Real Time Data is Not Just for the Good Times

zargoman/Flickr (file photo)

Last Monday night I happened to witness a service disruption on Link. It was not Sound Transit’s finest hour. I got the story from Link Operations Director Paul Denison via spokesman Geoff Patrick:

The service disruption began after a 7:57 p.m. departure from Westlake experienced a brake fault and had to be removed from service. Several minutes later we began turning trains back at Stadium. The malfunctioning train was cleared at 8:46 p.m. and we were back in full revenue service within about 15 minutes… the first voice announcement in the tunnel was at 8:36 p.m., which was a half hour after train service in the tunnel was suspended and is not up to our standards. Paul wanted me to relay to you that while there will be delays from time to time, we recognize that how we communicate with our customers determines how well [we] did in responding… Paul is going to look into this further since the control center didn’t do as good of a job as they are capable of in this instance.

There were well over 100 people on the platform at Westlake. It’s a shame that some of them probably don’t have enough experience with the system to know that this is rare, and are now telling their friends that Link is fundamentally unreliable. But I’m not here to slay Sound Transit; disruptions happen. The communications breakdown isn’t acceptable, but people drop the ball sometimes and they’re going to look into it.

Instead, this episode emphasizes how useful real-time arrival information is. It’s a nice-to-have during rush hour, but when headways are long — particularly during construction or service disruptions – they’re critical. It’s another level of redundancy that prevents fiascos like Monday from occurring.

Unions Everywhere on Monday

If you’re a big union person and a transit buff, have I got an event for you on Monday:

You are invited to join us next Monday, May 21st for an evening of Rider-Driver Solidarity, and a discussion of the future of public transit in King County. There will be a guest appearance by Seattle folk singer Jim Page. We are co-hosting this event with the drivers’ ATU local 587. It is free and all are welcome. There will be refreshments. Details are below, and more information can be found on our website here: Hope to see you there!

Rider-Driver Solidarity Evening
Monday, May 21st 7pm
Labor Temple, Hall 8
2800 1st Avenue

Some background on the TRU here.

Metro Shorts

3rd & Wall
3rd & Wall

This week, I assembled the answers to a handful of Metro- and SDOT-related questions that’ve been floating around in my head for a while. Perhaps others will find the answers interesting. First, I wanted to confirm that Metro’s new trolleybuses will have A/C. I understand there was some internal debate at Metro as to whether the traction power substations could handle the additional power drain of running the A/C in certain sections of the trolley network. Metro’s Rochelle Ogershok:

I’ve heard there was some doubt about whether the replacement trolleybuses will have A/C. Has this decision been made? Is there any more information you guys can share about the progress of the trolleybus replacement project?

All new buses, including the trolleys that will start arriving in 2014, will have air conditioning. The replacement project is on schedule. Metro has put out an RFP, and expects to award a contract next spring.

Much, much more after the jump.

Continue reading “Metro Shorts”

Metro Wants Your Southeast Seattle Ideas

Photo by the author in the STB Flickr Pool
The Old 42 (photo by the author)

Metro is collecting ideas on how to improve service in Southeast Seattle:

This spring Metro is holding conversations with community organizations, bus riders, and residents of southeast Seattle about transit options in their community. Our goal is to learn about ways to make transit easier and more inviting to use. At every conversation, we ask people to tell us which transit options they use, why they use them, and how these services can be improved. We leave every conversation with a better understanding of how people travel around their community.

Please take a few moments to share your thoughts and ideas >>

Areas of emphasis seem to be ORCA card access and dirty and/or dangerous stops. It also raises the possibility of stopping the 8 at Mt. Baker and resurrecting the old 42, but stopping in Pioneer Square instead of traveling downtown. I first caught wind of this idea late last year.

I think there are two ways of looking at this. One is that the set of one seat rides enabled by a revised 42 is pretty strong: retail along Rainier, the I-90 freeway station, and Little Saigon. To this Columbia City resident, the 8’s set of destinations between Mt. Baker and Madison Park don’t seem nearly as attractive: Garfield HS and Central District retail.

On the other hand, current service to the former set of places is extremely frequent, making transfers less painful than they would be to the 8. And the 8, by providing access to a whole different part of the city, offers better access to a whole network of cross routes. In other words, the 8/42 switch might increase the number of one-seat rides, but the advantage of a gridded network is turning the dreaded three-seat ride into two-seaters. The 8 does better at this.

From an access perspective, switching the 48 with the 8 would be the best of both worlds. It would provide access to the Rainier corridor and (in 2021) the freeway station, while still providing a one-seat ride through the central district.

However, both the 48 and the souped up 42 don’t solve the most serious problem with the 8: that it is too unreliable southbound to serve as a Link shuttle. This can only be solved by splitting the 8. Doing so in Madison Park would preserve connections and reliability, as MLK is seldom congested. It is a better use of resources than the alternatives.

News Roundup: Boring Ends

Northbound Bore to Capitol Hill Station by Bruce

This is an open thread.

Tap-on, Tap-off


In preparation for tomorrow’s Ride Free Area forum, I thought it would be a good time to discuss distance based fares.  One of the real problems I’ve had with ending the RFA is that King County Metro’s fare system is nearly flat. 

Flat fares are a bit like having a single price for ice cream, where someone buying a small cone pays as much as the next guy with his family-size banana split.  Of course this is a great deal for the hungry ice cream eater, but a terrible deal for the small cone customers and over time they just stop coming in.

Hopping back to the real world, let’s look at typical trip inside the current RFA.  Walking from 5th and Union to 3rd and Cherry, according to Google Maps, takes 11 minutes.  A bus trip, however, takes only 9 minutes.  Not a big difference, but if it’s cold outside it would be worth a little money and if you’re in a hurry every minute counts.  But how much is this trip worth to you?  My guess is that $4.50 round trip per person, is high for 4 minutes of time saved (that’s almost $70/hr!).  $5 a way could get you a taxi, which would be faster, involve less walking, and you could take friends for free.

Now compare that to a banana split trip on KC Metro.  Maybe a #15 from Blue Ridge.  That’s a 46 minute ride off-peak, shaving countless minutes off a walk or a large number of dollars off a taxi.  Yet the price is the same.  And that’s just within the city – go to a small additional fare for a 2-zone ride and you can go all the way across the county.

The market figured out a good solution to this problem a long time ago – charge a small enough amount for the small cones that people keep coming in for ice cream.  In the transit world, that’s distance-based fares.  Sound Transit’s Link light rail has done exactly this – charging based on distance*.  Link uses ORCA cards and requiring a tap-on and a tap-off.  If you forget to tap-off you’re charged the maximum fare.

Metro can and should copy Link’s strategy.  ORCA, combined with GPS, would allow this functionality.  All we’d really need are rear door ORCA readers – an upgrade that Metro failed to invest in last year because it wouldn’t work with their fare system (sigh).

An added benefit of this strategy is that it doesn’t just focus on downtown Seattle.  You would be able to get across any neighborhood at a reasonable price. 

* I still think they should go further – the minimum fare of $2 is likely not going to attract many short trip riders.  Make it $0.50 and more people will use it.

House Continues Assault on Cities by Defunding ACS

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 232-190 to defund the American Community Survey (ACS), one of the Census Bureau’s most significant demographic data-collection programs in addition to the decennial census.  The ACS, conducted annually, effectively replaced the long-form of the census and provides important data to planners and policymakers at every level of government.  The program’s elimination is just one assault in a long line of legislative actions against transit and cities by the House.

The impetus for the cut is that the ACS is too prying and too costly.  What supporters of the bill are forgetting, however, is that the data the ACS provides informs how hundreds of billions of dollars are spent and which programs they go to, including those that concern transit, housing, and urban infrastructure.   Elimination of funding not only has a major impact on public policy, but would also effectively kill academic research and private economic development programs vital to the health of cities.  The Atlantic has a good synopsis on what kind of effects this move has:

The issue is that the information collected in the ACS is used heavily by the federal government to figure out where it will spend a huge chunk of its money. In a 2010 report for the Brookings Institution, Andrew Reamer found that in the 2008 fiscal year, 184 federal domestic assistance programs used ACS-related datasets to help determine the distribution of more than $416 billion in federal funding. The bulk of that funding, more than 80 percent, went directly to fund Medicaid, highway infrastructure programs and affordable housing assistance.

Reamer, now a research professor George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy, also found that the federal government uses the ACS to distribute about $100 billion annually to states and communities for economic development, employment, education and training, commerce and other purposes. He says that should the ACS be eliminated, it would be very difficult to figure out how to distribute this money where it’s needed.

House Republicans are forgetting that there is a lot of money, both private and public, directly and indirectly attached to the ACS.  While the Senate won’t likely reciprocate defunding the program, this move puts the program in a dangerous political crossfire that jeopardizes funding for cities whenever voters feel like electing someone new every election cycle. That makes it a risk too great to toy with.  Call your congresspersons today to oppose the cut.

Brenda’s Repose

Joni Earl and Larry Phillips in front of TBM Brenda
Joni Earl and Larry Phillips in front of TBM Brenda

Sound Transit held a media event underneath Pine Street, next to I-5, this morning, at the site of Brenda’s final breakthrough into the Pine Street Stub Tunnel, from where this photo was taken; local transit dignitaries also made some remarks. The face of the cutter head will be unmounted and rolled to the right (as we look at it) then hoisted up a shaft. The innards of the TBM will be similarly removed, but the shell will be entombed as part of the permanent tunnel wall.

I’ll post more photos this evening. Thanks to Sound Transit for having us there.

UPDATE: More photos.

Yesler Terrace and Density

Houses being demolished for Yesler Terrace housing project, Seattle, 1940
Houses being demolished for Yesler Terrace housing project, Seattle, 1940. Photo by Seattle Post-Intelligencer, courtesy of IMLS

Update: The current Yesler Terrace project is 22-acres. The redevelopment is expanding it to 30 acres. So I’ve updated the math. Point still holds.

The Seattle Times ran an article about concerns over the Yesler Terrace replacement project. What jumped out at me:

[Hired land use consultant Matthew] Gardner is skeptical that Yesler can capture 10 to 15 percent of new residential development citywide, which he says the plan calls for. But Heartland points out that Belltown grabbed 22 percent of the city’s new housing in the 1990s.

Yesler Terrace is 22-acres, or about 3.4% of a square mile[1]  30 acres or 4.7% of a square mile. With 5,000 units and assuming only one person living in each unit[2], that’s a residential density of 145,455 106,667 people per square mile, more than twice one and a half times the density of Manhattan. The project will also have a good deal of office space, some open space and a community center.

The city can plan on putting 10-15% of new residential development citywide[3] on 3.4 4.7% of a square mile and 0.04% of the city’s area, with mostly mid-rise buildings, through the magic of density. In Black Diamond, 6,500 units are being built on 1,500 acres. I know I’m preaching to the choir, but this is why dense construction near transit is so important. Though we are building rapid transit access to only a small portion of a the city, it clearly could be very easy to accommodate all new housing construction in just the planned Link station areas. Sadly, we are mostly getting new parking lots and vicious fights.

1. It is possible the development project is larger than this, though I cannot find evidence of that.
2. Obviously there will be more than one person per unit.
3. I am not sure what time frame that is supposed to be over.

Light Rail Excuse of the Week: Franklin Arts Festival

Image by Aren Roberson

Until Link goes more places, enthusiasts from other parts of the city will need excuses to come to the Rainier Valley. This week’s excuse is the Franklin (High School Arts Festival, Saturday, May 19th from 11am to 3pm. The school is clearly visible from Mt. Baker Station. From PTSA president Elizabeth Lowry:

The festival will feature student performances, including the steel drum band, kung fu team, jazz band, Quaker band and lion dancers, along with displays of visual art, ceramics and wood arts. Franklin High School is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.

Plants and art will be for sale as well. See past Link excuses here.

CHS: Rasmussen and Clark Hand Out Hunting Licenses to ‘Kill’ Development

It's Hunting Season on Capitol Hill!

The headline in the Capitol Hill Seattle blog pretty much says it all:

Facing ‘unprecedented wave’ of development, letter gives design board license to kill (bad projects)

Well I’m afraid to deliver the bad news, but no it doesn’t. Design review was never intended to kill projects whether they were deemed “bad” by the public or even by the design review committee. The purpose of design review is to provide “a forum for citizens, developers and the City to review and guide the design of qualifying commercial and multifamily development projects (emphasis mine).”

It is simply appaling that two sitting Councilmembers would write a letter fanning community hostility toward development and that they would imply that design review is a forum to stop projects. In fact, every design review committee I’ve attended the chair of the committee has to go to great lengths to remind neighbors who oppose a project that design review isn’t a way to change underlying zoning, stop a project, or even repurpose or redirect a project.

The purpose of design review was supposed to be to allow new development minor departures in exchange for modifying design in accordance with generally accepted design guidelines. Some neighborhoods have developed their own guidelines with more refinements. But as many have pointed out before, design review is a feeble measure for neighborhoods who want to “kill” new development. I think that’s a good thing and that’s what the law says.

I’ve suggested other ideas about how design review could be modified along with introduction of zero based zoning, but the truth is the design review is not a way to kill projects and  shouldn’t become a vehicle for that, ever. At best, design reivew is a give and take process to help move beyond neighborhood objections and get projects built.

Tom Rassmussen and Sally Clark should be embarrassed and ought to make an effort to counter the impression the Capitol Hill blog has created. All their letter and the post does is promote a common misconception about design reivew and add more frustration and costs to people who are trying to follow the law and get their projects built. And furthermore, it stokes an already frantic obession among some that we’re facing some kind of swarm of bad development. We need more housing options in Seattle and Councilmembers who will encourage and support growth, not make it harder for our city to accomodate more people by vilifying developers.

Report, Event: TOD that is Healthy, Green & Just

Today Puget Sound Sage released a new report on Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in the Rainier Valley. It  outlines changes seen in the Valley over the last decade, makes an environmental and social equity arguments for a greater emphasis on affordable housing and living wage jobs in TOD, enumerating racial justice principles for TOD,  and calls for urgent and aggressive actions and creation of tools necessary to achieve these principles. Tonight at 5:30 at the Filipino Community Center (5740 M.L. King Jr. Way South, Seattle, WA 98118) Puget Sound Sage will hold a panel discussion on their findings.

I have only had time to skim the document, but my first impress is that the report does a good job setting the context, honing in on specific problems of concern not usually focused on, and then proposing strategies to address these problems. Many of these strategies however, not surprisingly, require public money to get them off the ground as well as legislative changes on the regional and state level. I’m also very happy to see that the report is not a rebuke of TOD and development in the Valley, but rather in my reading, a call for TOD that more aggressively aims to benefit existing residents.

Below is a list of recommendations included in the executive summary. Continue reading “Report, Event: TOD that is Healthy, Green & Just”

Hot Dogs and Housing: Moving Beyond Affordability

More hot dogs please!

It’s hard to disagree with David Apert’s recent post titled “Affordable housing advocates should talk about land use… and land use advocates need to talk about affordability,” but I do. The problem isn’t that the two groups are talking past one another, but that they both make the same mistake, putting too much emphasis on housing price rather than pushing for fewer rules and less regulation of housing production. Obsession with price leads to price interventions that only make things worse. Consider the parable of the hot dog vendors.

Continue reading “Hot Dogs and Housing: Moving Beyond Affordability”

Use ORCA for Everything

Suica Card, Wikimedia

In my previous post, I proposed selling carrots on Metro buses, and allowing people to use their ORCA cards for this purchase. 

ORCA cards have the ability for what’s called an E-Purse.  This stores money on your ORCA card for travel that isn’t covered by a regular pass.  I use my E-Purse* to pay for the occasional ferry trip, which is outside the coverage area of my pass, and deposit money into it using a credit card and ORCA’s website. 

When writing the carrot piece I had no idea if ORCA cards could theoretically be used to purchase non-transit goods and services.  After all, if your employer is paying for part of your ORCA card and recieving a tax benefit for doing so, it wouldn’t make sense to allow people to buy carrots (or anything else) with that money.  So I sent an e-mail to the contact page on the ORCA website, and recieved this reply (emphesis mine):

The E-purse that is on the ORCA card can only be used for transportation services.  The reason for this is to prevent cardholders who receive transportation benefits from using them for non-transit purposes in keeping with FTA and IRS regulations.  However, there is memory capacity on the card to implement a second E-purse that could be used for non-transit purchases.  Although this isn’t on our short term horizon, it may be something that we explore in the future. 

So it’s possible.  Let’s think of the implications of carrying real money on your ORCA card.

  • Just as it’s quick and easy to board a bus using ORCA, you could pay quickly at convenience stores. 
  • Pay for parking with a swipe? 
  • Vending machines.
  • Bus carrots.

Of course, these benefits would be incentives for more people to carry an ORCA card.  And it turns out that there’s at least two systems that have already implemented this – Tokyo’s Pasmo and Suica Cards.

* Which I always coordinate with my E-Shoes – it’s a bold look for a man.

UW Station, An Opportunity

Photo by papahazama

With U-Link coming online by the end of 2016, rail will serve some of our densest neighborhoods as well as one of the largest employment centers in the region.  To date, however, most of our attention has been absorbed by development opportunities and disputes further up around other North Link stations.  While the UW Station area is a less than ideal candidate for a dense interconnected grid of mixed-use development, it does provide a unique opportunity to reviving what has been a traditionally an auto-dominant area.

Because the station will be located just to the south of Husky Stadium and Montlake Triangle, a significant TOD barrier rests in the fact that the area’s immediate vicinity is all University-owned land, comprised of medical, athletic, and recreational facilities.  These are, by no means, small buildings, and the local geography and street network alone create irregularities in subdivision potential.  There are also major institutional hurdles to jump when even considering breaking up large tracts of University land for private development.

More below the jump.

Continue reading “UW Station, An Opportunity”

BREAKING: 4.2 Miles of Copper Wire Stolen from LINK

Photo by the Author

At a 2:30 press conference today at Tukwila Int’l Blvd Station, Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray and Chief of Police Ron Griffin announced the discovery that approximately 4.2 miles and 70,000 pounds of copper wire has been stolen from within LINK’s hollow elevated guideway.  With the exception of the stations themselves, all of the wire between Rainier Beach and SeaTac Airport has been stolen.   The copper wire sections – roughly an inch in diameter – function to isolate stray current that might otherwise be absorbed by the structure, slowly weakening it over a period of decades.  At current copper prices, the theft is valued well over $200,000.

Photo by the Author

Gray and Griffin were understandably unwilling to discuss the details of ingress points that allowed the thieves to access the guideway, but they did say that upon successful access there would have been no way to know that anyone was within the structure.  Gray stressed that there are no operational safety concerns related to the theft, and that the wire was strictly for the purposes of reducing stress on the concrete and rebar, thus extending the useful life of the structure. Sound Transit expects to replace the copper within 2-3 months.

Sound Transit is seeking the public’s help with any information that might lead to the discovery and arrest of the thieves. Anyone with information is encouraged to call the King County Sheriff’s office (206) 296-3311.

Is OneBusAway Fixed?


Anecdotally, I’ve been having a lot more success with OneBusAway the last few weeks. I asked OBA point man S. Morris Rose if it has been restored to the accuracy level of, say, a year ago:

At some level, OBA per se hasn’t changed at all, but there have been fixes inside the KCM network that have fixed a lot of the problems. In one instance, there were problems with the integration of the new and old types of AVL data. In another, there were problems with buffering of GTFS-based real-time data. Brian Ferris- yes, he yet walks this earth- fixed both of those particular problems, and I would agree that things are much better now than they were before.

Have we returned to the Golden Age of OBA for KCM users? I think that’s overstating recent advances. (Bear in mind that OBA serves Pierce, Community Transit, and Intercity users. None of this applies to any of them- their level of service has been solid.) Things are better than they were, but not as good as they were before that.

Mr. Rose believes it is “likely” that by the end of the year OBA will reach new highs for data quality, as GPS rolls out and the raw schedule data better reflects holiday (and UW off-day) reduced service levels.