Help Us Improve STB

At the STB Quarterly Board Meeting last Saturday –ok, informed nerds having brunch– we discussed at length various ways to improve STB.  We want to grow our readership, fix technical challenges, and improve the reader experience.  This thread is your chance to let us know what you’d like to see on STB.  A few seed thoughts:

(1. Comments. Trolling is significantly diminishing the quality of comment threads.  Of course, please don’t feed the trolls, but STB also has a strong position against blocking commenters unless they are abusive.  To improve everyone’s experience, we are beginning the process of overhauling the comment system.  What would you like to see?  Possibilities include :

  • Up/down ratings to bury trolls at the bottom of the thread and reward smart comments
  • A return to deeper threading
  • Integration with Facebook comments
  • A preview/edit feature

(2. Template and Design. We’ve taken pride in the lightweight, minimalist framing of STB.  Articles are always on the front page, there are no sections, etc…  We’ve wanted to keep the posts timely, on-point, frequent, and accessible, and a simple site has been great at doing that.  Nonetheless, cross-referencing with past posts is more difficult than it should be, and there is currently no organization of posts by thematic content.  We’re considering adding tab-like features just above the current article, with your standard array of reference articles, such as About Us, Best Arguments, Seattle for Visitors, Agency Links, Blogroll, etc. We’re also working on a mobile theme.   Aesthetic comments from information designers would be quite helpful.

(3.  Content and Audience. We know that STB is a high-concept, incurably wonky blog.  We attempt to conduct good analysis, have good conversation, and hopefully have a political impact.  With a few exceptions (we’re human) we  try to avoid the polemical, lazily framed writing that predominates at many other transportation sites.  Most items here are news+analysis, with occasional strong editorials, guest pieces, and of course Sunday Open Threads.  But what types of articles do you want more and less of?

(4.  Advertising. How is the current advertising working for you?  Our goal is for it to be mostly transportation related, non-intrusive, and bring in a healthy revenue stream.  We value the ability to make the site financially self-sustaining and subsidize meetups, and advertising has been successful for us so far.

Rethinking S. 133rd St

Photo by Oran

[UPDATE: To be clear, I’m not saying a bus/rail transfer is necessarily a bad idea, especially if congestion on I-5 gets much worse. I’m saying if you’re going to do it you might as well do it at Rainier Beach.]

Late last year I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation for bus-rail transfers at Rainier Beach, which everyone agrees is not an optimal setup. The outcome of that analysis was that sending buses to Rainier Beach instead of downtown cost the baseline rider 8 minutes while saving about $4.4m a year, savings that could be reinvested in more frequent buses. This time gap could decrease significantly in bad traffic or if the final destination was far north of Sodo, but increases with the walking and wait time associated with a transfer.

Various people in the know have suggested S. 133rd St. as a possible station site, one that would provide more direct access for freeway buses and save even more operating costs. However, Google Maps (and the 150 schedule) suggests an unimpaired I-5 bus takes about 12 minutes to get from S. 133rd St. to Sodo Station; the Link schedule plus some interpolation suggests Link would take 20 minutes. Although someone with more analysis chops can prove me wrong, the time penalty appears to be the same 8 minutes. The 5 minutes it would take a bus to drive from Interurban to Rainier Beach is the same 5 minutes it takes the train to cover the same distance.

Of course, the bus savings would be larger; on the other hand, Sound Transit would have to spend at least tens of millions to actually build the station. And of course, you’d be increasing travel times on Link by a few minutes as well. If there’s any real engineering analysis of this station, I haven’t seen it, but the initial look is not promising at all.

Medium-Speed Rail

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Having recently made the case for blowing up the long-range plan and starting over again on the Amtrak Cascades, let me offer some time to a more incrementalist vision. In the current Washington Monthly, Phillip Longman cites Cascades as a winning example of “not-quite-so-high-speed rail.”

This principle is also illustrated by Amtrak’s highly successful “Cascades” service on the 187-mile line between Portland and Seattle. The Spanish-designed Talgo “tilt” train sets look futuristic, and with their on-board bistros and comfy chairs they are a joy to ride. But because they run on conventional track through mountainous country shared by freight trains, their current top speed is only 79 mph, and their average speed is just 53. Still, that’s enough to make taking the train faster than driving, and ridership has swelled to more than 700,000 passengers a year. Using federal stimulus dollars plus state spending, work is currently under way to boost top train speeds to 110-125 mph, simply by adding better signaling and more sidings to let freight trains get out of the way. This incremental investment will also boost reliability and allow for increased frequency, which will further bump up ridership. But numerous studies show there is no point in making trains go faster than 125 mph on a segment this short because of the great cost involved and the limited gains to total trip times. Moreover, if a new bullet train line were built between Portland and Seattle, the tremendous cost of its construction would require fares too high for all but well-heeled business travelers to afford.

Fair point.  Longman also argues persuasively that, in the medium term, frequency and reliability are much more important to increasing ridership than pure speed.  I do wonder, though, how much better frequency and reliability can get so long as the freight companies own the tracks.

But the biggest problem with true HSR in America, it seems to me, is summed up here:

First off, building a truly high-speed rail system in today’s America would be so expensive, disruptive, contentious, and politically risky that it just might not be possible. It would require, for example, securing brand-new rights-of-way, because trains traveling at more than around 125 mph can’t share tracks with slower freight or passenger trains. This in turn would require using eminent domain to secure millions of acres of real estate, and these days, in the U.S., that would involve endless litigation, environmental review, and the innumerable other processes that always stand to derail any large-scale infrastructure project.

America might be too rich a country, with too strong of a property-rights tradition, to be able to confiscate the amount of private land needed to make it work.  Maybe in the 1960s, when urban renewal was in vogue and urban real estate was cheap.  But now, the cost of displacing all the people and expensive homes you’d need to move to create HSR in, say, the Northeast Corridor might make the project beyond reach.

Perhaps there is a way.  If not, cheers for incrementalism and long live the Amtrak Cascades!

News Roundup: Woefully Inadequate

Photo by Erubisu 27

This is an open thread.

Metro Youth Fares Headed Up

Photo by Erubisu 27

KIRO is watching the King County Council:

The King County Council voted unanimously Monday to raise [youth] rates by 50 cents [from 75 cents to $1.25].

“The adult-based fare has increased 165 percent since 1993, so while there’s an increase, it’s not nearly as steep as we’ve had for other fares to support the transit system,” said Councilmember Larry Phillips…

Phillips said the fare hike takes effect September 1.

This synchronizes youth fares on Link, ST Express (one-county), and Metro, often a popular cause in our comment threads.

Don’t Tap ORCA Here

Tap ORCA where?

I’ve seen people having trouble figuring out where to tap their ORCA card on the reader. The correct location is on the ORCA logo but many try to tap on the screen, the lights, or on the “TAP ORCA HERE” instruction label. Having people unnecessarily learn through trial-and-error is poor design.

The text and arrows on the instruction label give conflicting instructions. People read the text and then try to tap the card on the label itself. If they are lucky the card may be read but they don’t learn the correct tapping location. Why doesn’t it say “TAP ON THE ORCA” or “TAP ORCA BELOW”? Better yet, how about including an outline or graphic of an ORCA card in the target area to make it obvious where to tap. People see the card graphic and instantly know where to tap the card.

Tap on the ORCA LOGO, not the label

Who is the “TAP ORCA HERE” label intended for? The label isn’t useful for people looking for the reader since it’s not visible from a distance. The yellow post and cover does that function better. The label also fails to effectively communicate to people who don’t know where to tap the card on the reader.

On buses, which have different type of reader, there are similar problems. Some have taken a marker and drew arrows in by themselves. People still try to tap on the bright screen. The latest generation of readers solve the problem by making the entire screen the tapping target. As cool as they look we don’t need to get new readers. Doing the same as suggested for the Link readers would be a relatively quick and cheap usability improvement.

That’s A Lie

Ad in the Stranger

Lets be perfectly clear, the tunnel does not “invest in transit”. Argue all you want about the other claims, but there are no ifs, ands or buts about it, the tunnel does not “invest in transit”. I expect more from our LGBT electeds who certainly know better.

The pro-tunnel campaign loves this talking point, even though it is a complete lie. Seattle loves transit, and tunnel advocates have tried this before with the whole “Tunnel + Transit” campaign.

I contacted the Approve Ref 1 campaign for clarification on Saturday but got no response.

CT to Hold Public Hearing on System Restructure

'CT D40LF' by Atomic Taco

Snohomish County riders will get a chance to testify before the CT Board next Thursday during a public hearing for its 2012 System change.  As we’ve previously reported, CT is considering three major restructure alternatives that would impact just about all riders in the system.  The alternatives range from keeping the existing structure with drastic cuts to a complete restructure of routes and service levels.

According to a CT press release, it sounds like a good number of attendees are anticipated:

The public hearing will take place following a regular board of directors meeting, which will begin at 4 p.m. At the regular meeting, the board will discuss a fuel risk management policy, which could allow the agency to save money on future fuel purchases. The meeting and hearing were moved from the usual board meeting location because the Community Transit Board Room has space for only about 40 people.

Community Transit plans to cut 80,000 hours – about 20 percent of its service – in February 2012. Earlier this month, Snohomish county’stransit provider unveiled three service alternatives to the public and began to collect input. Riders have responded by filling out nearly 1,300 online comment cards. All comments will be provided to board members as they consider a final service plan.

The hearing will take place 5pm next Thursday, July 7th, at the Rosehill Community Center.  The Board will hear every last comment so if you feel strongly about any of the alternatives, this might be the place to be that night.  Online comments are also being accepted through July 11th.

Action Alert: Countywide Planning Policies

Futurewise sent out this action alert about the update to the Countywide Planning Policies for King that I wanted to pass along. I haven’t been following along in detail but I trust Furutwise has. Here is what they are concerned about:

Friend —

In just two days, the growth council for King County will vote to update the land use policies that set the foundation for all land use laws in the county.

This will be the first major update in two decades and is our opportunity to save our rivers, Sound, habitat, and farms.

Unfortunately, a few special interests are still stuck in the past and pushing to pave over rural areas.

Tell the growth council to save rural areas.

The special interests are pushing a sneak attack on our rural lands by allowing the extension of water and sewer lines to serve new schools outside designated urban growth areas.

That’s bad for two reasons. First, the new infrastructure would increase the pressure for more sprawl where pastures, orchards, and forests should be instead. Second, we should build schools in neighborhoods where kids can safely walk, not in the hinterlands.

We hear that the growth council is highly divided on this issue and whether to protect our rural lands could be decided by less than 1 vote.

Send a letter to the King County growth council.

Together we can protect our rural lands.

Brock Howell
King County Program Director

P.S. Please attend the public hearing of the Growth Management Planning Council for King County on Wednesday, June 29 at 4 p.m.  We need to pack the room to save our rural lands.

Here is an interesting resource “Smart Growth Schools“. While this isn’t directly transit related, strong growth policies that focus institutional growth in existing urbanized areas and encourage an active and health lifestyle, especially for kids, are critical components of a built environment we believe in.

Even More on Metro Cuts

Photo by Atomic Taco

[UPDATE 6/28: Apparently, there were mistakes on Metro’s flyer, but now there’s a corrected version.]

Late last week, Metro posted a bunch more information about service cuts that King County faces over the next 2-3 years if the County Council and/or voters don’t approve the $20 vehicle license fee and the legislature doesn’t provide a new revenue source beyond 2013.

Most informative is this list of routes that would likely be eliminated, reduced/revised, or left the same over the period February 2012-October 2013. It’s a long way from a formal proposal to the Council, but it is consistent with Metro’s new service allocation guidelines and gives an idea of the scale of cuts we’re facing. The takeaway is that nearly everyone (80%, Metro claims) who uses Metro will ultimately be affected.

Market Forces and Gas Prices

Oil Refinery at Dawn
Oil Refinery at Dawn photo by flickr user Iguanasan

About half the time,  I read about a politician investigating high gas prices I roll my eyes, the other half the time I cringe. I understand why they do it: it’s a meaningless activity that could please voters (hence the eye-roll) because the majority of people have no idea what causes gas prices to be what they are (hence the cringing). I’m going to try to explain high gas prices, record profits for oil companies and why, if anything, gas prices are artificially low. Plus, what this all means for transportation policy.
Continue reading “Market Forces and Gas Prices”

Frequent, All-Day Eastside Service

Frequent All-Day Eastside Service

Back in April we supported, and the County Council soon after passed, revisions to Eastside transit service as part of the RapidRide B-Line roll out. It was a largely an uneventful process minus some disagreement between the City of Bellevue and the College of Bellevue over the 240. We supported the process Metro followed, but we were also particularly fond of the proposal because it emphasized frequent, all-day service in the highest ridership corridors.

Well now I have a map that succinctly shows just that point. The image above shows frequent, all-day service before (red dotted lines) and after (blue lines) the service change. The map actually understates the point, since the 255 from South Kirkland P&R to Totem Lake TC currently goes to 30 minute headways in the reverse-peak direction during peak periods, much to my annoyance since this is the bus I take to get to work.

Currently the only frequent, all-day service is the interlined segment of the 230/253 (Bellevue TC to Crossroads) and ST 545 and 550. After the service changes are implemented this level of service will be expanded to the B-Line, 234/235 interlined segment (Bellevue TC to Kirkland TC), 245,255,271 and ST 545 and 550, an increase from 3 to 7 routes. Combined these routes do a much better job of linking the largest activity nodes on the Eastside and better integrating Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland with frequent service. Most importantly, besides the additional 23K platform hours to the B-Line, no additional service was added. All service hours were either transferred from eliminated routes, or gained through consolidation of routes.

With the launch of the B-Line and more concentrated and frequent service on major corridors, the new network brings a level of service to transit supportive areas of the Eastside that starts to allow for a low or car-free lifestyle, something that is currently hard to do on the Eastside.

About Those 100,000 Hours…

Photo by Oran

One thing somewhat vague in the press event about the $20 license fee was the disposition of the 100,000 service hour cut that was included in it. Would the CRC “save” this generally inefficient service? Well, I asked Metro spokeswoman Rochelle Ogershok:

If the congestion reduction charge passes, Metro would reexamine the 100,000 service hour reductions currently being proposed with an eye toward reinvesting rather than simply cutting service.  That assessment would require additional time and work.

So there you go. In other news, PubliCola reports Bob Ferguson is no longer undecided on the $20 fee, meaning with four solid yes votes. Julia Patterson, number five, is reported to be “100% willing” to put it on the ballot, if not to do it without an election. Five’s enough to at least get it to election day.

King Street Station’s Jackson Plaza Reopens Friday

What the plaza may look like one day

If you happen to be wandering around town tomorrow morning in search of something to do, the City of Seattle will be reopening King Street Station’s Jackson Plaza in a ceremony from 10:30am to 11:15am.  Several keynote speakers will make remarks and there will be live music by the Ballard Sedentary Sousa Band.  Other parts of the station remain under construction for rehabilitation.

The plaza has yet to house any vendors/businesses, so I wouldn’t expect there to be a sudden renewal of vibrancy and activity.  There are some fairly unique design elements, however, like an all-gravel floor, which almost gives the appearance of a giant Zen garden.  The ceremony will be open to the public, but RSVPs are appreciated.

May 2011 Link Ridership

Photo by Slack Action

Link is once again seeing a warm-weather surge. In May, weekday/Saturday/Sunday boardings were 23,656/19,335/15,639, respectively. That’s up about 9% on last year.

ST also revised the March (again) and April ridership numbers. I’m not sure what the reason is. March went to 21,246/13,953/11,225, a little bit down except Saturdays, and April to 21,751/15,108/12,637, a small fall except for a huge jump on Sundays.

News Round Up: Tacoma Link Construction Update!

Tacoma Link Car 1001
Tacoma Link Photo by flickr User Atomic Taco

This is an open thread.

Sound Transit’s Ridership Model

Photo by Atomic Taco

Curious about the gap between Sound Transit’s ridership models and reality, I had a discussion with ST planner Bob Harvey. He sent me this  ST Transit Ridership Forecasting Interim Report (warning! 2 MB pdf)  that explains the model ST uses for all its estimates across all modes, although the actual document is focused on North Link.

How it was computed: The Sound Transit model takes ridership data from existing Metro or Sound Transit routes in 2004. It takes PSRC data on population, demographics, employment, and highway congestion from 2004 and extrapolates them forward to 2010 or so based on PSRC assumptions. Then it applies the ridership improvements associated with Central Link’s level of service (speed, headway, etc.) to come up with the current ridership estimate.

What went wrong: Prior to Link opening, projected headways and travel time increased, cause ridership estimates to deteriorate somewhat. Once Link opened,  the models overestimated regional employment. They also suffered from a lack of good ridership data for Rainier Valley-Seatac trips, a transit market that really wasn’t served before. And of course, no Metro route is completely replaced by Link.

Additional potential factors include the introduction of ORCA, transfer policies, and charging fares in the tunnel. Mr. Harvey, who didn’t work on the Central Link estimates, also notes that planners made “optimistic assumptions” about bus service realignment in Southeast Seattle, the segment that is “most definitely underperforming” compared to projections.

The estimates are actually worse than they first appear, given that they are geared to undercount ridership driven by sporting events and the airport.

The recent update replaces the insufficient bus data with Link data, but is still a victim to obsolete PSRC regional projections from 2004 data. Later this year, ST will release new projections based on a fully updated data set. It’s reasonable to assume that applying a standard growth rate to a baseline that’s well below trend will cause a general decrease in ridership estimates.

Wonky Applications of Transit ‘Walk Distances’

Diagram of the A-2 Station's maximum "walking distance"

Every good transit planner knows that walking distances are always an important consideration when planning for high-capacity transit stations, especially rail.  For the most part, walk distances of up to a half-mile for rail and quarter-mile for bus are generally accepted (PDF) as baseline standards.  The application of these guidelines, however, are often botched and misused at a number of levels.

One wonky application can be found in the technical memorandum for the A-2 Station Concept Report of Bellevue’s B7R study.  Because the station includes a lengthy pedestrian walkway between the train platform and park-and-ride, Arup, the City’s consultant incorporated an evaluation of transit “walking distances” into their study.

Continue reading “Wonky Applications of Transit ‘Walk Distances’”