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?
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.
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!