Don’t Plan With Anecdotes – The Data Says We Need Eastlake.

Between yesterday and today, there have been a couple of posts here and on Publicola that, in my opinion, fail to cover the most important parts of the discussion about high capacity transit planning on Eastlake, have some clear misstatements, and make assumptions that aren’t borne out by the Seattle City Council’s actions.

Let’s step back. Seattle’s Transit Master Plan identified several corridors as the highest near-term priorities for city-built high capacity transit. The highest demand of these corridors are Ballard via Fremont and the University District via Eastlake and South Lake Union. Personally, I wouldn’t really call these high capacity transit – we only called the fast lines to West Seattle to Ballard “intermediate capacity” in 2000. But the transit master plan clearly finds that these corridors, with even a streetcar in semi-exclusive right of way, are very cost effective, and will carry tens of thousands of people with far faster and more reliable commutes than they have today.

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What Not To Do With The Eastlake Money

Last night, Mike Lindblom reported on the raging debate at the City Council over the money in the Mayor’s budget to study a streetcar on Eastlake:

Mayor Mike McGinn’s budget proposal for a $2 million streetcar planning study in the Eastlake corridor is running into resistance from the City Council. [...]

Tom Rasmussen, chairman of the Transportation Committee, said Tuesday he’s not convinced Eastlake rail is urgent, as the nearby University of Washington will get light-rail stations in 2016 and 2021.

Let’s unpack this a little bit.

Eastlake is a pretty small place, about 4,000 residents in a quarter-mile strip of dense low-rise residential and light industrial, bracketed by the immovable and largely impermeable boundaries of Lake Union and I-5. While most of its local bus and trolleybus* service (66 and 70 in the daytime; 66 and 71/72/73 in the evening) suffers overcrowding at times, that’s primarily due to the terrible design of Metro’s U-District trunk routes (71/72/73), which take over local Eastlake service from the 70 in the early evenings, at a time when those routes are still overwhelmed with riders making longer trips — and who couldn’t care less about access to Eastlake or South Lake Union. Similarly with the 66, most of the peak crowding, in my experience, is riders making longer trips to the U-District or Roosevelt. Partly as a result of service duplication between the 66 and 70, and partly because there’s just not that many people in Eastlake, both routes consistently show up in the bottom third of Metro’s performance reports.

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Name a Bellevue Street

Bel-Red Corridor

One of the features of redeveloping the Bel-Red corridor will be the addition of a new street grid in place of what is now a broken network of backroads and lightly used collectors.  The City of Bellevue is planning to establish a new central thoroughfare, which by current grid orientation, is tentatively designated NE 15th/16th Street.  Renaming of the arterial, plus parallel streets to the north and south, is currently under consideration.

Given the pressure to completely overhaul the Bel-Red corridor’s identity, the City might be more inclined to give NE 15th/16th a unique place-based name for the purposes of neighborhood branding.  On the other hand, NE 14th and NE 18th, by my inclination, would be better off as numbered streets to maintain the grid’s function as a reference for orientation.

Input and suggestions for the street names are currently being solicited online with a November 30th deadline.

Uptown-Belltown Transit Project Update

King County Metro RapidRide D and Route 2 on Broad St

King County Metro RapidRide D and Route 2 on Broad Street

About six months ago, I wrote about the Uptown-Belltown Transit Project, an SDOT project to improve the bus interface between Belltown and Uptown. As I discussed and diagrammed in that post, all buses to or from Queen Anne, Magnolia or Ballard (via Interbay) must, in the outbound direction, traverse an awkward and time-consuming jog between 3rd Ave and 1st Ave N via Broad St and 1st Ave. In addition, trolleybuses must make this jog in the inbound direction, thanks to the lack of three blocks of trolleybus wire eastbound on Denny Way.

SDOT seeks to rectify these problems by adding the necessary inbound trolley wire and studying the possibility of a transit-only signalized left turn from 3rd to Denny. SDOT still doesn’t have a page on their website about this project, so last week, I checked in with SDOT’s Bill Bryant to see what progress has been made since then.

The first part of the project, which I labeled “Part A” in my previous post, to add trolleybus wire on Denny, is at 30% design and proceeding well; SDOT will probably start public outreach soon, and hopes to perform construction in 2013. For “Part B”, an RFP has been assembled to study the 3rd-Denny left turn, and that study should start early next year. The outcome of that study isn’t known, but Part A has been designed to accommodate the necessary additional trolleybus wire if that transit-only signal turns out to be feasible.

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

State Rail Plan Meeting Wednesday

Stephen De Vight / Flickr

Washington is updating its State Rail Plan, its investment plan for capital projects and operating arrangements with neighboring jurisdictions.

On October 31st, there’s a public workshop for interested parties in Seattle, from 9am to noon. You can find out exactly where by RSVPing to Kerri Woehler at 360-705-6902 or Kerri.Woehler@wsdot.wa.gov.

GTC Implementation Strategies Workshop Tomorrow

Tomorrow the Growing Transit Communities (GTC) Partnership will be holding a workshop to bring together six GTC committees and citizens to start to lay out strategies to accomplish the aims of the project. Those that are interested in attending the meeting from 3-6PM at Seattle Center may RSVP here. More information below the jump.

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Lynnwood Ridership

Lynnwood TC (Sound Transit)

One frequent open-thread discussion is the merits of Lynnwood as a destination for rail. I certainly agree that it shouldn’t be the highest priority for rail in the region, although perhaps it should be the highest rail priority in Snohomish County. That’s where the money is coming from and by law must be spent. Although I suspect most people’s opinion of this is motivated by something other than the specific situation in Lynnwood, here are some facts about what currently funnels into I-5.

Bus service into Seattle currently consists of Sound Transit routes 510 through 513, in addition to wide array of 400- and 800-series Community Transit (CT) commuter routes that terminate in either Downtown Seattle or University of Washington. As Link will provide frequent, traffic-separated, reasonably direct access to both destinations without having to stage through the HOV-lane-free I-5/UW bottleneck, it would take suicidal tendencies on the part of CT to not truncate their buses at Lynnwood and/or Mountlake Terrace and transfer riders to Link.

According to Martin Munguia of CT, in 2011 CT’s commuter routes to both destinations had 9,800 daily boardings, all in the peak. That’s down from 12,000 per day in 2008, before everything imploded. According to ST’s 2012 Service Implementation Plan, weekday ridership on routes 510 through 513 was 8,002* in 2Q 2011. We can conclude that if Link through Lynnwood opened tomorrow, they’d draw at least 8,501 boardings at the two stations, presumably most at Lynnwood. For comparison, in 2Q 2010 the most weekday boardings at any Central Link station was at Westlake, 3,976.

And when I say “at least,” I’m assuming that the service hours saved by not sending buses into downtown Seattle go into the ether, rather than being redeployed to improve service. I’m assuming that absolutely no one is attracted by the superior speed, reliability, legibility, and frequency of rail. No one finds Link to be superior to the 510/511 to go to a game or get to the airport. And of course, the station will actually open in 2023, when the region will presumably have grown, CT might not be destitute, and from which point Lynnwood will take their shot at fostering development in the station area.

Finally, a note on capacity and headways: with the peak lasting about three hours, those 4,900 AM peak rides on CT comes out to about 63 riders per train at six-minute headways. The 510 and 511 average 53-64 passengers per trip in the AM peak and at the peak of the peak arrive 10 times an hour. Together, that’s about 125 people per train before it crosses the county line. If you want to use the Tokyo-style capacity of 800 per train, that’s 15% full under extremely conservative ridership assumptions. Using ST’s planning capacity of 548 per train, which provides a little slack in the system, it’ll be about a quarter full before a single King County resident gets on.

All this is not to say that Lynnwood is transit Nirvana, as high a priority as UW or Northgate or downtown Bellevue, or even some unserved King County neighborhoods. From a narrow engineering perspective, it might have been possible to build something nearly as nice with buses, with less capital cost but with supreme political will from both voters and agencies at all levels.**  Nevertheless, it’s a good project to provide a high-capacity link to the natural collection point of all the county’s buses, and a sensible use of Snohomish County funds.

* Add 946 more boardings for 2012, but I’m trying to keep my inputs constant.

** As with all idealized BRT concepts that demand total focus of all players in the political system on good service delivery at minimum cost, I have my doubts!

Sunday Open Thread: A Day on King County Metro

Population-Weighted Density: How Seattle Stacks Up

MSPdude/Flickr

[UPDATE: To be clear, the Seattle MSA includes the entirety of Snohomish, Pierce, and King Counties. Below, I argue that the considerable hinterlands in that sample aren't of much relevance, but that's the scope.]

The traditional measure of density isn’t very informative about whether a city can really support heavy transit use and gain the other benefits of people packed in. Dividing population by area is highly sensitive to how you define the area. Municipal boundaries are arbitrary, and a vast hinterland can obscure a dense and vital core city.

A method that overcomes this problem is population-weighted density, which counts the local density around each person and averages it over all the residents in an area. Although not without its own problems, the average is less impacted by large unpopulated areas, largely eliminating boundary games. And now, the U.S. Census Bureau has given us detailed Metro area data. Here are the Bureau’s national summary slides.

This spreadsheet provides the raw numbers. Of the 366 “Metropolitan Statistical Areas” the Census Bureau tabulated, in the 2010 census Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue came 24th in population-weighted density at 4721.6 people per square mile , although it’s 15th in overall population at 3.4m people. The cities ahead of us include obvious ones, like Chicago and Boston, and sunbelt cities few people think of as dense, such as Las Vegas and San Diego.

On the other hand, greater Seattle is densifying quickly: up 247/sq.mi. in population-weighted density since the 2000 census, 17th overall. Only two metro areas of over a million people scored higher, and they’re both smaller and also less dense: Virginia Beach (+495) and Portland (+378). Cities bigger than us are generally shrinking and/or spreading out.

For all the rhetoric about the Manhattanization of Puget Sound, it’s striking how much room there is to grow before we approach East Coast levels of claustrophobia. A 78% increase in weighted density would bring us merely to San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, which no one would compare to Central Paris. It would still be well below Los Angeles and San Francisco, to say nothing of New York.

The 50 densest cities from the spreadsheet are below the jump.

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Profiling Bellevue Transit Riders

Photo by eastcolfax

Martin surreptitiously dropped in a link to last week’s roundup detailing the results of a survey (PDF) that Bellevue administered as part of its Transit Master Plan update.  The findings are worth digging into, because they reveal quite a bit about the current state of transit in the city from a riders perspective, and what strides need to be taken to get to the next level.  As a respondent myself, I can attest to the  level of comprehensiveness in the survey, which broke down questions for current riders, former riders, and non-riders.

The entire report is nearly 200 pages long, so the Executive Summary is the most convenient read if you want to avoid getting into the thick of the weeds.  Highlights from the summary can be broken down threefold: 1) Existing Transit Market Profile, 2) Perception of Existing Service, and 3) Transit Service Priorities.  Some of the analysis of the Executive Summary below the jump.

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September 2012 Link Ridership

Thanks to John Niles over at PITF for the numbers.

As a transit advocate improving ridership is always great news.  What jumps out to me though is the extent to which Link’s current rate of ridership growth is exceeding prior estimates. The typical trajectory of transit projects of this kind is massive growth for the first couple of years, leveling out to 2-3% a year thereafter. This is, in fact, what ST had projected in prior Service Implementation Plans (page 105) for Link this year and every year hereafter until U-Link opens in 2016. But as ST spokesman Bruce Gray told the Seattle Times back in May, Link ridership ‘continues to mature’ and is still growing by double digits. The trend sustained itself through this past summer and into the fall with year over year increases of 12%, 9%, 13%, 12%, and 13% May through September.

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Sound Transit Proposes Improved Seattle-Everett Service

Map of Proposed Sound Transit Seattle-Everett Express Service Restructure

Proposed Sound Transit Seattle-Everett Express Service Restructure

There’s been lots of coverage lately about Sounder North’s poor ridership, but not much attention paid to the transit alternative many riders are choosing instead, namely Sound Transit’s freeway-running I-5 express buses, 510, 511, 512 and 513. These routes, as the Sounder North Citizen Oversight Panel report notes, are currently overcrowded in the peaks, with “riders standing in the aisles” — and Snohomish County to Seattle is a long way to stand. In the 2013 Draft Service Implementation Plan, which I began writing about yesterday, Sound Transit staff proposed changes to the I-5 corridor to address overcrowding, among other problems, and I was able to discuss the changes in detail with ST staff.

The current service pattern on I-5 north is a confusing number-soup of routes which operate differently at different times of day. The 510 serves the Everett city center, the 511 serves Ash Way, the 513 serves south Everett, and the 512 serves both Ash Way and Everett. The 510 and 511 operate all day, except on Sundays and holidays when the 512 operates in their place; the 513 is peak only. Depending on whether the I-5 express lanes are open at the time, the 510 and 511 may or may not serve the freeway stops at 45th St or 145th St, which is problematic for riders, as when those stops are served, the 510 and 511 are frequently the fastest way to get from Downtown to the west side of the U-District or the east side of Wallingford — but if you get on the wrong bus, you could end up in Lynnwood before you know it.

The restructured pattern, shown on the map above, would be much simpler. Route 512 would provide all-day service throughout the entire route, serving all stops on every trip, except in the peak period in the peak direction, when the 512 would split into the 510, 511 and 513, which would use the express lanes and thus skip the 45th and 145th stops. This is a much easier pattern for riders to wrap their minds around: if you see a 512 in downtown Seattle, you know it’ll stop in the U-District; if it’s anything else, move along. The off-peak frequency north of Ash Way increases, although interestingly the total number of trips on I-5 per day will actually decrease. Essentially, this restructure shifts trips from the mid-day to peak, but compensates for that by making the midday service structurally more useful and comprehensible. It’s an operating-budget-neutral restructure whose only cost is the deferred retirement of some coaches.

Overall, I have nothing but nice things to say about this proposed change within the context of the available funds — it’s a model of the kind of efficient, rider-oriented simplification and improvement I’d like to see from every agency, everywhere in the region. My wish list (pending funding) would be to upgrade the periods of 20-minute service to 15 minute service, to make the schedule simpler and more consistent, and further develop all-day ridership on this corridor.  In addition, extending the span of southbound service in the evening would make the service more useful for Seattle residents — last trip out of Everett is planned to be  about 10:25 PM, which makes the service of borderline utility for attending events in Everett. I’d cheerfully pay with North King money for two Monday-Saturday one-way southbound “cleanup trips” departing Everett at 10:55 and 11:40.

After the jump, the Olive Way freeway station idea. [Read more...]

News Roundup: Apparently Not Enough

Slack Action/Flickr

This is an open thread.

Making Better West Seattle Connections

560 Proposed Service Change, near Westwood Village

Last week, Sound Transit staff were kind enough to sit down with me and fill in some details on their recently released 2013 Draft Service Implementation Plan. Between the DSIP itself, which is a pretty substantial document, and the additional information from staff, I have quite a lot to write up, so I’ll cover the DSIP in three separate posts: this one on West Seattle, one on the I-5 corridor between Seattle and Everett (including discussion of a possible Olive Way freeway stop), and one on the rest of South King and the Eastside.

I’m starting with the West Seattle change, because its a simple change that serves to highlight both the strengths of Metro’s new West Seattle network, and some (easily fixable) problems in its implementation. The West Seattle component of the final Fall restructure was the component that was least watered-down from its original concept. The benefits are pretty obvious from looking at Oran’s frequent service maps from before and after the change: the tangle of infrequent and overlapping downtown routes has been replaced by simple frequent service patterns on the three primary corridors, all of which touch together at Westwood Village.

Maddeningly, the roll-out of this new network design was plagued by mostly-transient problems which were coincident, but unrelated: downtown operations were (inevitably) a mess due to the elimination of the Ride Free Area; many of the features which are supposed to make RapidRide an improvement over “ordinary” bus service — e.g. platform ORCA readers and real-time arrival signs — were (and in many cases still are) non-functional; peak-period overcrowding on the C Line caused tremendous inconvenience to riders, which took Metro some time to address through additional C Line and Route 55 trips. The legitimate public outrage from these problems overshadowed the mostly excellent work done by Metro in this area.

Finally, though, Sound Transit came along with this proposal in the DSIP, to provide a great illustration of how it’s possible to leverage connection-oriented networks such as this one, to provide significantly improved mobility at minimal cost. The DSIP describes the history of the 560 at length (p.p. 71), but the recent history is a follows. Until June of 2010, the 560 served Alaska Junction, Fauntleroy, White Center and Burien before heading to SeaTac airport, and points east, every 30 minutes through the day. Due to significant under-utilization, off-peak service north of Burien was first cut to hourly, then eliminated altogether.  [Read more...]

Why This Budget Matters

This morning we’re at city hall, testifying to the city council to retain money proposed in the Mayor’s budget to advance the Seattle Transit Master Plan. We’re here because in addition to fast, high capacity rail, we need more local rail to connect our core neighborhoods.

The few million in this proposed budget seems like so little compared to the huge Sound Transit projects many of us are used to – but in this case, at this time, it goes a long way.

In the next couple of years, Sound Transit is likely going to put together their ST3 package; sources in Sound Transit say it’s looking more likely that we could see a regional vote in 2016. The primary goals for the next package are to connect Everett, Tacoma and Redmond (and maybe Issaquah) with extensions of Link. This means there will be money in Seattle for projects too, but it might not be exactly the right amount for the big projects we need in the city – it could be too much for one surface or elevated rail line, or too little for underground rail. We don’t know.

The projects on the table right now – major improvements to the streetcar line on Westlake (likely making it more like Link than streetcar), connecting it through downtown to the First Hill line, to Ballard via Fremont, and to the U-district via Eastlake, building real BRT on Madison, and extending the First Hill streetcar to Aloha – are all projects that might fill in those gaps.

Giving Sound Transit more planned and ready projects to choose from means they get more choices to build the most successful possible regional package. And in the event that Sound Transit doesn’t go to ballot in 2016, it gives Seattle more chances to connect neighborhoods too. In both cases, the planning in this year’s budget gives us opportunities for federal funds. We can’t let Portland get all the money!

So this morning we’re taking action – the most powerful thing we can do as individuals, really, bringing our neighbors and friends to let our elected officials know that this is what we want. To those transit supporters who are coming this morning – thank you. And to those who can’t, you’re missed, and we hope you can make it next time!

Point Defiance Bypass Environmental Update

Lakeview Subdivision at I-5 and Gravelly Lake Drive, Lakewood (2010 photo by the author)

Roughly three weeks ago WSDOT completed the required Environmental Assessment (EA) for the Point Defiance Bypass (PDB).  You can wade through the full 1,500 pages if you dare, but to the casual reader I would suggest the concise Executive Summary. For those unfamiliar with the project, a small sampling of 4 years of STB coverage can be found here, here, here, and here.

It is wholly predictable that rebuilding and upgrading an existing single-track railway would create no significant environmental impacts, especially when its construction will allow for greatly increased diversion of vehicle trips to train trips.  Nonetheless, it is a relief to note that the EA indeed found no significant negative impacts to air quality, noise/vibration, soils, wetlands, flora/fauna, social justice, or cultural resources.  Temporary construction impacts will be aggressively mitigated through Best Management Practices (BMPs).

[Read more...]

My Interview with Martin

For those of you who didn’t get enough Martin on the West Seattle transportation panel a couple of weeks ago, I recently interviewed him on my podcast.  I thought it was a really solid, broad-ranging conversation on the state of Seattle transportation issues, the impediments to development, and more.

You can find it on iTunes, or stream it on the website.  The segment is about 10 minutes in.

Urban Area Size and GDP

Population and GDP of large cities in the US vs Western Europe. Source: The Economist

Recently, the Economist published an article that highlights a relatively unexplored explanation for the difference in per-person GDP between the US and Western Europe nations.

Differences in metropolitan populations may help explain gaps in productivity and incomes. Western Europe’s per-person GDP is 72% of America’s, on a purchasing-power-parity basis. A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute, the consultancy’s research arm, reckons that some three-quarters of this gap can be chalked up to Europe’s relatively diminutive cities. More Americans than Europeans live in big cities: there is a particular divergence in the size of each region’s “middleweight” cities, those that teem just a little less than the likes of New York and Paris (see chart). And the premium earned by Americans in large cities relative to those in the countryside is larger than that earned by urban Europeans.

The article mentions regulatory impediments to growth that should be familiar to the readers of this blog: tight zoning rules that limit housing supply, in addition to language and cultural barriers that have substantially limited international and even regional migration within national borders. While our regulatory impediments are significantly fewer and smaller than those in Europe, it’s easy to imagine that an even more free system here could increase our own prosperity. Just as $2,000 a month average rents are keeping people from moving to the Bay Area and making themselves and our economy better off, $1500 a month average rents in the city and $1,142 a month average rents in the Greater Seattle Area are keeping Seattle residents from enjoying greater prosperity and local government agencies from enjoying a larger tax base.

It’s easy to look at Europe and conclude “if only people from Spain could move to Germany, the euro-zone economy would be better off”. But the same is true here.

Wednesday: Help Take The Next Steps in Seattle Rail Planning

Right now, the Seattle city council is starting to debate the budget provided by the mayor. As we reported before, the mayor’s budget contains several million to keep working on planning in the core high capacity transit corridors identified in the Transit Master Plan. Sources in city hall tell us there is council opposition to this funding – with a couple of councilmembers expected to run for mayor next year, it makes sense that they wouldn’t want to give McGinn a win going into the election.

It’s very important that this work continues. The Transit Master Plan, which we reported extensively about last year, has solid goals that would move tens of thousands of new people on electric transit. Identifying alternatives, mode, capacity, and the other outcomes of this planning work would provide projects not only for the city to fund, but also projects Sound Transit could fund, or things to fight for as part of a statewide transportation package.

The planning money in the city budget is mode neutral, but focused on rail. It could identify anything between streetcar and as high capacity as Link – and it could lead to choosing to study an even higher capacity mode. It’ll help inform those of us who want to see very high capacity transit.

There’s also money for “real” BRT – full offboard payment, electrification, things we want to see in bus service – for the Madison corridor. And there’s money to take the next step with whatever project is ready first, such as the downtown streetcar connector, the first hill streetcar extension, or light rail to Ballard.

This funding won’t make it through the city council unless we come help, by letting the council know we want it. The public comment for the transportation part of the city budget is from 9:30-10:00 on Wednesday morning. You MUST be signed in before 9:30 to testify.

Testimony is so easy it’s amazing. Stand up, and say “I want more rail transit, and we can’t wait another year.”

I’m taking an hour off work to come speak. If you can too, or if you want to know more, please comment here – or just call me at 206-683-7810 so we can talk about why it’s important!

Bellevue Looks to Adopt a Rail Overlay District

To some degree or another, Bellevue and Sound Transit have been making headway on their agreements to expedite East Link construction and fund a downtown rail tunnel. Though the surface alignment is still our preferred candidate, failure to uphold the Memorandum of Understanding (pdf) at this point could deal a major setback to the project. One of the MOU agreements is a stipulation for the City to advance a land use code amendment package (pdf) that would make rail-specific provisions in city code.

The legislation of the code amendments is rather lengthy, but an informative technical read for anyone who can spare the time and interest. What the package will do, bottom-line, is implement a light rail overlay district in Bellevue, and in so doing streamline the project’s permitting process, establish development and design standards, and fill the gaps in existing code that might be in conflict with rail implementation.

We’re well beyond alignment battles here, so any firm opposition to the code amendment package that transpires will be an attempt to obstruct or kill East Link entirely. By rule of the MOU, the amendments have to be adopted by the end of the year or else ST will have the right to exercise an off-ramp to opt out of the agreement.

Bellevue will host a public hearing on the matter, which is set for tonight at 7pm* at Bellevue City Hall’s Council Chambers. If you’ve got time, testifying in favor of the land use code amendments is a great way to show the City Council that public interest in getting East Link done is as high as ever.

*Testimony will be first-come, first-serve on a sign-in basis, so earlier is better!