Late Night Airport Transit

SeaTac/Airport Station Bus Stop Bay 2 - from Oran

With Airport Link now two weeks old and the 194 on its deathbed, I think it’s worth talking about what transit options are good for people who do fly late at night. Yesterday an author on the Slog had a bad experience with Link on a Sunday night trip, but she didn’t have to, and I’d like to address the concerns she raised.

On Sundays, Link runs 18 hour service instead of 20 hour service – it starts an hour later and ends an hour earlier. When the Slogger made comparisons to other cities, she compared their weekday service to Link’s Sunday service. In addition, as we’ve noted before, the last northbound train on any night doesn’t go all the way to the end of the line. From the airport, it goes to Mount Baker, then goes out of service. This is typical of any system – as Linda Robson mentions in her response to the Slogger, Tokyo, Paris and London all take trains out of service in the middle of lines. Continue reading “Late Night Airport Transit”

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels

photo by Atomic Taco

Now that Seattle is about to have a new mayor, it’s an appropriate time to reflect on the outgoing one. Not only is the City of Seattle losing one of its more successful mayors, but the region is losing a giant of the light rail movement just as it begins to pay dividends.

In his capacity as Mayor Greg Nickels has three significant arguments for greatness: first, Bridging the Gap, which is significantly improving transportation in the City; second, the beginnings of the Seattle Streetcar Network; and third, a general willingness to say no to anti-density NIMBYs and bring about the dense, walkable neighborhoods the city so desperately needs. More generally, in all these efforts he displayed an ability to propose, oversee, and complete projects not often seen in Seattle.

On the other hand, there are two items on the Mayoral Agenda in which Nickels was on the wrong side or insufficiently aggressive. First, the Waterfront Streetcar was killed as part of the Olympic Sculpture Park deal for no good reason; and second, the deep-bore tunnel, which threatens to consume the City’s transportation budget flexibility for years.

Although “Mayor of Seattle” will likely be the first line in his obituary someday, it’s actually in a regional capacity that Nickels made the biggest mark on transportation. Nickels started agitating for light rail on the King County Council in 1988. He was an original member of the Sound Transit Board of Directors, and eventually became its chairman in 2008-2009. As we’ve detailed before, during that time he was the crucial figure in getting Sound Transit 2 on the ballot in 2008. Had that not happened, the region’s transportation future would be considerably darker.

More personally, Nickels the man has always struck me as one of us, a genuine railfan. I’ve now had the experience of seeing many politicians at photo-ops, but Nickels riding Link always seemed different: a combination of the completion of a life’s work, and the simple joy of the City he loves getting the system it deserves.

Here at STB, we were thrilled by the platform with which Mike McGinn won the general election. We wish him well, not only in the generic sense wished for all new leaders, but specifically that his agenda is substantially enacted. However, Mr. McGinn and all Seattlites should acknowledge our debt for over 20 years of public service and a record of epochal achievements. Thank you Mayor Nickels.

Stop Spacing

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Chad Newton has an interesting post at STB on stop spacing, speed and ridership of various rail systems across the US. He’s making the case that more stops on LINK wouldn’t necessarily hurt ridership, and might even help.

That seems fair to me. But the graphs make me think about something else. If you look at the graph of systems sorted by stop spacing, the ones on the left (with the greatest number of stops) tend to be hybrid subway/commuter rail systems, while the ones on the right are strict urban systems, supplemented by a separate commuter rail to provide service to the suburbs (commuter rail systems are seemingly left out of this analysis). It makes sense the hybrid systems (BART, MARTA, DC Metro) are going to have a larger average distance between stops, because they go all the way out into the ‘burbs.

Now, maybe in the 21st century the old hub-and-spoke model doesn’t apply, but there’s still a qualitative difference between a system that’s geared towards commuters who use it once a day, and urban denizens who use it for errands and socializing and the like.

So the bigger question is: what kind of system is LINK? Or, rather, what kind of system does LINK want to be? Thus far, I think Sound Transit has thread the needle quite carefully (and quite well). It’s a regional agency, with a regional constituency, so of course the bias is going to be toward a hybrid system that serves commuters as well as urban metro riders. But they’ve also been very good about avoiding the freeway median stations and massive park-and-rides that characterize other hybrid systems. Thus, density can still occur around stations, and more stations can be added relatively easily (in places such as the Rainier Valley or, later, Bel-Red).

The real test will come later (ST3? ST4??), when the agency is forced to make tradeoffs between developing a true urban system and providing a commuter rail for a mostly suburban constituency.

Extended New Year’s Eve Service

Photo by Brian Bundridge

In a small bonus for holiday partygoers, Central Link will be operating late the night of December 31 to January 1st.  All the extra Link trains will be southbound.  A source at Sound Transit informs us they’ll depart Westlake at 12:44 AM, 12:54 AM, 1:09 AM, 1:24 AM and 1:39 AM.  Although the tunnel will be open longer for Link, Metro service is completely unchanged – that means if you ride a tunnel route that is on the surface after 1am, it will still be on the surface after 1 am.

Helpfully, the monorail will also operate until 1 am.

Remember that if you get an OWL transfer from Metro on New Year’s Eve, you may be turned away from a Sound Transit bus in the morning – assuming that ever worked. Remember to get your ORCA before New Year’s!

Center Platforms

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I agree with Martin that more center platforms would be better. I’m surprised they didn’t do this while they had the tunnel closed for 2 years recently. They were ripping out all the tracks anyway.

In general, it seems like it takes an awful lot of walking through cavernous underground plazas to get from the street to the platform in the downtown stations, especially considering that the downtown stations are relatively simple: one northbound and one southbound platform. We’re not talking about NY’s 42nd Street or DC’s Metro Center, where multiple lines converge and so you need to move people to the right platform.

The buses would need to switch lanes when entering, or better yet, be replaced by those newfangled buses with doors on both sides.

Link Light Rail in the North American Context


I developed a matrix for all North American urban rail systems, light rail and heavy rail, including info such as system length, stop spacing, average speed and City population. This post explores the implications from this matrix for Sound Transit’s Link light rail system.

Link light rail, both the initial segment and the Sound Transit 2 (ST2) expansion, has been designed for high capacity and with lots of grade separation. These characteristics have led some to classify Link as metro-light. As shown in the two charts below, its stops are widely spaced and the average speed is high compared to other systems. In fact, only San Francisco’s BART has stop spacing wider than Link with ST2. Based on the advertised travel times for ST2 expansions, Link with ST2 will be the fifth fastest system in North America. The Link system has the characteristics of a system designed to be competitive with automobiles around a large region. Will these characteristics lead to success in terms of high ridership?  More after the jump.

Continue reading “Link Light Rail in the North American Context”

Editorial: A Growing Gap Between Real Estate & Land Use

Bellevue Towers under construction in 2007

The issue I have with real estate developers these days is the fact that a number of them don’t see real estate as a “multiplier” (in other words, something that influences a bigger picture).  For some, it’s a businessman’s game, where politics and money sort of run the show– to the point where properties are nothing more than a “meaningful” investment of which a return is to be reaped.  And that’s it: if rent and revenue can exceed capital, contracts, and taxes, then the development is a fiscal winner.  On the other end, many of these businessmen aren’t terribly concerned with land use on the micro and macro scale.  A number of industrial and suburban tract developers have failed to realize the detrimental potency of their impacts.  To them, it’s nothing more than meeting codes and zoning, mitigating impacts, and just being superficially accommodating to the public.  It’s a necessity, or a hassle, for them to have to show for a bit of humanity by flashing a smile through the bureaucratic layers between concerned citizens and city planners.

‘Land use’ is pretty much a term that’s been dropped out of the corporatist developer’s handbook.  I think the humanism that really evolved with architects like Alvar Aalto hasn’t just been overlooked, but essentially forgotten. What does it mean to make a property really “meaningful?”  To be able to accommodate patrons and inhabitants is almost a qualifying prerequisite to conceiving any structure, but the real test is the relationship the property has with not just the neighborhood, but the precinct, the city, the region, and all its residents.  On a multitude of levels do we begin to understand how real estate establishes land use not just in environment and planning, but in form, functionalism, humanism, and more.  In this age, we’ve allowed the markets to drain the life and soul out of the very vessels we build to live, work, and shop in.

More below the jump.

Continue reading “Editorial: A Growing Gap Between Real Estate & Land Use”

Center Platforms

Photo by Oran

One of the minor disappointments as Central Link took shape was the lack of center platforms.  Of 13 stations, only Stadium, Beacon Hill, Rainier Beach, and Seatac have these center platforms.  The four DSTT stations share right-of-way with buses and so in effect must have outer platforms.

Center platforms are highly desirable at termini and at train-to-train transfer points, for obvious reasons.  As the only currently planned transfer point, I’m hopeful that Chinatown/ID Station will get a center platform between now and 2020 to facilitate transfers from South to East and vice versa.

More generally, though, it seems prudent to construct these wherever possible because you never know where a terminus or transfer might occur someday.  Rainier Beach is equipped to be a turnaround for trains because it has a switchover, so it’s fortunate it has a center platform.  To speculate a little more wildly, in the distant future Link may more or less follow the RapidRide F Line from Burien to Southcenter.  Tukwila Station would be an obvious place to switch between the lines.  Unfortunately, for no apparent reason this was built as an outer platform station.

The other bonus of center platforms is that it makes it easy to double back if you overshoot your stop.  Fortunately, Capitol Hill appears to be center-platform.  Here’s hoping Sound Transit finds more opportunities to use this approach.

News Roundup

"First revenue Link train to Seatac, WA", by DWHonan

Why Transit

photo by Mike Bjork

I get asked occasionally why I blog, and why I blog about transit.  I’m not going to bore you with self-analysis on whatever psychic rewards I get out of this, so instead, here’s a brief Boxing Day summary of why I think transit, and rail transit in particular, is important:

  1. Cost effectiveness: A 4-car light rail line running (800 passengers) at 7.5 minute frequencies can carry 6400 people in each direction.  At 2.5 minutes, it’s 19,200.   According to FHWA, highway lane of traffic at capacity can carry 2,200 people in single occupancy vehicles under ideal conditions.  Given that regional growth will continue, what’s a more plausible way to expand capacity in, say, the I-5 corridor?  North Link, or 16 new lanes on I-5?
  2. Positive Societal Effects: There are a bunch of societal drawbacks to driving, some well-understood and others not: air pollution, water pollution, trade deficits from oil imports, sedentary lifestyles, traffic deaths, hideous parking-lot-oriented architecture, sprawl, personal transportation costs, and congestion.  Widely available transit is a partial antidote to all of these.
  3. Quality of Life: We usually talk about the other things because they’re more quantifiable, but ultimately it comes down to quality of life.  In major cities around the world, rail is simply the best way to get around.  As Seattle enters that class of metropolis, residents shouldn’t tolerate the lack of such an important amenity any more than they would tolerate the absence of parks and libraries.

Can HSR Really Compete with Air Travel?

Yes, and it’s already happening.  Here’s a little Christmas gift for high-speed rail (HSR) fans.  I just pulled this Guardian UK article from August (via The Infrastructurist) about how the demand for HSR in Germany is really starting to crowd out the airline market.  For an option that was once better than taking the car, but not as good as flying, rail is becoming the predominant mode in the intercity travel market.  Many short-haul train trips are now faster than comparable plane trips.  According to Pierre-Stephane Austi, CEO of Rail Europe, trains are, on average, a quicker ride than planes for distances up to 1500km (932 miles– for comparison, roughly the distance from Seattle to Fresno) when factoring in check-in, security, and recommended buffer time for air travelers.

It’s a phenomenon that’s beginning to be realized across Europe, where 90% of travelers between London and Paris are now taking the Eurostar over any airline.  For a train to beat a car in the States is quite a feat, but winning over air travel is pretty unthinkable, at least for now.  From the Guardian:

The journey considered to be the nearest modern equivalent to magic carpet rides is the Cologne-Frankfurt route, which used to take over two hours but has been cut to just over an hour. Taking the car is hardly an alternative, when even whizzing in your BMW on the speed limit-free autobahn would take twice as long as the train. Berlin to Hamburg by rail now takes about 90 minutes, whereas a few years ago a flight would have taken at least two hours, taking check-in time into account.

Okay, Secretary LaHood and America, let’s get on it!

[UPDATE: This isn’t exclusive to just Europe.  The China Post reports that a Wuhan-Guangzhou HSR line will hit the airline industry hard there (H/T: Gordon Werner).]

Fares, Transfer Policies to Change Jan. 1

Fare alert on a Metro bus. Photo by Oran.
Fare alert on a Metro bus. Photo by Oran.

Two major changes occur with the New Year:

First, all King County Metro fares (except for the ages 6-18 fare) will go up 25 cents.  For most of us that means $2.00 off-peak, $2.25 one-zone peak, $2.50 $2.75 two-zone peak.

More confusingly, there will be a dramatic reduction in the media with which you can legally board a bus.  The rules below apply to Metro, Sound, Everett, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap Transit buses only:

  • Cash always works.
  • An ORCA card loaded with either E-purse money or a monthly pass of sufficient value.
  • Although they are increasingly hard to get, if you have a physical PugetPass or FlexPass of sufficient value that’s still valid.
  • On Metro buses only, a valid Metro bus transfer.  This does not include Sound Transit buses operated by Metro: 522, 540, 545, 550, 554, 555, 556, 560, 564, 565, 577.
  • [Update 1/4/10] On Metro buses only and only on weekends and holidays, Metro drivers sell a $4.50 day pass that is a valid fare.  This does not include any Sound Transit buses. [Updated 8/24/11]
  • On Metro buses only, a valid Metro bus ticket.  This does include Sound Transit buses operated by Metro.
  • On Pierce Transit buses only, a valid Pierce bus ticket (which are hard to get).  This does include Sound Transit buses operated by Pierce Transit,  (574, 578, 582, 586, 590, 592, 593, 594, 595) but only as a one-zone fare.
  • On Pierce Transit buses only, a valid Pierce bus transfer.  This does not include Sound Transit buses operated by Metro Pierce Transit.

On trains it’s simpler: either buy a ticket at the machine, use an ORCA card, or walk on with the scarce PugetPass or FlexPass card.

ORCA is a step forward but it’s clear we’re not really going to get the complexity down till we get rid of paper media entirely.

Light Rail Vote in 2010?


The Slog reports that Mayor-Elect McGinn is considering putting Seattle-only light rail extension on the ballot as early as 2010 — that’s 11 months from now.

I think McGinn is basically right that Seattle voters (as opposed to Sound Transit district voters) will vote for transit anytime and anyplace*, so my only concern with timing is that the plan be mature enough to not have a revenue or cost meltdown in two years’ time.  That probably means getting some ST staff involved that now has some experience with financing, building, and opening light rail.

I’ve speculated in the past that this project will consist of an all-surface alignment from West Seattle to SODO station, combined with a souped-up Ballard/Fremont Streetcar to connect those neighborhoods with Westlake Center.  This would cost relatively little and punt the very expensive issue of how to get through downtown until ST3.

I have a call in to the McGinn team asking what the reasoning behind this is, besides it being awesome to have everything happen a year earlier.

*Except for the final blow to the monorail, but that I don’t think that example applies.

APTA: Transit Ridership Down Nationwide

Link Departing Mt. Baker Station, by DWHonan
Link Departing Mt. Baker Station, by DWHonan

After we reported the largely meaningless Link ridership numbers last week, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) just released numbers from Q3 of 2009 (pdf), revealing a continuing trend in dropping transit ridership this year.  This comes a year after surging oil prices resulted in record ridership in 2008.  The primary contributing factor is the unemployment rate and the economic downturn, as nearly 60% of transit rides are commute trips.  According to Warren Millar, President of APTA, both public transit and unemployment rate correlate as lagging economic indicators.

Funnily enough, it should be no surprise that Seattle had an infinite increase in light rail ridership over last year (marked as a >100 percent change).  Here is the APTA’s breakdown of the numbers:

Paratransit (demand response) and trolleybus were the only two modes that saw increases in ridership.  Paratransit ridership increased by 3.7 percent and trolleybus ridership increased by 0.7 percent from January through September 2009.

Light rail (streetcars, trolleys) had a slight decrease less than one percent (-0.7).  Light rail systems in seven cities reported an increase in the first nine months.  They are as follows: Philadelphia, PA (17.5%); Oceanside, CA (17.3%); Baltimore, MD (13.9%); Memphis, TN (11.6%); Tampa, FL (7.0 %); San Francisco, CA (1.1%).  A new line on the light rail system in Seattle, WA has led to more than 100% growth in the first nine months of 2009.

Heavy rail (subways) declined by 3.0 percent.  Los Angeles Metro heavy rail continued its trend of increased ridership with an increase of 6.0 percent for the first nine months.  Ridership on the Washington Metropolitan Transportation Authority (WMATA) increased by 0.6 percent for the same time period.

Commuter rail ridership decreased by 5.1 percent.  Commuter rail ridership increases were recorded in the following cities:  Boston, MA (2.4%); New Haven, CT (1.4%); and Alexandria, VA (1.3%).  A major extension of commuter rail in New Mexico from Albuquerque to Santa Fe led to more than a 100 percent increase from January through September 2009.

Bus ridership declined by 5.0 percent in the first nine months of 2009.  In the largest bus ridership report, bus trips increased in San Francisco, CA by 1.1 percent.  Bus travel in the smallest population area (below 100,000) decreased by only 1.0 percent — the smallest percent decrease of all population groups.

Nationwide transit ridership from 1999 to 2009 (click to enlarge)
Nationwide transit ridership from 1999 to 2009 (click to enlarge)

Even with the recent dip, transit ridership is still historically higher than it was in the mid 2000s (when unemployment rate was at its lowest), indicating that the slumping labor markets have still been unable to offset the trips gained in 2008.

With an actual net gain in ridership since Q1 of 2007, the numbers aren’t as bad as news media like USA Today are making them sound.  It’s likely that falling oil prices may have had as much to do with diminishing transit use as unemployment did.

Light Rail Derailment Blamed on Operator Error


[UPDATE by Sherwin: Here’s the full report (pdf) detailing the incident.]

Sound Transit’s preliminary report on last month’s Link derailment is complete.  The train derailed while leaving the O&M facility, blocking one track and thus severely impairing the evening’s service.

According to the report, the operator ran a red light (involving a whole set of violated protocols), which was immediately detected at the operations center.  He or she? She was instructed to physically check the switch and then move the train back off the mainline, but did not perform the physical check.  That derailed the train.

Full press release after the jump.

Continue reading “Light Rail Derailment Blamed on Operator Error”

Holiday Service Roundup


KC Metro:

  • Christmas Eve, and 12/28-12/31, Metro is operating its “reduced weekday” and “no UW” service levels.
  • Christmas and New Year’s are Sunday schedules.
  • through this Wednesday (12/23), the “no UW” schedule is in effect.

Sound Transit, Everett Transit:

  • Sunday service on Christmas and New Year’s, no other changes.

Community Transit:

  • 12/24-1/1: 207, 227, 247 canceled; 277, 280 truncated.
  • 12/24, 12/31: Boeing service canceled; some 400-series trips canceled (not just those marked with an “H”, thanks to typos; click on the link)
  • Christmas and New Year’s: Sunday Schedule

Pierce Transit:

  • Sunday service on Christmas and New Year’s; no fares on Christmas for local service

Unintended Consequences

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Transportation is a complex system:

A number of cold weather American states are reporting their dismay at finding out that LED traffic lights are so energy efficient that they do not produce enough excess heat to dissipate any snow that covers them.

BNSF Derailment in Gold Bar, WA

Just got wind of a BNSF derailment in Gold Bar, Washington. It is unknown how bad the accident may be at this time. It is known to be a intermodal/container train bound for Tacoma, Washington.

This occurred on the Stevens Pass route, about 32 miles Northeast of Seattle. This will most likely affect Amtrak’s Empire Builder trains 7 and 8 depending on the location and severity of the derailment. It is unknown if Amtrak will bus passengers or detour the train if it is blocking the main line.

More details to come as I get them.

UPDATE 4:50pm: Train was the S-LPCTAC with one, maybe two cars on the ground.