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:
- 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)
- 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
- 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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.