Two Holiday Essays

Greenwich Village Street Scene (wikimedia)

Two posts about urban planning and design for the holiday:

First, Vancouver, BC planner Larry Beasley gave a talk in the DC area and afterwards had a chat with the Greater Greater Washington folks.  He shares how Vancouver made sure that its high-rises made positive contributions to the urban fabric, although he’s not exactly for tall buildings everywhere.  My favorite quote:  “Government has to be an ally of the architect against all the other things that homogenize design.”

Second, a very thoughtful essay in The Atlantic on urban ideals, change, and gentrification. The Manhattan neighborhood that Jane Jacobs immortalized was not timeless, but in fact a snapshot of an area in the midst of the gentrification process.

I’m still digesting these and have nothing to say or add. Now go out and do something worthwhile on this Memorial Day; a whole bunch of people suffered and died to give you the chance.

Sunday Open Thread: SF Bus Stop Consolidation

Sound Transit June 2010 Service Change

[UPDATE: ST planner Jim Moore explains about the 522:

When originally written, the routing change was the fact that we returned to the express lanes.  Later on, we revised the routing in the SODO area to eliminate right turns from westbound Holgate Street to northbound SODO Busway.]

The new ST schedule book, effective June 12, is out.  Aside from “minor schedule adjustments”, there are new trips on the 535 and 577, ne2 Saturday service for the 578, and fewer on the 586, 590, 592, and 593.

The booklet claims new routing for the 522 but looking at old and new maps I can’t figure out what the change is.

ST Express Fares Up Tuesday

ST Express Proposed Changes

Proposed changes to ST Express bus fare.

As previously reported, Sound Transit’s Express bus fares are going up at the beginning of next month.  The one-zone fare is rising from $1.50 to $2.00, catching up with Metro’s fare escalation.  The Senior one-zone fare is also going up from 50 cents to 75 cents.  This is part of a two-stage fare simplification as depicted above.

More significantly, the concept of a “two-zone fare” now only applies to the fare zones within King County.  Any trip that crosses a County Line is an “multi-county” fare, effectively the old three-zone fare ($3.50).  For adults going Pierce-South King, Snohomish-North King, or Snohomish-East King, this amounts to a 50 cent increase; it’s also an increase for youth and seniors making similar trips.

One big winner from this change is Community Transit, whose South County-King County commuter fare is $3.50 for adults. Already $1.00 over the competing ST fare, CT felt it couldn’t increase commuter fares in the latest round of budget cuts.  With the gap back to 50 cents and on its way to zero, they may feel able to do so in the future.  Raising commuter fares is a (relatively) progressive move, as these riders are more likely to be well-off.

All local fares for CT are also going up Tuesday, from $1.50/$1.00/$0.50 for adult/youth/senior to $1.75/$1.25/$0.75.

These changes are of course driven by revenue shortfalls, but they are also steps towards the fare synchronization that many riders are interested in seeing.  On the other hand, advocates of more distance-based fares will be disappointed.

PT Tomorrow, Round 2

"Growth" Plan (Pierce Transit)

Based on the first round of public input, Pierce Transit has refined their future service concepts. A very nice website compares the current system with what it will look like after the coming budget cuts.  A third map depicts the route structure if the sales tax increases from 0.6% to the maximum 0.9%, allowing not only preservation of service, but actually a little bit of growth.

Also, to build on a recent theme, lots and lots of system maps!

Tacoma Tomorrow has the public meeting times and promises analysis in the near future.

Vote, and Get $1000 for Transportation Choices Coalition!

A band called “Million Dollar Nile” is giving $1000 to the environmental nonprofit with the most votes. While there are some other great candidates too, Transportation Choices Coalition asked us first, and they could definitely use the money! Simply go here, find TCC, and vote!

Senate Mulls Transit Operating Subsidy

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) (Wikimedia)

Historically, the federal government tends to directly subsidize transit capital expenditure, not operating expenditure.  However, with operating budgets collapsing nationwide, Chris Dodd and seven other Senators have proposed a $2 billion fund to help transit agencies through their current revenue trough.  Local reaction here (summary: Yipee!).

It’s important to understand that this is an “authorization”, not an “appropriation”, so even if this measure passes lawmakers would have to add it to an appropriations bill sometime in the next 16 months.  This comment covers how the money would be distributed; since I’m entirely ignorant of the relevant statutes I’ll just say that strictly according to King County’s population, Metro would be in line for $12m.  That’s perhaps a quarter of the deficit in 2012, so it’s nice, but hardly solves the problem even in the short term.

How and When Link Reliability Will Improve

Sounders fans at ID/Chinatown Station, by Oran

Earlier this week I had a chance to sit down with Ron Tober, deputy chief executive of Sound Transit, to talk about Link reliability. Tober has extensive bus and rail experience – he oversaw the startup of Charlotte’s LYNX system, once headed up King County Metro, and has experience in several other cities.

On time performance has been much better in the last month than it was in the first quarter. Tober showed me more recent data – without weekend and night maintenance, trains have been on schedule about 90% of the time, and headway reliability has been well over 90%.

For now, though, that’s about all we’re going to get, and Sound Transit can’t do too much about it, largely because of the downtown tunnel.  More after the jump. [Read more...]

Property Tax Proposal would Cut Metro Revenue

Photo by Erubisu SEA

Shortly before the County Council’s failure to approve Executive Constantine’s sales tax increase for the sheriff’s office, the four (technically non-partisan) Republican members of the Council proposed an alternate plan to provide that revenue by redirecting property tax flows.

This is not to be confused with the “Democratic” property tax plan that failed yesterday.  Instea,d this plan would eliminate $10m in annual funding from the only recently instituted ferry and transit property tax, at a time when Metro is trying to find a way to plug a $50m-ish hole before the bottom falls out in 2012.

It’s unclear how much of that $10m would fall on Metro, but it’s enough money to fund about 80,000 hours of service, or almost 11 buses running 20 hours a day, 365 days a year. Reagan Dunn, who was joined by the rest of the Eastside delegation (Jane Hague, Kathy Lambert) and Pete von Reichbauer of Federal Way, said “Voters are demanding that government prioritize vital services while respecting the pain felt by working families across King County.”

Larry Phillips (Ballard) was quick with an opposing press release, pointing out the urban-rural valence:

“Public safety is important, but cutting away vital quality of life services like transit and parks isn’t the way to pay for it,” said Phillips. “In my Seattle district, employees and employers rely on transit for getting to work, while the Sheriff’s deputies they would have to pay for under this proposal only patrol unincorporated areas outside cities. This makes no sense for them.”

If these four leaders find another Councilmember to support the measure, the proposal would go to the ballot in November.

Rossi to Challenge Sen. Murray, Transit Supporter

Dino Rossi, a Republican, has entered the federal Senate primary as a challenge to Senator Patty Murray (Democrat). He is the biggest threat to Murray’s re-election.

Sen. Murray has been a long-time champion of transit funding throughout the state, securing federal earmarks for Central Link, University Link, and many other projects. She’s also helped on the margins when important. She is chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, and her ability to direct dollars to good projects in our state has been invaluable. Without her help in the early part of the last decade, Link light rail might have crumbled.

Rossi ran for governor in both 2004 and 2008. During his 2008 campaign he had anti-transit policies such as raiding Sound Transit’s Eastside “surplus” funds to spend on highway expansion — money that was necessary to fund East Link — and to open HOV lanes to all traffic outside of “peak hours.” Of course, “peak” is subjective depending on the roadway, and buses need those HOV lanes clear to operate efficiency.

Readers will not have to wait until October to infer our endorsement.

News Roundup: Maple Red

"Post Sounders game crowd", by Oran

This is an open thread.

Mercer Bids Come in 23% Under Budget

The Mercer corridor plan. Image from SDOT.

In more city street news, the city sends word that work on the project to address the so-called “Mercer Mess” has had its first major bid come in under-budget. The project will convert both Mercer and Valley in South Lake Union into a two-way boulevards.

Gary Merlino Construction Company, the apparent low bidder on the east phase of the Mercer Corridor Improvements Project, submitted a proposal that came in at about $47,850,000, well under the engineer’s estimate. Overall, there is a bid savings of approximately 23 percent on demolition and construction from earlier estimates, which the project relied on as part of its funding plan. The city is further reviewing the bids for completeness and responsiveness.

Another illustration that the major project bid environment is very favorable right now, which could affect transit projects such as University Link and the First Hill Streetcar.

Stone Way Road Diet Improved Safety, says City

Yesterday, the city sent out a press release showing that the Stone Way “road diet” has improved safety on the street. The so-called diet converted the north Seattle street from a four lane road into one that has two lanes, a center turn lane, and bicycle lanes. Publicola summarizes the press release:

• The percentage of drivers exceeding the 30 mph speed limit on Stone Way by 10 mph or more dropped about 75 percent—from about 4 percent to about 1 percent. A pedestrian struck at 20 mph, according to studies cited in SDOT’s report, has an 85 percent chance of survival, compared to only 15 percent for a pedestrian struck at [a higher speed].

• While car traffic on Stone Way decreased 6 percent after the road was rechannelized, bike traffic increased a whopping 35 percent, with bike traffic representing around 15 percent of rush-hour trips on the road.

Traffic on neighborhood streets did not increase, as some neighborhood residents feared; instead, it actually declined substantially, with traffic volumes as much as 49 percent lower on streets parallel to Stone Way. Only two parallel street segments showed any increase—one, Woodland Park Ave. N. at N. 42nd St., climbing by 2 percent (three cars) at morning rush hour, and the other, Woodland Park Ave. N. at N. 50th St., increasing by 27 percent (12 cars) at morning rush hour.

• Collisions between cars and cars, bikes, and pedestrians declined dramatically—14 percent—after the new bike lane and sharrow were introduced. And collisions causing injuries fell even further—33 percent. Finally, car collisions with pedestrians declined even more dramatically —fully 80 percent.

Notably, while local businesses predicted endless traffic on the corridor, the city says that “volumes show the roadway still easily accommodates motor vehicle traffic.”

Ride Free Area Future in Doubt?

Last week, the Seattle PI reported that Downtown Seattle’s Ride Free Area may not last:

Seattle’s downtown Ride Free Area is again under the microscope as transit officials examine how much it contributes to a multi-million-dollar problem with fare evasion. King County Metro Transit officials also have sat down with city officials to revisit an outdated agreement under which Seattle pays to offset fares that would otherwise be collected inside the zone.

“That may lead us to determine to abandon the ride free zone, but that’s many months away from now,” Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond told the county’s Regional Transit Committee Wednesday.

The discussion stems from a recent Metro Transit study showing the agency loses about $3.2 million per year from non-paying riders, or about $62,000 per week. That accounts for an estimated 53,000 riders who don’t pay each week and 35,000 who only pay partial fares. Altogether, that’s just under 5 percent of ridership.

I wrote in January of 2009 that if we eventually moved to heavy ORCA adoption, eliminating the Ride Free Area might make sense… maybe. Budget considerations may alter that judgment slightly, but for all the confusion and possible fare avoidance the RFA may cause, it also helps to ensure that buses move through downtown smoother and have lower dwell times. But Link light rail isn’t free downtown and a peer city — Portland — recently eliminated free bus rides in its downtown.

Of course, Desmond’s comments may be a thinly-veiled call to the Seattle City Council: contribute more to Metro for the Ride Free Area. Seattle pays about $400,000 a year for the Ride Free Area, based on a “methodology in place since 1989 to estimate the difference between the value of the fares Metro would collect if a fare was charged for trips within downtown Seattle and the operating cost savings Metro experiences due to the faster travel times through the CBD,” according to Metro. The 1998 agreement between the city and Metro indexes the payment to inflation, but with “ridership increases over the past few years – combined with 2009 and 2010 fare increases – the difference between fare collections and cost savings in the RFA is increasing much faster than inflation.”

Sunday Open Thread: Tom Vanderbilt

A Bike-to-Work Month Anecdote

Swift Onboard Bike Rack, photo by acencini

I sometimes get the sense that the debate over bicycling infrastructure and bicycling laws is polarized between people who ride their bikes long distances nearly every day, and certain motorists intensely aggravated by a slight impediment to their commute. I’d like to spare a (self-interested) thought for the commuter that uses a bike as a means of extending their transit commute.

I have a, uh, gap in bike ownership from Age 16 to two weeks ago, so I’m hardly an expert on this subject.  However, at the risk of generalizing too much from personal experience, I think I’m an example of how bicycling interests can reach out to transit riders, transit can reach out to cyclists, and cities can help the two meet.

One major impediment to transit ridership is the atrocious land use in many housing and job centers.  In my case, my usual workplace is so poorly sited that the two miles between it and the Eastgate Park & Ride adds as much as 30 minutes to my commute, through a combination of transfers, milk runs, and extended walks.  For years I’ve searched for a solution, and I finally overcame some hesitation about road safety to try the two-wheeled alternative.  It saves me about 15 minutes each way.  More after the jump. [Read more...]

ST 1Q Ridership Up, Link Reliability Poor

Photo by Mike Bjork

ST’s new 1st quarter 2010 ridership report is out.  As ST was reporting monthly Central Link ridership through March, there’s no new information on that front.  For other modes, though, from 1Q 2009 ST Express ridership was basically flat, while Tacoma Link was down 5% and Sounder declined about 7%.  Overall, ridership was up 36% thanks entirely to Central Link.

However, Link’s on-time rate was a horrific 71% for the quarter, compared to an ST goal of 90%.  An on-time trip, as I’ve complained before*, is defined to be one that leaves its terminal station less than one minute late. ST spokesman Bruce Gray explains that the 90-day quarter had a total of 35 days of maintenance work (mainly for noise reduction and WSDOT work); thanks to the limitations of the measurement system, all trains that deviated from the printed schedule (or weren’t run at all) were counted as late. Gray adds that ST is “not happy with the 70% rate” and on-time results have “gotten a lot better over the last month or so” as a lot of that maintenance work has wrapped up.

What’s more, Gray added that even under these conditions, 90% of trains were spaced within three minutes of their published headways.  A maintenance delay that slowed everyone on the line, or truncated it at Sodo, didn’t necessarily mess up the spacing between trains.  Indeed, I’ve argued before that when headways are short this is actually a much better measure of reliability.

Maintenance doesn’t explain all the late trips.  The report also blames bus/train operations in the tunnel, which is unique in the world, and therefore a source of schedule risk.  Ben’s going to have a more in-depth report on reliability next week.

*In that post, I cited a 99.5% reliability report for Central Link’s 3rd quarter, although no number was available in the 4th quarter.  Gray wasn’t prepared to elaborate on the origin of the 3Q number, although he understands that what data was gathered in 2009 was not very reliable.  Indeed, public Link schedules didn’t even exist until the 4th quarter, so it’s not clear how these metrics were defined.

Unclear Metro Maps (II)

I was toying with doing a whole series on poorly designed Metro maps, but then in the comment thread you guys did a pretty good job of covering that subject.

However, I agree with a point made in the thread that the big missed opportunity in Metro’s system map is the use of color.

In the map, color is primarily used to distinguish who the service provider of each route is.  The problem here is that no one cares who is providing the service.  At most, it might allow you to compute the fare, but anyone able to do that with just a map also knows that you can get that information solely from route numbers.

A better idea can be found on the Utah Transit Authority’s otherwise user-hostile website.  On their system map, green lines represent 15-minute service, blue ones 30 minute headways, and red lines are UTA’s express buses.

The point of a system map is to quickly understand the options for getting around. Most users need the map when they’re in unfamiliar territory, which will generally not be a peak-hour trip.  The current map is nearly useless for this rider, as the routes he actually can take are hopelessly cluttered by ones that won’t run for hours.

For those really interested in the subject, Adam has uploaded an 18-page survey of Western European transit maps, in which we learn that Metro has chosen a “classic style” map, while I’m advocating for a “Scandinavian style” system map.  The report goes on from there, and people in related fields would profit from reading it.

Oran has also played around with presenting frequency information on a system map.  As always, Human Transit has map-related insights here and here[UPDATE: Try this version of Oran's map instead.]

Analysis Questions Cost Advantage of Diesel Buses

Photo by VeloBusDriver

Trolleybuses generate a lot of passion, and that passion has created a number of independent analyses of their fiscal merits.  I started out somewhat lukewarm on trolleys, but this Central District News piece is pretty convincing that the operating cost of trolleys in considerably lower than that of diesels, including power line maintenance.

At current fuel price levels ($2.30 a gallon for diesel), the additional capital costs of buses overwhelm that difference.  However, annual fuel price inflation as low as 7.75% is enough to neutralize that disadvantage.  I’m not in the business of predicting fuel prices, but that hardly seems like an outlandish scenario. Moreover, there’s a substantial tail risk of a steep rise as in 2008.  That was a financial catastrophe for Metro then, and it would be nice to have an important segment of the system be immune to it in future.

There is one other factor not in the analysis that is pertinent to the budget: availability of capital funds.  For whatever reason, the federal government almost always funds capital costs rather than delivering a direct operating subsidy.  For that reason, it generally makes sense to assume a little more capital cost if it reduces operating expense.

Of course, there are also externalities (diesel pollution, street damage, noise, etc.), but those aren’t in Metro’s budget and perhaps it’s unfair to ask a cash-strapped agency to alleviate those problems.

News Roundup: Welcome Back Greg Nickels

Husky Stadium Station Under Construction, by Atomic Taco

This is an open thread.