In the post below, I mention a difference between northern and southern bus service here in Seattle, and was going to explain further with a footnote. But this is too fascinating for a mere afterthought. It’s time for some serious tech talk.
I like long, busy trunk routes like the 7 or the E. Those usually run often. Driving out of North Base has reminded me of another world; the dynamic is very different when there isn't another bus for an hour. As I mention in my recent KUOW interview, I drive them differently. If someone's running for an infrequent route, I wait, no matter the circumstances. I tend not do that on the more frequent 7/49. I've waited ten minutes for a bus. Not a big deal. An hour, on the other hand....
Your bus is rare. It feels more special, more important. You really have to make sure you get everybody. The people you pick up may have been waiting for a long time, and may well have oriented their day's plans around your schedule. I recently did an outbound 308; there’s only three of those all day, spaced an hour apart. You better believe I craned my neck looking for those last-minute stragglers.
I wonder what my 7 riders who now live in places like Haller Lake and Ballinger Terrace make of the contrast in bus service. If they once lived in the Central District, the 3/4 took them into town every 8 minutes, with last trips at 1am (now 3am); the 7 has ten-minute headways and runs 24 hours; but the 331, where I've noticed a number of familiar faces... runs every thirty minutes, with last trips at seven P.M. and hourly Sundays. If that's not a lifestyle change, I don't know what is! To the used car-lot we go....
I want to specify these service levels as endemic to North King County (and other parts of the County outside the city), not North Seattle. North Seattle has surpassed South Seattle in having the best bus service. Since the UW Link restructure, nearly the entire network up there has 15-minute headways or better, and the routes are thoughtfully interconnected and conveniently thru-routed,* with 15-minute east-west service (nonexistent in South Seattle at the time of this writing) and a lot of night service that remains frequent. The north-headed 5, D, 40, 41, and 62 all maintain 15-minute service until about 11pm nightly. That’s fantastic. Of south-pointing service, not even the 36 does that; only the 7.
Further concrete examples of this divide can be found in the 26/131 thru-route, on which the northern half (26 to Northgate) runs more frequently at night than the southern half (131 to Burien), despite the 131 being more used and needed. The very same goes for the 28/132, 24/124, and the 5 and 40 vs. the 120– the 5 (Shoreline) has frequent service til 11:30pm and all-night Owl service, whereas the 120 (Burien) goes to thirty-minute service at 8pm and doesn't run all night, despite being more crowded at those times. Another mystery is the 5/21, famous among drivers for its outdated and unrealistic schedule* on the 5 part, which offers 15-minute service on the 21 part until 10pm… on Sundays only. For the rest of the week the 21 stops frequent service at 8pm. Go figure.**
You may ask, as I do: why does North Seattle get better bus service when South Seattle is obviously more in need? Is Metro catering to choice riders and not transit-dependent ones? No. The answer is multifaceted.
On one hand, I think it's important to be mindful that sizable chunks of the population served in South Seattle do not have as ready an access to the internet, ease with the English language, or knowledge that speaking out can effect changes in transit planning. There is the agency of a population fluent in English and online, better equipped and more inclined to voice their concerns. A lot of countries our friendly neighbours come from don't have governments who thoughtfully alter transit service in response to customer feedback. You have to know it's even possible before also having the time, resources, and know-how to do so.
Nothing's more tiresome to me than transit geeks who don't live in the South Side or South End proposing nonsensical alterations to real-world lives (I once read an article that actually thought cutting the 7 at Othello was a good idea, and another that deleting the 4 was okay because people "can just transfer" to get from Judkins to Swedish, taking 2 buses instead of 1 to travel a distance of 2 miles). I don't wish to discount all their opinions, and admit I'm swayed by the human element: I actually know the people who use the service out there. But such proposals are not a suitable replacement voice, and fit within the definition of gentrification: changing a neighborhood without the consent or participation of its residents.
More boring, less talked about, and far more significant is that the problem is complicated by funding elements. It's not because Metro doesn't like poor people; pardon me while I roll my eyes at the very idea. More on that in a moment.
Routes that leave the city limits cannot be financed by the same revenue streams as those that stay within it. Several agreements stipulate that funds can only be applied when a specified majority percentage (80% at the time of this writing) of the route exists within the city limits. Everyone knows the 120, 124, 131, and 132 all have more people on their night trips than the 24, 26, 28, 33 etc, but what those 100-series routes also all have in common is that they travel significantly beyond Seattle city boundaries, and as a result of funding allocations their riders don’t get the service they need. Those 124’s are packed at 1am, and they shouldn’t be.***
That’s all about to change, though; SDOT plans to relax its percentage thresholds regarding city limits to 65 percent, not 80. That bone is very much for the E Line, the most heavily ridden single route, and which has been artificially held back at lower frequencies at night due to this soon-to-be-cut red tape. Same goes for the 106 and 120 in short order. Whispers tell me of improvements in the Fall.
I write above about a trigger-happy attitude among certain transit enthusiasts to monkey around with service they don't use, because reorganizing routes on a map would look cool. I'm thankful that Metro's administration comes from a different perspective, abundantly evident whenever I talk to them. It's a perspective rooted in concern and care for the underserved. The previous administration at Metro and the current one, both of whom I feel fortunate to know personally, care strongly about the working-class and low income.
They've imposed stipulations which require planners to serve certain demographics and provide lifeline service to those who need it most. They focus on unified treatment and are careful to avoid any development of class stigma in modes of transit offered. They don't cut back service on a route just because of security incidents, or avoid serving otherwise challenged areas. They just held an audit on the Fare Enforcement program and concluded it was unfairly disadvantaging the homeless, and have already taken steps to improve those issues. I may have things to say about scheduling,**** but when it comes to overarching vision, within the numerous restrictions they're up against and alongside the multitudinous interest groups involved, Metro's beating heart is in the right place. I know it would be more exciting to reveal that some sort of high-up institutional corruption was afoot... wait, isn't this more compelling? A case in point:
The A Line, which serves Tukwila, Sea-Tac and Federal Way, was and is Metro's inaugural RapidRide route. The B Line corridor, in Bellevue/Redmond, was actually ready to go first, but Metro knew that would send the wrong message. The best and most high-profile service type couldn't debut in Bellevue, for Heaven's sake. It would send an elitist message of who Metro caters to for the rest of RapidRide's days. The powers that be held off a short bit to allow the intensely working-class Pac Highway corridor to be the first to have RapidRide. "'Cause this service is for the people," a staffer told me with pride, explaining the story. For the people. Not the elite, not where the money is, but everybody. I don't need to point out how unusual this outlook is for a large organization. You understand. I imagine this is possible because Metro is not a business but a service, provided simply to improve quality of life and economy for everyone. That's their bottom line.
You've gotta love these guys.
It's one of my favorite things about working for Metro. I'm not sure I'd be here if it were otherwise. It's what I think about every time I see an A Line drive by. Bureaucracy and politics have a way of gnarling things up, making that hard to see and harder to realize. We just have to keep on keepin' on, getting those folks in the southern reaches some comment cards, and continuing to work away at that red tape.
*This is a scheduling problem more than a planning one. Passengers love thru-routes. Everyone hates transferring, especially at night (a major percentage of my 7/49 crew travels through both routes). I know how expensive it is to add 5 minutes to every northbound 5 and southbound 21, but it would be cheaper than breaking the thru-route and better than inconveniencing people.
**I’ve got a shiny new dime for anyone who can explain that one to me, or why the 41 has thirty-minute frequency until the end of service… on Sundays only, or why the 41 shifted its last southbound trip leaving Lake City to before midnight… on Saturdays only, rather than 12:20 like the rest of the week. That was the lifeline trip for the Fred Meyer employees there, who get off at 12. I know people who’ve had to leave their jobs there as a result.
***Planners, while I have your ear: three cheers for extending the 124 to Sea-Tac during non-Link hours. I’ve used the service myself and much appreciated it. But if I may: what of the infamous 2.5 hour gap, during which there is no northbound service to downtown from 2:30am to the first Link at 5am (worse on Sundays, 6am)? Two more northbound Sea-Tac-starting 124 trips would be ideal, but even one to split that 2.5-3.5 hour time span would make a difference, and allow us to say we offer 24-hour service not just to 24-hour Sea-Tac, but from it. I’ve come this close to missing that last 2:31am trip....
****Schedulers, I love you. But when articles like the one linked above imply we have finally have enough funding to address some things... fixing runcards can be done during our current driver and equipment shortage. Come to the bases more often, please. The lack of transparency between those scheduling the service and those operating it (not to mention those riding) creates enormous friction and misunderstanding. Here's what I would share from experience: