News Roundup: Going It Alone Together


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When Should Transit Run on a Holiday Schedule?

Last Tuesday, Veterans Day, was a bit of a disaster for Seattle bus riders:

Metro runs on a reduced weekday schedule on Veterans’ Day. According to Metro’s Jeff Switzer, “reduced weekday service is based on past ridership levels, which have shown to be less than 80% of average weekday ridership. Reduced weekday puts about 90% of regular weekday service on the road.”

In practice however, it seems that the system broke down for some riders, due to the combination of record ridership and the September service cuts, the largest in the agency’s history. Consider that on a normal weekday, several Metro routes are passing up passengers due to overcrowding. Add to this the fact that OneBusAway still doesn’t support reduced weekday/No UW schedules*, and we have a real problem on our hands.

The decision to run reduced service on a holiday isn’t black or white.  According to the Society for Human Resource Management**, 20% of firms nationally observe Veterans Day, compared with 37% for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and 35% for Presidents Day. Yet, Metro runs on reduced service for MLK Day and Veterans Day, but not Presidents Day.

Switzer says that the agency has avoided holiday service on Presidents Day in the past due to its proximity to the February service change. Presumably having reduced service the same weekend as a permanent service revision would confuse riders. Starting next year in 2016, however, Metro is moving to two service changes per year (again, to save money) and the plan is to operate on reduced service on Presidents Day as well. That’s one more planned day of reduced service in 2015 2016.  With Prop 1 passing, however, Metro will be adding more service to core routes starting next year. Hopefully that means  even reduced service is better than what we got last Tuesday.

* Switzer says the “provisional” data for these schedules has been released to OBA and Google and they have begun coordinating with those services to get this data into apps.

** National firm closures, are, of course, at best a rough proxy for local weekday transit demand. Large institutions like UW likely dwarf most private sector demand fluctuations. If anyone has better numbers, let me know in the comments.

UPDATE 4:02PM: The move to 2 service changes/year will happen in 2016, not 2015.

3 More ULink Workshops Coming Up

Capitol Hill Station, Summer 2014 (photo by the author)

Capitol Hill Station, Summer 2014 (photo by the author)

On Monday night, I and several other STB writers and readers attended the Capitol Hill installment of Metro’s “Link Connections” workshops. Both the format and the relatively sparse attendance afforded a surprising intimacy to the conversation, and they also provided an exceptional depth of engagement with planning staff. Eschewing the traditional open houses where staff stand around easeled posters looking mildly uncomfortable, these “Community Conversations” consist of an hourlong sit-down conversation with a Metro planner in small groups of 5-10, facilitated by a moderator with a list of questions for each group. If you care about optimizing the bus network to take advantage of ULink, and if you adhere to STB’s core principles of frequency, reliability, and network coherence, then please attend. These sessions are worth your time. 

To be clear, there are no specific proposals yet on the table, and I heard dozens of restructure ideas in the hour allotted. An astute listener could probably pick up on ways in which the planners were tipping their hands toward their current thinking, but that’s all speculative until the next round of engagement when lines actually start going on the map.  But the ideas presented, and the constructive pushback that planning staff made on each, makes it clear that they want ULink to do a lot but not too much, not increase anyone’s total trip time, and to also get the little things right. Little things could be moving bus stops from one side of a block to another, taking some parking where needed, thinking creatively about layover space, or creating/breaking through-routes for reliability and network coherence.

So if you have the time and inclination, please attend one of the remaining three meetings, take Metro’s Link Connections survey , or apply for the Community Sounding Board by November 30th. This is our chance to get this right.

  • Wednesday, November 19, 10am-1pm, UW Medical Center (informal, at the adjacent bus stop)
  • Thursday, November 20, 12-1pm, UW HUB, Room 250 (full format)
  • Tuesday, November 25, 6:30-8:30pm, Lake City Court, 12536 33rd Avenue NE (full format, non-English speaking emphasis)

Columbia City Zoning

After a seemingly endless process, the Seattle Council finally upzoned the area around Mt. Baker Station this year. Perhaps that experience exhausted everyone involved, but the next station down, Columbia City, is equally ready for a serious rezone.

Excerpt from Seattle DPD (click to enlarge)

Excerpt from Seattle DPD (click to enlarge)

The station is on the diagonal section of MLK immediately northeast of the dark purple stair-step. All of the areas where you don’t see a label are SF5000, since these zones are so large that the labels are centered elsewhere. What you do see is a tiny sliver of 40′ zoning in a handful of lots adjacent to the station, a lot of 40′ and 65′ zones in downtown Columbia City a few blocks east, some lowrise (LR) zones between the two, and a sea of single-family zoning covering a significant portion of the golden quarter-mile and half-mile circles around the station.

These circles are the areas that would, given reasonable zoning, house the residents that would plausibly not own cars and utilize Central Link’s future capacity to the fullest. Those non-driving residents provide the demand for better bus service and the customer base for a thriving business district from downtown Columbia City to the station. That business district would, in turn, help to make the approaches to Columbia City’s core more walkable. The residents that would live in those buildings would also either not displace people living elsewhere in Seattle, or else avoid displacement themselves. But instead, in large areas less than five minutes’ walk from the station, Seattle makes it illegal to have more than one household per lot.

I asked Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee Chair Mike O’Brien when his committee would review this intolerable situation. “I agree that with the growth and development around the business district, [zoning] of the land next to the light rail station is worth a review now,” O’Brien said, but “DPD has a long list of neighborhoods where they are currently starting or finishing planning processes.” He said there was no chance of a rezone in 2015, but that he would “look into” what it would take to get Columbia City back into the queue.

I-5 HOV Lanes

Diagram of proposed I-5 HOV lanes

One of the quirks of I-5 is the lack of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes between I-90 and Northgate. Instead, there are reversible express lanes. This may have made sense in the 1950s, but it’s much less useful in today’s world of frequent two-way buses and dispersed urban centers.

Even the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) recognizes the problem. From their website:

HOV lanes do not continue on the mainline where there are Reversible Express Lanes. At the time of design it was thought that Reversible Express Lanes would serve the HOV needs of the area between Northgate and downtown Seattle. HOV needs for this area are now being re-examined.

As part of East Link, WSDOT is building two-way HOV lanes along the center of I-90. But the I-5 express lanes are not disappearing, and so unlike with I-90, there isn’t an imminent need to replace lost capacity. In addition, I-5’s frequent left exits make it harder to design a free-flowing HOV lane.

But hard doesn’t mean impossible. It can be done, and all it would take is a bit of paint, signage, and Jersey barriers.

Southbound, the existing left-side HOV lane would be extended along the missing span, between Northgate and the downtown express lane merge. Single-occupant vehicles (SOVs) would be allowed to enter the HOV lane to enter or exit the freeway at the Northgate express lane entrance, the left exit onto SR-520, and the left entrance from Mercer Street. (The 65th Street left entrance is already HOV-only.) [Read more…]

Exotic Ways to Invest Reserves

A fix for Eastgate

Regardless of how the intramural County fight over near-term Metro cuts resolves itself, it is exceedingly likely that Metro will operate over the next few years with some kind of reserve. According to County spokesman Jeff Switzer, this money is “invested in the King County Investment Pool with all county funds.”

That’s completely reasonable, but let’s hope that Metro’s staff takes some time to identify a slightly more exotic investment. Numerous capital projects can improve bus speed and reliability, shaving a minute here or there from each trip. Metro doesn’t pay for buses by the minute, but enough savings along the course of a route can reduce the number of buses needed to maintain a service level.

These projects are traditionally the domain of cities, but given Seattle’s lunge into buying service, that distinction is breaking down. Moreover, as Metro is the institutional beneficiary of these improvements, it is the one with the proper incentives to invest accordingly.

An example that comes to mind is redoing the connection between Bellevue College and Eastgate, which a few years ago I estimated as a 30% return on investment per year, forever. That back-of-the-envelope guess that could really use refinement by qualified staff. A similarly thorough review of all planned projects ought to identify those where the return in operating savings exceeds the likely return from more traditional investments. As a bonus, these returns come from time savings that also benefit riders directly.

The reduced costs shield Metro from recession in the same way that cash in an account does. And although I’m not wild about the tendency to cut capital projects when times are tough, it is nevertheless true that it is much easier to scale back promised future improvements during budget crises than to remove service that people already use and depend on, making capital funds politically more flexible than operating money.

County Budget Poised to Pass With No Further Metro Service Cuts

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KCM New Flyer XDE35 #3705

On Thursday the King County Council’s Budget and Fiscal Management Committee unanimously approved a 2015-16 budget ordinance that “maintains current levels of transit services.” The Council will formally take up the proposed budget in its scheduled meeting on Monday, November 17.  As all 9 council members serve on the Budget committee and voted to approve, approval is likely in the Council itself on Monday.

The proposed budget also:

  • Increases funding to $6M per year (corrected from “per biennium”) for an alternative-services “demonstration program” intended to “right size [transit] service options and help those communities most affected by recent service reductions.” The program will be led by Metro and “include discussion with local governments, nonprofit organizations, private businesses, community groups, and other stakeholders in communities where fixed-route transit may not be a cost-effective option.”
  • As part of the alternative-services program, provides for a regional task force to review and make recommendations regarding the Metro Service Guidelines. These are intended to be reflected in revisions to the [Metro] Strategic Plan and in further policy details for transit service agreements with cities.
  • Funds study of  “transition to a cashless fare system… [and elimination] of paper transfers”
  • Approves a low-income fare
  • Increases the number of discounted tickets for nonprofit agencies
  • Maintains the  target level for the fleet replacement reserve (RFRF) at 30% of estimated full replacement cost
  • Funds the recently-enacted “permanent Metro transit audit function”
  • Funds a “Strategic Technology Roadmap for Transit” to “address how technology will be used in the future to support Transit in delivering transit services”
  • Provides for a strategic plan to address “the housing affordability and homelessness crisis”  and specifically includes “microhousing” among the solutions to be considered.

The Ordinance itself does not include a revised Financial Plan for Metro that reflects its provisions, nor the impact on the Revenue Stabilization Reserve. But for those interested, this report by Council staff  evaluates financial plan scenarios of different service levels, reserve policies, and economic forecast assumptions. In that document, Scenario 3 seems to correspond to the recommended budget, and Scenario 4 evaluates that plan in the case of a “moderate recession.”

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News Roundup: Council Hopefuls

Tacoma Trestle

Photo by Sound Transit

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Nine Awesome Revenue-Positive Policy Changes Made Politically Possible By Low-Income ORCA

Be kind to your fellow passengers:  Please don't pay with cash.

Be kind to your fellow passengers: Don’t pay with cash.

As the county council urges King County Metro Transit to look for more change in the couch, it is time for the county council to consider finally embracing ORCA. For reals. The extra 4.5 to 6.7 seconds it takes for a cash fumbler to board (vs. tapping an ORCA card) adds up, especially when it happens downtown with a dozen buses held up behind the bus on which the rider is fumbling change.

Here are nine awesome policy changes the county council could enact, thanks to the low-income ORCA program removing the excuse that these policies could somehow hurt poor riders. Bring on the efficiency!

1. Enact an ORCA discount / cash surcharge on every other category of fare payer. Where possible, round the cash fare to the next dollar up. King County Ferries and the Low-Income ORCA have paved the way for charging more for cash fares than ORCA fares.

2. Eliminate paper transfers and the cottage mass fare evasion industry that has evolved around them. Keep paper slips only for use on fare-enforced buses (i.e. RapidRide), good only on that one trip.

3. Remove the peak / off-peak differential. The differential has been ineffective at pushing riders to ride off-peak, and now will be a discount for non-low-income riders off-peak, since the low-income fare doesn’t change by time of day.

4. Ban cash payment at bus doors in the transit tunnel. Add more ORCA Boarding Assistants where needed to smoothe out boarding bottlenecks. Moving some buses from the overcrowded Bay A to Bay B will also help, or just move up the timetable for having only one bay per platform.

5. Turn 3rd Ave into a proof-of-payment / fare inspection zone, with cash payment at the door banned. Riders can handle the one-time inconvenience of going to get an ORCA. Low-income riders will have gone through much more hassle than that.

6. Create an express fare, as suggested in the American Public Transportation Association’s peer review of Metro (p.8). Low-income riders on those routes will already be paying a flat fare, so Title VI shouldn’t be an issue for routes going to poorer suburbs. This express fare would help improve some performance measurements, most notably fare recovery.

7. Create a separate, higher DART fare, or a diversion fare, as suggested in APTA’s peer review. (p.8)

8. Create a low-income Access fare, set at the current regular Access fare, and raise the non-low-income Access fare all the way up to the same as the regular peak fare ($2.75 after March 2015). Tack on a cash payment surcharge matching the cash surcharge on the regular buses, so that riders have an incentive to take advantage of the pre-payment program. Do like many other agencies are doing, and give Access riders and a companion the freedom to ride the fixed routes for free. This might actually yield the largest operational savings in the whole list.

9. Now that there is no card fee for the low-income ORCA, eliminate the $5 card fee for everyone else, and require at least $5 of loaded ORCA product to be purchased when getting a new card. 8 of the 17 bus smart cards around the country are free after rebates, and the rest cost no more than $2.
The problem with riders nonchalantly throwing out ORCA cards will now be just among riders who don’t have a low-income ORCA, so target the don’t-throw-way-your-ORCA incentives to the middle-to-upper-income demographic.

Apply for the Sounding Board

I encourage thoughtful readers who live in immediate area of likely U-Link service changes to apply to serve on Metro’s sounding board. I have no idea what changes Metro is planning, but I did serve on the sounding board for Southeast Seattle reorganization in  2008-9 and found it to be a rewarding experience.

In that process, staff presented several service options and asked for feedback about them. Although the sounding board didn’t win every battle, it prevailed in many of these binary choices. Its input reflected the lived experience of the board about the way that people use transit in the area.

If you live on Capitol Hill or near Montlake, and live and breathe the route planning principles that STB staff writers go on about, then obviously I think you’d be a great candidate for the board. Even if you’re not sold on STB’s values, a knowledgable reader familiar with the principles of transit planning, and with vision beyond the specific routes that they ride, would be an asset to the process.

Corridor 25: The Oddball

Many commenters noticed an oddball among the potential new corridors being considered for inclusion in Sound Transit’s long-range plan (LRP). Corridor 25 calls for high-capacity transit from Ballard to Queen Anne to the Central District to West Seattle(!).

Now, like most of the updates discussed in last week’s workshop, Corridor 25 may not make it to the final LRP. As Adam noted in his writeup, it didn’t have many people speaking out on its behalf. ST spokesperson Geoff Patrick noted that the corridor, like many others, was included based on public feedback during the comment period.

While Corridor 25 might not have many fans, it represents a significant departure from the X-shaped system Seattle has been talking about building since the ’60s. It acknowledges that development has moved north from downtown since then, and any long-range planning document ought to at least consider the possibility of high-capacity transit through South Lake Union, the fastest-growing jobs center in the city. Heck, it might even accommodate a sorely-needed second station somewhere on Capitol Hill.

Finally, this corridor opens up our minds to the idea that all North-South HCT must go through downtown Seattle. Despite all of what we know about the advantages of grid-based transit networks, the high-capacity transit we’re building and planning generally follows a radial approach.

The deck seems stacked against Corridor 25 making it into the LRP.  West Seattle and/or Ballard will probably ultimately be served via a line from Downtown, as expected.  But here in this moment, when things are still in flux and it’s all still lines on a map, it’s interesting to ponder.

Metro Test-Driving Off-Wire Trolleys

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King County Metro XT40

If you’ve been on the streets of Seattle lately, you may have noticed one of Metro’s prototype 40 foot trolleys cruising the streets. Identical twins 4300 and 4301–officially New Flyer XT40 trolleys–are out simulating service on a 90 day test run. This allows Metro to identify any minor adjustments that might be needed prior to New Flyer’s production run beginning in early 2015. The remaining 84 vehicles will start arriving in June and will hit the streets after they’ve been tested and had various accessories installed (farebox, bike rack, radios, etc). The 60 foot prototype will arrive around March 2015, with production of the remaining 54 beginning in late 2015 or early 2016.

[Read more…]

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Community Transit Proposes Restored Sunday Service

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Proposed Sunday Network map, courtesy of Community Transit

Community Transit has proposed a 25-cent increase for adult and DART fares to help fund 27,000 hours of restored service, including 18,000 hours of Sunday and holiday service on 16 local bus routes beginning as early as June 7, 2015.

Swift would get 20 minute frequencies on Sunday, last seen before the June 2010 service cuts, while major routes in Southwest Snohomish County, Marysville and Arlington would get hourly service. “Rural lifeline routes” serving far-flung cities such as Stanwood and Gold Bar would see buses every two hours on Sundays. CT hopes to fully restore Sunday and holiday service that was cut in 2010, with the 2015 proposal funding 65 percent of the lost hours but covering the same area. The ultimate goal for the agency is to operate the same amount of service on Saturdays and Sundays as a single weekend schedule.

Full list of routes after the jump.

[Read more…]

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September 2014 Sound Transit Ridership Report – Rolling Along

Sep14WeekdayMovingAVGFollowing the pattern of the last 5 years, Link ridership began it’s winter lull in September, however weekday ridership still grew an amazing 15.2% over September 2013.

September’s Central Link Weekday/Saturday/Sunday average boardings were 35,157 / 28,778 / 25,580, growth of 15.2%, 14.2%, and 13.3% respectively over September 2013. Sounder’s weekday boardings were up 15.0% with ridership increasing on both lines. Tacoma Link’s weekday ridership increased 0.4%. Weekday ST Express ridership was up 7.2%. System wide weekday boardings were up 10.2%, and all boardings were up 13.6%. The complete September Ridership Summary is here.

My charts below the fold. [Read more…]

SDOT & Metro Propose Straightening RapidRide C

Map of Proposed C Line Change, near Alaska Junction

Proposed C Line Change

SDOT and Metro are proposing a simple improvement to RapidRide C:

The proposal would revise the northbound RapidRide C Line route from its current routing on 44th Avenue[…]. Instead of turning left onto SW Edmunds Street, inbound RapidRide buses would remain on California Avenue SW before turning right onto SW Alaska Street. This realignment would reduce morning peak travel times an average of about one minute. It provides a more direct route through West Seattle and eliminates transit delay time due to vehicle congestion at the existing transit stop on SW Alaska Street at 44th Avenue SW. Routing for outbound service would not change under this proposal.

Transit riders heading into Downtown Seattle would board the RapidRide C Line east of California Avenue, across the street from the new Junction Plaza park. Four parking spaces on the SW corner of SW Alaska Street would be removed to provide enough space for the transit stop. […]

If approved, the new routing is proposed for implementation in early 2015.

It seems to me that this change will make the C Line faster, more reliable, and more direct, while maintaining the utility of the Alaska Junction transfer point. Relocating a bus stop shouldn’t be particularly expensive, so it sounds like a great idea to me. If you have thoughts on the project, email them to Jonathan Dong.

The same SDOT study which yielded this proposal is also studying improvements on the outbound D Line in Ballard, namely a queue jump northbound at Emerson, and a northbound BAT lane between Leary and Market (which might entail widening the roadway). Information on the feasibility of those potential D Line improvements are expected before the end of the year.

News Roundup: Sounding Board

Where should this bus go in 2016? (Oran – Flickr)

Where should this bus go in 2016? (Oran – Flickr)

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TransitScreen Launches Downtown



The TransitScreen service is a live, real-time display of all transportation options within close proximity of a determined location (including bus, light-rail, bikeshare, and carshare). The screen makes multi-modal travel information more accessible, viewable and engaging so that commuters, visitors, and employees can make informed decisions about travel options. TransitScreen is currently available in 20 other locations in North America including Washington DC, San Francisco, Baltimore, Houston, Raleigh-Durham, Salt Lake City and San Diego.

The screen installed in the lobby of the Seattle Municipal Tower is the first Transit Screen in Seattle. We are proud to showcase this new technology along with companies such as Amazon and Children’s Hospital who also plan to install these screens.

This is a great development for riders, especially the combination of modes such as bikeshare and carshare. I hope it gets more widespread adoption, and I love how SDOT is getting scrappy and installing real-time information where they can, whether it’s these transit screens or the One Bus Away signs that started appearing a couple years back.

And yet, if I can be a design pedant for a second, it bothers me that Seattle transit information systems put so little thought into a common visual vocabulary. Metro has their signage and schemes, ST has theirs, and SDOT is just looking for ways to make people’s lives easier on a shoestring. Nothing stands out to give the rider a uniform sense of “oh, there’s transit service over here.”

It would be so wonderful if, at some point, someone came along and did for Seattle’s transit wayfinding and signage what Vignelli’s 1970 standards manual did for New York’s MTA.