King County Metro 1996 Gillig Phantom 3447
King County Metro running special snow route 90

In the week between Christmas and New Year, King County Metro activated its emergency snow network (ESN) for only the second time. However, it felt different this time around. In 2019, the situation was widely understood to be an emergency (even prompting Governor Inslee to declare a state of emergency, limiting the hours vehicles could be driven).

This time, there was definitely snow, but it didn’t feel like… an emergency. While there was enough snow to make driving inadvisable, there seemingly wasn’t enough to justify drastic action. Even more confusingly, Metro kept the ESN in effect even when conditions were improving. By the last day of the ESN on January 1, 2022, the snow had cleared enough that many areas of King County had roads clear of snow and ice, and neighboring Pierce Transit was operating with 75% of its routes on regular (non-snow) routes. Even in its blog post about its continuation of the ESN into the new year, Metro points to “ongoing freezing temperatures and difficult road conditions in parts of King County” (emphasis mine). In any other time, difficult road conditions in just parts of the county would result in service in those parts of the county operating on snow routes, not keeping the entire county in the emergency snow network. So, what was different this time, and what can be done about it?

While there were undoubtedly many factors at play, the first one that comes to mind for anyone who rides Metro regularly (especially those trying to use newly restored service as of October 2021) is the staffing shortage. This shortage has made Metro struggle in providing its scheduled service (which is still in a reduced state) even in non-snow conditions. And with Sound Transit’s 2022 expansion plans threatened by the labor shortage (which is expected by some to be long-term), it’s hard to imagine Metro being able to proceed with its own restoration plans for 2022. The conundrum gets even worse when the snow falls, because more staff becomes necessary when service switches to snow routes. Given the circumstances (for which Metro was least prepared), it’s understandable why Metro needed to activate the ESN. Indeed, it’s probable that low staff availability practically lowers the threshold for “emergency” snow to very low levels. However, this leaves a few issues, especially if the staff shortage sticks around:

  1. The ESN eliminates roughly two-thirds of Metro routes entirely, leaving large swaths of the county with no alternative to driving (or nothing, if driving is not an option)
  2. The ESN will continue to take people by surprise, as continuous snow can overwhelm Metro’s reduced ability to provide service within a matter of hours
  3. Because there is no in-between state between ESN and regular service (other than route-specific snow routing, which is usually longer and requires more resources to operate), Metro has no choice but to be slow to lift the ESN

Clearly, the ESN as it is currently is not a sufficient tool for today’s challenges. The situation today is that staff, weather, and coach availability can each be the limiting factor at a given time, and each can fluctuate. The one-size-fits-all ESN is simply not adaptable to these variables. However, service still needs to be able to be usable by transit riders, and they will need the tools to plan and be adaptive as well. One potential solution is to introduce multiple tiers of reduced service, with the ESN being the highest tier. Here’s an example hierarchy:

  1. Reduced Link duplication: for services that run express parallel to Link, drop off people at Link instead, and use saved resources to preserve service through the network. In particular, I envision truncating routes 101, 150, SR 520-downtown service, and Northgate-First Hill service.
  2. Reduced less necessary express service: eliminate express overlay services on top of all-day routes that go to the same places but slower. This would include routes like 16, 121, 177, and 212, but not routes like 111 (which provides exclusive service in its area), 114, 162, 167, and 311 (which would require riders to make additional transfers between reduced-reliability service).
  3. Reduced more express service: eliminate the rest of the peak express service that runs in areas with local service, such as route 114, 162, 167, and 311, but keep peak express service that is the only service in its area such as routes 111 and 232.
  4. Combine and optimize routes: make changes to many routes to make operation more efficient in the snow, such as combining the part of route 8 south of Madison with route 11 east of MLK into one route. Introduce special route 90 at this time. Combine some parallel corridors, leaning heavily into Link truncation.
  5. Emergency snow network

Having multiple tiers of pre-planned service reductions is useful not just for inclement weather conditions, but for any conditions which require significant reductions for a short (or unknown) time. One example of this is Metro’s ongoing “minor” service reduction, in which Metro is operating a bit more than 90% of service. The reductions as published are full suspensions of five routes on weekdays (and one on weekends), plus a number of unpublished but consistent cancellations of specific trips. Metro also no longer sends out alerts for canceled trips due to volume, so it’s up to the rider to check whether their trip is cancelled before heading out.

Were this tiered system in place, Metro could instead alert riders that Metro is in tier 1 or tier 2 temporary reductions, and to plan accordingly. Metro would choose the level that allows them to plausibly operate with zero trip cancellations. Obviously, this is complex and would require a significant update to published route schedules to reflect this. It would also likely require an update to the King County Charter in order to be implemented, and would add more burden to riders planning a trip than anyone would like. However, it’s certainly better than the situation now, where riders either need to proactively check whether their trips are canceled (which gets complicated very quickly for riders who transfer), or show up on schedule and hope that they don’t face any (potentially consecutive) trip cancellations.

25 Replies to “Metro needs a more flexible snow network”

    1. The Metro announcements I saw said the initial switch to ESN was due to staffing shortages (“Many runs are being canceled ad hoc due to covid absences and holiday leave, so we might as well make them predictable rather than ad hoc”). After a few days Metro started blaming the weather, but that sounded like a pretense and it was really still staffing shortages.

      Metro is also losing drivers to private limousine/trucking companies because they pay the same but don’t have passengers threatening drivers about mask wearing, fare payment, or idling until the scheduled time to leave.

  1. I remember the ESN going full-on before. I even remember the mid-90’s event that caused it’s development.

    I am *CERTAIN* that this event in 2019 didn’t happen, because I was going through a lot of things that month, including a suicide attempt, plus CoVID at the end of that month.

    This is some severe cognitive dissonance. If seatransitblog has turned into the onion…

    1. COVID didn’t exist in February 2019, the previous snowstorm. Are you perhaps confusing it with February 2020, when there wasn’t any big snowstorm and the ESN didn’t get activated?

      1. Why is February the way it is?

        Yeah, you’re correct about the timeline of life getting compressed due to stress.

        I get ignored by everyone because I am “retarded” with an IQ of 115

        Regardless, I still think the world’s upside down.

  2. I’m glad ST’s substandard frequency on the 522, 550, and 594 is not due to ST’s intention but to factors beyond ST’s control. That gives me assurance that it will eventually reach 15-minute frequency all day every day. The most disappointing gap is Roosevelt-Lake City, because this was supposed to replace the downtown route and double the frequency. But it’s really only 15 minutes peak hours (actually at odd times approximating peak hours). The rest of the time it’s 20-30 minutes. Which creates a dilemma: get off at Roosevelt and possibly wait 20-30 minutes for a faster bus, or continue to Northgate where the slower 20 and 75 are both 15-minutes for a theoretical 7.5 minute wait.

    It also goes the other way. At 125th & Lake City Way you can stand at one bus stop for the 522 or 20, or another bus stop across the street for the 75. You have to know which one is coming next, or glimpse it ahd hope you have enough time for the walk signal to change. If the 522 were more frequent, it would be obvious to go to the 522/20 stop and forget about the 75.

    This reminds me of when I lived in the northern U-District, and I would walk down to the eastbound 43/49 stop at 45th. I would be wating at the crosswalk and a bus would come, load, and depart while I was still waiting for the light to change.

    1. During snow it’s not clear whether details about the 522 are communicated by Metro or ST. Likewise for which routes are cancelled due to staffing shortages.

      That’s not quite right about 522 frequency. But the frequency is so variable it’s hard to keep track. Southbound it’s every 16 minutes morning rush (supplemented by the 322), every 10 minutes late morning, 20 minutes early afternoon, 16 minutes late afternoon (no 322), 20 minutes evening, 30 minutes night. Northbound is the opposite.

    2. Some of this was the sidewalks themselves which were abysmal along Lake City Way and likely everywhere else. You are walking generally to/from a bus stop. Your example also means you are trying to figure whether you are going to break an ankle or not.

  3. Metro needs to work on properly communicating the changes they already make. Many of the snow routes have zero information as to where exactly the stops are located.

    Even worse, during the last storm, route 28X was on “snow route” but followed a completely different route than what is marked on the map. There was absolutely no information about the 28 running on 36th through Fremont instead of 39th.

    I don’t mind Metro taking precautions and making changes to accommodate the situation but this is all useless if they don’t take any effort to inform riders.

    1. Keep in mind that weather is not the only factor that disrupts routing. If the snow route says 39th but there’s a crash or downed tree or heaven forbid a bus stuck there, drivers will be told on the fly to take a different route. Imagine trying to get all of that info out to anyone who needs it.

      1. Of course. But that doesn’t apply to this situation. There were a number of routes that used an unofficial “alternative” snow route the entire time with no announcement or information from metro.

        They also need to fix their snow route maps to include the stop locations.

  4. For routes that are running, there’s also issues about regular routes vs. snow routes. For example, it was rediculous to see the 255 running the snow route, even after all of the streets on the regular route had already been plowed.

    With buses driving the streets every 15 minutes, there’s no excuse for Metro not knowing. As soon as a bus driver radios the base and says it’s safe to return to regular route, that route should return to regular route.

    1. Between the driver radioing base, base radioing all the other bus drivers on the route, and all the riders trying to catch the bus wondering if the next bus is on the snow or regular routing, that would be a communications disaster.

    2. Normally, if I’m not sure, I just walk to the nearest stop used by both the regular route and the snow route. That way, whichever the bus is on, I’m covered.

      1. That fails with routes like the 65/62 shuttle where the snow stops were miles away from the regular stops. It would also fail for the 10 where the regular route is on Olive/John but the unofficial snow route was on Pine/15th (the old 10 routing).

  5. I could see having two levels of snow emergencies but not five. I could also see having the levels vary by city or city group, as clearing the streets where buses run is not the responsibility of King County except in a few areas. I also think bus riders should first complain to cities for more effective snow removal plans rather than to summarily blame Metro. A city should be shamed if they can’t get main streets cleared and remaining in a snow emergency when other cities have reduced the need — and this would kind of do that.

    Seattle seemed to be more attentive to clearing bus routes early this year than in past years. I don’t get out to other cities when it snows so I don’t know if another city does it better.

  6. I think it is a disingenuous idea to conflate an emergency *snow* network with an emergency *staffing* network. These are neither equal nor the same. If the latter needs to become a thing, that is annoying but fine. But make it its own independent thing, and do not hide it behind an alternative excuse.

    1. I would guess the need for the ESN has as much to do with bus drivers unable to leave their driveways as it does with buses unable to drive their routes. Especially with COVID leaving Metro already short staffed.

      1. This time, certainly. Which is why it is galling that they tried to use the weather to conceal what the real issue was.

      2. Well, if bus drivers are unable to get their cars out of their driveway to get to wherever the bus is, it is caused by the weather.

    2. Worth noting that the ESN still contains some redundancies such as the ever-redundant Route 4, although while it appears on Metro’s list of ESN routes the Judkins Park tail doesn’t appear on their map. (The 4 would be useful when the 8’s not running, but its snow route doesn’t operate south of Judkins.) Notably, the 101 is an ESN route that continues to take I-5 to downtown when it snows, contra this post’s proposal to truncate it at Link. This definitely feels like an excuse to trial some route changes you’d like to have anyway in non-snow conditions.

      On the other hand, snow conditions do introduce some new redundancies that could be ironed out. The snow routes of the 1 and 2 north of Downtown are identical, and the 13 takes the same route before taking a wide loop to Queen Anne Ave. Those could probably be consolidated into a single route. The 125’s snow route, meanwhile, skips the main unique segment of the route, instead taking a path that the 120 and 128 could probably handle just as easily, leaving only Henderson between 16th and Westwood Village orphaned. It may be possible to run a more efficient network between running all snow routes and going to the ESN. I’m not sure it would quite look like what’s proposed here though.

      1. “The 125’s snow route, meanwhile, skips the main unique segment of the route, instead taking a path that the 120 and 128 could probably handle just as easily”

        Not sure what this means. There are steep hills between 16th, Delridge, 35th, and California, so you can’t just walk from one to another when it’s icy.

  7. While it makes complete sense to suspend underperforming and low-value routes and concentrate service on core routes when resources are stretched thin, it is also important to evenly distribute trips. Metro needs to discuss with the union to implement headway based, rather than schedule based scheduling.

    During actual snow days, buses often also fall well behind schedules. I don’t know if it is still helpful to have a paper on hand telling operators when to leave terminals when it is impossible to achieve. Just let operators know their expected work hours and have a supervising team at the control center to adjust departure times whenever a bus arrives at a terminal to achieve even headways.

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