Understanding King County Metro’s Suspensions of Peak-Only Routes

Red lines are King County Metro routes marked for temporary suspension in September 2023. (map by author using King County data.)

Two weeks ago, Metro announced the decision to temporarily suspend twenty peak-only routes as part of its service cuts. The focus on peak-hour reductions aligns with Metro’s current operational challenges, like fielding the high number of operators required for lots of peak-time service. But some riders are disappointed that their peak routes will be shut down. Is Metro right to suspend peak-only routes versus other areas that could be cut? Here, we will explore Metro’s choice by getting into route-level productivity data on the suspended routes.

To define what we are talking about, peak-only routes run only during the morning and evening rush hour, contrasting with other routes that run throughout the day. Almost all of these routes run one-way only, and many serve limited stops. The rationale for peak routes is to connect areas that are specially associated with trips at peak hours, like downtown business areas and suburban residential neighborhoods. By designing a route to serve this specific travel pattern, transit agencies can serve a large volume of trips quite efficiently.

That was the way things were before the pandemic, for the most part. In 2019, peak-only routes held the top six spots in passenger miles per platform mile. This measure, which tells us the average loading of these buses was very high, means those routes were popular and effective at transporting people long distances. As you can imagine, the commuting pattern of people needing to go to city centers in the morning and return to their homes in the evening created this immense demand that the peak routes served.

Then, of course, the pandemic changed everything. Metro axed most of the peak routes during the early days of the pandemic, inferring that stay-at-home policies would eliminate most peak commuting. Many of those routes never returned, and the ones that survived have not been the same.

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The Surprising Efficiency of RapidRide A

(Part of a series on high-performing transit routes in the Puget Sound region)

Every year, King County Metro provides statistics on their bus services in their System Evaluation, available online. One measure that is presented for all regular bus routes is Rides per Platform Hour. It answers a core question: “how many people does this route serve for each hour a bus spends driving it?” Using this measure, King County Metro can assess the time efficiency of routes and make choices on future service.

Which route performs the best at Rides per Platform Hour? You might be surprised. One might guess that the most time-efficient route would ply the densest parts of Seattle, where there is the highest concentration of riders. But this would be incorrect. In fact, the best performing route on this measure is RapidRide A, which connects Federal Way to Tukwila along Pacific Highway South (SR99). Not only does it have the most Riders per Platform Hour at both peak and off-peak weekday times – that means Monday through Friday, 5 am to 10 pm – it also performs well on nights and weekends. Altogether, RapidRide A serves 7,116 rides per weekday, which is 4th among all Metro bus routes.

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