Atomic Taco (Flickr)

On Sunday, the Seattle Times wrote up ($) SDOT’s Employer Shared Transit Stop Pilot program, which started a week prior. It’s a good writeup, although transit nerds probably won’t learn too much they didn’t already know. From SDOT’s page:

The City of Seattle and King County Metro are collaborating with Seattle Children’s Hospital and Microsoft to conduct a six-month pilot that will allow these participating organizations’ employer-provided shuttles to temporarily share a select set of public transit stops with King County Metro buses. This pilot was carefully developed over the last two years. The pilot project will test the feasibility of allowing employer-provided shuttles to use public transit stops while minimizing impacts to public transit operations.

As someone who both cares a lot about public transit, and the space given to public transit, and also someone who uses an employer shuttle occasionally (not one in this pilot), I have a few reactions.

First, I applaud SDOT and Metro for spotting a growing trend, and proactively experimenting with a pilot program to get real-world experience in managing it. Rule changes are generally easy to reverse if they don’t pan out, and I’ll take data over endless process and waffle any day.

Second, I think there will be mixed operational results from the stops chosen (you can see a full map on the SDOT page). Some, like SB 15th Ave E @ Mercer, seldom see more than a bus every ten minutes, and an additional shuttle using the stop is unlikely to cause delays for public transit riders. Others, like SB Queen Anne @ Harrison, are very heavily trafficked. That traffic includes RapidRide D*, on which SDOT and Metro have spent a lot of money in the name of speed and reliability. A noticeable level of conflict between shuttles and transit in the peak period seems inevitable, and any resulting delays will undermine the effort and money spent on the RapidRide program.

Of course, this variety of stop profiles will yield more interesting data, and may have been an intentional part of the pilot’s stop choices, although SDOT doesn’t call it out as such.

Finally, I note the dead hand of America’s great cognitive bias in street space allocation: when a new actor arises and asks for street space, the first people whose interests are traded off are all those who don’t drive and park their own car in the public right of way. Particularly depressing is the suggestion quoted in the Times article, that “if more loading zones are freed up, officials eventually could change some of those loading zones to public parking.”

Curbside parking (as distinct from loading) is, in general, the least valuable use of space, on a busy thoroughfare in a dense neighborhood. If the primary motiviation for a permanent shared stop program is to eventually add a couple of dozen parking spaces to SDOT’s street parking inventory across the entire city, then that is a fatally worthless premise. If, on the other hand, the purpose is to make each street function better overall (e.g. can we please have a bike corral by the pilot stop at Ballard & Market?), and any negative feedback on transit conflicts is taken seriously, then this program may prove meritorious.

If you have your own scaldingly hot take on this pilot program, please share it with us in the comments, and then email it to

My email Q&A with SDOT, lightly edited, is after the jump.

* UPDATE: As pointed out in the comments, the D Line skips this one stop in Uptown. Nevertheless, it’s a busy stop for all the routes coming southbound out of Queen Anne, and SDOT and Metro have spent a chunk of money on making those routes faster and better, so I think the point mostly stands.

1. How were these stops chosen?

This pilot is consistent with our efforts to make the best use of a valuable finite resource: our on-street curb space. We will continue to prioritize transit, and have established a monitoring program to ensure transit service and operations are not degraded at these locations. The pilot is intended to demonstrate that there are areas where we believe shared use by transit and employer shuttles can work for everyone. Having these compatible uses share the same space takes the pressure off nearby loading zones or the need to remove parking to install Shuttle Loading Zones.

Microsoft and Seattle Children’s identified locations where they believed shared use of public transit zones would help facilitate efficient shuttle operations and loading/unloading of passengers without significant impacts to public transit operations. SDOT and King County Metro approved the pilot locations.

2. Was the availability of nearby commercial loading zones, or the possibility of converting general curbside parking to loading zones, considered as an alternative?

Those are typical considerations in locating employer shuttle stops. Employer shuttles typically load and unload in passenger loading zones (which are otherwise open to the general public for loading and unloading) or seek to establish new Shuttle Loading Zones. Microsoft and Children’s have expressed challenges with loading zones in locations like these being consistently utilized by the general public, which makes safe and efficient loading by their shuttles challenging. In areas like this we are trying shared use rather than taking other parking or loading to designate a new Shuttle Loading Zone.

3. [What are] the “agreed upon performance metrics and evaluation criteria” mentioned on the page?

The project will conduct field data collection to observe how private employer shuttle use Metro stops and how they interact with Metro buses and other street users. In particular, we will look at:

  • Feedback from Metro and private shuttle operators.
  • Public comments received by Metro and SDOT customer service.
  • Summary information regarding any traffic incidents and citations associated with private employer shuttles using pilot bus stops.
  • An assessment of benefits and impacts generated by allowing employer shuttles to use Metro stops.

More specifically, the data collection effort will record the following events/metrics/observations at each stop location for a given sampling period:

  • Shuttle identifying information (e.g. company name).
  • Shuttle arrival and departure time.
  • Number of shuttle passengers boarding/alighting (nice to have).
  • Number of KC Metro vehicle stop-events at the location.
  • Conflicts: whether each shuttle
    • Delayed an arriving KC Metro bus from accessing stop.
    • Was delayed in accessing the stop (i.e. another shuttle, KC Metro bus, or another vehicle temporarily blocked access).
    • Blocked travel lane (including double parked).
    • Blocked bike lane.
    • Blocked right-turning cars from seeing crossing pedestrians (near-side stops).
    • Blocked crosswalk (far-side stops).

At the conclusion of the pilot, we will do an evaluation to summarize the benefits and impacts of the pilot that will inform decisions about potential pilot project extension by time, expansion and/or development of a permanent program.

4. A couple of these stops, notably #29720 and #2180, are very busy in the peaks, which is presumably when the employer shuttles will run. How will SDOT and Metro ensure that shuttle loading does not impact transit speed and reliability?

Pilot participants will schedule their stops to avoid conflicts with Metro to the extent possible. We have also established operating guidelines for shuttle operators, including minimizing dwell times (no more than 60 seconds, and shorter whenever possible), not using these stops for any layover or staging, pulling forward to the front of the zone if the shuttle is the first vehicle to enter, and not entering the zone if it is occupied and cannot otherwise accommodate a shuttle vehicle until/unless the other vehicle(s) in the zone have left.

5. What’s the cost of the permits that employers must purchase?

$300 per vehicle

45 Replies to “Pragmatism, Efficiency, and Who Shares”

  1. It won’t be a real pilot until there is a stop at a light rail station. Mt Baker?
    The current proposal is just playing about with a self limited set of riders.

    1. There is a stop at a light rail station, the northbound 65 stop at UW Station. I saw the sign this morning, that a Children’s shuttle will be sharing the stop as part of an SDOT/Metro pilot test.

      1. It certainly helps the usability of the private shuttles is you have the option to take either that or a metro bus, depending on what comes first. Otherwise, you have to guess and choose which stop to wait at.

    2. The idea of (at least) the Microsoft shuttles is to go where transit offers a poor connection to the Redmond campus. Hence, there’s zero reason for Microsoft shuttles to stop at a light rail station – the 54x buses run straight from UW to Redmond.

      Personally, I think that’s probably a better use of limited resources than duplicating transit routes.

  2. > Others, like SB Queen Anne @ Harrison, are very heavily trafficked. That traffic includes RapidRide D[…]

    Not so. RapidRide D passes by that stop on its way South to downtown, but bypasses it (it serves QA & Mercer and QA & John, which are 2 blocks north and south, respectively). QA & Harrison is used by the 1, 2, 8, and 13. Still busy, but not a key hub.

  3. Someone on the West Seattle Blog mad an interesting comment about company connectors the other day. I was wondering what others think.

    They were saying that as long as large companies were providing buses for their employees, and if there was a large number of employees of companies that provide connectors in some neighborhoods, Metro wouldn’t need to provide as much bus service to those neighborhoods.

    The person who made this comment happened to live in the Admiral District, a neighborhood that has lost bus service in the last 10 years or so, because of low ridership. I don’t know if that low ridership was because people were using company connectors, or for other reasons, but I think this person was wondering if maybe company connectors might have drawn off some of the Metro riders in their area. (I kind of doubt that the connector had anything to do with Admiral District bus service being cut in the middle of the day, however.)

    i have always thought that any transit, public or private, that took cars off the road was a good thing. And if people are riding a connector, that might mean less crowding on a Metro bus. But if it means that a neighborhood no longer gets service, or gets very minimal service, because everyone is riding a connector, then that isn’t good for anyone who wants to ride the bus but doesn’t work at the large company with the connector buses. Since Metro started providing more service to neighborhoods that need it and has cut service to places with low ridership, I wonder if the connectors have played any kind of a part in this.

    If this is off-topic, please delete.

    1. This is yet another example of how the city is working for the rich, and not the people!

      1. Cutting low-ridership routes and redistributing service to more heavily used corridors isn’t “working for the people”?


      2. Look at the real estate values in admiral vs. the rest of WS, and i think you’ll find that metro’s decisions weren’t skewed to high income types.

      3. How about if in return for letting the private buses use public zones, we bring Microsoft and the rest of the budding bus companies into ORCA and require that if they have any empty seats or aisle space, they give ordinary people an express ride to closest transit center?


    2. Within Seattle, SDOT has a goal of getting ” 72% of Seattle residents within a 10-minute walk of 10-minute or better service,” so for those 72%, cannibalization from private providers shouldn’t be an issue because SDOT wants to maintain a minimum level of service regardless of ridership. So if you live in Admiral, this should not be an issue.

      If a person doesn’t live near a HCT station (RR, Link, etc.), this could be an issue because Metro (and SDOT) will make decisions about Local bus service patterns based upon ridership. I see this as more of an issue in SF neighborhoods on the eastside, where there might be a large enough demand to merit local bus service, but if the majority of those people are taking tech shuttles, the residual demand may not be high enough to merit Metro service.

    3. The loss in the Admiral district was due to the recession: the lowest-ridership routes were cut first. And it’s not because of the shuttles because the shuttles run mostly peak hours. It’s because nobody rode those buses off-peak for decades.

      Metro’s 2040 plan intends to reintroduce service, and in some cases new frequent service (15 minutes all day). Hopefully by that time people will use it. Otherwise it will become the same problem again.

    4. Hard to imagine there many Microsoft employees taking a Metro bus (or two, actually) from Admiral to Redmond.

      1. Even with East Link running? If the bus can get to ID station in a reasonable amount of time, it might be faster. Or you think the quality of the 1-seat ride will make it worth it, even if it’s 10~15 minutes longer

      2. I meant that it’s unlikely that the Connector caused such a precipitous drop in ridership that Metro cancelled bus service to the Admiral neighborhood. Sure, I think a bus to the ID is totally reasonable.

    5. I don’t think company connectors have high enough ridership to have that kind of impact. My understanding is that the Microsoft connector for instance only has ridership of 3200 over their entire network. That’s low for even a single metro bus route,

      Overall I think the controversy around company connectors is overblown.

  4. $300 per vehicle is way too low! It should be equal to the cost of parking in a bus zone plus the cost of additional wear and tear on our streets.

    If they were trucks, they could be paying about $400 to $600 per year in overweight fees alone. That’s for merely driving on our streets, and not using any bus stops!

    Further, these shuttles are taking workers out of the City of Seattle. Why should they get a break? That’s real estate tax and B&O tax that the City doesn’t get because these employers would rather have their business outside the city limits rather than within the city limits..

    At the very least, the City should be charging $1000 a vehicle annually — if not substantially more.

    1. You have to assume they’re already paying other fees relevant to large vehicles, $300 is just for access to these bus stops.

      Shuttles to Children’s Hospital aren’t taking workers out of Seattle! They’re carrying workers to a significant in-city institution, covering some trips that the public transit service doesn’t cover very well. Our public transit system rightly has other priorities, but Children’s is really trying to reduce their driving/traffic/parking footprint. This is also true of shuttles for UWMC, Amazon, Facebook, and Google (at least for their Seattle office). Of course, all these employers have good public transit access from some parts of the city, but there are also lots of parts of town where public transit doesn’t work all that well, and these employers are willing to foot the bill for running the vehicles to these places. Maybe one day SLU employers (for example) will get together and fund particular types of Metro service they want, just as the Downtown Seattle Association used to pay Metro to operate the Ride-Free Area.

      As for Microsoft… it’s pretty far out there to say Seattle is entitled to tax revenue from Microsoft. They’ve been on the eastside for over a generation.

      1. Amazon operates a very small number of commuter shuttles, all from the eastside to SLU. They are bringing workers into the city of Seattle. They also run employee shuttles between SLU and the bus tunnel downtown to provide last-mile service for people who are using the public transit system to get to work.

  5. It’s not a scaldingly hot take, but the loading zone to public parking conversion has already happened at the stop at 19th & Harrison (13250). Previously there was a peak-only parking restriction for a shuttle loading zone adjacent to the bus stop. That restriction has now been removed.

    Anecdotally, Facebook shuttles often loiter in the stop on Madison at 25th (12340) before starting a trip to SLU. It’s not uncommon for an 8 to chase them out of that stop and then a few more along John/Thomas. I hope that the data SDOT collects on the performance of this project accounts for “bandit” shuttles using the stops without a permit.

  6. Dwell-time targets of a minute here are interesting. Typically dwell-times that long are only seen at major off-street transit centers that are built to consolidate a lot of boardings in one place. These shuttle stops are sort of like that, single stops where lots of people meet in one place to be carted far away, but the nearby bus stops are local stops that just serve the immediate walkshed.

    1. Unlike Metro buses, company shuttles are single door. But, on the other hand, each stop usually has only either offs or ons, not both. Plus, the boarding process has no fare collection – you do have to swipe your employee badge, but it’s basically the same action (and same amount of time) as tapping an Orca card. I suspect the 60-second dwell time target is being conservative, and that most stops will have dwell times much less than this.

  7. Would it help coordinate service in general if all buses involved shared a radio channel?

    Mark Dublin

  8. I don’t get into the big city too much; are some/all for these stops property Metro has bought and created bus loading zones or are they just places on pubic ROW that Metro buses stop? I’m asking because school buses stop at Metro stops and don’t to my knowledge pay a fee.

  9. This is a problem in San Francisco where they illegally use the bus zones, and hold up MUNI. I think any capacity, and safety issues aside there’s no good reason why private operators, running business shuttles, or their own airport or intercity service should not be allowed to use a public transit zone, provided they have an agreement with the stop owner, their service does not adversely impact public transit using the stop, they post a sign advertising their service at that stop. Same goes for Transit Centers, Light Rail stations, etc. Integration of public and private services should be promoted wherever possible, and the WUTC for whatever authority it has left should also be requiring a higher level of integration in-between public and private services. And if the WUTC does not have such authority over employer shuttles, airport shuttles, and line haul services, perhaps those regulations should change.

    1. I should also add, that if a private company wishes to pay for improvements to a public bus stop, for use of their service and by all customers of this stop this should also be allowed, promoted, and encouraged.

  10. I would feel a lot better about these special buses if they let everyone ride them. In the past, I know that Microsoft only allowed employees — not contractors — to ride their buses. If the companies simply charged standard fare for non-employees, then they would provide a greater public benefit. Doing so could be part of this contract (if you use a public bus stop, you have to allow the public to use your bus).

    1. They’re still employee only. Which is odd, right? They get the benefits in trip reduction and parking saved either way. And they’re leaving some scale economies on the table. Is it about providing a perk to employees vs contractors?

      1. I think so – there are important HR/Legal reasons to not have your contractor and employee benefits overlap too much.

        Having shuttles be employee only is common for tech companies.

        “They get the benefits in trip reduction and parking saved either way” – contractors often have to find their own parking, too. And trip reduction might only cover employees?

    2. As I understand it, they don’t allow contractors because this’s considered a non-cash benefit; if you give that to someone who’s a contractor, the federal government might consider them a de facto employee. Which is regrettable.

      And they don’t allow the general public for three reasons. First, they want to leave reserved seats for people getting on further down the line – if ten non-employees walk on at 15th, what about all the people who signed up for seats starting at 19th? In theory, the non-employees can get up and stand in the aisle, but that’d lead to conflicts and awkwardness which they want to avoid. Second, liability – if an employee throws up all over the bus, or otherwise messes it up, they know where to find him and know he has enough money to pay it back. With a nonemployee, maybe or maybe not. Third, security – they want people to be able to work on the shuttles, without worrying about nonemployees looking over their laptop screens or listening into their phone calls and hearing confidential information.

      In the abstract, it’d be nice for them to be open to the general public… but I can see why they aren’t.

      1. Or they could just consider contractors employers and end this two-class system.

        The presence of company shuttles on our streets is not the problem. There aren’t that many of them compared to other vehicles. The problem is the holes in the transit network that led to the shuttles in the first place. The shuttles usually run to areas that don’t have a good transit connection to the company’s neighborhood. Many people do take transit to Microsoft or Amazon if it’s going their way. If we put in more transit lanes and had a more frequent local network to make transfers easier, then we would get more choice riders on transit and the demand for the shuttles would decrease.

      2. It’s particularly regrettable because most of these companies offer free parking to anyone with business there (employees, contractors, visitors, etc.). And none of these companies started running shuttles before they ran out of parking. Are shuttles a benefit where parking is not? Are the shuttles really a benefit or a pragmatic way for companies to manage their parking? I understand that (e.g.) Microsoft’s accountants and lawyers have to work out how labor laws will be interpreted… still, the impact on transportation efficiency (both inside and outside a particular company) is indeed regrettable.

      3. I’ll admit that I’m nowhere near an expert on IRS rules, and would love to hear from a commenter who knows more.

        Could the companies argue that shuttles are an normal, customary, and essential part of the company, on par with providing heated buildings, toilets, and (yes) parking lots?

        Alternatively, could the companies charge a fare for the contractors’ use of the shuttles and not have them considered employees?

    3. It seems to me that most of these problems could be solved with a bit of ingenuity. First, start with the idea of reserved seats. Only employees can reserve a seat. If the bus is full, then contractors get left at the curb (which happens all the time with Metro buses that are too full). The only possible difference is that there is no standing on the bus.

      Employees also ride for free, while everyone else pays. Contractors get no special treatment — I could ride the bus just to visit my friend in Redmond. All of this means that Microsoft could easily claim that they aren’t treating contractors like employees (because the difference in benefits is significant).

      If you aren’t an employee, you have to pay with ORCA. That solves the tracking problem.

      You do have issues with liability, but that is as much a problem with an employee as with a random rider. As far as security goes, you could have a section of the bus only for employees. But I doubt that is really an issue. All of these private buses started not because people wanted an enclosed, employee only way to travel, but because alternatives were simply taking too long. You can get to Mountain View using transit from San Fransisco, but for most of the people, it is a pain in the ass. If the city paid for good express public transit, I think Google would be thrilled — but they don’t, so they set up these buses as employee only shuttles. Companies that are more centrally located (i. e. have much better transit to their workplace) don’t have shuttles.

      I think the main reason they don’t open them up is that there isn’t enough incentive to do so. There is no pressure from outside groups to expand them. What I’m suggesting is that we put a little pressure on them to provide this (even if it isn’t free). Simply making it a public issue would be a step in the right direction.

      Oh, and back in the day, I remember being told that anyone could ride a Metro contracted school bus. I don’t know if this rumor was true, but it doesn’t seem crazy to me. Very few would want to do that, but if you did, it would be handy.

      1. If you are paying for a shuttle for your own employees why should you provide service for everyone with no compensation to cover the costs? Lots of liability there.

    4. Not having the general public on these buses is (to the companies) a primary feature. Employees can work on laptops or dial into a conference calls without fear of eavesdropping. Everyone on these buses has signed an NDA.

  11. Firms creating a class of employees who can’t ride company buses. Real estate speculators who won’t pay for the damage that caused by the activities that are making them billionaires?

    I don’t want any of them in my city, county, or State. Or country. This is a beautiful area with clean government and a well-educated population. Tell me there aren’t companies chaired by decent human beings that won’t come in and fill the gap.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Contractors (at the company i work at, at least) are often paid a higher salary than direct employees in lieu of receiving employee benefits. Yes, there’s something to be said about creating a group of workers that are easier to lay off when the bean counters say the company isn’t making enough profit, but it’s hardly a grievous injustice to give contract labor more money instead of offering them benefits.

      1. It depends on the company and position. Sometimes companies offer an employee position but the person takes a contract instead because he wants to build up his own company. In that case he can demand cash in lieu of benefits and probably get it. In other cases companies have a limited number of employee positions and contractors are paid the same or less, so if the contractors stick around year after year it’s often because they’re hoping one of the highly-coveted employee positions opens up someday.

  12. Commercial vehicles always seem to get the short shrift on the roads. Bureaucrats and politicians are too eager to play nice to the voting motorists by not providing adequate delivery zones. People, seemingly under the belief that their goods are made where in the store where they are bought, fail to support adequate loading space for the men and women who literally move this economy to do their jobs.

    As a result, transit companies, private shuttles, and freight have to fight for street slivers in a confusing, unclear system that benefits no one and harms us all. Honestly, cities and DOT’s should be bending over backwards to accommodate private transit; buses not only reduce traffic, they save the government money that would have otherwise been spent on additional capacity and traffic enforcement.

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