Blue Moon

A few weeks ago, a neighbor of mine in the Issaquah Highlands noted that the 1,000-parking-space Park and Ride near our neighborhood was filled to capacity on a recent weekday. I got to thinking, if people wanted to use public transit in our relatively dense neighborhood, that park and ride is all we have. The majority of our neighborhood’s homes aren’t within 1/4 of a mile of the bus routes, and there’s a decent sized hill between many homes and the park and ride.

I decided to seek a rush hour shuttle service that would take people from where they live and get them to the park and ride, where there are several rush hour bus routes to Bellevue, Issaquah and Seattle. At a time of service cuts at Metro, there is no chance of a service expansion — in fact Metro recently cut service on several of our city’s routes.

However, Metro does have a program to allow cities to buy service. I contacted Metro and spoke with Michelle Allison, a self described “transit geek” working on the Community Mobility Contracts project, which allows cities to purchase Metro service. Community Mobility Contracts are a “full cost recovery” program, meaning that cities pay 100% of net costs to Metro. So if the route would cost $200,000 a year, that’s what it costs your city.  Also, even if your route happens to recover an above-average amount at the fare box, they charge you the system average. For example, if you collect $100 in fares on your route that costs $200, Metro only gives you credit for collecting $60.  For a low-performing line, this could be a benefit.  For a high-performing line, it would be a drawback.  My quick math (based on this article) is that a shuttle service like this might actually net higher than average cost recovery, so this makes Metro’s service look less desirable than it might otherwise look.

Next, I approached Hopelink, a social service provider on the Eastside. Many people don’t know that Hopelink provides all of the buses for Metro’s DART Bus service. They quickly returned messages, and came back with an estimate of $75/hr (almost 1/2 of what Metro’s average cost is). Even without any farebox recovery, that brings the cost to approximately $113,000 per year.

Finally, I spoke with the neighborhood association to see if there was interest in paying for this service.  Initial comments included concern about the cost and whether the City of Issaquah and service users would be paying for part of the costs. I’m working on scheduling a meeting with the President of my association to assess next steps.

I’m excited about my nascent effort to expand transit options in my neighborhood, and curious if my efforts will bear any fruit. I’m hopeful that this service upgrade could mean fewer car trips and perhaps allow some people to downgrade from 2 cars to 1.  The Issaquah Highlands is never going to be downtown Seattle, but perhaps some additional transit options can improve people’s lives. I hope to share my findings soon.

37 Replies to “How to expand transit service, one neighborhood at a time”

  1. As a former IH resident, I applaud your efforts. I really think that community had as good of a set up for a suburban community as possible; the park and ride is perfect, but the hill setting makes the “last mile” quite difficult for bikers and walkers, especially since close to 1/3rd of the residences are above Grand Ridge Elementary (over half a mile and 400′ elevation difference). I recall when Metro had planned to bring Rte 200 up to village green – even at 30 minute headways it would have collected enough folks in that area to bring them to the P&R and reduce the parking need there.

    IH gets a bad rap by many urbanists because of what it is not, but its easy to lose sight of what it is, a somewhat honest (as far as developers go) suburban attempt to reduce the need on SOV for those who choose to. I know i did when I lived there, my car is 10 years old and has 42000 miles because i rarely drove to work. After the stores came in, that helped a lot too.

  2. Go get ’em, Jason. We faced similar issues getting the Kent Shopper Shuttle up and running many years ago, and the City & Metro to fund the free service. Not even sure if it’s running now, as I moved away.

  3. Jason,

    This seems like a great opportunity for “carpooling”. Actually, community ride sharing might be a better name.

    Seriously. Most suburban carpooling efforts run up against the “I don’t work anywhere near any of my neighbors” problem. But for these carpools you’d all be going to the same location: Issaquah Highlands Park’n’Ride. The City of Issaquah could create a registry of people who want to go to the Park’n’Ride from different neighborhoods of the Highlands to catch certain morning buses. Folks would provide their addresses and an email address or text number. All that would be public on the site is the number of people interested in a certain arrival time from a certain neighborhood.

    When say three people had signed up, any one could contact the city with an offer to provide transportation and get the emails and/or text contact numbers from the others and form the carpool. Maybe they’ll rotate who drives, maybe one does and everyone chips in a buck a week because of the short distance. Or maybe the driver says, “it’s on me.” The great thing is that it’s no big deal if someone needs to skip the ride some morning because of a different schedule; it doesn’t upset the economics because they’re pretty much irrelevant.

    Now coming home would work totally differently. Leaving times are not as consistent these days as are starting times, especially for the sort of affluent workers who live in The Highlands. You’re mostly tecchies or managers and are expected to “take one for the team” pretty often. This is a major reason why “real” carpools are so hard to establish these days.

    But what if you just got Metro to allow you to put up signs on the shelters for different neighborhoods and depended on the morning ride sharing drivers to swing by the shelter area before going home and pick up the folks headed for their neighborhoods? The city could issue a card to all users of the registry to verify to a driver who was concerned about picking up someone she or he did not yet know was participating in the system.

    Now I understand that every day a couple to a few folks arriving back at the P’n’R would have to call for a ride, and yes, that would be an inconvenience. But if the city can’t pay for the service, and it won’t be $200,000 per year, you can be certain of that, this might be a way to make the transit center more useful to the community.

      1. You walk, cab or call home. A shuttle wouldn’t run then either; talk about “empty buses”.

      1. It’s rather expensive ($185/van/month, according to that link; I assume that doesn’t get you any transfers.)

      2. If your employer pays your transit pass, then the $185 is much more tolerable. That’s only $37 for a 5-person group, ~$1.68 per person per commute trip for guaranteed parking and P&R access.

    1. Oh, I forgot to reply to the evenings. Evenings are what I was talking about for the people who get there too late and have to call home for a ride.

      This is just an idea of how to do this if the city says “No”.

      In fact, this is exactly how the Black folks in Montgomery got to work through the bus boycott. Of course, there was no “city registry” — oh, no — but the few folks who had cars made multiple trips each morning and evening picking up anyone headed where they were going.

      The shuttle wouldn’t run then either.

      1. Lyft and UberX could be a partial solution for the evening problem, especially if there were a way for multiple passengers coming off the same bus or train to share a ride together. Currently, though, neither service is reliable enough in Issaquah to be depended on, but as the market grows, that could conceivably change in the future.

        Of course, in the ideal world, mobile apps would match riders with commuter drivers, rather than hired drivers. Although the driver pay would still have go beyond the simple cost of gas in order for it to be worth the time and trouble for drivers to sign up.

      2. That is where Metro could launch a ridematching service similar to Lyft, but where drivers could schedule their guaranteed availability in the Highlands. Say, between 5pm and 9pm next Saturday. That would give riders reassurance they won’t get stuck with “No car available”. This would be less of a commitment than a regular Lyft driver, because they’d only be taking people for short trips in Issaquah and could go home in between.

    2. A peak-only shutttle is barely better than nothing at all. If it’s too long a walk peak hours, it’s too long a walk other times, and it’s frustrating if a bus only runs when you don’t need it. Maybe a peak shuttle can be a marginal benefit for commuters, but it’s not “expanding transit service” in the sense I thought this article was about, and it will have only minimal impact in “allowing some people to downgrade from 2 cars to 1”.

    1. If you’re talking about inexpensive shuttle vans, they don’t scale to places requiring a full-size bus. Part of the reason for Prop 1 is full-size buses are overcrowded, and you can’t solve that with a few vans.

    1. I assume he means the police vans. Portable jails shaped like a long delivery van for rounding people up. They’re sometimes parked at demonstrations or events.

      1. They used to be called “paddy wagons”. Probably in honor of the archetypal “Irish cop”.

  4. As a Seattleite who was recently in the Highlands house sitting for my parents and used the P&R for the first time, I was also surprised (pleasantly and unpleasantly) by how crowded the P&R was. More power to you if you can get the HOA on board with a shuttle system. Seems like it might cut down on quite a bit of those car trips, although there’s still a good chunk of homes that are too far of a walk away from NE Park for suburban legs. I don’t see people driving down to park near NE Park, waiting for the circulator to take them to the P&R and then waiting for the 218. An improvement, though, for sure.

    Has anyone corresponded with the city of Issaquah/ST/KCM regarding ways to improve traffic flow into and out of there? Seems like a bit of a design flaw there to put it on such a skinny plot of land in the first place, but there has to be ways of improving it. The lack of sight distance (due to landscaping) exiting onto NE 9th (which is basically a drag race track) seems like a disaster waiting to happen. And it took me 10+ minutes to get out of the garage with all the cars lining up to get out at 5 or so. It may not be enough traffic to qualify for a stoplight, but is there room for a some sort of short feeder lane for exiting cars?

    1. Part of the reason it might be so full is that Issaquah Highlands P&R serves far more than just Issaquah Highlands. It is also the best place to drive to to catch a bus for pretty much all of Sammamish. (Yes, it is possible to catch the 216 closer to home, but Issaquah Highlands P&R offers more routes combining for more frequent service, and to get to I-90, you have to drive right by it anyway).

      (While the walking environment is good within Issaquah Highlands itself, the sidewalks pretty much die out the moment you head north from the P&R towards Sammamish).

      It should also be noted that while the Highlands P&R may be full on weekdays, it is virtually empty on weekends. Eastgate and Issaquah Transit Center get ok weekend parker-ship (20% full, rather than 0% full), but a lot of these parkers are people carpooling into the mountains, rather than riding transit to downtown Seattle.

  5. I am totally not going to suggest a little automated or limited-hour gondola. I could, but I won’t.

      1. Population, really. It’s fairly dense for single family housing, but not very dense overall. The community would probably be able to swing the construction cost, but then you’d have to pay two employees (or 4 part-time, plus some type of manager) to run the thing.

        (looks into it some) Actually, the numbers work on the operation side. They’ll have 10,000 people living there on full buildout (7k now). Assuming 1/4 of them are commuters and 1/4 of the commuters ride the gondola that’s 625 commuters. Running it for 4 hours per direction with 3 workers at $20/hr that’s only $240 per commute. Double that to factor in maintenance, and you can meet your O&M side for just $1 a direction. You’d need to look into it further, but it could work.

      2. Considering that some Medina houses have $50K gondolas/funiculars from their house to their beach for just one family (even though they never seem to use them), it’s not that farfetched to put a gondola between suburban neighborhoods. Great for Kirkland if they’re the first. And they could build a starter line just within Kirkland if Bellevue isn’t ready to go along yet.

      1. There is that. I don’t know IH at all, but looking at the Google Map you could draw a straight line from near the P&R to the road near the baseball fields at Central Park. You’d mostly be over trees and only pass over a few homes. It would be less than a mile, and be under 1/2 mile from well over 1/2 the homes.

  6. Do they charge a fee to use the park ride lot? Seems like you could collect 200,000 rather quickly.

  7. I want to see if I am understanding this correctly. The IH is a compact, dense and walkable community. And now you’re trying to figure out how to get more transit service so people don’t have to walk?

    1. I’ve been to the Highlands twice. The first time was for one of asdf’s transit hikes where we met at the P&R and walked down to the trails. I was amazed at how many houses were within a 10-minute walk of the P&R, and the wide variety ranging from single-family to row houses to apartments, and the supermarket and shopping center within walking distance too (although those had just started construction then). I wish the suburban neighborhood I grew up in had been like that. It seemed compact enough to me to walk from any house to the P&R, but I don’t live there so I can’t say what it’s like from the futhest house.

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