News Roundup: Obsolete

Peaking over the hedges

This is an open thread.

Housing Is Expensive Because Everyone Wants it That Way

Viaduct replacement construction snapshot - July 20, 2012

Alon Levy, Pedestrian Observations:

The problem here is entirely political. Cities have the power to zone. Thus, supply depends entirely on whether local community leaders accept more housing. This housing, almost invariably, goes to outsiders, who would dilute the community’s politics, forming alternative social networks and possibly caring about different political issues.

When asking why things are the way they are, it’s always useful to ask, cui bono?  In most American coastal cities today, developers like to sell expensive houses, current homeowners like to see their property values rise, and those who benefit from subsidized housing don’t want to have to compete against more outsiders for a fixed number of subsidized or rent-controlled units.  Everyone wins, except the people who aren’t here yet: the migrants, the new college grads, and anyone else who is an outsider today but hopes to be an insider tomorrow.

Levy’s post ties these threads together really well.  Read the whole thing.

It’s Time to Shift Lobbying Priorities

Avgeek Joe/Flickr

For at least five years, the primary objective of City and County transportation lobbying effort has been new revenue authority for Metro, generally understood to be some form of Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET). County leaders held back on “Plan B,” a flat vehicle fee via a Transportation Benefit District (TBD), until the last possible moment prior to cuts, partly because progressive voters would view a tax proportional to the value of the vehicle as fairer.

In hindsight, that was a mistake. An April election has an unfavorable electorate. Again, this is 20/20 hindsight — I thought saving Metro had a decent chance this year — but after the 2013 legislative session accomplished nothing, they should have immediately planned a November 2013 ballot measure via TBD. April’s result suggests that replacing a flat fee with an MVET wouldn’t have made much of a difference in a spring tally, but higher turnout might have.

This November, Seattle voters will vote on preserving most of their own service after experiencing the first swath of cuts. Odds are very good that they vote to keep buses running. Although Mayor Murray has said all the right things about the Seattle funding being temporary until there is a regional solution, in fact the stakes for future legislative action are quite low. Winning a countywide vote is about a better election turnout, the likely end of the myth that Metro will magically avoid cuts through “efficiency”, and convincing more conservative voters. Although MVET would be great, the precise structure of the vehicle taxes is unlikely to be decisive, and in any case the highest demand jurisdiction (Seattle) will almost certainly be in reasonable shape.

That’s why Seattle and King County should reorient their priorities towards something with a higher payoff. I’m referring, of course, to Sound Transit 3. As the legislature considers a large package to address the perceived transportation problems around the state, ST3 is the only project that will truly change transportation in dense urban areas and key regional chokepoints.

Moreover, action is  urgent. There has been essentially no public discussion of the need for more authority for Sound Transit in Olympia, and there are only two more sessions before the November 2016 election. Sound Transit, wisely, strongly prefers votes in Presidential election cycles, and if we miss the 2016 opportunity it may have to wait till 2020. That would likely slide even early light rail segments to around 2034, and late ones near mid-century. If most of the people in the debate today are going to see its fruits in their working lives, it’s time for local leaders and our representatives in Olympia to not just play defense and instead focus on the right thing.

Spokane’s Downtown is for People – and their Buses

Downtown Spokane WA on approach to the airport

Downtown Spokane WA on approach to the airport by Ron Reiring – Spokane, WA

On this side of the Cascades, we don’t often hear much about transit in Spokane. That’s a shame, because Spokane is not just Washington’s second most populous city — and perhaps Washington’s most beautiful city —  but it’s a place built around transit, whose center has survived the ravages of mid-century suburban flight, urban renewal and freeway building to become the slowly-regrowing urban center of the Inland Northwest. Its downtown is sprinkled with stunning railroad-era architecture (some of which would turn heads in San Francisco), its street grid is mostly complete, and the city and its suburbs are served by Washington’s most efficient transit agency, the Spokane Transit Authority.

Unfortunately, much of the transit news from Spokane has been bad, lately. One of the STA’s signature accomplishments is an attractive, modern bus station and customer service center in the heart of downtown, known locally as the Plaza. Photos of the Plaza are shown around the world by Jarrett Walker as an example of the kind of civilized, humane waiting-place that transit customers should expect, and which can be built even by not-lavishly-funded agencies. Such facilities are especially important to small-city transit agencies like STA, where there is no rapid transit system around which to organize the rest of the transit network, nor enough money to run a full grid of frequent routes out to the limits of the service area, and thus many customers need to make connections through a single central hub.

Recently, a handful of well-connected downtown Spokane property owners have tried to force STA to move this flagship facility out of the downtown core. The events involved in the lead-up to this are a little complicated: there’s a recently-reactivated plan to refurbish the plaza, the removal (and then replacement) of a smoking area for plaza patrons, and a sudden flare up of concerns about crime, vagrancy and indigence in the retail core. The opposition’s stated reasons will be depressingly familiar to anyone who’s been involved in any major expansion of transit out to suburban areas: Putatively, transit facilities are full of ne’er-do-wells and criminals, loitering around waiting to rob or beg someone of their money, and the solution is to make these people disappear by making the facility disappear — and besides, all those buses are empty anyway. Of course, none of these things are actually true.

More after the jump. [Read more...]

Retraction: WSF

We blew it this morning. Frank’s post on Washington State Ferries asks:

Instead of asking 484 people to leave the ferry, one assumes they could have simply taken off a few dozen cars instead.

As our alert commenters pointed out, that’s a terrible assumption, as the passenger limits are likely limited by safety equipment. The point is, we didn’t check, and that’s on us. While the post isn’t exactly a falsehood — Frank is clearly speculating — we can do better.

Our apologies. I’ve taken down the original post.

Full-time Bus Lanes, Please

Photo by the Author

Photo by the Author

As a concession to the various free on-street parking interests, many of Seattle’s Business Access and Transit (BAT) lanes only operate in the peak direction during rush hour. Unfortunately, the peak direction is defined by the downtown core, which is a mere subset of where the jobs are.

Witness the photo above, the situation in the evening going South on Elliott Avenue. The 24 is going in the “off-peak” direction and is therefore unworthy of adequate priority treatments. Traffic stopped at the light, combined with a handful of cars allowed to park in the right lane, mean that the bus has to wait until the light changes to come up and serve the passengers. Inevitably, this will take the entire light cycle and the bus will have to wait for another red light.

The dozen or so parked cars in the picture, allowed to use these spaces and saving their drivers perhaps a few minutes of walking, add to similar delays for substantially more people at this stop, and on this bus trip, alone. Multiplied over the many trips in the afternoon peak, the misallocation of space is staggering.

Within Central Seattle, the idea of “peak” and “contra-peak” directions is obsolete. Jobs are scattered everywhere in the triangle formed by Lower Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, and Sodo, and many cars and buses  there have to travel back into downtown to get to where they’re going. It’s time to abolish these distinctions and make sure buses can operate reliably.

Transit Geography Visualization

This is a guest post.

Transit users and STB readers use – and like to use – route maps. Routes are tangible, and are how we think when we actually use transit. This post uses some geographic analysis – focused on population and walking access – to show more of the big picture.

In April Metro recommended several phases of service cuts, for a total of about 16% of current service hours, corresponding to the estimated shortfall revenue following the defeat of county Proposition 1. It estimated loss of existing riders (10.8M rides – about 10%). This is indeed a key metric but I’ve not found quantitative answers to another seemingly basic question: what effect would the full set of recommended Metro cuts have on residents’ access to service (measured by 1/4-mile walking distance to service stops)?

So I’ve built some tools marrying Metro service details with a geographic information system (GIS).  Here’s a sample map showing areas of 15-minute frequency service during commute hours, after the cuts (green) overlaid on current (orange). Compare this to route-oriented maps from Metro and Oran Viriyincy’s remarkable before-and-after route frequency map.
peak ge4

Translating this information to population impact for Seattle (county-wide to come soon):

Service hours cut Loss of served population
30-minute freq. 15-minute freq.
Peak 16% 2.3% 6.4%
Off-peak 16% 6.4% 12.6%
Night 16% 9.1% 11.9%

On these results, Metro’s planning, following the Service Guidelines, looks to be quite effective, including restructures that increase the population that can be served with limited revenue.

[Read more...]

Executive Constantine Announces Low-Income Fare on its Way

King County Executive Dow ConstantineKing County Executive Dow Constantine held a press conference Thursday to unveil details of how King County Metro will roll out its low-income fare program. The press conference followed the submission of the Final Report of the Low Income Fare Implementation Task Force.

The fare will be $1.50 per Metro trip, available only through ORCA, and will require the rider to go through a qualification process to demonstrate her/his income is at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. Requalification will happen every two years.

The qualification process won’t be cheap or easy for the county. But the application process and the low-income ORCA card will be free for the applicant. Metro will partner with Public Health – Seattle & King County to administer the qualification process. Public Health will work with other third-party agencies to set up more places riders can qualify. 45,000-100,000 riders are estimated to be eligible. The cost of the program — reduced fares plus administration — is expected to be $7-9 million a year.

The qualfication process will start up in February of 2015, with the new fare taking effect March 1, 2015. Kitsap Transit and King County Metro will honor each others’ low-income ORCA cards. (See page 2 of the linked document.)

The County Council still has to vote to implement the program. The vote is expected to be unanimous, given the council’s unanimous vote to create the Low Income Fare Options Advisory Committee, and the council’s unanimous vote to set the fare level and create the Low Income Fare Implementation Task Force.

Other US transit agencies with low-income fare programs include Kitsap Transit, SunTran (Tucson, AZ), and The Ride (Ann Arbor, MI). Several other agencies offer low-income passes.

Editor-in-Chief Martin Duke was one of the first to publicly call for this program. The council’s decision to create the Low Income Fare Options Advisory Committee came about partially in response to social equity concerns when the Ride Free Area was discontinued in 2012, and partially at the behest of an organizing campaign led by the Seattle Transit Riders’ Union.

News Roundup: A Little More Direct


This is an open thread.

Potential Gondola Ridership

This is a guest post.

El renacimiento de los teleféricos

For every gondola idea I’ve posted here I’ve been careful not to plan a line in the same place where it would make sense to build rail. A subway is more permanent, faster*, and generally has much more capacity than gondolas. Yes, gondolas are potentially much cheaper, but cost shouldn’t trump good design if we can afford it. Because of this, I think gondolas are best run as feeder branches to a subway system, or on its own in areas that doesn’t make sense for rail.

This said, I would like to call your attention to the city of La Paz Bolivia, and its first gondola line, Línea Roja. In their opening month they served 1,000,000 passengers, or around 36,000 riders per day. This is well beyond Seattle’s Central Link’s opening numbers, and it took Link over 5 years to reach one million riders in a month. La Paz is on course to build a total of 8 lines.

Of course there are a dozen reasons this line isn’t comparable to Link, or anything we would build in Seattle. And it hasn’t changed my opinion that gondolas belong mainly as branch feeder lines if we can afford real grade-separated rail. But occasionally the issue of capacity comes up, and I think La Paz shows we don’t have to worry about it.

* depending on frequency and distance

Rideshares Are Actually Becoming Rideshares

Ever since their launch, TNCs such as  Uber and Lyft have somewhat euphemistically been labeled as ‘rideshares’, when in reality they have been bringing taxi-like services into the digital age. Though marketed through such phrases as ‘your friend with a car’, it has been clear for some time that TNC drivers do so strictly for compensation, and for tens of thousands it has become full-time employment.

Last week, within a day of each other, Lyft and Uber both took steps that bring them closer to being true rideshares, introducing Lyft Line and Uber Pool (currently in San Francisco only).  This new app functionality allows passengers to share rides with other app users in exchange for lower fares. Though paid ridesharing has long been available in limited applications through services such as Shuttle Express, it has never before been offered either on demand or at scale. This is huge.

Lyft Line and UberPool will offer true spontaneous ridesharing (taxipooling?) by algorithmically matching up users requesting similar origin/destination pairs. Lest you think that you’d be in for a lengthy detour to serve a fellow passenger’s trip, Lyft says that its data shows that 80% of the time, other users have requested a similar trip within a 5-minute drive. A trip from Fremont to Capitol Hill, typically around $12, could be shaved down to $3 per person if, say, one couple was matched with another along the way. Whereas the ‘traditional’ TNC services have relied upon dynamic pricing  to great controversy– such as Prime Time Tips or Surge Pricing — the new rideshare option will feature flat fares to go after the commuter market, for whom price stability is far more important.

By riding with strangers for the sake of lowering costs and boosting efficiency, this new ridesharing functionality will make the services much more transit like; and Lyft is even marketing it as such, with CEO Logan Green saying:

Instead of public transit, we’re building what we call personal transit. This is a transit system with infinite routes — and it becomes stronger, more affordable, and more efficient the more it’s used.”

Ah, good ‘ol PRT. Many have already hailed the new service as “the beginning of the end for public transit,” and some of the promo materials have been fundamentally anti-urban. Take for instance this gem of sprawl marketing:

TNCs do wonderful things: they greatly reduce parking demand, they eliminate any attempted excuse for intoxicated driving, and they provide a superior option for trips that transit doesn’t serve well (say Eastlake to Magnolia, or even Upper Queen Anne to Fremont). But TNCs are emphatically NOT a substitute for fast, reliable transit, nor are they a way to greenwash sprawl. They are still cars taking up huge amounts of space, transporting people at densities orders of magnitude below that of good transit systems. In no way would we be better off as a city if the 60 people on my #49 bus each afternoon took a caravan of 30-40 Ubers instead.

For now, TNCs are brilliantly innovative transitional systems that leverage our national investment in cars and highways, providing the next generation a bridge to car-free or car-lite life. But if they alone are the future, that’s just not good enough. A society in which TNCs supplanted transit would still be the sprawling vehicle-based society we all want to move beyond, and would cap maximum densities at levels far below what we need. High capacity, high frequency transit is the only technology that transports people at the scale necessary to support dense, walkable neighborhoods, and it’s on those bones that real cities hang.

June 2014 Sound Transit Ridership Report – One MILLION boardings



June continued Sound Transit’s run of strong ridership growth. Total Link boardings reached 1,000,000 for the first time. The Sound Transit system as a whole crossed 110k average weekday boardings for the first time.

June’s Central Link Weekday/Saturday/Sunday average boardings were 36,486 / 29,077 / 24,782, growth of 14.2%, -1.5%, and 13.4% respectively over June 2013. Saturday is the first negative number I recall for Link, however the weekend average still increased as a whole. Sounder’s weekday boardings were up 3.2% with ridership increasing on both lines. Total Tacoma Link weekday ridership increased .9%, hopefully signalling a stabilization of ridership on that line. Weekday ST Express ridership was up 7.4%. System wide weekday boardings were up 8.7%, and all boardings were up 10.3%. The complete June Ridership Summary is here.

My charts below the fold. [Read more...]

Give Link Transfers a Chance

Rainier Beach Station:  easy to access from a bus stop

Rainier Beach Station: easy to access from a bus stop

After my piece about the impacts of Sound Transit running 6-minute headway when U-Link opens on bus riders, taxpayers, and Link riders, I have a plea for King County Metro to do its part to smoothe Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel operations.

It is important that Metro choose the routes it runs through the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel carefully, to make the best use of money, and to not put so many buses in the tunnel during the peak that several minutes are added to travel time for most peak tunnel users.

The great advantage of running bus routes through the tunnel, instead of up at street level, is less travel time. That’s money saved or service hours left over to hold onto other service. This argument does not apply to routes that could simply head up to the Seneca St exit, and pass through downtown just once per loop. Nor does it apply to routes that don’t need to go downtown.

Four routes currently enter the tunnel via the SODO busway: 101, 102, 106, and 150. The February 2015 cuts package proposes that Route 106 instead enter downtown along Yesler Way. Some awesome suggestions have been made by Aleks and others regarding how to restructure routes 101 and 150 to allow many more riders to connect to Link without having to transfer buses or take an express bus all the way downtown. Route 102 could likewise just go to Rainier Beach Station, so that service hours are available to save local suburban King County service.

Another route that should not be going into the tunnel after U-Link opens is route 255. Riders coming from Kirkland and going to the University of Washington would benefit greatly from having routes 255 and ST Express 540 streamlined into one route with better frequency and an all-day span of service. Kirkland riders going to Capitol Hill or First Hill would also benefit greatly. For Kirkland riders going downtown, it would improve both frequency and reliability.

Indeed, no SR 520 routes should go into the tunnel after U-Link opens, given the poor connection when the express lanes are going the wrong way, and the option of transfering at UW Station. Sadly, instead of re-routing some of these peak expresses to UW Station, Metro is eliminating several of them entirely.

Sound Transit, for its part, could help make the transfer experience dramatically better by putting up wayfinding maps at each station, showing where the bus stops are for bus routes that serve that station, and post the scheduled stops for those buses. This enormous improvement would cost pennies in the grand scheme of Sound Transit operations.

Which routes should go into the tunnel? Zach and others have already spilled much ink on that topic. The bottom line, for me, is that the tunnel flow smoothly enough that there is less than a minute of “The train/bus is being held due to traffic ahead. The train/bus will be moving shortly” for nearly all trips throughout the day, and that Metro use the platform space wisely with buses that have no less-expensive option for their path. Routes 101, 102, 106, 150, and 255 clearly don’t meet that test after U-Link opens. The current number of buses going through the tunnel is causing too much slow-down as is.

Your “Free” Parking Costs Taxpayers $400

James Trosh/Flickr

Joseph Stromberg, Vox:

When we find an open spot on the street, and there’s no meter, it seems free — but it too is the result of government spending. The cost of the land, pavement, street cleaning, and other services related to free parking spots come directly out of tax dollars (usually municipal or state funding sources). Each on-street parking space is estimated to cost around $1,750 to build and $400 to maintain annually.

Follow the link and you’ll learn that off-street surface parking can cost $1,500 to $2,000 per space.  Underground parking, like the massive underground lots being dug out for new apartments all over Seattle, cost much more, on the order of $20,000 or more per space. That translates into higher construction costs, which means higher rents and less affordable housing.

The whole article is a fantastic primer on why free parking is so terrible. I want to quote the whole thing, but you should go read it instead.

A 6/10 Compromise?

Could King County Metro and Sound Transit be on a collision course over tunnel usage in 2016?

Could King County Metro and Sound Transit be on a collision course over tunnel usage in 2016?

As Zach wrote about earlier this week, King County Metro and Sound Transit will be running tests this morning to see how many buses Metro can squash into the tunnel during PM peak after Link trains move to 6-minute peak headway in 2016 (See page 106.).

Given the tunnel closure, the Highway 99 closure, and the SR 520 closure today, be sure to check to see if and where your bus is being re-routed. For those who have to transfer at SODO Station, catch route 21, 97, 101, 106, 131, 132, 150, or 594. Routes 21, 131, and 132 are over on 4th Ave S, so be sure to get off at the Lander stop.

Metro is right to try to get as much usage out of the tunnel as possible, without turning it into a worse crawl than now. Sound Transit is right to try to optimize wait+travel time for the state’s largest-ridership transit line (by orders of magnitude after 2016). Unless the two agencies work out a deal, neither may get what they want.

The problem is predominately during PM peak, when the vast majority of downtown riders are paying as they board, and roughly a third of them are still fumbling change. Both downtown street-level traffic and the transit tunnel slow to a crawl, and riders in the tunnel are treated to 2-8 minutes of being trapped on buses and trains waiting in between stations for the next platform to clear.

Allow me to offer a modest suggestion. Let’s call it the “6/10 Compromise“: [Read more...]

Is Your Driver Depressed?

Discover Magazine:

An interesting study just published examines the rates of clinical depression experienced by workers in different jobs.

It turns out that people involved in ‘Local and Interurban Passenger Transport’ are most likely to be treated for depression. By contrast, those employed in ‘Amusement and Recreational Services’ are less than half as likely to experience it – at least, in Western Pennsylvania, where the research was conducted.

The article questions whether these results are generalizable beyond Western Pennsylvania, but the study’s conclusion that

Industries with the highest rates tended to be those which, on the national level, require frequent or difficult interactions with the public or clients, and have high levels of stress, and low levels of physical activity.

is at least intuitive.

Dealing with riders all day would certainly depress me, but what say you, drivers? Are your colleagues a morose bunch? Is it a naturally depressing job?

Clarification: Subarea Equity

Yesterday’s exercise on ST3 budgeting was unclear enough to prompt a friendly email from ST spokesman Geoff Patrick. So I’d like to clarify that subarea equity isn’t a matter of strictly dividing money along subarea boundaries; I’ve always understood it to be a negotiation process based on the interests of each subarea. For example, I’d expect Pierce County to contribute a significant portion of any run from Federal Way to Tacoma, as that segment is a much higher priority for them than for South King County. As Mr. Patrick put it:

State law on this topic is mainly about reporting. As long as a ballot measure identifies where the funds originate and are spent, Board members can define equity in whatever fashion they believe serves constituents. Note that the past ballot measures have included investments outside subarea boundaries spanning all three of our transit modes, and particularly Sounder and ST Express. The decisions weren’t about where the service is located but about desired destinations and what the Board understood the priority for each subarea to be. It is only after a measure passes that its provisions become legally binding, and a future ballot measure doesn’t have to use the same approaches as past measures.

Emphasis mine. Given the limited value of Snohomish County rail to other subareas, and the limited value of the other projects to Snohomish County, I don’t think it in practice affects my choice to dimension the project according their needs. But it does provide would-be package builders with more flexibility if they can make plausible arguments that a project outside a boundary serves that subarea’s direct interests.

Transit Rides per Capita


Listicles that rank cities according to ill-defined criteria are nearly worthless internet click bait, but as usual fivethirtyeight brings some rigor to the process:

The measure used is “unlinked trips,” which counts transfers during the same journey as separate trips. This figure can be converted to “trips per resident” by dividing unlinked trips in 2013 by 2012 population estimates from the American Community Survey (ACS), yielding a figure that’s neatly comparable among cities of varying sizes.

Note that these are metro areas, not single municipalities. As you might imagine, New York blows everything else away, much-maligned San Francisco/Oakland is second, and DC is third.  Then it’s a mix of transit cities and college towns. Atlantic City, NJ is last at #290, with 0.5 transit rides per person per year.

Here are the Washington State results with some interesting reference points thrown in:

10. Philadelphia (67.8)

12. Seattle (63.6)

13. Portland (58.4)

17. Bellingham (49.6)

19. Eugene (46.5)

42. Olympia-Lacey (30.2)

43. Spokane (30.1)

[Read more...]