News Roundup: 42 Days

By the Author
By the Author

The 42 and 42X are the two routes, along with the 194, that most closely duplicate Central Link. The 42X will be eliminated and the 42 will be dramatically scaled back in route length, service headways, and service span.

The 42 is basically being retained as a shuttle for the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) so that they have a door-to-door connection to downtown. They cared enough about transit access to send a bunch of people to the County Council meeting to demand their very special bus line, but not enough to design their brand-new building so that it actually faced the light rail station, or even the nearest bus stop.  It has plenty of parking, though.

[UPDATE: Tipper Carl points out that ACRS is so transit-oriented that on the very same webpage, it says to find out about bus service to the Bellevue location by calling Community Transit.  Heh.]

The 42 is also infamous as the route where, until recently, you could get your next hit of crack.  Even more infamously, it’s a route I take almost every day.  Elsewhere in the world:

  • Joe Biden says intercity rail funds are on the way.  Checks should go out by the end of the summer. (H/T: Gordon)
  • In other Biden news, he and Sec. LaHood met Wednesday with selected State Governors and transportation officials.  Washington was not on the list.
  • STB Hero Geoff Simpson (D-Covington) is upset at the Governor’s veto of the MVET authorization.
  • The Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada is concerned that deteriorating rolling stock could force a halt to many Southern and Western Amtrak routes.  As Cascades has its own trainsets, it ought not to be affected. (H/T: Lloyd)
  • Transit planners ask Congress to fix New Starts Funding, since FTA rules routinely force agencies to lowball ridership estimates.  For all the doubters, those rules were used to generate Link ridership estimates.

Transit Movies

This New York Times article discusses the transit realism of the Taking of the Pelham 123 remake (a movie about a hijacking of a NYC subway car):

Accomplishing this feat of relative realism in a place so inhospitable to most human endeavor, much less moviemaking, was possible largely because New York City transit officials — who must balance train schedules with shooting schedules — decided to pull out most of the stops for the production and granted unusual access to busy platforms like that of the Flushing line at Grand Central Terminal, where the first hijacking scene takes place.

“We thought, ‘This is our movie — it’s about New York City Transit — and we really wanted it look great,’ ” said Alberteen Anderson, director of film and special events for M.T.A. New York City Transit, whose office has helped arrange several complex subway shoots, often to see the movies made from them, like “Money Train” and “The Cowboy Way,” end up as clunkers.

If you’re a fan of the NYC subway, I suggest reading the whole thing. From the previews I’ve seen for the new Pelham, it has me worried that it’s going to lose most of the humor that made the original such an enjoyable film. I guess I’ll have to watch and see.

So I’ve been thinking, what are the best transit movies? I loved the original Pelham. The French Connection had a few great subway moments, including Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle car chasing an elevated B train in a wild – and illegalscene. One of the best movies of any sort. Speed was a transit movie, but I can’t say I liked it. Any thoughts? What’s your favor transit, train or bus movie?

This will be my last post here for a long time. I’m retiring from STB to free up time to spend on my other endeavors. I started the blog two years ago with no idea what would come next. I’m really proud of the what the blog has become, and it’s been a real joy to write for such a smart audience and read such thoughtful discussions. I am sure the discussions will continue unabated and I look forward to reading more great posts from the other contributors here and more lively, informative discussions in the comment threads.

Cascades in Oregon Will Be Buses Until June 19th

From today until June 19th, Cascades service between Portland and Eugene, trains 500 and 504, will be replaced with bus service. Those are both northbound trains – the 507 and 509 southbound will run normally. It looks like this just affects a particular time of day.

The Coast Starlight will be unaffected – meaning late as usual.

The reason given is ‘needed track work’. There’s no information about what project this is. Just a quick heads up!

The Coming Months: I-90 and the JTC

Early last week, the state’s Joint Transportation Committee (meaning House and Senate combined) met to start discussing exactly how much money they plan to ask Santa Claus for this year. TVW finally has the video posted.

As we’ve covered before, getting light rail over I-90 means the state government has to give up the reversible express lanes. The law now says that the state must come up with a valuation for those lanes by December 1st.

The state (especially Speaker Chopp) wants as much as they can get from those lanes. We’re watching carefully to be ready if they decide to overstep their rights to the highway. The US DOT has been very transit-friendly as of late, and I don’t think they’d take kindly to the state trying to charge a transit agency for a transit-intended project paid for almost entirely by federal dollars.

I encourage you to watch the video!
[We’re not going to embed it, because it has a tendency to freeze up in Firefox. — Editor]

June Meet-up

We’re going to have a old-style STB meetup on Wednesday, June 10, at the Pyramid Alehouse, 1201 1st Ave S.

No surprise guest speakers.  No MC.  No pre-registration and paypal.  Just good company.   I’ll show up by 6pm, but since there’s no program do whatever you like.

So that we get about the right size area, I’d appreciate it if those that intend to come say so in the comments.

Link Media Ride

Tukwila Station, by Oran, who didn't attend

As many of you no doubt know, this morning Sound Transit offered many members of the press an end-to-end ride on Link Light Rail.  STB was there in force.

The multimedia will have to wait, but here are some random observations:

  • Mayor Nickels was positively giddy to ride the train.  I detected something beyond the standard excitement at a good photo-op in an election year.
  • From my home in Columbia City, it took 45 minutes(!) to get to Westlake on the 42, but only 15 minutes to return on Link.
  • As Andrew has pointed out in the past, it’s a looooong way from Rainier Beach to Tukwila.  A stop at Boeing Access Road would really break that up nicely.

[UPDATE: Brian has posted his photos here.]

And now for a sampling of reactions from other media outlets: Continue reading “Link Media Ride”

Information Cues

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

While most major transit service improvements are dauntingly expensive, others are not.

Looking at King County Metro’s information presentation from a user-centered perspective reveals several immediate areas for improvement.

Here is the bus stop at 3rd and Union:

yellow moon.jpg

That yellow half-moon on the top of the stop is meant to convey information. You’d be forgiven for not noticing it, since it’s the same color as the sign directly below it. But, indeed, it’s a “Skip stop“:

In Seattle, WA, which has an extensive local and regional bus system operated by three different transit agencies, skip-stops are used on 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Avenues in the downtown area. Bus routes on 3rd Avenue are grouped into Blue and Yellow stops, while bus routes on 2nd and 4th Avenue are grouped into Red and White stops.

[Thank goodness for Wikipedia, incidentally, since this information does not appear to be available on Metro’s site.]

No where on the bus itself are the red, white, blue or yellow colors repeated, which makes one wonder what the point is. Maybe it’s a cue for the drivers.

Zooming in on that information kiosk, we see the downtown bus map:


Sorry for the poor quality. It would be nice if the map were available on Metro’s site, but alas, no (though one can view a map showing the borders of the ride-free area).

[Update: Joshua and Oran in the comments have pointed out that the map is available here.]

In any event, the map itself is rich with color (good!): we can see 1st Avenue routes in orange, routes up to Capitol Hill in green and purple, etc. Unfortunately, these colors are nowhere to be found anywhere else on the system. They’re not on the print brochures, they’re not on the website, and they’re definitely not on the buses themselves.

The next time a tourist walks up to me downtown and asks how to get to the Space Needle (assuming the Monorail’s out of service), it sure would be convenient to say, “any of the Orange buses will get you there” or “just get on any bus that pulls up at the yellow stop.”

The RapidRide routes are a good step in the right direction. But we don’t need 5 years and $100M to make Metro’s robust bus system easier for 1st-time riders. We can do it for the cost of printing new maps and signs.

I realize this is probably not a novel critique, and I’m sure that the nice ,well-meaning folks at Metro know exactly what I’m kvetching about, have heard it a thousand times, and don’t have the resources or authority to do anything about it. But as far as low-hanging fruit goes, it doesn’t get much simpler than this.

This is How We’ll Get Density

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Phillip Langdon, writing about a Metro rail corridor in Arlington County, VA, notes, “the corridor, containing 7.6 percent of the county’s land area, generates 33 percent of its property tax revenue.” The corridor was transformed with the construction of the Metro.

Here’s why this is important: politicians love to increase their clout by increasing their tax base. Traditionally, this was done by annexing land further out in suburbia. But now, as gas prices increase and old-line, first-generation suburbs are increasingly boxed in, there’s no place to go but… up. Well, if you’re interested in increasing your tax base anyway.

This explains, in part, why Bellevue is so eager to develop the Bel-Red corridor in advance of light rail. It’s even more eager than Seattle, which faces NIMBY hurdles around the South Seattle light rail stations.

This point is buried in Knute Berger’s recent piece in Crosscut (which is worth reading despite its annoying trope of knocking down down strawmen).

As these old-line, inner-ring suburbs realize that the path to continued relevance is powered by an overhead catenary, they will densify. It’s already happening in America’s first suburb, Long Island (where I grew up), where county executives are pushing for revitalizing downtowns (thusfar on a skeptical public, though LI is in better shape than most, with a host of walkable downtowns and a robust commuter rail network).

(via GGW via MY)

Transportation Town Hall: Part Deux

This Friday will be the second installment of TCC’s Transportation Town Halls!

This is a great opportunity to hear about WSDOT’s plans for 520 tolls, Community Transit’s new Swift service, the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Transportation 2040 plan, as well as bicycle friendly community planning from the City of Tacoma.  Ric Ilgenfritz of Sound Transit will also be there to discuss the opening of Link next month, and presumably he’ll field questions about ST2.

All the speakers present represent attempts to meet the challenges addressed in the first Town Hall, through demand management, better urban planning, and of course, transit!

I hope you can join us – I’m especially interested in hearing what Tacoma has to offer, as they’ve been doing a lot of work to rebuild their downtown for pedestrians, and the PSRC has a lot to say about where state dollars go for regional transportation projects.

The where and when: Friday, Noon-1:30, Seattle City Hall, Bertha Knight Landes room (right off the lobby).

ORCA bugs

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I have made my wife excited about ORCA by getting her a card and putting a bit of money on it. Instead of having to buy annoying little tickets all the time, she can just swipe her purse by the scanner, and she’s done. They even let her board free once or twice because the scanner was broken. She loves it.

However, her work just gave her a new stack of “Commuter Checks”. These are a benefit from her work to partially subsidize bus travel. But her administrator told her that she can’t use them for ORCA.

Confused, I called King County Metro to get the scoop. Apparently they have no way of keeping people from putting money in their e-purse using the Commuter Checks, then pulling real money back out of their ORCA cards. So in the end, my wife has to go back to the annoying little tickets.

One more thing. They’re planning on getting rid of the annoying little tickets. Asking the KC representative how they’ll deal with Commuter Checks then, he said he doesn’t think they’ve figured that out yet.

Stupid No-Compete Fed Rule Hurts Schools

Garfield High School, the edifice that educated Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones
Garfield High School in Seattle, photo by flickr user Rutlo

This is old news, but the ridiculous Bush-era holdover rule that prohibits public transit agencies from competing with private coach operators for sporting events also applies to public school buses. Many school districts that have high schools well served by transit have stopped using dedicated school buses and instead give bus passes to students. This FTA ruling, which already has resulted in the cancelation of shuttle service to Mariner’s games, will now cost public schools across the state millions, not to mention the costs across the nation, and comes at a time when tax receipts have fallen so precipitously that public schools all over are laying off teachers, shuttering programmes and raising fees for extra curricular activities.

This rule is terrible and has to go. Come on LaHood!

H/T to Oran.

Volunteer for TCC On Opening Weekend!

A few people have emailed recently to ask what’s going on for opening weekend – and hopefully, the answer is you!

It sounds like Sound Transit’s entire staff will be spread among the stations to answer questions, but with the load expected on opening day, even that will be nowhere near enough. Separately, Transportation Choices Coalition is organizing as many volunteers as they possibly can – as many as 200 – to give out information and answer questions.

I can’t think of anyone better for this job than readers of this blog. I bet half the people riding the system on opening weekend won’t even know what ST2 contains, where U Link is going, or what ORCA is – and this is our chance to inform them. The easiest thing we can do to make people excited about transit is to let them know what’s already happening.

Can you do a four hour shift to help this run smoothly? I know I will be. Email if you think you can – or if you just want more information.

San Francisco Getting New, Free Bus Shetlers

San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency, the city’s bus and light rail operator, has unveiled new fancy bus shelters (H/T to Mike Fisher):


The panel powers the NextMuni display that tells people when their bus is coming, a Push-To-Talk system so blind people can hear the NextMuni information, and environmentally friendly light bulbs. Each new shelter will also include comfier seats and more maps and transit information. The city is also testing whether the new shelters can have WiFi connectivity after Newsom’s free citywide WiFi idea famously flopped.

Those sound awesome. Here’s a flickr set of the new structures, photos via the Richmond SF Blog. So where is San Francisco getting the money in the midst of the worst economy in generations? It’s something I’ve been talking about for a long time:

Clear Channel Outdoor is paying to create and maintain the shelters in exchange for the advertising space on the sides.

Metro needs to get on the advertising train, they’re leaving millions of dollars unclaimed.

Americans and Car Buying and Health

jeep dealership
Jeep Dealership in Florida, photo courtesy of the Consumerist

Something should be fairly obvious right now, Americans are buying a lot fewer new cars now compared to the peak of the bubble a year and a half ago. Sales have fallen 46%, and the auto-industry is understandably worried. The Treasury Department – the Federal Government will soon own 60% of GM and already owns nearly 10% of Chrysler – thinks cars sales will continue to slide for the next years and doesn’t expect car sales to return to the peak any time soon. It’s an interesting piece, but here’s my favorite paragraph:

“It just became too expensive to have a car,” Ms. Emminger said. Now, she volunteers at City CarShare, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, in order to earn free use of its vehicles, which normally rent to members for $5 an hour plus 40 cents a mile. Otherwise, she takes public transit.

Lifestyles have changed, too. As many people move back to cities from suburbs, they are swapping three-car garages for a single parking space. Public transit use is up.

Apparently you need to walk 10,000 steps a day to stay fit, and driving keeps most people down to just 1,000. 10,000 is quite a bit of walking, you can see how far you’d walk based on your stride length here. Also, apparently living in a walkable neighborhood makes you 7% less likely to be obese (what’s my excuse?). For years now, experts have noted how car-oriented environments make us fat and how neighborhoods built before 1950 help you stay fit, and they’re even good for kids.

Maybe the combination of fewer cars and less driving will mean a fitter nation? Certainly we are watching a moment where the US is turning into Japan or France, but maybe something more along the lines of Canada or Australia. It’s going to be interesting to see how this turns out.

News Round Up: 46 Days

Hollywood Subway 1946
Hollywood Subway, 1946 photo by Army Arch

In 1946, the first passenger train public address system was unveiled in a New York City subway car. Link’s in-car public-address system has technology that will automatically adjust volume to take into account street noise. Also in 1946, Toronto voters approved a subway system by a nearly ten-to-one vote.

GM as Rail Manufacturer

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.


Mike Dukakis and Michael Moore both think GM should get into the rail business, a line of argument to which I’ve been sympathetic. Martin says it probably won’t work, and I think he’s probably right.

Building a efficient railcars means competing against manufacturers that have decades of experience, not to mention miles and miles of testing facilities. It”s a much more specialized field than it was, say, 30 years ago.

By the same token, one has to wonder why we need a domestic auto industry. Historically it was important so that we could re-tool the factories to build tanks and planes in the event of war. Is that even possible today? How many years would it take to re-tool an F-150 factory to start churning out F-35s, given the specialized computer systems and hardware found on each?

Photo of Japan Railway’s maglev test track via Wikipedia

Guest Post Series: In 1996, A Second Chance for Light Rail

by GREG NICKELS, Mayor of Seattle and Chair of the Sound Transit Board
rta01Following the defeat of the March 14, 1995 RTA proposition, things looked bleak for mass transit in Metro Seattle. Despite a relatively close outcome, the votes were not evenly distributed – Seattle, Lake Forest Park and Mercer Island were the only jurisdictions that passed the measure – the rest of King County and both Pierce and Snohomish Counties voted no. In Everett, Light Rail was slightly less popular than Prohibition! There was no requirement that the plan pass in each separate county (just the overall district), but politically it was necessary to show broad support, not just from a Seattle dominated electorate.

Given the math, how could a majority of the RTA Board be convinced to put the measure on the ballot? To make matters worse, the RTA, which had been given revenue from the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax for planning, no longer had any income and no legislative support for additional dollars in Olympia. Could the agency even survive until the measure was resubmitted?

Critics often bemoan the absence of leadership in our civic affairs, but I would argue that our regional leaders responded to the defeat of the first RTA plan with creativity and courage. I was approached after the election by two respected political professionals: John Engber and Don McDonough. They quickly convinced me (and ultimately the rest of the Board) that the key to success was to place a revised plan on the Presidential ballot in 1996. The reason? Younger voters would be a much larger proportion of the electorate. Younger voters believe they will be around for a while and therefore are much more likely to vote for a transit plan that may take years to complete (the defeated RTA plan took twenty years to build out).

The problem with November of 1996 was the twenty-month wait. How could an agency with no assets and no revenue survive? And what would it do in the interim?

rta02It began with a listening tour, asking voters why they had rejected the plan. Was it opposition to the entire concept or to certain aspects of the specific plan they rejected? The Board laid off most of the staff, keeping just 22 folks to reduce expenses to a bare minimum. Operating funds were borrowed from King County. The original Executive Director, Tom Matoff, resigned to give the Board a clean slate moving forward (Tom was a light rail guy with little interest in express bus or HOV access). Planning director Bob White (one of the original Metro staff) replaced Matoff.

Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel took over as the Board Chair despite the terrible showing the proposition had in his county. Work soon focused on some basic concepts – a smaller initial phase (somewhat ironic given that this was the big reason for Everett’s opposition) with a shorter timeframe and more investments in express bus service and HOV access projects. This was an attempt to respond to concerns raised in our listening tour. Among the issues we heard were accountability for such a huge program from an agency with no track record and that there was nothing in the plan for many parts of the RTA district for many years (if ever).

In the end the phase one plan the Board put on the ballot, now called Sound Move, was reduced from $6.7 billion to $3.9 billion (1996 dollars) and Light Rail scaled back to a line from the UW to Sea-Tac (with a door open for Northgate if additional funds were secured). Added were park and ride lots, access ramps to HOV lanes and a concept called “sub-area equity”, the concept that funds should return to the county or sub-region in rough proportion to what they had paid. The time frame for completing phase one was pegged at 10 years. The election was set for November 5, 1996.

The campaign again was hard fought, but this time the proponents were less defensive. We focused more on grass roots support and less from “opinion leaders”. It worked, voters in all three counties approved the plan, 58.8% in King County, 54.4% in Snohomish and even Pierce voters gave a 50.1% nod to the yes side.

At last it looked like smooth sailing for a Metro Seattle mass transit system!

Sound Transit: Slower Bus Rollout, More Riders

The Prop. 1 package has suffered its first casualty as a result of the recession.  Thanks to lower sales tax collections, and a three-month delay in implementing the tax in the first place, there will not be 100,000 new service hours in 2009; instead, there will be 24,000 this year with the rest phased in by February 2011.  If you prefer to phrase it another way, there will be 48,000 additional service hours after the tax has been in effect for one year.

On May 26, the Sound Transit board  chose this staff option over an alternative that took until September 2011.  The difference in the slower plan was that ST would have delayed a September 2009 service increase.  A massive February 2010 service change occurred in either plan, but follow-on improvements would have slid back about 6 months.

A clear yet exhaustive comparison of the current plan and the rejected one is here (pdf).  An even more detailed staff report (pdf) is available as well.  The deferred plan was estimated to save about $10m.

UPDATE (2 Jun): The various Sound Transit 2 plan documents are careful to say “Express Bus improvements beginning in 2009.”  (emphasis mine).  The YES statement, in the King County Voter’s Pamphlet, suggests “100,000 hours of additional service in 2009.”  It may very well be that completion in 2009 was never feasible and it’s simply an error by the authors of the YES statement.


ST also released its quarterly ridership report (pdf) last week.  Ridership rose in spite of the economy.  Although that’s partially due to increased service, bus boardings per revenue hour increased.  Although ridership is up, the productivity metrics for Sounder actually deteriorated because of sparsely utilized reverse-peak trips.  These cost virtually nothing to provide, because the train has to get back to Tacoma to do another run anyway.

I’m not really sure why ST doesn’t also track productivity per operating hour as well as revenue hour, since that would correct these kind of metric-related problems.