29 Replies to “Podcast #37: Mayors, Fares, and Tech Shuttles”

  1. Once East Link opens, do you think Microsoft (or another Tech company) will run shuttles that drop people off at another Link station , so that employees have a (fast) two-seat ride to work, rather than only point-to-point service?

    And I think privately subsidized public bus routes are a great idea, even if they are a separate “class” of buses with WiFi, etc. Anything that results in more total transit for the region is a good thing, no? I don’t think having a slightly higher fare is an issue because most user of these buses will have employer provided passes, anyways.

    1. Various First Hill employers subsidize some of the First Hill express routes. The health cooperative formerly known as GroupHealth has been subsidizing route 601 from downtown to its Tukwila campus, basically paying for would-have-been-deadheading buses to go a little out of their way to swing by the campus. All these routes charge standard fare.

      ST Express 567 is designed to pick up Sounder riders at Kent Station, and take them more directly to downtown Bellevue and Overlake TC. I suppose that express connector could be truncated in Bellevue when East Link opens.

      Employers opting into the Passport program don’t have their pay-in directly tied to fares. Location seems to be a larger determinant of what they have to pay to participate in the program. The program requires all employees get a pass, but doesn’t cover contractors scheduled to work at a site on a daily basis, unfortunately.

      1. Microsoft also buys additional service from … not sure KCMetro and/or ST. Pretty sure they fund additional 545 service, but I cannot find any mention of this in Google searches.

    2. The 566/567 will probably be truncated to Bellevue TC once EastLink opens. The traffic on the 520/405 interchange is quite bad and likely to get worse. Basically, it’s a tradeoff between a one-seat Overlake->Renton ride (that, in traffic, wouldn’t really be any faster than a 2-seat ride involving Link) vs. reliable service for Bellevue->Renton and being able to use the saved service hours to run more trips.

      The MS Connector, however, is a totally different story. It’s paid for out of Microsoft’s budget, not Sound Transit’s, and as long as Microsoft believes it’s a selling point for recruiting and retaining employees, that bus isn’t going anywhere. It also only takes a few people working on the bus for the bus to literally pay for itself in the form of the work being done on it.

      1. Exactly. It is only when folks reject the bus — because it is too slow compared to the train — that Microsoft will cut a bus line. Microsoft isn’t under cost pressure to lower costs, or spread around service. I would assume that it is a very small part of their compensation package. There are only a handful of places where end to end trips will be faster with public transit, partly because the buses often run in HOV 3 lanes.

    3. My guess is that they keep running the buses. There is an interesting article comparing the Silicon Valley buses and Connecticut “reverse commuters”. http://www.businessinsider.com/heres-how-you-could-get-google-bus-riders-to-take-public-transit-2014-2. As the article pointed out, CalTrains has several weaknesses. It mentions lack of frequency, but for a commuter train, it seems more than adequate. It isn’t super fast, but given the distance, quite competitive. The biggest weakness is that it doesn’t fit in very well with the rest of the transit system. The train station is not centrally located, and it takes a while to get there from most places in the city. Companies like Google could run shuttles to each stop (making for a three seat ride) but in the end, that wouldn’t save much time (probably the opposite) and not be nearly as popular. Folks like to work on the bus, and each interruption makes it tough to do so.

      The rail line in Seattle is much better situated, but it has its limitations, and runs into the same issue. There are only so many stations, so for a lot of people, you have a three seat versus one seat situation like with CalTrains. Then you have the fact that for a lot of riders, the bus would likely be a lot faster. A bus from say, Roosevelt would slog on I-5, but soon get onto 520 in its own lane until Redmond. A train ride would take about 45 minutes to get to Overlake, and my guess a bus would beat it more often than not. The train has to be significantly faster than a bus — and for much of the route, it just isn’t (and won’t be, even after the system is built out). A lot of it is geography, as well as being fortunate in having HOV 3 lanes on 520. Even with stops on 520, a bus is faster headed that way, rather than taking a train through downtown and around.

      If the connection between the Husky stadium and 520 is made better (and I think it will be) then I could see a lot of Microsoft folks taking public instead of private transit (take the train to the UW, then transfer there). That again is probably a three seat ride, but a fast one. If and when we build a Ballard to UW rail line, that would a lot of sense for people in Ballard and communities along that corridor (Fremont, Phinney Ridge, Wallingford, Greenwood).

      Even though there are huge differences between Silicon Valley and Redmond, there are similarities in that replacing express buses with public transit only becomes attractive when the entire transit network is really good.

      1. That article is very good. “The difference between Connecticut and Silicon Valley is mostly about differences in planning: Where the rail lines go, how often the trains run, and where homes and offices are located.”

        The difference between the Bay Area and Pugetopolis is the scale of things. In the Bay Area one of the largest commute axes is between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Not just tech workers going south but also financial workers going north which has occurred for far longer. That’s 30-40 miles, or the distance from Seattle to Tacoma. If you went north that far you’d be in Marysville. If you went east that far you’d be in North Bend. The largest commuting axes in Pugetopolis are between Seattle and Bellevue/Redmond, and between south Everett and Seattle/Bellevue/Redmond. We fret about one-way expresses from Snohomish, but most of them start at 128th (Mariner P&R) or further south; that’s peanuts compared to Bay Area commutes.

        In the late 90s I knew some people who had moved to Silicon Valley for work. They said it sucked living there because there’s nothing to do; everything is in San Francisco and that’s a significant effort to get to. I had lived in the valley in the 70s before it was Silicon Valley so I knew what it had been like long-term. I went down in 1998 when I was looking for work, but I was pretty set that the company had to be in San Francisco. At the time tech companies were just starting to open in SF. I didn’t understand why the valley didn’t adopt the obvious solution: make it more like San Francisco and then people would happily live there and spend their time there. Well, I knew why it didn’t: the deep-set opposition to density. They felt like, “If we wanted an urban environment we’d be in San Francisco, but we don’t. We want the ‘Town and Country’ feel, the suburban paradise.” In the end what turned me off was the cost of living there: I’d have to run three times faster for the same quality of life as Seattle.

        One corollary of the long distances in the Bay Area is that the county-based transit agencies basically have no responsibility for them. There’s Caltrain and BART, and express buses to San Francisco, but the express buses stop short at San Mateo and Alameda Counties; they don’t go to Santa Clara County where most of the tech firms are. That’s the gap that led to the tech shuttles. We have something similar because CT buses come from Snohomish County to Seattle/Bellevue but Pierce Transit buses don’t. Only Sound Transit comes from Pierce County, and it serves only in a few places in Pierce County. But there are no large number of tech companies in Pierce County.

        There’s another issue with converting tech-shuttle riders into transit riders: capacity. Caltrain is full and on the edge of an overcrowding meltdown: that’s why the HSR improvements are so critical. Some people are already worried about Link’s capacity in north Seattle even though it hasn’t opened yet. If we want everybody to take transit like they did in the 1920s, we’d need four times more transit than we’re planning. The governments and taxpayers aren’t willing to even consider that at this point. So there will have to be a lot of shuttles and carpools even after ST3. But it’s not really bad if somebody takes a shuttle from Wallingford to Redmond. The purpose of Link is to serve the bulk of riders that are reasonably close to a station. A lot of people are willing to go to Bellevue Transit Center and take a bus/train to UW and continue on from there. Link will extend their one-seat rides into many neighborhoods, but not all of them. If they’re in an awkward neighborhood like Greenwood, well, them not being on Link reduces the risk of Link overcrowding. It’s not like Link will be empty and crying for passengers. Maybe in Everett and Tacoma if the skeptics are right, but certainly not at Roosevelt or Ash Way.

      2. Good points, Mike. My only quibble is with the idea that we shouldn’t try and maximize Link ridership. I think capacity concerns are way overblown, and we actually do have capacity problems, we should deal with them directly. The cost of running trains more often is minimal compared to the cost of other improvements. If we do make other improvements, then all the better. I would rather be Boston — have a light rail system bursting at the seems — than Dallas (have one that very few use).

        That doesn’t mean that express bus service (whether public or private) doesn’t have it’s place. New York has all sorts of great express bus service, despite having arguably the best subway system in North America.

      3. We should have good feeders and think carefully about the Link alignment choices (although that’s already been decided), so that people from farther out can get to the stations easily. But if some of them take shuttles, that’s OK because lots of others will take the train. New York is the only American city where the majority don’t drive. I was shocked at how many people drive in San Francisco and Chicago even for trips that are practically door-to-door between BART stations or El stations. Some people barely know where the train goes or that there’s a station on the next block because they’re so not into it, but others do know where it goes and ride it sometimes, yet still they drive a lot when they don’t have to. And taking a shuttle is one step away from driving. That’s just a lite version of the American mindset, and if they can’t solve it in Chicago we’re not going to solve it here first, so we don’t have to sweat it, we just have to make sure the transit is robust for those who do want to take it. Maybe in the future people will drive less and public attitudes will be more like New York.

  2. Even though I think worrying about private shuttles cannibalizing public transit riders makes sense in the long run, anything that helps the current crowding on our public busses seems like a plus to me

      1. Sounded like a 3 horse race. You could go with Moon with her urban planner credentials, or go with Murray as the someone who can actually get stuff done (like HALA upzones and Move Seattle).

        The candidates should differentiate themselves over the course of campaigning, but right now the differences are mostly rhetorical.

      2. Listen to the podcast. They make the case for Murray and Moon too.

        I’m sort of intrigued by the idea that the “scapegoat foreigners without any evidence” is just a convenient populist villain to get us to the policies we need. It’s kind of brilliant if true.

      3. Jack, your question hits on Seattle’s real difficulty finding a mayor the people will be comfortable with. And other way around, too. I’m afraid the truth is that the people of Seattle don’t really want a mayor at all.

        Seattle’s people are civil and well-meaning. City government is probably among the “cleanest” in the world. Except that it might sit better for somebody’s brother to get a paving contract than their college room-mate get a consulting one.

        But these last several decades, general population is extremely uncomfortable with decisions- their own, or those of the people they elect. I’ve been told it didn’t used to be that way.

        Though if the old way had been that great, we’d probably still have it. But for Mayor, President, military what the best have in common is that their followers literally grab them by the lapels and throw them at their official desk.

        Not only will they refuse to call themselves leaders. Like President James Garfield, they often get forcibly gaveled down when they vehemently refuse the job.


      4. What has Murray actually gotten done? The HALA upzones have been watered down to uselessness, and Move Seattle has produced nothing except a lot of studies that have eventually recommended doing essentially nothing (except for bus lanes on half of Madison BRT. Yes, half.)

        Okay, he got a bike lane on part of Second Avenue, until it was blocked by construction. So I guess not nothing.

      5. @djw: If Seattle falls for a “scapegoat foreigners without any evidence” ploy then we’re no better than the Trumpists.

        Anyway, the “scapegoat foreigners without any evidence” ploy doesn’t actually point the way to any effective policy. It’s another way to kick the can down the road.

      6. Who’s scapegoating foreigners? You mean foreign tycoons buying up real estate to park their cash? First we need evidence that that’s actually happening here to any significant extent. The podcast also conflated the distinction between foreign owners and absentee owners, or maybe they’re quoting politicians who are. What Vancovuer instituted was a tax on foreign homebuyers. Prices went down 25% after that indicating that there were a lot of foreign buyers. And we know from observations that top-end apartments in Manhattan and London are persistently empty, so they are clearly just money parks, and I gather that was happening in Vancouver too. But what’s happening in the Eastside is Chinese families buying houses so that their children can attend Eastside schools. they’re not absentee, they’re living there. This gets into what I thought the idle-house tax was when it was first mentioned: a tax on a home that’s persistently empty. Regardless of whether the owners are foreign or domestic. That’s a good idea, and it would discourage asset-parking and needless displacement. The tycoons can invest their money in a business where it belongs.

  3. Thanks for the upzone debate early on. I’d make the case that adding apartments and condos can also make room for families, using a couple of data points:
    1. 1/2 our housing stock is single family homes.
    2. The median household size is 2.

    This leads to the conclusion that we have quite a few of these SF homes filled by singles or couples. I’d argue that the high demand for condos has bled into our SF homes, as we haven’t built condos fast enough. Build condos and you allow people to live in the condos they’d actually prefer (i.e. more space than a SF home for the same price, or less cost than a SF home, depending on their preferences), and we should see a corresponding drop in home prices.

    To be clear, I’m a huge proponent of building missing middle housing, and for upzoning SF zones. But I really think *any* housing we build helps reduce the demand on all of our markets. Let’s upzone all of the things.

    1. The more I think about it, the more I believe you are right, Matt. It isn’t simple, since you have different, but related demands. Some people just want to live in their own house, no matter how small. They have no interest in a condo, no matter how nice. But if I play this out in my head, i see the same result. Imagine if we went “full Tokyo” and allowed people to build whatever they want to build in the city.

      The first thing that happens is that we build a lot of apartments. Prices drop dramatically, and then construction levels off. There are only so many people who want to live in an apartment in Seattle (given the available jobs, weather, etc.). Apartments are also very efficient — they take up very little space for the number of people who live there. So you don’t have apartments everywhere (and all houses gone) because the city simply won’t be that big. Queens, for example, is roughly the same area as Seattle, has three times the population, and has plenty of houses. So the number of houses would go down, but not by a huge amount. At that point you have conflicting trends. The supply of houses are going down, while the demand for houses goes down as well (as people have other housing options). How that balances out would probably require a study. If those were the only two types of options available, it is hard to say what would happen to the price of houses .

      Except that they aren’t. As the number of houses decreases, and the demand remains strong, people will build more houses. This is why the preservationist argument is so absurd. The only way to have cheaper houses is to build more of them. But just like apartments, the supply is artificially held down. It is very common in my (middle class) neighborhood to see old houses torn down and replaced by giant houses. It would be much cheaper and much more profitable for the owner to build several new houses — but that isn’t allowed.

      Eventually you would reach a sort of equilibrium, based on both the demand and wealth distribution of the residents here. In some cases, houses will tend to crowd out apartments and we will have something that people say we already have — the wealthy competing with the middle and lower class, and limiting their supply. Right now that isn’t an issue, as the local government is doing a great job of limiting the supply of affordable market rate housing (i. e. screwing the poor). By “poor” I mean those without a great deal of wealth — there are plenty of middle income or higher wage earners who are getting screwed by the city. But even if the city did a better job of addressing the needs of the less wealthy, we could still run into a situation where apartments aren’t really cheap, because wealthy home owners are essentially hogging the land.

      But the situation will still be much better than what it is now — you will have a lot more houses, and a lot more apartments, and they will all be cheaper. The only type of housing that I can see that might be more expensive are large, detached single family houses. Boo Hoo. I can’t buy a big house with a view in Magnolia anymore. Oh, how I suffer. But being able to afford an apartment, condo or even a small house seems well within the reach of most of the city, if we only get our act together and change the zoning codes.

  4. I don’t see our land-use choices limited to either urban concentration or sprawl. My choice would be comfortably compact towns all across the region. Connected by transit lines designed into the developments.

    Not the other way around. Or transit as an afterthought. Term I use is “streetcar suburb” From the days when real estate developers really did build car-lines into their residential subdivisions.

    Has anybody been to Karlsruhe, Germany? Their system is closest I’ve found to my idea. Though pretty the key to their success would be the hardest thing for us to get.
    Existing track, or at least right-of-way, between our developments.


    Pretty much my take on Cross Kirkland Corridor- if it would physically fit. Which I think is a worse problem than current residential opponents. Would really appreciate some feed-back.

    Mark Dublin

  5. I’d like the next podcast to cover electric buses and really drop-kick the STB commentators to PLEASE join me in demanding more electric buses all around our region.

    I realize the range isn’t there now for the commuter routes, but come on? We gotta get started somewhere. “Each battery bus reduces tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 65 tons each year, the equivalent of 21 cars off the road. The new buses run cleaner, quieter, and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Cutting diesel emissions also means better air quality, benefiting people with asthma and other health issues.”


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