Metro’s darkest day

Three of the many King County Metro bus routes suspended as of this morning / Photo by Zack Heistand

Those of you who commute to work via a King County Metro express bus may find your route gone this morning. Today is the first weekday of Metro’s biannual service change. It is probably the most painful service change Metro has ever undergone.

David Lawson covered the details of how many routes have been savaged due to Metro’s budget hole. The number if routes shut down entirely is unprecedented. A few were due to a restructure of routes in South King County, but most are simply peak commuter routes that were both expensive per trip, and not well-used. Indeed, about half of Metro’s commuter express routes have been mothballed.

The suspended or eliminated peak expresses include routes 5E, 9E, 15E, 17E, 18E, 19, 37, 63, 76, 77, 113, 114, 116, 121, 122, 123, 143, 154, 157, 158, 159, 167, 177, 178, 179, 190, 192, 197, 214, 216, 217, 219, 252, 268, 308, 312, 316, 355, and 630.

New route 162 will provide some limited replacement service for routes 158, 159, and 192.

Other routes being suspended for reasons unrelated to the South King County restructure include 22, 29, 47, 71, 78, 200, 204, 208, 232, 237, 246, 249, 342, 628, and 931.

There are bright spots amidst this carnage, most notably that Link Light Rail (operated by King County Metro operators) is bringing usable frequency back today, and will be following the schedule posted at the stations for the first time since January 3. If you are used to driving to a park&ride in South King County for your commute, Link, with it’s 8-minute peak headway, could be your new ride, and Angle Lake Station or Tukwila International Boulevard Station your new P&R.

Metro’s budget, and therefore its service, is unlikely to improve much until the economy recovers. The economy will not recover until the virus is defeated. If you want a return normality, wear your mask when around other people, and urge everyone else emphatically to do so as well.

Zombie route diversions

excerpted from route 107 map from Metro website

King County Metro has been and continues to be shutting down an unprecedentedly long list of routes while the virus sets its own long-term calendar, with new cases worldwide topping 300K daily.

And yet, like a bad zombie TV series, my silly bus stop in Georgetown that I rarely see anyone else use, persists. Yes, I’m talking about the loop-de-loop in the middle of route 107 that adds several minutes to other riders’ trips, almost certainly costing more ridership than it adds. Some of the business establishments that stop benefits are shuttered.

This expensive pimple of a bus stop is one of several throughout the Metro and ST system map that turn a relatively straight route into a milk run providing time-consuming off-arterial curbside service, some at facilities that are closed for the time being.

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When public health tactics collide on the bus

While riding a Metro bus last week, I finally witnessed an operator using his authority to get a rider who refused to wear a mask off the bus. The rider boarded the bus, talking to himself loudly, and sat in the back. The operator played the canned message about needing to wear a mask. He waited a few seconds, then got on the loudspeaker to let everyone know they need to wear a mask while on the bus. The guy in the back didn’t budge, but kept talking loudly to himself. (I realize there may be a medical condition involved here.)

The operator proceeded a couple stops. He then walked toward the back, and told the rider he needed to put on a mask, or get off the bus, and also to please be quiet and stop disturbing the rest of the riders.

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Getting more savings from Link feeder buses

KC Metro route 49 bus / photo by Paul Kimo McGregor

Sound Transit recently released its proposed 2021 Service Plan, in which it prepared for the pandemic to continue through the duration of 2021, by continuing the suspension of ST Express routes 541, 544, and 567 indefinitely, continuing to have pared-down service on most other routes, and making 15-minute off-peak headway on Link Light Rail the plan for the foreseeable future.

There are a couple of categories of service savings, related to Link connections that have not been fully utilized by the collective transit agencies.

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Sound Transit proposed 2021 Service Implementation Plan, upcoming cuts

Northgate Station / photo by Bruce Engelhardt

Sound Transit has put out its proposed 2021 Service Implementation Plan, with a user-friendly online synopsis, and is taking public input through Thursday, September 24. You can offer your input through an online survey (with eight language choices), through remote participation in a public hearing scheduled for 11 am on September 24, or by submitting written comments through September 24.

Sound Transit continues to suffer revenue losses due to COVID-19, with more cuts taking effect from September 19-21. But there is good news in the proposed Service Plan: the opening of Northgate Link in September 2021, adding new stations in the U-District (NE 43rd St & Brooklyn Ave NE), the Roosevelt District (NE 65th St & Roosevelt Ave NE), and the Station at what is currently Northgate Mall, along with a pedestrian bridge over I-5 to North Seattle College.

The Plan document buries the lede regarding Link Light Rail’s September 19 service change:

  • September 2020: On weekdays, trains operate every 8 minutes during the morning and afternoon rush hours, every 15 minutes during the early morning, midday and early evening, and every 30 minutes late at night. On weekends, service operates every 15 minutes during the day and every 30 minutes late night.
  • March 2021 Proposal: Maintain September 2020 service levels.
  • September 2021 Proposal: Service to Northgate begins, using the same frequencies implemented in September 2020, but with four-car trains instead of three-car trains.

Sounder service will continue at pandemic levels through 2021, to wit:

  • Sounder North will continue to have just two trips in each direction, weekdays only.
  • Sounder South will add two more peak-direction trips back in September, in each direction. The Plan would maintain that level of service through 2021. Weekdays only.

Several Sound Transit Express routes will be directly impacted by the proposed 2021 Service Plan. While the Plan does not impact the upcoming service changes, those changes for routes impacted by the Plan are detailed in the Plan’s online presentation.

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Mercer Island sues Sound Transit, this time over buses

ST Express 554 and King County Metro 204 buses at Mercer Island stop / photo by SounderBruce

As reported by the Mercer Island Reporter Thursday, the Mercer Island City Council is again preparing to sue Sound Transit.

In an open letter, the City Council contends:

It is essential for all Islanders to understand that the Bus/Rail Interchange, as currently proposed by Sound Transit, is in breach of the 2017 Settlement Agreement between Sound Transit and the City with the potential to adversely impact traffic patterns and public safety for all of our residents. We have notified Sound Transit numerous times that its current plan, which includes new curb cuts to accommodate bus layovers along North Mercer Way, fails to meet the terms of the Settlement Agreement which explicitly forbade these features. We have also voiced concerns over future operations that this plan enables, including the high volume of bicycles and pedestrians that will be expected to mix with cars and buses adjacent to the busy Park & Ride location once East Link light Rail is operational. Despite the City’s reasonable objections and requests for essential information, Sound Transit has repeatedly ignored our concerns and insisted on unilaterally implementing its design plans.

However, the purported ban on curb cuts [They seem to be referring to bus pull-outs, not ADA wheelchair cuts in sidewalks at intersections.] along North Mercer Way is not in the settlement.

Sound Transit is expected to seek final construction permits for work around the station in September. The Mercer Island City Council is likely to oppose the permits unless the new lawsuit is settled. Delaying the permits could hold up the opening of East Link. But in order to delay the permits, the City would have to prove that Sound Transit has broken the terms of the settlement.

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Face mask dispensers

Face mask dispenser on TriMet MAX train

As observant reader Brian Bradford brought to our attention, TriMet is installing metal face mask dispensers on their buses, streetcars, and trains. Thanks, Brian!

Mask dispensers have also been installed in transit vehicles by:

Various agencies have also installed hand sanitizer dispensers.

South King County route restructure to break up high-performing 180

King County Metro is preparing to roll out its South King County route restructure on September 19, as party of its semi-annual regular service change (not to be confused with the ad hoc changes that have been rolled out on short notice all spring and summer). Martin reported on the semi-final proposal back in March.

Meanwhile, Metro recently listed the 10 most ridership-resilient (the ratio of 2020 ridership to 2019 ridership) routes. Route 180 is king at an amazing 74% of ridership retained.

The next three are routes that may be picking up the slack from the Link Light Rail infrequency that also goes away on September 19. Route 7 has retained 66% of its ridership, followed by the A line with 62% and route 106 with 58%. Route 36 comes in seventh at 47%.

On September 18, route 180 will ride into the sunset as the reigning resilience champion, to be replaced by new routes 161, 160, and 184.

As route restructures go, this one is pretty radical. Thirteen routes (158, 159, 164, 166, 169, 180, 186, 192, 908, 910, 913, 916, and 952) will be removed. Five new routes will be rolled out.

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A way to restore Link frequency and save money

UW Station, 8 LRVs, 0 passengers (during Connect 2020) / photo by wings777

Link Light Rail has become little more than an exercise in keeping a transit line running during the pandemic. Although it is one of the safest transit options in town due to social distancing, because of dramatically low ridership and the ability to choose different cars, it has nevertheless become nearly useless for getting its passengers somewhere in a decent amount of time. Frequency matters.

An obvious part of the problem is that even while Link ridership has dropped 90%, SeaTac Airport ridership plummeted 95%. The climate activist in me says that is a good problem to have, just not for the reasons I hoped.

Currently, Link runs every 20 minutes each direction during the day on weekdays and every 30 minutes on weekends. If you want to know when to be there to catch it, you have to have a smart phone, have looked up online or printed out or memorized the schedule, or have printed out Alex’s table. The schedules showing at the stations are what would have been if not for COVID-19.

Sound Transit has published its preliminary planned schedule (or at least weekday frequencies) for the service change that takes effect and runs from September 19, 2020 to March 19, 2021. Link is slated to run every 8 minutes during peak, every 15 minutes mid-day, and every 30 minutes in the evening. Planned weekend infrequency has not yet been published.

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Give operators more tools to enforce mask-wearing

Since my last fit-throwing over passengers not wearing face coverings on buses, I’ve seen noticeable improvement in passengers having masks. Now, we need to figure out how to get them to put the masks on, over their mouth and nose, before they board the bus, and how to get them to keep the masks on.

Bus operators have some power over the ship they captain. One is the power of the voice, as in, to play PSAs, which is mostly done inside the bus, but can also be done over the exterior loudspeaker.

Another power is the power of the door. Operators control them, at least since Metro abandoned the experiment of allowing riders to open rear doors by pushing on them, while the bus is stopped.

A third power is the power of the gas pedal and the brake. Operators decide whether to stop when someone is waiting to board.

Used in combination, these tools could save many riders’ (and maybe a few operators’) lives.

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I rode several bus routes over the weekend to check out how well riders were taking to the new state edict to wear a face covering in public.

As expected, close to half the riders did not have masks at all. A program to distribute free masks would help a lot, in that regard. Thank you, City of Renton, for taking the lead!

The more infuriating behavior, though, was the significant number of riders who had masks on, but were not wearing them over their mouth and nose. They just had them on over their chin, as if getting some fresh air in a place where they didn’t feel the need to wear them properly.

Inside, where the air recirculates, is actually where you most need to wear a mask, to protect the other people in that place from you. Being asymptomatic does not mean you don’t have the virus.

If you are on a bus, and you do not have a mask on, then you are a threat to the health and safety of everyone else on the bus. Pulling your mask down to expose your nose and mouth makes you as dangerous as all the maskless riders.

Do I need to remind y’all that hundreds of thousands of people have died from the virus?

Another infuriating behavior is when riders wait until they sit down to put their mask on, or take it off as they get ready to leave the bus. When you are standing over other riders is actually when you are the greatest threat to them, as the water droplets from your breath rain down upon the people you walk by.

So, please, oh please. Don’t risk the lives of your fellow riders. WEAR YOUR DAMN MASK. If you are waiting for the bus and see it approaching, make sure your mask is up over your nose and mouth. Expect some drivers to pass you by if you don’t have your mask on properly.

Then keep your mask on properly while you are boarding, while on board, while you are deboarding, while around other people at the bus stop, and anywhere, inside or outside, where there are one or more people around you.

Don’t be a killer. WEAR YOUR DAMN MASK.

Face mask laws coming

The Port of Seattle became the first governmental entity in the region to roll out a face mask requirement for everyone in public areas on Port property Saturday. SeaTac Airport is included in that mandate. On Friday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that an ordinance was in the works that would at least cover retail spaces open to the public in Seattle. A number of stores in Seattle, including Costco, already require such masks in order to be in the store.

King County Metro does not require the wearing of face masks while on board, but strongly urges customers to wear them.

At least eight states require the wearing of a face mask in public. This is not new legal territory, as several states had similar mandates on the books during the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic.

While face masks are helpful to protect people around the wearer from getting the virus from the wearer, they are no substitute for a medical grade face mask if the goal is to protect the wearer from getting the virus. Regardless, they are believed to have helped slow the spread of the virus in areas where wearing them in public has been encouraged.