Buy Them Off

There’s a scene in The West Wing where one of the characters proposes ending a standoff between India and Pakistan by promising India new infrastructure in exchange for backing down.  “Buy them off,” says the character, Lord Marbury.  He goes on to explain how the British Crown used to buy the loyalty of regional leaders in India by giving them money and a title.

Back in February, Josh Barro at Forbes explained how Chicago facilitates urban development in a similar way:

This is partly because Chicago also liberally uses Tax Increment Financing districts, which now cover huge swathes of the city. When a TIF district is created, the amount of property tax revenue that the district sends to the city is frozen for 23 years. Increases in property tax receipts are instead directed into a special fund that can only be used for projects within the TIF district boundaries—and new developments tend to mean significant increases in property tax collections. When you create a TIF, you create an incentive for residents and their Aldermen to approve new development, as that means more money for local goodies.

Of course, we don’t have a TIF in Washington State and Roger can give you all the reasons why.  But the idea of buying off affected communities has broader merit.  Here’s a piece from Dawn Stover at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on how to get communities to agree to allow an energy (or waste) facility to be located nearby:

The commission studied the experience of the United States and other nations and concluded that “any attempt to force a topdown, federally mandated solution over the objections of a state or community — far from being more efficient — will take longer, cost more, and have lower odds of ultimate success.” Instead, the commission recommended that communities be encouraged to volunteer as hosts for a nuclear waste management facility and be offered substantial incentives for doing so.

Stover goes on to argue that the consent has to be truly informed – you can’t just go to the poorest communities and buy them off because they have no other alternatives or don’t know what they’re getting into.  Fortunately, as relates to transit projects, this is less of a concern.  For one, the main opposition may come from high-information, high-income residents (think of the South Bay Area and high-speed rail, or Beverly Hills High School and the LA Subway).  And, of course, the end product is an amenity, like a train station, not a nuclear waste site!

So, next time you’re faced with an recalcitrant neighborhood opposed to a new transit project or upzone, consider appointing a maharaja.  Or at least offer to build a new gym for the local school.

Fixing Leary Way

Leary Way & 20th Ave NW, looking at a bus stop

Leary Way & 20th Ave NW

See that bus stop? You probably wouldn’t unless you were looking for it, and if you were walking on that sidewalk, you’d find it’s almost impossible to see until you stumble onto it, the sign being completely obscured by the bushes. If you try to catch a bus there, you’ll find you have to stand right at the curb to be visible to the driver (here’s the passenger’s-eye view from that point) — and it’s worse at night, when the bushes block what little street light there is, making it easy for drivers to sail right past you, and lending the stop a sketchy, unsafe feel despite its proximity to bustling Ballard Ave.

The stop has other problems. The sign is bolted into a concrete slab about 4′ wide at the curb, placed in a narrow gap in the bushes. Because parked cars usually crowd the front of the zone, it’s very difficult (impossible when the bike rack is open) for a bus to pull all the way up to the sign to the deploy the ramp or lift correctly onto the slab; assuming the driver sees you, you’ll probably have to step down into the street to get on the bus. So basically, this stop is ADA-inaccessible, for the sake of a bit of laurel hedge. There’s no shelter. And to crown it all, there’s a stop with none of these deficiencies about 400′ southeast of here, directly across from the Ballard Food Bank — a minute’s walk down this street.

All these problems might merely be vexing and not terribly pressing if they were associated with a little-used stop on a turnaround loop, or even on a sleepy daytime-only coverage route, but this stop happens to be on two important routes from Ballard to Seattle, the 17 and 18. After September, it’ll be on the revised 18 (renumbered 40) and the new 61 (Sunset Hill shuttle), the former becoming a major trunk route between Ballard, Fremont, South Lake Union and Downtown. Getting this stop wrong affects lots of people — and Metro is getting it seriously wrong right now.

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

Streetcar History Talk

Seattle Streetcar, 1909 (wikimedia)

Several local institutions have banded together to host a talk on Seattle’s streetcar history:

Thursday August 16th
7 to 8 p.m.
Roy Street Coffee & Tea, 700 Broadway Ave E

In 1941, Seattle’s streetcar tracks were torn up and sold for scrap. Now we’re tunneling under Capitol Hill and laying new tracks on Broadway. What has changed? Join in a discussion about the past and present of Seattle’s street railways.

Rob Ketcherside will discuss the streetcars of the early 20th century, and insha’Allah I will be there to tie it in to more modern developments in urban rail.

How Far Should We Extend Rail?

Photo by Oran

In 1995 and 2007, voters struck down measures to build and expand regional rail at the ballot, only to pass both the following years (1996 and 2008, respectively).  In both instances, the approved measures were scaled down in scope from their predecessors, which has since unleashed quite a bit of consternation over the what-ifs and the woulda-coulda-shouldas had we built rail out to places like Tacoma, Everett, and Issaquah.

The question of how far we should extend rail is a practical and worthy conversation to have.  Rail, by its mathematical nature, performs best where there are the highest concentration of riders in the least amount of space.  And as a result, productivity will only decrease as trains travel across longer distances and lower population densities.  When you get to these kind of routing typologies, freeway segments and park-and-rides are usually thrown into the mix to net a broader drivershed-based catchment area.

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Sunday Open Thread: Disney World Transit Map

From Flickr user wolfstad. See a bigger version here. (Via)

Juvenile Levy will Bring Density and Affordable Housing

[UPDATE: to be crystal clear, I don't know anything about juvenile justice in general or this facility specifically, and wouldn't comment on the overall value of the package. But the point about the new housing units is a big plus of the package, not a minus.]

I found Ariel Wetzel’s Slog guest post about the juvenile jail levy entirely unconvincing, but it did teach me something new:

What you won’t find in the voters’ guide is that King County plans to sell off three of the facility’s 9.5 acres to developers for $16 million so developers can build 425 condos.

Well, the link says “425 residential units,” so they might be apartments. Ms. Wetzel is scandalized that someone, somewhere, might turn a profit on some part of this measure, but this strikes me as a win-win-win.

The taxpayer has part of the cost of the new center offset by the sale. More housing units increases aggregate supply and reduces demand for sprawl. I’m no real estate expert, but housing next door to a juvenile justice center is pretty unlikely to be million-dollar condos, so this housing is likely to be “affordable” depending on your definition of the term.

This is how affordable housing will get done on a scale that benefits more than a few households that win a lottery: increase supply through upzoning and reduce barriers to development on plots that have some sort of drawback for upscale consumers. It’s scalable because it’s revenue positive, both because of the sale itself and from the larger tax base the new building will bring. More, please.

A Crowdsourcing Win

Photo by Atomic Taco

After my post on incorrect transit information, and Matt’s follow-up on crowdsourcing, on July 25 STB received this email from Sound Transit Link Operations:

As of this morning I have directed the SCADA technical staff to remove Convention Place Station from all recurring informational messages. What this means is that Adhoc messages about tunnel emergencies, reroutes and shutdowns will still play, as well as all Fire Life Safety emergency information but passengers will no longer hear the recurring messaging regarding light rail procedures.

I still find it remarkable that something like this could have gone unnoticed for so long, but many thanks to Sound Transit for a quick response.

Help Put Transit Directions Back on the iPhone

Open Trip Planner on iPhone

In response to Apple dropping transit directions from iOS 6, OpenPlans wants your support to fund development of OpenTripPlanner Mobile, a mobile application that not only provides transit directions but also allows you to combine walking, biking, and bike share in the same journey. The app will provide transit directions for most transit agencies in North America (and eventually, the world). According to their preliminary coverage map, the Puget Sound and Cascadia region appears to be well covered, including the ferries. It is essentially the OneBusAway of transit trip planning. They need to raise $25,000 by August 18.

OpenPlans are the people behind the fabulous Streetfilms, TriMet’s Interactive System Map, and New York City’s adaptation of OneBusAway. If you are disappointed that Apple is not including transit directions in the next version of iOS 6 or you would like to support development of an independent trip planner not controlled by Apple or Google that anyone can freely use or improve upon, you should help fund this project. I personally did and invite you to do the same.

News Roundup: Changes Afoot

Photo by zargoman

This is an open thread.

One More Endorsement

Greg Nickels

For various reasons this didn’t make this morning’s endorsement post, but STB endorses Greg Nickels for Secretary of State.

While the office of Secretary of State is not typically involved in transit decisions, Nickels has a track record of going above and beyond in office in ways that benefit transit. He is one of the truly special pro-transit leaders of this generation, and we are excited about his possible leap to statewide office.

Mr. Nickels understands the influence of a few rich donors hijacking the initiative process to produce ill-considered ballot measures that cripple transportation financing, and threaten valuable long-term projects at their weakest point. In Olympia, he would propose a statewide discussion of how to change our initiative process to bring it back to the people. He would also help prevent statewide initiative attacks on local transit funding.

STB 2012 Primary Endorsements

Here are Seattle Transit Blog’s endorsements for the August 7th primary. As with all our primary endorsements, these focus entirely on transit and land-use issues, and only on races with three or more candidates.

STB only selects candidates with strong pro-transit portfolios or particularly egregious opponents, although the generic Democrat will generally produce better legislative outcomes than the generic Republican.

The editorial board consists of Martin H. Duke, Sherwin Lee, Bruce Nourish, and Adam B. Parast, with valued input from the rest of the staff.

Jay Inslee (wikimedia)

Governor: Jay Inslee’s transportation platform is basically agreeable to STB: “The next governor must take an ‘all of the above’ approach to transit and transportation choices – cooperation at the state level and advocacy within the Legislature for transit alternatives.” He also name-checks light rail on the CRC, Amtrak, and complete streets. His platform, and a track record of concern about environmental issues, suggests he would be a reliable partner for transit agencies around the state, although he shows no indication of wanting to curtail endless road expansion.

Principal opponent Rob McKenna says nothing about transportation in the issues section of his website. More worryingly, Mr. McKenna has a long record of being a Sound Transit skeptic, favoring highways over rail spending. He was particularly active on this front from around 2000 to 2003. Ancient history, perhaps (and he did recently preside over the defeat of the Kemper Freeman lawsuit). But he hasn’t articulated a change of heart, and his instincts are clearly to fund roads and lower taxes rather than create high-quality transit; it’s unlikely he’d be interested in finding new revenue sources to accelerate rail expansion.

Rob Holland

District 11, Rep. 2: Rob Holland stands out from the field of five candidates. Scanning the five websites shows that transportation is not a major issue in this race, but Mr. Holland has a transportation background at the Port of Seattle. In these very pages he bucked his colleagues there by favoring the SR99 replacement option that maximized delivery of transit. He told The Stranger he favors new taxes for transit, which is a much clearer statement of support than virtually any other candidate this cycle.

Brett Phillips

District 36, Rep. 2: In a field full with basically pro-transit candidates, Brett Phillips  demonstrates a focus on transit and understanding of the immediate challenges it faces. Moreover, his endorsements indicate a good interface with groups in our corner of the policy world.

Jessyn Farrell

District 46, Rep. 2: Jessyn Farrell’s background includes the Transportation Choices Coalition, and that experience shows in an issues page that discusses transportation and land use in rich detail. She has deep understanding of the issues and experience with relevant legislation in Olympia. Her opponents don’t indicate any priority on transportation at all. There are a few candidates that stand out every election cycle by being worth not only your vote, but your time and money. Ms. Farrell is the one in a competitive race this time around.

Supreme Court: Light rail opponents are always suing Sound Transit over something or other, so who sits on the court matters. As judicial candidates traditionally don’t speak about potential issues before the court, it’s also hard to know how they’ll vote unless there’s a track record. However, at Position 2 Justice Susan Owens has spent her 11 years on the bench beating back desperate attempts to halt rail construction. At Position 9, John Ladenburg spent time as Pierce County Executive and Sound Transit Board Chair. One of his opponents, Richard B. Sanders, in his previous tenure on the court has consistently found excuses to try to freeze the rail project.

City Council Transpo Committee Approves Rail Planning for Ballard

This morning, the Seattle City Council’s transportation committee, led by Councilmember Rasmussen, lifted the proviso on rail funding for Ballard I posted about a month ago.

This means that the City and Sound Transit can now develop an agreement to jointly fund an alternatives analysis of the corridor from downtown to Ballard – where the city studies buses and streetcars, and Sound Transit studies higher capacity transit modes, with their powers combined meeting the federal government’s requirements for transit corridor planning. Whether this means a streetcar is built, a subway, or both, it’s the necessary next step in getting reliable transit to Ballard.

I want to thank the folks who came out to the meeting last month – eight people showed up to support this, which I think outnumbered everyone else in the audience combined. That’s the kind of direct action that seems small, but it goes a long way in showing community support for the improvements we most need.

It’s worth taking a moment to send a quick thank you email to Councilmember Rasmussen and even the rest of the transportation committee – let them know they did the right thing! They’re helping us keep the pipeline full for great transit that can eventually connect every neighborhood in the city.

Shopping for Everyday Living

Clas Ohlson in Manchester by Magnus D

Three years ago when I moved to Stockholm, one of the first pieces of advice I remember getting was: “go to Clas Ohlson.” I had just landed in Stockholm with all my possessions for a one-year study abroad packed in two large rolling suitcases. I needed just about everything you could imagine; toothpaste, pots and pans, a lamp, plug converters… Clas Ohlson had me covered.

Now if you were in any major American city, the question would be: how do I get there? I don’t have a car, and it’s probably in the suburbs, right? That was the magic of Clas Ohlson. It was right downtown, not kind of downtown, but smack dab in the middle of the downtown shopping district, a 2-minute walk from T-Centralen, the convergence of Stockholm’s 7 subway lines and commuter rail system.

Easy access to Clas Ohlson, combined with nearly universal co-location of grocery stores and subway stations, allowed me to live a car-free lifestyle without compromising on access to either the daily necessities or the odds and ends of everyday life. Between ICA and Coop, the two largest grocery chains in Scandinavia, essentially every subway station had a grocery store (see links for maps). In the year that I lived in Stockholm I set foot in a car just three times. The city’s commercial and neighborhood centers were developed around transit in a way that makes cars unnecessary for everyday life, elevating a car-free lifestyle from second-class to mainstream.

Equally important as access to these stores, was their general affordability. Yes, of course everything in Sweden is expensive compared to the US, but these stores are not specialty stores. Lack of affordable shopping for everyday needs is, in my opinion, a huge impediment to a car-free lifestyle in the US. Many people simply can’t afford to meet their daily needs by shopping at boutiques or Whole Foods. Those stores serve the upper middle class, but they do not help foster midrange, affordable urban living, something we sorely need.

My experience in Stockholm is why I’m so excited for the opening of a downtown Target. With a grocery store as well as home and apparel sections, it will provide everything one needs for an affordable car-free lifestyle. Located at 2nd and Pike, just a block from University Street Station and all other downtown bus service, this store will hopefully start to help Seattleites live a convenient and affordable car-free lifestyle like the one I was able to enjoy.

A Very Minor Improvement for Queen Anne

Route 4 laying over on Nob Hill Ave

Route 4 laying over on Nob Hill Ave

One the most promising parts of the Fall restructure to be thrown overboard was that which dealt with the top of Queen Anne Hill. Metro’s all-day route structure in this area is almost unchanged from the streetcar network of the 1890s, with only Route 13 to Seattle Pacific University added since then. I’ve written extensively about why the current spaghetti-like network inflates the cost of providing the service, and how it over-serves lower-density residential areas while underserving Queen Anne’s rapidly-growing main street. The story of why these changes didn’t happen is an interesting case study in the reality of operating and restructuring a transit system.

Let’s recap. Metro’s original proposal deleted Route 2 (leaving Route 2X in place), deleted Route 4, extended Route 3 the terminus of the 13, and doubled the frequency on Routes 3 and 13. (You’ll want to look at Oran’s great map to wrap your head around this). Vigorous opposition from residents near 6th Ave N & Galer, especially seniors who wanted access to the Queen Anne Community Center, prompted Metro’s second proposal to include an awkward fix that provided some service on the 2 alignment at all times. This was done by extending Route 1 to the terminus of Route 3 – but only during the times when the 2X wasn’t running.

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

3rd Ave to get Ticket Vending Machines

Here’s some light reading for those of you stuck in POTUS-induced gridlock. King County Metro has won a competitive grant from FTA’s State of Good Repair/Bus Livability program to improve 3rd Ave. While that might sound like something to do with riding late-night trips on the 75 in winter, it’s actually about improving the quality of bus facilities and access to them. Hot off my Gmail, here’s an official statement from Metro, emphasis added:

King County Metro has been selected to receive a total $4,788,000 for two projects from the Bus Livability program.

* Bicycle Access Enhancements to RapidRide Facilitates – $730,000
* Third Avenue Transit Corridor Improvements – $4,058,000

These two projects have also been selected to received funding through competitive grant competitions at the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC).  So we’ll need to look at where there may be duplication of scope between the PSRC award and the FTA award to determine whether there are portions of grants that may need to be returned.

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

South Lake Union: More Spontaneity Can Mean More Jobs

Thus Vice nurs’d Ingenuity,
Which join’d with Time and Industry,
Had carry’d Life’s Conveniencies,
It’s real Pleasures, Comforts, Ease,
To such a Height, the very Poor
Liv’d better than the Rich before,
And nothing could be added more.

–From Mandeville’s ‘Fable of the Bees’

A frequently cited rationale for proposed zoning changes in Seattle’s South Lake Union is economic; the rezones will allow for an economic boom that will create much needed jobs for the city and region. We can argue about the numbers, but what about the idea that new land use policy will spark improvements in our economy?

South Lake Union: The Rails to Recovery?

A recent article in City Journal, a quarterly online journal of a libertarian bent, published an interesting and compelling article on the Road to Recovery by John Taylor, which was adapted from his Friedrich Hayek Lecture given as part of Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Prize. It got me thinking about whether Seattle overregulates the use of land and how that could be limiting the economic upsides of growth that could lead to recovery, especially job creation.

Hayek is not so popular around here because he is the economist who is the opposite of John Maynard Keynes, a favorite of liberals and progressives. Simply put, Hayek is remembered for limited, if any, government intervention to affect the economy, and Keynes was the classic interventionist, arguing for government’s role in increasing demand for goods and services, especially during downturns (for more and Hayek and Keynes you’d better watch this then this.)

I have been criticized for what one commenter called “Hayekian reveries” about deregulating land use around transit stations. However, I think Hayekian lenses are what we should wear when we consider how and when government regulates what gets built in Seattle, especially around transit.

Hayek draws a distinction in Constitution of Liberty, between the law and legislation. Hayek argued that spontaneous order—a state of order that is the product of the free market, not planning—in an economy is possible only when there are predictable laws, general in nature, that establish the few things people cannot do, rather than commands about what they must do.

When Hayek talks about the law he is referring in large part to English Common Law that undergirds our entire legal system in the United States, and provides the basis for adjudicating disputes and carrying out justice. The Common Law paves the road to the future with precedents from the past; it is essentially a system of rules based on trial and error.

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Metro to Cut Magnolia Night Service in September

King County Metro 24 in Magnolia

King County Metro 24 in Magnolia

There’s a nasty little item buried in Metro’s package of administrative changes for the September shakeup. Service between downtown and Magnolia (Routes 24 & 33) will end at 9:30 PM, along with service on Route 27. This means that the last bus departing downtown on those routes will do so around 9:30 PM, and as Magnolia has no other bus service in the evenings (Route 31 ends at 7:30 PM), this completely cuts Magnolia off from the bus network after that time. Back in April, when pressure from residents caused Metro to suddenly drop the Magnolia restructure, I argued:

Whereas in the previous proposal, Magnolia residents would have had a connection to Ballard, now Magnolia will remain a transit dead end. If abandoning the change was due to local opposition (and it’s hard to imagine what else it could be), the neighborhood has cut off its nose to spite its face. Or, perhaps more likely, a handful of people vociferously opposed to any change have scuttled a change that would have benefitted many more of their unwitting neighbors.

To that we may now add that the unwillingness to contemplate this route change is not just a missed opportunity to improve the neighborhood’s connectivity, but has now undeniably degraded the utility of transit in Magnolia. Along with frequency, span of service is a fundamental determinant of usefulness in a fixed-route service, and there are, for example, a raft of events in downtown Seattle and at the Seattle Center for which Magnolia residents will no longer be able to use transit, and Magnolia is now even more inaccessible to transit visitors from other neighborhoods than it was before — no mean feat.

I queried Metro about the rationale for this change, and received an answer from lead service planner David Hull, after the jump.

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Metro Makes More Changes for the Fall

Route 99 turning at 1st/Broad

After September, Route 99 will be essentially the only transit on 1st Ave

On May 7th, the King County Council passed the legislative package approving the result of Metro’s fall restructure process, which signalled the end of major routing or service level changes for September. Since then, Metro has been hard at work implementing those changes, and as part of that, making further small changes to the bus network. These “minor administrative changes” are defined to be those that  change bus stop locations by less than half a mile, and result in a change of less than 25% in the cost to provide the route; Metro can make them without public input, and without legislative approval from the King County Council.

Much of the administrative change package is focused on downtown Seattle. Generally, those changes seem excellent: they fix many operational issues I’ve been complaining about for ages, and will make the downtown network much more rational and comprehensible, although it’s hard to illustrate how much so without having a map (you can see the current map here); it will also make a number of routes significantly more reliable through downtown. Outside of downtown, there are some unfortunate changes to service in Magnolia, and some mixed news about Routes 3 and 4 in Queen Anne, both of which I’ll have more to say about in other posts later this week. Other changes outside of downtown seem pretty innocuous.

Downtown highlights and discussion after the jump.

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Sunday Open Thread: Center vs Curb Lanes

The City of Boston has made a nice pros/cons infographic for center vs curb lane use in BRT. Of course, you would need a street wide enough to support either one, something most city streets lack. It’s interesting nonetheless.

This is an open thread.

Comparing MCIs to Double Talls

Man in wheelchair waiting for the lift to get on a Sound Transit bus

In 2005, Sound Transit put buses manufactured by Motor Coach Industries (MCI) into service on routes serving Pierce County, replacing old Orion high-floor buses. The MCI bus, similar in style to a long-distance intercity coach, received positive ratings from riders for its quiet and smooth ride at highway speeds. Two years after the MCIs debuted, Community Transit began trialing a completely different kind of bus to replace its aging articulated commuter buses. It brought in a double decker bus from Alexander Dennis.

Dubbed the ‘Double Tall’, it is the first double decker transit bus to operate in the Puget Sound region. When time comes for Sound Transit to replace the MCIs sometime after 2017, with the procurement process beginning a few years before then, double decker buses should be considered as an option. Why? Because double decker buses are more versatile, more accessible, more capacious, and have a few operational advantages over the MCIs.

The consequence of the MCI’s very high floor design, results in a comfortable bus that is less friendly to seniors and people with disabilities. The MCI’s floor is at least a foot higher than standard high-floor buses, resulting in steeper and larger steps. The process of boarding a wheelchair user is more complicated than on a low-floor bus. Combine that with the MCI’s narrow aisle and single narrow door and you get a recipe for delays at downtown stops resulting from the design of the bus.

While I am not a regular rider on routes that use MCIs and my experience is purely anecdotal, I have seen enough cases of long delays that would frustrate any transit rider. I’ve seen a driver spend 10 minutes at the Federal Way Transit Center getting the lift to work on a 574 (shown in the photo above). In downtown Seattle while waiting to board a 578, it took 5 minutes total for the lift to let someone in a wheelchair exit the bus. That 5 minutes accounts for over 10% of the total travel time between downtown and Federal Way.

The driver has to exit the bus to operate the lift. Multiple seats must be folded up and moved around to make room for a wheelchair. It is a step backward in accessibility from not just low-floor buses but also standard high-floor buses. This is the biggest weakness of this kind of bus. The Double Tall bus does not have this issue and a few advantages over the MCIs.

The Double Talls do cost almost $300,000 more than an MCI at $830,000 per bus but consider their advantages, which I think make up for the additional cost. The Double Tall seats 77 passengers with standing room for 20 on the lower deck. That’s 20 more seats than the MCI and 17 more seats than the articulated buses it replaced, while taking up less road space. The Double Tall’s lower deck is essentially the same as a low-floor bus, with the standard ramp and securement positions (and possibility for passive restraint). It has two wide doors for quick boarding and deboarding. And unlike articulated buses, the Double Tall works well in snow and icy conditions. The great views from the upper deck are icing on the cake.

All these features make double decker buses more versatile than the long-distance commuter oriented MCI, having proven themselves in high traffic urban environments like London and Hong Kong and here in Seattle as suburban commuter buses. With Double Talls regularly running between Seattle and Marysville, the same distance as Seattle to Tacoma, there is no doubt they would work just as well or better than the MCIs.