Two months ago I wrote about the Downtown Seattle Association’s experiment with a free waterfront shuttle. The pilot’s original term ended on October 1st, and the numbers are in.

Source: Commute Seattle

September 14th was the highest ridership day, at 1,674. The average weekday attracted 953 boardings, or 95 per hour. Weekends actually saw more usage, at 1,044 per day or 104 per hour. In absolute terms, this is roughly equivalent to a low-ridership Sound Transit Express route, and over much less distance. This isn’t moving the needle regionally, but isn’t bad for a new route with its share of quirks.

Source: Commute Seattle

But that’s not the really interesting news. After starting as a single loop from Pioneer Square to the Space Needle with unscheduled 25-minute headways, the shuttle is now three separate loops (see right). 3 to 6 buses per hour serve each of these loops, with the congestion issues you would expect. Commute Seattle data suggests all the but the green loop are pretty consistent through the day.

The DSA added the green (east) loop on August 31st “to circulate riders to Pike Place Market and the Retail Core & Convention Center from the waterfront,” according to spokesperson Margaret Steck. Weekly ridership jumped from 3,824 to 6,270 on either side of the change, although some of that may have been Labor Day weekend.

If you’re interested in this service, that’s not the most exciting news. Instead of ending last week, the DSA has the funding to run through at least Sep. 3, 2019, 10am to 8pm, except for Thanksgiving and the week between Christmas and New Year’s. One would expect ridership to dip in the bad weather months, and given the apparent leisure focus of many trips, it’s a bit odd to shut down over major holidays. But it’s always good to have novel funding sources create free transit in some of the region’s most constrained spaces.

40 Replies to “Waterfront Shuttle Restructures, Grows, Lives On”

  1. I think this is great for tourists and families taking a day trip into town. They would really benefit from some nice visible branding, like how Chicago has “trolleys” that are really decorated buses that run consistently the free Navy Pier Trooper.

    1. We took the train up in September, and stayed near King Street Station. We went down to the waterfront several times, and I never saw the shuttle. I think frequencies need to increase, and the service needs to be better publicised.

      1. They need more distinctive looking coaches, and more visible and branded bus stops ~ analogous to the Geo Benson Streetcar stations.

  2. Short-distance shuttles are a great way to ease distances that a hard for many to walk, especially those up and down hills. Depending on how the scheduling is managed, it is also relatively easier to not have long wait times for people as very long routes that operate in congestion do. Bus drivers could even go out of service and reposition themselves if they got bunched. It’s cheaper to buy and substitute seasonal, open air cars. It can be quickly rerouted for parades or construction blockages. It seems to me to be a much smarter investment than a fixed, less frequent streetcar.

    1. But here’s the thing, Al. Not only do the figures show that ridership may exceed van capacity a lot sooner than planned. But especially after the Viaduct comes down, there’ll be a rapidly increasing demand for scheduled, short-headway line-haul service.

      Game night after a festive Waterfront day, any movie company in India will pay you a fortune for the correct atmosphere, and also the frantic activities of the extras who won’t even notice they’re on camera, let alone collect a paycheck. Though they might think it’s great to ride in a van with chickens and goats tied to the roof.

      Sooner or later, streetcars will be back. From what I saw in Europe of all the line-haul passenger modes, pedestrians are most comfortable with them.

      Seem to recall an official telling me that some of the street utilities were designed with street rail in mind.
      But meantime, we’ve got much to gain by laying out some bus service ASAP. Pavement-paint or not, more reserved lane space the better.

      I like the battery buses because in addition to passengers, they really will carry the spirit of bus transit at this point in history. Quiet. Smokeless. Wire-less. Versatile. Powered and guided, but not bound to, their right of way. And able to deliver badly-missed service on First north of Pine.

      But nothing against and much in favor of everything from vans to golf carts to pedicabs in addition. And and chickens and goats and film-stars dancing on van roofs and singing falsetto. And from many countries, vans and small buses that carry very potent references to lions and Scriptural heroes on their sides.

      Another reason, come to think of it, to provide good single seat rides between the Victoria Clipper and Sea-Tac Airport via IDS. Connection with every art museum and tribal celebration in the world should convince Seattle Art Museum there’s no hard feelings over temporary break in streetcar service. Streetcars are a big cultural world of their own!


  3. Over time, it will be apparent that this current service ignores First Hill, lower Capitol Hill and Belltown. It will be interesting to see if these get added, and if adding them will reduce ridership on Metro buses in those areas.

    Keep in mind that these shuttles are free to riders, while First Hill, lower Capitol Hill and Belltown riders have to pay Metro fares for their similar short distances (unless they each have an Orca pass). Free for wealthy tourists while charging poor residents raises basic equity questions. Those equity questions were not as critical back in the free fare zone days (which still did not extend east of I-5).

    1. The shuttles are mitigation for the Viaduct construction. First Hill, lower Capitol Hill, and Belltown aren’t suffering such construction. The state is paying for it, or maybe private donors; you can’t just divert that kind of funding to another neighborhood. First Hill, lower Capitol Hill, and Belltown aren’t exactly known as poor areas, they’re at the same income level as the tourists; an equity complaint would get laughed out of court.

      1. I’d take issue with saying that Belltown is less affected by losing the viaduct than Fifth and Sixth Avenue or the Stadium areas are.

    2. To be fair, the rents would tend to preclude many “poor riders” from living in Capital Hill and First Hill. In addition, there is a route that passes through the “sketchier” parts of Town.

      And those “wealthy tourists” would just as soon take an Uber — which would be worse for downtown traffic congestion than using the free local shuttles. If transit is to be transit first, and equitable whenever possible, the downtown shuttles are not bad at all.

  4. Got a better idea. For years now, First Avenue has had no transit whatsoever north of Pine Street. And the Waterfront has at least two serious destinations, Colman Dock and the Victoria Clipper. In addition to the aquarium, Colman Dock, Pioneer Square, King Street Station, IDS, and every Metro route going through Down. And their every transfer.

    So think of the area formerly served by the Waterfront Streetcar- whose tracks are still where they were in 2005 when the line shut down- and whatever last route number on First was numbered. And now that we’ve got a battery fleet, let’s do this.

    Waterfront Streetcar route starting at IDS. Following remains of tracks to the Waterfront, Alaskan Way to Myrtle Edwards, Broad to First, and up to Seattle Center. And then, same route in reverse. And with two-way service the whole route.

    As often as the route deserves. Starting with fifteen minute headway. Ten on game day. Really do think that instead of priding ourselves on how well we serve hotel-van ridership, real buses will draw ridership worthy of urban public transit.

    And since it doesn’t require any wire, if it doesn’t work, nothing lost and a lot of experience gained for when the Waterfront project is finished. And we’ve got the perfect kickoff date in front of us: Soon as our windshields won’t draw more Viaduct dust than our wipers can clear.

    Also got two funding sources in mind who both favor the Connector: The Pike Place Market Association and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. So temporary compromise with the Mayor. Paint the pavement last- unless above contributors make you do it earlier.

    Mark Dublin

  5. Perfect caution about danger of using YouTube for background music while commenting to STB. In Ireland, DOWN County is completely smitten flat by a lethally cute brown-haired girl named Rosie. Who doubtlessly would never leave her little bare footprints on steps of a van.

    And would unfortunately be compelled to put her shoes on before she gets on a battery-powered bus.
    After the driver shakes himself to be sure she’s really there! Too bad Eldo Kanikkiberg isn’t still really here to verify either way. Because in her demographic, she could’ve actually been an Icelander too.

    Dublin was a Viking trading town. Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you….YouTube can turn you into a leprechaun and send you viral.

    Mark (last name withheld if he knows what’s good for him)

  6. Are the blue and orange loops completely interlined as a single loop (as before), or are they now independent loops?

    Also, I wonder (and it would be really nice) if transfers between loops where before departing to serve the loop, buses for all three loops wait until each loop is present, wait a minute for passengers to transfer, then continue. Lacking a schedule would make this easier, because if one of the loops is holding up other loops, then there can still be an anywhere-to-anywhere timed transfer without the possibility of any bus being “late.”

    This would basically create an additional three virtual routes (belltown-downtown, belltown-ID, downtown-ID) potentially saving these passengers a 20 minute wait in the middle, at the cost of reliability and average frequency.

  7. I just rode the three loops this afternoon, Saturday. All three buses were 3/4 full of tourists who seemed a bit geographically confused. The drivers stay in touch with each other and a staffer on the street at the Aquarium by walkie talkie/mobile phone? This facilitates transfers between buses at the aquarium where everyone has to get off and transfer.
    Main gripe is that the windows are covered which makes it less interesting and obscures the “city sights.” It’s crazy to obscure the windows from what is a sight seeing bus. The drivers were very patient and helpful, but one driver insisted in singing country music songs which I found totally annoying but a few people liked. A woman with a folding walker was accommodated and another woman with a dog. The general mood was festive, helped by the free fare. Each driver did have a tip jar, though.

      1. It is a free bus, serving mostly tourists. It seems to me that it should be treated like a sightseeing bus. It is no different from other types of transit. I recently visited Denali National Park. We flew into Fairbanks, stayed there a couple days, then took the train to Denali. The train is sold as both a way to get between the two places, and a way to see the countryside. We rode the bus into the National Park (you have to ride the bus). Like other National Park buses (e. g. Zion) a lot of people ride just to get to their destination, and start hiking. But others just ride to check out the park. They get off, wander around a bit, and then get back on. The drivers point out some of the history or sights (stopping for wildlife). In all these cases, it would be crazy to obscure the windows. This free shuttle seems like a very similar service, and as such, the windows should be clear.

      2. That may be who uses it but it’s what it was intended for or how it’s marketed. I tried to find the map a few weeks ago First I found this ( You have to click the map link in the popup because if you dismiss the popup the page won’t tell you anything. Then it gives you information about “Seattle Waterfront: Parking, Shuttle, and Hours. Follow these steps to get free waterfront valet parking.” Then a list of stops, and as I look through it I think this must be a different shuttle. Further down the page there’s information on the waterfront shuttle, with a link to “More parking. Less circulating.” At least it’s easier to find now than it was when I first looked for it. Yes, they should market it like transit. Someday.

      3. Yeah, and we all thought the parking shuttle idea was stupid. Who is going to do that, really? I live in the city, own a car, and once in a while take the grand kids to the aquarium. Either I’m taking the kids on the bus (and we walk down the hill) or I’m driving as close as possible to the aquarium. Parking somewhere along the route just sounds like a waste of time. With a parking shuttle, you want to serve a big, easy to access cheap parking lot. Parking anywhere along the route is not cheap nor easy. The bus is too infrequent and too inconsistent (because of the train crossing) to work as an integral part of the transit system, although even then it makes more sense than a parking shuttle.

        This is a tourist circulator, no matter how they market it. That is it’s main value. Not as regular transit, not as a parking shuttle, but as a tourist bus. For that reason, the windows should be clear, so that folks can see the city.

    1. For all the years they’ve been here, I’ve been beyond-appalled that police, fire, and emergency rescue people ever allowed those miserable “wraps” over the windows of any passenger vehicle on the road.

      Did anybody ever think that police coming on scene to deal with violence, or firefighters and medics to save or lose somebody’s life, might want to see what they’d find when they got in?

      Or that prospective shoppers might want as wide a range as possible of merchandise seen through windows? Personally, I’ve always counted my view out the window as what I pay extra for- namely clear glass where plain metal panels would be cheaper.

      Tempted to start a campaign to either refuse to pay, or open an “escrow” account until those damn things are, literally, out of my face. Bet it’ll catch on, and paint-scraper stock will go through the stratosphere

      Though I know what’s really abetting these atrocities. So many people ride- and walk, and drive- with their eyes fixed on their idiot, I mean Smart Phone screen that it’s their locator that tell them where they are with much more precision than a window.

      Same reason nobody else cares if every seat on the bus has window line about an inch above ear-level. But anyhow- word’s got to go to the wheeled passenger transportation industry that legal consequences for paint-scraping a hazard will be replaced with jail for obstructing public safety.


  8. Empirical evidence is that people are using it as a sight seeing bus. It’s for tourists to get around between major downtown destinations, regardless of whether they drive and park or arrive via other means. Some passengers got off at the Sheraton Hotel.

  9. It looks like Durkan needs to keep free and cheap transit in downtown so she can blow her wad on expensive rail where her and Dows relies live.
    I mean what’s an additional 300 mil to the bill for a system witb a fraction of the ridership and higher subsidie requirements. Maybe we can use student tuition and dt tourist taxes to cover Ballard transit.. She’s a bright one she is.

    1. I saw the proposal. Basically, build a tunnel under the ship canal and pay for half of it through cost savings from locating the station in a less convenient location for most riders. There’s a McDonalds and a tire store that would ripe for condemnation to make room for the construction site. It’s not good for the main part of Ballard today, but it could be made to work if the surrounding area can be given a strong upzone by the city.

      Of course, no one seems to have any clue where the extra $300 million is supposed to come from.

    2. I keep waiting for this blog to feature this story. I have strong opinions (naturally) but figured I would wait for the main post. This is, by far, the most important thing happening in transit in this city right now. Build the streetcar, don’t build the streetcar, it really won’t matter that much. Sooner or later there will be transit on First Avenue, whether it runs on the pavement or on rails.

      But build the station in the wrong place and we are screwed. We are simply stuck with it, the way we have been stuck with the awful Mount Baker Station.

      Same with the UW station, which everyone knows is in the wrong spot (it should be in the triangle). Likewise with a First Hill Station, or a station at SR 520 (neither of which exist). In general, subways are a measure-once, cut-twice proposition. Do it right the first time, or you are screwed, forever.

      Which is why 14th — whether above or below ground — is such a terrible idea. Terrible for people who want to walk to the station, terrible for people who connect via a bus. Each and every awful station has its own story, its own reasoning for why it was done that way. For the most part, it came down to money. It was too expensive to do it right.

      In this case, though, a station on 14th will actually cost *more* than if they simply built what they planned. This is being driven by automobile centered interests who don’t care at all about transit. They just don’t want to see 15th torn up for a few years, or see something like this built there ( The people pushing for a stop at 14th are either ignorant, or simply don’t care at all about transit. Someone needs to speak up for transit in this city, and hopefully the folks who run this blog will do so.

  10. Playing Devil’s Advocate here: I haven’t yet seen “local circulators are bad” come up in this section. At the very least, they can work in situations where there are lots of tourists moving between attractions in a local area. My home town Miami’s trolley has seen increasing ridership despite dismal ridership on the County routes (fortunately not a problem Seattle has!).

    1. The waterfront clearly needs transit because it’s a steep hill to anything on 1st Avenue, and the waterfront is too long to expect everybody to walk. Both tourists and locals use the waterfront, and they’re trying to increase the latter. At the same time, it’s too far out of the way for a trunk bus route. There was a waterfront streetcar for a while, which was displaced by the sculpture park and a fiasco to give it a replacement barn which was never completed so it was put into storage. Then there was a waterfront bus, which was displaced to 1st Avenue due to construction. This shuttle is replacing those. And as I said, it’s focuses not so much on transit as on allowing people to park downtown and get to the waterfront. So clearly Alaskan Way has a better chance of success than the previous circulators on Ballard-Phinney and downtown Bellevue which failed, or a theoretical shuttle in the Central District or Rainier Valley. Because those areas have transit in the highest-ridership directions, and people won’t wait for a shuttle that only goes a short distance. Conversely, people from all over town go to the waterfront, and it has essentially no transit without an Alaskan Way route, and the access points from 1st & Marion, 1st & Seneca, Pike Place Market, and 1st & Bell aren’t enough to address the need. It’s a taxonomical game whether it’s a “shuttle” or not, but clearly a route from downtown to the waterfront is viable, in a way that a route from neighborhood houses and apartments to a nearby bus transfer is not. Metro has worked around the problem by incorporiating “shuttle tails” into longer routes that go to a major destination, and by stringing together all the lowest-ridership segments together into a single route.

      1. The “access” from 1st and Bell required crossing a freeway exit ramp with no traffic light, and is essentially an invitation for visitors to the Waterfront to kill themselves.

        I don’t know if this will get any better once the viaduct is gone and Alaskan becomes the outlet for freeway traffic that once headed to the viaduct from 15th, but anyone calling the existing situation “access” has a twisted sense of what that word means.

      2. For several years now we have not had any transit way to get to the waterfront and the ferry terminals. This shuttle does that albeit imperfectly. Although designed for tourists, it serves residents as well – if they find out about it. And it links Queen Anne and Capital Hill also, since the northern origin is within a block of routes 8 (Cap Hill) and 3/4 (Queen Anne East and SPU. Add a stop at 2nd and Broad and the other Magnolia routes plus 2/13 could be served. Earlier attempts by METRO with 99 all suffered by not reaching Seattle Center and the connections there.

        At least this shows that there is demand, and its not just for visitors. We can get to the waterfront without a car..

      3. I believe this came up before (when discussing this shuttle). The main problem is the crossing of the railroad tracks, here: This makes it impossible to have consistent travel times along that corridor. That means that the blue line, which looks like a solid bus route (especially if extended on either end) is simply impossible. You can’t run it frequently, and if you don’t run it frequently, it can’t become a big part of the transit network.

        I think this problem could be avoided by using Elliot and Western. That would mean a bit of a walk, but where it is steepest there are some elevators. The area around Pike Place will also become a lot more pleasant for walking, so that would help as well. Running a bus like that wouldn’t make sense until the Viaduct is completely torn down and the work is finished in the area.

        An alternative would be treat this as a frequent transit peninsula. Just have buses from the south use the waterfront, and end by the tracks. You would have to figure out a way to turn the bus around, and even then, it really isn’t a great anchor. My guess is that we will never have great transit along that part of the waterfront (although ideally we could have it a block or two away), which is why this is fine as is.

    1. I don’t know that but I think I’ve heard that Metro considers an average of 12 riders per hour as the minimum for a viable route, and this is eight times higher.

    2. The shuttle is receiving about 1000 riders per day. The combined street car system would have about 20,000 riders per day – confirm by multiple studies—along a service area of similar length. The cost per rider on the waterfront shuttle is fairly low at $4.65, but the cost per rider of the combined CCC streetcar would be lower.

      1. Correct. The two disconnected streetcar lines make about as much sense as building light rail from Bellevue to Mercer Island and Lynnwood to Shoreline, but never connecting them in the center. If you build and incomplete system with a hole in the center, you will always have stats like that. All it proves is: don’t build an incomplete system.

  11. Les, I hope you’re not saying that van service can substitute for any transit corridor. Been centuries since anybody could make a claim that horses could do just as well in mud as on top of gravel. And a fraction of the ridership of what?

    But on your side, Chief Seattle correctly showed the settlers how much more economically his people could build a city. Guess the jury will still be out for awhile as to, over all the years, how right he’s been. But while we’re at it, let’s ask Kemper Freeman how much money all that Federal spending on I-90 and I-405 have lost him?

    So asdf2, there’s your answer. Obviously, all that money poured into Ballard since the Second World War finally got certain residential speculators a very generous return for hardly any money of their own. With removal of me thrown in. Not a little of it stemming from various postwar government housing assists.

    But this last week or so, those long slanted underground commercial hallways seem to me a good way to put the station platforms themselves wherever gravity,the rocks, underground mud, and water think they belong. While putting main entrances at Market and 15th or 14th, the park across from the library, and the corner of Market and 24th.

    And B, we all know that every tool has a best use. Including a small-vehicle circulation system. Every city I’ve ever visited with excellent transportation has equally good taxi service. But you may have finally lucked out in your advocacy firm.

    Because it is well known that the Devil has a huge cave someplace, like Medina, where his main responsibility is to sit sifting his gold and chortling, well…diabolically. If we run a boring cutter through the wall, you’ll get a very generous fee to get enough money from the Legislature to give them their own tunnel straight through the base of Mt. Rainier before it goes to Ballad by way of West Seattle.

    And Speaking of the Devil’s closest advisers, Les, best address our mayor with some courtesy. Remember what it is that Hath No Fury like a lady prosecutor when she gets scorned. Especially if you’re fifteen years old, were miles from the crime, and refusing to rat out somebody you barely know that broke a Federal window. So your next LINK ride will end at Angle Lake, and you’d better tap off!


  12. It’s worth noting a few thing that will be of interest to readers here:

    • The service has consistently been achieving 15 min headways on all routes in the current configuration.
    • Real-time arrival information will be added using DoubleMap, just like Kitsap Transit and some local employers use for their shuttle.
    • The one week holiday suspension in December is during a low ebb of waterfront attendance, and was a budget decision to carry the service through Labor Day 2019 on existing budget.
    • The service will be in place throughout the SR99 closure and viaduct removal.

    1. Can OneBusAway import the DoubleMap data? It’s a lot more user friendly if people can get real-time data for all the transit routes, region-wide on one app, rather than having to switch back and forth between multiple apps, depending on which agency operates which route.

  13. A couple of weeks ago I was walking along the waterfront with some family. We had to make our way up to 4th Ave to catch the 522. We saw a stop for the shuttle bus. Unfortunately we couldn’t find any info about the bus – approximate schedule and route mainly. I also tried the OBA app, but didn’t see anything about it.
    So without any way of knowing when the bus might come and where it might take us, we decided to just walk up the hill from the ferry terminal.

    More communication from Metro, or whoever runs this shuttle, would have been greatly appreciated.

  14. Unstated in the midst of this is the abandoned Waterfront Streetcar. Because this blog hated heritage trolleys (even ones that appropriately matched destinations and ridership like a waterfront tourist ciculator) so its contributors said nothing (negative) about its demise.

    Its ghostly presence hovers over their multi-year blabbing about a bus circulator.

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