Requiem for the 13

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Requiem for the 13

December 01, 2016 - 11:54 AM

Is this the end of the road for People Mover’s strangest route?

J. Besl photo

Last month, the Anchorage Department of Public Transportation unveiled two potential overhauls for the People Mover system, both prioritizing increased ridership over increased accessibility (the current system splits the difference 50/50). Regardless of which plan is implemented, Route 13 appears to be doomed.

Thank the Gods.

Americans harbor a collective case of triskaidekaphobia. Friday the 13th is one of our collective nightmares. Hospitals occasionally omit rooms numbered 13. Next time you’re on an elevator (in one of the rare Alaska buildings tall enough to reach 13 floors), check the panels. No number 13.

Despite all the omens and superstitions—and disregarding any transportation lessons learned from Apollo 13—the People Mover gave us Route 13. Fittingly, it’s a strange route that’s best left avoided.

The People Mover proposals aim to streamline the transit system. Well, if the city needs an example of a circuitous route that provides few favors for its passengers, it’s the 13. If Anchorage were a water park, the 13 is the lazy river. If the city is a Candyland board, the 13 is Molasses Swamp. If it had human features, the eyes on the bus would go round and round, rolling in apathy.

I’m among the thousands of Anchorage residents who commute primarily by bus. I ride at least 10 times a week between two super-hubs—downtown and UAA—and I’ll often bus to friends’ houses, libraries, grocery stores, etc. It’s easy, green, convenient (for me) and I hate driving.

Between downtown and UAA, I’m spoiled with five options. When I miss the 3, a direct connector, I know the frequent 45 won’t be long. If I’m really lucky, I’ll catch the 102, truly the unicorn of Anchorage bus routes (operating pretty much never, this rare but beautiful beast boomerangs through downtown on a route where red lights are rare and left turns are rarer). The far-flung 36 is obviously not my option, as it hugs Turnagain/West Anchorage, but the 13 seems blissfully benign, a loping zigzag across the city.

Often, when I’ve missed the 3 in the dead of winter, the 13 beckons with its bright lights twinkling “Downtown.” I know it’s a mistake, but it’s cold and I can’t help but climb aboard. Like traversing the doldrums, there’s no wind in the sails but at least it’s warm. So I steer into the Bermuda Triangle of bus routes, hoping to someday make it home.

All of this, of course, could change. Earlier this year, the Muni released a 99-page transit document, thoughtfully considering demographics and density to determine whether ridership (frequent service on fewer routes) outweighs accessibility (greater reach, but with emptier buses).

Earlier this month, the city decided to prioritize ridership. Currently, the public can weigh in on two proposed overhauls that both simplify the People Mover system and add more frequent service to the densest neighborhoods along the busiest corridors. If approved, the 3 would nix Nunaka Valley. The 60 would scale back on the Southside. And my dearly beloved 102 would disappear completely.

The 13 would also largely evaporate, but that’s fine. It’s the swampiest scourge of the system. Here’s why:

At present, Route 13 rolls out of UAA through residential neighborhoods, twisting and turning at an appropriately slow speed. Next, it crosses into the Alaska Regional Hospital parking lot for a stopover. As we idle before the emergency room doors, I think how odd and convenient it is for public transportation to deliver passengers straight to the ER. Then, I realize, anyone who actually needed to get here would have probably bled out on the slow crawl through Airport Heights.

Eventually, the driver leaves the hospital and heads downtown via DeBarr. But then, curveball of curveballs, we take a left turn on Medfra (Yes! I know! Medfra!) to link to the Anchorage Senior Center.

Many senior citizens rely on public transit and—credit where it’s due—the 13 is just. So. Very. Accommodating. After stopping by the front doors, the bus circles the entire senior center and returns to the same spot. By the time we get back to Medfra and 15th, five minutes have passed with no forward progress.

After weaving through the streets of Fairview, the 13 gingerly crosses Ingra—a gushing stream of northbound traffic—and instead turns on Hyder, a desolate road lined mostly by parking lots. Worse, the 13 turns left on Hyder. With downtown towers in sight, we boldly head in the wrong direction.

Sitting on the 13, my skin crawls with each painfully slow turn and unhurried redirect. And this is just one half of the route. From UAA heading east, the bus serves another 25-mile-per-hour neighborhood at Checkmate and Emmanuel before reaching the finish line at Muldoon Transfer Center.    

Currently, the only bus that takes longer to reach its final destination is the 102, which covers double the distance on the way to Eagle River. To be fair, the 13 isn’t trying to deliver passengers between downtown and Muldoon (the 3, 8, 15 and 75 connect those dots quicker). And again, to be fair, 13 isn’t trying to serve my needs, but rather the good people in quiet neighborhoods near U-Med and Airport Heights, who will lose their meandering bus coverage under either proposal.

The Muni’s plans affect every route in the system, shuffling existing resources to boost some routes at the expense of others. In the most drastic option—100 percent of resources focused on ridership—the 13 disappears completely. At best, the less extreme plan cuts the 13 to an hourly lasso, traversing high-ridership Fairview, circling the senior center and returning downtown.

Nothing is guaranteed to change, though, as the Muni held several public discussions throughout November to weigh riders’ feedback. Should the 13 disappear, consider this my unhelpful eulogy:

I will miss you, 13, for making me viscerally aware of how many streets exist in Anchorage. You always remind me that public transit is a team effort and someone, somewhere, at least once, boarded this thing at Hyder and 11th. You have made me contemplate (for hours) that riding the bus requires a beautiful surrender of personal power. You remind me of the Snake game on my old Nokia.

But we’re better culling your world tour to amp efficiency elsewhere. You can find me at the Transit Center, pouring one out for the 102.