ST3 Transfers Must be Excellent

Convenient transfers can transform a good transit network into a great one. When you don’t think twice about switching lines, the network is really doing its job. Unfortunately the designs proposed for ST3’s two new massive transfer stations, Westlake and International District (ID) Stations fall well short of that mark. These designs feel like they come from principles steeped in “transit is only for commuters” or “transit is for other people” rather than what they should be:  transit intended to be the primary way everyone gets around the city.

So what makes a good transfer?  Some of that is subjective – people don’t want to have to cross the street or get rained on in the process, but most of it is objective:  How fast can I get to the platform with the other train I need to catch?  Anything over three minutes for an average rider is too long: after making it to the platform you still have to wait for the next train. Getting from one line to another has to feel as close to seamless as possible.

ID Station

Of the ID station options presented in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, only two seem to be worth further discussion: 4th and 5th Avenue “shallow.”  As we noted in our deep stations post, we were disappointed to see that shallow doesn’t actually mean shallow – it just means less deep than the absurdly deep options.  Sound Transit excluded a real shallow 5th Avenue option from consideration in a previous analysis phase due to construction impacts and considered a shallow 4th station too risky due to proximity to the existing DSTT.  Not having either option to discuss or recommend at this phase is a major miss because rider experience matters and shallow stations provide the best rider experience possible.

Of the “shallow” options presented, 4th seems to have the most potential. It could be a real transportation hub located between the existing ID station and Sounder/Amrak with direct transfers from buses on 4th Avenue. It also appears to be the hardest to fix for riders without switching to a station design that is as shallow as the existing ID station. Very common transfers from the line that terminates in Tacoma and Ballard are expected to take four minutes. We don’t see obvious ways to speed that up but we’ll leave those solutions to engineers. Sound Transit estimates that 43% of the daily 34,200 riders will arrive via transfers. That means every minute shaved off transfer times will collectively save these 14,700 riders transferring at this station ten days, every day.

Very common transfers add four minutes to each trip. ℅ Sound Transit.  
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Link options in Interbay

A series of public meetings focused on limited segments of the WSBLE DEIS is underway. Those who are unable to attend can comment by email, voicemail or snail mail using this page. You can even schedule a 20-minute virtual meeting with the project team to ask questions about the DEIS in the meantime. 

As a supplement to the previous Ballard-focused post, I wanted to include some brief details about the South Interbay (Smith Cove) segment shown below.

You can find details about each of the proposed alternatives on one page here. Key impacts such as estimated costs, ridership, displacements and disruption from construction are summarized here.

Below are some site context photos scraped from Google Street View. Note that these are the approximate suggested station locations, not the suggested station entrance locations.

SIB-1 Galer Street – Looking northwest towards Magnolia from Elliot Ave W
SIB-2, SIB-3 Prospect Street – Looking northwest towards Magnolia from Elliot Ave W

A few notes about this segment:

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No good options in CID

Lizz Giordano, South Seattle Emerald:

The CID is preparing for a messy buildout for the West Seattle-Ballard Light Rail Extension that will run a second set of tracks through the neighborhood. After weighing options studied in a newly released planning document, many in the CID say the choice is clear: lay tracks under 4th Avenue to avoid taking land from the Chinatown Historic District.

The existing light rail line, with its 19 stations including the existing one in the CID, began operating in 2009 and now runs from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Northgate. For the new extensions, Sound Transit is considering building the CID station below 4th or 5th Avenues, just south of Jackson Street not far from the existing light rail station. Only the route along 4th Avenue bypasses the neighborhood, preserving buildings in the CID. 

Sound Transit sill has fourth options for Chinatown / International District (CID). 4th or 5th Avenues, deep or shallow stations. None of them are great. Deep stations have crappy transfers to the existing CID station. Shallow stations are very disruptive, as the article suggests. 4th Avenue adds half a billion in costs (roughly the cost of a West Seattle tunnel). could displace Metro’s Ryerson Base, and would make Stadium Station permanently inaccessible for riders coming North from Tacoma / Ranier Valley. Here are the gory details from the Draft EIS:

Chinatown residents have a strong case that 5th Avenue would be devastating to the neighborhood, and the result would only be marginally beneficial for a neighborhood that already has excellent transit access. While shallow stations are disruptive, deep stations completely fail to offer acceptable transfer options between the 1 Line and the 3 Line. If I were Mayor Harrell, newly installed on the Sound Transit board, I’d be prodding city and ST staff for more creative options here.

Commute Seattle’s 2021 mode survey

Madeline Feig, Commute Seattle blog:

However, the pandemic significantly altered travel behavior, and this year’s data broke from these historic trends. Comparing 2019 to 2021, the share of remote work among all Downtown commuter modes increased by 36 percentage points, to 43.3% of all surveyed trips. The percentage of transit trips, once at an eight-year high, dropped from nearly 50% to 18%. Walk/bike and rideshare trips decreased slightly, while the percentage of those driving alone to work remained flat.

The chart above puts in context what I think we all know anecdotally to be true: working from home soared, while transit use cratered.

Seeing these numbers and reading about more employees opting to work from home, I began to worry about the future of the ORCA Business Passport program, which sustains so much of transit agencies’ revenue. So I phoned Madeline Feig to ask whether commuter benefit programs were at risk of being slashed.

Feig noted that Seattle’s Commuter Benefit Ordinance, which went into effect just about the time Covid started showing up in the US, requires “businesses with 20 or more employees… to offer their employees the opportunity to make a monthly pre-tax payroll deduction for transit or vanpool expenses.” For many businesses, especially small ones, offering an ORCA card is the simplest way of complying with the law. No complicated reimbursement forms required.

Transit agencies roll out spring service changes

King County Metro rolled out its spring service change last Saturday, with new green-striped schedule pamphlets.

Several routes’ schedules were adjusted to better serve school bell times, including routes 48, 50, 106, 107, 128, and 269. Routes 106 and 107 will have a slightly different schedule on Wednesdays than the rest of the week.

Routes 302 and 303 were adjusted to better serve shift times for some First Hill employers.

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Are ST3’s Deep Stations a Problem?

Like most observers, we were shocked when we saw how deep Sound Transit’s station plans were for the new downtown tunnel. Beyond engineering complexity, deep stations can present a problem for riders: getting to and from the surface isn’t always easy and fast.  This concern is particularly amplified by the location and intention of these stations, downtown stations are expected to be high-ridership and a lot of trips will be short. 

Before the pandemic, a large portion of trips in the current Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT) both started and terminated in the tunnel.  We would expect demand for these kinds of trips to be even higher when the new ST3 tunnel opens, which adds high value tunnel destinations at Denny, South Lake Union, and Seattle Center. That demand might look elsewhere if the rider experience is bad, adding 5 minutes to both sides of a short ride just to get to the platform doesn’t really make sense for riders. The scale of the investment detaches from the utility of the infrastructure.  In short – this tunnel is very expensive and better be very good too.

So, is it possible to have deep stations but maintain a good rider experience?  The center of this issue for riders is about speed and reliability to get to and from the train platform.  The depth of the station isn’t an issue if you and 200 of your fellow riders can get from the platform to the surface in a couple of minutes.  That means that escalators are pretty much out as a primary means of getting people in/out of a station that is over 100 feet deep. Sound Transit’s DEIS presented the following depth options for each station: Midtown:  140-190, Westlake: 125-140, Denny 100-125, SLU 85-120, Seattle Center 85-120.  That means it’s very likely that every station in the new DSTT would fail riders if the primary conveyance is escalators.  

  Midtown station, ℅ Sound Transit.  Riders are skeptical.  

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ST3’s Ballard Station Has to Serve Ballard

As we review the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) results as presented by Sound Transit, the decision to cut out all the central Ballard station options stands out as a huge mistake. There is only one Ballard station in ST3 and we have only one chance to get this right. We need a Ballard station where it will serve people who live in and visit Ballard:  20th and Market, directly in the center of the urban village.  

A place is not defined by its largest intersection. The EIS includes two station location options, 15th and Market and 14th and Market. Though a station at 15th and Market is marginally better than a station at 14th and Market, neither serve the entertainment district on Ballard Avenue well or maximize usability for most people who already live in Ballard. The forthcoming Ballard station doesn’t need to rely on new transit oriented development; there is already an urban neighborhood there in need of transit service already  – this must be development-oriented transit.

The good news is that Sound Transit studied the 20th tunnel option during Pre-DEIS work and discovered the obvious:  A 20th Avenue station performed significantly better for riders than the other options presented. The bad news is the station was cut from consideration before the EIS process for cost reasons. But an interesting thing has happened since then: the EIS analysis brought cost parity between elevated and tunnel options in Ballard. An elevated 15th station with a drawbridge now costs the same as a 14th tunnel now.  Would that cost parity extend to a 20th station?  It might. We need Sound Transit to go back to the drawing board and find out, because the difference for thousands of daily riders is significant.

20th is much better than 15th for riders (and 15th is better than 14th.)  
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News roundup: service change

Pierce Transit 2021 Gillig Low Floor Electric 526

This is an open thread.