Metro Previews Policy Updates for System Growth and Equity Focus

1
A Metro bus operating on a snowy Beacon Hill. (Owen Pickford)
A Metro bus operating on a snowy Beacon Hill. (Owen Pickford)

Updates to King County Metro’s key policy documents have been delayed due to Covid-induced impacts, but the agency hopes to complete them this year to chart the agency’s service future. The trio of key policy documents include the Strategic Plan for Public Transportation, Service Guidelines, and Metro Connects. Each document addresses different aspects of how the agency plans and implements service across the county’s bus network over the near- and long-term. Informing much of the updates are the Mobility Framework recommendations that were developed in partnership with the Regional Equity Cabinet. Implementing the longer-term goals of a more expansive, frequent bus network, however, will take more funding that has yet to materialize.

Updates to the Strategic Plan for Transportation

The cover page from the Strategic Plan for Public Transportation updated in 2015 and adopted in 2016. (King County)
The cover page from the Strategic Plan for Public Transportation updated in 2015 and adopted in 2016. (King County)

The Strategic Plan for Public Transportation was last updated in 2016 and provides transportation goals, outlines strategies and objectives to implement the goals, and contains specific performance measures to assess success with the plan. Eight goals are outlined in the plan, including: safety, human potential, economic growth and the built environment, environmental sustainability, service excellence, financial stewardship, public engagement and transparency, and quality workforce.

The 2021 update to the plan will focus on aligning the goals and policies with the Mobility Framework’s guiding principles and recommendations. Substantive revisions will also incorporate new information on the King County Water Taxi (which was folded into Metro recently), climate goals, innovative transportation, and equitable transit-oriented communities’ objectives. In addition, Metro will pursue simplification of performance measures and ensure that they align with key policy drivers.

Right now, there are 68 performance measures that get reported out to the county council every two years. Metro wants these to be less static and more useful to the public and policymakers. To address this, Metro plans to launch an online dashboard by July–similar to The Dash that was rolled out late last year to measure operational metrics related to Covid–that will be regularly updated and the number of performance measures will be reduced by about half.

In an effort to revamp the plan goals, Metro intends to use the Mobility Framework’s guiding principles that happen to largely overlap with existing goals in the plan. There are several cases (i.e. “improve access to mobility” and “innovate equitably and sustainably”) where the incorporated guiding principles will be fully new goals in the plan. The guiding principles are being recast somewhat so that they are full actionable goal statements, but the overall intent is the same.

  • How the Mobility Framework's guiding principles will be used to replace existing plan goals. (King County)
  • Guiding principles that are to be recast as full goal statements. (King County)

Updates to Metro Connects

Metro Connects, the long-range vision for system growth, was designed to expand bus service by 70% between 2015 and 2040. This functionally means huge injections of service hours, redesigning the bus network, and upgrading many existing corridors to a RapidRide standard. The plan, however, is not fully funded and has recently become significantly delayed due to financial impact from the pandemic.

Vision of an interconnected RapidRide network by 2040 in the original Metro Connects document. (King County)
Vision of an interconnected RapidRide network by 2040 in the original Metro Connects document. (King County)

In updating the Metro Connects plan, the agency will move the time horizon for full implementation to 2050, reevaluate the RapidRide network, and address equity gaps. The update process will also address several other key aspects, including:

  • A revision to the rolling six-year “interim” implementation plan;
  • Updated assumptions for inflation, population growth, and influence of Sound Transit 3–that was passed by voters only several months before Metro Connects was adopted in 2017;
  • Incorporation of goals like equity and climate from the Mobility Framework;
  • Clarification of community partnership opportunities and expectations;
  • Additions of new sections that touch on new policies and programs like electrification and King County Water Taxi;
  • How policy and the public engagement process will be used for plan implementation (i.e., service and capital investments);
  • New financial projections of program costs and information on how communities can help realize the plan;
  • Revisions to the long-range service map; and
  • Acknowledgement of Metro as a mobility agency (e.g., vanpools, community van, Via to Transit), not just a traditional transit agency.

Updates to the Service Guidelines

The next policy document, the King County Metro Service Guidelines, deals with how the agency evaluates and reports on service performance and how investments in service are prioritized to facilitate ridership growth. Each year, Metro delivers a system evaluation that fully analyzes route-by-route performance and highlights where service needs are in the system. Four priority areas are identified in the guidelines (i.e., reducing crowding, improving reliability, service growth, and route productivity) and are used to make decisions about service changes, whether that means increases or decreases of service on individual routes.

In the update, Metro plans to prioritize equity in making service investments and revise priorities to align them with the Mobility Framework. Along with these revisions, Metro also plans to incorporate objectives of Metro Connects into the guidelines, establish a new set of guidelines specific to the King County Water Taxi, examine lower-performing routes for their environmental impacts (i.e., greenhouse gas emissions), and outline corresponding land use types that support particular service types.

In determining where service growth (Priority 3) goes, Metro uses three general factors to assess priority. The factors are equity, productivity, and geographic value. Each factor has a specific definition in the guidelines.

  • Equity is defined by using two factors that measure boardings from low-income census tracts and boardings from minority census tracts. Metro plans to redefine this by looking at five factors from census data, including race, income, disability, foreign born populations, and limited English-speaking populations.
  • Productivity is defined on a potential basis by measuring the potential ridership market based upon nearby housing units, park-and-ride stalls, students, and jobs to transit corridors. When computed on an individual route basis, actual ridership is measured in annual system evaluations as rides per platform hour and passenger miles per platform mile. These metrics highlight the efficiency of routes and how full they are. Metro plans to add factors that look specifically at access to low- and moderate-income jobs.
  • Geographic value is defined as the value of transit corridors connecting regionally-designated centers by the Puget Sound Regional Council and Metro-identified transit activity centers. These include Regional Growth Center, Manufacturing/Industrial Centers, and other places that Metro values for transit activity.
This map shows scores of routes in the Metro network that have service gaps needing to be addressed. Metro targets high quality, frequent service routes, but under the service guidelines all route are targeted for a minimum hourly frequency. Click for larger view. (King County)
This map shows scores of routes in the Metro network that have service gaps needing to be addressed. Metro targets high quality, frequent service routes, but under the service guidelines all route are targeted for a minimum hourly frequency. Click for larger view. (King County)

Covid has meant Metro slashing service, particularly on peak-hour commuter routes. But despite the pandemic impacts, the need for transit remains strong. Metro has identified extensive service gaps across the network that will need to be addressed in the years ahead and require additional funding to achieve. Underpinning this are both the service guidelines and Metro Connects directing where needs are unmet.

Right now, there is a network-wide need of about 400,000 more annual service hours based upon the service guidelines. This is in line with many recent years’ needs. Under the Metro Connects rolling six-year interim network time horizon, the service guidelines suggest that the need rises up to 1.5 million more annual service hours.

Outside the pandemic, the identified levels of additional service would induce much higher levels of system ridership. Additional service hours on the Metro Connects level also mean that more communities would be reached or connected by transit.

Maps comparing how priority values ordered results in different routes being identified as the highest priority for service investment. Click for larger view. (King County)
Maps comparing how priority values ordered results in different routes being identified as the highest priority for service investment. Click for larger view. (King County)

Depending upon how priority values are ordered, the routes with the highest investment needs are notably different. Placing equity as a higher priority results in maps that identify Southeast Seattle and South King County routes as the most in-need routes for investment. Conversely, focusing productivity as the highest priority pushes routes in Seattle, particularly in North Seattle, Capitol Hill, and Southeast Seattle, higher up as in-need routes for investment.

A final set of updated policy documents will be transmitted to the Metropolitan King County Council in July. Final adoption is expected thereafter.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for promoting sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He advocates for smart policies, regulations, and implementation programs that enhance urban environments by committing to quality design, accommodating growth, providing a diversity of housing choices, and adequately providing public services. Stephen primarily writes about land use and transportation issues.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
asdf2

The contrast between the top 25 and top 50 routes under various prioritization schemes is both striking and expected. People in Seattle ride the bus at might higher rates than in the suburbs because the land use is much more conducive to transit. If the goal of a transit agency is to move as many people as possible per taxpayer dollar spent, it should be a no-brainer that the productivity criteria should come first.

Frankly, the whole “equity” thing feels like trying to overthink things. Simply running buses where the riders are, ignoring race altogether, is inherently equitable, since every rider is inherently treated equally, regardless of race, gender, age, or any other piece of demographic information. The moment productivity becomes subordinate to some other consideration, you are saying you want a system that carries fewer riders and higher taxpayer subsidies per rider. Over time, this just bolsters the case of conservatives, who argue that Metro (or, really, any government agency) is incapable of using taxpayer dollars effectively, eventually leading to failed ballot measures, funding cuts, and everybody driving cars because the transit service is so poor.

If we want future transit funding measures to pass, Metro needs to show that it is a good steward of the taxpayer money it has, and the way to do that is to prioritize productivity and put the buses where the riders are.