The Seattle Times wants your neighborhood arterial to look like this. Photo by Bruce Englehardt.

In recent years, the Seattle Times has published many editorials and columns skeptical of transit, or any transportation mode except private cars.  STB hasn’t usually responded, because events have shown amply that every day the Times gets more out of step with citizens’ increasing desire for alternatives to sitting in traffic.  And the Times gets credit for consistently excellent news coverage of transportation topics, led by ace reporter Mike Lindblom.

But the Times’s latest ($) finally warrants a response, because it distills so many myths and bad ideas about transportation into a few words.  The idea is not to get into a fight with our local paper, but to explain why transit investment is the only way to free people from congestion.  The Times’s core request — to provide so much capacity for car traffic that a complete closure of I-5 would have little effect on car travel times — is geometrically impossible.  Worse, any attempt to make it happen would cause profoundly destructive consequences for the city and its residents.  And the reasons (below the jump) show exactly why support for transit, not more car capacity, is the best way forward from our congestion woes.

City Transportation Is About Using Space Efficiently

Everything below stems from one problem: in a developed city like Seattle, the amount of space allocated to transportation is basically fixed.  Roads are not getting wider.  Making city roads wider requires condemning and destroying all existing buildings next to them, which is mind-bogglingly expensive and destructive.  The only other ways to add space for transportation are to dig tunnels, double-deck roadways, or build elevated structures, all of which are also expensive and difficult.  We can only afford a small number of new rights-of-way, at most.

So most efforts to improve city transportation are about using the fixed amount of space more efficiently.  That involves more than just packing more people in.  But geometric reality is that cars start out at a huge space-efficiency disadvantage.  This chart shows why.

Includes typical space between vehicles in heavy traffic.  Transit vehicles at comfortable load, not maximum crush load.

The upshot is that it’s not possible to increase capacity significantly by putting more cars on existing roads.  They just take up too much space ($).  SDOT and WSDOT have been trying to squeeze in a few more cars for years, using a basket of strategies from ramp meters to traffic signal optimization to “intelligent streets.”  But these improvements have always been around the edges.  The Times’s favored “improvement,” removing bike lanes, would be no different.  Doing so would barely add any capacity, let alone enough to handle an I-5 closure without disruption.  This is borne out by city statistics that show minimal change to peak vehicle throughput and travel times from project after project where bike lanes were added.

There is zero evidence that bike lanes or rechannelizations have made the street network “less resilient and capable of handling surges,” as the Times alleges without support, or that undoing them would help.  In fact, a scan through the Times’s own archives shows that I-5 accidents just like last week’s have been snarling Seattle’s surface street network for many years, since well before anyone thought of a bike lane.

There Will Always Be Traffic Congestion

Another result of how much space cars occupy is that it doesn’t take many cars to create congestion.  Just a few dozen cars can fill up multiple blocks and create a traffic jam.  In a crowded urban environment, those few dozen cars will show up everywhere, as car drivers exploit any route that is less congested.  Every healthy city of any size, worldwide, has serious car congestion.  And it’s there to stay; the only proven way to eliminate traffic congestion is to undergo economic depression.  (Even congestion pricing, long economists’ gold standard, is failing in booming London ($) and on our own SR 520.)

Despite some politicians’ regrettable promises, even the best transit doesn’t reduce traffic congestion.  Sound Transit was forthright about this in the ST3 campaign, saying instead that ST3 provides alternatives to congestion.  Proving the point are New York’s horrible traffic jams, which coexist with the nation’s best subway.  But expanded car capacity (even where there’s room) doesn’t reduce congestion either.  Demand takes up the slack within a few years no matter how big the roads get.  Houston’s I-10, 23 to 29 lanes wide, is the single road in the United States with the largest car capacity.  It’s a monster, 5 city blocks across, that visually dominates every place near it.  It’s pretty much impossible to cross unless you’re in a car.  To put it through Seattle, we’d level much of downtown and First Hill.  But within half a decade of its most recent expansion, I-10 was suffering just as much congestion as ever.

Ultimately, experience around the world shows that people are willing to put up with a specific amount of car congestion, and will just drive more until congestion reaches that threshold of pain.  “Congestion relief” means finding ways around the traffic jams, not making them disappear.  Making traffic jams disappear is impossible without economic collapse.

Expanding Roads Has Real Consequences

The Times assumes, without a second thought, that the most important (if not only) purpose of roads in the city is to move cars, presumably to faraway suburbs.  But city streets are far more than car pathways.  They are the connective tissue of our urban environment.  City streets don’t just host drivers, who move on after a few seconds.  They host many residents and business employees, who spend years on a particular block.  They can be attractive destinations or windswept wastelands.  They can make for an inviting setting where people throng, like Pike Place, or a horrible environment people go blocks out of their way to avoid, like parts of Aurora Avenue.  The people and businesses that call a city street home deserve at least as much consideration as those driving along it.  The purpose of the city is to be a city, a destination for residents and visitors, not a car conduit for people going elsewhere.

And most of the steps that increase car capacity make city streets worse for residents and businesses, hurting the city as a city.  Adding general-purpose lanes increases driver speed (often without increasing actual car throughput), endangers cyclists, and makes crossing streets on foot far harder.  Widening streets makes them into less inviting environments for residents and shoppers; at five lanes wide, even crossing in a marked crosswalk becomes scary.  Grade-separating intersections creates canyons that are impassable on foot.   The most inviting destinations, the places where people converge naturally, are along narrow, intimate streets with slow car speeds and safe walking spaces.  Making streets worse for the people who actually spend time along them — the residents and workers — is unfair, especially when the purpose is not to handle crushing daily volume but (as the Times wishes) to eliminate any inconvenience from infrequent and unpredictable emergencies.

Increased Capacity and Resilience Come from Trains and Buses

If we can’t put more cars through our existing roads, and we can’t build wider roads without great expense and destruction, then increased capacity has to come from elsewhere: walking, biking, or transit.  And we need it; without increased capacity, job growth is strangled.  With Seattle’s large footprint, walking and biking by themselves can serve only a minority of commuters.  Transit has to shoulder most of the load.  And it has been doing so, with 95 percent of added commute demand to the city center over the last few years handled by transit.

I-5 in downtown during the tanker mess.
Half a train load of people on I-5, the day of the tanker crash. Photo by Lee Rosenberg, used with permission.

Fortunately, it’s a lot easier to expand transit capacity — either rail or bus — than car capacity.  Despite the Times’s mockery, Sound Transit’s claim that Link has the capacity of 14 freeway lanes is accurate.  A single three-car Link train carrying a full, not crushed, load contains twice the number of people depicted in the entire I-5 jam at left (assuming the usual average of 1.2 persons/car). And right now, Link has two- and three-car trains running just every six to 10 minutes.  Link will eventually expand to four-car trains running every three minutes, for more than three times the current capacity.  It could add even more trains with some signal improvements.  And even that’s not all: Sound Transit is going to build another, separate north-south Link tunnel with similar capacity through downtown as part of ST3.

Buses can do almost the same thing, with political will.  The Times notes correctly that many buses were stuck in traffic last Monday, but ignores why those buses were stuck.  Dedicated transit lanes mostly don’t exist, and were unenforced where they do.  Third Avenue was a wall of stopped cars as far as the eye could see — even during peak hour, when the cars were ignoring restrictions.  Without cars on Third, most of Seattle’s central bus routes would have run much closer to normal.  Meanwhile, buses on Howell Street were stuck in a bus lane that ends abruptly at Yale Avenue, where they must rejoin car traffic.  These are not the sort of transit facilities that enable buses to be an alternative to congestion.

But dedicated bus lanes that actually cover entire routes, or at least entire congested areas, can do so.  Just like a rail line, a dedicated bus lane is capable of carrying many more people than a car lane.  A typical car lane can carry about 1000 persons per hour under ideal conditions, and far fewer in heavy traffic.  A bus lane with an articulated bus every two minutes can carry 2000 persons per hour, reliably, with comfortable loads. By far the biggest boost to the capacity of an existing bus corridor is a continuous, dedicated, enforced bus lane.  Adding car capacity just puts buses into the same unavoidable car congestion described above, and moves far fewer people.  The Times’s implication that we would make bus routes more resilient by adding car capacity could not be more wrong; the buses would be stuck in the same jam, just with more cars around them.

Another reason that transit is more resilient than car capacity is that trains and buses alike can take crush loads — something a freeway can’t do with cars for obvious safety reasons.  Last Monday, Link was much more crowded than normal, but ran almost normally.  It absorbed crush loads, in some cases twice normal capacity, with only minor delay.

During last week’s mess, Link was the one part of the system that was truly resilient, which makes the Times’s casual dismissal of Link in favor of feverish car capacity dreams baffling.  Link is not “an option for most people” only because it hasn’t yet reached most places.  After ST3’s Link network is built and King County Metro reorients the bus network around it, 73 percent of King County residents are expected to be within walking distance of either Link or a connecting bus running at least every 15 minutes all day.  For most trips involving the center city, Link will be an option, and it will be the one that handles emergencies, bad weather, and routine growth best.  The Times should recognize transit’s critical role in allowing our regional good fortune to continue, not denigrate it to serve a geometrically impossible vision of car growth.

95 Replies to “Seattle Times Editorial Board Flunks Geometry”

    1. Yeah, didn’t Everett Herald just run an editorial mocking the people complaining about the car tab tax they voted for?

    1. If the Times editorial page hadn’t been captured by a bunch of crazy liberals, they’d also demand that the sidewalks be converted to traffic lanes.

  1. It’s a shame the ST keeps publishing this garbage. I wonder how many other people like myself want to support local news, but still won’t buy their newspaper subscriptions, because we don’t want to contribute towards this type of crap rhetoric.

    If there were a way to directly support Mike Lindblom’s work at the ST and bypass the editorial board, I’d be so there!

    1. Their editorial staff is nuts, and have been nuts for a long time. It is really frustrating, because the rest of the paper is very good. The investigative reporting is top notch, as they uncover a lot of important information. But the editorial staff lost all credibility a long time ago.

    2. I’m absolutely one of those folks. Local news is so important but this garbage is simply unacceptable. I will never support the Suburban Times if they keep publishing these fact-free editorials.

  2. I don’t know why people get their panties in a bunch over the Times editorials. Compared to, say, the Sports page, they aren’t well read and don’t really move the needle on whatever the outrage of the day is.

    1. “If Seattle wants to remain the regional economic center, it must be able to handle regional traffic, come rain or come shine.”

      Because statements like that aren’t just ridiculous, they’re false. I-5 isn’t an artery for “regional” traffic, it’s an interstate. Shut I-5 down in the middle of Skagit County and you’d have a bad time too, would Mount Vernon be expected to carry on like normal?

      I’ve seen some pretty bad traffic in Bellingham when just one lane is closed. That doesn’t mean we should blame their bike lanes.

      1. Indeed, we had just exactly that “experiment” a couple of years ago and found that Mount Vernon was um, er, ah, “wanting” in its capacity to absorb a sudden influx of traffic.

      2. Turn every neighborhood street in Mount Vernon into a six-lane highway! You know, just in case. For next time an errant truck knocks the bridge into the river.

      3. If Seattle wants to remain the regional economic center

        This is just too much. What do they think Seattle is *now*?

      4. Some of my coworkers on the eastside are convinced the lefties that run Seattle are going to run it into the ground and in 20 years Bellevue is going to be the economic center of the region because they are so much more business friendly.

      5. If Seattle wants to remain the regional economic center, it must be able to handle regional traffic, come rain or come shine.

        Vancouver will overtake Seattle as the regional economic center (if it hasn’t already) and they are not focused on adding more roads. Quite the contrary. They are simply expanding on an already very effective transit system, along with the same sort of improvements (e. g. bike lanes) that the Seattle Times editorial staff thinks are a bad idea.

      6. Good point. And what distinguishes Vancouver from essentially every other major city in North America? There is NO FREEWAY DOWNTOWN. Not now, not in the future, not ever. You arrive in downtown Vancouver from wherever you come and via whatever means of transportation you choose on city streets.

        How are they doing with that?

      7. Vancouver is going to build a tunnel just for cars, from North Vancouver to Richmond, as a bypass for the congested Trans-Canada highway. Ha, just kidding — no they’re not. Somehow Vancouver manages to survive (and thrive) despite the huge congestion over that bridge and many other roads.

  3. What makes the impossibility “geometric”? I would have said “algebraically impossible”. I guess I perceive that demand is about algebra and not geometry. I see something is “geometrically impossible” when a single vehicle can’t maneuver it, like when a proposed lane is too narrow or a turn is too tight.

    1. It has to do with the space vehicles take up. Space = shape = geometry.

      The algebra of vehicles per lane is a function of the geometry of the size of cars.

      Make sense?

      1. I don’t think it’s geometry.

        When I took a graduate level traffic engineering course, we had to work through capacity calculations based on speed, The slower the street, the lower the capacity. Of course, signals and stop signs are the ultimate capacity limits because vehicles move through them more slowly; even rail lines and bus stop capacities are ultimately controlled by how long the transit vehicles need to load and unload people. Capacity is not determined by the actual space of the vehicles over a distance, but the number of vehicles or people that can pass by a specific point over a defined period of time. That’s clearly algebra, and not geometry.

        To back up my response, here is the Highway Capacity Manual definition: “The HCM defines capacity as the maximum sustainable flow rate at which vehicles or persons reasonably can be expected to traverse a point or uniform segment of a lane or roadway during a specified time period …”

      2. Al – you’re correct but that doesn’t dispute the geometry point. Think of it this way – for a given road, speed, and time segment, compare 60′ buses or 6′ mopeds … do you think more, less, or the same number of buses would pass by as the mopeds?

        The geometry argument says that for every 60′ bus, there will be 2 or 3 mopeds (assuming some extra following distance) that pass for the same time period.

        So that’s 2 or 3 people on 2 or 3 mopeds … verses, what, 40 people on one bus? 40>3, ergo geometry means that buses are more efficient because they move more people per road space used.

        Semi-related note – I’ve been told a rule of thumb is that maximum capacity for most roads is achieved around 45~50 mphs, because at higher speeds the increased following distance between cars offsets the higher speeds.

        Is that just an urban legend?

      3. It is pretty common to talk about traffic and transit from a geometric standpoint, because the advanced aspects of it do involve geometry. The advantages of a grid versus a radial design, for example, involves geometry and apply to transit or point to point automobile traffic. Algebra is simply a subset of geometry, and in a simplified case — like the one David gave — it is sufficient to understand the problem.

        But if you expand the example just a bit, you can see that you get into geometry. The Seattle Times editorial was not focused only on the freeways, but also complained about roads in the city. The problem gets a lot more complicated when you include that. Not only can fewer people pass through a particular point, but you start getting cars backed up to the next intersection. If they don’t clear the intersection, you can have gridlock. Even if you don’t have gridlock, you have people who seek out new ways to avoid the traffic, sending traffic to other areas, and it gets very complicated. The models for figuring that out are based on geometry more than anything, I would guess.

        Anyway, I think the best term to use in this case is probably just math. A lot of the math is very simple — just basic arithmetic.

      4. Oy, this conversation is a bit painful to read.

        Algebra and geometry are not subsets of each other. Not at all. They are simply different ways to describe problems and situations. Geometry describes situations using shapes, distances, positions, measurements, angles, volumes, etc. Algebra describes situations using variables and abstract equations and the various relationships that can be found in those equations. Many problems can be described using BOTH approaches. There is no hierarchy.

        If I have two shapes and one is a miniature version of the other, I’m using geometry when I talk about how their areas compare, how their volumes compare, how distances and angles in one compare to distances and angles in the other. If I say that x = some length in the smaller shape, y = some length in the bigger shape and that x=3y now I’m using algebra, especially if I know one length and have to solve for the other.

        To get back to the topic at hand, it is not “clearly an algebra problem” regardless of what the HCM says. The problem of trying to maximize throughput of traffic is a great example of how different disciplines of mathematics intersect. Not only are algebra and geometry *both* involved, there’s a actually fair amount of statistics and probability as well since you have to make predictions about how many cars are likely to use a given road at a given time. And, you really should include some graph theory as well since we’re trying to connect nodes with edges. Trying to claim that a real-world problem is “just geometry” or “just algebra” is nonsense. Mathematics rarely shows up in such discrete packages.

        FWIW, this is probably best described as a geometry problem since we’re dealing with fixed widths of roads, sizes of cars, following distances etc. that ultimately limit how many cars can be placed side-by-side through a street and how closely they can bunch up, however there are certainly elements of algebra present as well.

        P.S. I have a B.A. in mathematics and have presented at math conferences in WA, OR and BC.

  4. Nice. Another important factor is car storage or parking; it has high and increasing cost, given the price of land.

    1. Normally that’s right, but in most parts of central city Seattle (Cap Hill being the notable exception) we have more car storage capacity than the road network can accommodate.

      1. Yep, ship-in-a-bottle parking that not only isn’t fully used, but can’t be fully used.

  5. I encourage everyone to speak out on this dumb editorial. @mention the members of the Editorial Board and tell them why they’re wrong. Sometimes they respond – they need to be shown wrong because this type of thinking is so dangerous

  6. I bet these are the same people who think self-driving cars are going to save us all, so why do we need trains?

    Well, why do we need to worry about crashed trucks when they’ll be safely driving themselves in the very near future?

    1. Like BRT, self-driving cars are a salvation conservatives only believe in when the alternative is good rail transit.

      1. Oooh. Please give us a “Like” button, Martin! This short sentence sums up “The Conscience of a Conservative”

    2. If they don’t understand the geometry problem with human-driven cars in a city, they won’t get that robot cars suffer from it too.

      1. With the added bonus that self driving cars’ average occupancy can actually drop below one!

      2. Yeah I”m definitely of the opinion that self-driving cars will make congestion worse, not better.

        They will solve some interesting problems around parking and make it much easier to serve low/medium-dense areas with transit, but they will make things much much worse in dense spaces.

      3. It is what makes me wonder what would happen if it was truly a free market and congestion zones charged as much as the market will bare?

      4. There’s some potential for robot cars to greatly reduce following distances in a highly controlled environment (interstates without human drivers), but that’s a) a long, long way off, b) incompatible with pedestrians and bicyclists and the things that make a city good in the first place.

        But yeah, robot cars are a solution to parking, but a hazard for congestion.

      5. It is hard to say. In theory self driving cars lead to more car sharing (as the price for cabs drops dramatically). This leads to less car owner which in turn leads to more transit use. Basically you take transit when it is convenient, and when it isn’t you grab a cab. It helps with the last mile problem, and you are less likely to use a car when you don’t own one. I’m not so sure if I believe all that — I think there will be several forces moving in opposition (e. g. the car commute becomes a lot more pleasant).

        But self-driving buses is simply positive and could be a huge win. It could mean a giant financial bonanza for transit agencies, as much (if not most) of their money goes into paying drivers. Things get complicated (e. g. fare enforcement and security) but I could easily see that handled by remote cameras, with a crew viewing various screens. Like the self checkout lanes (which still require oversight) you don’t replace all the jobs, just most of them. The end result will likely be much better headways for your system, even if most of the buses are tiny. Imagine a bus every five minutes on every route (whether it is a van or an artic). For a lot of people, that would be a bigger change than ST3, even though (in theory) it wouldn’t cost anything.

  7. This is very well done and should run in the Seattle Times editorial section. They do occasionally run rebuttals to their own editorials if I recall correctly.

  8. I’m all about dedicated bus lanes, but IMHO they don’t work quite like rail lines. The fact is, more buses on the roads start competing for the same ROW with other buses. On another note, one operational emergency thought when something like the propane tanker spill: what if there were gates just before the on ramps that blocked automobiles/trucks/etc. from getting onto the freeway? Would this help? The propane truck fiasco happen in a weird spot, could’ve happened anywhere.

    1. More trains on a line compete with eachother for space, too. If you don’t believe me, find a spot with a view of the Loop Elevated tracks in Chicago from above, and watch it for a few months.

      Buses are (usually) smaller than trains (which means there are more of them), and often have dwell-time problems train services don’t. That’s even true in the DSTT. But I’m not sure DSTT backups clear out that much slower than backups on the Loop do once the cause is addressed. Once you’re on surface streets that’s substantially worse, because your capacity is eaten up by frequent stop lights and merges with car traffic. Again, rail lines installed on surface streets have the same problems, especially if they ever share space with car traffic (as our streetcars do, as some light-rail lines do elsewhere).

    2. In certain cases, it is possible for buses to get stuck in traffic jams with other buses, even while the roads are flowing freely for cars. This usually happens at busy bus stops, served by large numbers of routes, where buses have to “wait their turn” for buses ahead of them to finish loading their passengers before they can pull up to the stop and open their doors. The problem is exacerbated when the bus stops are near-side, since even after a bus finishes loading its passengers, it still can’t move out of the way for the bus behind it until the light turns green.

      At times, a line of even just 2 or 3 buses is enough to cause several minutes of delay. I was once on a 27 that took over 5 minutes to cross Broadway, while loading just one passenger at the bus stop, for no other reason than the fact that the bus was stuck behind a streetcar.

      1. asdf2, the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel isn’t the only place where bus traffic is needlessly allowed to get in its own way.

        Below and on top of the relevant streets, bus transit will stop doing every wrong thing you list above when lanes are reserved, signals adjusted, and drivers intensively trained to cooperate with each other.

        Meantime. Anybody got a definition of a “World Class City”? Or considering current affairs globally, why anyplace would want to be one? But real question for this posting is why The Seattle Times editorial board keeps saying things so provably wrong.

        Taking a leaf from a certain reality TV host in an Eastern US city whose transit system is falling apart underneath its wretchedly stalled traffic, I think The Times is “playing to its base.”

        Carefully marshaled, fear, ignorance, prejudice and spite combine into enough space-warping energy to create a permanent core of supporters exactly like a collapsed star. From whom, for starters, no light can escape. Or reason reach inward.

        Who, no matter how small a numerical minority, will always turn out to vote. Also subscribe to, and advertise in your newspaper.And vote the way you say. In simple gratitude for showing them that at least somebody rich and powerful is fighting to protect them from people weaker and poorer than themselves.

        Here and in DC, whose idea of class no shantytown in the World would emulate, best to ignore the pre-dawn tweets and concentrate on whatever it is that’s being desperately distracted from. Or anything else of Real World-Class substance.


      2. In cities with truly frequent bus routes (which Seattle doesn’t have) , buses caneven get stuck behind buses running the same route. This happens with Toronto’s streetcars which have more frequent scheduled headways than any bus route in the United States.

    3. It gets complicated. A lot depends on dwell time and whether you can pass with a bus. The old bus tunnel had both the ability to pass and low dwell times (with the ride free zone). However, the confusion and hassle of “pay as you exit” made that an unpleasant experience. In Bogota they have off board payment (of a more normal sort). The combination of short dwell times (around 20 seconds) and the ability to pass allow Bogota to have extremely high throughput, rivaling heavy rail. But the use of two lanes is similar to the use of two tracks, in that you can get huge numbers of people moving with that.

      But for a single lane system, low dwell times can make a huge difference. You can get bunching, but it is minor, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. The headways are extremely low, and a bus system is competitive with a light rail system, in that they can both move roughly the same number of people through a corridor. The train may be more consistent, but to me it doesn’t make much difference if I wait three minutes for a train and it runs like clockwork, or I wait 30 seconds for a bus, and it slows down several times along the way.

      With heavy rail or longer trains it is different. A typical subway can move way more people than a single track BRT system. But our light rail rail line has about the same throughput (from what I can tell) as a BRT system with low dwell times.

      1. ” But our light rail rail line has about the same throughput (from what I can tell) as a BRT system with low dwell times.” – really comes down to Link frequency

        Yes a BRT trunk line running at 30 second frequencies is comparable to a 4 car Link train running at 3 minute frequencies, but 1) Running a bus every 30 seconds is way more expensive than running a train every 3 minutes, and 2) I’m convinced that peak frequency will be able to get below 3 minutes once the Link trains are running completely independently of buses in the tunnel. It becomes a question of following distance, and 3 minutes seems pretty generous.

        Before Link, what’s the most number of buses the tunnel could handle in an hour?

      2. AJ,
        The limiter on Link frequencies in the DSTT isn’t the vehicles. Yes once buses are out the vehicles could operate much more frequently. The limit is the people on the trains. The DSTT wasn’t built for as many people as sub 3 minute 4-car Link trains could bring in. Mezzanines would need to be closed off to the tunnel, ventilation upgraded and exits expanded. Sound Transit looked at this early on in the ST3 process; I believe it cost an estimated $300 million.

      3. Huh, interesting – so the limiting factor isn’t the lines but the actual stations being able to handle that many people getting on/off?

        Seems like a worthy investment, when the time comes, to expand station capacity, as that would allow us to better use the existing infrastructure by boosting total system frequency.

        It’ll be interesting to see how many people pass through downtown without deboarding the train – for example someone going from RB to UW, or Roosevelt to Bellevue.

      4. Yes a BRT trunk line running at 30 second frequencies is comparable to a 4 car Link train running at 3 minute frequencies, but 1) Running a bus every 30 seconds is way more expensive than running a train every 3 minutes,

        Yes, agreed. Roughly six times as much. Of course, when the headways aren’t close to their maximum (e. g. headways of six or ten minutes) then there is a substantial benefit from paying extra for such service. I don’t run after a Toronto train, but I run after a Seattle one. I never ran after a “free ride” bus, either (and I had better knees back then).

        and 2) I’m convinced that peak frequency will be able to get below 3 minutes once the Link trains are running completely independently of buses in the tunnel. It becomes a question of following distance, and 3 minutes seems pretty generous.

        I also agree. For the section between downtown and the UW, that is key. They really should be working on that, as the benefits are substantial. That is the section that is likely to have throughput issues. The funny thing is, the second tunnel does nothing to alleviate those. I can walk from one end of downtown to the other (or take dozens of buses that will get me there). But I’m not walking to the UW from downtown, which means that on a Friday night, when thousands of people are just trying to get home, and you have an event at the UW, along with the usual assortment of activities in our theater district (i. e. Capitol Hill) you are going to leave people at the platform. It isn’t the end of the world, but you really don’t want to do that — you want to get everyone on that train, or at the very least, the next one, arriving in a couple minutes. Improving the headways in our transit tunnel would be money well spent.

        Before Link, what’s the most number of buses the tunnel could handle in an hour?

        Great question. I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard that we were at 50% capacity, but that is unsubstantiated (similar to Seattleite’s ridiculous claims). But I would guess it was huge. Again, the key was the ability to pass. Off board payment (or to be more specific — payment later if you leave the tunnel) helped a lot, but the key was passing. Those platforms are huge. A bus pulls up in the back, someone in front operates the lift, and you just pass them. Take Bogota and throw a handful of wheelchair lift delays and you still have an average dwell time well below what Seattle needs. 90% of your buses have dwell times of under 30 seconds, which means that 90% of your buses go through the tunnel very fast, which means that 99% of the riders never even thought about it. No one ever rode those buses and thought “if only this was a train, it would be much faster”. Instead they thought “too bad it takes so long to pay when you exit” (it was before Orca cards).

        I’m not saying that bus service on the old bus tunnel is the right approach. I think there is enough demand along this corridor proper — meaning no transfers — that warrant all day, frequent train service. Once the train runs every three minutes, you gain nothing by running buses, even if they run more frequently. I’m just saying that focusing on overall throughput is silly. Light rail really isn’t the proper technology if that is your concern. Either max out your bus system (go full Bogota) or build a real subway (e. g. New York, Paris, London, D. C., or heck, even our current model, BART, which at least has big trains shuffling people from one side of the bay to the other). That is mostly what BART does, despite the enormous sums spent on serving areas like Pleasanton.

  9. Would be a better idea for it just to throw in the towel and become The Chattanooga Times?

  10. “in a developed city like Seattle, the amount of space allocated to transportation is basically fixed.”

    Exception – ST3! The biggest expense of ST3 is the creation of new space for transportation, i.e new rail ROW.

    Also 99 tunnel and 520 bridge, both of which are >$1B projects.

    1. Yes, exactly. And one thing I left out because the piece was already too long is just how much more capacity we’ll get out of the new ST3 ROW than we would out of a road tunnel of the same construction expense. The answer: more than an order of magnitude.

      1. I think the argument is stronger with ST2, in that you not only increase capacity, but you actually come close to using that capacity. But I would say the best example is the transit tunnel. Even when it was used just with buses, it carried way more people during rush hour than the nearby (and more expensive) SR 99 tunnel ever will. When Link gets to Northgate and Bellevue, those numbers will be higher still. If ST ever increases the headways below three minutes, the capacity as well as the actual number of people moved through downtown will dwarf that of the freeways.

      2. That’s fair. New St3 ROW being created is less valuable – building a ROW that will be crush-loaded at peak will always be more valuable than ROW that will be moderately full – but that will always be true as you expand a network away from the core.

        Given freeway throughput should be going down over time (increased congestion and less express buses), it’s only a matter of time before Link’s peak throughput passes the local interstate system, at least within Seattle.

        (freeways will probably still carry more total trips because 1) they are open 24/7 and 2) large amount of short local trips off-peak in the suburbs)

      3. building a ROW that will be crush-loaded at peak will always be more valuable than ROW that will be moderately full – but that will always be true as you expand a network away from the core.

        Right. Unfortunately, we are going to spend huge amount of money expanding the network away from the core before we actually fully serve the core. Metro 8 subway, Ballard to UW subway and the DSTT would fully serve the core. Angle Lake to Fife, Lynnwood to Ash Way or West Seattle Junction to SoDo do not.

      4. Such is life when the final arbiter of everything is the Washington State Legislature and you can’t build a coalition without suburban Ds and a few moderate suburban Rs.

      5. The legislature is to blame for a lot that is wrong with transportation, but I don’t think you can blame them for not building the core first. That was the job of Sound Transit, and they’ve blown it. ST2 made good progress on it, but ST3 didn’t. You have nothing that I would consider essential (although Ballard to downtown comes close*) and plenty of things that aren’t. It wouldn’t have been that hard to build some of the essential pieces first (Ballard to UW and the WSTT) along with lots of good suburban projects focused on buses and commuter rail. The latter should have been done by the legislature, but it could have been built by Sound Transit. A new Ash Way ramp, or a bus only lane connecting I-405 to I-5 should really have been part of the last state transportation budget, but it wasn’t. There are dozens of projects like that and while the state deserves their share of the blame, Sound Transit deserves just as much for the failure to serve the suburbs well. But ST deserves all of the blame for not serving the core properly.

        * A second tunnel was essential, so Ballard to downtown comes close. But the lack of support for Aurora buses (our most popular bus and our most popular corridor currently served only by buses) along with no service to Belltown mean that most of our essential work will remain, even after spending a huge amount of money. Solving that problem just got a lot more expensive — or will be a lot less effective — as either you build rail next to Aurora or build yet another tunnel for downtown.

    2. I’d say from an ROW perspective, it’s still basically fixed. Two more lanes for the length of the city is negligible, from an ROW perspective. But since Link runs trains, it gets to be huge, from a capacity perspective.

      Core reason why the 99 tunnel is so dumb: If you’re going through the enormous expense to create new ROW, you should give it your highest capacity technology – otherwise you’re throwing your money away.

  11. The Seattle Times argument is ridiculous. It is easy to see how flawed it is, when you take a typical example. How about 520. Imagine if they simply got rid of the transit lanes. Now everyone can enjoy all the lanes. But then guess what happens. Folks stop taking the buses, because they come so infrequently, and there is no point. It is always faster to drive, so you might as well. Next thing you know, traffic is worse than ever.

    It is pretty simple, really. Buses and trains carry way more people per lane. By doing so, they actually reduce the burden on cars, even though traffic will inevitably reach an equilibrium point (absent very high fees for driving). Anyone who has ever experienced (or just read about) a transit strike knows this. You have a huge traffic mess almost immediately. No amount of investment in automobile infrastructure can make up for that.

    Then there is the environmental, economic and geopolitical ramifications of such a policy. If you increase the number of cars on the road, you increase global warming, and a result, increase war, disease and famine, not to mention causing the extinction of thousands of species. All so that you have more lanes in which to spend your time waiting for traffic.

  12. I may be giving the newspapers too much credit, but I think they deserve part of the blame for the mess we are in right now. There is no nuance. When The Seattle Times opposes every single transit project, and The Stranger supports every one, then agencies aren’t concerned with the details. Everything from the Monorail to basic bus service gets a yes from The Stranger, and a no from the Times.

    It really is too bad that the editorial staff is so terrible, since the reporters are really good for a city this size.

    1. Ross, while it’s kind of you to say it, I don’t think anybody pays enough attention to what either newspaper prints about anything to swing the status of one block of street lane. Success of the ST-3 vote in blatant spite of The Times proves that Seattle City Government has only itself to blame for its lame approach to transit in general.

      Exactly like with UW Station, first East LINK trains in both directions will transit-orient official and commercial Bellevue to where they’ll be hanging little cardboard light rail cars from every ceiling from mall to City Hall when station gates open.

      Beaten to the punch only by the Editorial Board of The Times, who’ll be reminding everybody who was responsible for this World Class victory by virtue of the years of constructive criticism they donated free of charge. Which they’ll now focus on fact that nobody can get a seat.


  13. Where is this amazing system of bike lanes that only the Seattle Times Editorial Board seems to know about?

    I have been searching for years for an integrated network of bike lanes through downtown Seattle, the ones that the Seattle Times say took away all the vehicle capacity. Does someone have a map?

    For some reason Seattle does seem to have a heck of a lot of on-street parking for a “progressive city” which seems like it could be put to better use? When cities like Houston and Charlotte can understand the stupidity of downtown on-street parking it has to make you wonder about the leadership in Seattle.

    1. In the few places there are bike lanes (2nd Avenue, Dexter), and you’re stuck in your SOV and you see bikes passing you, you assume the natural order of things is being turned topsy turvy. In reality, a bike passing an SOV in such conditions is truly a feature and not a bug of the bike lane process. We actually have a policy to encourage a non-polluting, healthy way of commuting over sitting in traffic and spewing fumes into the air.

  14. London is experiencing the same rhing as NYC: increasing congestion due to Uber and similar businesses, which are less sensitive to congestion tolling. Perhaps there was some virtue in the taxi cab medallion system after all.

    1. In the end it’s still a geometric problem with cars. In the last years before TNCs showed up, getting a cab in NYC was becoming increasingly difficult; demand for cabs was exceeding supply. The demand for private-car transport around the city is simply exceeding the road network’s capacity.

    2. The ultimate solution is congestion pricing, but it needs to apply to everybody. With the medallion system, you pay the “congestion charge” when you pay somebody else to drive you, but you don’t pay for it when you drive your own car. Fundamentally, this is unfair.

  15. “But expanded car capacity (even where there’s room) doesn’t reduce congestion either. Demand takes up the slack within a few years no matter how big the roads get. ”

    And it seems like the construction to expand the capacity makes the congestion worse for several years while it’s coming online, at least that’s my experience taking the freeway through Tacoma. By the time all that work is done, the new cars will be there waiting.

  16. The editorial section pretty much exists to show ads to the echo chamber circle jerk that is the comment section. If you spend a minute or two down in the dark place of these comments, this editorial should not surprise you. You can have a well written article about the cause of the recent West Point Treatment Plant failure and the top voted comment can be “Ed Murray is an idiot”, complaining about the rainbow crosswalks on Capitol Hill or claiming that bike lanes caused the sewer plant failure.

    These commentors will quip how they are glad they left Seattle long ago and never bother to go into the City anymore, because it’s too Liberal/High Taxes/Congested/Gay/whatever. Yet, they also are VERY concerned about the day to day goings on in the City. The editorial board makes money by showing ads to these hand wringers. There’s little substance and zero intelligence to be found.

      1. I always abhorred the weekly STB roundups leading up to the ST3 vote, because they always inevitably included a MyNorthwest article. The Seattle Times editorials are at least more or less written in a voice that at least has somewhat of a sense of journalistic quality, however bad the point they are trying to make. MyNorthwest articles are written in a voice that sounds like a drunken grandpa, who got on his computer and is ranting about something of which he has no clue.

        And the MyNorthwest comments…oh boy. Those comments rival those of Breitbart, albeit better grammar, thanks to our better educated population in the Puget Sound. I always need a cold shower if I dare venture down there. Like the Times, I don’t bother to actually make a comment, it’s just not worth it.

    1. I don’t understand why the non-left is totally out to lunch on transportation. I would actually like to see a more centrist mayor and council in Seattle that ALSO gets transportation. I am no fan of the activist grandstanding SJWs we have now on much of the council and don’t like Murray. But I have to pinch my nose and hold my breathe and be lucky to have someone like Murray when the sole alternative is extreme leftist Sawant-types. Not so much Seattle itself but anytime a more conservative person is on the ballot and talks about transportation they are so rabidly anti-transit, anti-urban, anti-toll, anti-rail, anti-ST, anti-transit priority, anti-bike, anti-pedestrian, all about more free wider or new roads, blame traffic on everything but autos, etc. that I would never remotely consider voting for them (usually also a fair number of their other issues).

      This opinion piece in the Seattle PI touches on the need for a more Centrist mayor but then also rails against Sound Transit, the transit measures and even the 2 popup plazas. I can not jump onboard.
      Seattle needs an articulate, moderate candidate for mayor

  17. Actually, the Times is at least partially right. If the right of way on the north side of Denny Way between Denny Park and I-5 was increased by 100′ it would definitely improve things in Seattle

    1. That would improve nothing. You’d still have all the same cars queued up to access southbound I-5 via the one-lane Yale onramp.

      And you would tear down about half a mile of buildings, and you’d have to relocate a substation that City Light just expanded at considerable expense and disruption, and you’d have a giant street that would drive away pedestrians.

    2. How about increasing it by 400′ between Denny Park & Westlake…thus eliminating the Times’ offices! Is that the point you were trying to make?

      Widening Denny b/t Denny Park & I-5 WOULD NOT HELP! It would provide more lanes to queue-up for the choke points (funneling onto I-5 and across I-5 up Denny to Cap Hill). Adding a bunch of lanes wouldn’t improve throughput but would make it much more toxic for other users, like the people who live, walk, and bike in the area!

      1. @AJ/David

        Obviously my comment was made tongue-in-cheek. You’re not considering WHO is located along that stretch of Denny Way.


        Yes, that is the point I was trying to make. I would think it would be more aggravating for the Times to lose just PART of it’s building/lot instead of the whole thing.

      2. Internet humor detector: broken as usual.

        I’d support just converting Mr. Blethen’s reserved parking spot into a parklet.

    3. Adding bus lanes on Denny would help!

      It would also be super expensive to acquire ROW in the most expensive neighborhood in the state.

  18. I agree with most of the article’s sentiments, but want to add some thoughts.

    First, there is an overemphasis on commuting as the goal. A large component of transportation is not commuting. It is getting to places during the workday for workers, getting to shopping and school for people who don’t work, and getting to entertainment. Our transit agencies have overemphasized “getting people to downtown at rush hour” when in fact there’s a lot of demand to go other places at other times for other reasons.

    Second, the article rightly points out the aesthetics that over-wide streets destroy (does anyone “take a walk at lunch in downtown Bellevue?), without putting sufficient emphasis on how the pedestrian experience is negatively impacted by transportation agency policies. Transit use is dependent, in nearly all cases, on the ability to walk to a transit stop. SDOT in particular does not appear to take pedestrian needs to move into consideration in setting walk light times. Try crossing Fifth Avenue at te southwest corner of Union to get to buses on Fourth, Third or Second, at rush hour. The walk light is about ten seconds. The next walk light is over two minutes later. All SDOT seems to care about is the relative number of vehicles on the streets, with no regard for the idea that pedestrians are also seeking to move on a schedule.

    Finally, I would have put even more emphasis on the lack of enforcement, particularly of essentially all traffic laws downtown. Every driver seems to know that downtown is a free-fire zone, where crosswalks can be ignored, stop lights can be ignored, and (as the article does point out) transit-only lanes can be ignored. Blocking the box is treated more like a sacrament than an offense and Ubers in bike lanes are constant. The city would improve its throughput for all people if they simply enforced the rules. But that wouldn’t, apparently, be “business-friendly”.

    1. I walk to lunch in Bellevue pretty much every work day. Cars respect the crosswalks there more than in Seattle – probably because Bellevue police actually enforces traffic rules.

    2. 5th and Union is also a great example of the complete disregard for the rules. Even though the cars turning left from Union to 5th get the lion’s share of the light cycle with a protected turn arrow they still routinely use the straight-only lane next to the turning lane and often the lane next to that one as well to skip the queue.

      There is routinely a police officer two blocks down at 7th and Union in the evenings. I have a hard time understanding their purpose there; they don’t ever seem to direct traffic against the light cycle but on the other hand the drivers do seem to mind the rules at that intersection.

    3. As bad as downtown is, West Seattle is worse. It’s almost impossible to cross Avalon Way in the morning going southbound on 35th Ave. SW, in order to get to either of the 35th and Avalon Rapid Ride stops. Cars going north on 35th will turn left onto Avalon Way (possibly to get to the Starbucks on Avalon & Fauntleroy) and if the pedestrian crossing with the light doesn’t hold their hand out, presumably the driver would run right into them.

      I’ve taken to waiting through however many light cyles it takes for a line of cars going south on 35th to “protect” me from left-turning drivers.

  19. “First, there is an overemphasis on commuting as the goal.

    Because TRAFFIC CONGESTION is a commuting problem.

    However, a robust local network supplements the commuter service, making the decision to leave the car at home that much easier.

    The only, ONLY arguable auto corridor that has any reason to need extra capacity for all day (daytime), relief is southbound I-5 from Northgate through downtown.

    All traffic studies show the only need for ‘expanded road capacity’ is for the commute problem.

    It’s not an either/or proposition for transit…

    We need both commuter and robust local service.

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