Mea Culpa

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Several months ago I compiled some census data regarding WA, King County, and Seattle and concluded that the Growth Management Act is broken.  Since then I’ve been pointing to this data from all over the Web.  Today, someone helped me realize that my numbers may be misleading.  They are correct, but too granular, looking only at census data (every 10 years).  Looking at year-by-year data for the last decade we get a completely different picture.

First, my original chart:

Now, let’s zoop in on those last 10 years and look at annual data:

Ok, that graph was boring.  That’s because populations don’t change very quickly.  However, let’s look at the percentage change each year:

Look at that.  Starting in 2006 WA population growth began decelerating.  But Seattle has been acelerating since 2005. 

What does that mean for growth management?  I don’t know.  The GMA has been around for 2 decades and it would be strange for it to just start working in 2005.  This probably has more to do with the economy than anything else.  I ended my piece claiming “our only hope of keeping Washington green is to make that Seattle line match the rise of the WA line.”  We’re still a ways from having that happen.  But at least we’ve started heading in the right direction.

Herald: Liias to Roll Out Transit Funding Bill

Transportation for Washington logo.

According to the Evertt Herald, State Rep. Marko Liias will introduce a bill soon called the Local Transit Act. The bill is expected to open new transit funding options for agencies. A group called Transportation for Washington will be holding a press conference today to roll out the package but the expected form is a series of revenue raisers that would have to go to the local ballot before taking effect. Revenue options have already been announced and include: a “progressive” vehicle excise tax based on the value of the car, a car tab fee based on annual mileage, a  tax based on a car’s fuel efficiency, and — most interesting — allowing local sales taxes to be applied to gasoline.

The Local Transit Act is unlikely to advance, and Josh Fiet of PubliCola theorizes that this group is attempting to get in front of a “‘roads & transit’ package that may come from Sen. transportation chair Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen.” If transit advocates have an alternative bill to support, they may be less willing to agree to roads funding especially without elements from that alternative incorporated into a roads package.

This bill represents a long term funding effort and is different from Liias’ earlier temporary car tab proposal.

Update at 3:30 pm: PubliCola has more from TCC about the politics behind this launch.

Airport Link Station Gets a Flight Information Display

Check your flight after leaving the train

The Port of Seattle announces:

A new Flight Information Display now welcomes light rail riders heading into the Airport. The six-foot tall, nine-foot long display is located on the SeaTac/Airport Light Rail station’s mezzanine level just before the skybridge to the terminal. The LCD display, contained in a weatherproof stainless steel enclosure, gives light rail passengers access to flight information as they exit the trains.

While you can check flight status online, the new display is a welcome addition. The blue screens are so bright you could see them from the other side of International Blvd. So when will Sound Transit return the favor and install train information displays in the airport? People getting off planes and heading into town want to know.

National HSR

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

This was a big week for national high-speed rail.  First up, the almost-dead ARC tunnel project in New York re-emerged as the Gateway project.  Then, today, the Obama administration announced a $53B national high-speed rail plan.

First, let’s talk Gateway.  The tunnel would be smaller than the New Jersey Transit-sponsored ARC tunnel, but would serve largely the same purpose, expanding capacity on the Northeast Corridor between Newark and Penn Station.  This is why it was so important that Amtrak lay out its ambitious, 30-year, $117 billion vision for the Northeast Corridor last year.  Now, all of the projects like the Gateway project have a common vision to ladder up to.

Next, we have the proposal for $53B towards national HSR.  If you can do even a bit of math, you’ll quickly see that $53B is less than half what it would take to build out the NE corridor project above, meaning that getting truly national HSR is going to take far more than $53B.  Nonetheless, it’s a pretty significant proposal.

Regionally, there’s no doubt that this would have positive effects.  In addition to a respectable chunk of the initial $8B HSR pot, we managed to get a sizeable amount of the pot that Ohio and Wisconsin rejected a few months back.  Clearly, Amtrak Cascades is looked upon favorably in DC.  My guess is that DC, like most granting organizations, likes low-risk, high-reward projects.  The fact that Cascades is funded in large part by local money means that there’s a commitment here to seeing it through.  This makes the bean counters in DC happy, because it means it’s less likely that a rail-hostile Governor is going to come in and tear the thing up tomorrow.  So my guess is that we’d be in line for a nice chunk of that $53B when it comes through.

Will it come through?  Who knows.  The new Republican head of the House Transportation Committee says its a terrible idea.  On the other hand, this is exactly the kind of project that gets cut in the House, only to be added back in by the Senate in conference committee.  So we’ll see.

News Roundup: Parting Ways

U-Link TBMs Being Assembled in Fife (Sound Transit)

This is an open thread.

Pierce Sinking, Jefferson Swimming

The early election results from Pierce County are not good. Andrew Austin of TCC broke down the district results, and found that it passed strongly in Tacoma, lost narrowly in Gig Harbor and Puyallup, and was slaughtered in the exurbs. PT’s reserves run out in 2012, so expect a 35% service cut over the next year or so.

Meanwhile, Jefferson County voters passed an identical tax rate increase to preserve their transit service. This will not only avoid a 22% service cut but actually allow modest increases in the coming years.

Two observations:

  • While there is no single reason the PT measure failed, I question any decision to put transit measures in obscure elections. Low-turnout elections are likely to miss young people, who are an important pro-transit constituency.
  • Fans of agency consolidation living in other counties should consider this result and the Prop. 1 results from 2008 and ask themselves if they really want their fates tied to the Pierce County electorate.

A new Bellevue group for light rail

Former Bellevue mayor Terry Lukens introducing 'Move Bellevue Forward'

One of the sad things about Bellevue’s East Link debate is that from a regional perspective, it has tampered with the city’s can-do reputation.  With Bellevue being perceived as the “party of no” in all of this, a lot of people (especially those left-wing crazies from Seattle) like to think “to hell with Bellevue!” Or “light rail straight to Redmond!”  The truth is a lot of Bellevue residents voted for ST2, are eager to see rail, and are pretty peeved by recent opposition to Sound Transit.

Last night’s Bellevue city council meeting was probably the most spectacular evidence of this as 40 or so members of a new coalition called Move Bellevue Forward (MBF)* filled the council chamber to support Sound Transit’s preferred alignment, B2M.  Though East Link was not on the discussion agenda, it was a light rail kind of night as the new group came out swinging with testimony from Terry Lukens, Connie Marshall, and Mike Creighton, all former Bellevue mayors.

More of last night’s meeting below the jump (video available on Bellevue TV).

Continue reading “A new Bellevue group for light rail”

First Hill Loses Its Grocery Store

Score: Capitol Hill 7, First Hill 0?

Despite our present trend toward quantifying everything, I still frequently prefer to make more qualitative, intuitive judgments about the livability of neighborhoods.  The single best shorthand I know is an affirmative answer to the question, “If I lived here, would I walk to the grocery store?”   Consider Capitol Hill, where in just over a square mile there are 7 major grocery stores, sewn together by dozens of small markets and convenience stores.  Or walk around Lower Queen Anne; Metropolitan Market is quite the neighborhood anchor, isn’t it?

So it’s a great loss for First Hill that its only full-service grocery, M Street, shut its doors last week.  King 5 quotes a customer named Tony Lucas, “It’s like a desert out here.  The closest one is on Broadway and University.  I’m not going to walk that far.”  There is still easy transit access to groceries – including Metro #2 and #12 (to Kress, Pike Place Market, Madison Market, Trader Joes, or the Broadway/Union QFC) – but losing easy walking access considerably diminishes urban quality of life.   Walk Score gives the intersection of Boren/Madison a score of 97, a “Walker’s Paradise”, while giving Broadway/John an 89, merely “Very Walkable.”  Could anyone possibly walk around those two areas and argue that those scores are merited?

If you live car-free or car-lite, give thanks for your neighborhood grocery stores, patronize them liberally, and show them the value that comes from having a dense pedestrian customer base.  Walkable neighborhoods can’t afford not to have them.

Ride Free Area To Do List

Ride Free Area (Source: Metro)
Ride Free Area (Source: Metro)

VeloBusDriver had a great post this weekend with a “to do list” of changes to Metro’s current fare system that he thinks should be implemented if Metro decides to eliminate the Ride Free Area (RFA). While I’m not going to dive into which changes I think are needed, at least not now, I want to emphatically state that the outright elimination of the RFA without significant improvements to Metro’s fare system is unacceptable. The question shouldn’t be whether to have a RFA or not, it should be what improvements can be made to the fare system so that the RFA isn’t necessary.

I’m actually optimistic that elimination of the RFA could be a net positive change but only if Metro takes a holistic look at the fare system, including both how it’s structured and how it’s collected. Previously I wrote about how Rapidride’s fare system in incompatible with the RFA.

Below is VeloBusDrivers full post.

Metro is currently studying the effects of eliminating the Ride Free Area in Downtown Seattle.  While I favor the elimination of the Ride Free Area for a host of reasons, it is critical that fare collection be fully optimized before implementation of such a policy.  The steps below would incentivize ORCA use, speed boarding, and also streamline collection of payments:

  • Ubiquitous ORCA availability at drug stores, grocery stores, Coinstar vending machines, train stations, airport, hotels, etc…  $10 for a pre-loaded $5 ORCA card with a small built-in profit for the vendor should be possible.
  • Tourist-friendly ORCA cards with day and multi-day passes should be readily available
  • Provide discounts for loading large dollar amounts onto ORCA cards to further incentivize ORCA use
  • Coaches would be tap/pay at front door, exit through rear door except at high volume stops such as transit centers and certain downtown stops.  Designated high volume stops would have off-bus ORCA readers and drivers would open ALL doors.

More after the jump. Continue reading “Ride Free Area To Do List”

Parkin’ and Ridin’

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

BREAKING NEWS: Erica Barnett reports that private property owners in Seattle will be able to rent out their land in exchange for money through at least 2015.  Think of that!

I don’t have much more to add to this conversation than what I already wrote when this issue came up a year ago, but I do think it’s worth reminding people that there’s a difference between a privately owned lot and a goverment-owned “park and ride.”  The former goes away as soon as there’s more gain to be had in developing the land.  The latter tends to last forever, because politicians are afraid to take away people’s God-given right to free parking.

RapidRide Survey Results

KC Metro

Oran already wrote about some of the ORCA and fare results, but those come from a Metro-commissioned survey of riders on the A line, for which you can read the summary or the full survey results. The press release indicates that weekday boardings have increased from 6,000 on the 174 to 7,500 on the nearly identically routed A Line. Metro doesn’t regularly release route ridership figures but Spring 2009 numbers are here.

I don’t know what there is to say except that people like it when service improves. I was somewhat amused that the most popular suggested improvement was “less fare enforcement,” above.

Revisiting Jacobs

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

A year or so ago, I wrote that Jane Jacobs was the “original NIMBY” for opposing redevelopment in her neighborhood, and I noted the irony that new urbanists — those most likely to support her ideals — are now the ones most likely to do battle with NIMBYs of their own.

That thought was incomplete.  Jacobs wasn’t opposed to redevelopment for its sake.  She opposed redevelopment that put concrete and steel ahead of people.  Redevelopment that tried in vain to create “order” out of the chaotic urban fabric.  If Robert Moses had proposed leveling the Greenwich Village brownstones and replacing them with newer brownstones, I don’t think Jacobs would have had much of a fight.  Moses wanted to build freeways.  That was the problem.

I was thinking about this as I walked past an old, boarded up house in my neighborhood that’s set to be torn down.  I thought about whether I should be sad that another 100-year-old house was being town down.  But it’s never about the architecture.  It’s about the people who live in it.  New urbanists envy the 19th-century urban built environment — streetcars, brownstones, walk-up apartments — but we should never forget that it’s the neighborhood vitality created by that built environment that matters, not the wrap-around Victorian porches or intricate stone cornices themselves.

The Downside of Agglomeration Effects

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Agglomeration effects are generally good things for cities: people move to a city because other people live there, and so on.  Neighborhoods thrive on agglomeration effects: you open a bar in a neighborhood with other bars, because that neighborhood’s a “destination,” where people go when they want to go out carousing or what have you.

But agglomeration effects can have downsides.  Too many bars and sports stadia in Pioneer Square can make the neighborhood feel overrun to some people.  Too many hospitals on First Hill means that parts of the neighborhood can feel like a ghost town at night.  And so forth.

I think a similar dynamic is unfolding with this debate on where to put the Downtown Emergency Services Center’s new Crisis Solutions Center:

“The City of Seattle was unlikely to use the facility if it were located in Tukwila,” said Hobson, because SPD and Medic One personnel may not have the time and resources to make the trip. The Jackson Place location is ideal, he said, because it has good access to Swedish and Harborview hospitals and is centrally located between the SPD precincts and both I-5 and I-90. Of the 7-8 properties they looked at in the area, the one on Lane Street was the best fit, he said.

When it’s time to build the next DESC facility, certainly the same neighborhood will be a front-runner.  After all, it’s so close to the Crisis Solutions Center! And so on, and so on.

Now, I don’t live too far from this area, and I have seen the ways in which large institutions — Seattle U, Swedish, the Polyclinic — create long shadows that seem to overwhelm everything around them.  To be clear, I don’t personally oppose this new project, I just think the phenomenon is interesting.

RapidRide Survey: Fares and ORCA

Banner at Tukwila International Boulevard Station promoting the ORCA Card

One of the more striking results from Metro’s RapidRide A Line customer survey is the ORCA usage rate and why people do not use ORCA to pay fares (page 30). 55 percent of those surveyed don’t use ORCA. Of the top reasons for not using ORCA, 32 percent don’t know where to obtain the card, 32 percent say it’s not convenient to obtain an ORCA card, 14 percent don’t know what an ORCA card is, and 7 percent can’t afford to buy one.

I’m surprised to see Metro not promote ORCA more prominently along with RapidRide’s launch. If customers only knew that they could conveniently purchase and reload an ORCA card at RapidRide’s northern terminus, the Tukwila International Boulevard Link station, we wouldn’t have the results we see above.

Tukwila has four self-service fare vending machines (TVMs) that take cash and cards, and speak in three languages. What Metro could do is produce a banner or two (or use existing ones), some in-bus placards and maybe record a message to be played periodically on the bus promoting ORCA (like on Sounder). That alone could eliminate 78 percent of the reasons people don’t use ORCA. Metro does have a brochure explaining how to pay on RapidRide in seven languages but it doesn’t explain what ORCA is or where to get it.

Without TVMs at every stop, RapidRide greatly depends on ORCA and multiple doors to speed up boarding. One less cash payer equals many seconds less dwell time at each stop. Multiply that over each person and each stop and many minutes are saved. ORCA readers at every door would also help.

The good news is when people do use ORCA, 69 percent use the off-board reader at stops (not every stop has a reader). On the proof-of-payment (POP) system, 84 percent said they were checked for proof of payment by a fare enforcement officer and 58 percent thought the number of inspections was appropriate. I hope this means positive encouragement for continuing and extending POP.

For comparison, 44 percent of Swift riders pay fares with ORCA. So Metro, don’t feel too bad. The upcoming B Line also has an ORCA vending machine at the Bellevue TC terminus. The rest of the RapidRide lines do too. And Metro didn’t have to spend a dime for those machines. So please take full advantage of them!

Metro Fixes Scheduling Mistake

No more bus bunching on purpose

King County Metro silently fixed a major scheduling mistake for routes 71, 72, and 73 in the February 2011 service change. Those routes together provide frequent service between Downtown Seattle and NE 65th St in Roosevelt via the University District. Buses are supposed to arrive at evenly spaced intervals (headways), about every 7.5-10 minutes during most of the day and at least every 15 minutes from 5 am to midnight. However, the combined schedule for those routes in the past six months had buses arriving at irregular intervals, leading to bunching and long gaps in service. The new schedule restores the even spacing (actually more regular than the Feb 2009 schedule) on weekdays. For some reason, the combined timetable is not available online but the new blue timetables are already out (photo excerpts: weekday 1, weekday 2, Saturday).

For example, people had to wait 18 minutes in the middle of the morning rush hour for a 72 and 73 to arrive simultaneously. If they missed those two, then they had to wait another 12 minutes, then another 5 minutes, and so on. This is a service that’s supposed to always arrive every 7-8 minutes during that period. Another frustrating case was having the last non-owl trip of the night arrive one minute after the trip before it, leaving people waiting an hour for the owl bus. That pair is now 15 minutes apart like the other late night trips.

When you design a high frequency trunk line created from less-frequent branches, it is important to have evenly spaced service to minimize wait time and bunching on the trunk. With this irregular schedule, buses are both bunched on purpose (by schedule) and unintentionally (by delays), leading to a reduction in usable capacity by having overcrowded buses trailed by relatively empty buses. This cannot be called “efficiency”, if that was the original intent. Intentional or not, Metro realized its mistake and fixed it, likely after a bunch of customer and operator complaints.

How to boost employment in Seattle in 2 years

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.


One of the arguments that comes up when debating Seattle’s zoning laws is that we’re in a recession, and nobody’s going to build no matter what we do right now.  I’d argue the opposite: if we upzone we can get people to build right now despite the fact that we’re in a recession.

Housing prices have dropped in Seattle recently (as with everywhere else), but they’re still well above surrounding areas and dwarf suburban prices.  Why hasn’t development in Seattle continued if there’s such a market?  Because of zoning.  There’s some profit in tearing down a one story business and building a 3-on-1 mixed use structure (to take a common example), but that’s offset by the loss in value of tearing down that one story business that the developer has just bought.  You get the new value of 3 stories of new homes, but you had to pay the construction price of 4 stories plus land.  Unless housing values are very high, a developer won’t make money on this deal.

Now consider an upzone.  If we raise the legal height for that parcel to 6 stories, then you have the value of 5 stories of new homes for the construction cost of 6 stories plus land value.  That’s two extra stories worth of profit and will push many projects from being losers to being winners.

Another benefit of upzoning in a weak market is that change happens more slowly.  The clear winning projects will be done right away, and the less profitable projects will become more profitable as the market recovers.  This will tend to make neighborhoods change slowly, which is more comfortable for neighbors.

There are a whole lot of unemployed architects, engineers, and contractors out there right now.  Upzoning can make a large dent in those numbers almost immediately.

News Roundup: Vote by Feb. 8th

Photo by Atomic Taco

This is an open thread.