All three Stride BRT lines are set to launch in 2024. While there are some refinements on the north side of I-405 with expansion of the express toll lanes and new inline stops, BRT benefits will be more significant on the south side of I-405, which is getting express toll lanes for the first time (compared to the frustratingly ineffective HOV2 lanes on the corridor today).
While freeway improvements would go a long way to improving express bus service in this corridor, there is still a problem of how service is organized and routed currently. Today’s bus service is a mix of remnants of the old service pattern from the early 2000s (when Bellevue buses went to Federal Way and South Hill) and new route 567 service which takes advantage of timed Sounder transfers and the new HOV ramp between I-405 and SR 167. (In the spirit of full disclosure, 3 out of 8 of these points affect me very directly, and were key motivators in my writing this post)
Here are some issues with the system as it stands now:
- Auburn to Bellevue service is part of the 566 rather than the 567, so riders are faced with the uncomfortable decision to take the 566 or Sounder and transfer to the 567, or take the 566 all the way, unsure of what will get them there faster.
- Current 567 trips (which connects 1 to 1 with Sounder trains) very often fill up in Kent after the train arrives, requiring passengers to choose between waiting for the next 567 (20 minutes later) or dealing with the slower 566.
- Service in Renton is oriented around picking up many people along local stops and serving the Boeing plant, without requiring passengers to transfer, no matter where or from they are going. This is a problem because it slows service substantially, despite relatively few people utilizing these stops compared to major stops like Renton TC.
- Specifically, Renton-Bellevue service is interlined with “pseudo 10-minute” headways, where the 560 and 566 are coordinated to run every 10 minutes from Renton to Bellevue. The problem with this is that the 560 serves both freeway stations on I-405 (whereas the 566 serves none, usually), so 560 takes longer. This requires schedule tricks when going northbound (560 leaves a few minutes earlier than 10 minutes after the 566 to get to Bellevue at the same time). And southbound in the evening, this trick doesn’t even work at all (560 takes more than 10 minutes longer than the 566, so the next 566 trips are scheduled to leave Renton TC before the previous 560 does).
- 2/3 of northbound morning Renton-Bellevue service comes directly from Kent on SR-167 (route 566), and as this gets congested with rush-hour traffic, it often severely delays trips from Renton before they even start (a scenario that most major rush-hour service avoids, such as Federal Way to Seattle on the 577, Renton to Seattle on the 101, and Kent to Bellevue and Seattle on the 567 and Sounder). This is further worsened when getting back on the freeway, as all northbound buses use the Southport Drive to I-405 N ramp, which has a meter queue that often extends much past the point where the bus can bypass the queue, requiring the bus to wait 10+ minutes sometimes just to get back on the freeway.
- 566 doesn’t run all the way to Auburn sometimes, serves the I-405 freeway station sometimes, but also only runs from Auburn to Renton, sometimes. This leads to confusion for both passengers and operators, major inconvenience for people who jump in and get on the wrong bus, and undoubtedly scares people who currently drive from taking the bus because they don’t think they can figure it out.
- 560 service from west of the airport is particularly long and circuitous, and does not have either speed or frequency improvements at peak, where the experience is the worst.
- Service to Overlake on the 566 and 567 is very inefficient, with a ton of recovery time at Bellevue TC southbound, which takes up valuable space in the transit center. Traffic between Overlake and Bellevue TC is very volatile, so this recovery time really is necessary to ensure timely service from Bellevue TC (where the bulk of passengers board).
While the opening of Stride BRT in four years will solve many (but not all) of these problems, four years is too long to wait for solving problems that keep people in their cars and punish people who choose to take the bus when it matters the most. I have a proposed restructure that addresses all of these issues, though it is almost certainly not revenue neutral.
Here is my proposed network map. Note the peak and off-peak layers, as the network has entirely different sets of routes for off-peak than peak.
Here are the list of peak routes:
- Route 546: Overlake to Bellevue (every 10 minutes)
- Route 561: SeaTac Airport, Renton, Kennydale Freeway Station, Bellevue (40 minutes)
- Route 562: Westwood Village, Burien, Renton, Kennydale Freeway Station, Bellevue (40 minutes)
- Route 563: The Landing, Renton, Newport Hills Freeway Station, Bellevue (20 minutes)
- Route 567: Kent, Bellevue (every 20 minutes when 568 is over capacity, timed with Sounder)
- Route 568: Auburn, Kent, Bellevue (every 20 minutes. Timed with Sounder at Kent when demand is low, halfway in-between Sounder trains when demand is high and 567 is running)
- 560: Westwood Village, Burien, SeaTac Airport, Renton, both freeway stations, Bellevue (every 30 minutes)
- 566 Auburn, Kent, Renton, The Landing (every 60 minutes. North and south bound timed to meet with 560 for service to/from Bellevue, similar to today)
One note about Overlake service on the 546. It is meant to be dynamic, meaning that the operator (which would ideally be Metro) would start with the 4 or so buses required to maintain 10 minute headways under ideal conditions (which is very fast). As conditions worsen, buses may be added to the 546 if necessary from peak directional trips on routes 545 and 550 which would normally go to Bellevue Base. So traffic is bad on 520 and 405 and the buses in service on the 546 will not be able to maintain headways, 545 and 550 operators who finished their last peak runs and who are already near a terminus of the 546 will add their buses to the 546. 546 southbound will also dynamically switch from I-405 to 112th Ave NE when I-405 gets slower (Exactly like the 232 does all the time).
All restructures are tradeoffs, with winners and losers. Here are the big winners in this scenario:
- Kent and Auburn to Bellevue riders (and also, via Sounder, Sumner, Puyallup, Tacoma, and Lakewood to Bellevue riders), who see an improvement in both speed, frequency, and capacity on the 567/new 568 pair.
- Riders on the I-405 freeway stations going to Bellevue or Renton, who see both a frequency boost (from 30 to 20 minute headways), and a speed boost compared to the 560 today.
- Potential riders at Myers-Briggs P&R and the 128th street/SR 509 freeway station, who are getting service to Renton and Bellevue for the first time. This is due to the 560 and 562 using the 509 freeway, which is very fast in the reverse peak direction (which is really the peak direction for riders heading to Renton and Bellevue).
Here are overall winners, with some tradeoffs and sacrifices:
- Renton to Bellevue, who are no longer subject to traffic on SR 167, and are only subject to either traffic delays from Burien or from the airport (not both). Service is faster in Renton, the bus gets on the freeway faster, and the 10 minute service is real 10 minute service. Rather than piecing together 10 minute headways with both fast and slow buses, buses are all medium, serving one freeway station each. This slows down all buses from Renton a little bit, but they are slowed equally, while still giving the freeway stations more and faster service.
- Burien and Westwood Village to Renton and Bellevue riders, who get a much faster ride during peak, at the cost of headways going from 30 to 40 minutes. Though farther from frequent service, the quality of service is much better, and probably usually saves more than 10 minutes per trip.
Here are people whose experience is roughly a wash, or a little bit worse:
- Riders from Overlake in the evening, who now have to transfer and will very often get different buses from Bellevue depending on how bad traffic is.
- SeaTac Airport to Bellevue, who get reduced frequency (40 minute headways), but get a faster trip through Renton and on I-405 (due to serving one less freeway station).
- Riders from the Landing (north Renton) to Bellevue, who currently enjoy being the last stop (or near the last stop) before Bellevue currently. They keep a one-seat ride, but their frequency drops to 10 minutes and they have to backtrack to Bellevue TC first. Once on the freeway, the have the benefit of faster routing and only serving one freeway station on the way to Bellevue. They also have the benefit of getting first dibs on seats on the bus, and have the most reliable trip (as the fewer buses that serve the Landing begin at the Landing).
Finally, the losers in this scenario:
- Auburn to Renton and Kent to Renton (particularly to the Boeing plant) are the big losers, needing to take alternative service during peak. The best alternative for these passengers is usually to take Sounder and transfer to the F-Line.
- Passengers going between the two I-405 freeway stations. These riders can take Metro service like the 101, 167, and 342, but overall have much lower frequency. These riders are not affected off-peak.
- Riders along Ambaum Blvd near a 560 express stop, who enjoy current 560 service. They will require a transfer all the time, to the 120 (and later the RapidRide H-Line).
- Peak riders from the airport to Burien or Westwood Village, who will need to take infrequent route 180 to Burien, and then possibly another bus to get to their destination.
It is certain that this restructure would help many more people than it hurts, but it is likely more expensive to operate than the current network. It would probably require significant increase in spending in the East King County subarea, since there would be more bus service overall on I-405, and one new route that is entirely within the East King subarea. Other routes may be able to draw on funds from the South King subarea, and the 562 in particular has some speed improvements that may make it efficient enough to run with one fewer coach off-peak than the 560 does. Combined frequency from Renton could be adjusted to be 15 minutes instead of 10, and that might make it revenue neutral (and to be honest, I kind of prefer real 15 minute frequency to fake 10 minute frequency). But one thing is for sure: waiting until 2024 to improve ST Express bus service here that has numerous issues will hurt ridership once the BRT line is open, and will keep people in their cars for longer when traffic is at its worst. And that is unacceptable.