Metro Looks Toward Post-Pandemic Recovery, But Thorny Service Changes Could Be Ahead

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A Metro bus with the Evo store mural in the background.
A Route 32 bus waits to cross Stone Way. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

How King County Metro will restore bus service as the pandemic recedes will be a hotly contested issue. Metro offered a window into the process this week with a presentation on how the agency has been responding to ridership demand changes during the pandemic civil emergency and how an exit from the pandemic could work. There were strong hints that permanent changes could be made as a result of trends where demand has changed. That could mean service cuts in areas where pre-pandemic demand was high. Metro also spoke to some very unpopular bus restructure approaches surrounding light rail expansion and deployment.

Where Metro stands and is headed

Right now Metro is operating at 85% of pre-pandemic service levels with daily ridership averaging 125,000 (about 30% of 2019’s average). Routes with the smallest ridership declines are all-day routes, RapidRide routes, and routes in South King County. The agency has temporarily suspended 414,000 annual service hours.

The vast majority (73%) of the suspended service hours fall into the peak-only route category, which has meant fully suspending 49 routes and partially suspending another four routes. All-day routes — the smaller category of suspended service hours (27%) — are affected, too, with nine fully suspended and 17 partially suspended routes. Most of the all-day routes affected by suspensions are in Seattle and the Eastside whereas peak-only route suspensions are all across the county. Metro is poised to restore a very small number of service hours this month with the bulk of restorations coming in the fall when the agency brings back another 200,000 annual service hours.

Capacity of buses remains at 22% to 24% to provide for social distancing of passengers. For the purposes of service planning, 24% capacity is being treated as a “crowding” threshold in allocating additional trips to routes to reduce passenger loads. Ordinarily the crowding threshold would be at 71% of bus capacity inclusive. Capacity is inclusive of standing and seated passenger limits.

  • Metro's service levels during the pandemic. (King County)
  • Metro's crowding levels during the pandemic. (King County)
  • Overview of temporarily suspended routes during the pandemic. (King County)
  • Metro's all-day routes temporarily suspended during the pandemic. (King County)
  • Metro's peak-only routes temporarily suspended during the pandemic. (King County)
  • Metro's overall service profile during the pandemic. (King County)

Metro is trying to be strategic in how service restorations will be made once the pandemic civil emergency ends. The agency plans to use several factors in that decision-making, including ridership, crowing, equity, productivity, and employers.

For ridership, Metro will look to last year’s system evaluation report that is based on the Service Guidelines. Routes that had higher ridership pre-pandemic will be prioritized using that report. Crowding will continue to be based off the current lower threshold for social distancing purposes, making midday and afternoon periods the highest immediate priority. This is especially the case for the RapidRide A and E Lines and Routes 7 and 36. But this will eventually revert back to the normal crowding threshold metric once social distancing protocols lapse.

On equity, Metro will look toward filling service gaps in Equity Priority Areas that are served by routes with high Opportunity Scores. Equity Priority Areas have higher rates of priority populations, such as people of color, people who are low-income, or people who were born abroad. And then there is the metric of productivity where Metro intends to continue de-prioritizing service restoration on routes that had low productivity under the Service Guidelines pre-pandemic. These routes tend to be peak-only routes, though there are all-day routes that rank in the bottom 25% of all routes with similar operational periods and service characteristics. Routes that into the bottom 25% for productivity would ordinarily be candidates for permanent service reduction and there is a high probability that suspended service on them could be permanently reduced.

The agency has also begun looking at a variety of key data and engaging major employers and stakeholders, and conducted a wildly expansive online rider survey — which was so long as to be useless. Metro hopes to complete a model to estimate work-based ridership demand for the fall.

The model is based on a combination of ORCA transit pass data, rider surveys, and direct discussions with employers like the major hospitals, REI, Amazon, Expedia, and University of Washington. These employers are particularly key because many of them have ORCA Business accounts for employees. Workers who hold those employer-provided ORCA passes accounted for 41% of all boardings and 51% of fare revenue for Metro in 2019, but ridership among those passholders has fallen 85%.

Employers have so far indicated that they expect to see workers and students begin reporting to their worksites and campuses in the summer, but more earnestly in the fall. This, of course, is predicated on the trajectory of the vaccine rollout and how effective vaccines will be at suppressing the pandemic longer-term.

Employers have also generally indicated that they intend to permanently adopt a hybrid workplace approach where workers will be able to split up the workweek at home and the office. This presumably could cut daily office worker loads by half, which would be a huge demand change to downtown office centers. Still, workers may make more local trips throughout the day, so such a shift does not necessarily weekday ridership amongst this group would fall by half permanently. It does, however, suggest that peak-only routes and service may become less important in the network.

Metro’s road to recovery may stretch out through 2023. The bulk of service should be restore in the fall and next year. Federal funding assistance from the American Rescue Plan Act will no doubt be a boon, plugging the revenue hole from reduced ridership and farebox recovery.

A timeline graphic shows Metro's long road to service recovery. An increasing amount of service would be restored at service changes in March 2021, March 2022, and September 2022. (King County)
Metro’s long road to service recovery. (King County)

Going forward, Metro will have a more solid strategy and set of policies to deal with a range of civil emergencies that make require alterations of service. A likely scenario is the mega-earthquake that the region may be due for that could gravely hamper service. Updates to the Service Guidelines will include situational responses to a variety of scenarios and provide flexibility in how changes will be made. This could include temporary service suspensions and additions and partial service restorations. A civil emergency may also greatly affect long-term performance of routes necessitating permanent changes.

In terms of the pandemic, Metro has promised that the agency will use pre-pandemic data for service restorations once the civil emergency has ended. But that does not mean further service changes according to the Service Guidelines are permanently forestalled. If ridership remains low, that could mean eventual cuts to some routes and service reinvestments elsewhere. However, Metro cannot make a permanent reduction of routes more than 25% under the Service Guidelines without approval from the Metropolitan King County Council.

How service may change during and from the Covid civil emergency graphic shows most of the changes are considered temporary thus far. (King County)
How service may change during and from the Covid civil emergency. (King County)

Future bus restructures around light rail are thorny

In terms of the bus restructure issue surrounding light rail expansion, updates in Metro’s Service Guidelines will provide more clarity on how this should occur. Route 41 is an example of where Metro is deleting a duplicative route from Northgate to Downtown Seattle once the Northgate Link extensions opens in the fall. Its 47,000 annual service hours are to be reinvested South King County, not the North Seattle/Shoreline area in accordance with the agency’s equity framework. This could continue to be a thorny issue since service hours that Metro had been providing to a community may simply evaporate when new light rail service is delivered.

Metro, however, contends that the service light rail provides is superior to equivalent bus service and that the practice of deleting routes around bus-light rail restructures would only apply to truly duplicative routes, not other local routes. That means all other local bus service hours that are modified by bus-light rail restructure would stay within the service area.

Policymakers and local officials still worry that they could wind up losing critical service hours that they pay for and that dwindling service hours in a service area near light rail stations could hamper the efficacy of light rail service itself. Put another way, if the 47,000 annual service hours saved from not running Route 41 were reallocated in the North Seattle service area, Metro could ramp up local routes to be even more frequent and possibly add more east-west service to connect communities and the light rail stations.

However, the double whammy of the pandemic zapping revenue and Metro scurrying away Route 41 annual service hours from North Seattle/Shoreline wound up making the Northgate Link bus restructure feel more like an exercise in severe austerity than anything resembling an effort to improve access to light rail and communities. The “final” proposed plan was a far cry from the bold vision shared pre-pandemic — and it may not be so final after all since restructure did not factor in funds from the Proposition 1 bus measure that Seattle voters passed resoundingly. Still, it is no wonder that policymakers would fear for equally disastrous bus restructures in their communities as future light rail expansions come on line. Fortunately for the Eastside though, Metro has little duplicative bus service along the East Link and Redmond Link light rail expansions, leaving decisions on duplicative bus service mostly up to Sound Transit in 2023 and 2024.

Still, some policymakers on the Regional Transit Committee think that Metro should adopt a policy of holding back on moving service hours out of a service area for at least one to two years. That way the agency can review ridership data to see if there are actually redundancies in service needs.

The bus restructure issue will likely continue a key concern as the Service Guidelines update carries forward. The Regional Transit Committee will tackle the update at large next month, so expect more debate.

Correction: Details on capacity and productivity metrics were further clarified.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.

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Mary S.

I am so frustrated by how Metro is handling the service changes with Northgate station finally opening. I live between Lake City and Northgate and voted for Sound Transit 2 and have been eagerly waiting for the train to come and for us to finally get improved bus service to connect with the train.

Metro and Sound Transit held a lot of open houses around the train. They asked if we wanted more parking garages, we said we want more buses to the train. What about more community van pool opportunities? No, thank you, more buses to the train, please. But won’t you miss your direct route downtown? We would, if you don’t mind, like more buses to the train.

And now, after Capitol Hill got its train station and didn’t lose any bus service and even got more connections, and after we lived through the crappy changes when the University station opened, now we get the short end of the stick again. There won’t even BE a route within easy walking distance for me once the 75 goes away.

I tried writing my county councilmember and only got a vague response about fairness in service hours. But after reading articles here and in the newspaper, because we aren’t riding the bus and people in Renton and Tukwila and Auburn are, they get more bus service. Where are we supposed to be going? I was laid off at the beginning of the pandemic and the only place I go is to the grocery store. Everything’s closed! We’re supposed to stay home!

It’s not fair to take bus service from an area that’s been waiting for these changes for so long just to give it to another area that’s now seen as in need because of changes in how you measure who is in need and who isn’t. What’s the worst is we can’t even advocate for ourselves and no one advocates for us because we’re not the right kind of in need or whatever. And speaking out about it makes us come across as cruel and uncaring.

I just want the bus service we were promised when we voted for the train.

asdf2

I agree 100%. The introduction of light rail is supposed to improve transportation, not make it worse. Metro’s proposal is setting a precedent that makes it hard to support bus restructures again in the future.

They are also creating an “I told you so” moment for the parking garage advocates, who can argue that once a parking garage is built, it will always be there, and your ability to use it will not be subject to the political winds.

What is actually happening is a county council making knee-jerk reactions to recent news events in all the wrong ways. After the George Floyd killing, the county council has become too focused on race, rather than moving as many people as possible, as efficiently as possible, which should be Metro’s primary goal. They’re also using ridership numbers from the middle of a pandemic to try to predict what ridership will be after pandemic subsides. And they’re still prioritizing express routes to SLU, which, duplicate Link, as well as private tech company shuttle routes.

If we want people to support service restructures in the future, the service hours of the 41 should be reinvested in the Northgate area. Which means continuing to run the second Lake City->Northgate route via Northgate Way, that the 75 does today. (ideally, continuing to Greenwood as the 61 does in RossB’s other comment).

RossB

That means all other local bus service hours that are modified by bus-light rail restructure would stay within the service area.

Maybe, but what if it is shifted to wealthier commuters, thus negating the equity goals? That is exactly what is happening, and it is lost in the discussion over whether the service should stay in the same area.

If you look at the proposals, there is a big shift from all-day service, to specialized commuter buses. These go from the northern suburbs to First Hill and South Lake Union. These riders are largely well-off commuters, who will get front door service to work, instead of being asked to transfer. These buses will not run in the middle of the day, or at night, so swing shift or graveyard workers will be out of luck. A physician earning 200 grand a year will be able to park his Lexus in Kenmore and take a bus right to work, but a nurses aid working 4:00 PM to midnight will take the bus, then the train, and then another bus (or walk).

Making matters worse, all-day service is actually being reduced in Lake City. I’m not talking about a reduction compared to pre-pandemic levels, I’m talking about compared to now. Currently, a rider from Lake City can get to Northgate two ways: via the 41 or 75. The 41 runs every 12 minutes, while the 75 runs every 15. Under the proposal, the 41 goes away, and the 75 becomes the only way to get from Lake City to Northgate (it will be moved to use the 41’s old corridor). Even if frequency is increased on the 75 to every 12 minutes (which seems doubtful), that is still a dramatic drop-off in frequency (and it means extra walking in some cases).

Making matters worse, there are no major improvements in the network. A lot of the people in Lake City work service jobs, like waiting tables and tending bar. A lot of their commutes are awkward, due to the poor network in the north end (e. g. https://goo.gl/maps/ixPg7ALVqAq5o2y16). There are plenty of low income people in Lake City, but because those folks were all laid off (and didn’t work in factory jobs in the south end) service is being pushed to the south (in the name of “equity”).

It is a poorly thought out proposal. The worst part is there is a simple solution, and it was proposed by Metro planners initially. An all-day 61 dramatically changes the north end transit network. It means people from Lake City can get to a lot more places. It means that lots of people who live in apartments along Aurora or Greenwood Avenue can get to Lake City or Northgate (areas with lots of social services and middle class jobs).

If cutbacks are to be made, and the restructure is to focused on equity, we should cut the express buses, and put the money into routes like the 61.