RapidRide C/D Won’t Have Orca Card Readers Downtown Until Mid-2013

ORCA Card Reader

While following up with Metro about the lack of progress on RapidRide’s “tech pylons” along 3rd Ave Downtown (H/T Andrew N), I learned that Metro will not have off-board payment via ORCA for RapidRide C and D line until the launch of RapidRide E in mid-2013. Information below thanks to Rochelle Ogershok.

RapidRide C/D lines will be opening without ORCA card readers in the CBD south of the Belltown area.  Unfortunately 3rdAvenue did not have an existing communication network to support readers.  However, there is a City of Seattle project underway now to provide a 4.9 gh wireless communication network that when complete should enable us to install readers.  We are expecting this network to be available by mid-year 2013.  Our RapidRide program goal was to have the off-board ORCA readers in time for the start of the E Line in fall 2013.

The grants that have been awarded for 3rd Avenue will help fund amenities at RapidRide stops and non-RapidRide stops in the CBD.  The specific elements of the 3rd Avenue project are still being developed.  Options include ORCA dispensing and cash ticket vending machines, but this is still to be determined.  Currently the RapidRide program does not include ticket vending machines.

Because “tech pylons” include both ORCA card readers and real-time arrival signs this also means that downtown stops will not have real-time arrival information till mid-2013 as well.

Metro delayed the launch of RapidRide by over a year to ensure that the brand wouldn’t be tarnished by Viaduct construction related delays, but now it is failing to implement the single most important feature for surface travel through downtown, off-board fare payment with ORCA. Then the King County Council eliminates the RFA, transitioning from the fastest boarding system to the slowest downtown, just to get a few million dollars in added revenue.

All snideness aside, I can’t believe how perfectly this news depicts the RapidRide illusion, Metro’s implementation stumbling blocks and the King County Council’s political morass and indifference. We have written multiple times about how RapidRide has become a seriously compromised “BRT” system, with  lack of dedicated ROWpoor routing choices, lack of adequate prioritybus heavy costs, and a half-baked payment system. These issues are now compounded by elimination of the RFA.

We have supported RapidRide and  BRT  from the beginning but Metro and the Council have let “BRT creep”  and politics take over, not what is best for riders. When RapidRide C and D lines open on October 1st we’ll have a glorified shiny new bus that is slower than existing service.

As a lifelong rider of Metro and a diehard advocate I am having a serious crisis of confidence in Metro and more specifically the County Council. Metro must do better or else it will be hard for this jaded rider and others to get riled up to support or defend Metro next time around.

 

Sound Transit Looking for Feedback on South 200th Street Station Name

SeaTac Link via Sound Transit

With the South 200th Street Link extension working toward a construction start date in the 2nd quarter of 2013, Sound Transit is looking to finalize the name of the new station. Up to this point, Sound Transit has used South 200th Street Station as the working name, but it is also looking at South SeaTac Station and Angle Lake Station. Sound Transit would like your feedback:

Every day, we’re making progress to extend the Link light rail system between the Sea-Tac Airport and South 200th Street in the City of SeaTac. During the project’s early phases, the station at S. 200th Street was given a temporary, or working name. Now we’re approaching the time for the Sound Transit Board of Directors to adopt a permanent name for the station.

Over the past few months, we have been talking to community members and stakeholders about potential permanent station names. We’d like to be in a position where the Sound Transit Board could formally adopt a permanent station name as early as September, at the same time we award the design-build construction project for the guideway and station. As part of the process, we are collecting feedback to provide to the Board on the proposed choice of a station name.

Temporary Working Station Name Proposed Choices for the Permanent Station Name
S. 200th Street Station S. 200th Street Station
South SeaTac Station
Angle Lake Station

Station naming survey

Please learn more about the station naming criteria and weigh in with your thoughts on the name of that station by completing survey below by Monday, Sept. 17.If you have comments on any of the proposed name for the station along the South 200th Link Extension, please take a moment to send an email to Jennifer.lemus@soundtransit.org.

My personal preference is for station names to be as specific as possible while still ensuring recognition over the geographic area they serve (i.e. regionally or Link) while avoiding confusion with other stations close by or with similar names. In this regard stations that are in established and well known neighborhoods or emerging large scale TOD should take their name. Stations in areas without established identity should be named after the most specific and well recognized landmark in the area, preferably another element of the transportation system. In most cases this would be a road, especially when the road are arterials with freeway access.

So in this case I see South 200th Street Station as the obvious choice. South SeaTac Station is both poorly defined geographically and confusing in relation to SeaTac Station. Similarly, I’ve lived in the Seattle region my whole life and I have no idea where Angle Lake is. South 200th St is precise but still well known.

Sound Transit Names New Deputy CEO

Mike Harbour

Earlier today, Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl named Mike Harbour, Intercity GM, as the agency’s new deputy CEO.  The move comes on the heels of the retirement of his predecessor, Celia Kupersmith, who had a brief stint at ST beginning in 2010.  Harbour is no rookie to the transit world, having spent 35 years between IT and a transit agency in Georgia.  According to Earl, the Olympia-Thurston County Chamber of Commerce also named Harbour the 2012 “Boss of the Year.”

In addition to serving on the board of Transportation Choices Coalition, Harbour boasts a fairly impressive resume, part of which involved righting the ship at IT following both the passage of I-695 and the recession:

In 2002, Harbour led the development of a funding restoration measure approved by 58 percent of Intercity Transit voters. In 2010, 64 percent of voters approved a measure for modest service increases that are helping to fuel the Olympia area’s economic recovery.

Previously, Harbour worked eight years as general manager of the Chatham Area Transportation Authority in Savannah, Georgia, overseeing significant service expansions and a 35 percent increase in ridership. Earlier industry roles included serving as assistant general manager to Tri County Transit in Orlando, Florida; senior consultant at ATE Management and Service Co. in Cincinnati, Ohio; transit coordinator for the Mayor’s Office of Transit Administration in New Orleans, Louisiana; and director of planning for the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Nashville, Tennessee. Harbour received a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Vanderbilt University.

We welcome Mr. Harbour’s expertise in helping guide ST through an exciting era and wish him the best.

ST Releases Fall Schedule

punkrawker4783/Flickr

The new timetables take effect September 30th. The big news is five Sounder round trips serving South Tacoma and Lakewood Stations (the five earliest northbound and latest southbound). The Sounder change will take place “in October”, not on October 1st with the other weekday changes.

As usual, Link is unchanged. Here are the bus changes:

Route 510: Minor schedule changes; stop closes at Broadway and 38th St
Route 512: Stop closes at Broadway and 38th St
Route 513: Significant schedule changes
Route 522: Northbound trips now run on 4th Avenue in downtown Seattle
Route 532: Stop closes at Broadway and 38th St
Route 540, 542, 545, 555, 556: Yarrow Point freeway station closes eastbound only due to construction.
Route 540, 542, 556, 586: Stop closes at 15th Ave NE and NE Pacific St.
Route 586: Two morning northbound and two afternoon southbound trips added starting September 24; all trips now end at Tacoma Dome Station
Route 590: Trips added and major schedule changes; new stops added in north downtown Seattle
Route 592: Major schedule changes; major route changes in Seattle; new stops added in north downtown Seattle; all trips serve DuPont station
Route 593: When Sounder begins service to Lakewood and South Tacoma stations, all 593 trips will change to 590 and will no longer serve South Tacoma Station.
Route 594: Two southbound trips added; minor schedule changes; new stops added in north downtown Seattle.
All downtown Seattle routes: The Ride Free Area in downtown Seattle will end starting September 29. You will need to pay as you enter the bus at all times.

News Roundup: Foot Ferries

Issaquah Valley Trolley (Flickr/DWHonan)

This is an open thread.

Rethinking Housing Affordability

For Sale By Owner Sign

Very Honest For Sale By Owner Sign by Casey Serin on Flickr

In many cities where supply is constrained by various factors – geography, NIMBYism, etc.  - the price of housing tends to be expensive.  One way that cities have tried to solve for this is by increasing the potential supply of housing through zoning changes.  Naturally, this has been met with some resistance in the neighborhoods slated for upzones, as has been documented on this blog many times over.  Alternative approaches to increasing affordability, like rent control, often have unintended consequences.

What if we took a different approach to housing affordability? Let’s consider the median multiple: a metric of housing affordability that compares the median house to the median income in a given area. For example, a metro area with a median income of $50k/year and a median house price of $150k/year would have a multiple of 3, which is the historical average in the US (Seattle hit 5.2 in 2008, making it one of the least affordable cities in the country).

What if a municipality were required to issue as many housing and zoning permits as needed until the median multiple hit some number, let’s say 4.0?  Why 4.0? Well, 3.0 would be nice, but since the income data trails the housing price data somewhat, the municipality would risk overshooting the target and crashing the housing market.  The precise number isn’t important.  What’s important is that there would be a target to aim for, similar to the way the Federal Reserve buys and sells short term interest rates to hit an inflation target.

How would that look in practice? King County median income was $67,806 in 2009. Multiply that by 4 and you get $271,224.  King County’s median housing price, meanwhile, was $382,160 in September of 2009.  So there would be quite a ways to go to hit the target.  Build, baby, build!

What’s nice about this approach is that it doesn’t presuppose any particular development pattern.  The city could choose to build up OR out.  Now, I’m pretty sure that between the Growth Management Act and the geography of the region, building up would be the path of least resistance. In reality, the city still would run into resistance and likely have trouble meeting such an aggressive target.  But the momentum would change. Instead of asking “should we build?” the question becomes, “where should we build?” That’s a question the urbanists have a better answer for.

I’ll caveat this by saying that “affordability” is very complicated and one statistic or ratio will never capture all the nuances.  Transportation costs and interest rates, for example, are ignored by the median multiple.  But I’m coming around to the idea that crude metrics, even if they don’t meet all our wonkish ideals, have a certain political appeal.

Information Overload (Or Lack Thereof)

Photo by Oran

Interfaces between transit agencies and riders can often be brutal, particularly when the line of communication centers on the latter’s inability to understand why the agency does what it does. A typical customer complaint, for example, might plead for more buses during the afternoon commute and question why resources might not be diverted from those “empty buses I see running around the suburbs.”  The agency is left to decide how much the customer needs to know about things like subarea equity, and thus must standardize an “information threshold” in customer relations policy.

Sometimes, there are very planning-oriented questions that arise– why isn’t destination X served, why not run along Y street, etc. Jarrett Walker has a decent example of this from a query in Bellingham, asking why WTA doesn’t serve the airport. In short, WTA responds with a very courteous and very informative e-mail which weighs the pros and cons of airport service and how the agency’s thinking is determined.

As Jarrett notes, you can’t really do this with a massive agency like Metro, with the amount of queries they get on a daily basis. As a result, it’s very difficult to get a personalized response with anything more than a nod of acknowledgement that the query was received and action was taken. A really good suggestion to combat this kind of a quandry is perhaps employing an FAQ or customer portal of sorts that streamlines common questions/complaints with genuine responses fit for a layman’s understanding.

The irony of it all is that the information is already there, albeit in the form of high-level planning and political documents that must first be unearthed from a labyrinth of a website, and then dissected. Naturally, this doesn’t have to be the case. As is with frequency maps, the task here is simply to take existing information and make it clear, concise, and understandable for the riding public.

Fortunately, a lot of this is already happening, even if it’s because of terrible circumstances.  As Martin pointed out this morning, Pierce Transit’s website for Prop. 1 really is outstanding for its clarity and user-friendliness.  Metro, as well, has been catching on with a cleaner interface and website for upcoming service proposals.  Still, even when streamlined, many customers won’t bother sifting through that amount of information, especially with a complicated website architecture.  Information for Metro’s past and current service changes, for example, are in completely different places.

Regardless what issues customers may bring up, the very fact that they have to submit an inquiry means that the information they’re looking either 1) isn’t there, or 2) is difficult to find.  If these two issues can be remedied, there is much labor and grief that can be spared from dealing with the public.

Pierce Transit’s Prop. 1 This Fall

Sherwin’s reference to Pierce Transit’s Prop. 1 yesterday reminded me that we haven’t properly introduced the measure yet. As luck would have it, PT has an exceptional website that concisely lays out what the impact of a yes vote and a no vote would be. There are also open houses from September 5th through October 16th at various points in PT’s service area. It might be a good place to drag your not-quite-as-excited-about-transit friends.

Anyhow, PT’s reserves have just about run out, and if the tax rate remains as it currently is, there would be a 53% reduction in service hours by 2014, including the elimination of all weekend, evening, and holiday service. The routes that remained would of course become less frequent than they are today.

In contrast, increasing the sales tax rate from 0.6% to 0.9% would not only preserve current service, but allow a 23% increase over six years. It would also restore special event service.

The website provides further details on the cuts PT has already made to both their service and their administrative costs, as well as the concessions the union has made.

Metro and Community Transit are positioned to attract choice riders, but for PT it’s the basic level of social service that is under threat. On the other hand, it’s surprising how little 0.6% buys these days.

The High Road for Pierce County

Photo by zargoman

Chris Karnes at Tacoma Tomorrow has a blistering take-down of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber’s decision not to support Pierce Transit’s measure at the ballot this November.  At stake is a draconian scenario– a devastating 50% reduction in service should the sales-tax increase fail to pass.  Accompanying the cuts could be major economic impacts, many of which seem to have been overlooked by the Chamber.

Karnes estimates that tens of millions annually have already been diverted out of the county since service reductions began in 2007, and that additional cuts might exacerbate that impact more than twofold:

In total, more than a hundred million dollars that could have stayed in Tacoma each year, in the form of good jobs for bus drivers and money in people’s wallets, will head out of town in the form of car payments and gas, if Proposition 1 fails in November.

The most significant difference between this year’s vote and last year’s is that PT is dealing with a new service area, one significantly smaller than its predecessor and which omits exurban cities that have had historically anti-transit voting records.  While the new demographics are more favorable toward a ‘yes’ vote, the spread of misinformation, or at least lack of information, can easily corrupt the hearts and minds of voters who will believe anything they read.

A Budget Neutral Fix for Southeast Seattle

8-106 Restructure Proposal

8-106 Restructure Proposal

What if there were a budget-neutral restructure that would make Route 8 dramatically more reliable (and possibly more frequent) in Southeast Seattle, improve connectivity between the Rainier Valley and Renton, and make trips between downtown Seattle and Renton faster, without sacrificing anyone’s access to the transit system? In this post, I’ll outline one restructure idea, which I believe does all of those things. Below are the basic components; throughout, refer to Oran’s lovely map above:

  • Delete Route 106 west of Rainier Beach Station. Instead, inbound 106 trips from Renton would turn at Rainier & MLK and follow the current 8 route to Broadway & John, then head to a layover near Convention Place station (discussed below); outbound trips would do the reverse. This new route would either be number 106 or some “new” number, but for this post, I’ll label it descriptively as “8S/106“.
  • Extend Route 107 to serve South Beacon Hill, serving the alignment of the 106 between MLK and Myrtle, before heading to Othello Station. In Rainier Beach, the 107 route would be straightened to serve Rainier & Henderson before Rainier Beach Station (just like the 106 does), avoiding a time-consuming backtrack.
  • Operate Route 8 on its original alignment, which is the same as the current alignment, but terminating in the east at Group Health Capitol Hill.
  • Make the 8S/106 frequent service. While it’s difficult to estimate exactly how much frequency improvement this configuration would make possible, I’m confident it would at least suffice to raise the frequency of the 8S/106 to that of the current 8.

After the jump, the details on what this restructure would achieve, and how.

[Read more...]

Sunday Open Thread: Northgate Groundbreaking

The say the “good part” begins at 32:41.

Site Maintenance Tomorrow (Sunday)

We’ll be undergoing some site maintenance tomorrow to improve STB’s performance and reliability.  We’ll do our best to minimize the disruption, but we may lose some comments that are posted on Sunday during the downtime window.  Thanks for your patience.

Metro Looking for Shoreline, North Seattle Sounding Board Members

Metro is beginning the RapidRide E Line roleout and is looking for citizens to help guide service change recommendations. While the E Line route and stops have been decided, no other service changes in the area have yet been discussed by Metro. In my experience improved East-West travel will likely be the major issue.

As always we strongly encourage STB readers to apply for these types of boards as it’s always easier to realize change when you’re involved early rather than late. We like to think that our readers are experienced, frequent riders that understand the fundamentals of how to design a more frequent and faster transit system.

Are you a bus rider that regularly rides routes in Shoreline or North Seattle?

King County Metro Transit is forming a community sounding board to give us advice about changes to bus service in these areas. We’re looking for a diverse group of members to help us develop service change recommendations for fall 2013. The sounding board will meet 9 to 12 times, from September 2012 to March 2013. Sounding board meetings mostly will be scheduled on Thursday evenings unless a scheduling conflict occurs.

Interested in applying? Fill out our online application by Monday, Sept. 3.

Why change bus service? Starting fall 2013, the Aurora Avenue N corridor will be served by RapidRide E Line between Aurora Village Transit Center to downtown Seattle. The E Line will provide a backbone of new, frequent transit service that other routes in the area can connect to and complement. Working with the sounding board, we’ll be considering changes to improve:

  • connections to the E Line
  • bus service in the neighborhoods surrounding Aurora Avenue N
  • connections between transit activity centers such as Fremont, Wallingford, Greenwood, Greenlake, Northgate and Shoreline

If you’d like us to mail you a printed application, or have questions about the sounding board, please contact: Ashley DeForest, Community Relations Planner at ashley.deforest@kingcounty.gov or via phone at  206-684-1154.

Eastlake/Fairview and Spokane Viaduct Routing Changes

Mercer Corridor Reroute

Mercer Corridor Reroute

Two major, long-running Seattle road construction projects will wrap up next week: the Spokane Street Viaduct widening project, and the widening and conversion to two-way operation of Mercer Street as part of the Mercer Corridor Project. Each of these has consequences for transit riders.

Mercer Two-Way Conversion

On Monday, Mercer St will reopen to two-way traffic (east of 1st Ave N) for the first time since 1968; read this Times article for details, and the (scary) 1968 Times article discussing the elevated Bay Freeway as a “solution” to the problem. Upon completion of that work, SDOT’s contractors will pivot to the reconstruction of Fairview Ave N. The work on Fairview will entail severe traffic restrictions, so all transit service which typically uses Fairview will instead operate on Eastlake, as shown on the map above.

Metro’s Eastlake/Fairview reroute began last night at 11 PM, and per SDOT’s timeline, continues through “early 2013″. While Eastlake’s coverage of South Lake Union isn’t as good as Fairview, I doubt this detour will be much slower, and it might be faster than Fairview’s current configuration, once you’ve hiked up there. In addition, this weekend’s final work for the two-way conversion will require the shutdown of the South Lake Union streetcar until Monday morning.

Metro’s Fairview routes are 70, 71, 72, 73, 83 (night owl) and 309, but note that only the local 71, 72, and 73, which operate in the evening and on Sundays, run on Fairvew; the Monday-Saturday daytime U-District expresses are not affected, nor the 25, 66 or (after this weekend) South Lake Union Streetcar. As far as I can tell from the SDOT site, 9th Ave should reopen on Monday, and Metro’s map shows the 17 returning to its normal alignment southbound on 9th, but Metro’s Alerts Center suggests the current reroute on Westlake continues until late September, so I guess we’ll find out which is right on Monday.

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

How Transit Gets Funded

Transit Ballot Measures by tax type

Transportation for America has recently published the most comprehensive document on transit project funding I’ve ever read (warning, large PDF file). It’s extremely wonky, with explanations for a myriad of different financial instruments and federal grants, information on the pros and cons of different local revenue sources (sales taxes, user fees, property taxes, etc.), and data for how ballot measures pass with each combination. There’s also a few really interesting examples from projects whose funding has been secured over the past few years.

I won’t try to sum up an 80 page report like this in a short blog post, but I would like to point to a few things that really jumped out at me. For one, the funding sources that are least popular with voters are car license fees and sales taxes, which happen to be precisely the funding sources that have been available to transit projects around the Puget Sound area. On the other, the most popular mechanisms – fuel taxes and income taxes – are completely disallowed here. Also, Denver is paying for a remodel to their Union Station partially with tax-increment financing and the DC area is paying for part of its Dulles Metro line with roads tolls and a special tax district, so creative financing really is possible: you don’t have to build a whole bus and rail system on sales tax alone.

With the federal government in an austerity mood, it’s going to be ever more important for local agencies to come up with creative ways to fund transit projects. It’s an interesting report, and this is good background for those eventual conversations.

Metro Proposes Consolidating Stops on Route 44

King County Metro 44 in Ballard

It’s Not Garbage Anymore

From the Metro Future Blog:

Metro Transit is planning to reduce the number of closely spaced bus stops along Route 44 between Ballard and the University District, a change that will help buses move faster, keep to a more reliable schedule and reduce Metro’s operating and maintenance costs.

Route 44 currently makes about 30 stops each direction between Ballard and the University District. Metro plans to remove 5 bus stops in each direction in late September 2012, increasing the average spacing between stops from about 900 feet to 1,050 feet.

As a result of this change, about 7 percent of Route 44 riders will have to catch their buses at different stops.

[...] After considering public comments and making any modifications, Metro will close stops in late September. Comments are due by Friday, Sept. 7, via:

  • Fill out an online comment form.
  • Call Metro’s message line, 206-263-4478, and record your message, including the location of your stop.

As with virtually any change Metro ever proposes in Seattle, this has drawn protest from a “concerned” neighborhood organization, in this case the Ballard District Council; and as usual, it seems to be opposition which doesn’t exhibit much understanding of how good transit services actually work. After the jump, let’s look at which of the 44′s stops in Ballard are proposed to be removed, and which will stay (there’s one other stop slated for closure in the Montlake Triangle), and how the closures would affect riders.

[Read more...]

The Seattle Problem: Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

A funny thing happened on the way to regulatory reform.

The Seattle City Council recently passed regulatory reforms to ease restrictions on land use to create jobs. I was an enthusiastic supporter, erroneously credited with being “in charge of the secret negotiations to bring forth the proposals.” I’m thankful to all the people who actually did work to get it passed. But, unfortunately, the measures to relax requirements under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) are almost canceled out by State mandated growth targets and new requirements for parking in areas exempted from SEPA.

The intention of SEPA when it was passed in 1971 was to disclose and mitigate environmental impacts from new development. The State stepped in because local governments were allowing projects to go forward without enough review. The new legislation was intended to be stronger than local laws. However, over the years, local ordinances passed by local governments afforded equal or better protection than SEPA. In many cases all that was left was a redundant and time-consuming SEPA process. The regulatory reform package was intended to eliminate that redundancy, saving time, money, and creating jobs.

That was the plan. But a closer look reveals that the package may have been two steps forward, a press conference, and then a step and a half backward. The plan was always touted as being a rather modest relaxation of rules and regulations, but it may be even more modest than previously thought.

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

News Roundup: TV Star

“Metro Bus at Bus Stop at SW Spokane St. and Delridge Way.” Mar 5, 1975 (seattle.gov via Michael Taylor-Judd)

This is an open thread.

Link Real Time Info and Other Rider Tools in the Works

By 2015, transit riders will be benefiting from real time information for Link, improved rider alerts and station signage, expanded fare payment options, and an improved multimodal Trip Planner, among other new technology improvements. The Sound Transit Board last month approved Phase 1 of the ST2 Research and Technology program with a budget of $9 million.

Plans for Phase 1 are described in the Strategic Plan for Transit Rider Technology. I was overwhelmed with excitement when I first read though the plan, thinking it was new news but actually, this has been part of Sound Transit 2 all along.

An important feature of the plan is embracement of user-centered design principles at an institutional level. Hopefully, that will result in services and products that are easy to understand and use.

Other than the list of projects, summarized after the jump, the plan includes a “Transit Rider Technology Needs Assessment”, a compilation of what key people at Sound Transit and King County Metro think transit riders (and the agencies) need in terms of technology. I am glad that many of them agree that there is plenty of room for improvement and have suggested ideas similar to those presented on this blog.

[Read more...]

Does the U-District Need Another Plaza?

UW’s Red Square (photo by Oran)

[UPDATE: As commenter bellevueguru points out, this subject is on the agenda at Thursday's board meeting. If you're living a life of leisure, it'd be a good idea to show up and comment in person.]

Sound Transit is trying to do the right thing and have dense uses put up right above the University District Station. Naturally, some vocal people want “open space” instead:

The U District Station site — south of the Neptune Theatre on Brooklyn Avenue Northeast between about Northeast 43rd and 45th streets — is uniquely located for a public square, says Philip Thiel, a UW professor emeritus of architecture.

His model shows a brick piazza three-quarters of a block long, with a new east-west pedestrian walkway connecting the station stop to University Way Northeast…

Former Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck is assisting Thiel. They say the transit-friendly high-rises ought to go on other lots nearby.

“With density you need open space, green space, you need vitality and life, surface activity,” Steinbrueck said.

The 46th District Democrats passed a resolution asking Sound Transit to give Thiel’s plaza a fair hearing…

I imagine that both Peter Steinbruck and I both self-identify as advocates for sustainability, transit, and perhaps even urbanism. But I continue to be amazed at how deeply I disagree with his instincts about what cities are.

I agree that parks and open space are an important part of urban living, particularly when activated with year-round activity generators like small-scale commerce and playgrounds. What I haven’t seen is any statement of how much is enough. A city can certainly have too many parks and public squares, when they start to dramatically affect the number of people and businesses that can locate near transit, and increase the distances between the necessities of life. And nowhere is it more costly – in the broadest sense – to put a park or square then directly on top of one of a handful of subway stations this region is building.

Moreover, I feel deep skepticism about a public square in this particular location. Red Square is mere blocks away and as often used as a public space, albeit with some constraints potentially placed by the University. Moreover, the key determinant of a public square’s success is not its size, but what surrounds it. The U District is better at putting retail and cafes on the sidewalk than most places, but Seattle’s track record on activating open space is not good.

Lastly, I have no idea what’s in the heart of the people quoted in the article, or anyone else, but my sense is that a call for a park is often just an astute way of objecting to density. After all, parks seem green, and by replacing a potential apartment building with a park, neighbors remove the traffic, parking, criminal element, or whatever other hassles they fear the density might bring. Of course, that perspective also ignores the potential benefits to local small businesses and their customers, the sunk cost of high-capacity infrastructure, broad impacts on sprawl and affordability, and the interests of residents who would have lived in the new building. But that’s just another day in Seattle politics.

Anyhow, it always pays to let whichever Sound Transit Board members count you as a constituent know what you think about this issue.