Amazon shuttle

Nat Levy, GeekWire:

Amazon plans to debut its own pilot commuter service Monday, joining the ranks of major tech companies that offer private shuttles as a perk to employees and a way to counteract the headaches caused by traffic congestion, GeekWire has learned.

“Amazon Ride” will run six times in the morning and six times in the evening at 20 minute intervals from the suburban communities of Bellevue, Issaquah and Redmond to Amazon’s South Lake Union campus and the new Doppler building in the Denny Triangle, according to a website for the service. The service initially will not go to other neighborhoods in the city of Seattle.

As the article notes, tech companies like Microsoft and Facebook already provide regional commuter shuttle service to its employees (full disclosure: I work for Microsoft and have been known to enjoy a ride on the Connector). Amazon has been running an intra-city shuttle (shown above) for some time.

Amazon’s new shuttles will join Facebook, Microsoft, and (soon, one assumes) Expedia in driving through South Lake Union on busy Mercer Street. Unlike Metro buses, the shuttles can make the traffic-snarling shuffle from SR 520 to the Mercer Street exit, providing direct 520 service to SLU. Once they get there, though, they’re stuck in the Mercer Mess with all the SOV traffic.

To make the shuttles more appealing to their employees, the tech giants ought to lobby the city to add an HOV lane on Mercer. There’s never been a vocal constituency for HOV/transit priority on Mercer, because neither Metro nor the City have prioritized it as a transit corridor. (Metro briefly flirted with the idea of a 520-Mercer route during their last Eastside restructure proposal).

Metro will likely come back to the table with a new Eastside proposal in the next year or two. When they do, they ought to present a united front to the city along with the tech companies to demand, at minimum, dedicated, peak-only HOV lanes on Mercer. If one were running a high-profile public-private partnership dedicated to solving Seattle’s transportation problems, this is exactly the kind of thing that might be worth focusing on.

Photo by SounderBruce on Flickr

35 Replies to “Amazon’s New Shuttle is an Opportunity to Improve SLU Transit for Everyone”

  1. When I first heard about this, I got excited that Amazon was going to dump SP+, which has been a scourge on pedestrians, cyclists, buses and cars for at least half a decade.

  2. How would peak-only HOV on Mercer work, exactly?

    Inbound in the morning, everyone on westbound Mercer wants to turn left into SLU – exactly the same place the Amazon, Microsoft, et al shuttles want to go. There’s never going to be enough political will to put an HOV lane on the inside lanes of Mercer – effectively telling all those left-turning SOV drivers to go screw themselves. An HOV lane on the right would inconvenience fewer SOVs, but wouldn’t really facilitate moving those shuttles. Perhaps the shuttle could exit I-5 onto Mercer, turn right onto northbound Boren or Terry, and drop the Amazonians off at the SLUT stop? Isn’t that exactly why we have transit?

    As for the evening rush, a Mercer peak-only HOV lane does exactly what? Gets shuttles through a couple of blocks of the Mercer Mess, only to be stuck in traffic at the I-5 on-ramps. Shuttle going to the eastside via SR-520 get stuck with all the SOV traffic on the general-purpose onramp, as does anyone going onto southbound I-5. The only benefit of a eastbound Mercer HOV lane is for carpools or transit heading to the I-5 northbound express lanes in the afternoon.

    Meanwhile, all of this ignores the basic fact that there is currently zero traffic enforcement on Mercer (or anywhere else in Seattle). SPD prioritizes writing speeding tickets in the handful of places where traffic is flowing well, and ignoring some of the root causes of traffic like drivers entering an intersection they cannot possibly clear before the light changes, leaving their rear-ends hanging out and blocking cross traffic. A handful of motorcycle cops at a few key intersections – including along the Mercer Mess – would do far more to ease traffic than HOV lanes.

    1. I would suggest making one of the two left turn lanes onto Fairview transit only HOV during peak so they can immediately turn their (not dealing with Mercer St at all) on an intersection where going straight usually gets blocked more anyways at peak in the morning. Then they can take easy right turns off Fairview from there.

      On the evening commute, same deal. Just mark one of the on ramp lanes form Fairview HOV only since I believe there’s two lanes (at least there is northbound, not sure about south bound).

      1. Replying to my own comment, don’t judge me!

        I noticed there is only one lane for getting on to the freeway from Fairview, but if you think about it, it’s not needed since it’s not like there’s going to be exclusivity in the parking lot that is the on ramp itself. Maybe giving some street up to fairview some priority would be good enough so they can get to where all they have to do is turn right.

        I’m focusing on Fairview because if you look a map, what advantage is there to using Mercer St. unless you’re trying to get to the west side of 99 instead of SLU. Putting transit on Mercer really doesn’t make any sense to begin with in terms of serving SLU unless you’re coming from Ballard, Magnolia, etc. which already has city transit that uses Denny.

      2. Yeah, I agree.

        Fairview should be improved as part of the Roosevelt BRT proposal. I sent in suggestions for improving that area and one of the side benefits is that it would improve the few buses that do use Mercer (309, 63, 64). I’m afraid I don’t have the details and didn’t copy them anywhere, but I believe the idea is to have basically what you describe. Have one exit (the outside one, if memory serves) be bus only, which then feeds to the bus lane. Northbound it means the left lane is bus only, although you can turn right as well. Again, something like that (I forget the details on the streets).

      3. Responding to your second comment — I completely agree. Fairview is more important than Mercer. The reason Mercer is crowded is because it is the connection point from much of the city to the freeway. Queen Anne (including the Seattle Center), Magnolia, Westlake, even Ballard (if you are coming from the south) make sense if you are driving. But that isn’t where these buses are going. They are just headed to another part of downtown (South Lake Union) or maybe First Hill (which everyone would consider downtown if the freeway didn’t cut it off).

        The main value for an HOV lane on Mercer would be for buses connecting to, say, lower Queen Anne. Not only don’t these exist, but getting to the other side of Aurora will be a lot easier in a few years. Once Bertha is done, the grid will be reconnected, and you will be able to drive across streets like Thomas and Harrison. Those are the streets that need to be bus only. From a political standpoint, this should be easy. You aren’t “taking” a general purpose lane (since no one can drive across there anyway). For buses like these the answer is to go on Fairview, take a right, and go on one of those streets.

      4. On the topic of Roosevelt BRT, it seems to make more sense to turn the northbound buses off Fairview at Republican up to Eastlake. It keeps them out of the mess at Mercer. Yes, people traveling to and from the triangle containing Fred Hutchinson would have to cross the street both arriving and departing, but it would speed the BRT line and make it much more reliable.

        Only camera enforcement will keep a northbound lane on Fairview between Republican and Mercer free for the buses. On the spot ticketing would just jam the lane up more hideously.

  3. I’m a bit concerned that an HOV lane on Mercer could lead to protests here, similar to the protests of the Google buses in San Francisco. Basically, SOV commuters who work for an SLU employer that does not provide a shuttle (and, incidentally, pays less than the tech companies that do provide shuttles) complaining about a transfer to road space from the masses to the wealthy, while using the shuttles as a symbol of gentrification, etc. If Metro buses existed that would use such lanes, the argument could be blunted.

    Of course, what we really need rail/transit priority to South Lake Union. If ST 3 is built out, a good chunk of these commuters might find the regular transit system to be faster and more reliable (albeit more crowded, though) than the company shuttles.

    1. Take Jon’s idea of making the HOV lane turn from Mercer to Fairview, and you’ve got somewhere that two Metro peak routes already use.

    2. I could easily see protests if employer shuttles started using 3rd Ave bus zones, or if Mercer were full of buses. But Mercer is a schlep for most activists trying to get there by transit. And that’s the problem.

    3. Thanks, asdf, for an understatement worthy of what formerly was England. Because I’m personally stuck with what formerly were Chicago and Detroit.

      Transit lanes carrying both I-5 and SR 520 passengers through South Lake Union are long overdue. All day. And when Convention Place Station closes, major bus routes will need another way into the north end of the CBD.

      And a 60 years overdue southbound transit lane from Northgate might help keep Snohomish County in ST ’till LINK hits Lynnwood. Since they can’t use the Tunnel, completing the present joint streetcar-bus network is definitely needed.

      But as both population and the economy grow, so will the business community. Every political statement on this subject notes that small businesses are already the largest group of employers everywhere. How many of this new economy’s workers will be able to ride Amazon vans? Or will every five employee company need a van of its own?

      So how about a Public-Private partnership like this: In return for paying taxes proportionate to the profits they earn here, every company’s employees will be able to join their neighbors aboard the fast and frequent public transit we all need?

      Because one public transit advocate to another, Frank, considering the employer this is about, the upward suck of this posting would power a hyperloop to the moon.

      Mark Dublin

  4. Seattle doesn’t lay into employers for funding alternative transportation through development fees like San Francisco and Silicon Valley cities do. It should. Why should residents of Queen Anne help out SLU by accepting the impacts of the HOV lane — and then pay for it too?

    1. Instead, we hit developers in the pocket with an unlimited number of rounds of design review, which does nothing to pay for impact mitigation, but helps ensure anything that gets built is expensive, swanky, and not full of affordable housing.

      1. So Brent, why do we need to rent Madison Square Gardens.? Especially against a mug whose brass knuckles have already made a hole through his right glove?

        Whatever We the Working, Tax-paying People need that nobody can make a private profit providing, including things from sewage disposal to clean water to transportation, to housing….

        We can use our Government to make for ourselves. It worked to end the major Depression a couple of decades before this last one. We also earned ourselves labor unions that saved us a lot of worries about affordability.

        Guarantee also that anybody complaining about too many reviews before he gets his permit will demand a whole lot more for whoever is going to build next to him.

        Mark Dublin

  5. Seattle should have figured out a solution before accepting plans for so many taller buildings in this neighborhood. As we address the problem, we need to also change our neighborhood planning and development mitigation process. It hasn’t worked in SLU and now we’re left trying to figure out how to come up with messy solutions to solve the negligent failure of our planning staff and board in years past. We need a completely new approach to this as opposed to just adopting vague, lofty objectives and declaring the planning work done. We need to walk the walk of good planning and not just talk the talk.

      1. Yes it is a good strategy. I think there is a possibility of two SLU stations. Still, we all would pay for it rather than have the developers pay for their extra bonus from it. In fact, I imagine that building owners will even try to get money from ST for construction mitigation!

        I would note that it’s just been a year since the stations were proposed in the current alignment, and it was initiated by the City of Seattle after the original ST corridor work was done in 2013-2015 and not part of a neighborhood plan. Had the city been planning better, it would have defined the corridor years ago, done things like reserve space for the subway to go in utility approvals and maybe even reserve space for subway station entrances and exits off the sidewalk as well as in building basements. It maybe would have put a transit mall on Mercer Street or repurposed the monorail to serve SLU commuting better with a new middle-stop a few blocks south of Denny. It could have required money from developers to buy and operate more SLU streetcars so that waits would be minimal. Instead we get platitudes from Seattle’s planning process.

    1. One thing is obviously true about the area: there’s no room for more cars on the road in the morning and afternoon peaks. We need to cap the number of office parking spaces in the neighborhood. Probably at a lower number than exists today.

    2. Does anyone, anywhere do that? Redmond managed to land one of the biggest companies around, and my guess is not once did they say “wait a second, it is really a bad idea to locate so many jobs in the suburbs, but since you are doing that, let’s start adding bus lanes all over the place”. Same with Factoria or downtown Bellevue. If a big company were to move to Renton, do you think they would tell them to hold off until the proper infrastructure was in place — or even crazier, try to charge them? In your dreams.

      As bad as the traffic is on this one part of downtown, it is still downtown, which means it is still better than almost anywhere you could grow. It isn’t that far from Westlake to Denny (a half mile). It is even closer from Convention Place to Denny. This means that the biggest, best transit infrastructure project ever built for Seattle is only a relatively flat and short walk away. Buses from all over the region serve it. Public transportation (bus and rail) is much better than just about anywhere you can actually grow.

      Which doesn’t mean it isn’t a mess. But there are some things that will help. The SR 99 tunnel project, as bad as it is, will finally open up an east-west grid between Denny and Mercer. This could be huge (especially if they go further and run it through the Seattle Center) as it could mean a gigantic improvement in speed and reliability for the 8. Westlake and Aurora are still a big problem, but hopefully the city can make improvements (get people out of the box) so that buses can move at a decent clip through there. SDOT should (and probably will) figure out how to run fast and frequent buses from Roosevelt to downtown (via Eastlake and Fairview). It may take them a while to work out the kinks, but bus improvements are like that. It took the Madison BRT folks a few months to go from “OMG! This is terrible — why do even call this BRT!” to “Oh, great, look at the that — 90% of the pathway is bus only, awesome” (and that was before the buses were even running). Of course the big fix would be add bus tunnels, or a Metro 8 subway, but that is likely years away (if ever).

  6. Buses from 520 couldn’t exit directly to Mercer westbound anyway (too much merging)… even eastbound would be a stretch. Maybe something involving Fairview, Stewart in one direction, and Olive in the other would be necessary? By that point, maybe just fix Denny?

    1. When the SR-520 construction is finally finished, there will be a path from 520 to the I-5 express lanes. So, peak-direction-peak-only routes would be able to take 520 to the Mercer St. exit, even if all-day, bi-directional routes would not.

      1. That is a logical place for them to go in general. The bus tunnel will be a train tunnel by then, so the old express lanes to Convention Place to Pioneer Square without traffic system will be gone. Might as well start at one end of downtown and plow your way through to the other. The city will have bus lanes on Fairview, and it would make sense to allow these buses to use them*, making this likely possibly the fastest way to get there.

        *There are issues with buses mixing (basically you don’t want to hold up an off board payment bus with a regular bus) but those can be worked out.

    1. Dan, what if “the consequences of their own location choice” include paying taxes for that location’s existing public transit system? Because a fleet of their own vehicles imposes some consequences on the economy, and people, of the location.

      And there’s something else, that Jarret Walker should know, especially if he’s been in the Bay Area this last decade or so.

      If those giant white highway buses claiming questionable loading privileges had company logos on their sides, as every other bus operator does as a matter of company PR and pride, they’d creep people out less.

      Employees of a corporation often ride transit together, and I’ve never seen or felt any sense of uneasiness between groups of workers. But from some ugly experience, cults are a different matter. I’m surprised those buses are even allowed into San Francisco.

      Because you don’t have to be very old to remember James Jones and his “People’s Temple.”

      Mark Dublin

    2. Shouldn’t we be glad these companies are providing shuttles rather than doing nothing and implicitly encouraging people to drive as Boeing does?

      1. Boeing may not have shuttles, but it does have a van pool program that has been around about 50 years. About 2,500 employees use it. Given the number of Boeing sites (several locations around Everett, as well Bothell, Bellevue, Boeing Field, Kent, Auburn, Fredrickson) with employees that live all over the Puget Sound region, such a program works better than a small fleet of shuttles. Those vans belong to Pierce Transit, Metro, Kitsap Transit, Community Transit, Skagit Transit, Island Transit and Whatcom Transit demonstrating how spread out Boeing employees are.

        Employees also receive a small subsidy of $25 a month for those who use public transit, to include van pools. There are a number of transit routes that serve Boeing sites and they are well used, demonstrating that the employees are not implicitly encouraged to drive. So that is far from “nothing.”

    3. >> SR 520 to SLU is a high-demand corridor that’s underserved because current routes are too downtown-centric.

      I don’t follow you. SLU is downtown. It is just a different part of downtown (like Belltown). As it is, the buses do serve that area of town (Denny). It is just a matter of walking a bit, or taking another bus. This is just an express bus, that’s all. It would be like running a bus from Ballard to Pioneer Square (directly). No would then claim that Pioneer Square needs more bus service, but only that people sometimes want a direct connection to their workplace.

    4. Once a bus can go from 520 to I5 express lanes after the 520 project is finished , shouldn’t we expect ST & Metro to move all buses coming from 520 to exit/enter at Mercer (peak direction only) specifically to improve service to SLU? Even if it’s peak only, that would give that corridor all the service it needs, right Dan?

      1. The express lanes are free-flowing because the cars for 520 can’t use them. Once the express lanes are connected to 520, they’ll become as clogged as the regular lanes.

      2. Will there be less weaving in the express lanes, relative to I5?

        Well, if they become congested, maybe there is an opening for converting the express lanes to HOV lanes, or introduce congestion tolling? I feel like that would be an easier political lift in express lanes rather than GP lanes, as there would still be untolled SOV for all of non-express I5.

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