central District riders deserve better. Metro should restore route 27 to the same stops served by routes 14 and 4.