For the last seven years, Metro’s service-change planning has been driven by the agency’s Service Guidelines, adopted by the County Council to professionalize a planning process that had been increasingly driven by political pressure on individual Council members. The Service Guidelines process has been enormously helpful to the agency over time, allowing it to prioritize hours in a way that benefits the highest number of riders (with a special emphasis on riders from disadvantaged communities written in) and enables continued ridership growth.
Part of the Service Guidelines process is an annual report on system performance, now called the System Evaluation. The report highlights areas where investment is needed under the Service Guidelines in three priority areas: 1) overcrowding, 2) schedule reliability, and 3) service growth. It also contains a treasure trove of route-level reliability and ridership data.
Metro recently released to the public the 2018 System Evaluation, which is based on data collected after the fall 2017 service change. The report identifies various needs scattered throughout Metro’s system, but two particular areas of focus jump off its pages. The first is that endlessly congested traffic conditions in South Lake Union continue to present major reliability challenges for north-south transit in that area, even after continuous investment of large numbers of hours in SLU service over the last four years. The second is that most of the highest-priority needs for overall network growth, rather than spot fixes, are in South King County outside of Seattle.
The SLU needs are not a surprise to anyone who ever travels through the area. Every north-south route through SLU except route 70 appears on the list of routes needing reliability improvement. Routes 62 and 40, the two highest-ridership core services connecting the heart of SLU with North Seattle, need the highest investment of all routes on the list. Unfortunately, “investment” that increases running time and recovery time is of only limited use to stuck passengers. The continuing reliability challenges in this area underscore the need for much more comprehensive transit priority, especially longer bus lanes with fewer gaps at problematic intersections such as those at Mercer and Denny.
South King County
The more fundamental challenge that comes out of this year’s System Evaluation is the need for major network investment in South King County, both in the all-day network and commuter service. Fully half of the routes requiring reliability improvement are South King County routes, and the report specifically calls out declining reliability of I-5 South commuter service. In the network growth category, six of the top ten priorities for growth are South King County routes.
Reviewing past System Evaluations reveals that underservice in South King County is not a new phenomenon. But it has been thrown into sharp relief with the improvements to the Seattle network funded through 2014’s Proposition 1. The Eastside has had relatively generous service for years in comparison to ridership, thanks to the politically driven “40/40/20” (Eastside/South/Seattle) service growth formula that ruled Metro during the 1990s and 2000s. More recently, Proposition 1 corrected a significant amount of historical underinvestment in Seattle service. Now, needs in South King County increasingly stand out. Under the Service Guidelines’ equity-driven approach, the higher concentration of lower-income and minority residents in many South King County communities only reinforces the need for further investment in the south end.
The King County Council as a whole should be prepared to listen to what the System Evaluation is saying, and prioritize the investments in South King County that it recommends. In major South King County destinations, ridership exists to support a frequent network comparable to the one Proposition 1 has helped Metro build in Seattle. Building that network needs to be Metro’s and the Council’s first service development priority in the near future.