A couple of months ago, I blurbed a survey for King County Metro’s Community Connections project, which was seeking input from people who work in Seattle’s SODO district, a mostly-industrial and commercial area immediately south of downtown. I noticed that the SODO Connections project seemed very focused on alternative service — i.e. not fixed route bus service — and I had some questions about that. Here are my questions and the answers I was given; I have some comments at the end.

Seattle Transit Blog: One of the approaches mentioned on the page — flexible-route service — is typically used in low-density suburban or rural environments, which don’t look much like SODO. The other — on-demand ridesharing — seems already to be covered by a thriving private market.

Scott Gutierrez, King County Metro: These are just some of the options Metro has developed as part of the Community Connections program. Our main program website has information on the kinds of services we’ve developed so far as well as current pilot locations.

We’re still early in our outreach process for the SODO project, so we have not yet determined what specific services we will pilot there. Based on the results of our outreach, we might propose something similar to services we developed in other communities, or we might come up with a transportation pilot that is completely new to Metro.

STB: What’s the niche Metro is trying to fill with these alternative service methods?

Metro: Community Connections focuses on partnering with communities to meet unique transportation needs that fixed-route transit isn’t able to serve. When the City of Seattle applied for this Community Connections project in SODO, they described gaps in the neighborhood as follows:

  • SODO is a significant employment center, including the highest concentration of manufacturing and industrial jobs in the city. The drive alone rate for employees in SODO (66%) is far higher than the rate in Downtown which lies immediately to the north.
  • Employees who travel to the target area have schedules that do not correspond with when transit service is running/frequent (e.g. during the weekend, or early in the morning/late and night).
  • A lack of east-west mobility options exists in the neighborhood.
  • A difficult pedestrian environment combined with diffuse destinations makes accessing the existing transit service difficult

Before we determine what specific niche we can best serve, we need to better understand these transportation gaps and barriers that exist for workers in SODO. The information above, and feedback from a stakeholder group, informed the survey we are asking people to take. Results of this survey will help our stakeholder group to articulate a set of transportation needs for our Community Connections pilot to address. Those articulated needs in turn will inform our solution design.

More interview and commentary after the jump

STB: How will the costs of these alternative service methods be compared to the possibility of operating more fixed route service, or of restructuring existing service?

Metro: As we are still assessing community transportation needs, we have not yet determined the solution(s) we will pilot in SODO. With that said; developing solutions to community needs that are both innovative and cost-efficient is a main focus of the Community Connections program, and these pilot projects have proven to be consistently less expensive to operate than fixed-route service.

STB: The principal fixed-routes which serve SODO — 124, 131, 132 — have extremely tight stop spacing, both in SODO and at some points south, down to 750′ in some cases. This clearly violates Metro’s quarter-mile service guideline, degrading service speed and reliability.

a. Will this project consider a program of stop consolidation on the fixed routes serving SODO?

Metro: This Community Connections pilot project will complement existing fixed-route service. We will not be adding, removing, or altering fixed-route service through the Community Connections process.

However, there are fixed-route changes on the horizon in SODO as the Alaskan Way Viaduct decommissioning and the Lander Street overpass construction projects get underway. While fixed-route changes arising from these projects will have their own public outreach processes, information we gain from our Community Connections project will help inform our service planners about needs in the community.

b. Will this project consider spot improvements to improve speed and reliability on the fixed routes serving SODO?

Metro: Solutions developed as part of this pilot project will complement existing fixed-route service. We will not be adding, removing, or altering fixed-route service through the Community Connections process.

However, independently of our Community Connections work, Metro is working to implement Transit Signal Priority (TSP) at 4th Avenue S & S Lander Street in coordination with SDOT. TSP at this location will grant the Routes 21 and 116, making the eastbound-left turn from S Lander Street onto 4th Avenue S, a green-light extension or an early green light. Implementation is scheduled for the beginning of August 2017.

I have a few distinct reactions to Metro’s plans, some of them slightly contradictory; let’s start with the positive stuff.

First, the need Metro and SDOT have identified is real. SODO’s street grid is characterized by extremely long, skinny north-south blocks with intermittent sidewalks; a complete lack of connectivity to neighborhoods east and west; busy, multi-track railroad crossings; and incessant fast-moving vehicles on the main streets. The only thing resembling a coherent local transit corridor is on 4th Ave S, and the only extant bike infrastructure is over on East Marginal, on the far side of another rail yard. Overall, walking around SODO reminds me of the setting of Repo Man more than anything else.

Second, looking at some aspects of SODO transit through the lens of alternative service is probably a smart move. There’s no sane way to connect a crosstown local service through the area, and “neighborhood circulator” buses have proved repeatedly to be an expensive way of moving a tiny number of people. A subsidized Lyft Line or Uber Pool could well provide local mobility in a way that’s both cheaper to the taxpayer and more convenient to the customer than any kind of service Metro would operate directly.

Third, more generally, this kind of effort helps move the public conversation away from breathless speculation about what ride-hailing services are going to do to transit, to a more constructive conversation about how they can work with fixed-route services to improve mobility. In this respect, Metro’s Community Connections project dovetails with other recently announced projects, such as Seattle’s Mobility Playbook and Uber’s partnership with Sound Transit and South King cities. It’s good that our regional agencies are working to shape this conversation, because it’s going to define much of the future of mobility.

My concern with this project is a continuation of my central, long-held critique of Metro: much of the agency’s fixed-route bus service remains stubbornly mediocre. Ridership is booming county-wide, but especially on the corridors (like RapidRide) where Metro has made a concerted effort to rationalize alignment and stop spacing, and raise the frequency and reliability of service. By contrast, many of the fixed routes in SODO are a throwback to the sad state of many Metro routes that I recall from when I moved to Seattle in 2010.

Let’s look at some particular issues and potential solutions that have explicitly been defined out of the scope of Metro’s Connections project:

  • Route 21 should serve more of 1st Ave S. The most active, pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare in SODO is the strip of bars, shops and offices extending south on 1st from Pioneer Square to Lander Street. Unfortunately, that’s the one part of SODO that doesn’t have bus service, and the walkability problems which motivate Metro’s Connections project render this strip poorly-accessible to the more abundant services just to the east. One solution would be to change Route 21 to cross over to 1st Ave S further north, possibly via a new two-way Columbia, a rebuilt Main St, or Edgar Martinez Dr; of course, that would negate much of the benefit of the capital project Scott described above.
  • Stops in need of consolidation. This OneBusAway map shows stops much closer together than the 1/4 mile service guideline, mismatched and offset. Overly-close stops make bus rides interminable, especially when stops are out-of-lane, as they are in most of SODO.
  • Route 124 should use the busway. Route 124 eschews the speed, directness and high-quality regional connections of the busway in favor of an asymmetric jog between 4th Ave S and Airport Way, a service pattern that provides no truly convenient two-way Link transfer south of Pioneer Square. For this loss, riders are compensated only by access to a wasteland of auto-oriented businesses surrounded by surface parking lots. In the most recent service change, Metro fixed the formerly-broken alignment on Carleton, now it needs to look critically at SODO.

Metro might well study suggestions like these as part of the Alaskan Way/Lander St processes Gutierrez describes above, and it probably makes sense to hold off on any potential changes to Route 21 until they can be considered holistically with other short- and long-term alignment decisions; but there’s not really any reason why the first two ideas need to wait for anything.

As with so much of Metro’s work, the Community Connections project seems likely to succeed on the limited terms the agency has defined for itself. What’s lacking is any sense that the agency is swinging for the fences, trying to make itself the best service it can be, in every place it has a major presence or where transit can be a serious alternative to driving. People who ride fixed-route service daily in SODO — who considerably outnumber the people who are likely to ride any alternative service — will continue to pay the price for this institutional lack of ambition.

31 Replies to “SODO Connections Project Focuses on Alternative Service”

  1. It may be also that the SoDo end of things isn’t the problem. If you are coming from the residential areas west of central Federal Way it’s a long slog on transit.

    1. Find an illustrated map of Seattle around 1885. When there was an electric railway down Rainier Avenue, and Jackson Street was beach-front property. From Elliott Bay to Beacon Hill, what appears to be ground is water with a little dirt in it.

      The kind of place where an earthquake will make buildings sink straight down and gurgle out of sight. Soil Liquefaction. The staging area for IDS is a pad of reinforced concrete, laid on about two dozen smaller concrete pads, each crowning the peak of several hundred foot wood poles pile-driven into the mud at a slant.

      Have a feeling this is why a place that big, flat, empty, highway-served, and urban bordering doesn’t draw occupants like it should.


  2. I’m surprised the drive alone rate in SODO is “only” 66%. It’s actually remarkable considering the state of transit and walkability in the area.

    Re: fixed route circulators. What frequent, non-special-needs oriented local circulator busses has Metro tried? (I’m new to Seattle so I don’t know all the history). They seem to be quite popular in other cities. Anyway, in lieu of a frequent local circulator, I like the idea of improving the existing routes to provide more effective local service. My “local circulator” between downtown, Chinatown, and Little Saigon is a bunch of frequent regular routes whichever one comes first.

    However, taking Uber to go a mile or so, subsidized or not, is also a very expensive and inefficient way to move a small number of people. You take out your phone, hope GPS locates you correctly, zoom in and reposition if needed, hope a driver is nearby who is willing to accept a pool ride, stare at the tracking and wait for your Uber to come (risking your phone if it’s raining), get into yet another random person’s car (possibly the second for this very trip!), make sure the one you’re about to get in isn’t really for the other dozen people who just got off the train, and 2-3 people do the same if it’s a pool ride. Hope you have enough battery left in the evening, rinse and repeat every day…. And nowadays, of course, if you’re like me, adding a tip based on the regular unsubsidized price of the ride. In most situations, Uber tends to work best when you just take it all the way, especially if it’s going to be a pool ride which comes with more uncertainty and delays.

    I hope as part of service that Metro hasn’t tried before, they are considering driverless shuttle busses which are already in operational use in limited areas in some cities. IMHO, we need to make sure we have driverless busses before we have widespread use of driverless cars. Gotta wonder though, possible union issues?

    1. “Re: fixed route circulators. What frequent, non-special-needs oriented local circulator busses has Metro tried?”

      Offhand I can recall the following short shuttle routes that were axed because of poor ridership (note that some of these numbers have now been reused): Routes 51, 52, West Seattle; Route 62, 32nd Ave NW / “Trader Joe’s Limited”; Route 38, East Beacon Hill/Mount Baker; Route 42 (the notorious ACRS shuttle); and Route 219 (East Factoria). In its wisdom, Metro decided to continue this ignominious genre by creating Route 78 in the U Link restructure.

      Jarrett Walker discusses the general problems of circulators pretty well:

      1. Thanks for the info! Looks like another case of the Goldilocks zone: bus routes shouldn’t be too long or too short. If you have a robust frequent transit grid, adding circulators may not help help much. From the perspective of a long time bus rider in cities with both crappy and solid bus service, I think they can be useful in situations where:

        0) They run frequently, at least as frequent as the other busses. This is 0th order–frequency MUST be the case!
        1) The other busses would require a transfer just to go a few miles within the neighborhood (corollary: you need constant demand throughout the day for non car travel within the neighborhood–which excludes most suburban neighborhoods. And probably excludes SODO which is more of a “last mile” issue).
        2) The mainline busses would be overly delayed if they were re-routed to serve the destination(s). Thinking specifically of West Seattle here–you wouldn’t want Rapid Ride C to divert down to Alki Beach and/or up to Admiral district. Less of a factor in SODO, though, since it doesn’t “stick out.”
        3) If the mainline busses are simply too large to fit on the streets for whatever reason. Like with the waterfront and ferry docks situation at least in the short term (but not in SODO).

        Bottom line for SODO: It it looks like tweaking the existing routes and fixing the walking and biking experience is the way to go.

      2. Circulators are bad because they are almost never worth the overhead of waiting for to travel the short distance they are intended to be used for. Even if the circulator bus runs every 10 minutes, an 8-minute wait, followed by a 2-minute ride to go half a mile is still no faster than walking. And, for those who don’t have free transfer credit, the regular metro bus fare would cost almost as much as riding a taxi.

        In a world like Manhatten, where most people don’t have cars, a circulator bus can still get sufficient ridership to justify its existence, from the semi-disabled and also lazy people who were planning to walk, but happen to see the bus coming at the right time. In the rest of the world, where most people have cars, and parking is plentiful, the ridership is reduced to almost nothing.

  3. Sodo is flat enough that bike sharing could be a viable last mile solution with better infrastructure. It’s the combination of the train tracks and lack of bike lanes on all the east/west streets that kills it.

    Ultimately though, if we’re talking about special circulators or subsidized Uber rides to go half a mile because we can’t build decent sidewalks, we should just build the decent sidewalks instead.

  4. Metro leadership appreciates the constructive criticism of our SoDo fixed route service. We recognize that there is almost always room for improvement. We also agree with Bruce that SoDo’s regular Metro fixed route service could benefit from further priority over other traffic, updated bus stop spacing and locations, and potentially revised routings. Metro does want to “swing for the fences” to provide the best service possible.
    During the last couple of years, Metro has added service to several routes in SoDo, including the 21, 50, 124, and others. The series of more complex changes forthcoming as part of AWV-related projects should provide a logical “vehicle” for achieving further improvements as we seek to minimize the frequency with which area Metro customers are asked to adapt to change.

    1. I, for one, appreciate your taking the time to comment here, and also for the additional service on south-end routes.

      Since Metro is likely the largest single employer in the SODO district, have Metro employees at the SODO bases been encouraged to participate in the survey? Is the problem really mobility within SODO, or a lack of options to get elsewhere outside of daytime hours?

      1. I’m guessing the problem has a lot to do with the fact that whoever drives the first bus of day has no bus to get to work, and whoever drives the last bus of the day has no bus to get home.

    2. Thanks for your feedback, Jeff. I do particularly appreciate the 15-minute headways now available through Georgetown on the 124, they are a big improvement on recent history.

      Obviously, change is disruptive, and it makes sense to be intentional about service changes which affect a lot of people. Still, not every change needs to be a labored public process. When individual stops, or stop pairs, are located in such a way as to be obviously suboptimal or in violation of Metro’s guidelines, they should be closed or changed, routinely and on an ongoing basis.

      Regarding Route 124 Metro actually proposed two small, but significant changes to Route 124 in the last service change, one of them (moving off of Carleton) having been long overdue. In light of that, at the fact that the 124 serves a corridor quite distinct from West Seattle, I’m not convinced that any changes need to wait for a larger SODO/AWV process.

  5. It seems ironic that some in the freight community have been so adversarial toward pedestrian and bike (and transit) infrastructure when a better sidewalk network and undocked bikeshare are obvious solutions to the last-mile problem from transit in SODO.

  6. Starbucks HQ would seem to be a key destination here in particular that could greatly benefit from enhanced service.

    I recently saw, no joke, about 15-20 car2gos parked at one intersection on 1st by Starbucks HQ.

    Better service on 1st Ave would do a lot to fix the deficiencies. Obviously this area isn’t well suited to transit but just a couple major routes running through the western edge help tremendously.

    1. I believe Starbucks already runs a shuttle to/from King Street station, so I think it would be better to focus on the core transit streets & let Starbucks handle the last mile problem?

      1. There needs to be a protected bike line somewhere to solve the last mile problem. Utah or Occidental can be used to eliminate the Starbucks shuttle and then we will see Limebikes piled in front of Starbucks instead of the Car2Go fleet. Both streets have big potential to be redone but I haven’t seen any plans. The up in the air arena situation seems to be causing stagnation on how to deal with Sodo. If the Arena does not come, then housing might.

  7. I really think that at least one frequent route should serve First Ave S. Between Pioneer square and Spokane St. There are enough destinations and the east-west walking routes are too long

  8. Several West Seattle buses used to run on 1st Avenue South but were moved off it for some reason. Perhaps that needs to be revisited — why 1st Ave S became a bus desert — to see whether that was a mistake or the environment has changed.

    I don’t see a problem with getting to anywhere in SODO from a 4th Ave S or busway bus except for the lack of railroad crossings. It’s easy to get from 4th & Lander or Busway & Lander to the Starbucks plaza and Sears, but getting to anywhere on 1st south of Spokane Street or between Holgate, Lander, and Spokane is quite a walk. I understand the Edgar Martinez overpass is quite a walk too but since I’ve never been to Safeco Field I haven’t experienced it. However, I have experienced trying to catch a bus from the Salvation Army after the highway construction: it’s quite a long walk straight north or south or to cross the street to the southbound bus stop, especially if you misjudge where the nearest stop is and go to the second-nearest. So I’d say the worst parts are 1st in a lot of places, and 4th between Jackson and Holgate. Airport Way maybe; I don’t have much experience with it to say.

    The signal-priority for the 21 and 116 seems a bit premature. There’s a big West Seattle reorganization coming and the 21 may no longer turn at Lander, and the 116 is a peak-only route with only a few runs per day.

    1. Buses were moved off 1st Ave S around 2006, mostly because of game-day delays. Before that, Metro tried using 4th Ave S/Busway reroutes around the stadiums only on game days, but that proved impossibly confusing to riders and also didn’t fully solve the problem (1st Ave backs up all the way into the CBD southbound).

      When buses served 1st Ave S within the couple of hours before a well-attended Mariners game (back then, there were such things), 30-60 minute delays were routine. On those days, West Seattle bus service other than routes 54/55 was basically unusable until buses caught up sometime toward the end of the game.

      1. Will the Lander overpass help this? Here’s an off-the wall proposal that I think might help and actually be reasonably reliable. From SoDo cross the overpass. Go north on First South to Stacy and then one block west to Utah to Massachusetts then east to Occidental, south to Stacy and west to First South.

        Yes, parts of Utah and most of Occidental are very industrial, but that is doomed to be replaced within the next five years with housing. Both streets are being upgraded with attractive amenities. This might work reasonably well and stay out of the worst of the game day traffic. Some sort of “one block only” enforcement might be in order for those two streets during games.

      2. Is that area zoned for any kind of residential? If not, is there any plan to? I was certainly under the impression that sodo was being left fairly industrial, possibly with a new arena, possibly not.

      3. A block or two of housing has been approved next to the stadiums. I think Richard is saying it could be expanded south if the basketball arena site is definitively terminated. I guess that’s all west of the railroad tracks, no change east of them.

        Longer term the city council has been debating whether to allow more housing beyond that in SODO. It’s a tradeoff because developers would outbid the industrial companies and displace them. That would make the city more dependent on a narrower range of jobs, and give up the future potential for local manufacturing or agriculture which we may need due to climate change, wars, or national/international politics. In other cities that have completely converted industrial districts to housing, the companies were already gone and no new company wanted the obsolete factory buildings. That’s not the situation in Seattle where a lot of trade-related companies and startups are reusing the buildings, and further north in Ballard the maritime companies are still operating.

      4. For those block or two of housing, are you talking about directly north of CenturyLink where that Hawks Tower (or whatever it’s called) is now on former parking lot? Or is there more that I just haven’t seen yet?

        SoDo has a ton of shipping-related business, as well as warehousing, recycling, and obviously large yards for storing public transit vehicles. If we were designing the city from scratch, it might not be optimal to have all that right next to downtown, but a lot of it would just be gone if we rezone that area residential. Not sure I’d be too excited about losing that much blue collar industry, particularly when there are better places to put housing (like in existing residential zones.)

      5. FWIW, the building I was referring to is ‘The Wave’, and from the zoning map, it looks like some residential does snake down the west side of CenturyLink, but nowhere else.

      6. It may be that Hawks Tower. I never knew exactly where it was, just that it was next to the stadiums somewhere.

  9. Bruce, about the 124: some route must serve Airport Way north of Spokane. If not the 124 then which?

      1. I get to my exercise class located in the Old Rainier Brewery, which houses a variety of small businesses, including a winery, jewelry maker, wood-working studio, event spaces, work lofts, and several dance studios. I really appreciate the 124 serving this location.

      2. If the 124 crossed over from Airport to the Busway at Lander, it would both serve the Old Rainier development and more effectively connect to Link.

  10. Routes were shifted to 3rd Avenue from 1st Avenue in 2011 to make way for the SR-99 AWV replacement project. As Bruce says, they could go back.

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