Rethinking Transit #2: Make the Route Transitions Transparent

Ok this might actually take some effort on behalf of King County Metro. But seriously, it would help tremendously for anyone traveling through downtown. Most routes come into the city from the north, south, or east (the ferries come in from the west). One example is the #18, which arrives downtown from the north and then becomes another route. Sometimes it becomes the #56 or something else that then heads south, but I’m not always sure what it becomes. It isn’t entirely obvious without doing research on a regular basis and studying the schedules (which again is mostly nonsense). So what’s the solution I proffer? Stop making these routes independent. I understand they’re “different routes” or whatever, but you don’t actually transfer. Not in a physical way. It also doesn’t make sense to any logical person, if you paid when you got on and then when you get off again they want you to pay again. The confusion is stupid. However, I’ll leave the fixes to the fare collection system for another day, so don’t get tangled in all that nonsense.

What I suggest, is keep a route number (or whatever designates the entirety of the route) the same. If the #18 starts at North Beach, goes through Ballard, and generally becomes a #56 that heads south to SW Alaska Way or whatever, just pick a number for that route and stick with it. Stop being all bi-polar about what the route number needs to be as soon as a bus gets downtown. This only serves to confuse regular riders and people that don’t regularly use the system are screwed. Those individuals have no chance of understanding at first glance what in the world the system is doing. If the #18 however changes to another route, say #21, then just change that routes number to #21 from the get go and give it a full north to south alignment.

What other problems does this bi-polar splitting of the route? It makes bus drivers have to deal with passenger confusion all the time. Passengers come up all the time and ask, “where does this bus go now?” or if they know a little bit about the system they ask “what route is this bus changing to?”  Once you’ve boarded there is no way to know without harassing the bus driver. I’m pretty sure they’d be cool with simplifying it for the passengers and just saying this is the #18 route from north to south or the #21 route from north to south. Also, don’t give me some nonsense about this being some normal way to run a bus system, it may be but its a crappy thing to do. For once, act like it actually matters that the passenger has a usable product (the transit service) and make it work for them.

Anyway, that’s solution #2. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them! There are lots of improvements to make and I’d be more than happy to be a sounding board for the ideas!

Until another time, happy riding!

In case you want more information about King Count Transit.


  1. I think this is a poor idea, I have never liked the way TriMet does this. One, it provides flexibility, you’ve got 2 routes that can change into 3 other routes, on whatever fashion is needed. Two, you make it sound like there’s lots of work required to determine what it becomes. If you look at an inbound 18 schedule, it’s says right on the end it’s fate, easy, done, Finally, it’s less confusing, the 15 & 18 go north, 21, 22, 56 head to W Seattle. There’s no guessing if I’m on the right direction, even if the driver has the wrong sign up. I don’t see anything wrong with thru routing routes, people know it will turn into one of the other routes, it’s not like it’s a lottery of all the south routes, and most of the people that ride thru, get off on SODO before the routes split. Majority of riders inbound get off in the CBD.


    1. I think a good compromise would be to append letters. To start, I’ll use it with a route such as route 5. Looking just at the outbound segment, there are a few different routings, but all have the same route number. The front and right destination signs do display the termini, but not everyone reads that. If we had, say a “5A” to Northgate and a “5B” to Shoreline CC, that might help. And the “5C” could be Northgate to West Seattle via Downtown, and “5D” could be Shoreline CC to West Seattle via Downtown, “5E” Shoreline CC to Downtown (not continuing to West Seattle).

      For more interesting reading, check out LBT’s numbering history. Obviously we’re not going to get away with the same solution, but it’s an interesting concept:


  2. Fact 1: The VAST majority of people do not have, nor have immediate access to the schedule.
    Fact 2: The schedules are often wrong in fact and in most people’s opinions.
    Fact 3: It is not easy for most toursits, out of towners, or other people (including suburbanites) to have a schedule as they are not readily available.
    Fact 4: When boarding a bus, one usually has to determine at that time what and where the bus goes. This is how a huge number of people utilize transit, so again, no schedule to determine this.
    Fact 5: This lack of information for riders is not going to change anytime soon.

    So thus, I derive the improved UX idea of getting Metro to change its practice instead of trying to force almost 400k riders per day to change their habits. Especially over such a petty thing as identifying the buses more clearly to riders.

    Also – speaking of doing this correctly, I have another entry I’m working up based on King County Metro’s great usage of bus signage for the games, folk life festival, and other events. Those buses are clearly marked. There is zero reason why they can’t make regular service work that way – the planners only need to use the same common sense and intuitive thinking processes. 🙂

    …also, you have a good point, that most riders get off in the CBD. But it is also true that probably less than 1% of riders actually know where or what the bus is becoming because of the confusing nature of the system. If that changed, they could probably gain additional ridership in egress of the CBD. …and you know me, I’m all about increasing ridership in any way we can!

    …oh, and as always, thanks for commenting! 🙂


    1. As I mentioned before, most riders interact with these routes in the CBD, before that bus even enters the CBD, the sign says where its going, now whats so confusing about that? Are Tourists really going to White Center from Ballard? Are they riding from the Ferry Terminal to such a place? Be realistic. If a Tourist is standing at 3rd and Pike, A bus going the 18 route to Ballard will pull up, no sked required. Metro as skeds posted in more places than TriMet does, who mind you, relies MORE on interaction with TransitTRacker, which according to Fact 1, 2 and 5, people do not have access to or, or don’t know where to get it.

      So Fact 4 makes no sense whatsoever, the bus says on the sign wheres its going, and if its in front of where your standing, it leaves now. If a tourist gets on an 18 in Ballard, it goes Downtown, odds are they are going to ask how to transfer to XX route IF on the odd chance they are continuing out the other end of THAT route. The only person a bus is clearly not noted to is you apparently. I see people watch the driver change the sign, they know the plan, or (gasp!) they just ask what he turns into if thats what they are doing, but most people, are going Downtown, which theres no question thats where we’re headed. If you get on in SODO towards Ballard, you have a 50/50 chance of getting your right bus, and on most times of a day, you have a 100% chance of getting your right bus in a 20min window.

      I look forward to your signage post, because i will tell you right now, 30 Seattle Center via U District via Fremont via 50th via 25th via U village… way too confusing. Remember, I drive for these guys, some of these problems your present, really don’t happen that often in my experience, as a driver AND rider.


    2. Fact 1: 100% of the majority of people have immediate access to the schedule. A few feet from the driver’s derriere is a holster full of schedules.
      Fact 2: It’s fine for the schedules to be wrong in people’s opinions. But they’re not “wrong”. The bus may be delayed, and though you might not want to believe it, 9 times out of 10 the delay is beyond the control of the driver.
      Fact 3: See fact 1.
      Fact 4: See the person mentioned in fact 1. Don’t ask his derriere, but asking his face will usually give you some indication to where he’ll be driving.
      Fact 5: Dismissed due to fact 1 and 4.

      “probably less than 1% of riders actually know where or what the bus is becoming because of the confusing nature of the system.”
      Citation, please. Just because it doesn’t make sense to you doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense to others. Remember: You are not your user.


      1. Fact #1: Wrong, often the buses have the wrong schedules or no schedules the majority of the time. If the #18 has #16 or #8 that doesn’t really provide any value – at all.
        Fact #2: Many behavioral studies on why many people refuse to use transit, and lean heavily on their cars, it boils down to not getting the bus when the bus schedule says it will be there. This is a societal fact – people react that way. If they can’t get a mode of transport within 2-3 minutes, they are significantly unlikely to take transit. However, ridership has increased since the usage of location applications has increased. A direct correlation can be drawn and a number of studies have basically drawn these correlations as causable fact.

        Anyway, King County Metro can be progressive and look into these observable and measurable behaviors – and use that information to improve service or they can completely ignore a better understanding of how people use transit – or why they don’t. There are numerous studies that other agencies do in a number of cities that can be used. Metro doesn’t even have to conduct their own to find this information. Either way, they can use it to improve things.

        …as for your last statement, I AM the user. That’s the perspective I write these blog entries from.

        Considering how much research and development car companies do to make cars more usable I can see why transit seems like an archaic and decayed mode of transport in the US. Very little is done to learn about how or what people want to improve conditions. The same ole’ same ole’ is encouraged and pushed forward from operations and agencies.

        Hell, a PRIME example is the busiest stop on the #545 on Capitol Hill. That was fought against by King County Metro for YEARS before the “user” finally got better service. The user saw this fact, but the agency ignored it and lost thousands of riders over the years and the associated revenue to boot!

        Point being, usability studies DO apply to bus service and Metro should pay a LOT more attention to them.

  3. Historical context:

    Routes 15 and 18 had the same number from Ballard to West Seattle.

    So did Route 1 from Kinnear to Beacon Hill. And 43/44.

    Later Route 7’s north half (CBD-U District) was split into the 49. They still run through nights and weekends. So does it make sense to call it the same number if some times of the day you have to change buses?

    Another extreme example of keeping the same number is old Route 7 from Rainier Beach which had many branches like 7-View Ridge, 7-Lake City, 7-15th NE (the 71,72,73). PLUS, the 7 Lake City – Blue Streak (via I-5 and UW).

    As to one solution to the problem, I’ve seen Metro do it but it needs to be more consistent.

    Today they’re on Sunday schedule so go out and look at a 44, which continues as 43 on Sundays. It’ll say 44 Downtown via U District, in downtown it’ll say 43 Ballard via U District. Then they change the route number when they get to the U District but the final destination is always clear.

    The new radio/GPS/announcement system would change the signs automatically and announce the route change onboard the bus over the PA.

    Far easier than messing around with the route numbering system and schedules.


  4. I’d argue the numbers have zero value to riders. Which is one of the things I would argue to remove. Nobody goes to #7 or the #18, they go to University District or Ballard. Every system makes this mistake, but it could be remedied. Seattle’s King County Metro could take the lead on this.


    1. No, but we say “Take the 7” or “Take the 18”. I could say “Take the bus to Ballard” and you’d say “How?” or “Which one?”. Just like we number and name our streets, we need to number and name our routes. How confusing would it be if the destination sign just said “Ballard”? *EVERY* passenger would have to ask “What part of Ballard?”


      1. When you say “we” you mean someone who has learned and knows the system. They’ve learned arbitrary associations that #18 means Ballard or the #8 means Queen Anne Hill or Capitol Hill… depending of course on the direction.

        The problem with this is that the bus number has no real association to the place it is going. Ballard is NOT #18.

        The number has an operational importance (for historical context, but not specifically). It’s simply a “we’ve done it this way for so long and it seems to work and we don’t want to think of new or intuitive ways to do something” type of situation.

        But I digress… you can argue it, or you can research behavioral arguments of how or why a city should and can fix these problems. There is a reason countries and cities are slowly but steadily starting to drop these types of things in favor of having a bus service that goes to X instead of the “Y bus goes to X based on Z”.

      2. The only reason it’s numbered 18 is because route numbers are mutually exclusive. There would be no difference between having it be number 18 or number 856.

        Again, I ask you how we’d get to places if the paths weren’t numbered or named. If I want to get to Fred Meyer, I navigate to NW 45th and 9th. There is no specific reason why it’s called “NW 45th St”–I’d be able to get there just as easy if it were called “NW 12th St”.

        Further, this assumes that the termini are the only important locations for the route. Example: I want to get to Green Lake. I know that route 358 passes by. But with your suggestion, the 358 is just “The Aurora Village Bus”. I have no idea how it gets there, and for all I know, it expressses between Downtown Seattle and Aurora Village. In reality, the 358 is anything but an express.

        And one more surprise: if a rider that has never used the system wants to go to Fremont, we tell them to take the 26. Surprise, they’ve just “learned” and now “know” the system.

    2. What? Regular urban bus services aren’t point-to-point; they serve corridors. Sure, route numbers are artificial and arbitrary but they do communicate something to the rider. And how on earth am I supposed to look it up on OneBusAway without route numbers?


  5. “the buses have the wrong schedules or no schedules the majority of the time”
    Citation, please. More often than not, I see routes operating with the correct schedules. If you notice them with the wrong schedules, please let Metro know. They can’t fix a problem they don’t know about. BTW, it’s the operator’s responsibility to stock these. If they’re all out of printed schedules at the base, there is nothing the operator can do. Except fill out a form.

    “it boils down to not getting the bus when the bus schedule says it will be there.”
    So what’s your magic solution to making things run on time? I’d sure love to hear it.
    Fun fact: When ridership increases, on-time performance decreases. It takes more time to load more people.
    Fun fact #2: Cars are subject to delays. I’ve been late due to riding the bus, and I’ve been late due to driving a car.

    “or they can completely ignore a better understanding of how people use transit – or why they don’t”
    Why they don’t:
    – Route(s) don’t go where they’re going
    – Afraid of getting puked on
    – Preconceived notions about the types of other passengers that ride the bus, especially when those riders are stereotypical of something they find morally unacceptable (example: one person refused to ride the bus because they’re “full of gay males with handlebar mustaches that can’t wait to get home and have buttsex”. Nevermind the fact that they could be driving behind that same couple that may or may not be sex addicts)
    – Span of service and/or headways are undesirable. This is only something that can be fixed with funding.

    Funding is the number one priority right now. Forget about why the route is numbered the way it is. If we can’t fund it, there won’t be a route at all.


  6. Oh and look at route 65/67. On weekdays, 65s become 67s at U-Village, and 67s become 65s at Roosevelt Medical Center. Late at night and on weekends, there is no service on route 67, so 65s become, well, nothing.

    Look at the map for route 46. You see that and head out to a stop in Ballard mid-day, see the schedule on the signpost, ride the bus thinking it’ll go to UW but then get stranded in Fremont. I suppose this is an example of where a route may have been interlined but isn’t. Different type of confusion I guess.


    1. Is this against or for my suggestion? This seems to just point out that the system is inherently confusing, with or without numbers. o_O

      Obviously some type of change should and could be made to make it easier. There is no need for this level of confusion.


  7. So I guess the comments so far can be summarized as “oh the network is complex, no matter what you do, it’s going to be confusing”
    And I think that points to the real issue. While I agree it would make the network easier to understand if “routes” that are served by one bus would be one route on the schedule, that really only can go so far.
    Also, I don’t think finding out where the bus is going once you are on it, or at the stop, is the issue. The issue is not being able to know the network, because there are too many friggin routes to be able to know them all, that only run every 30 minutes, or 3 times a day, so you don’t even know what stop to go to, if you are in an unfamiliar area.
    If I went somewhere unfamiliar in Seattle by bus, then had to return by car I would be able to do that without a map because the road grid is simple enough. The opposite would not work. In Berlin it would, in NYC, Paris, London it probably would too. And it has little to do with the fact that those “buses” there run on rails. It has all to do with the fact that there are a few lines that run at high frequency that can get you reasonably close to anywhere in the city with no more than 2 transfers.
    The intent of the original post might not have been quite as ambitious, but when I complain about metro’s network being confusing, I am referring to the fact that I can’t have a high level image of the main grid in my head. So short of a full high frequency grid, anything that makes the current network more easily understood as a whole helps. Tim’s suggestion of letter qualifiers for sibling routes is a great one. that would help a lot I think, if applied pervasively on the whole network.


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