The last time Metro has ran a “normal” level of service was March 22, 2020. Beginning March 23rd, King County Metro started operating reduced levels of service (not to be confused with reduced capacity, which Metro recently ended). These initial reductions, made with little process and planning, were adjusted over the next several months to match ridership and service needs. While the presence of financial trouble for Metro was foreseeable from the beginning, it was the service change of September 2020 (which we called Metro’s darkest day) when the focus of the reductions really shifted from lower ridership to lower revenues, and that is what drives the level of service to this day.
At the middle of 2020, Metro was pessimistic about the future, and was convinced that yet more service reductions would need to happen in 2021 and 2022, making an already bleak future for transit in the region even worse. Fortunately however, revenues have picked back up faster than expected, with additional resources provided by the American Rescue Plan. As a result, Metro has been slowly increasing service levels in 2021, and will provide a larger increase in service levels starting with the October 2nd, 2021 service change. These were covered in a recent King County Council Regional Transit Committee meeting, in which there was a presentation with an overview of the restored service (with a follow-up meeting planned for July 21st, to discuss further restorations in 2022). And in good news for those who have been patiently waiting for fully suspended service to return, this includes bringing back 22 of the 40 fully suspend routes (not including custom and school routes).
The routes coming back are below (bold = all day, italics = peak-only)
Fully restored routes
190, 217,237, 246, 249
Partially restored routes
9, 15, 17, 18, 22, 29, 113, 114, 121, 167, 177, 214, 216, 232, 268, 342, 630
Routes that remain fully suspended
19, 37, 47,116, 118X, 119X, 122, 123, 143, 154, 157, 178, 179, 197, 200, 219, 252, 931
Remaining fully suspended routes are either deleted or replaced as part of the North Link Connections project, and route 628 (Issaquah, Snoqualmie, North Bend community shuttle) is going from suspended to deleted (this is the only non-North Link restructure route to be singled out for deletion, rather than continued suspension). Lastly, route 177 is getting a routing change not specified in the presentation or documents, which seems to me likely to add a stop at Federal Way TC (previously the route came close to the TC but didn’t enter it, and served bus stops 1-2 blocks away). This would replace the supplemental service from Federal Way TC to Seattle normally provided on route 179 (which will remain suspended).
The presentation slides discuss how service is being restored broadly. Metro underwent a feedback period and equity analysis, which resulted in seven routes being added to the restoration proposal. On all-day routes, Metro is restoring 100% of non-peak service, reflecting a faster increase in demand for non-peak service than peak service. This essentially completes the restoration of midday and weekend service system wide, with the exception of routes 47 and 200 (which will remain suspended) and potentially other STBD routes (since Metro is counting baseline service provided by the county). For peak-only routes that are being restored, Metro is restoring at least 50% of trips, or 8 trips, whichever is greater (with obvious exceptions being peak-only routes that had fewer than 8 trips, such as route 237). This is in response to feedback indicating that peak service being restored should be usable by most people who would ride. Peak routes with very few trips are too limited for many people, even some who commute during the normal hours.
New peak service patterns
Of course, the restoration of suspended routes is nearly all peak-only routes, in part because all but 7 of the suspended routes are peak-only to begin with. Because many people depended on its network of peak routes prior to the pandemic, and the recovery is moving more quickly than most could predict, Metro expects an increase in peak demand. However, Metro is still budget constrained, and isn’t ready to restore all service at once. Because of this, metro is selectively restoring routes so as to serve the most people with as few resources as possible. They accomplish this by, when applicable, only restoring one (or sometimes multiple, but usually fewer than the total) route when multiple routes serve the same area or stops. For example, 257 and 252 are the same up to Kingsgate P&R, but serve different areas after that. Metro is keeping route 252 suspended, since 257 is already running, and users of the 252 tail have an easier transfer than route 257 users would if it were reversed. You see this pattern with the following groups of routes (with the * indicating a route that remains suspended):
- C-Line, 116*, 118X, 119X
- 19*, 24
- 37*, 55, 56, 57
- 101, 102, 143*
- 121, 122*, 123*
- 177, 178*, 179*, 577
- 197*, 586
- 216, 218, 219*, 554
- 252*, 257
As a result, Metro is able to operate with nearly 100% of the coverage of the pre-pandemic system even with 18 routes still fully suspended.
Boosted service will remain
As undoubtedly a pleasant surprise to some, King County Metro will retain additional service added to some routes during COVID due to overcrowding. These routes get a partial offset of 2020’s service reductions, or in some cases, have more service than before the pandemic (the RapidRide A-Line, for example, in ridership-heavy south King County, sees 10-minute midday headways seven days per week, when previously it only got as good as 15 minutes outside of peak). Originally, this was necessary due to the harsh capacity limits in place at the time to enable social distancing. Increased service in these areas helped offset scenarios where people reliant on transit may have had to wait for a long time, being passed up by full buses. Now, with full capacity restored, these extra trips will serve to ensure that there is space for returning riders. Exactly how many people will be returning to transit is a big unknown, and with ORCA passport program seeing many renewals, there is the potential for a huge increase in peak demand. The extent of this increase, however, is hard to predict, with employers making different decisions in terms of hybrid work and offering flexible hours. Leaving this additional service in place for the time being will help ensure that Metro doesn’t run out of capacity when people start to try out transit again. While these additions weren’t made permanent, this may happen over time, and even more service may be added if ridership levels demand it.