Metro’s on-time performance has stayed fairly consistent over the past five years, even as ridership has boomed and traffic congestion worsened. The reasons: more service hours, bus-only lanes and priority at traffic lights, and a newer fleet.
The simple answer is most of the time, although not quite as often as King County Metro would like.
The more complicated answer depends on when you’re riding the bus, how you define “on time” and on how you measure it.
The most crowded bus routes
These 13 routes were deemed “chronically crowded” and most in need of additional service.
• RapidRide E, Aurora Village to downtown
• 312, UW Bothell to downtown
• 50, Othello Station to Alki
• RapidRide D, Crown Hill to downtown
• 24, West Magnolia to downtown
• 128, Admiral District to Southcenter
• 18, North Beach to downtown (peak hours only)
• 21, Westwood Village to downtown
• 33, Discovery Park to downtown
• 232, Duvall to Bellevue
• 240, Bellevue to Renton
• 255, Brickyard Park and Ride to downtown
• RapidRide C, Westwood Village to South Lake Union
Source: King County Metro annual report
Over the last 12 months, regular Metro buses have been “on time” 77 percent of the time. That figure has stayed fairly consistent over the past five years, as Metro has met the growing demands of booming ridership and stifling traffic congestion by adding more service hours, giving buses priority in their own lanes and at traffic lights, and investing in a newer bus fleet.
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But just because 77 percent of buses are showing up “on time” doesn’t mean they’re showing up right when they’re scheduled to show up.
Virtually all of Metro’s approximately 175 routes are late more often during rush hour, when the most people ride.
And Metro, like almost all transit agencies, approaches punctuality more like a dinner party than a job interview.
Metro gives buses a seven-minute window to show up to still be considered “on time.” That window runs from 1.5 minutes early to 5.5 minutes late. Show up anytime in there with room for passengers, and the bus counts as on time.
RapidRide buses show up “on time” slightly more often, 82 percent of the time over the past 12 months, but the way it’s measured for those routes is completely different.
Since RapidRide buses are scheduled to arrive much more often than most regular routes, their performance is measured by how long the gaps between buses are, not by specific scheduled arrival times. They’re supposed to come frequently enough that you don’t have to worry about consulting a schedule.
Each RapidRide route aims for a certain “headway,” the amount of time between each bus arrival, that varies by route and by time of day. RapidRide buses are “on time” if the gap between them is less than 3 minutes greater than what it is scheduled to be.
Coordinators at Metro headquarters watch the location of every RapidRide bus, about 125 at a time, to try to maintain those consistent headways.
“They’re like conductors of an orchestra,” said Mark Freitag,” chief of Metro’s transit-control center. “They take all the bits and pieces and try to make them sound good.”
If buses are bunched together, they’ll tell one driver to skip stops or another driver to slow down, take a little longer at a couple stops, to preserve the gap between buses.
“It’s a completely different way of managing buses,” said Andrew Brick, a transportation planner for Metro. “We want to take the customer-focused perspective of, did a bus show up about every X number of minutes?”
It’s a sensible way to measure performance on routes with frequent buses, says Jarrett Walker, a national transit consultant based in Portland. Consider a route with buses that are scheduled to arrive every 10 minutes, but every bus is 10 minutes late. As long as the buses are still 10 minutes apart, no one will know the difference.
“A typical on-time performance metric will declare this situation to be total failure, 0 percent on-time performance,” Walker writes. “But to the customer, this situation is perfection.”
Metro’s goal is for 80 percent of buses to arrive “on time,” a number it has met only four times in any single month since the beginning of 2012.
But, significantly, its on-time numbers have remained consistently close to that goal even as Seattle has become the fastest-growing city in the nation, with traffic congestion to match. On-time performance decreases in summer, when construction and road work increase, but annual averages have stayed between 74 and 78 percent every year since 2012.
Over the same period, both car ownership and Metro ridership have grown at breakneck speed.
Metro buses gave people more than 6 million more rides in 2016 than they did in 2012.
And on a smaller scale, nearly every one of the city’s busiest bus lines is seeing increased ridership. The city’s busiest bus line, the RapidRide E, which runs up and down Aurora Avenue, carries 1,500 more people each weekday than it did just two years ago, the equivalent of 17 or 18 full double buses.
But, as anyone who rides a rush-hour bus knows, the surge in ridership has also meant some overcrowded buses. Metro’s most recent annual evaluation found 13 routes that were chronically overcrowded — having 50 percent more people than seats or no seats available for 20 consecutive minutes — and another 13 that were frequently overcrowded.
The E line is also the most overcrowded route that Metro runs, with dozens of riders waiting at stops each morning as full buses pass them by.
Mitchell Brown, 25, sometimes walks 10 blocks north up Aurora, to North 76th Street to try to catch a bus before it fills up on its way downtown. But full buses still pass by all the time.
When four straight full buses passed by one morning last month, a fellow wannabe passenger gave up, rented a nearby ReachNow car, and offered rides downtown to other waiting passengers.
“It’s so frustrating and disheartening to be waiting by the bus stop for 20, 30 minutes when you could already be at work,” Brown said.
And while Metro says reducing crowding is its top priority and it has added buses to help — including five additional E line trips this year and four more next year — don’t expect huge improvements anytime soon.
Most overcrowding happens during rush hour and most buses are already on the road during rush hour (about 1,250 during every evening commute), so adding new service requires new buses.
“We have a limited ability to increase the size of our fleet due to space limitations at our seven bases,” Metro writes in its latest system evaluation report. “For the near-term, our ability to add new service during these times will remain constrained.”
Still, other cities have done far worse in meeting the demand for transit.
New York City’s beleaguered subway system, which has also seen booming ridership, has seen on-time performance plummet, from 84 percent in 2012 to 64 percent so far this year. San Francisco’s buses are on time less than 60 percent of the time.
Transit use grew nearly twice as fast in the Seattle area in 2016 as it did in any other metro area in the country, most of which lost riders. Sound Transit’s light rail has helped take some of the stress off Metro. After rail service opened to the University of Washington in early 2016, Metro ridership actually decreased by 300,000 boardings from the prior year, while light-rail ridership increased by nearly 8 million.
Metro officials attribute their ability to maintain on-time performance standards, despite more traffic and more ridership, primarily to three things.
First and foremost, taxpayers are spending more to add service so buses come more frequently throughout the day. Metro has added service hours at least once a year every year since 2015. That includes two rounds of service increases this year, totaling more than 300,000 additional bus hours. (Metro operated buses for a total of nearly 4 million hours last year.)
A big chunk of the service increase comes from the city of Seattle, which buys $36 million in additional bus service a year from Metro, thanks to the $60 increase in car-tab taxes that voters approved in 2014.
That’s meant more buses more frequently on 66 separate bus routes in the city this year.
But just putting more buses on the street won’t make them on time if they’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Metro credits the slowly increasing number of bus-only lanes and traffic lights that give buses priority over other traffic with helping to maintain reliable service.
Bus-only lanes now dot many of the city’s arterial streets, most notably on Highway 99 and Third Avenue, but also in smaller stretches, from North 45th Street in the north part of the city to Delridge Way Southwest in the south.
“Metro’s been consistently working with all the cities throughout King County to improve the level of priority that transit has over other traffic,” Bill Bryant, director of service development for Metro, said. “That’s especially true in Seattle.”
The other thing that’s helped: a newer fleet of buses that not only breaks down less often, but is designed for faster boarding and, thus, less time wasted at stops.
The newer buses ride lower, with only one small step to board, as opposed to a small three-step staircase.
“We’re very sensitive to the impact of reliability on our customers,” Bryant said. “We’re really working hard in may ways to improve.”