Karl Otterstrom at Spokane Transit HQ
Karl Otterstrom at Spokane Transit HQ

About two months ago, I visited Spokane, to research a post about the controversy then churning around Spokane’s central transit station, the STA Plaza, and while there, I met Karl Otterstrom, head planner of the Spokane Transit Authority. Subsequently, I have felt rather sad that the only piece on STB about transit in Spokane should be one focused on a negative, and arguably manufactured problem, when there is a remarkably positive and durable story to be told; and today, I’m going to fix that.

The story is about a transit agency, serving a mid-size city in a politically moderate region, which has remade itself along with the network it operates: from the caretaker of an expensive, atrophying, ex-streetcar system, to the operator of a relevant, growing, rider-oriented grid of bus routes, built around frequent service and timed connections. In thus reforming itself, the agency has won the trust of local voters, and positioned itself, and the region it serves, for a future of continued improvement and growth.

I sat down (electronically) with Karl, to have him first introduce himself, and then tell this story.

Bruce: First, can you tell me a little about your professional background?

Karl: I have a Masters in urban planning from the University of Washington, and a BA in urban and regional planning, from Eastern Washington University. I have been a land use planner, working on a variety of land use actions, from conditional use permits for rock pits in Idaho to comprehensive plan amendments in the Rainier Valley. In graduate school I emphasized in transportation planning and interned for the Federal Transit Administration, before landing a job with King County Metro in the service planning group. There, I primarily worked on longer-range service planning and policy issues, including RapidRide and Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement planning. I left Metro in 2009 to become the Planning Director for Spokane Transit. I also interned at STA in 2002 and involved myself in transportation planning issues, as a citizen and professional, since about 2000.

How long have you been interested in transit, what got you started?

The first defining experience with transit was going with my family to the 1986, transportation-themed, World’s Fair in Vancouver, BC. We stayed with distant relatives who lived somewhere not far from a SkyTrain station. It’s that experience that got me hooked at an early age and thinking about transit despite the fact that I would have very limited experience with transit for another eight years. In high school I was in the orchestra and we did trips to music festivals in Portland and Vancouver, BC. On those trip I took some of my fellow musicians on transit tours via bus, MAX or SkyTrain that memorialized me in high school as the guy who was going to bring the SkyTrain to Spokane.

A more comprehensive transit experience was that of serving a two-year mission in northeast Brazil for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. With exceptions that I could count on one hand, I traveled exclusively by foot and bus for two years. I grew to be very impressed with the role of buses in Brazil’s transportation system, especially when I learned about BRT from one of my companions who was a native of Curitiba.

For my readers, could you outline briefly the recent history of transit in Spokane?

The region’s transit agency, Spokane Transit, was born in the early 1980s and is the successor to a respectable pedigree of transit systems that have operated streetcar, electric interurban and bus services in Spokane County. With the creation of the agency and the funding mechanisms it enabled, the system grew organically from the historic radial network.

Based on strong guidance from the downtown Spokane community, one of the agency’s initial objectives was to construct a downtown transit center. For a number of reasons, the transit center wasn’t built until 1995. For riders it was a big improvement in terms of waiting conditions, but it also brought the most significant scheduling change in a very long time, which riders found disruptive. I believe this was a major impetus in seeking professional expertise in redesigning the network later that decade.

The redesigned network didn’t have much time to mature, as with other systems in Washington, for Spokane Transit was challenged by the loss of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax funding. After some modest cuts, the board asked voters in 2002 for a 0.3% increase in the sales tax. The measure was narrowly defeated. This became a defining moment for the board and they vowed to change the public perception of the organization before coming back again for revenue. They took some dramatic steps to that end, including more cuts, and in 2004, a measure to increase the sales tax through 2009 was approved by 68.8% of voters.

As part of the measure, the STA Board and management established measurable objectives that it would achieve by the end of a certain time horizon. With the objectives achieved in less than five years and ridership going sky high, the STA Board placed a sales tax measure, without a sunset clause, on the ballot in May 2008, that was approved by 65% of voters. The Great Recession began later that year and by mid-2009, we gave the Board of Directors a proposal for a three-phased reduction plan. The plan would be grounded in service design principles and policies that were adopted in late 2009, and then a comprehensive plan adopted in 2010 called Connect Spokane. Between 2010 and 2011, 10% of fixed route service was cut from the system. The third phase was indefinitely postponed in early 2012 as ridership was growing and it was clear we needed more service now.

You mentioned measurable objectives. Some of the most interesting things STA publishes are reports (like this one) with route-level data, that include metrics like passenger-mile-per-gallon, which tells readers clearly how transit stacks up next to their car in environmental impact. Could you tell me more about those reports, and how they came to be?

As part of the 2009 service design principles and policies, a set of performance standards were developed and adopted that attempt to provide a triple-bottom-line assessment of each route and their contribution to the network. The underpinnings of this evolved from work I had done at King County in contribution to a statewide climate action team. While the prevailing environmental concern is greenhouse gas emissions, one of the most effective ways to reduce greenhouse gases, while arguably saving money, is to reduce energy consumption, or at least consumption per unit measured. So it was at Metro that I started to discover how transit really contributed to reducing energy consumption, and where it sometimes didn’t.

In the parlance of triple bottom line, our social metric is riders per revenue hour: how many people is the service touching? Second is farebox recovery, and last is energy consumed per passenger mile. One of our guiding principles for performance monitoring is that there is not one size that fits all. This is especially true in a transit network; routes contribute in different ways. So we expect higher riders per hour for routes that serve Spokane’s central business district. This respects the lower productivity that will be seen in some crosstown and suburban services while still giving them a measurable objective. As for energy consumption, we expect basic and frequent routes to be more energy efficient than the single occupancy vehicle, while commuter routes are to be as energy efficient as an average-loaded automobile (somewhere north of 1.5 persons). We take our data from our vehicle operations and the latest US Department of Energy energy data book for national statistics.

I should point out that we don’t have “coverage” routes or “ridership” routes. Our policy goal is to provide 80% of the urbanized area with basic (7-day a week) bus service within 1/2 mile walk. Coverage is productivity; the system is only productive by the contributions of all the parts. So in that sense, all routes are designed for coverage and productivity.

Over the last couple of decades, STA seems to have restructured its entire bus network, root and branch. Could you tell me more about that process, and the results?

STA System Map Excerpt
STA System Map Excerpt

I’d say there were three significant restructures of the last 16 years: the 1998 service change brought about a Comprehensive Operations Assessment conducted by Jarrett Walker, then of Nelson\Nygaard; in 2005, 15% of service was added to the system as fulfilling one of the objectives of the sales tax vote and further restructures were made; and lastly, the cuts in 2010-2011 also doubled as an important network restructure. There were items left on the table in 1998 that were taken care of in 2005 (e.g. a big deviation into a residential neighborhood for a fairly important route).

Frequent service was established in some major corridors in 1998 such as Division Street and Sprague Avenue, each now carrying over a million rides a year. The North Monroe corridor as developed in 1998 had branches extending out from a core 15-minute service trunk that was consolidated into a simpler line in 2005. With the 2011 reductions, we not only increased segments with frequent service, we were able to eliminate routes that had been on the chopping block twice before but had survived due to public outcry. We did not let the crisis go to waste.

But what is really significant about how we went about doing the reduction is the reliance on Connect Spokane. We didn’t simply cut low performers; we cut with the end in mind. That end is the future “High Performance Transit Network”, and a set of service policies that prescribe “basic” routes that operate 365 days a year, plus weekday peak service for commuters (less than 10% of service hours). As for basic routes, we actually added hours to several routes that did not operate on weekends or Sunday to “mitigate” the loss of other service. These routes are now at record ridership and productivity has vastly improved, in part, because people can count on service being there all the time.

Another part of the restructures that stemmed from new service design policies was the elimination of about 35% of our bus stops (including on abandoned routes). Our system-wide average stop spacing is now about 1/4 mile. We implemented the stop consolidation program over four phases during each summer from 2010 thru 2013. You can read more about our work in this effort in a recent TCRP report on improving bus service reliability.

The service changes and stop consolidations have not been all roses and sunshine. There have been challenging conversations, heart-rending stories and soul-searching experiences. Even this week we had someone come to a public meeting to denounce our work because of the impacts it caused his family three years ago. However, the positive impacts of the changes have far outweighed the negatives, as Spokane’s transit ridership is expected to hit a record this year, despite having less service than in 2009. We have seen strong leadership from our CEO and Board of Directors in the making hard decisions that always accompanies change. And I think one real important lesson is that the network gets better over time; as long as progress is being made and vision is in place, don’t be discouraged that a network doesn’t get to perfection in one big bang.

I hear STA is working on real-time arrival information, à la OneBusAway. How’s that going, and when’s it expected to roll out?

Over a third of our buses are now equipped with automatic vehicle location hardware/software and automatic stop announcements (audible and visual). The entire fleet will be equipped by the end of 2014. In addition to creating a website /app that’s built on the software vendor’s platform, we are establishing a portal for the data to be provided to outside parties, including Google. I anticipate that our data will also be accessible via OneBusAway. One challenge I anticipate will be calibrating passenger schedule vis-a-vis more precise and timely OTP data. That will affect when we might drop a “beta” moniker for the effort. I should note that we have been a partner with Google for nearly four years now, and our schedule data is on the GTFS Exchange, making it available to Bing Maps, Nokia Here Maps, App developers and transit researchers throughout the world.

What’s up with the electric bus I saw on Twitter?

Like most transit agencies, we always enjoy test driving new technology. We were able to test out a BYD electric battery bus for a month and we also enjoyed a visit from Proterra last month to check out their latest fast charging bus. We are investigating electric buses to consider options for one of our future High Performance Transit corridors we refer to the Central City Line. These visits and test drives help build a body of knowledge and experience with this developing technology.

I’m particularly jealous of STA’s maps and wayfinding, both systemwide and for individual bus stops; their design quality reminds me of bus maps in London or Barcelona, and I wish we had those stop maps in Seattle. Could you discuss the work STA has done in this area?

STA has tried out all sorts of map styles to communicate the network. I had expressed interest in trying something new, and in late 2010 or 2011 our Communications Department contracted with CHK America to provide mapping and stop information display services. CHK obviously came to us with tremendous experience in mapping transit, but they hadn’t necessarily mapped a bus network the way we envisioned it. CHK and our Communications Department were all gracious to allow a lot of intrusion by me into colors, line thicknesses and how the service was described in the legend. We were all pleased with the outcome.

STA Spider Map
STA Spider Map

CHK later developed, and provides updates to, line maps and schedules for major stops, including all sheltered locations. The coloring scheme matches the system map. These materials are updated at each applicable service, up to three a year. These are very popular tools for our riders, especially at our busy transit center in downtown Spokane, the STA Plaza.

Additionally, we have developed and are installing new bus stops signs throughout the system that are far more informative than our old signs. They also have the bus stop ID number, which can be used with our rider hotline to obtain schedule information, and eventually real time estimated arrival information. The signs clearly communicate our brand and have better reflectivity than our old signs. About 250 are installed and the rest will be installed in the coming months.

Tell me about STA’s Moving Forward initiative, which launched recently.

STA Moving Forward is a draft plan to grow ridership by 30% and implements our comprehensive plan, Connect Spokane, over a ten-year period. As I mentioned earlier, a final service reduction was indefinitely deferred in 2012 and so half of the funding required for the plan is to sustain service, including funding planned fleet replacements scheduled for 2018-2026. We will implement over 20 miles of HPT corridors by 2020 and will invest in frequency and facilities throughout the region. More information can be found online: stamovingforward.com. It’s an exciting time to be a transit customer in Spokane.

Karl, thanks very much for taking the time to answer my questions, and the best of luck in your work!

24 Replies to ““The guy who was going to bring the SkyTrain to Spokane””

  1. Excellent article! it would be cool to conduct similar interviews with other transit agencies in the state.

  2. Best thing about Karl is that he looks like he wasn’t old enough to vote when Governor Locke thanked the State Supreme Court for saving his butt by signing the legislature’s reversal of an unconstitutional initiative. Thereby rendering an easily curable disease endemic

    Luckily, good bet that while Seinfeld may keep an audience for a hundred more years, Tim Eyman is no (insert here everybody middle age’s favorite anything for 1999). Did they even have iPhones?

    So may be time to start putting people of Karl’s age and motivation into office. Urban or rural, Seattle or Spokane, new management eventually clears the shelves of everything past its shelf life.


    1. Better phrasing would have been “signing the legislature’s enactment of an initiative that the court just ruled unconstitutional.” Bloggers have a shelf life too.


    2. Thanks, Mark! Actually, the first general election I voted in was in 1996. I voted against I-695 in 1999. But your point is no less valid. Cheers!

      1. Honest, I’m really honored to hear from you, Karl, and I’d like to stay in touch. I’ve been through some unusual transit history here in Seattle- but generally see the chief use of the past as reference for the future.

        Where I see a great many things finally turning in directions I can stand. Due to people your age taking control of this country’s political system- including the part with steel wheels and rubber duals underneath, and copper wire overhead.

        I really do consider this country’s coming changes much more generational than ideological. It’s not the calendar age of our leaders that matters. The ideas underlying their politics have been out of date for several decades.

        Please ask Bruce to help us trade e-mails.

        Mark Dublin
        Formerly Metro Transit Operator 2495

  3. Wow, Spokane made a great hire!

    This interview should be required reading for those haters “Lincoln”, “crossrip”, and “NotFan” over on Crosscut and all the blowhards on the Times website who get their jollies hating on Metro and in particular its staff. It shows how intelligent and dedicated the planners at Metro really are. It’s right here in Seattle at the Municipality that Karl Otterstrom learned how to apply what he learned in his academic training.

    I’d be tempted to put a link to this post over there, but then those morons would invade the blog. Yuck!

    1. In fact, @Anandakos, Spokane Transit has made a series of great hires. I am really fortunate that the Board hired a CEO who is willing to do the right thing in faces of the inevitable pushback, who has high expectations of staff and the transit system, and has assembled a terrific executive team. I have also been privileged to take on a department with quality staff and then augment it with new personnel who are some of the finest professionals not only in transit planning but in project and construction management (functions that are also within my department’s wheelhouse). In fact, I am constantly amazed by their dedication and innovation. And in the past year the agency’s communication team has gone from good to great, just in time for the next big thing. Spokane Transit rocks!

      1. I think you’re right Karl — high expectations at the top is critical. Having a team with a can-do (rather than the more traditional knee-jerk can’t do) approach, willing to sweat the details to keep improving and innovating. I think transit needs an entrepreneurial approach to survive and thrive. The best people can strive at a transit agency and get nowhere if the management doesn’t have a singular focus on getting the product right. That commitment has to prevail in an environment that favors risk avoidance and finding endless compromises to appease internal and external constituencies. It’s great that you’ve found a venue where you can be this effective, but I’m sure you are part of the leadership that creates that environment too.

    2. On your other point, @Anandakos, I would be remiss in not elaborating on my King County Metro experience and how instrumental it was in learning how to create strong transit networks. Metro is very fortunate to have excellent planners that are far ahead of many comparable agencies around the country. In general, Metro staff and officials face more than their fair share of obstacles, and are often condemned for things beyond their control, but still manage to make progress. Many of them I consider dear friends and mentors and like to think that I am one of their biggest cheerleaders on this side of the Cascades.

      1. Karl, speaking of planning: do you have any thoughts on the planning, design, building, and operation of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel to date?

        Mark Dublin

      2. Karl,

        Thanks for the generous replies. You’re clearly a wonderful manager as well since you value and advocate for the staff who work for you. Thanks for being an advocate for sane transit.

        And those “spider maps” are fantastic. I especially like the inclusion of the scheduled travel times to the various destinations.

        RapidRide needs to do that on the printed custom schedules at each station. It can’t be hard to add another little routine to the software that prints “Northgate Way 3 min”, “130th 6 min”, “145th 9 min”, “175th 14 min”, “Aurora Village 20 min” on the E-Line schedule at 90th (for example).

    3. Lincoln’s posts on Crosscut.com look suspiciously like Norman’s post here (when he used to post).

      Even his links to the Flickr accounts showing all the empty buses, are to the same – Norman Chadwick, which were Norman’s (of STB fame) links of I-5 traffic travelling faster than Link.

      1. They guy sure does like to take pictures of apartment buildings with buses in front of them. Do you think he’s excited to see them or running an “expose” of too much density in Seattle!!!!?

        Without captions it’s booooring!

  4. Karl, I met you at the STB RapidRide A inauguration ride which you came to town for. I was impressed then with your knowledge and commitment to great transit networks, and I was glad to hear how far Spokane had come along since my experience in the early 80s (half-hourly routes ending at 7pm; no schedules or route numbers at bus stops — just a phone number). I’ve been loosely following developments in Spokane since I talked with you, and am glad there’s some good things happening in the dry side of the state. It’s high time I visit Spokane again, maybe next year.

    1. Mike, it’s nice to hear from you. Transit has definitely come a long way in Spokane. There are some nice books that document the streetcar history here but the bus history is very undeveloped and, for a period of its history, deservedly ignominious. I’ve been collecting the history for a number of years from board minutes, newspaper articles and the like, but anecdotes like yours help provide qualitative context that’s hard to get from old paper.

      It’s fun to be a part of change! Look me up if you come make a visit and I’d be pleased to meet you again and orient you to our system.

  5. Mr. Otterstrom is one of the best in the business, and someone I truly enjoyed meeting and learning from.

    Spokane Transit really does enhance its region, and one of these years we should be reading that STA is awarded APTA’s Outstanding Public Transportation System. (IMHO!)

    Jason Barbour
    BA, EWU, 2012

  6. I’m curious to know what the status is on “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.”?

  7. Karl,

    Are there any long term plans for light rail in Spokane? I know it has been looked at in the past, but was the idea shelved, or scrapped completely?

    1. Our comprehensive plan suggests that it may be feasible in the long term for light rail in an east-west corridor that would roughly follow one of the old interurban lines. This is where the vision of light rail in Spokane has primarily focused since the early 1980s. Near-term feasibility is challenged with land use policies that don’t support density, and high construction costs relative to ridership.

      Our long-range plan identifies promising corridors, then suggests possible modes. It’s not aiming to build a rail network or a bus network; rather, the centerpiece of the plan is a high performance transit network that is support by conventional bus routes and non-motorized transportation options that ultimately support a people-oriented community.

      The corridor in question is primarily publicly owned and is being adapted into a multi-use path while preserving the option of future transit right of way.

      I should point out that a local transit advocacy organization strives to sustain the conversation on light rail. You can check out their views at http://www.inlandrail.org. You will note that their perspectives on transit are in some cases very different than mine, but I applaud their enthusiasm and engagement.

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