News Round Up: 40 Years of Amtrak

Sound Transit train with Graffiti
Sound Transit with graffiti, photo by brewbooks

As always, this is an open thread.

“Best Transit Cities” Ranking Not Based on Anything

Portland MAX (wikimedia)

When U.S. News labeled Portland as the #1 transit city in the U.S., and Seattle came in 11th and tied with the District of Columbia, we didn’t bother to mention it, even in a news roundup. Our laziness instincts proved to be correct, because via Human Transit, Portland Afoot discovers the methodology may not make any sense:

My one-sentence summary: This article cited out-of-date population figures and was calculated with a methodology that U.S. News refused to explain, based on figures that U.S. News refused to share.

Jarrett goes on to rightfully question the entire enterprise:

If ten-best lists are about something that’s reasonably factual (“ten most reliable transit systems,” “ten safest transit systems”, “top ten in ridership per capita”) then they can be useful.  They can encourage excellence and help people reward that excellence with ridership and investment.

But when you tell your readers that certain transit systems are the “best,” and don’t explain your criteria very well, you signal that everyone must have the same sense of what’s good.  That encourages people to go into transit debates as bullies, assuming that if a transit agency doesn’t deliver on their notion of the good, the agency must be incompetent or failing, so the only valid response is abuse.  It encourages people not to notice that “failing to do what I want” is often a result of “doing what someone else wants.”

To pile on a bit, the messages here are pretty conflated. Even if one could define it, “best transit agency” is very different from “best city to rely on transit,” because factors out of the agency’s control (especially land use) largely determine the effectiveness of the transit system. Furthermore, there are the eternal city-vs-metro-area questions. The ranking for the 8.5m in New York City is obviously completely different than one that considers all 19m or so people in greater New York.

If you really want to rank user experience with transit, you can do worse than looking at car ownership rates, in which Seattle proper comes in 50th among cities with 100,000 or more residents. Portland is not in the top 50. On the other hand, the list is partially an indication of relative wealth*, and policy treatment of cars that makes driving and parking them a pain.

* For a very rough sketch, if you take the 45 cities both on the Wikipedia list and with good household poverty data, in terms of “lowest car ownership among households not in poverty” (assuming no poor households have cars), Seattle comes in 14th. That actually mixes data from different censuses, but the point is that simple additions to the criteria cause wild swings in the rankings.

Tradeoffs in South King

South Link Proposal (Puget Sound Transportation Projects)

[UPDATE 2: ST’s links now fixed, providing access to the very good ST2 projects page.]

[UPDATE: The link is still busted, but here’s the project list.  On page A-13 there’s the S. King projects that will be traded off vs. Highline Community College.]

The biggest casualty from Sound Transit’s collapsing revenue projection was South King County, as sales tax receipts fell much more quickly there than elsewhere, crushing reserves that were smaller than some other subareas. Other corridors are suffering a little delay, but in the South there is very real talk about not building light rail as far as planned. The details would be hashed out by a $2.5m study, the first phase of which is now complete.

As Deputy CEO Celia Kupersmith reports in the most recent CEO corner:

The first phase of that study found that:

  • Not all South Corridor projects are affordable by 2023.
  • If Link extends from Sea-Tac Airport only to South 200th Street, (instead of South 272nd) all the other non-light rail projects are affordable in the 2023 timeframe.
  • Extending Link from the Airport to Highline Community College is affordable by 2023 if a few other projects are postponed beyond 2023.
  • The southernmost extension of Link all the way to South 272nd Street remains unaffordable by 2023.
  • The entire ST2 re-aligned program in Pierce County remains affordable by 2023.

The Board took no action on Thursday. Decisions on final design and construction are not needed for a year or more…

Recall that the three new South Link stops were to be S. 200th St., Highline Community College, and S. 272nd St. The first is basically a done deal, the second is in question, and the third now appears out of reach.

I’d link to some maps and the “other projects” in South King, but since the redesign the ST2 projects webpage is badly broken. But mainly, it’s improvements to Sounder stations, like extended platforms and a complete Tukwila station.

Visiting the Seattle Center Dilemma

Seattle Center Monorail, by zargoman

Last week, the Seattle city council unanimously agreed to move forward on including a Dale Chihuly exhibit to replace the old Fun Forest as part of Seattle Center’s redevelopment plans.  The move was praised by the Seattle Times along with numerous city leaders who felt warmly at what a Chihuly exhibit could do for the Center:

“The past sixteen months of negotiations have shown that good public process can lead to good public policy,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, chair of the Parks and Seattle Center Committee. “Seattle will have another world class attraction and Seattle Center will be further invigorated through art, music and a creative new family play space.”

I’m not convinced that Seattle Center’s problem is really the lack of a “world class attraction.”  If anything, this rhetoric of revitalizing the area by luring in even more attractions seems to ignore the common failures often associated with public urban spaces.  There’s much much more to the Center’s dearth of activity than just a “missing piece” or an obsolete amusement park.

More below the jump.

Continue reading “Visiting the Seattle Center Dilemma”

Raw Metro Statistics

Photo by joshuadf

I doubt anyone’s mind is on transit stuff this morning, but alert reader Bruce Nourish did a public records request and got detailed route-by-route information from Metro, which he’s thoughtfully offered up in a Google spreadsheet.

Metro provides good systemwide aggregates, and (untimely) route-by-route statistics, abstracted into per-hour numbers that make it hard to say how many people board a bus route. Although Bruce’s data is still from 2009, and therefore predates Metro changes driven by Central Link, has tons of raw numbers pertaining to miles traveled, operating costs, and ridership.

I don’t have any particular conclusion to draw from the numbers, but as always we’re interested in any interesting, intellectually honest points people wish to make in a guest post using this data.

Total Cost of Ownership

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Erica Barnett provides some much-needed additional context to the Everett Herald’s comparison of Everett-Seattle transportation costs, noting that the Herald’s $4.39 estimate for a one-way commute “excludes the many other costs associated with owning a car, including maintenance, insurance, the cost to own and maintain or rent parking, and the risk of accidents, to name a few.”  Indeed, the Herald strictly counts the cost of gas, estimated at $3.75/gallon.

Fortunately, we can calculate these costs pretty easily.  AAA calculates (PDF) the cost of driving at $0.58* per mile if you drive 15,000 miles per year, including maintenance, depreciation, financing, insurance, etc.  The official IRS reimbursement rate is $0.51 per mile for the year 2011.

Using the lower IRS rate yields a cost of $14.79 for a one-way 29-mile commute.  Use the AAA method and that rises to $16.82.  Assuming 250 days of commuting per year yields $7,395.00 in additional annual expenses (IRS rate), assuming that you have access to free parking in downtown Seattle.  Compare that against $1,500.00 per year for a bus pass (assuming $3/trip and that your employer won’t subsidize it).

[I’m glad the Herald did the study.  Helping people understand these things is exactly what newspapers should be doing.  And obviously, one can insert all sorts of weird variables (what if your employer pays for your bus pass? what about the costs of maintaining I-5? what about the bus driver’s pension? Etc., etc.), so I think the Herald was right to focus on the end costs to the consumer rather than start to make shaky assumptions about externalities.  Still, it would have been better to include total costs of ownership. ]

All that said, $7,395/year puts the cost of housing into question. For that much– or just over $600/month — you can afford substantially more house.  With mortgage rates at 5%, that’s roughly the difference between a $300,000 house and a $400,000 house in terms of your monthly payment  If you prefer to rent, it could be the difference between a 2-bedroom and a 3-bedroom rental.  Suddenly in-city living doesn’t look quite as expensive.

To be sure, there are plenty of other reasons to prefer suburban living, such as school quality or larger yards or what have you.  But it’s worth putting the total cost of ownership in perspective.

*One of Erica’s commenters tries to use AAA’s $0.17/mile cost for operating expenses only, which assumes that someone’s given you a car for free and continues to pay the license and insurance bills for you indefinitely.  Needless to say, I find this unpersuasive.