(Part of a series highlighting high-performing transit routes in the Puget Sound region)
Metro 8 performs well at all times of the week, with its particular strength being the amount of rides it carries for its level of service. Its total ridership is eighth among Metro routes, with 4,828 rides per weekday, but it does that with fewer platform hours than anything above it on the list, which is the reason it performs so well on rides per platform hour. It places second in that metric among Metro routes on weekdays, carrying 34.7 rides per platform hour during peak periods and 32.3 daytime off-peak. That means a single 8 trip taking 45 minutes provides a ride to an average of 26 people. I was interested in what accounted for its success, so, as I did with RapidRide A, I went looking for answers. I took the light rail to Mt. Baker, where I hopped on the 8 heading north.
Riding the 8 on that weekday afternoon, it was interesting to me how much the 8 felt like two routes in one. The first section, which aligns north-south mainly on MLK Way, runs through the leafy pre-war neighborhoods of the Central District. The trip during this leg was fast and lightly boarded. With the exception of a clutch of people who boarded at the deviation to 23rd Avenue (near the excellent Communion restaurant), the bus was almost empty.
The second leg of the route was much busier. This is the section that runs east-west from Madison Valley to Uptown, ending a block from Climate Pledge Arena. Almost immediately after the bus turned west, a large group of people boarded outside an apartment complex. The bus was suddenly busy, and it remained so through the end of my trip, despite big turnovers of people at the major stops. As we passed through Capitol Hill and South Lake Union, people came and went so rapidly that it was hard to keep track. Finally, the bus stopped, and I realized (after everyone else had debarked) that this was the end of the line. I wandered around, bought a sandwich, and looked for a way to get home.
What makes the 8 successful on its productivity measures? It has the benefit of going through some very dense places of Seattle, plus serving points of interest like Seattle Center. But it is hardly unique in this regard. In fact, its performance (on total ridership, on rides per platform hour) is better than other routes that serve even denser areas, like Routes 2 and 10. Those routes have similar frequencies throughout the day to the 8, so frequency cannot explain it, either. The 8 does avoid deviations, except the one to 23rd Avenue. That counts in its favor, but that alone does not make a route a top performer.
Judging from how busy that east-west leg was, I would argue that the major, useful connections along its east-west leg account for its success. In less than three miles of travel, it makes connections to Link, RapidRides C, D, and E and the 40 and 48 bus lines. All of those are among King County’s busiest transit lines, and a rider on the 8 can access any corridor that they would like. Because it runs cardinally east-west and makes perpendicular connections with those lines, it is the most direct route to connect them. In this city where so many travel routes run north-south, it makes sense that a route providing a useful connection with all of them would be highly productive. I believe that is what we have here.
There are other ways to conceptualize the 8. It takes an indirect route between Mt. Baker and Uptown, meaning it is not good for end-to-end travel. But it does connect the midpoints of the route to either end, directly. You could think of the 8 as two routes, heading west and south from Madison Valley, that just happen to be through-routed with each other for efficiency’s sake. The 8 also is a part of what Jarrett Walker calls a “spiderweb grid,” playing the role of a circumferential by joining routes radiating from Downtown on two sides. One of the interesting things about the study of transit is there are so many ways to think about how a single line fits into a larger network. When you consider all the possible connections and routes a person could take, the possibilities are almost limitless.
Overall, the 8 suggests the importance of transfers in the success of a transit line. It doesn’t serve downtown. It does not have a clear niche to serve a particular type of travel pattern. Yet because of the way it connects to other routes, it becomes significant and useful enough to count among Metro’s best-performing services. There is a larger lesson to this observation: after all, even though this series is focused on high-performing lines, it ultimately does not matter where a single line can get you, but where the whole transit network can get you – and how quickly. Each individual line is subordinate to its position in a greater network, a greater ecosystem. By making so many quality connections to other routes, the 8 points to the importance of all the other routes that enable it to succeed.