Welcome to Seattle, Rail~volutionaries!


[We periodically update this page to remain current. The last update is September 7, 2018].

We’re excited to have you all here!  Our transportation system has a few quirks, so please check out our handy Seattle for Visitors page.  If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t like to be tethered to technology all the time you’ll want to download and print out our Seattle Frequent Transit map.  Below we’ve put together some urbanism-specific sightseeing suggestions.

1. Link from the Airport. After disembarking at SeaTac airport, it’s only a short walk until you reach the Link airport station directly east of the terminals. It’s a cheap, relatively fast way to reach downtown Seattle, but what distinguishes it even further is it offers an opportunity to see an under-appreciated quadrant of Seattle from the comfort of your train seat.

South Seattle is often passed over in favor of the Space Needle and other icons, yet neighborhoods throughout the area are thriving and expanding. There’s a mix of old and new bars and restaurants, and all generally affordable. These neighborhoods are an interesting mix of old, walkable, narrow-storefront streetcar suburb; postwar car-oriented poverty and neglect; and now gentrification with the very beginnings of proper transit-oriented development.

The zip code to the east of this segment of the line is said to be the most diverse one in the nation. Walk along Rainier Avenue (which roughly parallels Link but intersects it at Mt. Baker), and you may hear several languages and see food trucks and restaurants offering cuisine ranging from Ethiopia to Cambodia to New Orleans.

If you can only make one stop in this corridor on your way in or out, the best overall experience is probably Columbia City, whose downtown is about three short blocks east of the station with that name. Othello has lots of fast, cheap, delicious Southeast Asian dining options. As you enter the tunnel around Beacon Hill Station, don’t stop looking out the window.

2.  DSTT Bus/Train Joint Operations. When the train gets you downtown, stop for a moment and note the buses coming in right behind it. Seattle is nearly unique in having joint bus/train ops in a downtown tunnel. It was used exclusively by buses for over 20 years, now supports both, and when Link ridership justifies it, will become train only. You may hear that your train is delayed due to “traffic ahead,” which is due to people paying as they board a bus.

Directly above the tunnel, Third Avenue has been (mostly) bus-only since Link opened in 2009 and is in the early stages of a major revamp.

Continue reading “Welcome to Seattle, Rail~volutionaries!”

Affordability and Walkability

San Francisco and East Bay (Satellite)
San Francisco and East Bay, taken around 1975. From flickr user Roger Wollstadt.

At the Atlantic Cities, Gabriel Metcalf has a thought-provoking article about affordable housing in the Bay Area. The whole thing is really interesting and highly recommended reading, but I want to highlight one particular section of the article, particularly how affordability interplays with walkability.

Whether the gentrification process is good or bad for neighborhoods, and for the lower-income people who live there, is something that can be debated endlessly. But what is strikingly different about the Bay Area in contrast to a place like New York is the fact that New York has so many more walkable, pre-war neighborhoods located on rail transit, within easy commuting distance of Manhattan. When New York neighborhoods like Soho and the Village got too expensive, for example, the Lower East Side became a major center for artists and other members of the cultural avant-garde. When the Lower East Side got too expensive, people went across the East River to Williamsburg. Next came Fort Green, Dumbo, Red Hook and other neighborhoods in Brooklyn that were still cheap. But as every spot in Brooklyn with a good rail connection to the city gets more expensive, there still is Queens, the Bronx, Newark, the towns up the Hudson — walkable neighborhoods in every direction.

As expensive as Manhattan is, and as far along into the gentrification process as the many surrounding communities are, there are still many places to go within the New York orbit to have an affordable, urban way of life.

We can’t solve affordable housing or transit access within the limits of any one city.

In the Bay Area, there are far fewer options that fit the criteria of walkable, transit-proximate and affordable. For many of my friends, there is just one: Oakland. This is what people mean when they say Oakland is the Brooklyn of the Bay Area. It’s the next stop on the train, it’s cool, it’s where young people go now.

The affordability issue isn’t as acute in Seattle as it is in San Francisco or Manhattan, but the lack of a “safety valve” like Brooklyn or Oakland is even worse. Really, outside of a few neighborhoods in Seattle and possibly some small parts of other cities, there are no walkable neighborhoods. As people who want an urban lifestyle get priced out of those neighborhoods, there’s really no where else to go.

Get Your STB Fix at Rail~volution

In case you somehow missed the news, Rail~volution is coming to Seattle next week. I will be participating in a panel on social media and blogging hosted by Jeff Wood of Reconnecting America (aka The Overhead Wire). We’ll be joined by Dominic Holden of The Stranger and Geoff Patrick, media relations manager for Sound Transit. Frank is listed as a participant, but he won’t be able to come.

The panel starts at 10am, Tuesday, at the Westin. The conference runs from 20-23 October. Registration is available online.

News Roundup: The Alternative

This is an open thread.

Driverless Cars follow-up

Singularity University, Mountain View
People checking out a driverless car in Mountain View, photo by Karla Lopez

As a follow-up to my post about driverless cars, here are a more links on the topic:

Transit Reception on Monday with Mayor McGinn and Councilmember Conlin!

Do *you* want to expand rail in the city? I know I do, and so does the City of Seattle. Please come join Mayor McGinn and Council member Conlin at Spitfire next Monday night from 7-8 to talk to them about their vision for expanding transit. Now that all four of the high capacity transit corridors in the Transit Master Plan are in progress, and Sound Transit is expanding their Long Range Plan in preparation for ST3, this is an exciting time for both rail and BRT.

I think readers have a lot of questions about how we’re going to fund these corridors and what timeline they’re on, and this is a great opportunity to ask!

This City of Seattle event is immediately followed by Cascade Bicycle Club’s “Evening with Earl” from 8-9pm, hosting Earl Blumenauer, Congressmember for Portland, a fantastic urbanist and founder of the Railvolution conference. If you’re going to stay for that, please RSVP to Brock Howell.

These are two great opportunities to hang out with a lot of great transit advocates – don’t miss them!

Puyallup Fair Sounder Service Ridership Figures

Crowd awaiting the evening train to Seattle, Sept. 21st. (photo by the author)
Crowd awaiting the evening train to Seattle, Sept. 21st. (photo by the author)

North Line

Sept. 14:  326

Sept. 21:  200

Total North Line:  526

South Line

Sept. 14:  1,356

Sept. 21:  1,354

Total South Line:  2,710

Total boardings, all trains both days:  3,236

For comparison, an average August full weekday of Sounder draws over 11,000 boardings. You can find the schedule for the special service here. It consisted of six round trips to Lakewood and three to Seattle, one of which extended to Everett. Some of this service was not particularly useful for the fair, instead maintaining Sounder’s quite rider-friendly practice of making almost all runs revenue runs just in case someone needs to make a trip. I won’t claim to really understand attendance patterns at the fair, but I’d estimate that five Lakewood round trips and 1.5 Seattle round trips were actually useful to people attending the fair.

ST spokesperson Kimberly Reason says no ST funds were used to provide this service. It instead came from the Washington State Fair and Events Center, so it’s ultimately up to them if this is value for the money and whether they increase, maintain, or reduce service next year. The Center didn’t respond to my inquiry about their plans.

What will driver-less cars mean for pedestrians, cyclists and buses?

Google Robocar Racetrack Ride
Google Robocar Racetrack Ride. Photo by Steve Jurvetson

The Guardian’s bike blog has an interesting post about driver-less cars and what they might mean for cyclists and pedestrians. It’s an interesting thought experiment:

A more dystopian [vision of the future] involves platoons of speeding robocars making roads even more deeply unpleasant and motor-centric than they are today. Pedestrians and cyclists may have to be restricted “for their own safety.” After all, if you knew that the truck barrelling towards you would automatically brake if you wobbled out in front of it, you’d have little incentive to stay in the gutter and every incentive to play one-sided chicken. Claiming the lane would take on a whole new meaning as cyclists blithely blocked robovehicles. The authorities would be under immense pressure to stamp out jaywalking – and jaycycling. With cars able to speed through junctions, electronically interacting with each other, and with no need for traffic lights, it would be harder for humans outside of driverless cars to use the roads.

This is fun stuff, read the whole thing.

So while we’re on the subject, what will driver-less cars do for buses? To start, I believe that once robocars become truly viable, part of the sales pitch of the robo-system’s makers will be that they will share in some (all?) of the liability for accidents caused using their systems. This will make car insurance extremely expensive for someone who wants to drive themselves. Eventually, it’ll get to the point where no cars but high-performance vehicles such as Maseratis, Porsches and Aston Martins will be sold for manual driving.

This will put a lot of pressure on bus systems operators (Metro, Sound Transit, etc.) to replace bus fleets with robo-buses. Even though it would probably save a huge amount of money to the bus systems, I suspect that buses will be some of the last vehicles robotised because of the power of transit operators unions. Transit operators would insist that robobuses will ignore you while you’re waiting at your stop, and that you’ll miss the human touch. Robotised-bus proponents would insist that costs savings and the promise of on-time buses 99.9% of the time make the trade-off worth it. An argument about public safety will occur; who would want to get on a nearly empty Rapid Ride E late at night by themselves with no operator? Over time, too many human-operated LRT and buses would cause accidents – statistics would show some huge percentage of remaining traffic accidents were caused by buses, and eventually bus drivers will be morphed into neutered security guards, who will cost the same as the old drivers did and the cost savings will never materialise.

For cyclists, at least in Seattle, the move to robocars will be mostly very positive. Car-sharing would become nearly ubiquitous as your car would be able to drive other people around when you are out of it, so shoulder-parking spots would give way to bike lanes throughout the city. Cycling would become more popular as it becomes safer and nearly every traffic signal will be retrofitted with a cyclist period as they have in Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Maybe entire streets, mainly side streets, would become cyclist-only or nearly so; robocars would only be allowed on if they were stopping there and even then, they would only be allowed to go 10 mph. Bike sharing would thrive as well, as people would use robocars and robobuses to get close to their destination and ride bikes the last mile.

Pedestrians would have a rougher go of it. Crossing major streets would be difficult with the exquisitely timed signals, and the new driver-cum-passenger majority/plurality would become even extremely anti-pedestrian. Pedestrians will go from people you see looking out the window to faceless obstacles that are never seen as you look at your smartphone or tablet from the self-driving car. Eventually, as a small consolation to pedestrians, we’ll see a few elevated crossings installed in major corridors, the sort that are common in big cities in East Asia, and lots of people taking robocars for what had previously been short walks because of the real or perceived anti-pedestrian bias.

Ok, that’s enough of futurist imaginings from me. What do you think driver-less cars will do to the transportation experiences of those who don’t drive for every trip?

A Special Session Would Be a Disaster: What We Can Do Instead

On Thursday, I wrote about the State Senate listening tour’s Seattle stop on Monday (Bartolome Day), and why we’re in a much better position than they think. I want to add more detail about what the Senate is trying to do, and how we can do an end run around them.

The Problem

The Republicans (and the two turncoat Democrats) have outlined a “ten point” scheme (PDF) they want implemented as part of any transportation package.

Most of these are designed to privatize operations, or cut pay and benefits for workers. The last one is the worst for transit: it “would make changes streamlining the state’s existing regional transit authority boards.” Hmm… where have we heard that before? It’s yet another attempt to make the Sound Transit board directly elected, and susceptible to attacks from moneyed interests. Given the political pressures that exist today, suburban ST board members could even direct ST money for road projects, as has been a desire of some legislators in the past.

The State House would surely reject legislation like this, but the concessions necessary to get the current Senate to vote for a package would be disastrous. As Mike Lindblom pointed out on twitter yesterday, I even missed how bad it got this year:

Continue reading “A Special Session Would Be a Disaster: What We Can Do Instead”

What it Means to Have Transit that “Pays for Itself”

Often times transit opponents will demand that transit “pay for itself.” This demand is rarely made of other forms of transportation, and therefore hard to take in good faith.  Writing on his promising new blog, The Works, Stephen Smith lays out Hong Kong’s model, which solves the funding problem by having the transit agency act as real estate developer.  By developing the land around the station, Hong Kong’s MTR is able to finance new station development.

The economics of the Hong Kong model are difficult to export to the US, for the reasons Smith cites in his piece. Our per-mile construction costs are higher and our city governments aren’t sitting on a ton of prime real estate that they can just open to development. I imagine that the same people arguing for self-funding transit would be up in arms if the local government seized a dozen city blocks from private ownership and handed it over to Sound Transit.

To me the most interesting aspect of the Hong Kong model is the way it ties transit-oriented development explicitly to station development. A park-and-ride station next to a freeway would simply never get built because there would be no way to pay for it.  Fortunately, Sound Transit adopted an explicit TOD policy a year ago.  That’s too late to influence ST2, but in plenty of time to affect ST3.

Tell the State Senate It’s Their Last Chance

On Monday from 6-9pm, the Washington State Senate’s listening tour has its Seattle stop. Note that the location has changed – it will now be at the First Presbyterian Church on 8th, on the west corner of First Hill.

Originally, this ‘listening tour‘ didn’t have a stop in Seattle at all – even though it’s jointly led by a Democrat and a Republican. That should be your first indicator that our legislature is heavily biased toward suburban and rural interests.

So what should we say? Most organizational advocacy lately has been for “transit in a state package.” I submit to you that asking for transit as part of a state package is a really bad idea.

First, the last package we saw contained no projects in Seattle. Nothing. All of our gas tax would be shipped out of the city for suburban and rural projects (probably part of why they didn’t want to include us in the tour). We have obvious needs – the 520 project is severely underfunded and has overrun by hundreds of millions already, SR-99 is already in the red, and our ferry terminal needs replacement, to say nothing of our local arterials, to which the state used to contribute.

Let’s say we get a state package that includes, say, a reborn Columbia River Crossing highway, expansion of US 395 in Spokane, and expansions of SRs 167 and 509 – and no money to fix state funding problems for their projects in Seattle. The last thing we want is to have the *authority to tax ourselves* tied to a package that exports our tax dollars to induce climate change and sprawl.

Remember “Roads and Transit”? A local measure that was more than half rail transit failed. The best case scenario the state House passed provides a couple hundred million for transit, and that had no prayer of passing the Senate. We don’t need to take that offer.

Here’s the real deal: The county has the ability to fix this funding problem, today. They could run a property tax measure, stabilizing Metro funding. It’s not as progressive as the value-based motor vehicle excise tax we’re asking for from the legislature, but it’s much more progressive than cutting service. As an emergency backup, the city of Seattle could do the same thing, as could many of our suburban cities.

In fact, Seattle and King County could go to ballot at the same time, proactively increasing transit funding if both passed. We could fund Metro to a level that let them institute a low income fare, and even much of the Seattle Transit Master Plan.

While we’re playing nice, we really have the state over a barrel. An alliance of anti-tax and pro-environment forces could stop a highway expansion package in its tracks, and we can solve our own transit funding issues if we really have to.

So on Monday, join us at First Presbyterian – and let’s tell the state it’s their last chance to fix this. They think they’re holding us hostage (much like the Republicans at the national level are doing), but this is their last chance to provide authority for Metro, likely with direct funding for operations, as nearly every other state provides – or we take away their leverage over Seattle voters to expand highways.

News Roundup: Proud of His Role

This is an open thread.

Puget Sound Bike Share Struggling to Find Sponsors

This week’s Stranger describes the struggles of Puget Sound Bike Share as it prepares to launch in 2014. Unlike Citibike in New York, or similar schemes in numerous other cities, PSBS has thus far failed to attract the private capital that its funding plan depends upon to launch with coverage of the core service area. From the Stranger:

“We’ve seen a lot of initial excitement with little follow-through,” says Holly Houser, director of PSBS, who’s been in talks with the region’s largest companies to sponsor the program since last fall. While Seattle Children’s Hospital has stepped in with a $500,000 donation, Houser says that companies like Amazon, Starbucks, Vulcan, Alaska Airlines, Capitol One, BECU, Cambia (Blue Cross/Blue Shield), and Microsoft have declined to sponsor PSBS… “It’s been really frustrating—especially dealing with Amazon,” adds Houser, because South Lake Union is destined to get bike-share stations around the Amazon campus regardless of the rest of the city. “It’s going to serve their employees,” Houser says, “but so far, they’re not willing to support it.”

First, I have to question the wisdom of publicly criticizing any potential major sponsor for choosing not to donate, and I fear this may make other potential sponsors wary of working with PSBS. (As an aside, I’d expect a fundraiser to know that Amazon has a history of complete disinterest in civic and charitable causes, and not to be surprised by this response.)

Second, what would a lack of a title sponsor mean for Phase 1? It’s not pretty. Continue reading “Puget Sound Bike Share Struggling to Find Sponsors”

October is Rewards Month

TryTransit4x6On top of the previously mentioned Wheel Options (make sure you are logging your trips at RideshareOnline.com!) Transportation Choices Coalition has added their own rewards program for October.

Try Transit Month runs from October 1 – 31. Register for the challenge on the Try Transit Month challenge page. (Create a team if you want to, or participate solo.) Any time you ride public transportation during the month of October, log your trip on the challenge page.

After you log a few trips, you will be entered into daily drawings to win fabulous prizes, including preloaded Orca cards, theater and ballet tickets, Zipcar and car2go credit, and a grand prize of Seahawks tickets. (!!!)

Need some help getting on the bus? Transit Month organizers are planning  several group “busventures” to help you get your feet wet. And, we’ve also scheduled a number of other fun events (including Transit Trivia Night and a great Books on the Bus panel) to keep the transit theme going all month.

More details here.   While most of us likely already take alternatives to driving alone, it’s nice to be rewarded, and these campaigns can be a great way to nudge friends and coworkers to try a new commute.

Murray’s Spin Around the Cycletrack

Burke-Gilman Trail (wikimedia)

A lot has happened between Sen. Ed Murray and cycling advocates since Ben reported on his fundraiser with bicycle infrastructure opponents:

  • In an interview with the Times ($), he revealed that after looking into the subject he supports the Westlake cycletrack.
  • In the same interview, Murray also questioned the safety of the Burke-Gilman Trail “Missing Link” solution, favoring more study with emphasis on a cycle track on Leary and Market instead.
  • Seattle Bike Blog absolutely eviscerated his apparent position on the BGT.
  • Sen. Murray released a “clarification” (Times ($), PubliCola, SBB) poking holes in the Leary/Market idea, calling the BGT a “treasure,” and saying that the ongoing EIS is the “second look” he meant.

Whether this is a case of verbal clumsiness, a legislator’s lack of depth on city-level issues, or pandering run amok is something only Ed Murray knows. In any case it’s nice to have both Mayoral candidates now firmly on the record in support of these projects.

August ST Ridership Report

Aug13MvgAvgGrowth2Another month, another double digit weekday ridership gain for Link and a new record of 959,701 total boardings for the month.  ST Express also experienced double digit weekday growth.

August’s Central Link Weekday/Saturday/Sunday boardings were 32,399/29,996/24,234, growth of 10.7%, 10.2%, and 8.1% respectively over August 2012. Sounder’s weekday boardings were up 5.8% (up 7% on the South Line, down 5% on the North Line).  Total Tacoma Link ridership was down 2.0% with weekday ridership declining 2.7%. Weekday ST Express ridership was up 10%.  Crosslake routes continued to show strong growth.  The 545, 550, and 554 had year over year increases of 16%, 21% and 16% respectfully.  Complete August Ridership Summary here.

Link has seen double digit weekday ridership growth ten out of the past twelve months, and year to date total ridership is up 11.2% compared to August of last year.

My Link charts below the fold. Continue reading “August ST Ridership Report”

Ed Murray’s Recent Transportation Comments


The mayoral general election has largely been bereft of detailed transportation and land use policy proposals, with the exception of Mayor McGinn’s 2014 transportation budget. One might interpret this as a lack of significant policy disagreement, or as a campaign playing it safe. In the past week, however, a couple of events have allowed us a peek at how a Mayor Murray might govern.

First, in a “vision speech” broad enough that few in the Seattle mainstream would disagree with it, this interesting idea:

And even more vitally, I will – finally – develop and implement a Move Seattle transportation strategy that integrates bike, pedestrian, transit and freight plans. If our transportation plans don’t work together, our ability as a city to work together is seriously hampered.

Instead of ongoing, exhausting, unproductive wars between the various modes of transportation, let’s make sure that people have choices about transportation by create linkages among the modes. That includes making sure we have affordable and expanded bus service throughout the city, an expanded light rail and street car system, and better streets and bridges.

The second paragraph is mildly interesting in that he reaffirms support for all the modes. The first raises interesting questions about the existing Transit, Bicycle, Pedestrian, and Freight Master Plans. All but the Pedestrian plan have either been thoroughly redone, or are about to be, under McGinn. Intermodal connections have not been a regional strong suit, so in that sense the idea of emphasizing this is attractive. I asked the Murray campaign what the “Move Seattle” plan meant for the projects in the existing plans:

Continue reading “Ed Murray’s Recent Transportation Comments”