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Seattle Bus Maps: Should They Be Like Butter? Or A Spider Web?

When the Capitol Hill and University link light rail stations open up in about a year, it will change how many people get around Seattle. Something else is changing too: the way King County Metro organizes its bus routes. It’s considering two very different strategies. At a series of open houses this month, it’s asking the public for feedback.

KUOW’s Joshua McNichols has more.


Metro redesigned many of its South Seattle bus routes when light rail opened there. Now, it’s North Seattle’s turn.

On the one hand, Metro could leave things mostly as they are, with buses covering most of northeast Seattle. The problem with that approach is it spreads Metro so thin that buses serve some areas infrequently.

Obeso: "In transit lingo, we refer to the current system as a radial system. Many points to a center."

McNichols: "Like a spider web!"

Obeso: "Like a spider web."

That’s Metro planner, Victor Obeso.

He says the spider web works fine, but many people would prefer more frequent and reliable service, even if they had to walk a few blocks to reach their stop. He says Metro could do more with its money if some people transferred to light rail to get downtown at one of the new link light rail stations.

So Metro developed one alternative that’s very different from the old spider web system.

Obeso: "These are big changes."

But big changes require new ways of thinking. Powerful enough metaphors can help us visualize the changes, and understand them in our bones.

McNichols: "Is there a metaphor that would help describe the change?"

Obeso: "I’ve been wracking my brain since you asked me that question earlier."

So I turned to the novelist Peter Mountford (author of The Dismal Science). His job is to think about words and metaphors. He happened to be working at the Richard Hugo house when I popped in unexpectedly.

Mountford: "I mean, it’s essentially the same number of buses, right? It’s the same number of transportations. They’re just on a narrower band, right? Is that the idea?

McNichols: "Yeah, that’s basically it. Existing service is like – they spread butter over toast. It’s kind of thin – but it’s everywhere."

Mountford: "And the new service is like huge hunks of butter that are too cold to spread around the toast."

Possible alternatives presented by Metro:

Here’s another metaphor. Right now, a map of metro’s bus stops is a little like the night sky, when you’re on a camping trip. It’s full of stars. After the transformation, the map will be more like looking at the night sky from the city, where sometimes you can only see the big dipper against a black sky.

Mountford: "And the lesser known, more obscure sort of boutique stars are going to be invisible."

McNichols: "There’s a little bit of sadness in losing the full sky of stars for you."

Mountford: "Exactly! And the lonely bus ride to the obscure stop where you’re sitting on the bus, you’re the only person apart from the driver, and you have your headphones on and you’re sort of spacing out."

Metro would love to hear you weigh in on what kind of service you want. What metaphor works best for you. It’s hosting public meetings this month.

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