Jonathan Hopkins, Commute Seattle
Jonathan Hopkins, Commute Seattle

Commute Seattle Executive Director Jonathan Hopkins joins us.  Topics include:

  • Lowering drive alone rates (2:55)
  • Fixing 3rd Avenue (23:55)
  • ST3 timelines (37:37)
  • Bike share (42:15)

25 Replies to “Podcast #44: A Guy who Likes Subways”

  1. The Weyerhaeuser story – how the company moved from Federal Way to Seattle and went from a very high SOV share to a very low one – is interesting. Does anybody know more about how they did that? These are presumably mostly the same employees living in the same mostly transit-unfriendly burbs. And somehow they made it work.

    1. Iran almost all the same employees. I think 70% or more lived South of Kent if I remember right. How they fixed it was outreach, education, and company-funded scavenger hunts and trips to sports games in Seattle—all on non-SOV modes during the run-up to the move. 56% take the train to work and about 17% bus.

    2. There’s also the difference between people who want to drive and people who drive because there’s no other option that doesn’t take twice as long. Some of those people may have grudgingly switched or didn’t care either way, but others were doubtless glad for the opportunity to not work in such an isolated and transit-hostile area.

    3. And some of it might have to do with the fact that the only decent transit that exists in many of the transit unfriendly burbs is express buses and trains to downtown Seattle during rush hour.

    4. There’s lots of excellent mass transit to Pioneer Square from the south ‘burbs, not so much to the old Weyerhauser campus. Meanwhile driving to the old Weyerhauser campus was pretty pleasant, and driving to Pioneer Square is stressful, expensive, and unreliable. I’m sure a lot of Weyerhauser employees park-and-ride on Sounder. I don’t know if Weyerhauser offers free employee parking downtown… but any employer that is running programs to reduce SOV mode-share and offering free parking is holding their money in one hand and lighting it on fire with the other. People respond to obvious incentives in obvious ways.

      1. Does any company offer free parking downtown? Maybe for VIPs and those who drive as part of their job (salesmen, lawyers visiting clients, people with bulky equipment, etc), but otherwise?

      2. What I’ve heard from Amazon people is that Amazon offers free parking but has a waiting list to get a pass. If that’s really true it’s dumb as hell. I doubt Weyerhauser is doing that…

      3. Al and everybody else, isn’t the condition you accurately describe really proof that people as a whole are now participating in the change of an long-outdated living pattern? Same as with a bus or railcar.

        Best acceleration results from a moving vehicle, however long delayed the departure, and however slow the start.

        Mark

  2. A couple of points:

    First, the reason big tech companies don’t share shuttles is because doing so would create a massive nexus for industrial espionage, intellectual property theft and headhunting; it has nothing to do with jitney laws. There is a separate, but often conflated, issue with the federal tax code, in that employees of contractors cannot be provided taxable benefits by the parent company, and a commute shuttle is such a benefit. It is possible for a parent company to mitigate this by charging contractor employees a fair market value for the use of the shuttles. There are large tech companies in the Seattle area, today, who allow full-time employees to ride for free, and allow contractors to ride for a reasonable fee. If Microsoft, or any other company, chooses not to allow contractors onto their shuttles, that is a choice those companies have made.

    Second, I have a challenge to Jonathon, or anyone else who wants to propose a mandatory-transfer system for 3rd Ave: Tell me which blocks of Belltown and the western International District you’re going to flatten to build two transfer and layover facilities, each with a comparable footprint to SF’s Transbay Terminal. All those 240 buses/hr you want to get off 3rd need ground-level space to turn around and board/deboard transferring passengers. Nobody will dispute that the public realm on 3rd Ave is in dire need of help, nor that the Denver/Portland/Minneapolis malls are more pleasant places to be, but the cost of full forced-transfer mall-ification will be huge. In addition, the part of SF’s Market St between Powell and Octavia is a great example of a public realm that’s a total shitshow despite having relatively few buses and a famous historic streetcar shuttle. You have a very heavy lift to convince me that bus volume is the biggest problem with 3rd Ave, when so many other problems — homelessness, public order, poor building frontage, shitty streetscape — seem rampant, and cheaper to tackle.

    1. An early proposal for the DSTT was exactly this: 100% transfers at the ends and a trolley shuttle inside. That failed because the public reaction was “We don’t want to transfer.” That led to the dual-mode Breda buses and all their problem. But that was in the 1980s.

      What surprised me is that a single shuttle on 3rd could even fit the volume of passengers, and I’m still somewhat skeptical. That means the transfer stations would have to be huge not only for the buses but also for the combined mass of waiting passengers. And what about the trolley routes that turn off 3rd: they only go a short distance so it’s a larger part of the total trip.

      I’ve seen Denver’s system once and it looked good to me: I like the underground bus station. But I don’t know what they had before that.

      San Francisco’s Market Street is not really the same thing because routes from the west turn onto Market Street wherever they meet it; they don’t terminate at the street. The Transbay Terminal intercepts suburban buses from the east and south (and maybe the north?), but the jobs core is between it and Powell Street so the gap is shorter and flat. The Caltrain depot is an interesting twist because it’s a mile outside downtown. Earlier the 3 bus served it, crossing Market St north-south. Later a Muni Metro extension served it, going under Market St. Now there’s a north-south subway and downtown terminal under construction.

      1. An early proposal for the DSTT was exactly this: 100% transfers at the ends and a trolley shuttle inside. That failed because the public reaction was “We don’t want to transfer.” That led to the dual-mode Breda buses and all their problem. But that was in the 1980s.

        The bus tunnel approach was clearly the best approach for the time. It obviously saved an enormous amount of time for the riders compared to a transfer. Even today, it isn’t clear that kicking the buses out is a good idea. Making people transfer is more than an annoyance — it costs time. There are still huge numbers of people who save a lot of time by simply riding the bus to their destination.

        No, the big problem is that dual operations are handled so poorly. No one wants to repeat the problems with the “ride free area” but it is crazy to charge a fare within the tunnel. Gates would work just fine (and apply to both trains and buses) which was part of the original design. Regardless of the particulars, we now have a situation where the buses aren’t nearly as fast as they used to be, and the train is also a lot slower than it should be.

        Another general problem is that the train system is being rolled out in the wrong order. The bus tunnel worked really well for buses. You shouldn’t replace it — or even water it down — unless you have something clearly better. We certainly didn’t have that when the train merely went to the airport, and we arguably don’t have that now. They should have built Northgate to Rainier Valley first, and not kicked the buses out until that was ready.

        But these problems are all temporary, and folks don’t want to fix them for that reason. There is no technical reason that buses and trains can’t operate really well together. But even a small investment is politically difficult it the problem is only temporary.

    2. A few concepts come to mind on your second point (or challenge):

      1. Planning for longer-distance bus connectivity is different than planning on middle-distance or short-distance single-ride routes. Just like many places have commuter rail and commuter bus terminals, our Downtown should have them too. Historically, we accept the notion that running every long-distance commuter bus route through the Downtown is the right thing to do (as we had no light rail), but given the trip lengths of riders on those routes, having terminals will increasingly make more sense. The harder thing is where to put them. Moving the routes that are on Fourth Avenue and Second Avenue to bus terminals would free up the option of moving some buses off of Third Avenue and onto those streets.

      At the south edge of Downtown, the easiest location would be the Stadium station area as there is available pavement and bus storage near there and access to a facility in that area would be pretty easy from I-5, I-90 and SR 99 with the right priority treatments and ramps. It’s actually a shame that we have not planned on a commuter bus terminal on top of or near Stadium station, controlled by a new signalized entrance/exit off of Edgar Martinez Drive (between the directional overpasses above the bus lot?) — and maybe this should be a consideration when the station has to be rethought to serve the West Seattle/Tacoma link train split. I understand how this would not connect well to Sounder, but a final — albeit long — pedestrian connection to Sounder trains could be devised; a new connection would not be much different in distance than the walk from the SeaTac Airport terminals to Link and be protected from weather. An elevated terminal here could also work great for buses dwelling here serving before and after game crowds!

      At the north end, it may be that the ultimate place for a terminal would be where the future subway line will run in 2035 in SLU (noting that ST and Metro don’t seem to want to design stations that complement transit services as well as they could). One other benefit from a stop at this location is that some commuter buses could use the new 99 tunnel to get between the north and south terminals. Finally, having a hub would refocus the SLU transit planning to get commuter buses to and from I-5.

      There really needs to be an open discussion about what happens with long distance routes in light of significantly more directions we will have with Link, which will grow from 1.5 lines today to 3 by 2023 to 5 after 2035! Given the rapidity and frequency of the future Link system (which will get people to the edges of Seattle in the time it takes a commuter bus to merely drive through Downtown), there will be increasing public support to truncate commuter routes at Link stations so maybe these terminals will move completely out of Downtown. The timing of when routes move and get truncated is also something which needs discussion. The 520 debate is an initial test run at this discussion.

      Over time, I think that most if not all commuter buses will go away in Downtown Seattle.

      2. For middle-distance transit trips, like north of the Ship Canal or south of Spokane Street, the system should gradually shift to encouraging transfers outside of Downtown. I envision that getting to the U-District or Roosevelt Stations will be more popular with North Seattle residents after 2021 if they don’t live near a RapidRide route, especially east of SR 99. Similarly, getting to Judkins Park Station for CD and SE Seattle residents will be more popular after 2023 (just 10-11 minutes to Westlake from there!), when East Link opens at awesome frequencies. West Seattle Link comes on board about 2030, and another restructuring discussion will be needed for that. Seattleites seem to panic at any major service changes, so it make take these stations being open a year or two before service changes can be made acceptable to the riding public.

      What is needed today is a better discussion about station design and operations on the street at these stations. Frankly, ST is doing the design and these in-town stations aren’t going to have ST Express so they are seemingly only tangentially invested. There is a huge institutional responsibility gap in creating a great in-town transfer point because no single agency has the direct motivation to make sure that these stations work well for buses — SDOT controls the street, Metro runs the buses and ST builds the stations. Seattle hasn’t had a great track record on planning this (the Mt. Baker bus connectivity example being the most obvious) and we must work to change our institutional culture on this issue.

      Over time and with the right service plan and station transfer experience, I think that about half of these buses will go away. It’s definitely what I see once the second tunnel opens around 2035. I can’t see how anything but a shorter-distance route will stay on Third Avenue, and routing will look more like Boston or Washington DC or Atlanta with fewer buses in Downtown.

      3. For short-distance transit trips, the service design challenge is how to structure Third Avenue to work better for them, as transferring isn’t logical for shorter-distance trips. Obviously, creating a 24//7 bus mall would free up the City to embellish the design of the street better. It would free up the need to design for private vehicles turning both onto and off of Third Avenue, and the remaining few parking garage access points would be served by right-turn-only access.

      Once given over to full bus-only pavement design, all sorts of things can be done. Bulbs at the corners can be bigger since private vehicles would no longer be turning. Signal cycles on the cross streets can be reduced as there won’t be private vehicles turning off of Third Avenue. Block faces without a stop could be reduced to one lane for non-moving buses, allowing for those sidewalk cafes or a larger sidewalk on the opposite side that could become a paid fare area.

      Buses could even be operated as light rail trains, with the virtual “bus train” built at one end. Real-time changeable message signs for downstream riders would tell them which order the buses are in so drivers aren’t waiting for chasing boarders, which would still be an issue even with paid fare areas. It would also allow for signal priority to be granted for these vehicles and move them through Downtown much faster.

      One looming major traffic shift that I never see widely discussed is the localized traffic impacts of the closure of the AWV access ramps. The side-street traffic in Downtown will go down and north-south traffic will go up. That would also make it easier to implement more signal priority for Third Avenue buses at some locations as there would be less cross-traffic to worry about.

    3. Bruce, there’s a great deal the people of Seattle, acting through city government, can do about certain corporations’ attitudes toward their employees, when their thinking affects public transit. Namely impolitely inform them that if they can’t trust their own employees, it’s no naugahyde off our seat-cushions.

      If they want best transit they can get, pay the taxes, and use all their clout to demand and receive all the service they’ve paid for. Giving them the right to be relieved of paying for the kind of weird black windowed white prison buses in the way of MUNI. Current view from Angle Lake parking is bad enough.

      Every problem both outweighing and including bus service on Third Avenue stems from the decades of effort the local property owners spent to create a neighborhood firmly intended to have the lights out and the doors locked when everybody went home from the office.

      Return Downtown Third to the last time it was a normal city neighborhood, and a very large number of people will by definition not be homeless anymore. The kind of 24 hours populated and friendly city scene that will help their people reform from being the hateful overpaid sneaks the corporate world is Politically Correctly forced to employ to avoid ridicule by their co-CEO’s.

      Wouldn’t hurt for the Metro Historic Vehicle Association to run the old Brill and the Pullman up and down from Pike Place Market to Pioneer Square, just to set the tone for the wired Flyers. Did Jonathon mention how many of the comparable systems run through the Blight By Any Other Name condition of the 2017 lid of the DSTT?

      Mark Dublin

  3. I would agree with Jonathan that we should revisit Third Avenue design. The staggering facts of how we have more buses than other cities but carry the same or even fewer passengers on those buses is evidence that the corridor needs serious rethought! The other implicit corollary to that is that rather than adding another transit street, fixing this one is something we should be doing!

    I would also propose that in addition to “Great Streets” that Jonathan mentions, we need updated “Great Stations”. The architecture of the DSTT stations is already wonderful — inspiring even, but frankly they were designed a few decades ago for demand levels that were not anticipated once we have two rail lines in them starting in 2023. We need to look seriously at how to design their connections better to the street, including adding more entrances, elevators and escalators in both directions! ST seems to abdicate this issue to the City since the City owns the stations, but the City seems to avoid any consideration of updating them — so this institutional paradox needs to be solved as well.

    1. King County built and owns the stations, and is selling them to ST. When buses leave the tunnel the turnover will be complete. In the meantime ST is making partial debt payments based on its percent of use.

      1. Thanks for correcting me!

        If ST will have full control, then ST needs their feet put to the fire about updating these stations for the future and for the much greater demand that more Link will put on them! Why are we spending tens billions on a bigger system and not looking at spending a few hundred million at the outdated core stations that the system will be serving?

      2. That’s not exactly reassuring, Mike. If anything, the stations that King County built are much better than average for Link. The Mount Baker and UW stations are much worse than any downtown tunnel station. Al is right, improvements can be made. But unless S. T. makes it a priority (and they have shown no interest in doing so) then we will put up with less than ideal stations.

        The good news is that they were built for very high capacity. They expected huge numbers of people to use it, whether those people were riding buses or trains. The design could be improved — it is not very easy to navigate — but capacity (e. g. clogged entrances or exits) really isn’t any more of a problem downtown than it is anywhere (like at the UW station).

    2. A recent example of a missed opportunity not requiring that the WSCC build a pedestrian walkway (subway?) between the WSCC and Westlake Station as part of the Convention Place agreement. WSCC could even control this walkway, using security guards or closing it as needed.

      1. Absolutely. The ROW is already in place too. The community benefits package hasn’t yet been submitted right? Why not lobby for this?

    3. What’s wrong with the tunnell’s architecture besides the lack of down escalators, the lack of a 4th &Pike exit from Westlake, and the lack of a station closer to Madison Street?

      1. Some probable deficiencies:

        1. The stations’ up escalators and stairs already appear to have delays from three-car train surges. When this goes to crowded four-car trains every three minutes, they may be unable to clear before the next train arrives.

        2. With two lines southbound, some riders will be waiting for a second train. There may not be enough room for some passengers to wait while others are both getting the n and off.

        3. There are already crowd back-ups while people wait to tap Orca card readers. More will be need d to handle more riders and longer, frequent trains.

        4. The stations were built before ADA. There could easily be problems on elevator use with the heavier demand.

        5. The stations need to be designed bettter for bicycles. Without attention to this, banning bicycle use at peak hours is inevitable — and maybe even all day.

        6. It’s been mentioned in many posts before, but East Link transfers at IDCS for folks going to and from SeaTac Airport with luggage is a looming station flow problem.

        That’s in addition to the missing down escalators, making is painful for the large numbers of people with arthritis. The additional elevator use that comes out of it increases the elevator capacity issues and increases time in a station by at least a minute if not more.

      2. #6 yes, I forgot about the opposite-direction transfer for people going from south to east. I’ve been complaining about that ever since ST said it wouldn’t build a center platform.

        However, in ST3 it said it would completely redesign International District station and that a center platform would be a possibility then.

  4. There’s another thing Pugetopolis has: high ridership. It’s like the 5th in the country per capita. Looking at one corridor obscures this fact. Denver and Portland have one street with a lot of high-volume buses. We have etc Avenue, the DSTT, 4th Avenue, Pike Street, and routes that don’t go downtown like the U-District, Bellevue TC, and Kent Station.Both all-day riders and commuters are numerous.

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