Two new lines will be starting service this year for King County Metro Transit’s frequent bus service, RapidRide. The system currently has four routes, lettered A through D, that serve key commuting corridors in the Seattle metro area such as Bellevue to Redmond and Ballard to downtown Seattle. RapidRide isn’t at the service level of bus rapid transit (BRT), which has become popular in recent years, but it sets itself apart from standard bus service with frequent headways, street improvements, and technology upgrades.
RapidRide was funded as part the Transit Now funding package approved by county voters in 2006, which used a .01 percent sales tax increase to fund transit improvements. The revenue also supported increased bus service hours, vanpool programs,and paratransit assistance, but much of these have been scaled back since the 2008 recession caused sales tax revenue to decline. With the 2010-2011 budget, the county council directed the tax to support existing services. However, RapidRide has survived the Metro funding crisis thanks to millions in state and federal grants. The A line launched in October 2010 with 50 stations and stops between the Tukwila light rail station and the Federal Way Transit Center. A year later the B line launched between Bellevue and Redmond, and in September 2012 the C and D lines opened from West Seattle and Ballard, respectively, to downtown Seattle. (See Metro’s website for detailed route information.)
After a delay from 2013, on February 15th the E line will replace Aurora Avenue’s route 358, Metro’s second busiest route, between Seattle’s downtown and its northern neighbor of Shoreline. The route will primarily serve downtown’s busy 3rd Avenue and the Belltown, Green Lake, and Bitterlake neighborhoods.
In June the F line will replace route 140 and connect the downtowns of Burien, a city of 30,000 near SeaTac airport, and Renton, where Boeing employs 13,000 people at its 737 aircraft factory. In addition to serving the large Southcenter mall, the F line will connect Tukwila’s Link light rail and Sounder commuter rail stations. The stops will average a little less than 1/2 mile apart.
The premise behind RapidRide is to increase transit frequency, speed, and convenience within Metro’s most popular corridors and the county’s densest communities. These objectives are achieved in a number of ways. The system’s articulated buses have low-floor designs, three doors, and seat layouts that make boarding and existing easier, along with free Wi-Fi. The purpose-built stations are located at intervals optimized for speed, are well lit, have ORCA card readers for fare payment before boarding, and have electronic signs showing the upcoming arrivals. Roadway improvements along the routes include new HOV or bus-only lanes, sidewalk bulbs, and signal priority that gives green lights to buses. Automated stop announcements and displays within the buses were expanded to the entire Metro fleet starting in 2011, and other busy transfer stations are being equipped with arrival screens that use the OneBusAway app.
Each line operates every 10 minutes during peak hours, 15 minutes off-peak, and runs through the night and on weekends. As a result, RapidRide has been immensely popular. According to Metro’s 2013 Service Guidelines Report (PDF, page 39), since each line’s opening Metro has recorded a “…55 percent ridership increase on the A Line, 20 percent increase on the B Line, 51 percent increase on the C Line, and 16 percent increase on the D Line”. The most popular downtown stops, at 3rd Avenue and Pike Street, see about 6,000 daily boardings. The routes that serve this area, C and D, will see slightly reduced nighttime and weekend service if the mid-2014 service cuts go through.
Unlike a true BRT system, RapidRide has no dedicated right-of-way. In some areas roadways have been reconfigured with ‘business access and transit’ (BAT) lanes that are restricted to buses and motorists making right turns during peak hours. The lane restrictions have inevitably led to complaints from drivers about congestion and travel times. The rushed rollout of the D line also lead to some sputters before card readers and signal prioritization were implemented in downtown Seattle.
Overall, RapidRide has fulfilled the promise of faster trips over local bus service in commuter corridors and is another step towards strengthening the regional transit system. Future modifications of the six lines or additions can help fill gaps in the area’s growing light rail network while regular buses and pedestrian and bicycle paths can further help people move between urban centers without cars. And the region needs it: with Seattle’s population projected to increase 25 percent by 2030, transit must continue expanding to ensure a sustainable economy and healthy communities.