This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

While searching for something else, I came across this fascinating 20-year-old piece from the NYT Magazine on traffic and congestion. Lots of great quotes, like this:

The frustration and anxiety, the irrational and antisocial behavior of trapped motorists have turned cities and freeway systems into war zones. Older cities are watching their roadways and bridges shut down. Newer cities are seeing uncontrolled development at rates that leave behind any conceivable program of road building. And in any case, the time for highway construction is past.

Past, eh? Tell that to Dino Rossi. This is also fun:

Some experiments with ”high-occupancy vehicle lanes” have successfully encouraged car pooling, but others have been killed by local protest groups. On the whole, riders prefer more than ever to be alone in their cars. Average occupancy has fallen to less than one and one-sixth persons a car.

Cue the mayor from Singles: “people like their cars.” Not much changes.

Planning and Town Homes

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

For my money, the money quote from Ben’s epic 6-part live blog of the Urban Land Institute’s conference is this paraphrase of Gov. Gregoire’s remarks:

She’s discussing funding mechanisms for transportation, and who permits development – the fact that we need to streamline permitting, for instance, where we now have a mishmash of city, county, state, and federal, rather than an integrated system.

She’s addressing framing very well here. She’s pointing out that we are not forcing anyone out of their cars, or to move to places where they don’t want to live, but rather we’re creating affordable housing and transportation that people will choose to live in, and choose to use.

She’s brought up LA and Houston as examples of cities where the choices made, where the planning used, did not effectively address growth – and that we don’t want to go that way, but we need to work together now, because we don’t have more time to wait.

The key part is “choose.” You have to make it attractive. Which is why this Times piece today on the brewing backlash against town homes is so interesting. Some are quite nice, but many are bland and from the outside, and almost all hide themselves from the street with monotonous wood fencing.

Still, town houses are the most reasonable way to densify the city and keep it affordable to middle-class families. So how do you make them better? Ditching the onerous parking requirements would be a start, so the market has room to innovate. Better design review might help. But the real issue, it seems to me, is that there’s no real financial incentive for better-designed townhomes.

Why? For one, you can’t copyright them easily. So, as one builder quoted in the article says, “once one guy cracks the code and develops one plan, everybody jumps on board and says, ‘I’ll just do that because it’s easy.’ ” Second, there’s a classic collective action problem: a sub-par design affects the whole neighborhood, but no one person (say, the buyer) is affected enough to justify paying a lot more for a better design (mortgages are expensive!). Finally, a design review process, no matter how strong, is always going to be weaker than the market.

I don’t know that there’s an easy answer to this problem, but I hope someone figures it out before the same townhome design populates the entire city.

PS: Ben says that Nickels is still planning a vote on ST 2.1 for this fall.

ULI Reality Check Liveblog part 6

(Above: Table 26, one with fairly low carbon emissions – I previously stated that this was the lowest, but that was in error.)

Greg Nickels just said that as Sound Transit Board chair (which he is this year), he intends to put a project on the ballot this year. That is subject to a vote by the board first, of course, but with the chair behind it, perhaps we’ll get it!

The panel discussion is ending with some of the ideas that we’ve been pointing out here at SeaTrans for the last year: We have more people coming every year, especially in the coming three decades. We have plans on the books for expanding our transportation network and channeling growth into pedestrian-friendly, dense development, and we need to execute those plans. We have needed rail infrastructure since 1968. We have needed to replace major roadways for a decade, and some of those are ready to crumble. The EPA is making it clear to us that we need to better handle stormwater. We need higher education investment in Everett; we need affordable housing.

It’s basically come time to mature as a region. We’re stuck in traffic, and building more roads is only making that worse, as Mayor Penarosa pointed out. This is the reality check we’re experiencing – we have to put regional planning and infrastructure at the forefront if we’re going to have the kind of future we want.

ULI Reality Check Liveblog part 5

After lunch, we first heard about how well our urban layouts did against the State of Washington’s climate change laws – there was one table (which I hope I got a picture of) that came very close. We voted (using little remote controls at our seats) on what issues are most important for the region – where our largest challenges will be, and what we need to focus on first. Infrastructure came first – building transit and transit oriented development.

It was pointed out that of all the square footage that will exist in 2040, 60% of it is yet to be built. That does include renovations, but it’s eye-opening. We have the opportunity to completely transform our region, building TOD and high density, green buildings, and new transit investments designed to serve them.

Right now, we have a panel discussion going (in the above image), led by Emory Thomas of the Puget Sound Business Journal, and featuring Greg Nickels (mayor of Seattle), Cary Bozeman (mayor of Bremerton), Grant Degginger (mayor of Bellevue), Ray Stephanson (mayor of Everett), John “Boots” Ladenburg (Pierce County Executive), and Ron Sims (King County Executive).

They’re discussing how to handle densification – Ladenburg just talked about how to use TOD to build new communities rather than forcing existing communities to densify. They’ve been talking about who regulates growth – Sims mentioned that King County is being pressured more and more to manage growth outside the cities, and that they’re trying to ensure that there isn’t overlap between city and county in planning. Mayor Stephanson is talking about higher education – he feels that Everett is limited by a lack of schooling. He’s also just brought up Swift, a joint venture between Everett Transit and Community Transit to build BRT on highway 99 between Everett and Aurora Village (the county line) and meet up with RapidRide. He’s expecting to grow by 100,000 people by 2040, and he says Everett can’t handle that much growth without light rail.

Back to the Drawing Board

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

10 options are on the table for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. You’ll recall that there were once six, then it was down to two, then we voted “no” on both, and so now we’re fully out the other side of the rabbit hole.

Though it’s easy to dismiss this as more of the loathed “Seattle process,” it’s important to remember that some really critical decisions have actually been made. For example, in the time since the “no rebuild” option was first discarded, WSDOT officially re-defined its mission from moving cars to moving people. And we got a much better idea of the actual vehicular traffic on the highway (there are not, in fact, that many trucks that use it).

It isn’t always obvious, but we are making progress.

Update: Erica Barnett says the Times is being too generous by giving all options equal weight.

ULI Reality Check Liveblog part 4

We laid out the region (above, multiply this by 32) – each table had people with opposing views, so most looked fairly similar. Nearly every table had a mature transit system represented – I took some pictures that will go up later. There were a lot of familiar faces, people from transit agencies, developers, lots of legislators, mayors and city council members from all over the region.

Just afterward we had lunch, accompanied by a lecture from Enrique Penalosa, ex-mayor of Bogota, Colombia. He spoke about cities really having to be designed either for people or for cars – his comments were certainly controversial in this crowd, but that’s what we’re here for. He is a big proponent of buses in exclusive right of way – he pushed his system a little, but focused on his advocacy of public space.

He thinks that every city should build cohesive bicycle and pedestrian networks, and points out that the cities that have are regarded as the best cities in the world today. He had some interesting specifics – for instance, he feels that a bicycle path isn’t safe enough until an eight year old can comfortably use it. He spoke about waterfronts being extremely useful as public space: cars should be separated from the waterfront by pedestrian/bicycle right of way, and that right of way should be separated from the cars by buildings. There are several cities scaling back waterfront roadways and converting them to pedestrian right-of-way – Paris has closed a large swath of road along the Seine to vehicle traffic, and the locals are now calling it Paris’ beach!

I’m writing this during a short break – we’re about to find out how our models scale up in terms of carbon emissions and mobility. More soon!

ULI Reality Check Liveblog part 3

We’re being given instructions now. I’ll lay these out simply.

  • We have a huge table-sized map of Puget Sound to work with. It has half-inch gridlines, and is color coded to show land inside the urban growth boundary, rural land, military/reservation land, forest/protected land, and certain identified growth areas and industrial zones.
  • We have legos representing people and jobs – 5 million people (obviously one lego represents more than one person) and 3 million jobs. Those legos have to be arranged on this map, preferably in the gridlines, to show our ideas about where people should live and work.
  • There’s also yarn, blue and red, to represent (respectively) transit and road corridor improvements.

The idea is to put everything together to match our ideal regional design. There’s a facilitator and a recorder at each of the 32 tables. I’m going to go there now.

ULI Reality Check Liveblog part 2

Right now we have ULI Fellow Ed McMahon speaking, with comparisons between the US and European approaches to infrastructure development, increasing costs to maintain and expand our highway systems, the increasing cost of fuel, and other infrastructure issues.

He’s also touched on climate change, and the danger facing us (he quickly blew off ‘deniers’, which was nice in a room of business leaders) if we don’t reduce vehicle miles traveled. He’s talked about how many new residents the urban core has versus the suburbs – about 40,000 each in this region since 2000. That kind of split is unsustainable, and we’re charged now with changing that split.

He’s almost giving the James Howard Kunstler talk about sprawl and urban design – he’s brought up the lack of sense of place in suburban sprawl, and the impact of sprawl on our water and air.

Update 09:20: McMahon is now discussing planning. I love his quote: “Failure to plan is planning to fail.” He points out that it’s not enough to just build light rail – it’s necessary to plan transit oriented development around it.

Liveblogging from ULI Reality Check

Update (daimajin): That’s a well dressed live blogger!

Good morning! I’ll be liveblogging from the Urban Land Institute’s Reality Check workshop today.

This workshop is about understanding growth, and planning for our urban layout as 1.7 million new people are born and move here by 2040. Where will they live? How will we move them?

Governor Christine Gregoire is currently standing in front of a breakfast with about 250 local leaders – from elected officials to business leaders to prominent researchers – explaining what we’re going to do today.

Wow, she’s just said (and I paraphrase): “What international city has on-street parking? What international city has two-way streets downtown?” She’s also just pointed out that I-5 brings us congestion – and that mass transit is part of the solution. The rail system we expected to start in the 1970s has been delayed nearly 40 years.

08:40 Update: She’s discussing funding mechanisms for transportation, and who permits development – the fact that we need to streamline permitting, for instance, where we now have a mishmash of city, county, state, and federal, rather than an integrated system.

She’s addressing framing very well here. She’s pointing out that we are not forcing anyone out of their cars, or to move to places where they don’t want to live, but rather we’re creating affordable housing and transportation that people will choose to live in, and choose to use.

She’s brought up LA and Houston as examples of cities where the choices made, where the planning used, did not effectively address growth – and that we don’t want to go that way, but we need to work together now, because we don’t have more time to wait.

It looks like we’re moving into the workshop room shortly. I’ll post again once people start.

Fire Hydrants and Garden Hoses

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Former Mercer Island Mayor Aubrey Davis takes a hammer to Dino Rossi’s transportaiton proposal in today’s Seattle Times:

Engineering studies show that dumping eight lanes of traffic from 520 onto an already congested I-5 and I-405 would virtually shut down both freeways and create gridlock across the region. I-5 and I-405 would become the most expensive parking lots on Earth. Connecting an eight-lane 520 to I-5 and I-405 would be like trying to connect a fire hydrant to a garden hose, and the ones getting wet would be us, the taxpayers.

It has been estimated that billions of dollars in new lanes on I-5 and I-405 would be needed to make this fire hydrant-to-garden hose connection that Rossi proposes even remotely possible. These costs are not accounted for in Rossi’s plan and funding is not available.

Davis clearly hasn’t read the part of Ross’s plan where he promisies free jet skis for everyone.

Portland: I envy you

This made me so jealous of Portland. Read this:

With two new lines nearing completion, the Portland-area’s rail system will add 23 miles of track and grow by 50 percent in the next year and a half.

The Westside Express Service commuter rail line will open this fall, connecting Wilsonville and Beaverton. A year later, the MAX Green Line will connect Clackamas Town Center to the Gateway area and a new north-south transit mall in downtown Portland.

“In a year and a half we will have opened the first commuter rail in the state of Oregon and opened our first line into Clackamas County,” said Mary Fetsch, TriMet’s communications manager. “That’s big.”

The new lines mark a turning point in the region’s 22-year relationship with rail transit. Commuter trains and streetcars will become more common — not just the familiar MAX lines used for commuting. Riders will be able to transfer more easily from one train to another, as in big cities where rail has been used for generations.

The lines under construction could transform surrounding neighborhoods. For Portland State University, the transit mall extension will open in the section of downtown where the university plans to focus its growth.

Transfers between trains? I guess you’ll be able to transfer between our one commuter line, our one mile streetcar line, and our one light rail line next year, and I know our Light Rail system would be better than theirs if it were larger. But still, if your question is whether Seattle works anymore, the jury is still out, but there’s no doubt that Portland works when it comes to transit. I hope we can get an expansion so I don’t have to break up with Seattle over transportation.

A Google Maps tour of Central Link, part 1

I was looking at Seattle on Google Earth this morning, and I noticed that much of the city has been updated with new images. This is fantastic from a transit standpoint – the last images were taken at a very early stage of construction. Since then, we’ve come a long way, and I just thought I’d link everyone to some highlights. Because Google Earth and Google Maps use the same image data, everything here is a link you can open in your browser.

Let’s start at the top. This is where the rails disappear into the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. If we scroll out just a little, we can see the DSTT connects directly to the I-90 center roadway. If you happen to work in Seattle and ride a bus that comes in on I-90 in the morning, you probably use these direct access ramps today. These were designed with curves and grades that can be used for rail transit – these are why it makes perfect sense to build light rail over the I-90 bridge.

Moving south, we have Stadium Station. Last night I watched thousands of people come out of Safeco Field – many of them walked across 4th Ave S. to their cars, but they could just as easily have been walking to this station. This station also serves two Metro bus bases, the maintenance facility for Amtrak and Sounder trains, and likely many Port of Seattle workers. Just south of this station is a storage track – a third track in the middle of the other two. As Roger told us on the lunch bus tour this weekend, at the end of big games, this track can hold an empty light rail vehicle (or four) so that when a train leaves the station completely packed and there are many more people waiting, another train can run right away rather than making game-goers wait for several minutes.

Next there’s SoDo Station. This is right next door to the USPS parking facility, and a few blocks from both Starbucks (west) and Tully’s (east) headquarters – not to mention Seattle Schools’ headquarters building.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Link’s Operations and Maintenance base is complete in this image. We can see the nine tracks that enter the building, as well as the five long storage tracks just to the east of it. The tracks that go inside provide access to maintenance bays that provide access under and over the vehicles, as well as a painting room and a special bay for removing and maintaining the ‘trucks’ – the assemblies under the cars that contain the axles, wheels and electric motors (yes, I took a picture of an electric motor).

Near the base, you can see the west portal of the Beacon Hill tunnel. This is a bit old – see all those things sitting around just south of the track? Those are stacks of tunnel segments. Each stack builds a five foot long ring of tunnel – but they’re all used now, except for one or two extra that were probably kept in case of breakage. The truck leaving the site from the south is a great example of Sound Transit’s protection of the Duwamish waterway – you can see that the ground is wet around it. Sound Transit’s contractor, Obayashi, is required to spray down the wheels of vehicles leaving the site so that the mud doesn’t wash into city drainage.

Last, for now, is the Beacon Hill station site itself. Two round holes are visible here. The larger one, on the left, will have four high-speed elevators bringing riders into and out of the station, which is 165 feet below ground. These elevators get you from top to bottom and vice versa in 20 seconds – four is more than enough for the long-term needs of the station. The smaller hole provides an emergency exit stair. The station itself will be two relatively small structures called headhouses, one with elevator equipment over the large hole, and a quite small one over the other. Most of the property you see here will be returned to the landowner for redevelopment once construction is complete.

We’ll move on to the east portal and southward later.

Ninth Ave Goes Two-Way

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

9th Avenue in South Lake Union was restriped over the weekend, and is now a two-way street with bike lanes in either direction.

This is the complement to Westlake Avenue, which also went two-way recently. Bicyclists who were getting stuck in the streetcar tracks on Westlake can now use 9th instead and have their own dedicated lane.

I’m all for more two-way streets in Seattle. Except for downtown (and maybe the Roosevelt Ave-11th Ave NE combo in the U District), the traffic doesn’t really justify these wide, 3-lane one-way streets. They encourage speeding and bad driving. Just the other day, I was heading south on 9th Ave when another driver ahead of me decided to slowly drift across all three empty lanes — no turn signal, of course — right in front of me. I slammed on the brakes and we came with inches of crashing.

ST2.1 Outlook

Here is an article from the News Tribune about ST2’s outlook, and two editorials, one from the Seattle Times and one from the Everett Herald saying it’s took soon to go to the ballot for Sound Transit (neither paper endorsed prop 1 last November). Both editorial’s argument is basically that the economy isn’t great, and the first light rail line hasn’t opened yet, so we can wait to for a ballot measure in a few years.

I still think ST2.1 should go to the ballot this year, since gas has already hit $4 a gallon around here, a big election year will get tons of voters to the polls, and the sooner we start the sooner we’ll finish. The trick is really to get a ballot measure that people are really going to like. Twelve years ago Sound Transit was created by a successful ballot measure that came a year after a larger failed measure that had a longer construction time. Amazingly, the Seattle Times endorsed the 1996 measure.

This is not a perfect plan, but it represents a consolidation and rethinking of two earlier versions: a $13 billion budget-buster that never made it to the polls, and a $6.7 billion measure that was defeated in March 1995. The new plan benefits from a more-focused RTA mission and the public’s acceptance that a start must be made toward a solution.
Opponents are running out of ideas and credibility. No one believes there is any more money, physical room or public acceptance for major new highways and freeways. Republican legislative candidates who don’t like the RTA talk instead about pie-in-the-sky people-movers and other fanciful technology better suited to amusement parks than serving a bustling metropolitan area.
Another diversionary tactic is to suggest that King County’s Metro has the resources to take up the slack. Wrong. Metro is adding bus routes but pilfering its budget at the expense of relief for crowded park-and-ride lots.

All of these arguments were true then, and are even more true today. The 1996 post-election article sited “The difference, said Bob Drewel, county executive in Snohomish County and chairman of the RTA board, was that the RTA was willing to rewrite its plan after its defeat. RTA supporters reduced the scope of the plan and the time to build it.”

The measure from Prop 1 last year could be a good starting point for going to the Eastside and south to Tacoma, and maybe this year’s larger plan could be the design for going north. The lesson from the original Sound Transit vote is that the the plan has to please voters in the suburbs, many of whom will think that a system that doesn’t bring light rail to their area is a bad deal.

Now is the perfect time to go forward with a measure. Let’s hope we can get agreement on one before time runs out.

County wants your Opinion on Eastside Rail

The Cascade Bicycle Club has been pushing hard for a bike trail without rails on the BNSF corridor, while some transit advocates have been pushing for the rails to remain in case future rail goes through that corridor. The County Council will take public comment on the issue in their meeting tomorrow and again on May 5th. Some details here.

Lunch Bus

Ben and I went on the Sound Transit Light Rail Construction lunch bus yesterday. It was awesome to see how far along the construction is, and we had a great tour guide, Roger Pence from Sound Transit, who seemed to know the answer to just about every question we could think of. The other riders were all transit supporters, though one gentleman seemed to think that at-grade light rail is useless. We ate lunch at a table with a Federal Way Council member, Mike Park, who had some very interesting perspectives on an ST2 package, regional politics, and how badly Federal Way wants light rail.

As for the construction, Sound Transit has received more than half of the 34 cars ordered for the initial segment, and will be ready to test trains on essentially the whole line once the Beacon Hill tunnel construction is finished. The MLK portion of the line looks essentially done, and the stations look great. The Tukwila Station is a masterpiece, and has a very prominent profile next to SR 518. The mountain view from ontop of the platform is beautiful.

It was a beautiful day, the trip was really illuminating and the company was great. I highly recommend going on future lunch buses.

Outdoor Living Rooms

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Neat story in the NY Times about DIY efforts to spruce up L.A.’s bus stations:

But scores of bus stops around town, especially in the areas south of Interstate 10 and close to downtown, not only are trash-strewn and barren but also offer no place to sit. Old women press heavily against their walkers, peering down the street to see if the bus is coming, and children cling to the bus stop sign, often perilously close to the street, as their mothers beckon them sharply to stand back.

So, armed with grant money, hammers and some technical help, residents around the city have gone about spiffing up bus stops, among a number of other outdoor spaces, into something known as community living rooms.

Seattle Transit Blog Turns One Today!

Since I started this blog a year ago, I’ve had four great co-bloggers and a guest blogger join, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about transit and transportation from personal study but most importantly from the comments and from the co-bloggers.

That state of Seattle transit is mixed. The SLU streetcar opened in December, but the Waterfront Streetcar has been killed for a decade or more. Link Light Rail opens next year, but it’s expansion failed last year. We’re still not any closer to a plan or a vote this November.

At the same time, traffic is terrible, and tons of people are still moving here. Some 10,000~12,000 units of housing are being built just in Seattle. We’re going to need solutions for our transportation problems, and transit is still the cheapest way to move people.

Thanks for reading over the past year, and I hope we find the next to our liking.


This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I’ve driven under the new 41st St. Interchange up in Everett a few times, but I’ve never gotten off there, and thus never seen the really neat signal setup they’ve got going on. I’ve never seen anything quite like this:


You can watch an animation of the interchange in action here.

This comes via WSDOT’s announcement that the HOV lanes on I-5 have been completed from Seattle to Everett.