A rainy downtown Seattle street scene with bus 590 approaching.
ST Express bus route 590 makes its way though rain in downtown Seattle. (Sound Transit)

Standing on the platform of SeaTac Airport Station after midnight, straining to see whether the next light rail train is coming, I can’t help but wonder whether I would have been better off taking a $60 taxi home. The $3 train would be coming, my transit app assured me, but it wouldn’t be taking me anywhere I wanted to go. It would dump me off at Stadium Station in the relative middle of nowhere, where I would need to chain together at least two infrequent buses to get home. 

And the train wouldn’t just be stopping at Stadium, but because this was the last train of the night – it would go no further north than Stadium for every train leaving SeaTac between midnight and 1:40am. Link light rail stops running after that, not operating generally between 2 and 4am. 

And then during those early morning hours, when I might be heading in the opposite direction to catch a 6am East Coast flight, Link is not usable either. From 4am to about 5:30, as trains wake up to leave the depot in SoDo, the system essentially only runs southbound trips south of Beacon Hill Station and northbound trips north of SoDo Station.

King County Metro has some special bus service that is advertised to provide essential connections between midnight and 5am every day. But I couldn’t tell you anything else about it. If I’m standing at a bus stop looking for options, quick Googling will bring me to the Night Owl webpage which has no maps, schedules, or other useful information. Why is the otherwise most useful public transit map online outdated (circa 2016) and hosted by Seattle Transit Blog

Metro makes the claim, “There’s service to Sea-Tac Airport, too…” but, this is most obviously available only for folks who might work at the airport and live near route 161 in Kent and Burien. It took an accidental discovery of schedule footnotes to discover that Route 124 runs between Downtown and the airport between 1 and 4:30am, and it only arrives once per 80 minutes. Good luck with timing your flight arrival to that.

Why late night service is a best practice

Big cities have big city transit systems, which mean they run all night. Globally, the best cities are famous for this, but Seattle doesn’t need to emulate New York, Berlin, or Hong Kong. How about the more humble Chicago, Washington, D.C., or New Orleans

Nighttime transit benefits many more people than just weary airport travelers. Car-free or transit-dependent graveyard shift workers, hospital staff, factory workers, bartenders closing up after last call, and hotel clerks running the night desk need reliable ways to get around in the dark. Affordable transit helps with the economic mobility of essential service workers as the annual cost and pain of car ownership screams towards $12,000, putting millions of people in debt. It’s important for entertainment and tourism, too, when bands and shows let out after midnight and the bars close at 2am. 

This is also an obvious safety matter. The dark creates increased risks of vehicle collisions for anyone on foot or behind the wheel, whether due to lighting, driver fatigue, or speeding, and impaired drivers are typically on the road after midnight. Transit is safer than driving at night which particularly benefits young people, who make up a large share of the 25% of non-driving Washingtonians and who need reliable ways to go about their mischief after curfew.

On rare occasions with heavy passenger loads, like New Year’s Eve or July 4, Link and other public transit sometimes extend service hours later into the night. 

With light rail envisioned as the “spine” of Seattle’s regional transit system, it’s logical to start with the bare minimum expectation that it run 24-hours a day, seven days a week, and have reasonable nighttime frequencies. Transit riders have asked for this for many years. There’s even a petition still alive from at least 2016. Sound Transit says they can’t because of daily software maintenance. The agency has struggled to copy best practices from other cities, even basic features like arrival time readerboards.

A night bus to shadow Link

In the meantime, the obvious solution is to substitute light rail service with bus service while Link is offline each night. Sound Transit knows how to do this on an interim basis – they will deploy a “Link replacement shuttle” between a handful of stations when there is a service disruption due to maintenance work, whether planned or unplanned.

It’s time for a permanent replacement shuttle, or what we might call a “Link shadow,” to follow along the route at night. Nighttime operators don’t need software updates, just good pay and perhaps a hot beverage. The service should operate at a frequency which minimizes the time riders wait outside in the dark exposed to the elements, and offer some overlap with Link so riders have flexible options as the rail service gets truncated into the night. A 20-minute frequency schedule between 11pm and 5am should be a reasonable goal.

The Link shadow routing will require some thought to replicate the speed and convenience of light rail. To keep buses moving quickly, it might also require a few changes to local transportation systems such as transit signal priorities at traffic lights, updated access to bus-only lanes, and upgraded bus stop shelters and seating outside light rail stations. All-door boarding and off-board fare payment should be standard, like RapidRide buses. Signage and branding need to be very clear to help riders find the bus and know where it goes. Coaches should have the capacity for a large number of passengers and their luggage.

Ideally, the shadow buses should stop directly outside each light rail station so that riders know exactly where to find it. From north to south, the route could follow this rough pathway:

  • From Northgate Station, hop on I-5 southbound and exit at 71st Street to get to Roosevelt Station. 
  • Stop at U District and University of Washington via surface streets (Roosevelt Way NE,  NE 45th Street, 15th Avenue NE, and NE Pacific Street).
  • Get to Capitol HIll via 23rd/24th Avenue E and either E John Street or E Denny Way.
  • Move through all of the downtown stations via Pine Street and 3rd Avenue, and reach Chinatown-International District by S Jackson Street and 5th Avenue S.
  • Reach Stadium via Seattle Boulevard S and S Royal Brougham Way.
  • There are few street connections to Beacon Hill; SoDo station is served at a new stop on S Holgate Street, and then take Holgate up the hill to Beacon Avenue S.
  • Down the hill via S McClellan Street to Martin Luther King Junior Way S, serving Mount Baker Station and other stops in the Rainier Valley.
  • Get on I-5 southbound again and exit at Southcenter Boulevard to get to Tukwila International Boulevard Station.
  • Take International Boulevard to a curbside drop-off at the airport, and then end at Angle Lake Station.

Riders who might normally use Link shouldn’t be asked to piece together a patchwork of infrequent nighttime bus routes to get to their destinations — the Link shadow is ideally a one-seat ride along the entire rail line. 

However, it might practically need to be two separate routes because it will take longer to cover the entire route by a single driver who needs rest breaks, especially as the Link system expands north and south. I estimate Northgate to Angle Lake would take at least 95 minutes to serve by bus, compared to 57 minutes midday on light rail. If the shadow bus route is broken into two segments there should be an overlap at a few Downtown stops that are safe and comfortable to wait at, perhaps even with security staff and retail options. Good frequency becomes even more important in this case.

Take action: Urge Sound Transit to add night service

Our region’s population is only going to grow. It’s time for our regional transit to grow with it and offer true all-day and all-night service for the people who need it most. 

While a Link shadow bus service would be good, extending Link hours to run 24/7 would be even better. Why not both? Sound Transit’s current rationale for not running late night trains seems like an issue that could be overcome with technical upgrades or staffing changes. Perhaps three to four hours every single night is not needed for a maintenance window, but rather one or two nights per week. And to complement these needs, run a shadow bus every night to pick up the slack, provide resiliency to the system for planned and unplanned maintenance, and affordably and safely get people where they need to go.

If you like the idea of extending nighttime Link service and adding a supplemental Link shadow bus, email the Sound Transit Board of Directors at emailtheboard@soundtransit.org. You can link to this article and ask the board to take a serious look at changing their overnight maintenance practices and studying the potential for a supplemental nighttime shadow bus route. Both opportunities are necessary to serve the residents, workers, and visitors who depend on transit and to evolve transit into a more resilient and connected system for generations of riders.

Article Author

Scott Bonjukian has degrees in architecture and planning, and his many interests include neighborhood design, public space and streets, transit systems, pedestrian and bicycle planning, local politics, and natural resource protection. He cross-posts from The Northwest Urbanist and leads the Seattle Lid I-5 effort. He served on The Urbanist board from 2015 to 2018.