RapidRide F coach
A “red bus” on the F Line. Photo by Blue Bus Fan.

On March 31st, King County Metro held a Visioning Workshop to kick off its new long-range planning process.  The process will supplement Metro’s current 2011-2021 Strategic Plan with a new long-range plan, to be presented in draft form in spring 2016 and adopted by the King County Council in late 2016.  The launch party was a transit geek’s extravaganza: it featured breakout sessions for riders and citizens to talk with Metro personnel about what they want from the transit system, as well a “visioning” panel with transit eminence Jarrett Walker, Seattle civic leader Rebecca Saldaña, and UW transportation planning professor Mark Hallenbeck.

Because of scheduling conflicts, I was unable to attend the event itself, which was very well attended and garnered consistently positive reports from attendees (at least those who talked to us).  However, Metro invited STB staff to a media Q&A session immediately before the event, which I was able to make.  At the session, Metro deputy general manager Victor Obeso and Walker offered an interesting, frank, and informative discussion of the long-range planning process. A few highlights of that discussion follow below the jump.

What Is a Long-Range Plan?  While Metro has been preparing strategic plans on a roughly five-year cycle, Obeso pointed out that this plan will be Metro’s first true long-range plan in twenty years.  Asked what had changed in that time, Obeso emphasized two things: the increasingly multi-destinational nature of travel patterns in King County, and the extraordinary population growth that King County has undergone over the last twenty years.  He described the role of the new plan as addressing two core questions.  First, what is the role of public transportation in the King County transportation network of the future?  Second, how should King County Metro services be organized and implemented within that network?

Why Go Through the Process?  Walker, who described his role in this process as minimal and intended to facilitate discussion—”I’m showing up tonight”—rather than the intensive consulting role he has played in other local planning processes, spent some time addressing the value a long-range planning process is supposed to create.  He emphasized bringing those who do not currently use transit into the process, and helping them to understand “geometric facts” that those of us who plan and study transit (not to mention current riders) may take for granted.  For instance, those “geometric facts” include the very important role high frequency plays in minimizing total real-world trip times, and the relatively higher importance of service quality than specific mode or “identity of the vehicle” in building a well-used network.  Walker emphasized that bringing residents together and teaching them more about transit basics frees them to bring their values into the discussion, and allow residents to accurately assess whether concrete proposals in fact promote the values they want to see the transit network uphold.

What’s In the Plan?  Obeso described the content of the long-range plan as a “roadmap for the future,” which will consider development patterns and help match future public transit to the “organization of residents’ lives” given those development patterns.  The roadmap will document what is needed to accomplish that goal, including capital infrastructure projects, operational improvements to the transit network, and resources necessary to accomplish those changes.

How Does the Plan Relate to Other Agencies’ Work?  Obeso and Walker, at different points in the conversation, both referred to this plan as one in a “conversation among plans” between local agencies.  Obeso painted a picture of each local government with a say in transit as steadily influencing the others.  He said that Metro was paying close attention to Sound Transit’s ST2 execution and ST3 planning efforts, as well as the Seattle Transit Master Plan, the Bellevue Transit Master Plan, and the planning work of the Puget Sound Regional Council—and that Metro would expect those agencies to pay close attention to Metro’s long-range plan in turn.

Obeso singled out close coordination with Sound Transit’s ST3 planning as particularly important, mentioning pointedly (with a hearty assent from Walker) that light rail planning should include integration with the bus network as an important goal.  He said “We want the LRP to fit with ST3, and we also want ST3 to fit with the LRP.”  Walker expanded on this by dismissing “hierarchy of modes” planning, where the rail network is built without consideration to buses, as outdated thinking.  Instead, he advocated an approach based on planning a total network where all modes accommodate all others to make trips faster and more reliable.

Funding.  Given Metro’s repeated and ongoing funding challenges, I asked Obeso to elaborate on whether the plan would identify specific means of funding the improvements it identifies.  Obeso emphatically agreed with the need for growth and the funding to support that growth, saying “if we have the same system in 20 years, we’ve failed.”  On funding specifics, though, I found his answer a bit equivocal.  On the one hand, he said the plan would need to look at the sustainability of Metro’s funding structure, singling out the agency’s currently heavy reliance on sales taxes as unsustainable, and identify possible sources of funding.  On the other hand, he acknowledged the necessity for political support, and saw the plan itself as a way to develop that support, saying “funding will follow from successful plans.”

One of the greatest casualties of Metro’s funding challenges has been the agency’s ability to execute capital projects.  Except for a few new park-and-ride garages completed in recent years, there has been almost no capital spending outside of the infrastructure needed to run the network (such as bus bases), as Metro has repeatedly diverted capital funds to avoiding service cuts.  The majority of the improvements that have recently benefited Metro service have been funded either by city governments (with a special nod to the City of Seattle) or by Sound Transit for the purpose of improving ST Express bus service.  I asked Obeso whether he saw Metro taking a renewed role in making capital improvements in the long term.  Obeso did not commit to any particular role, but did say that Metro hoped to “be a partner” with cities and WSDOT on future capital improvements, and to once again participate in both relatively low-dollar “lines on the roadway” projects (such as those SDOT has been implementing throughout Seattle) and more significant infrastructure investments.

Future Network Concepts.  It won’t surprise anyone that I asked Obeso how the long-range plan would affect the Metro network.  He said that the long-range plan process itself would help answer that question, and that part of the process would involve presenting the public with alternative concepts, like Metro recently did for the U-Link restructure.  The public may be asked to weigh in on whether it prefers higher frequency on high-ridership core routes or lower frequency with expanded neighborhood coverage, and whether it prefers low-frequency freeway express service or increased frequency on local connections.  Obeso also mentioned that he felt Metro had gotten particular success in the recent past from cities “opening up” roadway space for frequent transit use, citing increased ridership and frequency on RapidRide routes.  (Perhaps contradicting Walker’s earlier discussion, he also said “I wouldn’t underestimate the red buses.”)  Finally, Obeso mentioned further development of alternative service concepts for “the further reaches” of King County, such as the Snoqualmie Valley Shuttle now serving Snoqualmie and North Bend.

12 Replies to “Metro Talks Long-Range Planning”

  1. I have way more faith in any agency except Metro. I just learned that Metro reps stormed out on SDOT in a recent meeting. From what I’ve heard, this is a common theme. So it’s no surprise that the agency that acts the most like children are the furthest behind. They talk about how they want cooperation in front of the public but behind the scenes it’s a whole different story. They are also one of the worst performing agencies who claim they care about trip times but then route almost every route through Downtown. The track record for Metro is a joke and if the best they can do is just ship buses through the DT corridor, then that should show how they really do the absolute minimal amount of planning and this LRP is just a save face at the last minute initiative before voters in the county decide again to not just increase taxes so incompetent babies can continue to waste money.

    We all want good transit of course, I think a majority of King County wants more of it and will take new taxes to fund it, we just don’t trust it in the hands of Metro, an organization that has let down the Seattle area for decades.

  2. he advocated an approach based on planning a total network where all modes accommodate all others

    I heartily agree.

    Right now, though, the only rapid method of transit, capable of covering long distance with minimal stops, is Sounder. Integration with more local transit is quite good, at least by my experience of Kent and Seattle.

    The LRT system, in terms of speed and regional travel, is no better than a bus, sometimes not even a BRT. (Maybe a future system of expresses and locals would help that).

    But yes, these shouldn’t be alternative, parallel methods. We need the fast moving us long distances to key destinations, and then moderate and then regular speed transit. Star topology emanating from the long distance lines.


  3. Yaay, long-range planning.

    Attendance was much higher than expected. It filled 2/3 of the downtown library auditorium and overwhelmed the breakout space. A lot of that was apparently people recruited by the Transit Riders Union, who passed out a flyer advocating a fare-increase rollback. (They apparently have ideas on how to do this without cutting service.)

    Jarrett made a passing reference to Lynnwood Link and the potential ST3 extensions, saying he wished the original proposals had been an integrated regional+local network rather than regional lines in a vacuum. This perhaps shows our biggest obstacle, that we’re doing integration at the end rather than the beginning. Metro/ST’s newfound commitment to integrated planning is encouraging, but its fruits will be when/if when/if the Metro/ST/Seattle/Bellevue plans converge. The problem is that many decisions will have to be made before then, such as U-Link integration and the ST3 system plan, and those will constrain our options like ST2 Link and RapidRide already have. If only we had started with a transit-oriented vision in 1990…

    There was a guy from Norway or Denmark in the integration breakout group I attended. He was in the US for just a year, so he gave a very European perspective. He’s living on Capitol Hill, which we normally think of as having the most frequent transit and walkability in the city. He said, “I have to wait fifteen minutes for a bus, and that’s far longer than practically any European city.” He said boarding is also slower although he wasn’t sure why; he said European systems are more POP oriented and people board at all doors. I don’t quite remember what else he said, but probably along the lines that different buses going the the same direction stop at different stops, and the lack of transit lanes slows down the buses.

    1. “a fare-increase rollback. (They apparently have ideas on how to do this without cutting service.)”

      To clarify, the advocate I overheard wasn’t intending to cut into the Prop 1 expansion or scuttle the U-Link reorganization. It sounded partly like structural tax reform (“Tax the rich”) and partly something I didn’t hear what and didn’t have time to ask about.

    2. To be sure, our system has limitations based on the different agencies, and the way in which the agencies operate (different budgets, long range plans, etc.). But that is no excuse for the agencies not working together to build a better system. You have to roll with the punches, but every agency does. For the most part, I blame Sound Transit for the really poor integration — the buses can be re-routed fairly easily, but the trains can’t. For example, we can’t add a station where the train intersectects 520 in Montlake (too late now). Sound Transit really didn’t need Metro to tell it where it could put a station either (this was obvious). Likewise, the Mount Baker station is terrible as a transfer point. These are pretty obvious problems that Sound Transit simply neglected.

      Not that Metro should be let off the hook. If nothing else, they should make a lot more noise. They should be yelling about the fact that little decisions (a station here instead of there) cost the organization a huge amount in service hours and thus effectiveness. They should sit down with Sound Transit and map out some plans for maximizing the use of this really, really, expensive light rail.

      Jarrett’s comments are basically just reiterating what many here have said: our systems need to integrate better. If you work in software long enough, you run across this situation. At some point, you realize you did it wrong. Not a little mistake here or there, but a fundamental problem in architecture. I once worked at a company that built a huge data management system with XML files. It worked OK, but didn’t scale. I’m sure if we hired an expert, the expert would have said the same thing we realized (but a lot sooner) — using a SQL database makes a lot more sense. It would be nice if Sound Transit actually listened to guys like Jarrett, before making decisions that are difficult to correct (like that one).

  4. One of the key reasons Long Range Planning comes up short much of the time, is we forget about looking backwards, before looking forward.
    Case in Point: The photo is of RapidRide F going from Burien to the Landing. Headways are great (10-15 min all day), and a vast improvement over the buses it replaced. How much more rapid is it really? Looks like the same old 1 hour plod.
    So, I don’t see any analysis of cost and benefit. Are bus costs now double from before, with ridership on a steep rise in response to better service?
    IIRC RapidRide A doubled headways on the old 174, but last I saw riders were only up 50 or so pct. Sure, more people riding, at higher cost per rider, maybe.
    Hows the C and D line compared to the routes it replaced?

    1. Ridership on both the C and D lines is up sharply from their predecessors, with only a small increase in service costs. If you take the D and 40 together they have more than doubled ridership from the old 15/18 locals.

      Of the six RapidRide lines, only the A doubled all-day headways along the whole line. (The B doubled them along the Crossroads-Redmond part only.)

    2. The problem with the F is routing – the trip from TIBS to Renton is a joke with all the twists and turns it takes. And nearly all of the twists and turns exists to connect Link to Southcenter (redundant with the 150) and to connect Southcenter and Renton to imaginary Sounder trains during the off-peak hours.

      It’s the latter that is especially galling – there is absolutely no reason to deviate a frequent all-day route into a train station when the train it’s supposed to connect to isn’t even running. (I suppose there is Amtrak, but that’s too infrequent and too irrelevant to the trips people make in their everyday life to matter much).

      1. Rapid Ride F stops at Tukwila Station 152 times a day to “intercept” 20 Sounder runs and 8 Amtrak runs. It’s quite ridiculous.

      2. I used to drive the Van from S.Center to PACCAR with maybe 3 or 4 riders on 30 min headways. I couldn’t imaging putting an artic on that route, with 10 min headways – even counting the 140 riders from Burien to Renton.

      3. And nearly all of the twists and turns exists to connect Link to Southcenter (redundant with the 150)

        That is pretty downtown-centric thinking.

  5. A sane routing of the F-line would look something like this: https://www.google.com/maps/dir/47.4699815,-122.3389236/47.463204,-122.3392199/47.465235,-122.2880108/47.4614438,-122.2578818/47.4650938,-122.2429374/47.4713295,-122.2142907/47.4797656,-122.2085953/@47.4705933,-122.3108253,12503m/data=!3m2!1e3!4b1!4m2!4m1!3e0

    (Spoiler: Southcenter Blvd./Grady Way all the way, except for an extremely minor deviation to Tukwila Parkway to serve the north end of Southcenter Mall).

Comments are closed.