The C Is for Crank

Let it never be said that I'm unwilling to pick on my fellow transit huggers: Yesterday, Seattle Transit Blog's Bruce Nourish suggested "nine awesome service improvements Prop. 1 could pay for." (Prop. 1, of course, is the Metro funding measure originally intended to preserve bus service at its current inadequate level; now, thanks to an improved economy, it could slightly expand service).

I don't have a quarrel with most of the changes Nourish suggests as "improvements"—boosting service on seven heavy-use routes to every 15 minutes on weekends and Sundays, for example—but I do take issue with his proposal to "tremendously" improve the workhorse 7/49 route, which links the U District, Capitol Hill, and the Rainier Valley late at night and on Sundays, by de-linking the two routes and forcing riders who want to get from Rainier Beach to Capitol Hill, say, to deboard and wait for another bus at Third and Pine. 

Third and Pine, hardly the most welcoming intersection in the middle of the day, is especially foreboding late at night; it's hard to see how a transit system seeking to attract new riders (and their fares) benefits by dumping them in the dark at the downtown McDonald's.

This isn't an argument against transfers in general; it's beyond debate that transit systems need transfers to be efficient. But all transfers aren't equal, and forcing people to transfer at a stop where crime is rampant only makes sense if it dramatically improves speed and reliability. That may have made sense when Metro initially de-linked the 7 and 49 on weekdays and Saturdays, but the evidence that the 7/49 is massively unreliable during off-peak hours seems lacking, at least from this frequent rider's perspective.

(So, for that matter, is any evidence that north-end riders have no interest in going south of downtown, or vice versa.)

In contrast: The through route on the 49 is one of the few reliable and relatively speedy ways to get from southeast Seattle to Capitol Hill and/or the U District and back at night or on Sundays. If STB (or anyone) can produce some solid numbers showing that this infrequent linkage really backs up service (again, I take the 7/49 to and from Capitol Hill frequently on nights and Sundays and have never noticed buses being dramatically late or piling up), then I'll reconsider my position. But for now, I'm hoping Metro keeps the two routes together at least until University Link Light rail opens up, connecting the north and south halves of the city on a single, seamless route, no sketchy transfers required.

My former Stranger colleague Annie Wagner, by the way, pointed this problem out all the way back in 2005, when Metro made the initial decision to break the old route 7 in two. Annie noted: "Supposedly Metro needed to split route 7 into two pieces .. because it’s always late. If the bus is always late, it’s not just because it’s a long route. It’s also because the #7 bus is completely packed—whether it’s in the ID, downtown, Capitol Hill, or the U District—every single time I get on. If they split up the route and added new buses (say, every 10 minutes instead of every 15), things would actually improve."

Reliability follows frequency. Splitting routes only chips away at the edges of the problem.



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