On Branding

The First In-Service RapidRide, by Atomic Taco on Flickr

Any marketer will tell you that a brand isn’t just what a company says it is – a brand is a set of attributes that gets assigned to a product or service over years or decades of use. Your brand is your reputation.  As Martin pointed out last year, we have several bus brands operating in Seattle are: RapidRide, Metro, and Sound Transit.

The problems with the RapidRide brand go beyond the poor choice of Copperplate Bank [thanks, DavidL & others in comments] Gothic for the typeface. Of the characteristics that make up a hypothetical BRT service – frequency, speed, off-board payments, dedicated lanes, upgraded stations, reduced stops – RapidRide can only make a solid claim to the first and weak claims to a few others.  Whatever its benefits, “rapid” isn’t really the salient characteristic of the new service.  Especially if you’re used to taking the 54 Express into downtown from West Seattle, say.   Many commenters have pointed out, here and elsewhere, that “FrequentRide” might have been a more apt name, if not nearly as catchy.

In his recent STB op-ed, Kevin Desmond noted that RapidRide will evolve over time to include a few more BRT features (off-board payment). So that’s all to the good.  Despite the complaints, West Seattleites are using the C Line quite a bit.  I have no doubt that SDOT and Metro will keep making iterative improvements on all six lines over the coming years.  One hopes those improvements are put in place before the service gets a bad reputation in the minds of the city.

Then again, the South Lake Union Streetcar probably had the worst brand of all time when it launched, and that didn’t keep riders away.

Dispatches from Arizona

There’s a very interesting batch of transit news out of Arizona:

  • Highway builder extraordinaire, the Arizona Department of Transportation, has initiated a study of passenger rail on the Phoenix-Tucson I-10 “Sun Corridor”, explicitly acknowledging in the associated video that as population grows, it becomes impossible to fix traffic congestion with more freeway lanes.
  • The rock-ribbed conservative Phoenix suburb of Mesa has become a surprisingly enthusiastic partner in extending Valley Metro’s light rail system into central Mesa. Mesa appears to value the light rail extension both as a dramatic improvement to mobility and a tool to spur a pedestrian-oriented revitalization of its downtown. They learned the hard way that you need to get the zoning right.
  • In addition, Mesa has traded in millions of dollars of new roads and expressway construction in favor of fast-tracking a further eastward extension of the light rail system to Gilbert Road, beyond the Central Mesa extension above. Knowing Mesa, I’m frankly astonished this could ever happen.
  • Phoenix has scraped together the money to pay for a western extension of the light rail line, which had been deferred almost indefinitely after the near-collapse of the city’s tax base in the housing crash. The city has also found the money to begin a pilot of a limited-stop express service to the south of downtown, to test the demand for faster transit on that corridor.
  • The Tucson Streetcar is coming along nicely.
  • (UPDATE) The Phoenix Sky Train airport people mover is nearly done. Phoenix Sky Harbor chose to connect its main terminal to the light rail station years before the rental car center.

I have personal reasons for caring about Mesa and Arizona, but if you don’t, why should you care? I think you should, because when progressive ideas about transportation and land use start to take root in such wildly hostile territory as Arizona, we’re perhaps turning the corner in the national debate about transportation and land use.

Bellevue Surface Option Still on the Table

In an effort to close the funding gap that Martin described last week, the Bellevue City Council has voted to keep studying an East Link surface-street alternative leading into downtown, writes Keith Ervin at The Seattle Times.  It’s worth clarifying that this surface option on the table is the segment running along 112th Ave SE and not the downtown C11A alignment that STB editorialized in favor of back in 2010, before Bellevue became gripped by tunnel fever.

STB 2012 General Election Endorsements

Below are Seattle Transit Blog’s Endorsements for the November 6th General Election. As always, these purely reflect the issues of public transit and land use. We have only endorsed in races with a compelling reason to do so, but in general a generic Democrat typically is better on transit and land use issues than a generic Republican. The Editorial Board consists of Martin H. Duke, Adam Parast, Sherwin Lee, and Bruce Nourish.

U.S. Senate

U.S. Senator: Maria Cantwell gets our pick for a third term in the U.S. Senate. While not as proactive about sustainable transportation choices as her colleague, Patty Murray, Senator Cantwell has provided reasonably steadfast support for transit during her tenure in D.C. Her earmark requests have been relatively favorable to local transit projects, a notable example being Sound Transit’s Link extension to S. 200th.

Washington State

Governor: Jay Inslee has a transportation platform that explicitly mentions continued support for light rail and Amtrak Cascades. His support for light rail on the Columbia River Crossing and long career emphasis on greenhouse gas reduction are good signs. His opponent doesn’t have transportation as a major issue on his website, but does have a record of light rail opposition stretching back over a decade. Although McKenna seems to have made his peace with current Sound Transit plans, he hasn’t repudiated his previous attitude towards high-quality transit and would probably not support any further effort to expand it.

Initiative 1185: No. Another Eyman initiative, once again requiring a supermajority to raise taxes. Our broad view is that transportation taxes are not high enough, and this creates insurmountable obstacles to fixing that. Furthermore, the initiative creates more procedural obstacles to adjusting tolling rates, flying in the face of best practice for managing demand on congested roadways and ensuring they remain congested.

Supreme Court Position #9: Sheryl Gordon McCloud, like most judicial candidates, doesn’t get deep into transportation in her campaign materials. However, her opponent is former Justice Richard B. Sanders, a reliable vote against Sound Transit in Kemper Freeman’s endless attempts to sue East Link out of existence.


Pierce Transit Proposition 1: Yes. Pierce Transit is in deep financial trouble. Service levels have dropped dramatically over the last few years, and failure of this measure would accelerate the death spiral by eliminating all evening and weekend service. We’re not thrilled with how little PT achieves with the current level of funding, but don’t see any alternative to preserve the principle of service beyond support for commuters.

C-Tran Proposition 1: Approve. This proposition is a critical seal of approval for light rail on the Columbia River Crossing (CRC), which will be Vancouver’s principal connection to Portland for our lifetime and beyond. The proposition funds C-TRAN’s share of light rail operations on the CRC as well as construction and operation of the Fourth Plain BRT project through a 1/10th of 1 percent sales tax increase. High-capacity transit across the CRC is essential for Vancouver’s future, and the extension of Portland’s well-established MAX system is an obvious choice.

Washington State Senate

Continue reading “STB 2012 General Election Endorsements”

News Roundup: Cycletracks

Photo by Slack Action

This is an open thread.

SDOT Restripes Dexter

Dexter & Valley
Dexter & Valley

I’m a little late to the punch here (been on vacation), but shortly before I left, I noticed that SDOT had restriped a short section of Dexter, just north of Valley Street (see the picture above). In a previous post, I had noted that the intersections of Dexter at Valley and Mercer, which have always been a mess, had tipped over into daily disaster areas for all road users during the afternoon rush hour, due to some combination of temporary and permanent traffic pattern changes arising from the Mercer East project.

In addition to “Do not block intersection” warning signs and cross-hatch paint on Dexter & Mercer, to discourage rampant box-blocking, SDOT’s Marybeth Turner described the rechannelization as follows:

Before the recent reconfiguration of lanes on Dexter Avenue North, vehicles turning from southbound Dexter to Eastbound Mercer often blocked other traffic on Dexter, including buses, bikes and cars. To alleviate this problem, we have now provided a second southbound lane on Dexter that allows buses, bikes and cars to pass the congestion waiting to turn left onto eastbound Mercer ST.

To provide room for the additional southbound lane, we relocated the existing northbound left turn pocket (to SR-99 North) and removed curbside parking from the east side of the street. We also removed the buffers for the bike lines on each side of the street.

How is the new channelization working for those of you who commute through this intersection? I haven’t seen any of the epic jams that were once commonplace on Dexter, but I may just have missed them, and 9th & Mercer still seems to be a bit of a mess.  Yesterday afternoon’s commute would have been an extreme stress test, as an accident at Howell & Yale gridlocked South Lake Union. Bravo to SDOT for addressing this issue promptly — and doing so without throwing bicyclists under a bus.

Transportation Panel Video

As always, West Seattle Blog is there first with the most:

Somewhat regrettably, thanks to the fresh service change and the presence of Metro Director of Service Development Victor Obeso as lightning rod, the meeting was less a wide-ranging discussion of our transportation future than a public comment session on RapidRide’s teething troubles, and especially the situation in Arbor Heights, a neighborhood reduced to skeletal service during the day and none at all in the evening.

But anyway, these two hours are great if you want to get into the West Seattle transit weeds.

Public-Private Partnering on the SLU Streetcar

Photo by Atomic Taco

As we’ve alluded to plenty of times already, private money is playing a big role in ensuring the continual operation of the South Lake Union Streetcar.  A variety of neighborhood employers have now agreed to pitch in $204,000 to extend three-car operation (leaving a fourth as a spare) through mid-2014, which maintains peak headways at 10 minutes:

  • Group Health–$7,500
  • Amazon.com  $166,500
  • Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center—$20,000
  • UW Medicine $10,000

On top of the funding for streetcar operations, Amazon is also paying for a sizable public benefits package that includes extending the extra service for 10 years, along with a number of other improvements to compensate for alleyway vacation as part of the Denny redevelopment.

According to the Mayor’s office, streetcar ridership has also exceeded projections, with over 2,900 average weekday boardings in September, 40% higher than the original forecast.

Time to Dream Big on Measuring Affordability

The apparent high cost of living in a dense transit oriented neighborhood, measured mainly by the monthly cost of housing, is significant barrier to building support for density.

Yes, all this density is wonderful, but, as the NIMBY and naysayer will always say, “it’s too damn expensive.” The right response to that argument is, of course, to ask them a question: “compared to what?” Compared to driving every day, damaging lakes and streams with sprawling pavement, and changing the planet’s climate, density is a bargain, even a steal.

But when monthly rents seem high, those prices are the only number people can associate with new growth and change. Monthly housing prices become the sticker price of sustainability, and the shock associated with rents is one of biggest barriers (along with the perception that city schools are bad) to getting wider and deeper support of new growth in Seattle.

How do we account for all the other values lost and gained when new development changes a neighborhood? How does a policy that promotes more supply account for the loss of the corner store, support a neighborhood school, or offset somehow the noisiness of a healthy, vibrant neighborhood.

The answer, I think, is redefining how we measure affordability.

Today we have a wholly inadequate way to describe affordability. Nobody actually enters the housing market planning to spend exactly 30 percent of her monthly income on housing. A person, of any income level, in the housing market considers a number of factors along with price. Proximity to affordable day care, good schools, even having a yard are all things that get considered by someone in the housing market. But we don’t consider the price of those goods when we talk about affordability.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, there are more things to an affordable neighborhood, urbanists, planners, and housing advocates, than are dreamt of your measure of affordability. The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) has already suggesting considering transportation costs when determining housing affordability.

Continue reading “Time to Dream Big on Measuring Affordability”

Call for Endorsements

STB’s endorsements for the general election will be out in a few days, and as usual the Board is interested in any somewhat more obscure races that have strong transit and/or land use cases. Leave your tips in the comments. Links are very much appreciated.

Transit App Kickstart Update

OpenPlans, which used kickstart to fund development of an Apple iOS6 transit app, posted an update of their progress late last week. Google has been rumored to be developing a stand alone maps app but nothing has yet been released. Update below:

Update #6

+ finished wireframes and mockups.

+ developing the beta version of the app.

+ working on finding the best platform from which to deliver the beta version to testers, to make it easy to install and to send feedback back to us

+ creating the graphics, icons and imagery that will be used within the app.
The backend team is doing the heavy lifting with transit data and OpenTripPlanner —

+ developing the geographic router, which figures out which metropolitan area the user is in, so we can plan a trip using the local transit data.

+ setting up routing engine coverage map.

+ tracking down additional data and adding it to transitdata.openplans.org.

We’ve still got lots of work ahead of us, but we’re excited about the progress that’s been made. In particular, some of the nifty new UI ideas that we’ve come up with along the way…. Stay tuned for more details soon.


Sustainable West Seattle Forum Tonight

Tonight is a Sustainable West Seattle’s forum on Transportation:

Bus Transit, Tunnel Construction, and More!  Join Sustainable West Seattle for our October Community Forum, Monday, October 15, 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm at West Seattle Senior Center, 4217 SW Oregon St., around the corner from California-Oregon intersection, upstairs.

The panel is Seattle Transportation Chair Tom Rasmussen, King County Executive staffer Chris Arkills, Metro Director of Service Development Victor Obeso, SDOT head Peter Hahn, and some damn fool blogger.

The last one of these I did was about a year and a half ago (video here), and it was a great time.

What Riders Are We Losing?

Steven De Vight/Flickr

I only partially agree with Matt’s post Thursday about park and rides, but I think the assertion that Ride Free Area (RFA) elimination will cost Metro “millions of rides” deserves to be interrogated a bit more. We’re never going to know definitively what the ridership impact of RFA elimination is, because it’s lumped together with a massive service change. I imagine the specific effect of the fares is going to be negative, although long term improvements in system complexity, interior bus circulation, and deterrence of disruptive riders may turn out to produce a net gain.

Moreover, it’s important to consider where those “lost” trips are going. Some of them are converting to foot, bike, or Link trips: it’s a marginal decrease in utility to that individual, but not necessarily a problem from a policy perspective. What would be a problem is conversion of those trips to high-externality car trips, but in downtown I suspect that’s a very small slice.

The remainder are trips not taken. We often hold up “trip reduction” as a civic goal, but in fact it’s a double edged-sword. The entire purpose of providing infrastructure is that it enables the contacts that create economic growth. Deter movement and you deter that growth. A trip not taken to a social service because it’s too expensive may have bad humanitarian consequences. These aren’t necessarily decisive arguments for the RFA, or indeed free transit anywhere, but they are its upside.

Shifting the discussion to park-and-rides, the calculation is very different. At park-and-rides that are at capacity, a well-managed parking charge* will drive some riders away, but more will carpool and take the bus, increasing the overall throughput of the transit stop. In terms of encouraging people to take transit, it’s win/win/win, a benefit totally orthogonal to arguments about the merits of suburban living.

But where not every space is full, charges will induce people to drive. A small margin will move or choose jobs closer to home, and newcomers will not choose that home-work pair in the first place, but the riders that brings are highly unlikely to be enough to make up the difference.

That said, if agencies really want to abandon the parking subsidy there’s a way to recover some of the large capital costs and possibly boost overall ridership. Simply selling the lots and garages, canceling parking leases, and using the proceeds to boost transit speed and frequency might net you more riders, albeit different ones. However, making transit irrelevant to an even larger portion of the region’s voters is a dangerous political decision.

* “well-managed” meaning the charge is just high enough to leave the lot at capacity.

An Update on East Link Cost Savings

NE 6th option, downtown Bellevue

Back in May, Sound Transit presented its first iteration of East Link cost savings options to slim down Bellevue’s $60 million contingent contribution to a downtown tunnel.  The ST Board advanced a few different options along three segments of the alignment for further study.  Last week, ST released the findings (pdf) of the adopted cost savings work plan, which will help both the agency and the City decide which options might be pursued for further engineering.

While the entire cost savings effort is part of Bellevue’s deal for a tunnel, the work plan thankfully instituted limits on how far such reductions could go (emphasis added):

The MOU specifies that Project cost reductions from value engineering, design advancement, scope modifications and for any other reason within the City of Bellevue shall count towards the reduction of City contingent contribution (provided that such reductions do not result in deferral of stations or Park-and-Rides or deferral or complete elimination of other Project elements that have a direct negative Project impact on ridership or operations and maintenance).

More on the cost savings options below the jump.

Continue reading “An Update on East Link Cost Savings”

T4WA to Deliver Petitions to Gubernatorial Candidates Tonight

Before Jay Inslee and Rob McKenna square off for their gubernatorial debate tonight, Transportation for Washington (T4WA) will deliver thousands of petitions in favor of walking, bicycling, and transit, all signed by people like you.  The campaign is hoping to inject some more discussion about transportation choices into the race.  Although both candidates have weighed in on a potential statewide transportation package, their specifics have been mundane and largely unexciting to die-hard transit, bike, and ped advocates.

From T4WA:

All people deserve an opportunity to prosperity, and that starts with the ability to get to a job safely affordably.  Unfortunately, thus far in the campaign, walking, biking, and transit issues have been mostly left out of the gubernatorial race.  We hope the moderators and candidates will take these issues on during Thursday’s debate.

More and more Washingtonians are choosing to live in cities, drive less, and walk, bike and ride transit more. It’s time for gubernatorial leadership to champion balanced state transportation packages and budgets and to find state and local solutions to the financial struggles of transit agencies.

If your calendar is open tonight, head down to the KOMO news studios at Fisher Plaza at 8:15pm to witness the delivery in person.

News Roundup: Relocating

Photo from Flickr user Erubisu 27

This is an open thread.

End the Park Free Areas

$20.5M Burien Transit Center, 505 parking spots

Over at the Stranger’s article about the end of the Ride Free Area, commenter antidamon makes a great point:

If we are going to take the Free Ride Zone away from the urban poor then I think it’s time to take Free Parking away from the Suburban Commuters. Why in the world are we giving away free parking spaces? It makes no sense to be shutting down lines and reducing services while at the same time people are parking for free! End Free Parking!!

In theory, the reason that we’ve spent millions of dollars on free parking at park-and-rides is to lure suburban commuters to take the bus. Yet Metro is willing to lose millions of rides per year by ending the Ride Free Area.

I’d argue that in addition to boosting ridership, free park-and-rides encourage people to live in sparse, sprawling locations. These locations are generally car-dependent, and add many miles of car trips to school, shopping, etc. Without free park-and-rides there’s a greater incentive to live in an area with good bus service within walking distance, and this fundamentally means a more dense environment. In contrast, the Ride Free Area encouraged people to travel around downtown Seattle which indirectly encouraged businesses to locate downtown. This tended to increase business and residential density as well as transit use.

I’d love to see Metro study the impacts of charging for parking in all of their park-and-ride lots. [UPDATE: Metro has, in fact, looked at this before. — Editor]

Comment of the Day: Tunnel Operations

Oran Viriyincy/Flickr

In the last open thread, Brent critiques Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT) bus operations and offers some constructive suggestions (with errata):

Observations this afternoon and evening:

1. There are some A-Line buses being used on the C/D Line. The C/D Line, FWIW, is much less full than the 120 off peak.

2. The ORCA loading assistants are getting better at using the hand-held readers, as are the passengers. The loading assistant at the southbound platform at ID Station had the drill down really well, tapping at a rate of about one card per second. I’d suggest filming him for training purposes.

3. Platooning still has some kinks to be worked out southbound and is totally not happening northbound.

4. Headway control is not happening with tunnel routes. I saw two 106s go through together, two 255s go through together, two 550s go through together, two 41s together (which is hard to avoid), and three 41s a little bit later all on the same platform at once. These were all in their outbound direction. I hope it would be easy to implement a rule that only one bus of a particular route can be deployed per platoon.

5. One of the big slow-downs was drivers opening doors for runners. I watched as a supervisor reprimanded one of the drivers for doing that. One of the 41s at the head of the block of three waited for a runner, and then his bus stalled for a couple of minutes. There ought to be a “No running on the platform” rule, in addition to clear instructions to operators to only open the doors once per platform.

6. A couple inbound buses kept their doors closed while waiting along the platform, and then opened them once they got to the front, turning themselves from the back of one platoon into the front of the next platoon, and blocking Bay A buses, which leads me to …

7. The big source of slow-downs northbound in the tunnel is that Bay A is overwhelmed. Even if platooning were happening right, passengers were boarding quickly, inbound drivers were only unloading once per platform, and the hand-held readers were functioning as quickly as the ones on the buses, there would still be delays caused by too many buses using Bay A. That list includes the 41, 71, 72, 73, 74, 76, 77, and 316. Given the rule that only two buses can be considered to be at a bay at once, and any bus further out must stop again at the bay, Bay A cannot handle the peak volume — 29 buses in one hour — unless they are spread perfectly evenly among the sixteen platoons that should be going through in that hour. And it would require all inbound buses going northbound to queue up behind a pair of Bay A buses and use the space at the south end of the platform, which is not happening.

A better distribution of the northbound peak load would be 41/77/316 (19 peak buses per hour) at Bay A, and 71-74, 76, and 255 at Bay B (18 peak buses per hour). This would require some training, rider alert signage, and a little duct tape to cover the old numbers. But I think it is a fix that can be executed quickly.