Metro Proposes I-90 Reshuffle

Table of Metro I-90 route changesLately, overcrowding has become chronic on Metro’s I-90 commuter routes; Metro responded a few months ago, by tweaking some routes to not stop at Eastgate, but promised further readjustments in the new year. That package of proposed changes is now out, and it’s a fairly minimal reshuffle that adds or subtracts a few trips to try to more closely match the number of trips with the level of demand.

While I’m not an expert on the I-90 corridor, I’m not particularly moved by the proposal. It seems to create confusing service patterns, like routes which make certain stops only at certain times of day; the greatest total number of trips added is six at Issaquah Highlands, which, if the corridor is currently overcrowded and growing above the rate of the overall system, is only going to provide a fairly short-term fix; and it does nothing to clear away the deadwood on this corridor. Mercer Island, in particular, is an mess of weird and under-performing service, like the 201 (three one-direction trips a day!), 202 and 203, which seems ripe for restructure. Similarly, routes 210 and 211 languish just above the bottom-quartile of Metro’s peak Eastside routes.

Metro seems to be making the smallest change possible to address immediate crowding issues, rather than what I’d like to see, which is more aggressively shifting service from poorly-performing routes to crowded routes, but it’s better than nothing. I know we have some readers who commute on I-90; what do you guys think?

Revisiting Mobile Transit Apps

Transit, WhichBus, and Google Maps for iOS
Transit, WhichBus, and Google Maps for iOS

Last summer I noted that Apple would be dropping transit directions from the iPhone’s maps application as they switched away from using Google services.  Around that time, Oran linked to a Kickstarter project (to which I donated) to create a trip planning app using OpenTripPlanner.  A few things have changed in the world of transit trip planning since then.

For one, the Kickstarter project has shut down and returned the funds to their backers (myself included). Meanwhile, a few trip planning tools have cropped up that are worth your time.  The three that I’ve tried are the new iOS Google Maps app, Transit, and WhichBus (which isn’t an app but a mobile-optimized website).  OneBusAway, of course, continues to provide great real-time arrival info and stop locations. I haven’t included it in this review because it’s not new, and doesn’t do trip planning.

A reminder from my previous post: a “transit app” generally has one or more of these three features: Continue reading “Revisiting Mobile Transit Apps”

West Seattle Rider Feedback

West Seattle Ridership table, fixed

Yesterday, Metro dropped a couple of very substantive posts over on the Metro Future Blog: one about post-service-change feedback from riders in West Seattle, and one regarding a proposal to tweak service on the I-90 corridor to address overcrowding; there will be a separate post on the latter. You should read the post, and the PDF report, and the ridership table in their entirety; there’s lots of great information in there. Here are my initial takeaways:

  • We’re going to get printed RapidRide schedules in February. Thank heavens.
  • RapidRide C & D are victims of their own success — and inadequacies. Mostly, people are complaining about crowding and unreliability, which (I think) are consequences of inadequate frequencies, inadequate or incomplete capital improvements, and pent-up demand (particularly in urban villages), for anything remotely resembling high-quality transit. Imagine how many more riders we’d have if downtown had ORCA readers.
  • In all other respects, the restructure worked. In spite of the totally underwhelming delivery and reception of the C Line, ridership overall went up, and it went up the most in areas where most rationalization was done — particularly the California/Fauntleroy corridor, where an indecipherable tangle of routes (54, 54X, 22, 116) have now become C and the 116.
  • Bellyaching… Public reaction, in this survey and in online forums, has been almost uniformly negative; and online (away from this blog), often included thundering denunciations which asserted gross incompetence or malfeasance on the part of Metro, accompanied by cast-iron predictions that ridership had cratered. Turns out, these people didn’t know what they were talking about, and judging by the comments on the Metro Future Blog, they still don’t… but they won’t let that stop them from sounding off!
  • …and the tyranny of the status quo. Sadly, these people get to vote, and to deluge their Council Members with complaints; and this is why we’re not going to get any changes whatsoever with the introduction of RapidRide E, and why virtually no changes were made in Magnolia or Queen Anne, even though there’s no good reason we couldn’t achieve similarly higher ridership and improved mobility in those neighborhoods.
  • Please no more half-baked RapidRide launches. Don’t launch the E Line ’til it’s good and ready.

Thanks to Metro for collecting and publishing all this information in such an accessible and readable form.

News Roundup: Economic Self-Interest

UW Station (Sound Transit)

This is an open thread.

Constantine Advances 3 Names for Council Seat

Will Hall

To fill the seat vacated by Bob Ferguson as he ascends to the office of the Attorney General, Executive Constantine nominated three candidates, from which the Council will pick its next member.

The nominees are real estate attorney and Democratic Party insider Rod Dembowski, Shoreline Councilman Will Hall, and State Rep. Cindy Ryu. STB endorsed Hall for the position and gave Dembowski an honorable mention, so it appears Mr. Constantine couldn’t have done any better from our perspective.

The Council is required to act by March 17th. It never hurts to let your Councilmember know how you want them to vote, as the County is probably the most important level of government for transit issues.

PT Cuts Coming September 29th

Erubisu 27/Flickr

In the wake of Pierce Transit’s narrow defeat at the polls, the only remaining question was when the cuts would come. Monday the Board decided to enact a 34% cut beginning September 29th.

The 34% cut is quite a bit better than the 53% estimate from August. The agency credits union concessions in September and higher-than-expected revenues, combined with early printing deadlines and the staff time required to recompute the estimates. All weekend service will still disappear, but contrary to pre-election plans some weeknight service will remain. The hit to mid-day service will be milder than expected.

PT promises details on the cut from 417,000 to 275,000 service hours in the coming days, and what is sure to be a pitiable period of public comment in May.

Waiting for Paris

Rue Oberkampf, Paris (wikimedia)

Whenever we argue about height limits there is faction of genuine urbanists who argue that height isn’t necessary for density. The latest incarnation is commenter “was carless“:

Some of the densest cities on Earth – Tokyo, Manila, and Barcelona – are well known for their lowrise nature of their built environment. Most buildings are in the 2-3 story range, but the blocks are fully built out, with little land used for personal backyards, car storage, or other such non-dwelling uses.

Similarly, last year Andrew made the correct point that height is not the same thing as density.

These observations are absolutely true, and yet totally irrelevant to the question at hand. I think density is important and support any legislation that increases it over the status quo. And indeed, if would be great if Seattle proposed legislation that replicated Paris (lowrise, but no parking or setbacks, and building right up to the sidewalk of a one car-width side street). I’d wonder if such a prescriptive code would end up simply stifling development, but if successful it would be a dramatic improvement on the current situation.

But that’s not the choice at hand. In every zoning battle that comes before the council, it always seems to come down to height. For any given code, it’s clear that more height will produce more density as long as Floor Area Ratio isn’t held constant. Meanwhile, it’s clear that the status quo isn’t going to get us Paris.

On this issue, I’m not interested in hearing from those who think that Seattle’s current population level is just fine. I’d like to hear from those who want to achieve density but think we can do it, in practice, at six stories.

Hope for Route 16 Riders

Route 16 in Mercer traffic
An item in my extensive collection of 16-stuck-in-traffic photos

Are you a Wallingford rider who commutes to downtown Seattle? If so, I have great news for you: thanks to the Mercer West Project, you’re about to get ten to twenty minutes of your life back, almost every weekday afternoon. Starting in February, SDOT will reduce the Mercer underpass to two westbound lanes, as part of the widening of the underpass, and construction of the new 6th Ave N, which will serve as an access road to the future SR99 Deep Bore Tunnel. After reasoning, pleading, and public flogging have failed, this will finally force Metro to do the right thing, and put the 16 on the same downtown pathway as Route 5.

The initial reroute will be a temporary construction detour; but with the completion of the Aurora Street Grid project shortly after SDOT is finished hacking up Mercer, the street grid east of the Seattle Center will be reconnected, obviating the last (flimsy) rationale for a deviation that requires the bus to drive in circles. Therefore, Metro plans to begin public outreach soon thereafter, to ask riders about making the Aurora alignment permanent.

Frankly, it’s pathetic that this change is being forced upon Metro by construction. It is impossible that the problems I have outlined on this subject were not widely known at the agency. I realize Metro is swamped and overstretched, and exists in a institutional incentive structure that is tailor-made to promote waffling, stasis, and inoffensive mediocrity, but the agency is obviously capable of responding to speed and reliability problems when it feels so inclined. That it has failed — and so egregiously — makes its actions in this case externally indistinguishable from an agency that does not care about service quality on core routes; and to the extent that Metro is such an agency, I have no interest in advocating for it, or further subsidizing it.

Thinking Clearly About the Bike Master Plan

Excerpt from BMP update map
Excerpt from BMP update map

I don’t write much about biking here, as Tom over at Seattle Bike Blog does such a great job of it, but I actually put more miles on around the city by bike than transit in most months; and I think bikes could have, particularly for short- to medium-length trips in the flat-ish areas of the city, at least as much potential to give people freedom from their cars as a good transit network, among other benefits. Cycling as a means of daily transport in those areas, however, will remain the pursuit of a small minority unless and until the city builds the infrastructure to make it safe.

In theory, the city’s Bike Master Plan is the vehicle to achieve this, and the BMP is currently undergoing a five-yearly update, with a public comment period ongoing until the end of January. Frankly, though, I’m unimpressed with what’s come out of the process so far, in particular the only item of real substance to be published, a draft map of the proposed Citywide Bicycle Network, excerpted in the image above. I think the best general critique is the colorful one given by Bob Hall, which you should read in its entirety, but in particular his remarks about the Mineta report, the Level of Traffic Stress metric, and the fundamental structure and purpose of such network:

There isn’t a single section that attempts to answer questions like this: “How will a cyclist to get from the University District to Capitol Hill in a safe, continuous, easy to follow path with the least steep hills possible?” We have been talking about biking in Seattle for decades now and still nobody can answer this. […] During presentations, planners asked us: “Which street do you think needs to be added to or removed from our map, or which intersections?”. WRONG QUESTION. Any given street or intersection does not matter as long as you can still get from Point A to Point B [where A and B are major destinations] in a safe, continuous route.

While I’m sure lots of well-meaning people have spent lots of time thinking about what lines to put where on this map, it reads to me more like a wish list than a coherent plan to get us to a bike network that would (along with improved transit, car-share, and other tools) induce anyone to sell their car.

Above and beyond Bob’s general comments, I have a few more specific concerns with the proposals on the map, after the jump.

Continue reading “Thinking Clearly About the Bike Master Plan”

Sunday Open Thread: Jay-Z on the Subway

Jay-Z’s ride on the subway is obviously a stunt — the video itself illustrates why his regular use of it would be totally impractical — but the interaction with Ellen Grossman, who turns out to be a big-shot in the art world, is a nice little parable about the irreplaceable benefits of density and its handmaiden, public transportation.

There was some idle speculation that, thanks to the chance meeting on the subway, Grossman is now open to the idea of collaborating with Jay-Z somehow. Who knows if anything will come of it, but it still illustrates the point: people from different fields mashed together, not isolated in their own climate-controlled steel boxes, form new connections and cross-pollinate with new ideas.

Nine Stories Beneath the Ground

UW Station Visit

Yesterday, Sound Transit invited local media to visit the construction site of the forthcoming University of Washington station. By 2016, University Link project will be complete, and this station will become the north terminus of Link for about five years, until the opening of the North Link project. The station is currently about 50% complete, and the overall project about 60%; by summer, the contractors will have laid rails all way from the Pine Street Stub Tunnel to this station. You can see cross-sections and renderings of the finished project at the University Link Document Library.

Click on the picture above to see the photos I took. Thanks to Sound Transit for inviting us!

Interview with Car2Go CEO Nick Cole

Car2Go in DC. Photo by Flikr user Elvert Barnes.
Car2Go in DC. Photo by Flikr user Elvert Barnes.

Yesterday afternoon, I had a chance to sit down with Car2Go CEO Nick Cole, to discuss how Car2Go works with city transit systems, how Car2Go can help make cities better places, and to answer some of the many questions suggested by STB readers. I tried to distill the many questions you asked down to a reasonable number which I hope, nevertheless, was sufficient to cover most of the bases. If there’s something you really think I should have asked, say so in the comments and I’ll consider following up with the Car2Go folks via email.

First, though, I should note that Car2Go is having their official launch party at Etta’s, just north of Pike Place Market, on Saturday, from 9AM to 3PM. I’m told there will be free food, swag, and test drives. Additionally, as many readers have noted, you can also use the promo code SOUND when you sign up, to get 30 free minutes of driving.

Note that interview questions and answers are condensed, taken from my notes.

Bruce: How has Car2Go worked with transit in other cities?

Nick: In the cities we’ve previously moved into, Car2Go has really acted to complement the existing transit system. Some trips, like those between outlying or less-dense areas, are just hard to serve with transit. Cities like Seattle are growing, and city governments are trying to figure out how to repurpose their streets to move people around more efficiently; Car2Go helps them do that. Some of the people moving into cities are coming from suburban areas where car-ownership is universal, and are looking to go carless or car-lite; Car2Go helps them make that change, because they know they can have access to a nearby car if they need one.

More after the jump. Continue reading “Interview with Car2Go CEO Nick Cole”

Bus Fire on I-5

A a southbound Sound Transit bus caught fire this morning, closing the express lanes near 85th St; everyone got off the bus safely. KING5 has details and photos. It looks to be one of the new-ish DE60LFs that have been coming in. There is still congestion in this area, which may impact your commute, if you go anywhere near it.

Please throw in other links and traffic updates in the comments.

Full-time Broad St BAT Lane In The Works

New Broad St Configuration
New Broad St Configuration. (Per SDOT, the “Bus Only” between Denny and 3rd is erroneous; it should read “Bus Only Ahead”).

The Seattle Department of Transportation is moving forward with the previously-mentioned rechannelization of two blocks of Broad Street in Belltown, between 1st and 3rd Avenues. The result of this restriping will be to take away one general travel lane in each direction, along with 24 parking spaces, and create a westbound 24/7 BAT/bike lane, an eastbound bike lane, and a left-turn pocket for westbound cars turning onto 2nd Ave. Since the September restructure, every bus which goes to or through Queen Anne or Interbay has used this two-block stretch of Broad, adding up to 8,000 riders per day, according to this pamphlet from SDOT.

I’ve written previously (here, and here) about the larger Uptown-Belltown Transit Improvement Project, of which this restriping is a part, and in spite of months of nagging from me, SDOT still hasn’t updated their website to discuss it, so you’ll have to refer back to those posts for more of the history. Otherwise, I have nothing but good things to say about this and the other low-cost transit speed and reliability projects SDOT is doing around the city (e.g. Ballard, Delridge, 3rd Ave). SDOT tells me that the Denny trolleybus wire project discussed in previous posts is proceeding well; and, in addition, another new RapidRide improvement is in the works for Uptown: an inbound queue jump at 3rd Ave W & Mercer, which is currently in design, with expected operation in spring.

OBA Excerpt Broad St
Local stops near Broad Street. RapidRide makes no stops between Denny and Cedar.

There is one thing which Metro could do to make this SDOT project better: the westbound bus stop at Broad Street & 2nd could, concurrently, be removed. As can be seen from the OneBusAway map excerpt to the right, the westbound stop at Broad & 2nd is far too close to the stop on 1st just north of Broad. Overly-close stops are bad in their own right (and against Metro’s service guidelines), but to me, it seems even worse when they are placed in a bus lane that is shared by buses (RapidRide and expresses) which don’t serve the stop and other local services which do.

I ran this idea of closing the two stops at Broad & 2nd past Metro staff, who responded in part: “There are no current plans to close either stop. However, the outbound stop appears to be a stop that could be closed while still providing for four-block spacing. […] Your request to consolidate bus stops in this area is reasonable and currently under review.” (Here’s the full Metro response). So, fingers crossed, that stop may go away; thanks to Metro staff for looking into this.

You can submit comments about this project to Jonathon Dong at SDOT; the project should be complete by March.

NOTE: Except for the new queue jump facility mentioned in the post, the D Line Uptown Deviation is off-topic for this discussion.

TCC Hosting Panel Discussion on Fall Book Club Selection

Last year, Transportation Choices Coalition formed Books on the Bus, a book club that allows local transit riders to collectively read and discuss a quarterly book selection.  The fall 2012 selection, The Hustle, will be the topic of a panel discussion next Monday evening that will include the book’s author, Doug Merlino, among others:

The Hustle is a memoir by Seattle native Doug Merlino about a 1980s middle school basketball team intentionally formed across race and class lines. Merlino was a member of the team, who, 20 years after its dissolution, decided to locate all of his former teammates. The story is a fascinating exploration of the ways in which race, money, and opportunity shape our lives.

Most Books on the Bus selections will be written by local authors or have subjects relevant to local issues and contexts.  For those who joined in on the fall reading period or are simply interested in doing a future Books on the Bus reading, the panel discussion will run from 7pm to 9pm next Monday at Elliott Bay Book Company.

Connecting the Dots on Housing

tannerwood 2
Tannerwood, North Bend. The developer calls this “low impact development”.

It’s not often that national news and policy affects us directly, but there’s at least one issue that affects everyone: housing.  The US has built in incentives to sprawling houses for decades, and a recent report estimates this subsidy at $450B a year.  The Atlantic Cities published an excellent summary of this report this Tuesday that’s worth reading. 

Smart Growth America’s report counted 50 federal programs that lean on the real estate scales in some way, whether through tax credits like the home mortgage interest deduction, loan guarantees through the Small Business Administration or Federal Housing Administration, or grants for low-income housing. The report did not count investments by so-called “Government-Sponsored Enterprises” like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It didn’t include non-direct spending on things like transportation or water infrastructure that also has a major impact on real estate. And it didn’t include federally owned real estate (of which there is a lot)…

Stepping back and looking at the whole collection, it’s clear that the federal government has favored many types of development at the expense of others, often with weak or outdated logic. The government dramatically favors homeowners over renters. Its support is heavily skewed toward single-family homes over multi-family developments (the FHA, for instance, funneled just one-tenth of its $1.2 trillion in loan guarantees over the past five years toward multi-family housing).

The mortgage interest deduction – a program first created in 1913 with the ostensible aim of boosting homeownership – curiously encourages investments in second homes. As we’ve written before at Cities, that massive tax break also primarily benefits upper-income households, despite its billing as a boon for the middle class.

In another story published in the Atlantic on the same day, it’s estimated that sprawling development will kill off tens of millions of acres of forest in the US by 2050:

Scientists at the U.S. Forest Service and partners at universities, non-profits and other agencies predict that urban and developed land areas in the US will increase 41 percent by 2060. Forested areas will be most impacted by this expansion, with losses ranging from 16 to 34 million acres in the lower 48 states. The agency highlighted the results of a new study in a press release issued last month.

And forests aren’t the only land we’re losing:

In 2010, a study by the American Farmland Trust found that 41 million acres of rural land had been permanently lost in the preceding 25 years to highways, shopping malls, and other development. The rate of recent farmland loss at the time of AFT’s report was an astounding acre per minute.

Bringing this all back to a local discussion, let’s look at for-sale housing inventory in King County:

Another record low for inventory, dropping below 4,000 single-family homes for the first time on record.

The next building cycle will probably come sooner rather than later, and if we get federal policy right maybe we can build up instead of out, saving the farmland and forests that help make this region great.

Transportation Advocacy Day Feb. 12th


Transportation Advocacy Day is the day that the Transportation Choices Coalition gathers ordinary people to meet their legislators and demand action on a wide variety of agenda items. In 2012 over 200 people made the trek.

The conventional wisdom is this legislature will be a hostile one, particularly to new taxes. It’s always a heavy lift.  But there are a number of worthwhile bills about safety and urban streets that don’t have significant revenue components. Furthermore, there is widespread desire for more highway funding. As the pro-highway voter is often the most virulently anti-tax, any package will probably require pro-transit votes. So there is some leverage.

Anyhow, you can register for this year’s advocacy day, Tuesday, Feb. 12th, here.

News Roundup: Incredible

Sound Transit

This is an open thread.

Edge Cases Make Bad Policy

A while ago I mentioned in passing that a transit system cannot simultaneously attract choice riders and focus itself on the lowest common denominator. This tension comes up in nearly every transit policy debate, and usually invokes groups with at least one of three limitations: limited mobility, limited English proficiency, or (extremely) limited funds.

The problem is easiest to illustrate with limited mobility. Imagine that Metro has enough resources to send four buses an hour through a neighborhood towards downtown. There are several ways they could deploy this service: all on one central arterial with 15 minute headways, on two arterials every 30 minutes, or hourly on four arterials. Obviously, the right answer depends on the width of the neighborhood, the grade of the hills, and the completeness of the sidewalks.

Nevertheless, the contours of the argument should be clear. 15 minute frequency, given reasonable reliability, is enough that it’s there when one needs it, and the bus schedule need not dictate your appointments. If the bus routes also avoid pathologies like circuitous routing and opaque information, many car owners would be happy to leave the auto at home for trips in the direction the bus takes them, or dispose of their vehicles altogether.

The counterargument, of course, is the proverbial little old lady that lives on one of those neglected arterials. It’s hard for her to walk all those blocks to the stop, and no one wants to be the bad guy to cut off her connection to the world. This aspect also comes into play when Metro tries to straighten a route or consolidate stops.

Reform of the fare structure and fare payment system often runs afoul of advocates for the poor. The most salient example is resistance to the introduction of ORCA adoption incentives through differential fares or abolition of paper transfers. More ORCA usage would of course speed up operations, but is frequently stymied by the very small segment of the poor that literally cannot collect $5 for a one-time ORCA purchase, or have no access to the multiple means of recharging a card. Those of us who would gladly pay more for a better riding experience cannot do so because of its projected impact on the less fortunate.

As the fare for a short hop on the bus is already pretty high, one way to increase Metro’s farebox recovery is to make the fare system more complex. Together with ORCA adoption issues and focus on one-seat rides, this presents challenges for people with limited literacy, digital access, or English proficiency. Change is unpopular because people have already labored to figure out their trips within a very complex system, and resistance to change is what preserves the complexity of that system.

The sum of all these concerns is to keep the transit system in stasis, leaving transit advocates with no hope for “better,” only “more.” Certainly, a transportation system has to take care of the most vulnerable among us. But we ought to have higher aspirations for a transit system, and making everyone suffer through slow and infrequent service effectively sabotages any hopes for that.

Fiscal Cliff Deal Restores Transit Parity with Parking


One of the “temporary” tax cuts that becomes a political tool each year is the federal deduction for employer commute subsidies. Long at a level just above $100 per month per employee, in 2008 Congress first proposed raising the level to the symbolically inportant $230 per month — the same monthly maximum that employers are allowed to write off by providing parking. It actually became law in the 2009 stimulus, and then an annual renewal watch, one that died at the end of 2011.

Brent Hunsberger reports that the full-size break has re-emerged as part of the fiscal cliff deal:

Last year, the amount workers or employers could set aside pre-tax for commuting on public transit dropped from $230 to $125. But commuters who drove and parked weren’t impacted. In fact, the cap for parking costs increased from $230 to $240.

The fiscal cliff deal re-establishes “parity” on this break for public transit users. They can now sock away $240 a month for 2013…

Still, the legislation made this change retroactive to 2012. It’s Only Money’s isn’t sure what that means, practically speaking. Do commuters who could have socked more away each month last year suddenly get to make up for that? If so, how? On their 2012 Form 1040?

Although this is a big deal for many East Coast commuter rail riders that pay fares that are unimaginable here, locally this will only marginally impact most long-haul ST and CT commuters. Riders would have to purchase a $3.50 monthly pass to be even nominally affected by the $125 threshold.

Nevertheless, any time policy moves away from actively favoring driving to work that’s a positive thing.

The broader “fiscal cliff” deal is off-topic for this post.