king county metro 2015 New Flyer XT60 4504 in Night owl Rt.7

To support social distancing guidelines, King County Metro is considering a reservation system so that riders don’t get passed up on late-night routes (1 am to 5 am), according to an agency survey.

Today, drivers are authorized to pass up riders at the stop once the number of passengers reaches 12 (for 40-foot buses) or 18 people (60-foot). This is an inconvenience during the day, but it’s much worse at night, when buses come even more infrequently. Having to wait for another night owl bus an hour later can mean the difference between getting to work on time and not.

For years, night owl service was all but unusable. Several years ago, however, thanks in part to increased funding from the city, Metro revamped late night routes and created a useful, if limited network based on the most frequent routes.

Comment on the survey by May 31.

34 Replies to “Metro considering reservations for late-night trips”

  1. The way I read the survey, it looks like one may need a reservation in order to board the bus between 1 am and 5 am. Without really good signage at the stops, that could become problematic as people unaware of the reservation requirement watch their bus that only comes every two hours zoom right by the stop.

    The logistics are not straightforward. If I am ending my shift at some time much earlier than my reservation, go to the stop to begin my long wait, and then see the earlier edition of the route showing up late, but I am ready to board, does that driver know someone has made a reservation at that stop for a later time?

    The reservation-based system is labor-intensive, with a need to have the call center operating through graveyard shift when they currently only operate during the weekday latte shift.

    Most bus trips I make I don’t know what time I will be waiting at the stop until a few minutes before I am there. Having to make a reservation during latte-shift hours the previous day would render transit essentially unavailable to me.

  2. If the goal is to improve overnight service, maybe the real solution is more service.

    If the demand for overnight roving shelters proves to be overwhelming, then provide more (socially-distanced) shelter space and more bus service to said shelters.


      Good thinking, Brent. If you use my name, staff might link you to your own State rep. State of Western State Hospital, now ferociously [ON][TOPIC].

      You might also run by them my idea about emergency help from Joint Base Lewis McChord. If this was a quake instead of a pandemic, can’t believe there wouldn’t be both money and crew to put some shelters together.

      Anybody with experience, please confirm or deny, but this looks like the kind of work people can swiftly learn to perform themselves, when given the materials and some quick instruction.

      If Evergreen State does not yet have an “Emergency- Address” program whereby students both learn and practice building things like emergency shelter, lot o’ liberals (we can’t stand being told we’re forbidden to Help) might even plead with Jay Inslee to both sign the papers and “Please Stay That Order While We Go Help Build Shelters.”

      “Soon-as-safe”, I truly think that this exact kind of work could save us from a side-effect almost as dangerous than the toxins. Being forced to face distress and danger while forcibly separated from each other. Anybody on an emergency telephone this weekend…am I right? Least we can do right now is get busy getting ready.

      Mark Dublin

  3. I wondered what assumptions they are making about ridership in coming months. This is not, I think, an initiative they would undertake if expecting any return to normality soon.

    And if an extended period of non-normality is anticipated, is reservation-based buses the right tool? If we’re requiring reservations anyway, shouldn’t Metro be running on-demand service?

    1. It would be cheaper to pay for Lyft rides. But I would vociferously object to giving the Ubermenschen one penny of public funds.

    2. Have you calculated this? Buses can transport 10 and often many more riders per service hour. Demand-response taxis can transport 2, or sometimes up to 4 in best-case circumstances. If the buses are really full then we need the bus’ efficiency. Also, if the solution is vans or car-sized vehicles, it would be more cost-effective for Metro to run it or contract it out or make a bulk deal with local taxi companies than to put itself at Ubers’ stockholders’ mercy — and better for the drivers too.

      1. I’ve ridden many a Hopelink contracted bus (mostly the shuttle sized ones). I’d rather walk. Their service quality is abysmal.

    3. Access-style service for the general public would require a huge new fleet of large paratransit-style vans, a huge reservation administration, and cost a lot more per ride than fixed-route service. If ridership somehow increased despite the requirement to book rides the day before, the cost of operating Metro would skyrocket into the stratosphere.

      Finding someone to build an mega-armada of battery-powered paratransit-style buses will take years. I suppose it needs to happen anyway for the existing paratransit fleets all over the country, but it will happen long past the finding of the vaccine, unless the virus turns out to be unvaccionationable. In that case, the paratransit-style buses will be transporting no more than maybe three passengers at a time, life expectancy will come down sharply, concerts and sporting events with large crowds will go away forever, and even shared driverless cars will be too scary to stop those who can afford to do so from buying their own car.

  4. Does line-haul bus service lend itself to reservation at all? Tell me why you wouldn’t need police-caliber supervision at every single stop to enforce it. No WAY it’s in a Route 7 driver’s job description.

    Better idea is what I’ve seen aboard heavy-duty arterial trolleybus lines in San Francisco. “Reserve” of buses is kept at both terminals and turn-backs the whole length of the line. With supervisors stationed at key switches to either turn buses back at key switches, or wave them through.

    For a long, straight, heavy-hauling line like the “7”, should be just about perfect. Good practice, too, because I think that when the Recovery comes, our ridership should sooner or later start to match MUNI’s.

    Mark Dublin

  5. Metro Bureaucratese to English translation:

    Night Owl buses are at capacity with people taking non-essential trips. Bus drivers are passing up essential workers trying to get to work. We were ok with this absurd, backwards situation, but now we are starting to get complaints, so we reluctantly have to do something. If people or groups complain about a reservation system, don’t blame us, blame the people who filled out the survey.

    1. Wow, just wow. Do you like any single human being alive on the planet?

    2. Don’t blame me. I voted “no opinion”.

      I’m not negatively-disposed toward Metro trying stuff out, as long as they have a quick exit strategy if the idea turns into an unworkable Rube Goldberg, or results in more people’s trips being messed up than those who the proposal is being pushed to help. My best guess is that reservations-only service would hurt more people than it would help, but I just have personal experience, while Metro has data.

      I’m not sure Metro even has a strategy to find those hypothetical riders who would benefit.

      I would hope Metro will at least give reservations as a way to make sure the driver is looking out for you at your stop and holding a space for you a chance before resorting to ending night owl live-time on-demand-by-being-at-the-stop boarding.

  6. I do find it hard to believe that enough people are riding between 1 AM and 5 AM that pass-ups have actually happened (as opposed to just being a theoretical). If it does happen, it most likely means either 1) A shift at a particular employer is ending, sending a large number of people off to catch the same bus at the same time. 2) Homeless people taking up precious slots riding around all night in circles with no destination.

    If 1) is happening, then there really is no substitute for biting the bullet and paying for an extra bus. Potentially, a bus could be shifted to a night-owl route where this is the case to one where it isn’t to keep this change budget-neutral.

    If it’s 2), then it’s probably the same people doing it every night and the bus drivers most likely know who they are. The bus drivers can simply pass them, leaving seats for those that actually need to get somewhere. Or, if night after night, 100% of the riders on a particular route are non-destinational, just don’t run that bus route late at night at all.

    I’m not a fan of a reservation system as a solution here.

    1. So for every trip on a night owl route, use two buses? Have one bus to drive the homeless back and forth, and an extra bus just for essential workers?

      1. No, not every trip. Just specific trips that are reaching capacity limits from essential workers alone, excluding non-destinational riders. If no such trips exist, then we don’t need any extra trips. But, if they do, a reservation system won’t work. It would simply screw over those that don’t register quick enough.

      2. Park a dozen buses downtown at night for the homeless to sleep in. That should free up space on night owls for essential trips.

      3. I was just thinking that. Homeless shelter buses don’t need to move. And there are plenty of unused buses at night.

      4. At first glance, it sounds like a good idea to me. But, there are some questions that need to be answered first:

        1) Are the buses needed at the base overnight for cleaning/maintenance? If so, this isn’t going to work. My understanding is that buses typically get cleaned late at night because they’re in use during the day.
        2) Is it necessary to have a security presence on board to prevent bad behavior/vandalism? If so, parking a bus downtown for homeless to sleep on May not actually be much cheaper than running the bus around town for night owl service.

        If it’s necessary to run the engine to keep the bus heated, I think you’d have to have a driver on board, otherwise, there’s nothing to stop someone from just hopping in the driver’s seat and driving away. It would be like leaving your car parked on the street overnight with the doors open and your keys in the ignition.

        A cheaper solution might be some sort of trailer that could be parked downtown overnight, separate from the vehicle that tows it. The trailer could be completely bare, with absolutely nothing inside that could be stolen or broken, avoiding the need for a full-time security guard. During the day, they can haul the trailer away, clean it, and haul it back the next night.

      5. You know what would be cheaper than housing 20 people, tops, in each empty bus overnight?

        Renting all the empty high school football fields, buying a bunch of tents, giving each person experiencing homelessness a tent, and marking off their tent space on one of the football fields. The tents are PPE, btw. Without them, the fields can become superspreaders.

        The expensive part is paying to keep the nearby restrooms open and cleaned, to pandemic standards, which means ongoing staffing. But then, you’d also have to do that for the people sleeping even less comfortably on buses anyway.

    2. Promise, adsf2: When I’m first in line to board the bus, if the driver tells me my trip purpose is not Essential enough to board, I’ll make either him or her come up with a really solid definition of the word while we’re all waiting for both the police and my attorney.

      And what’s procedure if the line contains people whose trip purpose both doesn’t and does meet the criteria? Lot of us also do a lot of different things, a lot of different nights. And Promise 2, if this crap gets any traction, I most certainly will start carrying my ORCA card folded up in my rental agreement, and not clear the aisle ’til the driver reads it.

      Bad enough that with this year’s fashions, if I shave and press my pants I don’t get a date! Should be deterrent enough to policy you’re suggesting how may cell-phones are going to send my treatment viral. Mike Lindblom’s also bound to have an evening free.

      Also, this being STB, are you telling me I can’t ride all night getting material for a posting? What if I’m a grad student doing PhD research on either virology or emergency transportation? What if I’m looking for a lost relative on either end of the age-spectrum?

      My dentist warned me yesterday that at my age I’d better not bite a crunchy ice-cream bar, let alone a bullet. So for the money it’s going to cost on Enforcement, which you’d better believe is going to require some Force, better use is for buses staged, spaced, and turned-back as I’ve described.

      But most hazardous of all…..what if Sam’s editor just told him if he blows one more deadline, his Метро Бюрократы to Patagonian dictionary will be outsourced to Assyria? Where some really pretty girls meet you for coffee in Gothenburg, but their brothers make sure she’s respected.

      Mark Dublin

    3. Hotels are nearly empty. Put the homeless in them for the time being.

      1. To some extent, that’s already happened. However, the devil is in the details. Hotels are private businesses and there’s no guarantee that they’ll offer a price that the city can afford or would accept. People will mental problems are much more likely to damage hotel property or disturb other guests than a typical tourist or business traveler, and hotel management may decide it’s simply not worth the risk.

        I can see this happening at some lower-end hotels by the airport. I have an extremely hard time envisioning this at places like the downtown Hilton.

      2. asdf2, the rate of mental illness among the homeless only about 1.5 times that of the national average. That includes people whose only mental illness is PTSD from being homeless. This means that there’s no need to worry about property damage or guest disturbance, as the homeless are not much more likely to cause these issues than the typical tourist or business traveler.

      3. Having the City and County buy hotels, using them for either shelter or isolation for the near-term, and then converting them into public housing in the long-term seems like a fine idea to me. Now is the time when buying out hotels is the cheapest. More of this, please! Going into debt to deal with an emergency is not a sin.

    4. I’ll give an anecdote of the last time I was on a night owl bus. This was before the pandemic. I boarded the bus in Belltown, northbound, around 3 AM. By the time I got on, almost every seat was already occupied by someone sleeping. There were only two “destinational riders” on the bus, myself included.

      Even if the number of “non-destinational riders” was cut in half during the pandemic the bus still would have been over the threshold where the driver could have passed up the stop I used. This would have been very annoying to experience.

      Metro is right to try and find a way to ensure that people who are using the bus for transportation purposes are accommodated even if a large number of people who have nowhere better to sleep than a bus have already boarded.

      1. I had two similar experiences the two times I had to take night owl buses. Although I took the bus to work every day, I would usually drive in if I had to go in again after dinner. However, when I had my cataract surgery I couldn’t drive so took the bus.

        Each time I took the night owl home, I was not just the only destination rider, I had to convince the driver I really was (a) awake; and (b) really meaning to get off at 45th and Wallingford. The bus drove by it every day but he never dropped a passenger off there.

      2. Before we assume that everyone sleeping on the bus at 3 AM is non-destinational, I would like to point out that if I had somewhere to be at that hour, and were riding the bus to get there, I might try to sleep too. Sleeping is something you can do safely on a bus that you can’t do while driving.

        The real clue that riders are non-destinational would be if everyone is riding all the way to the end, with nobody getting off at any intermediate stops. Especially if the same riders all get on the same bus 15 minutes later to go back the other way. Assuming the same driver drives the same route, night after night, they would quickly learn who the non-destinational riders are, and can take action accordingly.

  7. ‘Nother thing about the New Flyer XT 60’s: With the battery pack they carry, turnbacks aren’t limited to, for instance, Graham and Rose.

    From their beginning, what trolleybuses always “had” over cable cars was their much wider source of places to turn around. The Future?

    Hallmark of this particular emergency is that Physics has always carried two kinds of inertia, motion and rest. Both of which require extra effort to change.

    The little virus swiftly intertwined with decades of an economy and an international situation whose level of danger was always too comfortable to make it worth the ink on a work-order to change. Whose own inertia of (well, not Rest so much as Stagnation) makes both caution and action scary.

    Maybe best mode of approach was Franklin Roosevelt in the pre-war years: keep your work posture on the balls of your feet. One thing doesn’t work, direction change gets commended for alert, not bewailed as failure.

    We and XT60 4504 can handle it.


  8. I’m not very hopeful about a reservation-driven service. It’s a pretty major deterrent to using transit in the middle of the night.

    A reservation system may work best if the coverage area is small and the service only went to a nearby hub like a Link or RapidRide station. Then, more frequent, rubber-tired “trains” on long routes connecting those hubs could have FEO’s and other security measures in place. That would seem to make transfers pretty seamless like Via operates today and address the “moving shelter” issue better.

    Also, I believe that ST should kick in for overnight bus service when Link isn’t running — but that’s a whole other issue.

    1. A shadow service that serves each Link station would be the most legible night owl solution for Link, but not necessarily the most useful solution for airport users.

      Having at least half-hourly service on route 124, which serves the airport terminal stop during night owl hours, would be a more tolerable connection to downtown for overnight airport arrivals and departures. Regardless, information about route 124 ought to be part of all printed and on-line information about Link’s overnight closure hours.

      The most useful solution, or at least my educated guess, would probably be an overnight version of the old route 194, sans the extension to Federal Way. However, running route 124 more frequently might prove to be cheaper. (I have personally benefited from taking route 124 to the airport from Georgetown for an early-morning departure.)

      A 194 trip from the airport to downtown with timed transfers to overnight 106’s, 49’s, and a variant of route 41 that serves the freeway stations at 45th, and 65th, and then terminates at Northgate Station might be a much more enticing prospect than a bus that winds its way up MLK, through Capitol Hill, up to Husky Stadium, and then over to U-District Station, then up to U-District, Roosevelt, and eventually Northgate Station.

      That said, night owl service is mostly about getting people to and from jobs, including at the airport. There’s nothing for that but to survey employers, including the Port, about how many people begin and/or end their shifts during graveyard hours, where those businesses are, where there are clusters of employees living that would make transit a useful investment (at least more useful than a Metro vanpool — pretending the pandemic is over) and designing service around those findings.

      I will still bet that extending the H Line to serve all the 180 stops between Burien and the airport would turn out to be a good match between employment centers and where a chunk of employees live.

      As to who would pay for it, I’m agnostic. Both ST and Metro have yuge budgets and yuge capital programs that make overnight shadow service, and vanpool service coordinated between employers, a rounding error. Right now, airport and other blue collar workers mostly just have to pay for their own car, on blue-collar wages, with some companies still resisting SeaTac’s $15-an-hour law.

      1. It would seem to be that if you’re going to have a shadow bus that serves every Link station, you may as well just run Link. The trains and tracks are a sunk cost, and it’s fewer driver-hours to follow the train tracks than to follow the roads. The counter argument would be the cost of staffing all the downtown tunnel stations with security guards all night long for a train that’s only running once per hour or less.

        My gut feeling is that simply running today’s night owl service on the 7, 36, and 124 is the right balance. I’m weary about the usefulness of a shadow bus that would quite likely be slower in getting between downtown and the airport than the night owl 124.

      2. asdf2, the 124 is quite fast.. It takes the 124 Night Owl 39 minutes go from its starting point to TIBS, It takes the latest Link run 35 minutes to go from Westlake to TIBS. Before the Georgetown section was added, the 124/174 at peak was faster than Link, albeit by only two minutes.

      3. My experience riding route 174 back before the coming of Link was that it took about an hour from downtown to the airport. But that was before ORCA. Route 194, however, was slightly faster than Link, when it didn’t get stuck in a traffic jam. We had endless debates with someone who wanted to keep route 194 about how the total wait+travel time on Link was faster, but I don’t recall anyone claiming route 174 was competitive with Link on travel time.

        At any rate, I could see a Northgate to 65th freeway station to 45th freeway station to downtown to the airport night owl route handling the red-eye flight crowd pretty well for northenders. Graveyard is about the only time such a route won’t get stuck in a traffic jam approaching the airport. Getting to the most useful night owl network for airport-area workers will take research and leg work.

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