The Coming Era of Cities

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Foreign Policy has a nice piece on the importance of cities to the 21st-century.

The 21st century will not be dominated by America or China, Brazil or India, but by the city. In an age that appears increasingly unmanageable, cities rather than states are becoming the islands of governance on which the future world order will be built. This new world is not — and will not be — one global village, so much as a network of different ones.

From a U.S. perspective, this puts us at somewhat of a distinct disadvantage.  Our cities are generally hamstrung by the presence of disparate, overlapping local governments, anti-city hostility in our state capitals, and a national political system that disproportionally funnels money to states, not cities or regions.

Meeting with the Union


Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 587, somewhat miffed at perceived attempts by King County to bargain through the media, relaunched their media relations with an informal press briefing yesterday, featuring the usual transportation reporter suspects and me. Erica C. Barnett was also there, and STB doesn’t pay nearly enough to do a writeup of the main points when there’s a perfectly fine one already available elsewhere.

I don’t think anyone who rides one of Metro’s more troublesome routes can dispute that driving a bus can be a difficult job with a fair amount of responsibility. Neither union solidarity nor union busting is part of this blog’s agenda, but it’s clear that the best personnel equilibrium from a rider’s perspective is one that pays the absolute minimum amount that still attracts quality personnel. That’s pretty vague, but I have to do some more deep thinking before saying more.

One simple yardstick is what peer agencies pay. I was gratified to learn that the ATU is not, by state law, allowed to strike, but instead go to binding arbitration that tends to compare proposals to what peer operators pay.

I also asked why neither Metro nor the ATU had brought up incentive pay for some of the more violent and undesirable routes in the system, in order to attract some more experienced drivers. The surprising response was that routes like the 7 are actually driven by fairly experienced staff, because there’s some pleasure in driving a trolley and serving a transit-dependent neighborhood.

Sound Transit 2Q 2010 Ridership Report

Sounder ORCA Locomotive, by Joshua Putnam

Sound Transit’s second quarter ridership report out, which covers all of its services, is out. Sounder and Express Bus ridership is basically flat since 2Q 2009; Tacoma Link is way down; but the system’s overall ridership is up 47% because of the opening of Central Link, which now carries over half as many riders as the entire ST Express bus system.

On the other hand, all of ST’s modes aren’t meeting productivity targets set in the 2010 budget over the first half of the year. And ST is still using a pretty bizarre definition of reliability for Link, one that it’s failing with a miserable 77% on-time rate. The report points out that by a much more sensible headway-based metric (+/- three minutes) the performance was over 90%, not in my view good enough for rail, but much better than the headline number. See the 1st Quarter report for discussion of these reliability numbers.

Sound Transit to Add 277 Bicycle Parking Spaces

SeaTac/Airport Station Bike Lockers and Racks
Bike Parking at SeaTac (photo by Oran)

Sound Transit announced plans on Tuesday to construct approximately 277 additional bicycle parking spaces over the next 16 months.   Funded by federal grants, the 173 lockers and 104 rack spaces (13 racks, 8 spaces per rack) will be placed at selected park & rides, Link stations, and Sounder stations.

Cycling investments such as these are some of the easiest and most cost-effective means of combating the ‘last-mile’ problem, especially at far flung suburban park & rides.  For a cost of $464,000 (or $1,675 per space) they’re not exactly cheap, yet they cost a tiny fraction of the same number of car spaces and they leave a small physical footprint on station areas.     Anything that makes non-SOV multimodality more attractive has our support.

The locations are:

  • Auburn Station, 28 lockers
  • Columbia City Station, 7 lockers and 2 racks (2010), and 46 more lockers and 1 more rack (2011)
  • DuPont Park & Ride, 6 lockers and 1 rack
  • Federal Way Transit Center, 8 lockers
  • Kent Station, 22 lockers
  • Lynnwood Transit Center, 20 lockers and 4 racks
  • Mercer Island Park & Ride, 4 lockers
  • Othello Station, 8 lockers and 2 racks
  • Rainier Beach Station, 16 lockers
  • South Everett Freeway Station, 3 racks
  • South Hill Park & Ride, 8 lockers

Transit Task Force Looks at Revenue


[UPDATE: Some P&Rs are actually owned by WSDOT, so those would require legislative authority to introduce fees. For county-owned P&Rs, the legislature doesn’t have to do anything.]

[UPDATE 2: Metro spokeswoman Rochelle Ogershok points out that $50m is a rough estimate of the annual deficit, after planned cuts, in 2012. The “long term” deficit, going out to 2015, is actually $100m. Corrected below.]

At tonight’s meeting of the Regional Transit Task Force, they’ll be looking at an executive summary of Metro’s various revenue options. It’s a treasure trove of information about what Metro collects now and what else is out there. Metro’s long term 2012 budget hole, after the various efficiencies applied, is still about $50m annually.

  • There’s still 1-cent-per-$1,000 of property tax authority, unfortunately worth only about $3m.
  • Theoretically, the County could create a Transportation Benefit District and levy a vehicle license fee of up to $100 — raising $125m! — but the cities have been busily taking this authority for themselves.
  • King County can tax parking in unincorporated areas only, where of course there isn’t a whole lot of paid parking.
  • The State has a local option tax for HOV systems, which by applying an MVET or a head tax could top off the capital fund. A lot of Metro’s federal money is already restricted to capital expenditure, so it’s unlikely that this money would free up cash to spend on the operations gap.
  • Each quarter you raise fares – not listed as an option in the report – generates about $12m.

There’s then a discussion of taxes that would require legislative action to authorize. For reasons unclear to me, charging at park-and-rides is listed as requiring this, and would generate between and $850,000 and $2.3m annually. There’s a strong case Metro and ST should do this anyway at high-demand park & rides, so in my view the revenue is just a bonus.

Aside from that, my favorite proposal is eliminating one of the state’s biggest (and under-appreciated) subsidies to drivers: the sales tax exemption for gasoline. Without any special dispensation for transit, simply applying existing transit taxes to gasoline would raise $28-40m annually for Metro, patching more than half of the hole. It would generate an even larger amount for Sound Transit, which has revenue problems of its own, to say nothing of its positive impact on state and local general funds, and other strapped agencies like Community Transit. We spend a fair amount of money in this region encouraging people not to drive, and it’s senseless to simultaneously subsidize the opposite.

July Link Weekday Ridership Up 3%

Photo by Oran

Weekday ridership on Central Link improved on June’s record with a new average of 24,145 boardings per day. We’re still about 6 months away from having meaningful year-to-year comparisons.

Saturday and Sunday ridership also set non-opening-weekend records of 22,098 and 17,127, respectively. Saturday ridership that approaches weekday boardings is unusual in our region. It’s easy to speculate but there’s no data on why Link is a special case.

Shanghai Metro the World’s Largest

Image from "the transport politic" (click for full size)

A while ago the transport politic reported that Shanghai has passed London and has the world’s largest metro.* Shanghai started from zero in 1995; not yet satisfied, they plan to add roughly a New York City subway equivalent to that by 2020.

You can always count on China for an absurd superlative. It’s clear that in the United States we couldn’t possibly build so much as quickly, thanks to both property rights and environmental law.** But it’s also worth noting that China has made this a national priority of sorts.

The nation’s budget situation hasn’t been good for a decade or so, but governments of both right and left have, on several occasions in that time, come up with trillion-dollar-plus lumps of funding for their priorities. Sometimes it was deficit-funded, at others they found offsetting revenue. The point is that if we want it enough they find a way.

Don’t let anyone tell you that vision is impossible.

* excludes London’s light rail elements.

** to be clear, both good things.

SR520 Meeting Tomorrow


Seattle and the State of Washington are going to have another of their periodic SR520 workgroup meetings tomorrow:

A team of representatives from the state, city of Seattle and transit agencies will meet again to discuss design refinements for the new State Route 520 at a workgroup meeting Aug. 19. The public and the media are welcome to attend…

Thursday, Aug. 19

Location: Puget Sound Regional Council Board Room, 1011 Western Ave., Suite 500, Seattle

Time: 3 – 5 p.m. technical presentation to the workgroup (includes public comment)

5 – 6:30 p.m. public information session

Several topics will be discussed, including:

  • Bicycle and pedestrian connections.
  • Traffic movements and operations.
  • Bus stop locations and connections.
  • Traffic calming and management in the Washington Park Arboretum.

The workgroup will accept public comments at the end of their meeting.

Recommendations come out October 1st. I’m most interested in there being transit or HOV lanes from the interchange to Husky Stadium, though much of our readership will be more fired up about the Montlake Flyer Stop.

More on Subarea Cuts

I’m not sure if anyone cared enough to dive into the details of yesterday’s subarea equity post, or if the writing was clear enough to follow, but there was a mistake that doesn’t really change the key point. Check out the revised post to see what’s changed.

Perhaps a graphical way of looking at this is better. There are three basic kinds of cuts: those that Metro classifies as “efficiencies” (square pattern), which are either non-service hours or extremely unproductive trips; cuts that are offset with new service for RapidRide or SR520 (shaded), or cuts that represent pure pain (solid color).

The question here is what genuinely counts as a cut. In the conception of Butler (and the Metro staff), service that is reduced but replaced by a like amount of service elsewhere in the same area (shaded) counts as a cut. By that measure the East has a disproportionately large cut and the West gets off relatively easy.

Alternately, if you just look at the “pure pain” cuts or “pure pain” plus efficiencies, the West area cuts are almost exactly in proportion, while East absorbs some of the South’s share of cuts.

News Roundup: The Standard Hand-Wringing

Central Link O&M Facility (posted by Gordon Werner)

This is an open thread.

Intercity Transit Likely Saved by Voters

Service cuts will be prevented thanks to Thurston County voters.

The voters of urban Thurston County rallied last night behind a measure on the ballot to save Intercity Transit’s bus service, according to Thurston County’s early election returns.

Yes – 18,242 – 64%
No – 10,442 – 36%

The measure, which seems likely to easily pass even once all votes are counted, raises Intercity Transit’s sales tax rake from 0.6% to 0.8%. Without this revenue increase, service would have been cut, we wrote last month:

The revenue predicament of Intercity Transit should by now be familiar. Tax revenues are down about 13% from 2007 levels. The agency has already cut some nonessential programs and raised fares, and is now facing a 9% cut in February 2011 and a further 14% in 2012.

The state’s limit on sales tax authority for transit agencies is 0.9%, providing room for an additional increase if even more service is desired by future voters. King County Metro, facing its own shortfall in coming years, is already at that limit.

Fun With Numbers

Fred Butler (Sound Transit)

[OOPS: There’s a mistake at the end of this post, although it doesn’t impact the point that there are many ways of looking at this. Corrections are below the jump.]

[UPDATE: Butler reports he got the numbers from Metro staff.]

During the last Regional Transit Task Force meeting on August 5th, Task Force member and Issaquah City Councilmember Fred Butler circulated a letter calling for more strict subarea equity in the service reduction alternative the task force was considering:

At the very least, I would like to have Metro generate an alternative scenario for service reductions that gives more weight to geographic equity among the three transit planning subareas. Further, looking forward to system growth, the task force should consider at least two alternatives, one of which gives equal weight to geographic equity and productivity.

The table below summarizes the proportional statistics that highlight geographic equity concerns regarding Metro service. Key points are:
• West subarea currently receives a disproportionately large share of transit service hours compares with its share of population, growth, and sales tax receipts
• The R1 scenario for service reductions would exacerbate the current imbalance, most acutely in East County, which is projected to loose [sic] twice the share of its current transit service compared with the other two subareas.

The table he provides is this one:

Butler is just looking out for his constituents, but the “share of total reductions” column is subject to a lot of interpretation. Because of King County’s asymmetric subarea policies, there are a lot of ways you can manipulate these numbers, but my assessment is that the split is 25% East, 14% South, and 62% West — in accordance with current policy for the West and otherwise favoring South over East. More after the jump.

Continue reading “Fun With Numbers”

Rider Alert: Another Tough Day to Take the Train


Due to a fatal accident between Puyallup and Tacoma, Sounder service is delayed over an hour and trains are being turned at Puyallup. It is unknown at this time if Cascades trains will run as scheduled to Portland.

Also, no trains will run to Vancouver BC today or tomorrow as emergency repairs in White Rock continue.

The Many Metrics of Transit Service

Photo by Zargoman

There’s a lot of good and interesting stuff about Metro at the Transit Task Force website. One point that I’ve tried to make frequently over the past couple of years is that there’s more to transit than ridership, so any plan that only considers ridership is missing a lot of the picture.

An August 5th task force handout on performance measures makes the point really well. It identifies 7 different policy objectives for bus service, listed after the jump:

Continue reading “The Many Metrics of Transit Service”

PSRC Releases Funding Recommendations

Roosevelt Station (Sound Transit)

The Puget Sound Regional Council is a consortium of elected officials that has an important function in helping to disburse federal funds for transportation projects.

The latest batch of recommendations is out, and they want your comments. Of special interest:

  • $1m for ROW acquisition for the S. 200th St. Link extension;
  • $1.2m for ROW at Roosevelt Station;
  • $2m for a hybrid-electric West Seattle Water Taxi;
  • $438,000 to do some engineering on turning S. Main and S. Washington Streets into a couplet of one-way streets with transit lanes*;
  • $1.8m for the Mercer St. project;
  • $1m for a parking garage at the Burien Transit Center;
  • $88,000 to integrate inter-county Skagit Transit routes into ORCA;
  • $2m to improve Aurora Ave. in Shoreline.

You can comment this month by sending email to See here for other commenting options.

*”The Transit Pathways Project on South Main and South Washington will establish a couplet of two oneway streets with designated transit lanes and/or transit priority treatments to promote transit flow from Alaskan Way to  Downtown Seattle. The capital investments will improve transit flow and  reliability by constructing curb turn radius improvements, remove a barrier on South Washington Street to allow a through connection to Alaskan Way, reconstruct roadway as necessary, construct new passenger facilities, install new traffic signals, implement new signal timings, improve traffic signage, and install transit signal priority and ITS communication infrastructure as appropriate. The end result will be the establishment of a critical link in a priority transit network for buses that travel between Downtown Seattle, West Seattle and other southwest King County locations.”

Amenity Zone

It would be great to see this in locations where businesses don’t have room on the sidewalk or there simply is too much demand for outdoor seating. This type of seating would however requires a change in state law if the establishment serves alcohol. I personally think this is key for activating public spaces. Cafe and bar patrons are about the “hardiest” type of customer you can have. They’ll put up with just about anything, sit around for a long time, activate the space, and expand the time frame during which people are out. Add umbrellas and cheap blankets and outdoor seating becomes practical for a majority of the year, even in much colder climates like Stockholm. These types of establishments thrive 5-6 months a year there.

The Transit Tunnel Shutdown

Photo by Mike Bjork

I feel like the area’s transportation reporters have picked up their games in the last few months. Here’s the Times’s Mike Lindblom on Thursday’s tunnel shutdown:

A stream of “garbage data” poured into the Link light-rail control center in Sodo on Thursday, but a supervisor was able to manage the system using a control panel inside the tunnel. However, that supervisor then discovered the emergency phones in the tunnel didn’t work, Link light-rail Director Ahmad Fazel said Friday.

The phone failure alone was enough to shut the city’s transit spine during the busy evening commute to comply with fire and safety regulations…

The tunnel is more sensitive because of ventilation fans, train and bus signals, fire alarms and other electric components — 5,000 in all. Sound Transit agreed to stringent safety rules with federal and city agencies to get permission to mix trains with buses.

There’s lots, lots more in the linked article, including information about Sound Transit’s response. The really good news is that a lot of the conservative safety rules are driven by the joint operations, and:

Eventually, buses will be removed from the tunnel, after Link reaches Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium in 2016, and more trains go downtown. The tunnel signals can then be simplified and fire-suppression sprinklers removed, Fazel said.

I had always assumed this was the case, but it’s good to see it published as fact. This is all more bearable if it’s temporary.

Frequency Mapping the West Coast Rail Corridor

Following up on our recent discussions of frequency mapping (see Martin’s post here and Jarrett’s post here), I thought I’d share a frequency schematic for all intercity and commuter rail service available in California, Oregon, Washington, and the BC Lower Mainland. As we push to develop our rail networks it is imperative that we strike the right balance between vision and process; with too much of the former we lose ourselves in the foaming muddle of railfans (I say this as a railfan), while with too much of the latter we succumb to the sort of stale incrementalism with which we’re all very familiar.  One of the most important requirements for speaking intelligently about our rail networks is knowing exactly what we already have, for this is what we will build upon.  To that end I share this draft map I’ve been working on.

More after the jump… Continue reading “Frequency Mapping the West Coast Rail Corridor”