The Scale of the Federal Commute Subsidy


Quite apart from the equity issues associated with treating car and transit modes equally, it’s worth pointing out that keeping the overall deduction level at $240 per month seems on its face like terrible public policy.

The vast majority of transit users are spending much less than that on their tickets and passes*, so most of the deduction isn’t of much utility. On the other hand, it’s probably not the worst thing in the world to turn a few long-haul drives into commuter rail trips.

Meanwhile, show me a place where employees pay $240 a month to park, and I’ll show you a place with severely constrained car capacity and robust transit alternatives.

Given the current federal fervor for austerity and closing tax “loopholes,” it seems like a broad-based reduction in this tax deduction would have positive impacts on congestion and transit use in the most ideal transit markets, while creating little grief at workplaces that are essentially unserviceable for transit. In an ideal world we’d let the transit subsidy be higher than the parking one, but cutting both is the next best thing.

* I tried to get more precise numbers from APTA, but no luck.

To get Frequency, we need Speed

Bruce’s excellent post boils down the importance of frequency.  If there’s currently a long time between vehicles, cutting this time in half can shorten travel times even more than speeding up trips.  However, it’s important to consider how a city or county can go about increasing frequency.

Option 1: Provide more transit.  In theory this is easy.  Double the number of vehicles and drivers, and you cut wait times in half.  Of course in the real world we often live with fixed budgets, and adding buses and drivers simply isn’t an option.

Option 2: Condense service into corridors.  Instead of adding service, we can remove some routes and move buses to others.  This results with a set of frequent buses, but a further walk for some riders.

Option 3: Speed up service.  Although Bruce’s post contrasted speed with frequency, one can actually benefit the other.  If a single vehicle and driver can run a route twice in the time it used to take them to run it once, then you’ve doubled not only speed, but also frequency and vehicle capacity as a bonus.

As Seattle builds up a streetcar network, let’s not forget Option 3.  Giving streetcars their own right-of-way, giving them signal priority, and designing the street for quick boardings can speed them up tremendously.  And with this speed comes higher frequency at the same operating cost.

“I Think Frequency is an Overrated Thing”

From Human Transit:

“I think frequency is an overrated thing. Let’s say there’s a 20-minute [wait].  You can look on your phone, wait inside and have a beer.” — Portland Streetcar Citizens Committee member Peter Finley Fry, justifying the 18-minute frequency of the Portland Streetcar’s new Eastside loop, quoted last August in Willamette Week.

I don’t mean to pick on Mr Fry — I’m sure he is a person who sincerely wants to make transit in Portland better, and thinks he is doing so — but this quote is perhaps the crowning example of an incredibly misguided, but surprisingly prevalent strain of thought among the political leaders, advocates and managers of transit systems in the northwest; one which, until we slay it, guarantees we will flail ineffectually (and at potentially great cost) in our efforts to provide an alternative to near-universal car ownership by working-age adults.

The highway engineers, social engineers, and car manufacturers of the 1950s, who overthrew the entrenched dominance of public transit virtually everywhere in the United States, used many different tactics and appeals to do so, but one thing they certainly didn’t do was tell people they would have to wait 15 or 20 minutes before they could start their journey, so they should just cool their heels and read the newspaper for a bit. Quite the opposite: they promised freedom to travel where and when you wanted.

If we wish to emulate their feat, and install transit as the (vehicular) mode of choice in the dense parts of our cities, we need to internalize their language, their promise (go where you want when you want), and a proper understanding of how frequency affects travel time for spontaneous trips within a city. On transit, if you wish to travel spontaneously, or arrive at a particular place at a particular time, the average delay is half the headway. At 18-minute headways, that’s nine minutes of expected delay.

Continue reading ““I Think Frequency is an Overrated Thing””

Metro Presents Ideas for the Snoqualmie Valley

Metro's 209/215 Proposal

Last week, Metro presented a set of ideas for improving mobility in the Snoqualmie Valley area, ideas which could also save the agency a little money. You can read the slides here, but here’s the gist of it, for those of you who are already familiar with the existing network:

  • Route 311 would be truncated at Woodinville. Riders from Duvall headed to Seattle would transfer at Redmond Transit Center from the 232 to the 545 or 542; to Woodinville, they could transfer to DART 931 (but let’s be serious here, they’re going to drive).
  • Route 224 would be truncated at Duvall. Its frequency would increase to every 90 minutes, and it would deviate to serve Redmond Ridge. A DART-like service would take over coverage of the Valley, from Duvall to North Bend.
  • Route 209 would shift east to serve Snoqualmie Ridge, rather than Fall City, except during peak periods, in the peak direction, when it would serve its current alignment. (At those times, Snoqualmie Ridge is served by the 215). Its frequency would increase to every 60 minutes.
  • Route 215 would skip the Issaquah Transit Center, making for a faster trip into downtown.
  • Metro is also seeking grant funding for a “Community Mobility Center” where local residents could sign up to reserve a car or bicycle for a certain time.

My only objection to this is that the peak-only route of the 209 should be renumbered (208 is available). Routes which share the same number, but go to different places, are an abomination which should be scoured from our transit system. If the bus you took to get to work (or wherever) won’t take you back home, your transit agency has failed you (and Metro is about to start failing a whole lot of Eastgate riders). With high-quality urban service, you shouldn’t have to memorize a schedule; with high-quality suburban or rural service, you’ll need the schedule, but you shouldn’t have to carry around a map. We should demand high quality in all Metro service.

Overall, the proposal seems to do a good job of moving service to where the people are, emphasizing connections at well-served suburban transit nodes, improving frequencies (such as they are) and providing alternative service types in places where fixed-route service is unworkable and pointless. By any measure, what happens in the Snoqualmie Valley isn’t going to make or break our transit system, but changes which improve mobility and save money are no-brainer optimizations that Metro should be seeking out, investigating and executing everywhere, relentlessly, as fast as humanly possible; and such opportunities are in essentially limitless supply with our current transit system.

I’m pleasantly surprised at the level of ambition demonstrated in the proposal. I hope it’s well received and implemented without much ado. You can email comments to Metro at

More Downtown Commuters Choosing Transit, Walking, Biking

modesplittabledataYesterday Commute Seattle released initial results from their 2012 Center City Mode Split Survey, an update to a similar survey done in 2010.   There is some good stuff there, including their Press Release,  a two-page explanatory memo, and a one-page Summary. The full study will be released in a few weeks.

Here’s the good news:

Two-thirds (66%) of Downtown commuters are not driving alone, up from 65% in 2010

The drive-alone rate continued its steady decline in 2012, dropping to 34.2% in 2012, compared to 35.2% in 2010 and an estimated 50% in 2000.

Public transit (43%) remains the single most popular choice, up from 42% in 2010

Sound Transit set ridership records in 2012, and King County Metro approached its pre-recession record set in 2008. Though the bus is by far the largest transit mode  (35.7%), bus commuting as a share of all commute modes declined one-tenth of one percent (-.1%) due to the even faster growth of rail, walking, bicycling, vanpooling and teleworking.

Non-motorized modes now represent 13% of all commute trips

Walking (6.3%) bicycling (3.3%) and teleworking (3.0%) are growing rapidy, increasing by 11% since 2010 and by 80% since 2000.

However, there is still work to be done:

Net congestion is up, even as drive-alone rates decline

Though the drive-alone rate declined one percent (1%), an estimated 20,000 jobs have been added in Downtown since 2010.  In nominal terms, thousands of new cars are traveling into Downtown daily.

I look forward to the full release and digging through the data!

A Fistful of Contingencies: Developers, Risk, and Profit

Some people like to talk and write about “greedy developers.” Greed is an attribute of people; there are definitely greedy real estate developers in Seattle. But there are also greedy bus drivers, greedy kindergarten teachers, and the greedy guy who makes 10 trips to the all you can eat sushi bar. Why one profession attracts greedy people and one does not is a sociological question, not an economic one. Consideration of how a piece of land becomes a financially viable project should dispel the notion that real estate development is a greed driven enterprise, or an easy way to exploit zoning and “laugh all the way to the bank.”Fistful of Contingencies

The business of real estate development is often characterized with a simple story of rich fat cats buying up land, building things on it, and then reaping massive profits by selling off what they build. However, like any business or organizational venture, real estate development is no sure thing. Business is like love; it’s about taking risks. One does not find Mr. or Ms. Right by sitting a home watching television; such a venture requires engagement and vulnerability.

Real estate development is about transmuting risk into profit; it requires taking a chance. The certainty levels of profit in real estate development are very low, and if they were higher there would be many more cranes than are on the horizon now. Projects that are coming out of the ground now came a long way, and it may have taken years of work and lots of money to get it done. Here’s a quick sketch of the factors affecting development.

Continue reading “A Fistful of Contingencies: Developers, Risk, and Profit”

News Roundup: Geeks

City-built bus layover at 55th St & 35th Ave, now part of the cemetery.
City-built bus layover at 55th St & 35th Ave, now part of the cemetery. Seattle Municipal Archives via RavennaBlog.

This is an open thread.

Meetup Tomorrow in Pioneer Square and Columbia City

King County Metro 42 in Rainier View
King County Metro 42 in Rainier View. Photo by Oran.

As we announced a couple of weeks ago, the next Seattle Transit Blog meetup will begin at 4:43 PM on Friday, at 3rd Ave S & Main St. We’re going to ride the last trip of Route 42 to the Columbia City Ale House, to celebrate the benefits all Metro riders will collectively share from the reallocation of the resources required for this route to more effective use.

We will board the last outbound 42 from 3rd & Main, disembark at Rainier & Alaska, and proceed to the Columbia City Ale House for food and drinks. (Be a few minutes early, or check OneBusAway, in case the bus is ahead of schedule). The Ale House is 21+, but I’ll also be at Caffe Vita, just a block away, from about 4 PM, for those of you who can get away early and want to chat for a while. If you don’t work downtown or can’t get off work in time, you can join us at your convenience by using one of the many other vastly superior transit services (Link, 7, 8, 9X, 50) which can get you within walking distance of Columbia City.

For the folks left out by the 21+ age restriction at the Ale House, I feel your pain, and I’m truly sorry, but the budget for this meetup is $0, and it’s virtually impossible to find a free, fun, all-ages venue which can accommodate such a gathering.

See you guys there!

Bellevue Mulls Over Land Use Code Amendments for East Link

Pantless crazies that would invade Bellevue on East Link. Photo by Atomic Taco.

On Monday night, Bellevue hosted a hearing on its process for adopting a rail overlay district, a package of land use code amendments that would effectively streamline permitting and design standards for East Link. Timely adoption of the amendments is important, as it would provide certainty for Sound Transit to baseline the project at 60% design. If Bellevue were to gridlock the process now, the delay could be significant, in terms of both cost and the city’s political capital.

Unfortunately, East Link opponents haven’t let up. They turned out in droves on Monday night to bash the code amendments, some throwing in jabs at ST and councilmember Claudia Balducci, an East Link supporter. Ron Lewis, Deputy Executive Director of Link, braved the trip to Bellevue City Hall to speak in favor of the amendments, which helped add to what seemed at times like a tenuous chorus of support in the sea of negativity. You can watch a video of the hearing here.

Although relations between ST and Bellevue have improved since the East Link MOU was adopted in 2011, newly recharged opposition could easily distort public opinion to the detriment of the process. If you’re interested in adding support for the code amendments, the public hearing’s virtual comment period will end today at 10 AM. Comments can be emailed to the City’s legal planner, Catherine Drews or the Council itself.

Free Stuff is Good Public Policy

South Lake Union
South Lake Union, photo by Rik_C. Vulcan wants to build tall buildings on the parking lots across from this park.

The Seattle Times has reported that the City Council has declined Vulcan’s offer of $10 million or so worth of free real-estate in South Lake Union in exchange for allowing Vulcan to build three taller towers in that neighbourhood:

Vulcan would transfer to the city 37,600 square feet of land on a block bounded by Broad and Republican streets and Dexter and Aurora avenues. The city could add that chunk to a smaller piece it owns to create almost a full block available for an array of social services and housing.

The Vulcan land, with an estimated value of $10 million to $12 million, would count as a credit toward fees Vulcan would pay to erect condo or apartment towers up to 240 feet on three lakefront blocks it owns and elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Zoning now allows 65-foot buildings on the three so-called Mercer blocks. Vulcan would pay bonus fees to go from current zoning to 160-feet, or 16 stories. Then it would need to provide extraordinary additional public benefits to reach 24 stories.

Often, we make the abstract argument that requiring shorter or smaller buildings reduces affordability, but rarely do we get something so concrete. It costs the city (and thus the tax payers) nothing to allow Vulcan to build taller buildings. In exchange for that, the city would have received something valuable, free land near Downtown Seattle for use in low-income housing. The literal choice was between 1) taller buildings and free land for low-income housing (along with higher property tax income) and 2) shorter buildings and no land for low-income housing, though possibly some cash down the line.

If as a city, we think we can get a better deal, fine, say that. But please no one say this:

Mayoral candidate Peter Steinbrueck had blasted the Block 59 proposal for “privatizing the city’s land-use code.”

Yes, we certainly wouldn’t want to set the dangerous precedent of the tax payers getting millions of dollars of land in exchange for something that costs them nothing. The article said the deal may be revived at some later date. I hope so. As a taxpayer, if the city can get materiel for important social functions for free, I think that’s a deal the city should take. And I’m going to make sure the city council knows that when I vote.

Next Week: Learn About the Ballard to Downtown Study with Joni Earl and Mayor Mike McGinn!

On Wednesday the 20th, STB is pleased to present an open house on the Ballard to Downtown Study funded in last year’s partnership between Sound Transit and the City of Seattle. We’ll have Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, and staff from both governments to talk about this first step.

And let me reiterate that this is *just* the first step – it’ll take more work from us to get this past a corridor study. This study area is wide, from Ballard through SLU/Fremont and Belltown/Interbay to the heart of downtown, and it’ll come up with alternatives in both corridors at many levels of potential investment. It will open up a process for choosing one or more of those alternatives, but there isn’t funding for design and engineering, much less construction. It’ll be our job over the coming year or two to advocate for funding sources to connect these neighborhoods, and it’s important for us to understand what’s in the study – and what isn’t – so we can be effective in that advocacy.

So join us on Wednesday the 20th at Hale’s Ales in Fremont from 5:30-7pm, for an ALL AGES meetup to talk transit to Ballard!

3-15-15: Affordable, Family-Friendly, Transit-Friendly Housing

Townhouses / Photo by Adam

Debates about how we ought to design our communities often get lost in the weeds fairly quickly: “build this! don’t build that! more density! less density! streetcars! none of the above! all of the above!” When we’re deep not in the weeds, we’re up at 50,000 feet, using vague adjectives like “livable,” “walkable,” or “sustainable.”  If we got the thing we’re all clamoring for, how would we even know? More importantly, what tradeoffs are we willing to make to get there?

As I watch friends start families and head for the suburbs in search of what they perceive to be cheaper housing, I wonder what it would take to make in-city living an option for more families. While there are many reasons why a family might choose to live somewhere or another, surely it’s a major civic policy failure if the only housing units available near frequent transit lines are 1BR apartments and half-million-dollar single-family houses.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology has done great work showing how suburban families end up spending on transportation most of what they’re saving on housing, but many times those costs aren’t transparent.  Suppose for a moment that we’d like housing in Seattle that’s transit-friendly, family-friendly, and affordable. What would that mean?

Here’s what I think it could mean: having a healthy supply of housing for sale or rent that meets the following criteria:

Call it 3-15-15.

Continue reading “3-15-15: Affordable, Family-Friendly, Transit-Friendly Housing”

Zipcar vs. Car2Go

Promo Photo from Car2Go

I’ve been a ZipCar member for 8 years, beginning in Boston in the pre-smartphone era in which I would (gasp!) call in to find available cars.  I’ve used Zipcars in Seattle, Washington DC, Vancouver BC, Boston, and Pasadena, even sleeping overnight in one (a long story involving a Delta Airlines fail and fully booked hotels near National Airport). ZipCar allowed me not to own a car from 2005-2012, and has provided me with a level of urban mobility of which I couldn’t have otherwise dreamed.  When I lived in the U.K., ZipCar was only available in London, so I used WhizzGo instead for my trips to places outside the rail network (such as Malham Cove).

Enter Car2Go. It made quite the splash on the Seattle carsharing scene in December, going from obscurity to near ubiquity in a matter of weeks (see our posts here and here).   Alongside Zipcar (née Flexcar), carsharing is now big business in Seattle.  After 8 weeks of using Car2Go, I thought I’d write this post both as a comparative analysis of Zipcar and Car2Go and as a chance to give readers the chance to comment on the new carsharing landscape.

Much more after the jump…

Continue reading “Zipcar vs. Car2Go”

Rod Dembowski Appointed to King County Council

The long process to replace new Attorney General Bob Ferguson is over. Local attorney and Democratic Party insider Rod Dembowski will represent the 1st district until the aftermath of this fall’s election.

Late last year STB polled all the 1st district candidates on transit and land use issues and found Dembowski to be a close second to Shoreline Councilman Will Hall. There’s reason to expect that Mr. Dembowski will have a positive impact on the single most important legislative body for transit issues.

Minor Sound Transit and Metro Changes Coming Saturday

King County Metro 255 at South Kirkland P&R.
King County Metro 255 at South Kirkland P&R. Photo by Oran.

In the first regular service change since the “big bang” in September, Metro is making some minor changes to eight routes, and deleting one:

  • Route 42 will be deleted. To celebrate the benefits all Metro riders will collectively share from the reallocation of the resources required for this route to more effective use, STB will host a meetup on Friday; details to follow in a separate post.
  • New surface alignment for tunnel routes 41, 71, 72, 73, 74, 76, 77 and 316 when the tunnel is closed: 2nd & 4th Avenues versus 3rd Ave. Routes 101, 102, 106, 150, 216, and 218 already use this arrangement; the 255 uses 4th and 5th when the tunnel is closed.
  • Route 216 will no longer serve Eastgate P&R in the afternoon peak (morning service is unaffected). Riders are directed to use alternative Routes 212, 215 or 554. This is presumably part of Metro’s grand band-aid plan for I-90 service.
  • In the afternoons and evenings, Route 21 will serve its terminal loop in Roxhill both when arriving from, and departing to, downtown (currently, it only serves this loop when departing). This provides slightly more useful coverage of Arbor Heights Roxhill.
  • Route 24 will gain one more trip, in each direction, in the evening. The last bus out of downtown will be about 10:15 PM, and back in from Magnolia Village about 10:10 PM. This makes Magnolia slightly less impossible to access in the evenings on transit, but the smart thing to do would have been to restructure Magnolia service along the lines originally proposed.
  • The schedule for Route 55 will be slightly tweaked to provide more consistent headways. Also, one special trip, from Alaska Junction to the Admiral District at 7:31 AM will be added. I suspect this is effectively a school tripper, or useful for some other unique, yet locally popular purpose.
  • Very minor changes will be made to the stops, alignments or scheduling of routes 71, 131, 152, 246, and 372.
  • Westlake customer service center hours will change.
  • Sound Transit 510, 511, 512 and 513 will no longer serve the stop at 6th Ave S & Atlantic St.
  • Sound Transit 550, 556 and 566 will have minor schedule changes.

You can read all about it here.

Bellevue TMP Update

blv pie chart

On January 31st, Bellevue held its Transit Master Plan network design workshop. You can find the agenda (including some maps) and fittingly Jarrett Walker-esque presentation slides online (his company is facilitating the process.)

As they usually do, this meeting had interesting data. Bellevue is of course the second most transit-oriented city in the region, with 12% of commute trips served by bus (vs. 18.3% for Seattle and 8.2% for third place, Issaquah).

And then there are the (unscientific) survey responses, which for both Bellevue residents and other respondents couldn’t have been more commuter-oriented:
blv_surveySee also the cool drawings of the future of the Eastgate area and the Spring District (slides 28 and 29). As always, there’s too much greenery but given that this is Bellevue I’ll give it a pass.

#27, #60 will Detour through April

The quick and easy trip up Yesler will be a little less quick for the next few months, starting this Saturday.  Those that frequent the #27 know that construction for the First Hill Streetcar has been getting more and more involved on Yesler between 8th Ave E and 12th Ave E, and starting tomorrow this stretch of road will be closed for three weeks.  However, the buses that run on this route will continue to detour until April 4.

For more on the detour, visit SDOT’s First Hill Streetcar page.

27 reroute

Yesler Terrace Visualization

My immediate reaction is that this concept (and it’s only a concept) has far too much greenery for a center-city location, even though this is light-years better than what’s there currently. It’s outrageous that the concept includes 16 acres of parkland (out of 30 acres on-site!), but the true affront is the lawn that seems to be in front of just about every building, annihilating the possibility of active uses on most ground floors. Contrary to what the narrator tells you (4:10), “lush plantings” are not “pedestrian-friendly,”  but the enemy of walkability.

If any of these features are result of zoning laws, the City Council should fix it immediately. In fact, actively prohibiting a lot of the features shown here would be a substantial improvement,while improving the city’s fiscal position by bringing more residents and businesses.