Most read & commented STB posts of 2019

Buses exited the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel for the last time in March 2019 (image: Oran Viriyincy)

On the eve of the new year, it’s time to review the old. In 2019, we dove deeper into ST3 planning. Transit advocates mused on ST4. As the year drew to a close, we also contended with a possible reduction in funding for already approved projects and current bus service in Seattle.

In descending order, our most read posts of the year are:

It’s time to start work on ST4 by Seattle Subway (June 25). Seattle Subway would like you to support a 2024 ballot measure for more rail in Seattle. “Traffic is over – if you want it”.

Build the Aurora Line by Seattle Subway (August 27). Where would those new rail lines go? Seattle Subway and Ryan DiRaimo make the case for an ST4 Aurora Ave line.

ORCA Pod Welcomes Monorail by Brent White (March 11). Despite our past urging, the Seattle monorail had too long remained outside the Orca family. No more. The change took effect in October.

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ShareNow ceasing operations, Limebike pauses

Car2Go in Pioneer Square
Shane in the City/Flickr

Geekwire reports that the carshare company will shut down across North America in February. Cars will start disappearing well before then.

This step is not surprising. Lime recently shut down their similar Limepod service. ShareNow itself is a merger from weakness of two previous competitors. Recent tinkering with the fee structure was a likely signal of operational problems. Only Zipcar, with a membership fee and slightly longer rental periods, remains.

Meanwhile, Limebike is using the December expiry of its permit to punt on the unprofitable winter season, coming back in the Spring when Seattle starts allowing electric scooters. If other cities’ experience is an indication, the scooters will dominate and the bikes will wind down. Only Jump remains as a bikeshare option this winter.

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Free Metro rides New Years Eve / Holiday service changes / long-term Link pain

King County Metro and Seattle Streetcars will be allowing riders to ride for free from 7 pm on New Year’s Eve, 2019, to 4 am on New Year’s Day, 2020. This is just for King County Metro (including Via to Transit, Community Van, Community Ride, and Access) and the streetcars, not other agencies, nor for the King County water taxis. In particular, ST Express, Link Light Rail, Sounder, the ferries, and the monorail will be charging fare. However, the monorail now accepts ORCA, and honors ORCA transfers and passes.

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Metro selects a preferred alignment for RapidRide K

Metro has revealed their preferred alignment for RapidRide K in Kirkland. The service will operate between Downtown and Totem Lake via NE 85th and 124th Ave NE on Rose Hill. In South Kirkland, it will follow 6th St and 108th Ave. The decision has implications for several other routes which will be moved or shortened.

Preferred alternative for RapidRide K in Kirkland (image: Metro)

The service, scheduled to open in 2025 will connect Totem Lake to Eastgate via downtown Kirkland and Bellevue.

Within Kirkland, there were two pairs of alternatives to consider. In North Kirkland, the 2016 Metro Connects long range plan would have routed the RapidRide along Market St (alternative A1). Metro instead has selected an alignment connecting downtown to the Stride BRT station on 85th, then to Totem Lake Transit Center via 124th Ave (alternative A2). The A2 alternative avoids overlap with Metro 255 service on Market St north of downtown Kirkland in the Metro Connects plan. That step would surely have been very unpopular with riders.

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Fares, faregates and fare enforcement

Since it dropped right before Thanksgiving, I worry not everyone saw Alon Levy’s excellent piece in Streetsblog on fares and fare enforcement. The proximate reason for the piece is New York’s plan to spend a bunch of money on fare enforcement that’s disproportionate to the actual loss of revenue involved. As per usual, the piece has lots of international comparisons and some good lessons for Seattle.

First, from time to time some Seattle observers have suggested that Sound Transit ditch the current proof-of-payment system and install fare gates at Link stations. This would be expensive, impractical for open-air stations, and wouldn’t work at all for RapidRide. Also, New York has fare gates and, well… see the previous paragraph. Levy writes:

New York itself may have an excuse to keep the faregates: its trains are very crowded, so peak-hour inspections may not be feasible. The question boils down to how New York crowding levels compare with those on the busiest urban proof-of-payment line, the Munich S-Bahn trunk. But no other American city has that excuse. Tear down these faregates.

What’s more, the fare inspection should be a low-key affair. The fine in Berlin is €60. Inspectors who can’t make a citation without using physical violence should not work as inspectors.


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News roundup: Merry Christmas

Kitsap Transit 2019 Gillig Low Floor 3502

This is an open thread.

Two easy ways to speed up I-405 buses


Some fixes to transit delays are expensive, or require taking on entrenched interests, but others do not. Here are two easy wins in the southern part of I-405.

On SR-167 northbound, the HOV/toll lane on the left-hand side turns into a regular lane shortly after S. 180th street. This is quite early to end this lane, as traffic is bad on weekday mornings. While the left lane needs to be available for left turns at S. Grady Way beyond I-405, solo drivers don’t need two miles of space to merge into the left lane. The HOV/Toll lane should extend at least as far as the I-405 HOV direct access ramp (anything less is completely inexcusable and reduces the value of that direct access ramp), so HOV vehicles can continue through to I-405 without hitting a patch of SOV traffic. This would improve reliability on routes 566 and 567.

Google Maps

On eastbound N Southport Drive at I-405 (shown above), the on-ramp to I-405 north has two lanes, a regular lane with a meter, and an HOV lane that bypasses the meter. During rush-hour, the queue behind the meter often extends beyond the length of the HOV meter bypass lane, forcing buses and HOVs to wait behind a long line of cars for a while (sometimes as much as 10 minutes or more), before they can skip the bottleneck.

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Surveillance Capitalism, Transit Information, and OneBusAway

OneBusAway is an integrated, open-source suite of software components that provides real-time and schedule information for public transit, supported by a nonprofit organization that is responsive to the needs of transit agencies and the riders.  It is also an important alternative to the surveillance capitalism business model for providing such information.  In this post, I will argue that King County Metro, Sound Transit, and other regional agencies should embrace it more fully, in particular by giving an official status to the OneBusAway apps rather than regarding them as just one of many “third-party” apps.

Regarding surveillance capitalism: a large portion of the software side of the global information technology infrastructure, including web search, email, social media, and much more, is often provided free to the end users, although the corporations that provide this, for example Google and Facebook, are often enormously profitable. The business model for this involves customized advertising and sometimes behavior manipulation, powered by intensive gathering and cross-correlation of detailed personal information. These companies provide some great products and services that are free to the end users.  But surveillance capitalism has a dark side as well, with negative impacts for privacy, autonomy, human dignity, and democracy.  The term comes from Shoshana Zuboff – please see her recent book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, or a recent interview.

Accurate and convenient schedule and real-time transit information, particularly when available to riders on apps on mobile devices, is an important part of making transit satisfying and easy to use.  Much of this information is provided via a surveillance capitalism business model, for example via Google maps.  Another source of information is via apps provided by venture-capital funded startups, for example Transit App or Moovit – it seems safe to assume that these, too, have an eventual goal of participating in the surveillance capitalism business model. (Venture capitalists seem unlikely to invest tens of millions of dollars in for-profit corporations just because they want the world to have better transit information.)  OneBusAway provides an important nonprofit alternative.

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Bus lane / queue jump coming to 3rd and Virginia

SDOT’s spot improvements program strikes again. This time, it’s a re-channelization of one block of 3rd Avenue at the downtown-Belltown border to allow southbound buses to more easily enter the 3rd Avenue transitway. SDOT says the change “will benefit approximately 168,000 daily bus riders on 36 key routes.”

The current configuration has two southbound GP lanes and a right turn lane, which seems excessive considering cars can’t go straight 13 hours a day.

I can give you about 168,000 reasons why Third Avenue ought to be transit-only all the way to Denny, but I guess we’ll take it one block at a time if we must.

While we’re on the subject of spot improvements: now that construction is wrapping up on Yet Another Amazon Tower, it looks like the Blanchard St bus-only lane is nearing completion. The full bus lane from 3rd to Westlake should provide to 4 minutes of time savings for riders of the 40 and C buses, per SDOT.

News roundup: someone had to say it

King County Metro bus onboard the M/V Cathlamet
LB Bryce/Flickr

This is an open thread.

Federal funds on their way for Federal Way Link

Project flyover video (Sound Transit)

On Monday, Sound Transit announced that the full funding grant agreement (FFGA) for the Federal Way Link Extension project had been sent for Congressional approval, one of the final steps before the grant is awarded. With $790 million in a direct grant and $629 million available through a low-interest TIFIA loan, the final pieces needed for the project to advance to construction are almost in place. Federal Way Link is expected to cost a total of $3.2 billion, having been adjusted by rising property costs and a competitive construction market.

Federal Way Link has already begun pre-construction work, mainly demolishing structures and relocation utilities, and is set to break ground early next year. This will be just over 11 years after the initial vision was approved by voters as part of 2008’s Sound Transit 2 ballot measure. The project was originally set to terminate at South 272nd Street, but was split into several chunks by the 2010 budget shortfall caused by the recession. The northernmost section, between Sea-Tac Airport and Angle Lake, opened in 2016 with accelerated work, while the rest remained in funding limbo until the arrival of Sound Transit 3. Armed with new funding and a one-year extension of the completion date, the project was restored to go all the way to Federal Way.

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Book review: Transit

If you’re reading this, there’s some year in which you became very interested in Puget Sound area transit services. For me, that year was 2006, and I found Jim Kershner’s Transit: The Story of Public Transportation in the Puget Sound Region to be a concise, readable, and richly illustrated overview of all that has gone before.

Unlike other books ($) in this genre, this work starts all the way at the beginning, with horse-drawn streetcars, and takes us to the ST3 vote and beyond.

Seattle’s streetcar system began as an amenity common to all modern cities, and entered a period of public ownership in 1919. The system ultimately collapsed due to poor fiscal judgment among city leaders, the apparent superiority of auto ownership at Seattle’s mid-century wealth and population level, and even competition from “jitneys” — the Uber and Lyft of their day. For a work targeted at transit fans, Kershner is admirably clear-eyed about the system’s weaknesses. Partially legitimate critiques of modern streetcars were doubly so for their poorly maintained, always-stuck-in-traffic forebears.

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Seattle transit ridership pauses after years of rapid growth

King County Metro buses (image: Zack Heistand)

Last year, a larger percentage of Seattle residents than ever reported using transit to commute to work. Seattle has made remarkable progress this decade in substituting away from drive-alone commuting. Booming employment growth in downtown Seattle and South Lake Union made it easier for workers to access jobs via transit. Large investments in bus and rail service added the capacity to get them there.

But there’s a less celebrated narrative in more recent data. Most of the progress this decade was before 2015. Light rail ridership was lower last quarter than a year ago. Bus ridership has been moving sideways since 2016. Despite large investments in off-peak service hours, non-work trips by transit aren’t growing.  Where transit ridership is growing, it’s not always keeping pace with population growth.

The decline in Link ridership last quarter wasn’t large, just -0.6% vs Q3 2018, but is still remarkable only three years after opening several new stations in a fast-growing city. Ridership for the year to date is a massive 12% below the Sound Transit budget plan, as an expected boost to rail ridership after removing buses from the tunnel failed to materialize.

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Finishing touches for Northgate Link as work continues below

Northgate Station on a recent, not-raining day

It’s been a few months since our last check-in with Northgate Link, and things have changed dramatically around the three stations. Holiday shoppers no longer throng Northgate Mall, which is now split in two and without several of its longtime tenants. Roosevelt has gained the first of two cross-streets and welcomed a few new apartment buildings. U District Station now has furnished entrances and lighter fencing.

There is just about two years left until Sound Transit’s due date for Northgate Link, which is set for September 2021, but the project is currently sitting on enough float time to open months earlier. Sound Transit says that, as of this week, overall construction on the project is 95 percent complete and should be turned over for systems installation soon next year.

Plenty of pictures after the jump.

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News roundup: a bad year

Fairhaven Station (SounderBruce/wikimedia)

This is an open thread.

Seattle steps up its affordable housing efforts

Sydney Brownstone in the Seattle Times:

This year, Seattle will invest the most it ever has in affordable housing, a total of $110 million, Mayor Jenny Durkan said Monday.

All of that funding will go toward the construction and redevelopment of new units, the most ever generated through Seattle investments in a single year – 1,944 in full – across the city.

Truly good news to see the city step up its investment like this. Check out the Mayor’s blog post for more about the funded projects.

Thanks, Seattle voters! There are many reasons to be pessimistic about our housing situation but the city’s ability to fund, permit, and construct new affordable multifamily housing is a bright spot. Imagine what would be possible if the federal government got back into the housing game, perhaps by passing Rep. Ilhan Omar’s ambitious $1T housing bill .

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the city seems stuck in a vicious cycle:

Nonprofit developer Mercy Housing relied on federal, state and city financing to build the project at a cost of nearly $500,000 per unit. The per unit price would have been far higher if the city hadn’t donated the land. The cost to build one new apartment or condo unit in San Francisco today — whether market-rate or affordable — tops $700,000, nearly triple what it cost about 10 years ago.

Construction costs are rising, land values are increasing, and construction workers can’t afford to live in the city, so costs rise even more.