Sunday Open Thread: Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn

Sunday Open Thread: Instant Skyscraper

Sunday Open Thread: Yamanote Loop in 20 Minutes

Sunday Open Thread: Metro: Here and Now

Sunday Open Thread: Rails to Rubber

Sunday Open Thread: Operation Blue Line

RTD Metro Blue Line sure rolls right off the tongue.

Sunday Open Thread: L.A. Underground

Sunday Open Thread: Getting From A to B


This is an open thread.

Seattle Every 15 Minutes (or Less)

Excerpt of North Seattle from 15 minute map

Get the map here (8.5″ x 11″ 2 page PDF) [UPDATED February 2014]

This is the update to my Seattle Frequent Transit Map that reflects the big Fall 2012 Metro service change. It presents a general overview of transit service in the city of Seattle that operates every 15 minutes or less during weekdays, from 6 am to 6 pm. Also included on the back is an evening frequent service map.

While the map retains its mostly monochromatic look from the previous edition, there are a few improvements:

  • Route numbers and lines should be easier to read and follow, especially in the downtown area. RapidRide lines get a thicker red line. And Link is still king.
  • Park areas and points of interest have been added, as is some of the street network for greater context. The streets also help readers visualize gaps in the frequent service network.
  • Slightly more descriptive frequent service guide. Link’s frequency is summarized graphically. Metro, Sound Transit, and OneBusAway contact info is now included.
  • Even with the expansion of frequent service into Ballard and West Seattle, the map now fits on a single sheet of standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper for easy printing.
  • It is now called the “every 15 minutes (or less) map”, in reference to Los Angeles’ map of the same name. I don’t care if you still call it the “frequent transit map”.
  • The “Evenings in Seattle” map was derived from the main map with lines removed for clarity. The night owl routes could be added in future revisions.

Your questions and comments are welcome.

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...]

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.

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.

Metro’s Plans for Increasing Access to ORCA

Map of Metro routes with low ORCA use. Most of the routes with the lowest usage, below 30%, are concentrated in South King County.

Metro released a report on strategies to increase access to ORCA cards. The report looks at the current state of ORCA market penetration, who’s using ORCA, who’s not and why, what the agency has done so far to increase use, and what more can be done. Short term plans and opportunities for the next year include: more retail outlets, more outreach, simplified procedures for conducting promotions, more TVMs, considering day passes and disposable cards. Long-term strategies include: fare incentives and new technologies like payment with contactless credit cards and mobile phones. All of these are discussed in the report. Some highlights are presented below.

Key message from customer feedback and Metro’s Rider/Non-Rider Survey: “youths, seniors, and people who have disabilities, limited English proficiency, low incomes, or no bank accounts often find it difficult to get and add value to ORCA cards. The $5 card fee is often cited as a barrier to ORCA use.”

The report gives the reason why we haven’t seen a day pass considered until now: “Before the ORCA system was launched, the ORCA Joint Board … agreed not to introduce new fare products until ORCA was well-established.” Three years since launch, the agencies are reviewing regional day pass options (pricing and validity) with a goal for implementation towards the end of 2012. The report also explains how the day pass would work. No automatic pass/daily fare capping mechanism (patented) was mentioned.

Limited use (disposable) ORCA cards are being considered as a lower cost alternative for infrequent riders and visitors, not people with low incomes. The fee for issuing a limited-use ORCA card would be $2 compared to $5 for a standard card. That includes $1 for the card itself and another $1 in processing costs. The standard card itself costs $2.50.

Fare incentives include discounted e-purse fare and elimination of paper transfers. The e-purse “discount” would be achieved by raising cash fares. Metro notes that such changes would require it to perform an analysis of impacts on and mitigation for low-income or minority riders, as mandated by federal regulations.

Sunday Open Thread: The Tube Weekend

Documentary series from the BBC.

OneBusAway Data Accuracy Matters

OneBusAway app screenshot

OneBusAway has become a useful tool to many transit riders but recently the arrival predictions have become more erratic and unreliable since Metro’s program to equip its bus fleet with GPS began. Eastside buses like the 255 have been giving wild estimates like 100+ minute delays or fluctuating between schedule data only and real-time data. And there was a case where the next Route 26 bus was predicted to be over five hours away. Incorrect information is worse than no information since repeated mistakes eventually undermine people’s confidence in real-time information. At the very least it is good for nothing; at the worst it could mislead and create trouble for those who trust it. OneBusAway is only as good as the data provided by the transit agencies.

The problem with King County Metro’s real-time data is a complex one. It involves the combination of two vehicle location systems (the old odometer based system and the new GPS based system) and the translation of data from those systems into a format that OneBusAway understands. I asked OneBusAway’s S. Morris Rose whether the problems would go away once all of Metro’s buses are fitted with GPS. Rose told me that they now think the problem is related to the GPS-equipped buses. Rather than wait for the GPS transition to be completed, work is underway to address the problem with meetings between OneBusAway and Metro engineers. Given their limited resources, I hope that is a sign that Metro is taking data accuracy seriously; if not they really must, because customer trust is hard to win back once it is broken.

CenTran Proposes a Ballard-West Seattle Monorail

Monorail crossing ship canal

Visualization of Ballard Ship Canal monorail crossing (CenTran)

[See update at the end of this post. -Ed.]

On the 50th anniversary of the Seattle Center Monorail, a new group called the Century Transportation Authority (CenTran) is making an attempt at building a Ballard to West Seattle monorail line by forming a city transportation authority and building on the work done by its predecessor Seattle Popular Monorail Authority (SPMA). According to a press release from the group’s founder, Elizabeth Campbell, published on the West Seattle Blog, 3,600 signatures are required to put the authority’s creation to a public vote in August 2012. CenTran does not yet have a financing plan but aims to create one that is “up-to-date” and “viable”. It is working with the city’s high capacity transit planning effort. It estimates the line will be in operation by December 2018.

CenTran is also seeking to fill positions on its board. Among current members of its interim board are Elizabeth Campbell, known for advocating a Viaduct rebuild and Paul Toliver, a former Metro Transit director and SPMA board member.

The proposed line will be fully grade separated, 16 miles long with 18 stations and cost $1.4 to $2 billion. The alignment resembles the cancelled Green Line with several key differences. The line would run along 24th Ave NW or 15th Ave NW from Crown Hill through central Ballard. Then it will cross the Ship Canal in a new transit/pedestrian drawbridge next to the Ballard Bridge. Instead of going through downtown on 2nd Avenue, the line will run along Alaskan Way on the waterfront. A personal rapid transit (PRT) system will provide circulation from waterfront monorail stations to downtown destinations. From the waterfront, it proceeds to 1st Ave S by the stadiums and over the Duwamish on the West Seattle Bridge, continuing on an alignment similar to the original Green Line to Morgan Junction, with an extension to High Point and Westwood Village.

Reactions on neighborhood blogs in West Seattle and Ballard were mixed, with some expressing support and some thinking of it as an early April Fools joke. CenTran must apply lessons learned from the failure of the original monorail project if it is going to succeed at its goals. I do not know whether this group will work with other community advocacy efforts to build more rail in Seattle like Seattle Subway and the Ballard Spur. [UPDATE: Seattle Subway's Ben Schiendelman confirms that this group has not contacted his movement, which now includes the Ballard Spur group.]

Full disclosure: I turned down a request from Campbell to hire me to produce maps for an undisclosed project (which might not be related to the monorail proposal) in September 2011. I also volunteered my time to design Seattle Subway’s map.

Sunday Open Thread: Conductor

Conductor: www.mta.me by Alexander Chen. Also, view it live.

Sunday Open Thread: Boston Under: After Hours

ST Board to Consider Facility and Link System Naming Policy

Red Line was Central Link, Blue Line was East Link (mockup by author)

We could soon be riding the Red Line instead of Central Link and talk about the Lynnwood Extension instead of the North Corridor HCT Project beginning in 2014. An update to the policy for naming Sound Transit facilities and Link lines is up for consideration at the Sound Transit Board’s February 23rd meeting.

Link lines would be named by color and destination at the end of the line. For example, the north-south Central Link line would be called the Link Red Line (Westlake or SeaTac/Airport). Supposedly, Tacoma Link would also get a color. Staff recommendation and rider feedback would help establish a color scheme. The naming structure would apply to projects in the early planning phase. Examples of US cities that name their rail lines after colors include Boston, Washington, Chicago, Portland, and Los Angeles.

The criteria for naming stations and other facilities would be updated to add “Avoid similar names or words in existing facility names”. I’m thinking that we may not see Brooklyn Station renamed to University District Station as there is already a University Street Station. We might not see a Husky Stadium Station either, since there’s already a Stadium Station.

There will be a three-phase process for determining the permanent name of a station. First, staff will develop potential names based on the criteria. Then the public will be asked for input around the 30% design process. Finally, at Phase Gate 5 or around 60% design, the Board will have final authority in naming stations.

ORCA February 2012 Report

37% of ORCA sales from vending machines occurred at Westlake Station

On Monday, the ORCA Joint Board met for its monthly meeting to discuss the regional fare collection system’s technical, operational, and policy issues. There were a lot of things discussed which I have omitted for this report since I didn’t find them too interesting for the general public.

After a late start due to a special press conference on federal transit funding (which STB received very late notice of and no one made it there), the meeting started with one public comment, probably the first ever to the Joint Board. Deborah Seymour, a resident of Belltown, commented on the triple-fold increase in senior pass prices, the loss of the annual pass and resulting inconvenience of having to buy a new pass every month. King County Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond responded that the King County Council made the decision to increase fares and pass prices. Seymour had written to Councilmember Larry Phillips but didn’t receive a response. Desmond suggested she try the e-purse which may cost less than a pass depending on how often she rides and requires a single load for a year’s worth of rides.

Vix, the system vendor, reported that the migration of operations from Cubic in California is now complete. Cubic bought the US assets of ERG (now Vix) related to the Bay Area’s TransLink (now Clipper) Card project, some of which were shared with Seattle’s. All of ORCA’s operations are now in Seattle, fully under Vix’s control. This means better communication and support on the vendor’s part. For example, on-board card readers and driver display units (DDU) at the new Seattle-based workshop are now repaired in 2 days compared to 9 days from a year ago, on average.

On the ORCA Vision, key questions are how to fund additional work and how to move towards new technology. Desmond said Metro has hired the IBI Group to write a white paper to figure out “what would it take [for Metro] to go cashless?” The paper would answer what sort of policy, equipment, and direction they need to move towards a cashless system. Phase II of the work would be to write a business plan to place a dollar figure on potential changes for a budget request this summer. Work on the white paper is almost finished and is expected to be presented to the Joint Board in April.

The next Joint Board meeting is on March 12, 10:30 am at King Street Center 8th floor Conference Center.

Update on new work, ORCA statistics, and ORCA’s annual budget are below the jump. [Read more...]