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Metro is in Phase 3 of the North Link Connections Mobility Project. They have proposed running several rush-hour buses past Link stations to First Hill and South Lake Union. This is a bad idea.

The Express Routes

Here is a listing of the express routes, and the number of trips each will take:

64 — Lake City, Wedgwood, Roosevelt, South Lake Union, Downtown (24 trips a day)
302 — Richmond Beach, Aurora Village, Northgate, First Hill (26 trips a day)
303 — Aurora Village, Northgate, First Hill (26 trips a day)
322 — Kenmore, Roosevelt, First Hill (37 trips a day)
361 — Kenmore, Roosevelt, South Lake Union, Downtown (31 trips a day)

All of the routes go by a Link station before heading over the ship canal. They only operate during rush-hour, when Link will be frequent. In many cases, these routes will spend more time getting to downtown than they do getting to Link. Since most of the riders will simply get off at Link, the ridership per hour will be far less than if the bus stopped at a station.

We can see today that the express buses generally don’t perform well. Even the buses that run to downtown Seattle lag other routes. The 372 performs better than the 312, and a lot better than the 309. The 65 and 75 dwarf the 64. It isn’t about total ridership, but ridership per hour. The 309 and 312 carry a lot of people, but those buses spend a lot of time getting to downtown, and traveling through it. It is much more efficient to just end the route at the station.

There are also issues with crowding. On some corridors (like Lake City Way) the buses are often full. It is common for riders to see a 522 or 312 go by before they can get on. Thus it is quite possible that many of the riders who want that one-seat ride to First Hill or South Lake Union will end up taking a 522 anyway. At that point, it isn’t clear if they get anything out of the express.

I don’t think there will be many riders that will transfer (or walk) to a bus headed to South Lake Union or First Hill. The main transfer point will be a Link station, where the train will be more frequent, and often faster. It would be crazy to take a train from the U-District up to Roosevelt or Northgate, just so you can catch a bus to First Hill, or South Lake Union. At best these buses perform similar to the existing 64 or 312 — subpar, and much worse than a truncated version of the same route.

I have no doubt that some riders will find these buses popular. I would like an express bus from my house to my work. But they simply aren’t cost effective, and make no sense when other service is being cut. It is hard to see why folks in Wallingford no longer have a fast one-seat ride to downtown Seattle (via the 26), but others avoid an easy transfer.

Link light rail will run frequently, and be able to carry plenty of riders. It doesn’t make sense to waste precious transit resources pretending it doesn’t exist. The money would be better spent increasing frequency in other parts of the network.

27 Replies to “Truncate Metro Buses After Northgate Link”

  1. I can’t see someone who lives in Kenmore and works on First Hill, driving to the P&R, then catching a bus that will take them to a Link station, then taking the train to where they can catch another bus to First Hill. They’ll be spending 90+ minutes to go less than 10 miles. When a truncated commute looks like something Rube Goldberg designed, people will avoid transit.

    1. I’ve talked to people who work on First Hill. They said they sometimes take the 309, but often just take the 312. It isn’t worth the wait. They then walk up the hill. With Link, they will be able to walk a relatively flat route, if they don’t want to wait for a bus.

      But if it doesn’t work for them, so what? Why should be favor one particular rider (from Kenmore) instead of other riders, who might also abandon transit? Other transit cutbacks cause the same sort of pain, and ultimately, lead to the same sort of ridership loss. If I live in the Central District on Yesler or Jackson, then I have the same issue getting to First Hill. Either I walk to my destination, or catch another bus. So why should we favor Kenmore riders, when we know already that it costs more per rider?

      We know that those other routes are more cost effective, which means that spending more money on those routes will lead to higher ridership. In an ideal world we would have it all — fast, frequent bus service everywhere — but if we have to make cuts, we should cut routes that are a poor value, and that means truncating at Link.

  2. Your post is based on one assumption that is in fact correct during peak hour but not otherwise:

    “Link light rail will run frequently”

    According to Sound Transit’s plans, it will not run frequently off-peak. However, that doesn’t matter for this particular post, since even Sound Transit agrees it must run frequently on peak.

    Therefore, Metro should completely ignore Link for off-peak restructures since Link – running infrequently – will have such a huge transfer penalty it may as well not exist off-peak. Fortunately, that’s not the case on-peak, so these peak express buses should likely be deleted.

    1. Yes. That is why I wrote:

      They only operate during rush-hour, when Link will be frequent.

      I almost wrote:

      They only operate during rush-hour, the only time Link will be frequent.

      But I still hold out hope that Link will increase frequency soon after Northgate Link opens.

      As to whether I would truncate a bus like the 41 in the middle of the day, that is whole nother issue.

    2. ST’s neglect of frequency is appalling, but its first Northgate Link period projection (September 2021-March 2022) is a year in the future, and we’re in a pandemic right now so it’s hard to predict what ridership will be in a year, plus the recession has pummeled ST’s resources so it’s projecting conservatively. A year is a long enough time that the pandemic might shrink enough for offices to reopen and social-distancing to decrease, and that will generate a gradual increase in ridership, and hopefully ST will step up with comparable frequency restoration.

      What we really need now is for ST to articulate the criteria for increasing frequency, so that we can evaluate it and hold ST accountable to implementing it. Right now it’s effectively saying, “Trust us. We’ll increase frequency when it’s justified.” What does ST consider justified? Are we just supposed to hope an increase in ridership means an increase in frequency, whereas it might continue 15-30 minutes forever?

      This summer has shattered people’s faith that ST is still committed to urban frequency or will restore it promptly. The original reason ST gave for gutting frequency was an increase in valdalism and biohazard incidents and the security costs to mitigate them when Link was free. Then Link started charging full fare again but the frequency didn’t increase for two months. It took two months to determine peeing at stations and graffiti and slashing seats is down again? Or if it’s not down, tell us that.

  3. A definite benefit of truncating at Link is its combination of frequency and capacity. Even after we have a vaccine and better treatments for COVID19, it might be a while before people are comfortable being crammed next to each other, whether that’s on a bus, a bar, a stadium, etc. If the truncations allow people to transfer from a frequent, uncrowded bus to a frequent, uncrowded train, that seems like a clear benefit, versus before where they’d be SRO on a single bus without a transfer, slogging on I-5 and streets.

  4. Lots of the express buses being debated here are often geared to First Hill or Cherry Hill. That boils down to getting between Downtown and up the hill. It’s a distance that is under a mile.

    We’ve tried FHSC and while doubling the number of trains could help, it’s still structurally slow. RapidRide G doesn’t really add much transit service or better travel time for this trip pattern served by Metro 12 and it’s proving painfully slow to roll out.

    The ultimate practical solution is to directly bring those destinations into a station “zone”. Things like a level-boarding system with automated inclined elevator, or an escalator system (like the one in Hong Kong ) would do this. Jefferson Street is lined by government buildings from Pioneer Square Link Station to Harborview so it seems like the best place for it. It also wouldn’t require waiting for the second Link tunnel to open Downtown — likely pushed well past 2035.

    1. It is quite possible that an elevator/escalator system would be a good value.

      But I think it is worth noting that getting to First Hill from Capitol Hill often makes more sense (especially for these north end riders). I could easily see a bus starting at the northern terminus for the 60, and then either following the 60 or streetcar route until it got to Jefferson, at which point it would turn, and go to Swedish Cherry Hill, where it would layover. At either spot, for such a short route, the bus could make a live loop.

      Such a bus would likely be a better value than any of these routes. They would serve people who use Link, transfer from another bus or those who just walk to the bus stop. There are way more riders (per hour of service) with a bus like that than of the routes I would truncate.

      I have no idea if such a bus is the best value in our system. It might make more sense to just improve what we have. What I do know is that these buses are a very bad value — there are lots of existing buses that carry a lot more people per service hour, and adding service there is a better value. Many of those routes will see increased ridership with Link, while these routes ignore them.

      1. I agree that FHSC is the unrecognized service available for those coming and going to and from the north. That trip-making was part of creating the FHSC in the first place and it’s not going to be fully realized until at least Northgate Link opens next year.

        I do wonder if getting the FHSC to a 5 or 7 minute frequency would be a game changer. I don’t think there is an easy way to build a streetcar turnaround near Yesler Terrace although it would seem to be a practical option. Still, adding just one bonus streetcar for the FHSC would seem more cost effective than this long express bus system.

        Personally, I’d rather see an overlay streetcar line between Capitol Hill Link and Judkins Park Link (maybe extending to Mt Baker Link). That would seem to be more strategic than the CCC (that parallels faster Link and Metro bus RapidRide lines that offer much faster travel times). It would give the whole Eastside a way to get directly to First Hill without going Downtown first, as well as provide a single high-frequency transfer for Metro 7 and 106 riders. Even a new bus route that has elements of Metro 9X at great frequency would seem strategic. Still, that’s an East Link restructuring discussion and not a Northgate Link restructuring.

      2. There are two fundamental problems with the streetcar: First, the route is bad. Second, the mode is limited. Your idea would deal with the first problem, but because of that second problem, it would cost too much. It costs a bundle to add rail. Once you do that, you would have to buy streetcars, with the idea that you only run them during rush hour. All of that, at best, gets you a slightly better turnaround (since a streetcar doesn’t actually turn around).

        In contrast, you could simply run a bus where the streetcar runs. This is far more flexible. As I suggested earlier, you could send it to Cherry Hill. Or you could turn on Yesler, making up for the weak frequency of the 27 from Yesler Terrace to downtown. You could send it out to Mount Baker Station. Options abound. There are plenty of layover spaces, but it is short enough to do a live loop. There are also no shortage of buses. If Metro says it can run buses from Northgate to First Hill, then they can certainly run it from downtown to First Hill or Cherry Hill to First Hill.

        If your goal is to improve the frequency along part of the streetcars route (which is a laudable goal) than the cheapest thing to do is run a bus.

      3. Instead of an overlay streetcar line, can’t you just overlay a bus route on the streetcar route? That would give the higher frequency on the key CH to FH section, but much lower capital cost for the extension to Mt Baker (or wherever)?

    2. “Lots of the express buses being debated here are often geared to First Hill or Cherry Hill.”

      It’s a good urban strategy. Historically transit networks focused entirely on the center of downtown and failed to notice the large institutions, density, and retrail draws in the adjacent neighborhoods. Metro’s strategy is to stop duplicating Link and redirect the expresses to adjacent neighborhoods that Link doesn’t serve well or at all. This is compounded by our steep hills, especially First Hill. That makes arriving at 3rd Avenue and getting the last mile up the hill an extra burden, especially since those trolleybuses are the slowest routes in the system. It’s a continuum re the cost/benefit of such service, and people differ on the threshold. Metro is trying a new innovation, for good or for bad. That’s better than not trying any innovations.

      The downtown-adjacent issue also comes up with local routes. Metro has been good at this recently, with more service on Broadway and Denny Way. Jarrett Walker says such service “allows passengers to reveal that their destination never was downtown; they only went downtown because that’s where the transit network forced them to transfer”.

      I’m likewise bullish on transit hubs outside downtown. The DSTT was officially Convention Place to Intl Dist, but the SODO bus corridor effectively extended it from Convention Place to Spokane Street. That made transfers in SODO more viable. And if you’re trying to avoid transferring where there’s crowds and sketchy people, the corridor made SODO an alternative. And it also meant people from the southwest (SODO workers and Costco/Home Depot/Re-PC/Grocery Outlet patrons) could access the corridor in SODO. Link is an even larger extension of that, like a super-long downtown tunnel. That makes transfers in North Seattle, South Seattle, and South King County viable. So that people aren’t as dependent on taking the 73X or 101 downtown and transfering there because tansfering anywhere else was much slower.

      For instance, when I lived in northeast Seattle I sometimes took the 44 or 48 to the 26 or 28, counting on their through-route with the 131/132 to get to Costco. That worked and avoided transfering at crowded and sketchy 3rd & Pike, but it wasn’t exactly fast because you missed out on the 73X express, the DSTT, and the SODO bus way. But with Link I’d be able to take a train from northeast Seattle (or to add a comparable starting bus, Lake City or Sand Point), all the way to SODO, which is much faster than the 73X ever was.

      The case for peak expresses to downtown-adjacent neighborhoods is not as good as local routes skirting the edge of downtown or a Link network, but it is a reasonable case, and a step forward for Metro. At the same time, Ross makes a good case that these particular expresses aren’t worth the cost. It partly depends on what value you put on getting essential workers to Harborview and Swedish Cherry Hill, and how much overhead of transferring downtown or at Capitol Hill Station is acceptable. That’s a values judgment, and different people may differ, and I haven’t worked at Harborview for over a decade, so I feel my judgment is diminishing there, and I wouldn’t want to shortchange those medical workers.

      1. It partly depends on what value you put on getting essential workers to Harborview and Swedish Cherry Hill

        or South Lake Union. But in all cases, there is no reason to assume that this the best way to do that, let alone the best overall value. In other words, assume for a second that your goal is to improve transit to First Hill.

        This particular project will help riders from Richmond Beach, Aurora Village, Northgate, along with the 522 corridor. It will also help those that are willing to transfer. Fair enough. But consider some alternatives:

        1) Local bus like so: This would be timed opposite the streetcar. That means during rush hour, the bus would provide a 12 minute connection to Cherry Hill, and a 6 minute connection on Broadway (to First Hill). It would run both ways, and take less time to run than the express section from a station to First Hill (mainly because the dead-head is so bad). It would replace those 89 express trips with 75 bidirectional trips, spread out through the day, instead of lumped together at rush hour. The combined frequency would *exceed* Link all day:

        6 a.m. – 9 a.m. 6 minutes
        9 a.m. – 4 p.m. 7.5 minutes
        4 p.m. – 7 p.m. 6 minutes
        7 p.m. – 11 p.m. 9 minutes

        It would benefit those who live along that area, as well as *everyone* who uses Link to get to First or Cherry Hill. Someone from the U-District would benefit from this bus while they get *nothing* out of those express buses.

        2) Run the 60 more often. We know, for a fact, that during rush hour the 60 performs better than the 64, 303, and 309 (First Hill express buses that are the basis for these routes). Unlike the other idea, the 60 is long. During rush hour, it runs about every 15 minutes, both directions. Running it twice as often during rush hour would mean 7.5 minute frequency. That would mean about thirty additional round trips a day — still much cheaper than Metro’s proposal. This would benefit those riders who don’t transfer, but it would also benefit all of those Link riders who do. It would also benefit those who take the 7 and transfer (to First Hill).

        If the goal was to target First Hill riders, either one of these would be better. Metro’s proposal only benefits a handful of North-End riders headed to First Hill. The same riders who will also benefit from Link!

        We know that buses like that (as well as those exact buses) — perform poorly. The irony is that those riders will have another option — transferring to Link — available to them soon.

  5. RossB is correct. To be cost effective, a one way peak only route has to attract s very full bus; it has to make up long slow deadhead trips on the regular lanes. Both First Hill and SLU can be well served by frequent two way all day service.

  6. A change that surprised me in the current phase is that with the 361 being peak only and the 75 being rerouted along 125th (the former 41 route), Northgate Way loses off-peak bus service between Roosevelt and Lake City Way.

    I also don’t understand why the 322/361 are detouring to serve the Link stations at all. If they are designed as a peak-only express route to downtown, why make them less efficient by detouring to serve a train station? Seems like nobody will be going to Roosevelt/Northgate stations just to transfer to the 322/361. Just send them the quickest way to I-5.

    1. I also don’t understand why the 322/361 are detouring to serve the Link stations at all. If they are designed as a peak-only express route to downtown, why make them less efficient by detouring to serve a train station? Seems like nobody will be going to Roosevelt/Northgate stations just to transfer to the 322/361. Just send them the quickest way to I-5.

      Exactly. I can only speculate as to why they did that. I have a couple theories:

      1) Lots of people will transfer at the Link station to these buses.

      I just don’t see it. That isn’t the case now. Buses like the 63 and 64 perform poorly, and they don’t have a huge number of riders using the bus stops close to the station. Why would they suddenly want to do that? If anything, ridership will go down, since the frequent and very fast Link will be right there.

      2) The buses serve two purposes. They give riders a chance to connect to Link, and also a one-seat ride to First Hill/South Lake Union.

      In the case of the 361, I can see this. It is the only bus along that corridor (and thus the only chance for those riders to connect to Link). But to make any sense, this assumes that #1 is true — that there are llots of people who will ride the bus from Northgate.

      It is worse for the 322, as it has to deal with the crowding issue I mentioned. The 312 has two purposes right now. It serves a handful of bus stops that the 522 skips. But it mainly reduces crowding on the corridor. There is no way the bus would run every 3 minutes (like it does now) if the only goal was to serve those other stops. But if the goal is to reduce crowding, this just doesn’t work.

      Imagine the bus carries 100 people. Now assume that 50 of those people are headed to First Hill. That means the bus is essentially only half full. Now you have to run twice as many buses, just to deal with the crowding.

      But now imagine that only 20 people are headed to First Hill. This is better, but still not ideal (as a way to deal with the crowding). But this also implies that at Roosevelt, just as many people will get off the bus as get on. That is the problem. There are a couple assumptions baked in: Almost all of the riders on the bus will be headed to Link (which reduces the crowding) and lots of riders will board at the station. There is no reason to believe that will happen, as it hasn’t happened in the past.

      1. “The buses serve two purposes.”

        That sounds familiar; I think it was in one of the earlier proposals for at least one of these routes.

  7. In this restructure Metro is planning to delete weekend service on the 26. That’s going to be a pretty big surprise for the folks who live near that route. Seems like maybe that would be a better use for the service hours allocated to these peak routes?

    1. The 26 is a small shadow of itself with this proposal. It is worth noting that more riders board south of 45th than north of it. Yet that section is gone. I think this new 26 would perform poorly. Around Green Lake you have the 45 which not only runs by a more densely populated area, but runs more frequently. In Wallingford it runs by a low density area (with very few existing riders). Those that want to get from the UW to North Seattle College will just take Link (and either walk across the bridge, or catch the frequent set of connecting buses). So you really only have the one-seat ride from Green Lake to the college (or Northgate). There are very few who take that now, and I see no reason why those numbers would increase.

      As to what I would spend the savings on, that is the subject of another post (which I hope to finish soon).

      1. Agreed that it won’t be a top-performing route, but it does provide some important coverage. Now there will be a bunch of folks who will need to walk an extra ten minutes to access any sort of transit on weekends.

        I was personally very much looking forward to having the 62 be rerouted along Latona near my house. Instead of our current 30-minute service on the 26, we’d get 15-minute service with a quick ride to Link at Roosevelt, plus a one-seat ride to central Wallingford and Fremont. That would have been a huge upgrade from the status quo.

        Now we’re scheduled for a significant downgrade. If I want to get to Link on a weekend under this proposal I might as well walk 20 minutes to Roosevelt. The only positive I see in it is we’ll now have a one-seat ride to a supermarket (the Safeway on 50th), while today we don’t have one.

        Looking forward to your ideas to better use these peak express service hours!

      2. My ideas include re-routing the 62 along Latona (between 65th and 56th) and killing off the 26. That would mean more walking for some people, but the same is true throughout our system. If you live close to 32nd — you have a long walk to the bus most of the day (and weekends) —

      3. The 62 is only a few blocks away. There’s a reasonable argument that Meridian and Latona don’t both need transit. One of them is a trunk route and the other is a coverage route. It’s unclear which should be on which street.

        The pavement maintenance costs sound reasonable to me. Buses are heavy and wear down a street quickly. Articulated buses are even more heavy and wear it down quicker. Metro is choosing to stick to the existing trunk street that has been a heavy bus street for many years. It has also done that in a few other places. And in case you haven’t noticed, Metro is in a revenue slump with no end in sight.

      4. There’s a reasonable argument that Meridian and Latona don’t both need transit. One of them is a trunk route and the other is a coverage route. It’s unclear which should be on which street.

        The best solution is the one I wrote up (and Metro proposed earlier). If that isn’t possible, then it makes sense to continue the 62 to 65th, and turn on Woodlawn then. That makes the route faster, while reducing the distance someone has to walk. Someone at 64th and Latona, for example, just walks to 65th.

  8. The farther north you get towards Northgate and beyond the more the mentality becomes suburban rather than urban. Lynnwood to Snohomish Co. goes from suburban to rural. Light rail has the advantage over express buses of grade separation and a better ride, and possibly capacity although more buses can be added. Most of these riders would be driving if the traffic congestion was not so bad on I-5, and Seattle and the state did not tax parking at 20%. None take transit on the weekend. Very few carpool.

    So those riders outside the city core mentally want to drive to a large park and ride to catch the bus to the city core. That is why these cities want huge park and rides that are still full, although it has taken ST forever to figure out how suburbia thinks. That is two forms of transit: doorstep to park and ride, train to work. Most commuters won’t take three forms. They just do not get why you build a light rail system in order to take a bus to use the train, and did not vote for that.

    Transfer hubs might be interesting south of Northgate but not north, where the commuters are expecting huge park and ride lots next to the train and very few feeder buses.

    I know some think they can change how citizens think or want to use transit, but you can’t, even if they think differently than you. People in suburbia to rural areas will not take a bus to catch a train. They will drive to catch a train, but that means huge park and rides.

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