News Roundup: Pumped

SEATTLE--Brill TC 798 at South Base, with Link 134 OB

This is an open thread.

ST3 is Slow Because It Reflects Our Values

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Lifecycle of a Typical 15-Year Transit Project (Sound Transit graphic)

Here’s an inconvenient truth I’ve been thinking about lately: Sound Transit could build faster, but we don’t really want them to. While we may individually clamor for the end product – trains now! – at every step of the way we also work against speedy delivery. We cherish our own democratic participation, we demand that our appeals for mitigations be heard, and we require that government not be allowed to harm other public interests in pursuit of its mandate.

We could easily imagine alternative scenarios that would build us new urban subways in under a decade. We could:

  • Free ourselves from the conservatism required by private bond markets by levying higher taxes or creating centralized financing through infrastructure banks (see: European Investment Bank).
  • Reform NEPA and SEPA to provide streamlining or categorical exclusions for transit projects.
  • Be more aggressive with eminent domain takings, and drive harder bargains with affected residents and businesses (see: China).
  • Repeal the Buy America Act to import cheaper labor and off-the-shelf materials
  • Enact public-private partnerships (see: Denver or the Canada Line) or cede control of projects to firms through consolidated design/build contracts (see: Bertha).
  • Ruthlessly cut-and-cover our tunnels through the heart of Downtown, providing no guarantees of continued access to nearby streets or buildings (as when Pine Street was closed for two years for the DSTT).
  • Stop caring about noise abatement and work around the clock.
  • Preclude neighborhoods from participation in station construction details, and build what we want when we want it.
  • Require Sound Transit to use public capital for profit, becoming a master developer and creating massive TOD on all of its projects as part of its financial plan (see: Hong Kong).
  • Ignore the advocacy community in favor of faster top-down planning, rendering useless the many oversight committees, advisory boards, our cadre of transportation nonprofits, and uppity blogs like ours.

Continue reading “ST3 is Slow Because It Reflects Our Values”

Metro’s Response on Weekend Bus2Link Transfers

BY JEREMY FICHTER

Metro Service Planner Jeremy Fichter
Metro Service Planner Jeremy Fichter

We appreciate the careful attention the Seattle Transit Blog, riders, and advocates are giving to how service is performing since we implemented the major restructure in Northeast Seattle. We’re watching closely, too, listening and logging customer concerns about specific overcrowded trips, or gaps in service riders would like us to address, and analyzing ridership and performance data that helps us operate the system.

With this restructure, Metro focused on improving service in areas and during time periods with greatest demand. On routes affected by U-Link integration, ridership on Saturdays and Sundays is about half and one-third of ridership on weekdays, respectively. The changes made are consistent with Metro’s Service Guidelines and were made in concert with service investment choices made by the City of Seattle using Proposition 1 transit funds.

Our work has only begun. Given the extent of this service change, Metro anticipated that refinements would be needed following the service change and set aside a reserve of service hours for this purpose. Metro is monitoring customer feedback and has been observing routes that we’re hearing about in key locations where we know passenger loading could be at its highest point. Once we’ve seen a consistent pattern of crowding, we’ll make adjustments as soon as possible and as resources allow. Although our first priority will be to address overcrowding, we may also be able to address limited gaps in the span of service as well, again as resources allow.

Adopting a template used by writer Zach Shaner, the updated table below lists the earliest trips at each location noted in Zach’s table, before and after, and the routes. It shows how Metro service was maintained at each of the specified locations. It also illustrates improvements as a result of including all the routes that serve each location, namely Routes 62 and 76, which do not provide service to the U District but do provide early morning one-seat rides to downtown Seattle.  Route 62 is a new route providing a one-seat ride to downtown Seattle every 15 minutes or better, seven days-a-week from many NE Seattle neighborhoods, including Sand Point, Wedgwood, Ravenna and Roosevelt.

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There are concerns in the story that some trips have become harder. In each case, we have identified that riders have alternatives to the service that was previously available.

  • “Early morning weekend trips from Wedgwood/Ravenna to the UDistrict via Route 65 (20 minutes later on Saturday and Sunday) and Route 71 (90 minutes later on Saturday and no Sunday service).”  Historical demand in this neighborhood and time of day is limited.  For example, in Fall 2015, the first trip on Route 65 had a maximum load of 12 riders.  Those destined for downtown from Wedgwood/Ravenna on weekends will have service as early or earlier than before on Route 62, as shown in the table above.
  • “Early weekend trips to SeaTac Airport via Link.”  Riders can take early morning service on Routes 41 or 62 to transfer to Link downtown.  On Sundays, Route 62 will come twice as often as Routes 65 or 71 before the change.
  • “Sunday trips to Downtown via Link and Routes 8, 65, 67, 75, and 372, all of which require bus/rail transfers at 30-minute headways.”  Residents in Sand Point, Wedgwood, Ravenna and Roosevelt who are destined for downtown will have service as early or earlier than before on Route 62, as shown on the table above.  Route 62 provides a one-seat ride to downtown and does not require a transfer to Link.  Sundays on Capitol Hill, Routes 10, 11 and 12 provide direct trips to downtown Seattle before the first trip on Route 8.  Also, Route 8 was improved to operate every 20 minutes between noon and 7 p.m. on Sunday.

In a similar fashion, here is a revised frequency table reflecting service frequencies at the same locations as the table above, before and after Metro’s service change.

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Again, we appreciate any and all feedback about the changes implemented on March 26. We welcome readers of Seattle Transit Blog to submit comments and suggestions to Metro Customer Service at 206-553-3000.

So What’s the Problem with BART?

st3One of the most common analogies for spine skeptics has been a comparison between Link, BART, and DC Metro. The DC Metro, despite decades of neglect, has much higher ridership than BART in a similarly sized Metro area. Critics often give agencies too much credit — or blame — for ridership when the real causes are land use and competing freeways in commute corridors. Nevertheless, I thought the critique of BART was that there weren’t enough stations in dense San Francisco and too much in lower-density suburbs, whereas DC has a fairly dense network in the core city.

I think it’s important to get the critique of BART right: the problem is not that there’s too much in the suburbs, it’s that there’s not enough in the city. I’m not a BART historian, but it’s not abundantly clear that the dollars to build to Dublin would have been available to dig up the western part of San Francisco. It’s not constructive to get mad that someone else’s transit is a little nicer than it has to be, unless there’s a clear line between that and other neglected causes.

In Saturday’s article I shared a chart that shows the core city’s share of the spine-heavy ST3 proposal is nearly identical with DC’s core city share in the metric that matters most, stations, and is significantly better than San Francisco. But that didn’t satisfy the haters. Oakland and Berkeley are somewhat dense, and have destinations in their own right. But that’s also true of Everett, Tacoma, Bellevue, Redmond, and Seatac. Although the average density in the Puget Sound is lower than that of the Bay Area, that’s not a problem Sound Transit 3 can fix before it’s approved, and it’d be a good thing if we built high-quality transit at a lower aggregate density than what the Bay Area achieved.

In any case, my understanding of the complaint is clearly wrong. I’ll be the first to admit that city boundaries are imperfect measures of where the real urban places are. But they’re also a useful, easily measurable shorthand. So, critics, what’s the proper, quantifiable issue with BART that ST3 will replicate?

New Tactics for Thorny Transportation Problems

Seattle

With the Puget Sound region continuing to add housing and jobs at a rapid clip, and large rapid transit solutions still years (or decades) away, there is increasing pressure to do “something” to facilitate more commuting options and lessen the environmental impact of solo driving.

Unfortunately, things that could really make a difference in the short term – like converting parking lanes to bus lanes or tolling the freeways – tend to meet with public resistance as drivers perceive a zero-sum tradeoff that “forces” them to sit in more traffic.

So what’s an elected official or business leader to do? Sure, you can and should support big-ticket votes like ST3, but day-to-day you have to do something to show progress to your constituents or employees in the short term.

Somewhat lost amid the Ulink/ST3 talk over the past few weeks was a pair of initiatives, one from Mayor Murray and another from a set of local business leaders, to do something in the short term about the region’s #1 problem.

  • Murray’s Drive Clean Seattle is a grab bag of initiatives intended to make the most of Seattle’s renewable energy bounty, including more charging stations, an upgraded municipal fleet, and more electric trolley wire for buses.
  • Challenge Seattle is a high-profile nonprofit led by former Governor Gregoire and backed by local employers, aimed at improving the regional transportation system.  There’s some techno-futurism (“what if we made an app…?”), but mostly Challenge Seattle has a set of smart ideas, like better land use regulation, tolling, reducing SOV share among employees, that lack a strong political constituency.

Whether Challenge Seattle can provide the needed political muscle remains to be seen, but its mere existence is encouraging.  Drive Clean, on the other hand, should be instantly effective in making EVs more widespread, but can’t do much to aid commutes (though more electric trolley wire is always welcome!).   Ultimately, though, the best fixes for congestion remain as boring as they are intractable: legalize more housing near job centers, and prioritize high-capacity transit in our limited right-of-way.

As a side note, I was idly browsing for electric vehicles recently, and I learned that certain EVs are not even available for sale in Washington State.  Since automakers often lose money on EV sales, they tend to not sell them in states where they’re not required to.  So, for example, the Mercedes B250e and Fiat 500e (which Fiat’s CEO doesn’t want you to buy) are not for sale here, but you can buy them in California.  While I’m generally skeptical of the impact such micro-interventions in the market can have, it seems like a useful additional tool in the toolkit.

The ULink Restructure Needs a Weekend Boost

Photo by the Author
Photo by the Author

NE Seattle subsisted for decades on infrequent half-hourly service, and Metro’s recent restructure (despite some pain) largely doubled weekday service on all major corridors, giving NE Seattle frequent service for the first time and a much stronger base network. But a couple weeks in, it’s become clear that the restructure didn’t quite go far enough, especially in providing equivalent span of service. While reliance on frequent transfers makes for a better network, the infrequent legacy network  of one-seat rides is better than a reliance on infrequent transfers, which is what the weekend network now provides in NE Seattle.

Looking through route schedules, it looks like Metro paid for weekday frequency in part by trimming first and last trips, making a few trips notably worse. Say what you will about the crowded 70-series, but they began service before 5am on weekdays and 6am on weekends. Their replacements, with the exception of the 372 (which improved across the board), don’t begin weekend service until 6 or even 7am, and Routes 71 and 73 don’t run at all on Sundays. As a result, the ULink restructure made the following trips a lot harder:

  • Early morning weekend trips from Wedgwood/Ravenna to the UDistrict via Route 65 (20 minutes later on Saturday and Sunday) and Route 71 (90 minutes later on Saturday and no Sunday service)
  • Early weekend trips to SeaTac Airport via Link
  • Sunday trips to Downtown via Link and Routes 8, 65, 67, 75, and 372, all of which require bus/rail transfers at 30-minute headways.

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There are a number of ways to fix this in the next few service changes, and I believe that we should only ask riders to rely on transfers if we can make them frequent 7 days per week. Once we’ve achieved that, we should work to match arterial frequencies to Link, as transfers between 10-minute trains and 15-minute buses make for good connection opportunities only twice per hour.

As ridership data begins to roll in this summer and Metro looks to its September 2016 and March 2017 service changes, I hope they consider further investments in arterial service feeding Link, and feel confident in cutting back less-ridden services to do so. Route 73 probably needs Sunday service, routes 8, 38, 65, 67, 75, and 372 need to be frequent on Sundays, and an early/late trip may need to be added on each. To pay for it, likely fat to trim could include Routes 71 and 78 in their entirety, or maybe even some trips on Route 49 if its 12-minute service is leaving it as empty as my front-window anecdotes suggest. Of course, there are also other areas in which Metro is adding duplicative frequency while these neighborhoods would continue to wait. Beyond the less than fun zero sum game of service hour allocation, we can of course also hope a growing economy continues to increase total service hour availability.

In addition, continued reliance on a UW Station transfer should come with an unwavering service availability guarantee. Anyone who experienced the 520 Bridge opening last weekend saw newly restructured routes unable to reach the station, in some cases dropping riders off at 15th Ave NE instead. Reliance on transfers can and should work, but we have to sweat the details.

[Update Wednesday 7:45am: Oran has sent over a version of his Seattle Transit Map showing only the routes that run frequently 7 days per week, and it does a stellar job of visualizing the gaps in relying on Link connections on weekends.]

Map by Oran. Seattle Transit Map showing only routes that are frequent 7 days per week.
Map by Oran. Seattle Transit Map showing only routes that are frequent 7 days per week.

Action Alert: Save Route 38

On March 26, bus service along MLK Way between Mt. Baker Station and Rainier Beach Station took a quantum leap forward, with the roll-out of new route 38, which was split off from the infamously-unreliable route 8.

But even before the first run, Metro decided to undo the reliability improvement that was the raison d’etre for the split. On March 23, three days before route 38 was born, Metro forwarded a proposal to extend the route down Rainier and Jackson to the International District.

Metro hasn’t even given route 38 a chance to work. Continue reading “Action Alert: Save Route 38”

The Main Lesson from the Draft ST3 Package

ST3 data assumes no provisional stations are built: 1 in Seattle and 3 outside. If built, the core city station percentage drops to 43%. Some data from Wikipedia, others courtesy Seattle Subway
ST3 data assumes no provisional stations are built: 1 in Seattle and 3 outside. If built, the core city station percentage drops to 43%. Some data from Wikipedia, others courtesy Seattle Subway

People felt a variety of emotions after Sound Transit released a draft ST3 package. There was excitement that, finally, we would have an opportunity to make progress on bringing rail to areas that have craved it for decades. There was angst that core elements would take a long time, which forced middle-aged advocates like me to confront our mortality. And finally, there was anger that (a) these were the wrong projects, and/or (b) that the suburbs had somehow hijacked resources that should have gone into the dense core.

Excitement is a reasonable reaction, if tempered by how much lies beyond our remaining professional lives. The projects closely reflect the input of key jurisdictions, and that input reflects the desires of real people who want a true escape from traffic. Many of the region’s densest neighborhoods, in addition to some with practical development potential, will finally connect with the system.

But that connection will not happen for a long time. In the coming weeks, we hope to have much more detailed reporting on what exactly is going to take so long. There is strong momentum to find ways to shorten delivery, so the ST board may make some compromises before finalizing the package. However, a voter that likes the projects, but votes no in the hope that in a later election delivery will somehow speed up, is likely to be disappointed. We shouldn’t condemn another generation to spend its life building what we should build today.

As for anger: as the chart above shows, the share of the rail system inside Seattle, where ridership potential is somewhat higher, is very competitive with peer agencies, far better that the customary comparison to BART and similar to the best postwar system, the DC Metro. Ridership isn’t as high, which is reasonable for a region that (a) is smaller, (b) has worse land use, and (c) has highways running into downtown from five directions. Moreover, although our picture of the subarea math is incomplete, there is no sign that Seattle funds are flowing to the suburbs; indeed, Shoreline and Lake Forest Park funds are coming in to Seattle. There is no “go it alone” approach, even assuming the legislature would allow it, that magically brings more funding and speeds up timelines. The only reason to reject on these grounds is if one is willing to make Seattle rail worse to deny it to the suburbs.

What seasoned observers learned from this package is that the vision of a tunnel from Uptown to the stadiums via South Lake Union is expensive. A year ago I estimated a 15-year package would generate about $5.1 billion (2014 dollars) in North King, including bonds. The current concept costs up to $6.8 billion. Going to 25 years increases the money, but not proportionally: previous financial analysis showed that years 15 through 20 actually yield relatively little revenue as ST hits bonding limits, and inflation increases costs.

There are a few ways out of this. With luck, ST will find a way to save a few years after additional analysis. Value engineering might simplify the project and reduce costs. One of the advantages to a regional package is that Sound Transit can concentrate its cashflow on particular priority projects while others are building up capital — a hierarchy where Seattle currently lies somewhere in the middle. The draft package embodies the collective desires of the region, only slower, but the next two months of tradeoffs will be interesting.

520 Opening Ceremony: Bus Reroutes, Fun Run, Bike Ride

This weekend WSDOT will throw a Grand Opening for the new 520 Bridge, which will open to cars and transit in phases over the next few weeks. Saturday features a fun run beginning at 7:30am, speeches and ribbon cuttings at 10:30am, and a series of family-friendly activities (and if you get your event passport stamped at least twice, you can win Delta Airlines tickets).

Bikes will not be allowed on the bridge Saturday, and the only means of access to the bridge will be Metro-operated shuttles from southbound Montlake Boulevard, Houghton Park-and-Ride, South Kirkland Park-and-Ride, and the Bellevue Transit Center. The Seattle shuttle stop will be directly adjacent to UW Station (northbound on Montlake Boulevard). Unspecified bus reroutes of newly restructured routes 45, 48, 65, 67, 75, and 372 will also surely cause some headaches, especially since the reroute details have not been announced despite the event being tomorrow. And this is in addition to the standard diversion to I-90 of Routes 255 and 545 during SR 520 weekend closures.

In exchange for no bike access Saturday, on Sunday the sold-out Emerald City Bike Ride will allow people to ride their bikes not only on the new 520 bridge, but also in the I-5 express lanes for the first time. While myself and others are in for a big treat with this ride, it’s worth remembering that the new 520 bike path will dead-end in the middle of the bridge until mid-2017 when the West Approach Bridge North completes the connection to Montlake. The westbound bridge will open to vehicles on April 11, and the eastbound bridge will open two weeks later on April 25.

Suggestion of the Week: Free ORCA Card With Your Fare Warning

Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson
Seattle City Councilmember
Rob Johnson

During a joint city/county council meeting dealing with transit last week, freshman Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson raised a good point: Fare enforcement officers have been giving warnings to pay, and encouraging riders to get an ORCA card and use it, but have not been giving out free ORCA cards.

The primary excuse for charging for the card is to make sure riders don’t treat them as disposable. I don’t think giving away ORCA cards to each rider being given a warning to pay counts as encouraging that rider to treat the card as disposable. Sound Transit and Metro still haven’t given a good answer as to why the cards cost $5, as opposed to $2-3 to merely cover what the vendor charges.

Thank you, Councilmember Johnson, for bringing this common-sense idea forward.

While they are at it, fare enforcement officers could give out the ORCA LIFT (low-income ORCA) brochures, since a substantial portion of those getting warnings qualify, and the train goes within a couple blocks of the Public Health office on S Jackson St, just east of Metro’s headquarters.

ORCA LIFT brochure

I have ridden a bunch of trains in the past couple weeks, mostly for research purposes, and have yet to see any of the brochure racks stocked with ORCA LIFT brochures. Granted, they are out-of-date, with no mention that ORCA LIFT is now honored on ST Express and Sounder. The simple solution is to keep stocking Link with the old brochures, and stock ST Express and Sounder with new brochures. If ST wants to hold off on that print run until the current supply is almost exhausted, making the brochures available on the Link racks will enable that to happen faster.

The Normality of Great Transit

Photo by the Author
Photo by the Author

One of the more unusual effects of the ST3 Draft Plan coming out just 5 days after ULink opened is that ULink has had an exceptionally short period of joy, celebration, and awe. The euphoria of its opening has been largely replaced by the oxygen required to analyze and react to the next big thing. Though Sound Transit threw a great party and ridership has seemingly exceeded already high expectations, what’s struck me most as a Capitol Hill resident is the swiftly increasing ordinariness of it all. Eavesdropping on my fellow riders’ conversations, onboard discussions of the train itself have already begun fading into the background, replaced by the everyday musings and banter upon which public social conversations rely.

And you know what? That’s great for transit. We don’t judge Thomas Edison’s legacy by how many people still react with sublime pleasure upon flipping a light switch, but rather by our complete and utter ability to take for granted the gifts of electric light. Done well, transit is is a public utility that improves life for the many but excites the passions of the few (sorry, fellow nerds). Good transit readjusts our baseline expectations onward and upward. Quickly accustomed to our new spoils, we begin to complain anew – and often rightfully so – as agitation is both the currency of politics and the impetus for continuous improvement.

So I’m not ungrateful in already taking for granted that Pioneer Square is 10 minutes away, forever. Transit’s highest compliment is when the magical becomes ordinary. Far better to be instant necessity than ongoing novelty.