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58 Replies to “News roundup: catching fire”

  1. “That puts Via’s ridership on par with bus routes designed to ensure an area has at least some transit coverage. The 121 route from Burien to downtown Seattle averages 900 rides a day, in the ballpark with Via’s initial ridership.”

    I’m going to have to call out Crosscut on this one, as the statement is extremely misleading in multiple ways. First, only a tiny portion of the 121 is a coverage route. The bulk of the service hours and ridership is the freeway express segment between Burien Transit Center and downtown Seattle. The Metro schedule shows the 121 as operating 19 daily trips, so 900 daily riders translates into 47.3 riders/trip. This means full buses (at least when they enter and leave downtown Seattle), which is *not* what’d you’d see in an actual coverage route.

    Second, the 121 operates peak-only, while Via operates all day until 1 AM. Comparing the daily ridership of an all-day service against a peak-only service is an apples to oranges comparison. If the two bus routes are both performing equally well, of course the all-day route is going to have much higher ridership because it has many more hours each day to get that ridership.

    To make a meaningful performance comparison of Via vs. bus routes, you’d need to look at an actual coverage route, ideally in the same area. The 50 would be the logical one, but the 50 itself gets a lot of its ridership in West Seattle, so simply reading the 50’s average daily ridership would be misleading. To do it right, you’d need to access the 50’s stop-by-stop data and only count ridership at bus stops within Via’s service area (and also pro-rate the 50’s operating cost by the percentage of the running time that’s within Via’s service area).

    Another point that the article doesn’t make clear regarding Via is how much potential it has to grow without busting the budget. The obvious way to keep costs under control is to pay for only a limited number of cars on the road each day. This means that when the budgeted fleet is busy, people will have to wait. It doesn’t take very many people wanting to ride at once for the wait time to equal or exceed the average wait time for a half-hourly bus. And, unlike a half-hourly bus, you can’t even time your departure to match a published schedule.

    A coverage route can grow its ridership at effective zero cost, as long as there are still empty seats on the bus. Beyond a very low ceiling, Via cannot grow its ridership any further without spending additional money on additional cars.

    1. My high school age kids and their friends use Via regularly. A couple of the kids live in a dangerous part of Skyway and Via provides a safe alternative to walking the last half mile after dark from a 107 stop. Without Via, those kids would spend the night at my house or I would give them a late night ride home. With Via, all the parents don’t have to worry about their safety.

    2. The article doesn’t make a real comparison. What is the ridership per hour? It doesn’t say.

      But here is something that is interesting:

      According to Metro, Via’s cost per ride to the operator is about $10. Compared to Metro’s systemwide cost per boarding of $4.92 …
      The agency’s contract with Via stipulates a base wage of $15 an hour … Via driver wages are lower than the union Metro driver scale.

      Yeah, I would guess that Metro pays their drivers more than minimum wage. Anyway, despite enormous savings by bypassing the union, they are still well above average in terms of cost per rider. Without further, more meaningful data, we can just assume that this is in the existing range for microtransit: still a terrible value compared to just about any fixed route. To quote a couple experts from the article:

      “We see this as an interim solution,” Serebrin said. “But fixed-route, publicly owned transit is the ultimate solution. We want to be able to expand King County Metro service and make sure their buses are reliable, fast, affordable.”

      “A good way of thinking about microtransit is it can be a slightly more efficient paratransit-type service,” Ben Fried explained. “But it can’t be a substitute for fixed-route service. It just doesn’t scale up the way a bus does.”

      The biggest value will be in data gathering. Metro will have a better idea of where to add service.

      1. Some years ago Metro had the 3rd highest paid drivers with super gravy train benefits at zero cost to them while bleeding money and taxing cars to survive. Corrupt organization that has been audited many times but never reformed. Collapse Metro and contract the service to Sound Transit.

      2. Heavens forbid workers actually get a decent wage/benefits package that lets them live comfortably.

        Also, ST contracts *all* of its services to the county transit agencies, so your ‘solution’ isn’t even possible.

    3. nice points re Route 121. in SE Seattle, routes 7 and 36 run every 10 minutes; Route 106 runs every 15 minutes; routes 14 and 107 run every 15 minutes in the peak periods. only Route 50 has 30-minute headway and that may change in the fall as will Route 14. Via wait times may grow; also, as the vehicle picks up riders, the first on sit through the subsequent deviations and get a slower trip.

  2. Replacing Via with fixed routes may cost the government less but it may make it less useful for riders if the buses are half-hourly or hourly. People look at the schedule and see they’d have a 25-minute wait so they drive instead or waste time until the bus comes or don’t make the trip. Or they don’t even go to the bus stop to check the schedule because they’re afraid it might be a long wait. All that significantly depresses the ridership. If they can get it running every 15 minutes including evenings and Sundays, that would make it more of a viable alternative for most people. As long as the bus isn’t timed to leave a minute before the train arrives.

    1. How long is the wait for a Via bus? How long will it take before it gets me to where I want to go? Or does anyone have any idea what that is before they actually book a ride? I might assume that it won’t take long to get there, only to find that it needs to make several, out of the way stops. Or maybe it is really busy, and there aren’t enough drivers.

      1. “How long is the wait for a Via bus? How long will it take before it gets me to where I want to go?”

        I don’t know because it’s unscheduled. It depends on where the car is when you book it and whether it still has to drop off the previous rider. It may take 5-10 minutes, or it may take 20-30. But compared to a 30-minute route it may have a shorter wait on average, although you’d have to compare the specific area. The travel time is probably better than a bus because it’s going directly to your house the straightest way. Even if it drops somebody else off along the way, chances are it’s not much of a detour because it has a small service area.

    2. From a customer perspective, the relative utlility of Via vs. a fixed route bus likely depends on the time of day. At odd hours, like 11 at night, I’m guessing you’ll probably get a ride quickly and have the car to yourself. It can feel like a huge improvement over having to wait 20 minutes in the dark for a bus.

      But, at rush hour, I would expect things to be different. Wait times would be longer, and detours to pick up and drop off other passengers, much more common. You would be completely at the mercy of the routing algorithm, and have no option to get out and walk the rest of the way if it would get you where you’re going faster. For example, even if a detour looks small on the map, getting to the pick up point might require losing your place in the line of cars, then waiting for somebody to let you in to get back in line again. It might also require left turns or u turns with 2+ minute wait times for the green arrow. Worst case, you might be half a mile from the station, only to have the driver turn around and go right back where you started to pick up another person (because your car is closest to them because all the other cars are in use).

      A bus has the advantage that you know when it’s going to show up, you know what route it’s going to take, and you have a reasonable idea of how long its going to take. A bus also has the ability to use bus lanes or queue jumps in ways that don’t scale to private cars – including Via cars. Peak hours is also, of course, when the bus is running the most frequently.

  3. Speaking of Caltrain, they have embarked on their 2040 business plan. With most grade crossings now eliminated, electrification with faster trains now underway, several connecting projects advancing beyond simple planning, rapidly growing demand and high speed rail coordination, the line visioning is pretty remarkable.

  4. The NYT ($) had this piece following the death of David Koch earlier this week:

    I’m glad that the article included a brief discussion of how the Koch brothers have worked hard to destroy transit improvement measures around the country, as I think that frequently gets lost in all of the coverage about the terrible things that they and ALEC have brought about over the last few decades. Here’s an excerpt:

    “As part of their longstanding crusade for lower taxes and smaller government, the Koch brothers in recent years opposed dozens of transit-related initiatives in cities and counties across the country, a review by The New York Times found. Campaigns coordinated and financed by Americans for Prosperity fought state legislation to fund transportation projects, mounted ad campaigns and public forums to defeat transit plans, and organized phone banks to convince citizens that public transit was a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

    I won’t bore the STB community with a bunch of ad hominems about this guy, though I’m very tempted.

    1. David was complex person. He gave millions to Nova, and didn’t try to make them stop doing the occasional show on Climate Change. He supported drug decriminalization and non-traditional marriage; he was a principled Libertarian, not just out for his personal gain.

      Charles? Not so much.

  5. The NYT also editorializes about the legacy if Inslee’s presidential run and his Green New Deal proposal ($) The editors think he never expected to win but was simply promoting climate action. They consider him “one of the three most important leaders of the effort by America’s states and cities to reduce their emissions”. Inslee’s plan emphasizes conversion to all electric vehicles — most of the wording is about cars but it states it’s for all vehicles including buses, and it offers a plan to allow agencies to retire diesel buses early without losing money. But neither the article nor Inslee’s plan mention expanding transit or decreasing cars’ mode share. It’s all to be done within the current mode shares. This is disappointing and he should get feedback on this. It also reflects the state’s attitude toward transit, which is limited to including HOT lanes and bus-stop ramps in freeway expansions, and a small amount of grants for mostly rural transit, and keeping a tight cap on transit agencies’ tax rates. It has room for improvement.

    1. He’s never lived in Seattle and has that “DC is special and needs transit because ….” mentality from his time there. So he doesn’t understand that cities need transit because if they don’t the streets gridlock, not to reduce carbon emissions.

      1. What? Inslee never lived in Seattle? Jesus man, do a little fact checking. He grew up in Seattle. He graduated from Ingraham for heaven’s sake. Everyone knows that (or at least I thought they did).

        As for what Mike mentioned, politics is the art of the possible. It is tough to get comprehensive transit funding, because so much of it would go to the big city (Seattle) and its surrounding suburbs. It is much easier to get things for areas outside the big city.

        Of course big things can happen when the federal government gets involved. But even then it takes a lot of luck and perhaps some arm twisting of Congress. But unlike the states, the feds routinely run a deficit, which is why a “Green New Deal” is so appealing. His plans included more federal money for transit, and that would have meant more for transit in Seattle.

      2. Thanks, Ross. I did not know he grew up in the City. I stand corrected. How did he end up in Eastern Washington?

      3. So far as the State legislature, it’s pretty discouraging that they don’t seem willing to give the City ANY tools that it needs.

        Does someone who has the visor down and violates a red light camera get off because the driver is invisible to the camera? Wow, what a pathetic situation.

    1. It’s remarkable, Renton’s breaking new ground in Gunfight Oriented Development.

      1. [racist content]

        Renton has more space than any other mostly populated city in the area, and with proper leadership… it has plenty of room to grow. The Maple Valley Covington border of Renton is full of farmland and can blossom similar to the Issaquah Highlands. There is tons of land to build 10-20 office buildings like the three nearly completely leased on the Lk. Wash shore and the several more proposed for the next decade.

        [more racist content]

        And Renton is home to more tech jobs than “tech communities” like Issaquah and Bothell. Renton has Kaiser Permanente, St. Providence, and smaller companies headquartered within doing tech jobs.

        All Renton needs is support from larger organizations that control things like road work, transportation, and annexation. Right now, all they do is replace roads and lights in cities who just had them replaced a few years ago. Meanwhile, unincorporated areas are paying taxes for nothing so they can use half dimmed traffic lights and roads with cracks. People earning $90K a year on average.

      2. Before your ideal cities employed Microsoft, they were crime-filled. A big move in Renton can change the story.

      3. That’s what we want, a medium-density walkable downtown in Renton, and I would add the Highlands. Our frustration is that Renton has been slow on this, and it seems to blame others for its transit problems rather than being pro-active.

        Here’s my perception: in the 1970s downtown Renton was ruined by three highways and superblocks and huge parking lots as if a bomb hit it. There’s a small walkable area around the transit center and high school and the innovative Library-upon-River, but it’s only a few blocks long. Renton said The Landing would be an urban village, and while one apartment complex is there, the rest is generic big-box stores with huge parking lots and superblocks. I walk from the F to Fry’s and get depressed. One council candidate said The Landing and Southport would become an urban village like Fremont. I hope. When will it start?

        Seattle, Bellevue, and Marysville wrote excellent Transit Master Plans that Metro and CT incorporated in large parts in their long-range plans. Renton either didn’t do so or hasn’t publicized it. Instead we hear Renton complaining that ST isn’t giving Renton its share of resources and isn’t fixing its transit problems. Blaming someone else rather than stepping up with a plan. When Renton does say what it wants it’s all about Stride/Sounder/Link but nothing about how the eastern residential neighborhoods will get to those stations. That’s the part the city knows best and could best make a suggestion on and optimize the streets for. I’ve recently heard Renton has a citywide transit plan but the link didn’t work. Do you have any more information on this?

        Renton, Tukwila, and Burien all received an influx of people priced out of southeast Seattle since the 1990 and as a result are more diverse and lower average income than they used to be, and some gang violence followed it. However, I wouldn’t say Renton’s violence is acute or more than neighboring cities or southeast Seattle, so I think that perception is wrong.

        I grew up in Bellevue before and after Microsoft’s founding in the 70s and 80s, and they were not crime-filled. Microsoft started near 108th & 520 (the Burgermaster area) and then moved to Redmond. At the time, downtown Seattle was declining like many American cities and had prostitutes lined up on 1st Avenue, but the rest of the city was comfortable for the people living there. Then the police dispersed the prostitutes and the city ginnied up Westlake Plaza and 1st Avenue and they became boutique. Bellevue was a middle-class area and Redmond was behind it, and later (mostly in the 2000s) it went way upscale.

        Renton is certainly larger than Bothell or Issaquah, and should publicize its other large employers more. Renton is also a center for video-game development. But mostly Renton needs to tame its superblocks and large parking lots. And make the new transit center mixed use. I look forward to hearing how they’ll imrpove the new transit-center area and not just leave it a dumping ground for buses and P&Rs.

      4. That’s what I am saying. Renton needs better leadership, so right now, none of our candidates our viable. If a development like Southport attracts better population, then better mayoral candidates can enroll. But otherwise, Renton honestly isn’t that bad.

      5. Renton has plans, but clearly they aren’t publicizing it:

        Transit plan is here:
        Transportation Improvement Program 2019—2024 | Six-Year

        I do notice a lack of Sound Transit plans, so I can probably contact the Renton council on that and what you said.

  6. The thing that has confused me the most about the art at station stuff is why their hasn’t been much of a push by ST towards perfrences for local artists or a collective group of local artists working on station pieces. Like I think it’s a wasted opportunity at Kent/Des Moines station to not involve Highline College or CWU art students in the process of creating a piece for the station. It would be a great representation of what the community’s heart and soul is like.

    1. It’s the law in Seattle and King County, and ST adopted it systemwide to prevent the scourge of plain stations like BART. Historylink explains how 1% for Art emerged in the 1970s. The amount is a convenient compromise, a nice round number that’s enough for some substantial art but not too much to degrade service.

      I have reservations about some of the specific installations but not about the program itself. One general improvement would be to spread out the money more in small-scale station details rather than allocating the majority into one large piece.

    1. Saw one Bothell on the North creek trail if that helps. I guess trails would be a good place for it at least.

  7. Whatever the faults of the rail cars on BN 501 year before last, it’ll kill fewer future passengers if that $37.5 million gets immediately redirected toward giving those trains track with a top speed better suited to the road than the yard. And anything left over, putting orders and training in the hands of companies, agencies, and lawmakers who can tell the difference.

    Mark Dublin

  8. TriMet has announced its plans for fall service changes. Route 74, serving a sparse area perpendicular to MAX, is now getting weekend service.

    How busy does Via have to be before it appears in the timetable as a route?

  9. So light rail is the answer, but it doesn’t work unless a whole new layer of micro transit like Via covers most the neighborhoods light rail travels through? When transit advocates were hyping Link, they left that part out.

    1. Link works fine and a lot of people are using it. It gets people between neighborhoods more efficiently and quickly than the previous buses did. Just ask people who used to take the 48 to UW or the 7 or 8 to Capitol Hill or backtracked to SODO to take a bus to the airport. The problem is a lot of Rainier Valley is single-family neighborhoods with not enough people for non-coverage routes to serve and are a half-mile or more from MLK. Via is an attempt to make Link a viable alternative for those people. The low density and single-use is not Link’s fault, it’s the city’s zoning and regulations.

    2. Oh, you mean like how expressways are useless without a network of surface streets to access them?

    3. Light rail needs a complementary network of bus feeders and parallel routes. It needs a local shadow on MLK for the in-between stops (route 106), a parallel route on Rainier because it doesn’t directly serve it (route 107), and east-west feeder routes (like route 50). It also should have had Graham Station, which we’re planning to retrofit. The 50 should be more frequent so that people can get to each train. The rest of the valley and Rainier View are low-density and underserved, and that’s what Via is trying to address. Presumably there should be another coverage route or two, but those have yet to be drawn up.

      Another issue is Judkins Park Station. People don’t realize how close Southeast Seattle will be to the Eastside when it opens, and how it will need lots of north-south service to that station. Metro has some plans for it but should do more. These will hopefully be in place by the time the station opens.

  10. Having taken a trip through UW last week to/from UW Station, I’ve noticed it really does take a while for buses to get down to UW Station, probably a lot worse than downtown streets even in terms of average speed. Especially that left turn from 15th to Pacific. Though I think the new 255 will have a special layover space on Pacific, so it should be shielded from some of this. But I think it may be good to consolidate bus routes that are currently on either University Way and 15th Ave onto University Way, and make that a bus-only corridor (like 3rd Ave, but with more of a focus on walkability.

    Also, it seems like some BAT lanes or right-hand HOV lanes (like the kind seen on Pacific Highway South on the A-line route) should be done for Pacific street, in the home stretch to UW Station (which will affect the new 255 as well). There’s a lot of traffic taking 15th to Pacific to Montlake, with probably some spillover from people who know not to take Montlake all the way to the bridge.

    1. My experience as well. I might as well just walk from west campus/Campus Parkway to the station–it’s a wash. U District station will help greatly!

    2. Riding buses down 15th in the U-district, the constant theme is red lights that take seemingly forever to change, even when there’s hardly any traffic. The Ave feels like a slower street than 15th. But the lights tend to change more quickly, and 40th St. is a stop sign, rather than a light altogether.

      Fortunately, future 255 riders headed downtown don’t have to deal with it. They can just get off at Montlake and switch to Link.

      1. I think the problem is that 15th is a wider street than the Ave, but has similar pedestrian volumes crossing it, maybe not as many walking N-S but lots of people want to get to/from campus. I’m not sure there’s much that can be done to improve it, short of waiting for the station at Brooklyn. It’s especially bad right now with the CT buses making stops on 15th and Pacific, since it seems they have a policy that prevents drivers from leaving a stop if any person is still making their way to a seat (a policy that would bring Metro to a screeching stop).

  11. Regarding the CalTrain plans:

    Wake me when the 2-3 mile Central Subway, which has been under construction for over a decade (!) is completed.

    1. Why do we even need station artwork?
      The stations will hopefully be used everyday for 100+ years. As long as the art isn’t getting in the way of the station’s function, having it there makes the stations a bit more unique and the experience of being in and around the station a little nicer. Designing the stations themselves to have more beautiful architecture would arguably be even better, but that’s more likely to balloon the costs and lead to construction delays.

      I’d rather get the train service sooner.
      The art is responsible for 1% of the construction budget. Even if plowing that 1% back into station and tunnel construction lead to a proportional speedup in construction time, it would only save a month or two in a project that takes about a decade. Weather, change orders, accidents, and other unpredictable factors will probably have a greater effect on completion time.

    2. One percent is a number that someone came up with because it sounds inconsequential. It’s not. Station construction budgets should have flexibility, not spending percentages stamped on them from above.

  12. Wondering why there is no stop for Route 50 on Othello by the northbound Link stop. I just missed my train because of that. Bus had to cross the street to stop. Then I had to cross back but had red light as train arrived. Poor Metro planning.

    1. With a little bit of clever signal adjustments, it is possible to add more walk signal time at all of the Rainier Valley Link stations, with near zero impact on cars or light rail trains.

      When cars have a green arrow to turn left off MLK, people can cross half of the street without creating any conflicts, which is enough to get to or from a Link station. But, the crosswalk signals, as currently implemented, don’t recognize. They assume that to cross any part of MLK, you need the full 30+ seconds of green time to cross the entire street – even though to get to or from a Link station, you only actually need to cross half of it.

      Adding median crosswalk signals and providing “walk” signals during the left turn phase for the half of the street where there’s no conflict is cheap, easy to do, and has no impact on drivers, except for those making a right turn on red.

      I’d imagine people that know what they’re doing likely jaywalk during this phase anyway; may as well fix the signals to make it legal.

      1. Don’t at least some of the left turn signals allow U-turns? It could be a safety issue to have pedestrians in a crosswalk if someone is going to make a 180-degree turn into it, since visibility isn’t going to be great.

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