Beyond the bridge itself, the 520 grand opening events led to a number of transportation choices, some of which worked better than others. Michelle already discussed getting herself and the kids to the family event and the trip back home. I had to pick up a race packet and go to the early morning race, and the day gave me some more thoughts on buses that I wanted to write about. The first section is just about an eastside bus trip. The second is about the trip into Seattle. The final is about buses in general.
My race report is available here.
Race Packet Pickup
I generally like to pick up my race packet before race morning in order to simplify race day plans. As you’ll see in the next section, this was especially true for this one. There was an eastside packet pickup at the unfortunately located Road Runner Sports. It’s on Northup Way in Bellevue, a running store about 3 miles from our house that I’ve never been to for exactly that reason. It’s completely inaccessible by bike. Running there would normally be the obvious choice for me, but ironically my race preparation already had given me a hard run that morning and I wasn’t looking to double. I don’t feel particularly bad about not having the chance to run down Northup’s sidewalks (where they exist anyway). I decided to look into the buses. Generally I only ride the 245 and the B because they give me one seat rides to/from home or work, so this would be some new routes for me.
Here’s the route that I ended up using:
I started in the SE corner with a half mile walk to the 249. The 249 runs every half hour, which is terrible and must be timed well. As is often the case, One Bus Away had no information about the bus. I managed to arrive 5 minutes early, and it was only 1 minute late. The drop-off was only one driveway away from the running store, and the person driving a car out of that driveway even stopped! So far so good.
As I was walking up to the store, I got an email that packet pickup has been canceled due to unforeseen circumstances. I later heard a rumor that it was due to some “Bellevue traffic thing”. I don’t know if that was accurate, but with hundreds (at least?) of people picking up packets, it’s obvious that a parking lot would never work and the line would spill out on Northup. So it’s plausible that this was deemed unacceptable because of commuters. Cars. Anyways, the pickup was still going on, and I was successful.
At this point, I could have ridden the 249 back to my usual 245 to home, but the half hour schedule made this unattractive. If I were more savvy I would have decided on-the-fly and possibly fit in some browsing to make this work. Instead I did a bit of browsing and headed over to the 234/5, either of which would work and run every half hour, where of course I barely missed one after jogging the half mile or so. This left a scheduled 10 minute wait, which became about 15 minutes with very little warning from OBA (stuck in traffic just nearby or bad OBA data, who knows…). This took me to Houghton, where I had another half mile jog to catch a 245 (or have another 15 minute wait).
In the end, I had about a half hour trip to get there and 45-50 minutes to then get home, and it would have been longer if I hadn’t been willing or able to jog. This is pretty bad as these trips just weren’t that far. It’s a somewhat difficult trip because Bridle Trails State Park leaves a void in the transit map. In retrospect, driving early in the afternoon would have been a better trip, but that would have meant driving to work too. It’s easy to see how people end up driving everywhere.
Getting to the Race
This was tricky. The scheduled race time was 7:30am, which meant that I wanted to be there around 6:30. The 520 bridge, not so coincidentally, was closed. Drive there? A maps estimate said 37 minutes, so I’d have to leave at around 5:50. However, how many of the 13,000 participants would be driving? While I would probably arrive earlier than most and be ok, this didn’t seem very reliable, so 5:30? It annoys me to drive in order to run anyway, so next up was the bus. The first 255 on Saturdays leaves downtown Kirkland at 5:46. However, if I left a bike there then I wouldn’t have a good way to get back to it later because I was planning on using a 520 shuttle with the family. That meant the South Kirkland P&R, or 3.5 miles of biking+locking to catch it at 5:54. This could have worked, conservatively leaving the house at 5:30. However, the family was going to the Houghton P&R, and I wasn’t so excited about biking back up the hill at the end of the day. The best solution however, was to not need to deal with a bike at all. By also leaving around 5:30, I could simply jog the 1.5 miles to the closest stop (Houghton), and at the end of the day the Houghton P&R is within a mile of our house (and mostly on top of the hill).
The bus was a tight schedule. It would have been easy with the normal 520 routing to the Montlake freeway station, but instead it had I-90 routing to the transit tunnel. The schedule said 6:16, but it would clearly be late, and then Link only runs every 12 minutes. On the bright side, Link wouldn’t get stuck in any traffic, so at least the arrival would be reliable. Of course, the 255 schedule seems to rely on low ridership, so it was about 10 minutes late before heading to I-90. After that, the ride and connection to Link were smooth, and I probably arrived around 6:40. I then lucked out when they started 5 minutes late as I was just able to finish warming up in time.
Given my difficulties in the above two trips and then the fiasco getting people off of the 520 bridge at the end of the day, it would be natural to complain about buses. Then, by extension, light rail would probably be the solution. However, I don’t think that’s the case.
Instead, I think the lesson is that this was simply a result of buses done poorly. My first trip was mainly a victim of infrequent buses. It’s easy to see why people focus on one-seat rides and talk about a “transfer penalty”. When you can control when you start your trip, you can (partially) deal with an infrequent schedule. With a transfer you generally can’t, and the same held for when I finished my errand. This pretty much rules out such trips unless one has no alternatives. That’s why I was jogging to the stops.
ST2/3 don’t really offer anything for this trip. This is mainly because the trip is too local and not really relevant to Sound Transit. With East Link I’d have reliable service from my office and a >1 mile walk to this store. It would be similar with a bus connection to return home. The proposed ST3 line to nowhere is irrelevant. Bus frequency would have helped a lot, and if frequency made some connections work to shorten the walks then it would be even better.
The morning trip to the race offers a similar story – not about frequency but about how we handle our bus routes. Certainly Link was the best part of the trip, but getting from downtown to the U District wasn’t the problem I even wanted to solve. The 255 route does exactly what I wanted. Why were we rerouting buses the entire weekend? Yes, there were windows in the weekend where the running and biking events used the entire west approach, but that’s no excuse to ruin the transit system for the weekend.
Lastly, the bus shuttle system failed badly to get everyone off of the bridge at the end of the day. There were some early signs with the wait to get onto the bridge for the party, especially near the South Kirkland P&R as the buses were stuck in traffic from people driving to that P&R. Right there we saw the failure of park and rides to scale and also the inevitable reliability issues from putting buses in general traffic. Things got worse later as the wait to Seattle ended up being over an hour. The real capacity issue seemed to be loading, where only a small number of buses would be simultaneously loaded via a small makeshift bridge from the new bridge to the old one. The number of buses and the long turnaround required might have been issues, but any improvements to them wouldn’t have mattered much with the limitations of the makeshift station.
In the end, I think I better understand why popular opinion is fairly negative about buses. It’s not a matter of trying to “sell” buses better but rather a need to make them more reliable and convenient, things that we know how to do.