Carmageddon, Again


Another week, another congestion debacle during this Thursday’s rushhour:

With both gameday crowds (5:30 kickoff) and those coming for the free Pharrell Williams and Soundgarden concert (3:10-4:45), expect large crowds downtown…

Regular Riders: If possible, try to flex your schedule to avoid traveling during the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 4.

When cities go through the long process of watering down their own BRT investments, there’s always a process of measuring “typical” congestion and weighing the time savings against parking and SOV interests.

However, this framework breaks down during bursts of “atypical” construction and event congestion. Agencies have to play a peculiar confidence game: if people heed their warnings and defer trips or switch to transit, then congestion won’t be as bad as advertised; if this experience causes people to ignore warnings, than the jam will be epic.

This makes it all the more shameful that the only alternative to making traffic worse or staying at home is transit — and except for Link, Sounder, and a few busways, that transit fares even worse than the cars that create the problem.

With only a few exceptions among regional trips, all levels of government have placed such a high priority on fast car access that transit is almost always slower. As a result, transit ridership is a mix of people unable to drive, the price-sensitive, and people for whom time spent on transit is more valuable than a shorter time behind the wheel. To increase ridership, as government must do to avoid gridlock during foreseeable congestion events, policy must reduce the time penalty of transit.

This argument isn’t about the general case for dedicated transit right-of-way; although that case is correct, it’s obvious that the leadership values the interests of other stakeholders more than transit riders. In the specific case of construction and special events, the only way to give citizens any alternative to total gridlock is dedicated transit lanes.  If that means closing off certain streets except for local access and transit and posting some cops, so be it; the great thing about cars is that they’re not limited to scheduled routes or reroutes, and can adjust to change quite easily. And it seems like the new SDOT director is at least open to the idea:
Continue reading “Carmageddon, Again”

Freight Master Plan Launches


In June SDOT launched the City’s first freight master plan. Even a strong advocate of moving travelers to transit like me recognizes that short-haul cargo isn’t going to ride transit, and the free flow of freight is to Seattle’s long term advantage.

However, freight is often an excuse for too many general-purpose highway lane-miles. The Port of Seattle injected itself into the Deep Bore Tunnel project for the ostensible benefits to freight. Whenever state leaders advocate for their giant transportation package of new highways, the economic impact of businesses moving their goods is a main justification.

Anyone familiar with induced demand knows that this is a fool’s game. Cars will fill up any new capacity and leave freight just as stuck as before. Tolling or dedicated freight lanes might actually allow lucrative time savings for freight, but there is little momentum for that.

Fortunately, although we are in the early going Seattle’s FMP is not looking at new general-purpose capacity to help freight. According to Kevin O’Neill of SDOT,  “We’re not, as a city, generally talking about widening arterials or expanding curb lines because that goes against a lot of other city objectives.”

Continue reading “Freight Master Plan Launches”

News Roundup: Faces of the Plaza

Sound Transit and KCM Buses

This is an open thread.

Managing Demand at Park-and-Rides

Sound Transit

Sightline’s Jerrell Whitehead has a thorough and well-researched post up about Sound Transit’s pilot program to maximize parking spots at park-and-rides via user fees, real-time space information, and ride-sharing.  If you’re at all interested in the subject you should read the whole thing, as they say.

There’s an undeniable economist’s appeal to using price as a way to rationalize demand for a scarce resource like parking, and charging money for spots is absolutely the right thing to do.  Until there’s a culture of paid parking in the suburbs, however, Sound Transit’s going to face an uphill political fight with one of its core constituencies.

That said, the way this pilot was done seems to strike the right balance: charge for some spots, but not all, and give preferential treatment to carpoolers.  Oh, and if ST really wants to boost ridership, it should find ways to develop more housing and offices near existing park-and-ride facilities.

Island Transit Budget Is 25.7% Grant Dependent In 2015

Island Transit Big Bus Somewhere on Whidbey Island
Island Transit Photo by author

Although not in receipt of the audio yet from the August 22nd Island Transit Board Meeting, initial reports and a review of Island Transit’s 6-year Transit Development Plan (TDP) indicate Island Transit has a dangerous dependency on grants and a debt problem.  A review of the TDP indicates for 2015 alone budgeting for $3,174,612 in state & federal grants out of budgeted revenue of $12,350,648 – for a whopping 25.7% grant dependency.

This is also an agency with $739,149 in budgeted 2015 debt service costs.  So if, say, the State of Washington doesn’t grant the projected $600,000 or the Federal Government decides not to grant the projected $685,000… or if the $1,889,612 in “transit allocation grants” are below budget… or if the interest goes up on the debt for a multitude of reasons… then transit service is going to be in trouble.

Continue reading “Island Transit Budget Is 25.7% Grant Dependent In 2015”

DADU, DADU, to You and You and You

Mt.Baker 09'1017 - 001

As we noted in the news roundup, Councilmember Mike O’Brien wants to update the rules around detached accessory dwelling units, a.k.a. backyard cottages, a.k.a. DADUs. Erica Barnett at PubliCola notes that O’Brien is looking at streamlined permitting and prefab designs that would reduce some hurdles to installing a backyard cottage. Some of the designs actually look pretty cool.

What I like about O’Brien’s thinking here is that he’s looking to reduce up-front capital costs. While there are all sorts of regulatory hurdles to DADUs (and excessive parking requirements), the main impediment, it seems to me, is that most homeowners don’t have tens of thousands of dollars sitting around to build a DADU, and banks aren’t giving out HELOCs like they used to. Prefab designs could help reduce costs.

Another step the Council and DPD could take would be to remove the owner-occupancy requirement for DADUs and ADUs (mother-in-laws), which I’ve written about previously. Requiring the property owner to live in one of the units makes banks less likely to lend and prevents investors from building more DADUs and ADUs in the first place. I hope the Council and DPD consider it.

Transit Adjacent Development isn’t Transit Oriented Development

Photo from the DJC
Photo from the DJC

Recently the Daily Journal of Commerce wrote about a new project proposed near Link’s Othello Station at 7301 and 7343 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S.:

The largest of the three buildings would be at the corner of Othello and MLK Way. The six-story structure would contain 210 apartments, a 17,000-square-foot public market, 10,000 square feet of retail and underground parking for 165 vehicles.

To its east on Othello would be a 225-unit building with 7,800 square feet of retail, and parking for 330 vehicles above and below grade. Nine of the units would be live-work.

The third building, on MLK Way, would have 65 apartments, five live-work units and 28 surface parking stalls.

All units in the complex would be market-rate, with a mix of studios, and one- and two-bedrooms.

Yes, that is 523 parking spaces for 505 units. New market units next to Link are great, but it is ridiculous to have a greater than 1:1 parking ratio, and obscene to build new surface parking literally across the street from a Link station. Also across the street is the Station at Othello, which was built with 320 spaces for 351 units and 17,591 square feet of retail. Parking utilization is so low that the developer is only providing 60% of the parking in their new Station at Othello North project. The Myrtle Apartments project being built north of Othello link station will have 50 parking spots for 108 units and 8,000 square feet of retail and community space.

The Seattle City Council wisely limited park and rides near Rainier Valley Link stations in order to encourage dense walkable development near the stations that would bring, steady, long term, all day demand. These efforts are paying dividends. It would be a shame if  private entities built a large number of spots, driving up costs when history shows they are not wanted or needed by the tenants.

If you are interested in learning more, there will be a Southeast Design Review Board meeting at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center tomorrow (Tuesday, August 26) evening from 6:30 p.m. to 8.

Yes for Seattle Transit Kicks Off

Metro Route 72
Metro Route 72, possibly to be saved. Photo by Kris Leisten.

This past Monday morning, Transportation Choices hosted a community briefing on the upcoming Yes for Seattle Transit campaign, which will campaign for a Yes vote in this November’s election on the Seattle-only transit funding measure we’ve previously called “Plan D.”  I attended the briefing along with about 100 community activists, politicians, transit professionals, and other journalists.  Little new information was presented at the briefing, which served mostly as a kickoff event for the campaign, but it’s a good opportunity to remind our Seattle-resident readers what the ballot measure and campaign are about.

The ballot measure, primarily championed by Mayor Ed Murray and City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, would include a $60 vehicle license fee and a 0.1% sales tax, imposed only within the city, to benefit the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD).  These are the same funding sources that would have been imposed countywide under Proposition 1, defeated in April’s special election.  Most of the funds raised would be devoted to saving bus service on routes that exclusively or primarily (at least 80% of stops within Seattle) serve Seattle.  A small portion of the funds would be set aside to fund core routes between Seattle and other jurisdictions, in partnership with those jurisdictions.  The mayor and Councilmember Rasmussen expect that the measure would raise roughly enough money to forestall all of the currently planned or expected Metro cuts in Seattle except those scheduled for this coming September, which are expected to go through as planned and not be restored.  Metro has indicated that it is ready to work with Seattle (or any other jurisdiction that’s interested) to restore service using local funding.

Mayor Murray has made clear, and reiterated at the briefing, that he sees this funding as a stopgap, to be used only until there is a permanent, countywide source of funding that restores Metro service to current levels.

Given that the defeated Proposition 1 enjoyed 66% support within the City of Seattle, and the November general election is expected to have a more pro-transit electorate, the players involved expect the measure to pass.  The principal source of controversy with respect to the measure, to the extent there is any, is a sentence in the resolution authorizing the measure that reads:

The first priority for the funding is to preserve existing routes and prevent King County Metro’s proposed February 2015 service cuts and restructures.

Some activists who spoke during the briefing’s Q&A session made it clear that they see this sentence as preventing any restructure of Metro service for the entire length of time Seattle is funding Metro through the STBD.  Both Mayor Murray and Councilmember Rasmussen disagreed with this interpretation, but neither wanted to discuss specific service decisions at this event, and neither would address the merits of restructuring.  In any case, since the City Council voted to put the measure on the ballot, King County punted on its originally proposed February 2015 restructures, which would have brought major change to the Seattle bus network.  The County Council voted instead to cut service for February 2015, but to decide the specifics of the cuts at a later date.

Four Days of Highway 99 Mess Start Tonight

Aurora Ave before southbound BAT lane:  photo by Oran
Aurora Ave before southbound BAT lane: photo by Oran

Transit-friendly reporter Mike Lindblom at the Seattle Times has a detailed piece($) on the impending Highway 99 closure mess, focusing particularly on how bus riders will be impacted, and subtly pointing out that the bus riders might even outnumber the car drivers in the affected corridor. Five routes will be detoured Friday night through Wednesday morning for the Highway 99 replacement work. Lindblom gives a good run-down on where the viaduct and Aurora will be shut down.

This comes on top of weekend detours downtown for the Red Bull Soapbox Race and construction work on 3rd Ave between James and Yesler.

I was on the E Line just this past Tuesday, heading south, and got to see how much of a bottleneck the highway work has already created, before this major closure. For about a third of a mile through the construction zone, there did not appear to be a functional BAT lane, causing the bus to crawl in general traffic for about 10 minutes.

Thanks to Lindblom for pointing out that the bus riders are roughly as numerous as the SOV drivers using this corridor.

News Roundup: Obsolete

Peaking over the hedges

This is an open thread.

Housing Is Expensive Because Everyone Wants it That Way

Viaduct replacement construction snapshot - July 20, 2012

Alon Levy, Pedestrian Observations:

The problem here is entirely political. Cities have the power to zone. Thus, supply depends entirely on whether local community leaders accept more housing. This housing, almost invariably, goes to outsiders, who would dilute the community’s politics, forming alternative social networks and possibly caring about different political issues.

When asking why things are the way they are, it’s always useful to ask, cui bono?  In most American coastal cities today, developers like to sell expensive houses, current homeowners like to see their property values rise, and those who benefit from subsidized housing don’t want to have to compete against more outsiders for a fixed number of subsidized or rent-controlled units.  Everyone wins, except the people who aren’t here yet: the migrants, the new college grads, and anyone else who is an outsider today but hopes to be an insider tomorrow.

Levy’s post ties these threads together really well.  Read the whole thing.

It’s Time to Shift Lobbying Priorities

Avgeek Joe/Flickr

For at least five years, the primary objective of City and County transportation lobbying effort has been new revenue authority for Metro, generally understood to be some form of Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET). County leaders held back on “Plan B,” a flat vehicle fee via a Transportation Benefit District (TBD), until the last possible moment prior to cuts, partly because progressive voters would view a tax proportional to the value of the vehicle as fairer.

In hindsight, that was a mistake. An April election has an unfavorable electorate. Again, this is 20/20 hindsight — I thought saving Metro had a decent chance this year — but after the 2013 legislative session accomplished nothing, they should have immediately planned a November 2013 ballot measure via TBD. April’s result suggests that replacing a flat fee with an MVET wouldn’t have made much of a difference in a spring tally, but higher turnout might have.

This November, Seattle voters will vote on preserving most of their own service after experiencing the first swath of cuts. Odds are very good that they vote to keep buses running. Although Mayor Murray has said all the right things about the Seattle funding being temporary until there is a regional solution, in fact the stakes for future legislative action are quite low. Winning a countywide vote is about a better election turnout, the likely end of the myth that Metro will magically avoid cuts through “efficiency”, and convincing more conservative voters. Although MVET would be great, the precise structure of the vehicle taxes is unlikely to be decisive, and in any case the highest demand jurisdiction (Seattle) will almost certainly be in reasonable shape.

That’s why Seattle and King County should reorient their priorities towards something with a higher payoff. I’m referring, of course, to Sound Transit 3. As the legislature considers a large package to address the perceived transportation problems around the state, ST3 is the only project that will truly change transportation in dense urban areas and key regional chokepoints.

Moreover, action is  urgent. There has been essentially no public discussion of the need for more authority for Sound Transit in Olympia, and there are only two more sessions before the November 2016 election. Sound Transit, wisely, strongly prefers votes in Presidential election cycles, and if we miss the 2016 opportunity it may have to wait till 2020. That would likely slide even early light rail segments to around 2034, and late ones near mid-century. If most of the people in the debate today are going to see its fruits in their working lives, it’s time for local leaders and our representatives in Olympia to not just play defense and instead focus on the right thing.

Spokane’s Downtown is for People – and their Buses

Downtown Spokane WA on approach to the airport
Downtown Spokane WA on approach to the airport by Ron Reiring – Spokane, WA

On this side of the Cascades, we don’t often hear much about transit in Spokane. That’s a shame, because Spokane is not just Washington’s second most populous city — and perhaps Washington’s most beautiful city —  but it’s a place built around transit, whose center has survived the ravages of mid-century suburban flight, urban renewal and freeway building to become the slowly-regrowing urban center of the Inland Northwest. Its downtown is sprinkled with stunning railroad-era architecture (some of which would turn heads in San Francisco), its street grid is mostly complete, and the city and its suburbs are served by Washington’s most efficient transit agency, the Spokane Transit Authority.

Unfortunately, much of the transit news from Spokane has been bad, lately. One of the STA’s signature accomplishments is an attractive, modern bus station and customer service center in the heart of downtown, known locally as the Plaza. Photos of the Plaza are shown around the world by Jarrett Walker as an example of the kind of civilized, humane waiting-place that transit customers should expect, and which can be built even by not-lavishly-funded agencies. Such facilities are especially important to small-city transit agencies like STA, where there is no rapid transit system around which to organize the rest of the transit network, nor enough money to run a full grid of frequent routes out to the limits of the service area, and thus many customers need to make connections through a single central hub.

Recently, a handful of well-connected downtown Spokane property owners have tried to force STA to move this flagship facility out of the downtown core. The events involved in the lead-up to this are a little complicated: there’s a recently-reactivated plan to refurbish the plaza, the removal (and then replacement) of a smoking area for plaza patrons, and a sudden flare up of concerns about crime, vagrancy and indigence in the retail core. The opposition’s stated reasons will be depressingly familiar to anyone who’s been involved in any major expansion of transit out to suburban areas: Putatively, transit facilities are full of ne’er-do-wells and criminals, loitering around waiting to rob or beg someone of their money, and the solution is to make these people disappear by making the facility disappear — and besides, all those buses are empty anyway. Of course, none of these things are actually true.

More after the jump. Continue reading “Spokane’s Downtown is for People – and their Buses”

Retraction: WSF

We blew it this morning. Frank’s post on Washington State Ferries asks:

Instead of asking 484 people to leave the ferry, one assumes they could have simply taken off a few dozen cars instead.

As our alert commenters pointed out, that’s a terrible assumption, as the passenger limits are likely limited by safety equipment. The point is, we didn’t check, and that’s on us. While the post isn’t exactly a falsehood — Frank is clearly speculating — we can do better.

Our apologies. I’ve taken down the original post.

Full-time Bus Lanes, Please

Photo by the Author
Photo by the Author

As a concession to the various free on-street parking interests, many of Seattle’s Business Access and Transit (BAT) lanes only operate in the peak direction during rush hour. Unfortunately, the peak direction is defined by the downtown core, which is a mere subset of where the jobs are.

Witness the photo above, the situation in the evening going South on Elliott Avenue. The 24 is going in the “off-peak” direction and is therefore unworthy of adequate priority treatments. Traffic stopped at the light, combined with a handful of cars allowed to park in the right lane, mean that the bus has to wait until the light changes to come up and serve the passengers. Inevitably, this will take the entire light cycle and the bus will have to wait for another red light.

The dozen or so parked cars in the picture, allowed to use these spaces and saving their drivers perhaps a few minutes of walking, add to similar delays for substantially more people at this stop, and on this bus trip, alone. Multiplied over the many trips in the afternoon peak, the misallocation of space is staggering.

Within Central Seattle, the idea of “peak” and “contra-peak” directions is obsolete. Jobs are scattered everywhere in the triangle formed by Lower Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, and Sodo, and many cars and buses  there have to travel back into downtown to get to where they’re going. It’s time to abolish these distinctions and make sure buses can operate reliably.

Transit Geography Visualization

Transit users and STB readers use – and like to use – route maps. Routes are tangible, and are how we think when we actually use transit. This post uses some geographic analysis – focused on population and walking access – to show more of the big picture.

In April Metro recommended several phases of service cuts, for a total of about 16% of current service hours, corresponding to the estimated shortfall revenue following the defeat of county Proposition 1. It estimated loss of existing riders (10.8M rides – about 10%). This is indeed a key metric but I’ve not found quantitative answers to another seemingly basic question: what effect would the full set of recommended Metro cuts have on residents’ access to service (measured by 1/4-mile walking distance to service stops)?

So I’ve built some tools marrying Metro service details with a geographic information system (GIS).  Here’s a sample map showing areas of 15-minute frequency service during commute hours, after the cuts (green) overlaid on current (orange). Compare this to route-oriented maps from Metro and Oran Viriyincy’s remarkable before-and-after route frequency map.
peak ge4

Translating this information to population impact for Seattle (county-wide to come soon):

Service hours cut Loss of served population
30-minute freq. 15-minute freq.
Peak 16% 2.3% 6.4%
Off-peak 16% 6.4% 12.6%
Night 16% 9.1% 11.9%

On these results, Metro’s planning, following the Service Guidelines, looks to be quite effective, including restructures that increase the population that can be served with limited revenue.

Continue reading “Transit Geography Visualization”

Executive Constantine Announces Low-Income Fare on its Way

King County Executive Dow ConstantineKing County Executive Dow Constantine held a press conference Thursday to unveil details of how King County Metro will roll out its low-income fare program. The press conference followed the submission of the Final Report of the Low Income Fare Implementation Task Force.

The fare will be $1.50 per Metro trip, available only through ORCA, and will require the rider to go through a qualification process to demonstrate her/his income is at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. Requalification will happen every two years.

The qualification process won’t be cheap or easy for the county. But the application process and the low-income ORCA card will be free for the applicant. Metro will partner with Public Health – Seattle & King County to administer the qualification process. Public Health will work with other third-party agencies to set up more places riders can qualify. 45,000-100,000 riders are estimated to be eligible. The cost of the program — reduced fares plus administration — is expected to be $7-9 million a year.

The qualfication process will start up in February of 2015, with the new fare taking effect March 1, 2015. Kitsap Transit and King County Metro will honor each others’ low-income ORCA cards. (See page 2 of the linked document.)

The County Council still has to vote to implement the program. The vote is expected to be unanimous, given the council’s unanimous vote to create the Low Income Fare Options Advisory Committee, and the council’s unanimous vote to set the fare level and create the Low Income Fare Implementation Task Force.

Other US transit agencies with low-income fare programs include Kitsap Transit, SunTran (Tucson, AZ), and The Ride (Ann Arbor, MI). Several other agencies offer low-income passes.

Editor-in-Chief Martin Duke was one of the first to publicly call for this program. The council’s decision to create the Low Income Fare Options Advisory Committee came about partially in response to social equity concerns when the Ride Free Area was discontinued in 2012, and partially at the behest of an organizing campaign led by the Seattle Transit Riders’ Union.