In last week’s article on Via, I was pleasantly surprised by a projected cost per rider of $16, and early results suggesting a rate of $13. This rate is certainly not as good as the best bus routes, but competitive with some less effective ones and way better than other services like paratransit. Classifying Via as “coverage service,” I proclaimed the results “decent.”
Some commenters pointed out, rightly, that I stretched the meaning of “coverage” service. The term is usually understood to mean service to an area not dense enough to serve efficiently, for the sole purpose of providing some connectivity for those that needed it. That is not what is happening here. Indeed, most Southeast Seattle residents can walk to at least one of multiple north-south frequent transit corridors in a fairly narrow space, and at its widest point route 50 provides a connection to all 4.
However, while most everyone has a connection point into the system, there is likely unmet demand for access to Light Rail. The lack of east/west connectivity is by now a Seattle cliché. Along MLK, the 106 has theoretical 15 minute headways, though often worse. Service is excellent in the Rainier Corridor, but for the most part users there that want to get to Link face a very long ride to a poor transfer at Mt. Baker. As elsewhere in Seattle, topology sometimes cuts off otherwise obvious routes. Broadly speaking, Rainier Valley residents lack a short hop to rapid transit that is tantalizingly close.
This is not an accident: through two separate restructures since Link opened, providing access to it has not been a priority. Each time, existing riders demanding their one-seat rides downtown had their way. In the first restructure, service hours went to improving connections to and through the Central District and West Seattle, as well as the Streetcar, rather than within Southeast Seattle. And that’s fine, though it does leave an unmet demand.
Via critics are right, though, that the optimal way to provide this connectivity would likely be through fixed bus routes. Unfortunately, Metro can’t run more buses at peak times today. Even if existing routes downtown must remain at current frequencies, there are plenty of good targets for additional investment: more buses on the 50, 60, 106, and 107. Better yet, entirely new concepts to plug some of the Link access gaps (some old brainstorms here and here) are much more palatable as an add-on to the existing network than as a substitute.
When Metro’s new bus base capacity comes online, we can have an interesting discussion about Via, the Transportation Benefit District, and new and improved routes in the Southeast. But until then, Via is probably the best option in this area.