Top Ten Posts of 2013

From all of us here at STB, we’d like to thank you for reading us in 2013. Over the past year we’ve had 665 posts, nearly 40,000 comments, and over 800,000 pageviews.  Our top ten posts in 2013 accounted for 10% of our web traffic on their own. Here’s a look at them:

Most Read:

Most Commented:

Happy New Year to our community, and we look forward to the next few exciting years!

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn

Photo by the Author
Photo by the Author

It can be hard to remember now, but Seattle Transit Blog took a while to back candidate Mike McGinn in the general election. Our first choice, incumbent Greg Nickels, received our primary endorsement based mostly on his historic personal achievements in building rail and passing new rail plans. That was in spite of our near total agreement on policy with challenger Mike McGinn, in particular a unique commitment to the idea that car access should not have absolute primacy in a city. We went with the candidate who had a solid record of effectiveness.

McGinn detractors might claim that the call was a good one; after all, Mr. McGinn’s efforts did not cause Seattle elites to seriously reconsider their commitment to an irresponsible* deep-bore tunnel. There are no new big transportation investments coming out of his time in office. The closest Seattle came was a 10-year, $60 vehicle license fee, which would have raised $200m. $100m of that would have gone to speed and reliability improvements for Seattle’s most important bus routes. Much smaller segments of funding would have gone to street repairs, bike infrastructure, pedestrian improvements, and streetcar planning. After it gained unanimous support of the Council, voters rejected this almost boringly worthwhile proposal.

However, just getting to the point of a ballot measure required significant achievements. People are quick to dismiss plans, but in fact by 2009 the region had nearly exhausted its actionable ones. Seattle’s Transit Master Plan dated to 2005 and still assumed construction of the Monorail; Sound Transit had finally realized its next-stage construction plan and had no firm idea of where to go next; and the state-of-the-art in bicycle infrastructure had evolved considerably.

The McGinn administration started and finished new bicycle and transit master plans that provide an excellent list of projects that the Murray administration would be wise to use as a guide. More importantly, by continuously advocating for rail to Ballard, by city-only means if necessary, McGinn encouraged the Sound Transit Board to accelerate its own planning in time for public vote as early as 2016 — at least four, and probably eight, years earlier than originally envisioned. Of course, you can’t ride a plan, and it’s hard to predict how those plans will evolve, die, or thrive in the future.

A considerably brighter result occurred on the land use front. Mike McGinn was a consistent force for turning as few people away from Seattle as possible, something that can only be done by building more units. More concretely, the city reduced or eliminated parking requirements ($) along frequent transit corridors, striking a blow for density, transit, economic efficiency, housing affordability, the environment, the pedestrian experience, and freedom all at once.

Although the big package of transportation improvements failed, many bus and bike improvements did happen on McGinn’s watch. The new Dexter Avenue is a revolutionary street design for Seattle. Road diets improved safety. Transit speed and reliability (bus bulbs, RTIS, TSP, queue jumps) on Rainier and Market/45th helped riders. Denny Way will get new trolley wire. RapidRide came with numerous bus stop improvements, signal priority, and miles of new bus lanes on Seattle’s most crowded roads. Except for RapidRide, these were all funded either directly by SDOT (including Nickels era Bridging the Gap funds) or through grants won by SDOT. More importantly, none of them could have happened without a sympathetic administration.

There’s a certain unfairness to blaming the results of a democratic system on specific elected officials. Morally, the failure to implement a transit plan lies with the Council that delayed and watered it down before voting for it, the people that campaigned against it, and ultimately the voters that rejected it. It doesn’t lie with a Mayor to whom we are grateful for taking the correct side of almost every argument he was in.

However, as our initial endorsement four years ago indicated, we judge our elected leaders on results, no matter who they have to run over to get there. Mike McGinn achieved more than most people will appreciate; although positive and lasting, the gains are subtle: people who can live in Seattle who otherwise wouldn’t, buses that now show up on time that otherwise wouldn’t, bicyclists and pedestrians not killed by speeding cars. Ironically, a man who came to office as a revolutionary will have an evolutionary legacy.

* Irresponsible environmentally, fiscally, and in light of declining vehicle miles traveled.

One More Take on Regulating Uber, etc.

Matt Yglesias has hit exactly on what I was feeling when I read the city’s rideshare regulation proposal.

The regulatory issue around Uber is whether the rules governing rides-for-hire need to be drastically different than the rules governing driving-yourself-around.

And my answer is always the same: Of course there are significant public safety concerns about people driving vans. But the concerns are essentially the same whether it’s a delivery van or a dollar van. You need rules about what’s an acceptable vehicle, who’s an acceptable driver, and what’s an acceptable way to pilot the vehicle.

But you don’t need rules that specifically discriminate against rides for hire. The right way to think about this panoply of rules is that it’s all part of a regulatory structure designed to make single passenger automobile traffic and one-car-per-adult the normative American lifestyles. Anything you want to do around driving yourself is presumptively legal, and anything you want to do around hiring someone else to drive you is presumptively illegal. That’s a worldview that’s bad for the environment, bad for cities, bad for the poor, bad for many classes of physically impaired people, and all-in-all bad for America. But by all means, regulate cars-for-hire. Just regulate them the same way you regulate the other cars.

I don’t have too much to add to this, other than you can legally drive around in a 1959 Malibu if you’d like, even if they aren’t very safe (see video).

How Might West Seattle Link Actually Look?

People have been talking about rail transit to West Seattle for a very long time.  The second Forward Thrust proposal in 1970 incorporated a rudimentary West Seattle rail line with just two stops: the Alaska Junction and White Center.  Two decades later, the Seattle Monorail Project’s first proposed line, the Green Line, covered Alaska Junction and Morgan Junction with a possible extension to Fauntleroy.  After ignoring West Seattle in the Long Range Plan process that led to the 2007 and 2008 ST2 votes, Sound Transit recently began a corridor study of Downtown-West Seattle-Burien for high-capacity transit; the agency has focused heavily on West Seattle during the current process to update its Long Range Plan.  Seattle Subway’s vision map includes a West Seattle line covering North Delridge, the Alaska Junction, the Morgan Junction, Fauntleroy, Westwood, and White Center.  Rapidly growing transit ridership ($) in the wake of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project has only added to the idea’s momentum.

But all of these past and present discussions have one thing in common: a lack of specificity.  A West Seattle rail line, it turns out, is easy to draw as abstract points on a blank map and surprisingly difficult to envision at the block-by-block level.  Geography, topography, Seattle’s sharpest class divisions, strange current service patterns, an overall lack of density, and ignorance about most of West Seattle combine to generate a lot of ill-informed, likely ineffective West Seattle transit proposals.  Even among transit planners and advocates, there is a lot of haze in discussions of how to serve West Seattle, and a surprising lack of awareness of what West Seattle residents actually need from transit.

West Seattle Link Idea
Solid line = tunnel. Dashed line = elevated.

The map above shows how I think a Downtown-West Seattle-Burien Link line should look.  Below the jump, I explain why.  In the process of doing so, I also show why a West Seattle line will be a difficult financial proposition, which may or may not be worth the investment.

Continue reading “How Might West Seattle Link Actually Look?”

Westlake Needs a Queue Jump

Route 40 at 9th & Mercer
Route 40 at 9th & Mercer

A few weeks ago, I attended SDOT’s open house on the proposed Westlake Cycletrack. While most of the public feedback has focused on safety and possible parking loss, transit is also part of the picture, and one of my items of feedback for SDOT was that the project should maintain or improve the speed and reliability of transit service, as Westlake is a major thoroughfare for bus riders to Fremont, Ballard and South Lake Union. I think there is an opportunity to combine improved bike connectivity at the south end of the proposed cycletrack with improved southbound bus service.

Riders at the south end of the off-street portion of the Westlake cycletrack (which will end roughly at Aloha) will need a safe, comfortable, and direct way to connect to bike lanes on 9th Ave, Valley St, and (once Mercer West is complete) a cycletrack to Seattle Center on Mercer St. Currently, there are no bicycle facilities on the street that could provide such a connection. Meanwhile, southbound buses on Westlake in the PM peak are regularly stuck in a southbound traffic jam on the same part of Westlake, caused by all the cars that want to turn onto Mercer to access I-5.

My idea is shown on the map to the right. The section of 9th Ave from where it splits from Westlake, down to Mercer, is wider than the rest of Westlake or 9th. With the removal of one lane of parking, the conversion of another lane of parking to a peak-period bus lane, and a bus-only signal at 9th & Valley, it would be possible to put in a southbound queue jump for buses on the west side of 9th, and a two-way, separated cycletrack on the east side of 9th. 9th/Valley idea

While the queue jump would not completely eliminate transit delays in the PM peak, as traffic can back up to Aloha, it would probably allow each bus to spend one less signal cycle getting though Mercer — a significant time saving. Similarly, the cycletrack would not completely solve all the bike connectivity issues in this area, as there would be an awkward transition to the 9th Ave bike lanes, which, to fix, would probably require a complete rethinking of 9th Ave.

The loss of the current right-turn pocket at 9th & Valley would be mitigated with signs further north on Westlake directing eastbound traffic on Roy St (likely headed to northbound Dexter or Aurora) to use 8th Ave, which is uncongested, and provides good access to Roy St.

This section of Westlake/9th has needed improved bus and bike facilities for years, but construction on the Mercer East project meant the street space in this area was needed for temporary reroutes. Now that Mercer East is over, that road space should be put towards longer-term more optimal uses — transit and biking. The Westlake Cycletrack project provides a great opportunity to do so.

News Roundup: Merry Christmas

  • Dow Constantine is your new Sound Transit Board Chair, replacing Pierce County Exec Pat McCarthy. Paul Roberts (Everett) and Marilyn Strickland (Tacoma) are the new vice chairs.
  • 12,000 comments on Sound Transit’s Long Range Plan are largely supportive of further expansion.
  • Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) rank-and-file reject contract proposal ($) from Executive Constantine and endorsed by union leadership.
  • ST Board approves its 2014 budget.
  • Census suggests Seattle has the lowest proportion of “cost-burdened” renters ($) among 50 largest U.S. cities, although people displaced out of the city obviously aren’t in that statistic.
  • Car2Go raises prices to 41 cents per minute, up from 38.
  • Auburn Mayor looking for Sound Transit to solve his station access problems.
  • Video of last month’s RapidRide C robbery. Heroism caught on tape.
  • In Vancouver BC, where elites actually care about transit, proponents are horrified that needed Translink expansion could face an additional veto point via a public vote; here in Washington, only new highways are too important to risk at the ballot box, and Olympia won’t take the risk that King County might vote to maintain transit service.

This is an open thread.

Reduced Service Over the Holiday; Late Trains

Photo by Sergio Bonachela/Flickr

Throughput the region, all transit agencies will operate Sunday schedules on Christmas and New Year’s Day. Schedules on the weekend of 28-29 December are unchanged. Aside from that, each agency’s revisions differ.

At Sound Transit, Link, Sounder, and ST Express will operate normally. The one exception is late Link trains for New Year’s celebrations:

Central Link light rail will operate on an extended schedule to accommodate holiday revelers. The last southbound Link train leaves Westlake at 1:13 a.m. and arrives at Sea-Tac Airport by 1:53 a.m. The last complete northbound trip from SeaTac leaves the station at 12:20 a.m. and arrives at Westlake by 12:58 a.m.

Tacoma Link light rail will also run on an extended schedule. The last Tacoma Link train from the Theater District Station will depart at 1:12 a.m. The last train to depart the Tacoma Dome leaves at 1:00 a.m.

From today through January 1st, Metro will be operating its “reduced weekday” and “No UW” schedules. Even on many extremely important routes, an “H” by a trip in the schedule indicates it will not operate for the next 7 days. OneBusAway warns that they do not have this schedule data, so tracking will be unreliable on the reduced weekdays (and today):

Community Transit has canceled most 400- and 800-series commuter buses on December 24th and 31st. The 402, 413, 421, and 855 will the only CT buses that serve Seattle on those two days. Local buses are operating normally.

Pierce Transit is running normal service.

A Different Take on the Ridesharing Rules


I can certainly understand the rage that the Seattle Council inspired by threatening to severely restrict, if not strangle altogether, a ridesharing option that many people find valuable. However, the problem is not that ridesharing rules will be aligned with conventional taxi rules; instead, the problem is that existing taxi rules are terrible.

The ridesharing proposal actually consists of two components: “safety” regulations that enforce minimum standards for insurance, maintenance, and so on; and a limit on size of the ridesharing fleet, hours driven, etc. Although no set of rules is perfect, there are enough information asymmetries that the case for some health-and-safety regulation is strong.

What’s indefensible is the limits on supply, which are a recipe for both high prices and the shortages and poor service that Andrew experienced. According to a report in The Stranger earlier this year, “The city limits the number of taxi licenses in order to maintain a ‘competitive, safe, fair, and viable’ industry… ‘The concern is if you flood the market with too many cabs, no one will make a living.”

What’s actually keeping taxi drivers from making a living is having to pay a rentier class for the right to drive a cab.  It is the opposite of the “competitive” and “fair” industry the city desires, and completely orthogonal to whether or not it is “safe.” Unfortunately, the decades under the current system means that someone is going to take a hit to make the system better.

If we simply eliminate the cap on licenses, then current license holders take the loss. In some cases, these may turn out to be cartoon villain businessmen; in other cases, they’ll be immigrants who started with nothing and dutifully saved until they no longer had to rent a license. The second option to take the hit is taxpayers; the government could simply buy out license holders at current market prices. The third option is to maintain the status quo, which screws consumers and non-license owning operators.

Seattle last experimented with taxi deregulation in 1979 — and the experiment was not a happy one. I would summarize the three core complaints in the report as (i) rates increased, although less than the very high inflation rate at the time; (ii) there were too many taxicabs, clogging up the airport and the approaches to King Street Station; and (iii) opaque prices due to rider ignorance, preventing the price signal from operating properly. The second item obviously is a “good problem to have” from the current perspective, where it’s hard to get a timely cab. The third is exactly the kind of opacity that modern information technology solves, or at least mitigates. It’s time to give price and supply deregulation another shot.

$15 Minimum Wage Won’t Improve Housing Affordability Without More Housing

Belltown (Wikimedia)

For reasons irrelevant to this blog, I support a higher minimum wage in Seattle and would almost certainly vote for one if given the opportunity. I’m not well-informed about this issue, but basically it would be great if the poorer people among us were able to afford more necessities of modern life.

However, I’m somewhat irritated by the notion that the minimum wage will, in itself, substantially help with the serious problem of housing affordability in Seattle. Although Friend of STB Goldy probably wouldn’t disagree with any of the policy content I describe below, most people would probably construe what he writes in The Stranger the wrong way:

The fact is there’s nothing radical about suggesting that the minimum wage should be higher in Seattle than it is in much of the rest of the state. Nearly everything is more expensive in Seattle—housing especially—and minimum wage workers here simply need higher pay than their counterparts in, say, Yakima or Ferry counties.

Goldy also shares some cost-of-living data in another article.

If Seattle decided to make bus passes affordable to everyone by giving all residents $90 a month to buy one, then it would succeed: there are no practical limits on how many passes Metro can issue, and the price is fixed by legal fiat. At the opposite extreme, if we offered a subsidy to make Seahawks tickets more affordable, that would succeed in nothing but driving up the price of Seahawks tickets. There are 67,000 seats; having more dollars pursuing those seats simply raises their value in the secondary market (or in the primary market, once the team caught on).

Although neither example is entirely apt for the housing market, a market radically constrained by zoning and various taxes on development is more like football than bus passes. If we make the ambitious assumption that Seattle also passed some form of rent control, and that regulation was so brilliantly designed that it avoided obvious pitfalls like subletting and condo conversions, then that would merely reallocate the fixed pool of housing from the highest bidder to the already-here and the well-connected. That’s great if you’re connection-rich and cash-poor, but it’s not a clearly more just framework.

All that said, to the extent that Seattle allows new construction and doesn’t smother it in developer costs, more spending power at the bottom should help the housing supply. Creating a whole class of people that can afford $800 apartments will certainly improve the balance sheet for nonprofit housing organizations. If we can ever satisfy the demand for “luxury” apartments, then someone looking to make a buck is going to have to chase those working-class dollars as well. In any case, even additional luxury apartments help to reduce demand for existing housing stock unless it destroys a large number of affordable units in the process.

The argument that it won’t make a big difference for housing affordability isn’t an argument to keep the minimum wage low. However, people worried about the cost of housing in Seattle should put more effort into increasing supply, whether or not it has the side effect of increasing developer profits.

Downtown Parking: Supply is Up, Demand is Down.

The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) has released the results of their most recent parking inventory for the region (Excel file with methodology here). The numbers for Downtown tell a particularly important story, one that will need to be repeated over and over in the coming years.

In short, don’t let anyone tell you, ever, that Downtown doesn’t have enough parking. There are now over 78,000 parking stalls in Downtown Seattle (using the broader ‘Center City’ definition of downtown). Over 4,000 new stalls have been built since 2010.

Yet even with the significant job and housing growth seen in the last 3 years, 2,000-3,000 fewer cars per day are parking Downtown than in 2010. Commute Seattle reported earlier this year that drive-alone commuting is at a record low of 34%. Overall downtown parking occupancy rates range from 50-70%, far lower than the 80+% the city aims for in on street parking. Though our building codes mandate ever more parking (with limited exceptions), supply exceeds demand, and this imbalance is slowly accelerating thanks to overbuilding.

PSRC Parking 1Much more below the fold. Continue reading “Downtown Parking: Supply is Up, Demand is Down.”

Snow Open Thread

[Update 7:23am: Link is in the tunnel again. Definitely the best option today.]

[Update 2: Spokesman Bruce Gray says “crews did a routine maintenance check on one of the traction power substations Thursday night and had an issue with a voltage monitor when bringing it back online to start Friday a.m. service.” The Link outage had nothing to do with the snow.]

There’s snow on the ground. Remember tracking tools like OneBusAway do not work when buses are on snow routing. You can follow the mayhem at Metro (all buses currently on snow routes), Sound Transit, Community Transit (lightly affected), and Pierce Transit. Expect delays for everything — since 5:58 even Link has not been serving the tunnel for an undisclosed reason*. If your commute is freeway-dependent then WSDOT may help as well.

Also, walk to the top or bottom of the hill to catch a bus.  Your bus may not be able to stop on a steep slope. Share your tips and stories in the comments.

*Really not the day for this kind of thing to happen! Hopefully they’ll fix it soon.

TCC is Hiring

Transportation Choices Coalition is trying to organize the youngsters:

The Campus Transit Outreach Organizer will work with TCC, King County, University of Washington Transportation Services (UWTS) and other organizations to keep accurate and up to date on plans and processes for proposed King County bus cuts and timing associated with those cuts. They will in turn take that information and disseminate it to members of the UW community including, but not limited to, students, faculty, and staff at the main campus. Implement the outreach plan as outlined by TCC and UWTS…

Email your resume and cover letter by January 5th 2014 to Please include UW Outreach Organizer in subject line.

Applicants will be screened/interviewed as applications come in, so applying before the deadline is preferred.

College-age students are the sleeping giant for many environmental and urbanist issues with long time horizons, so I hope that TCC eventually expands this position beyond the specific issue of Metro cuts. If you meet the qualifications please consider this full-time paid opportunity.

News Roundup: Bad Reviews

This is an open thread.

October 2013 Sound Transit Ridership Report

Oct13MvgAvgAnother month, another double digit weekday ridership gain for Link and the fifth month in a row of over 30,000 weekday riders.

October’s Central Link Weekday/Saturday/Sunday boardings were 30,423/21,058/22,200, growth of 11.6%, 5.8%, and 28.8% respectively over October 2012. Sounder’s weekday boardings were up 2% (up 2% on the South Line, North Line was almost the same as last year).  Total Tacoma Link ridership was down 5.8% with weekday ridership declining 6.2%. Weekday ST Express ridership was up 6%, with most growth occurring on Crosslake, South King and Pierce routes. Complete October Ridership Summary here.

Link has seen double digit weekday ridership growth nine out of the past twelve months, and October year to date total ridership was up 10.7% compared to October of last year.

My Link charts below the fold. Continue reading “October 2013 Sound Transit Ridership Report”

Too Much Parking

Sightline Institute has a new report out entitled “Who Pays for Parking?” Among the findings:

Seattle-area apartment developers build far more parking than their tenants need. Across all developments in our sample, 37 percent of parking spots remained empty during the night, the time of peak demand for residential parking. Every development had nighttime parking vacancies, and four developments had more than twice as many parking spots as parked cars.

Many tenants don’t own cars. On average, the developments in our sample had 20 percent more occupied apartments than occupied parking spaces—a rock- bottom estimate for the share of apartments whose tenants don’t park on-site. In all, 21 of the 23 developments had more occupied apartments than parked cars.

Multifamily developments lose money on parking. No development in our sample was able to recover enough parking fees to recover the full estimated costs of building, operating, and maintaining on-site parking facilities.

Car-free tenants still pay for parking. Landlords’ losses on parking—calculated as the difference between total parking costs and total parking fees collected from tenants—add up to roughly 15 percent of monthly rents in our sample, or $246 per month for each occupied apartment. Because landlords typically recoup these losses through apartment rents, all tenants—even those who don’t own cars—pay a substantial hidden fee for parking as part of their monthly rents.

As the report states, there are multiple reasons for the parking oversupply, from city regulations to developer cautiousness.  And it’s far from clear that, if mandated parking were to go away, rents would drop 15% across the city.  Nonetheless, this study does a great service in confirming what many suspect: city codes mandate too much parking in order to pacify anxious neighbors, but many spots end up going unused, making housing more expensive.

Many years ago, I was searching for some commercial real estate for an entertainment venue. My memory’s a bit hazy, but I recall DPD telling me that, to meet the parking requirements, I could make an agreement with a neighboring property where the parking was in use at different times. So, for example, a church that’s only used on Sunday mornings could make an agreement with a nightclub that’s only open in the evenings to “double count” parking spots towards both venues’ requirements.

Going forward, it’s clear we need to reduce parking requirements.  Once that’s done, it would be interesting to see a similar double-count model applied to multi-family housing.  For example, if a 100-unit building has 37 unused spaces, then a 37-unit building could be constructed next-door, with an agreement that the tenants of the second building could lease spots in the first building and not have to build expensive – and redundant – underground parking. The result would be cheaper housing for everyone and a more equitable distribution of parking costs.

The City’s Terrible Rideshare Service Proposal

A lyft vehicle in San Francisco. Photo by Spiro Vathis.

Last week, the city council published a proposal for a regulatory scheme for ride-share services such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. While the scheme would take currently illegal services out of the grey market, the proposal is truly terrible. I won’t go into details of the regulations, you can read those at the link above or this Seattle Times article ($), this Geekwire article (which has the best summary of the regulations) or this Publicola post. It seems clear the proposal’s intention is to appease incumbent taxi and car-service providers by essentially running these new-services out of Seattle by putting onerous and arbitrary restrictions on their operations.

But don’t take my word for it? Here’s councilman Harrell:

“Why wouldn’t we limit the number of TNCs?” Harrell asked rhetorically. “We are trying to limit supply. That is the policy choice we’ve made. I don’t see any ambiguity in that.”

I’ve never used Lyft, Sidecar, Uber or other ride-share services. I don’t take taxis either, generally. I usually try to plan ahead to make sure I either can take a bus or walk if I’m not going to drive. I can see why these services exist, though. Taxis are terribly expensive and never around when you need them. I’ve waited on the phone for more than 45 minutes just to request a cab before, for the cab to only show up an hour after the call. I’ve been in a taxi that blew a tire on I-5, pulled off the freeway and left me to walk the rest of the distance home[1], some five miles – lucky me I’m young and in good shape! Imagine if I had been a mother with children and shopping bags. I’ve been in taxis that have tried to charge me extra when we got to the destination because they couldn’t pick up fares there[2]. I’ve also been in cabs that have gotten completely lost and driven miles in the wrong direction, all on my dime.

So I understand why people want competition. We know there’s a public-safety issue late at night when the small number of taxis is insufficient to take home the number of people too drunk to drive. Try calling a cab on New Years’ at 2am. I can imagine someone, faced with the option of waiting a couple of hours for an expensive taxi ride, deciding to instead drive because they’re only a “little drunk”, which is really the worst option available. Reducing the number of available drivers and cars can’t help this problem.

Now, there may be a public safety issue the other way, with unqualified people picking up strangers and driving them around. But, presumably, these are people we let drive now, cars we allow on the road already, and passengers capable of making their own risk decisions. If someone is out to cause trouble and kidnap someone, for example, there are likely less troublesome ways to do it then sign up to be a Lyft driver.

At the end of the day, this is the populace and consumers of Seattle vs incumbent taxi drivers. I’m for anything that reduces the need to have cars, saves people money and increases public safety. You’d think the city-council might have similar desires but, sadly, they seem more interested in protecting special-interests.

[1] The driver tried to get me to pay for the distance up to that point, if you can imagine that.

[2] Surely, another sign of a broken regulatory scheme.

What Should Santa Bring Seattle’s Bus Riders?

A few months ago, with lots of help from STB regulars, I created the Frequent Network Plan to show how we could improve Metro’s Seattle/North King County bus network without adding any service hours.  That’s great, wrote guest writer and commenter extraordinaire Mike Orr.  But, he asked, how much money would it cost to get the bus network we really want?  Or, since it’s mid-December, what would Santa have to bring Seattle’s passengers to make it the best Christmas ever?

At first, I was reluctant to look into the question because I figured the results would be ridiculously unrealistic, especially when we are still trying to fight off a network-killing 17% cut.  But I started playing with maps and steadily got more interested.  I drew up an “ideal” network closely related to the FNP, but with the goal of making the best possible bus network regardless of resources, rather than using a fixed level of resources more efficiently.  Pictured is a small bit of that network.

SLU/Queen Anne
A bit of the “ideal network,” in the 33% funding scenario.
Red = 6 min. Orange = 7-8 min. Yellow = 10 min. Green = 12 min.

Then I put together a preliminary estimate of the service hours needed.  The answer surprised me: only about a 33% increase in service hours from today’s level.  That could actually come to pass, if there were a solution to the 17% cut, a few good years of economic growth, and maybe one more funding vote premised on meaningful improvements.  It’s realistic enough that the City of Bellevue considered a 30% increase as the best-case scenario in their 2030 Transit Service Vision Report.  A 33% increase is an attainable goal for medium-term political advocacy and makes for a credible network vision, not a fevered hallucination.

As I did with the FNP, I’ve created maps of this “ideal” network:

  • Color-coded by route (the labels reflect the +33% scenario).
  • Color-coded by frequency for both the +33% and the +15% funding scenarios.

Of course, a 33% increase, while imaginable, would be an uphill struggle.  So I created one more scenario, intended to show the lowest funding level at which the “ideal” network is meaningfully superior to the FNP network even though it aims for broader coverage and thus sacrifices a bit of efficiency.  I found that to be a 15% increase in hours from the current level.  The +15% scenario uses the same network (with two extremely minor changes), just with not-quite-ideal frequency levels on thinner routes.

Much more explanation follows below the jump.

Continue reading “What Should Santa Bring Seattle’s Bus Riders?”

Metro Funding: Bring the Sizzle!

One oft-cited reason for America’s crumbling road infrastructure is our politicians’ preference for shiny new highway expansion projects over unsexy-but-necessary repair and maintenance.  There are no ribbon-cutting ceremonies when you fix a pothole, or so the thinking goes.  This has led some opponents of highway expansion  — myself included — to call for a “fix it first” approach to road spending – i.e. prioritize maintenance.

But there’s a reason why “fix it first” is such a hard sell: politicians aren’t stupid. They know the voters like shiny new baubles, and so they oblige (re-read Ben’s post on Prop 1’s failure for more on this).

Transit advocates could learn a thing or two.

Over the last several years, Metro has been working to prevent a catastrophic drop in service through a series of short-term budget patches.  Currently, the hope is that the Legislature will allow King County the right to impose an MVET to prevent service cuts and provide a more sustainable revenue source.  Through a series of emergency measures, Metro has been able to minimize the short-term impact of these cuts.  However, I worry that the cumulative effect of this five-year drama is that citizens view Metro as a giant money pit in need of ongoing bailouts, when the truth is that it’s been robbed of a sustainable revenue stream and struggled to come up with an alternative.

In other words, the effort to save Metro has been framed as a fix-it-first affair: it’s all “eat your vegetables” and no sexy new spending. To get political support for a permanent funding solution, a different approach is needed. Where’s the steak? Where’s the sizzle?

For all the flaws in the execution, I’d submit that RapidRide was the right model, politically. A 0.1% dedicated sales tax to fund a shiny new service throughout the county.  RapidRide was voter approved, and the money was put in a lockbox that guaranteed it would be spent on the RapidRide service.

Since it looks like the legislature has failed to act anyway, and talk of secret plans is filling the airwaves, let me suggest an alternative approach, inspired by RapidRide.  Instead of asking for new taxing authority just to save existing service, the county should propose a new service.  For lack of a better name, I’ll call it FrequentRide.  The idea would be that a certain set of core routes would be upgraded to service every 10 or 15 minutes, seven days a week.

In terms of paying for such a service, we’d have several options. I think the last five years have taught us the limitations of a sales tax. An MVET is a nice alternative, and all else being equal I’d take it over a sales tax any day. A property tax, though, is better aligned with the goal of funding transit.  Expensive cars can be found anywhere. Expensive land, however, is typically concentrated in the densest areas which benefit the most from transit investments. No doubt, there are challenges to a property tax (Bruce details some of them here), but conceptually, it’s the right way to fund transit.

My very quick back-of-the napkin math says a property tax of $0.25 per $1,000 of assessed value would generate $75M in annual revenue*, which would cost the median King County homeowner about $100 per year.  By contrast, a 1% MVET could easily cost twice that for a family with two late-model cars.

As Martin recently wrote, making a separate Seattle transit agency is unlikely to be a panacea, but Seattle could get in on FrequentRide with a property levy of its own, focused on capital improvements like trolley wire, improved bus stops, and dedicated lanes.

By announcing Plan B, the County has indicated it’s ready to act if the state won’t.  That’s encouraging, but they should go even further. The public is ready for leadership.  As the saying goes, “be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.”

* I’m spitballing numbers here based on the King County Assessor’s website and various other sources – feel free to dive deeper in the comments. But again, I don’t care about the specific numbers as much as I care about reframing the argument.