Seattle Transportation Plan: How to achieve a 15min city with the help of ultra-high frequency transit

Seattle is currently soliciting input until the end of February for phase 2 of their Transportation Plan engagement efforts: – Seattle should strive to become a city of 15min neighborhoods and if necessary use ultra-high frequency transit such as urban gondola lines, people movers, funiculars or 3min BRT lines on dedicated lanes to bridge the gaps.

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Cities can’t rely on employer RTOs to recover

Photo by author

Last week, Amazon announced a three-day return-to-office (RTO), sparking muted fanfare among the downtown business community but backlash from its workers. Starbucks announced a similar policy several weeks back and it remains to be seen what the long-term trend will be for major employers in our region.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the post-pandemic recovery of cities and transit. Pessimists are calling this the death knell of cities as we know it while optimists envision an opportunity to reinvent our whole concept of the city. The one thing obvious to both camps is that a complete return to the pre-pandemic state is a virtual impossibility.

A successful RTO by Amazon and other employers will undoubtedly provide a short-term boost to downtown life and transit ridership. But it would be foolish for cities to hang their hat on RTO mandates. Some companies will go back mostly in-person, some will stick to mostly remote, and the rest will be somewhere in-between. A hybrid world is our most likely future state.

The silver lining is that mass remote work was likely going to happen at some point so it’s not like this is some inconceivable future that no one thought of.  That said, planners would have been graced with a much longer time scale in a pandemic-free world. That benefit has evaporated with the system shock brought on by COVID.

If the pandemic made anything egregiously obvious, it’s that American cities were just built wrong. We often cast this indictment on the suburbs but it holds equally true for downtowns. The idea that we zoned the hearts of our cities to only accommodate a flood of workers within a 10-hour period each weekday seems comical now, but it’s a reality we have to contend with.

Moving forward, there are certainly practical questions, like the viability of converting office space to residential or rightsizing transit investments. But beyond the practicalities, it’s worth looking to our friends in Europe or Asia, where dispersed density has been the model of urbanism for hundreds of years. Even if downtowns will never be the same again, their loss is every other urban neighborhood’s potential gain.

Seattle Bus Restructure for Lynnwood Link

This is another in a series of posts about the bus restructure following the Lynnwood Link extension. This one is geared towards Seattle, although the maps include north King County as well. As before, they cover a number of themes. There is one additional theme worth mentioning:

  • Whenever possible, overlapping buses should increase frequency on worthy areas.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. If timed, the routes can form a nice branching system, where the “trunk” has justifiably more frequency than the “branches”. However, timed branches tend to be “brittle”, in the sense that any change requires a similar change on each branch. For example, the 347 and 348 each run every half hour, but combine for 15 minute headways along a popular corridor. We can’t improve frequency on the 348 to 20 minutes without doing the same for the 347. Otherwise service would be worse for that shared section. In contrast, with enough buses along a common corridor, they can form a “spine“, where timing is not important. But you need lots of buses to get to that point.

Challenging Neighborhoods

There are several neighborhoods in northwest Seattle that are challenging to cover. The first is the Haller Lake neighborhood. Other than Northwest Hospital, this is a very low density area (for Seattle). The hospital is especially difficult to serve (it isn’t “on the way“). Northwest Hospital has surprisingly poor ridership, but that may change over time, given its expansion. I came up with at least a half-dozen ways of connecting it to the network, but none of them are particularly satisfying.

The Four Freedoms area, in contrast, has a lot more riders. My guess is there are plenty from the facility itself as well as surrounding apartment buildings. This particular part of town (close to Linden, between 125th and 145th) is one of the more densely populated north-end neighborhoods, and it continues to grow. The 65 will serve some of the riders, and a stop at Four Freedoms House would complement it nicely. However, detouring to the stop is just not worth it. It makes more sense to end a route there, if possible.

Finally, there is Broadview. It isn’t that far from Broadview to the 130th station, but I couldn’t find a combination that was worth it. Like Metro, I find it hard to justify service there, unless the city (or county) had better overall coverage.

Austere Proposal

As with the previous maps, you can make it full page (in its own window) by selecting the little rectangle in the corner. There are a lot more routes, so I put them in different “layers”, visible on the legend (to the left). Thus you can hide or display the unchanged routes or those that are the same as the Metro proposal. Selecting individual routes highlights them. Feel free to ask questions in the comments if you find it hard to understand (there are a lot of lines).

The baseline frequency for these routes is 15 minutes. The exceptions are the 333, 334 and 336, which would run every half hour. It is worth noting that the word “austere” is a bit misleading. This covers less of the city than the “robust” map (although more than the Metro proposal) but that doesn’t mean it is worse. It has fewer routes and the routes are faster. Thus for the same amount of money, many of these routes could run a lot more often. I would especially like to see better headways on the east-west routes (like the 44, 61, 62, 65, 72 or 348). I could see many of these routes running every 10 or 12 minutes.

Most of the routes are the same as the previous austere map (for north of Seattle). The exceptions are:

  • 76 — The simplest way to cover this part of Lake City Way.
  • 348 — Sent to the U-District instead of Northgate. This saves money, as there is no need for the 67, and the bus spends less time making turns. Riders lose their one seat ride to Northgate, but gain a one-seat ride to the UW. I expect riders on the main cross streets (185th, 145th, 130th) to take an east-west bus to a Link station (that is much faster to access than Northgate) while those in between those cross streets access Link via 185th or Roosevelt Station.

Robust Proposal

With the “robust” map, there are a couple additional modifications:

  • 46 — Northwest Hospital is still connected to Northgate, but via 5th Avenue NE, which means a faster connection from the hospital to Link.
  • 76 — Extended to Four Freedoms.

Several routes are combined for good headways along major corridors, while increasing coverage. The 65 and 76 combine for 7.5 minute headways along 125th/Roosevelt/130th corridor, similar to how the 344/346 and 348 combine along 185th.

Likewise, the 46 and 346 would run every half hour (opposite each other) for combined 15 minute headways along 5th Avenue NE. They would then combine with the 61 (running every 15 minutes) for 7.5 minute headways between 5th Avenue NE & Northgate Way to the station.

As with the previous proposal, there are a lot of options, and I would like to hear what people think in the comments.

News Roundup: Cars Running into Buildings

Following a Seattle Times article, the Seattle Bike Blog joins the discussion. (I think the buildings should wear more visible clothing, and stop talking on their phone.)

The Urbanist looks at Sound Transit adding retail to the stations.

There will be some late night work on the Link rails starting tonight. For a complete list of Sound Transit service alerts, check here.

Metro Transit looks to the future (Seattle Times article).

Streetsblog writes about the importance of transit to community colleges.

This is an open thread.

The case for Automated Light Metro Technology for Ballard and South Lake Union

Sept. 2020 rendering of 160 Street Station on the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain Extension. (TransLink)

ST3 passed enthusiastically in the Seattle region because voters were excited to get mobility improvements. However, Sound Transit has had trouble coming up with compelling designs to deliver on this promise. To address this problem, we should revisit some of the design assumptions.

Vancouver’s SkyTrain and Montreal’s REM took far less time to design and construct. We can learn from them and adopt automated train technology. If Sound Transit would interline trains in the existing tunnel and keep the Ballard to Westlake line separate, the new line could use different technology.

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Ask Sound Transit to Study Sending Ballard and West Seattle Trains Through the Existing Tunnel

The deadline for comments on studies for the West Seattle and Ballard Link extensions is today. Please ask the board to study sending the trains into the existing tunnel, rather than building a new one.

Benefit to Riders

From a rider standpoint, reusing the existing tunnel would be fairly simple. All the trains would mix, just as East Link will mix with the main line. Transfers would be much better. Same-direction transfers would be trivial (e. g. Rainier Valley to the UW). Simply step off the train and wait for a different one (on the same platform). Even reverse direction transfers would be fairly easy (e. g. Seattle Center to the UW). Just go up and over, using the existing stairs, escalators and elevators.

In contrast, the proposed transfers vary from bad to terrible. Simply going the same direction could take anywhere from three to five minutes, maybe worse. For many this will mean a new, onerous transfer (e. g. Rainier Valley to the UW). For others, an unnecessary hindrance to the new addition. Someone going from downtown Bellevue to Denny might very well ignore the new tunnel and new line, given the poor transfer experience.

Travel to and from downtown would be worse for most riders as well. The stations in the new tunnel are not as good as the old ones. They are deeper, and there are fewer of them. The vast majority of riders, given the choice, would prefer using the stations inside the old tunnel.

Possible Issues

Sound Transit has expressed fear that the trains downtown would simply be overloaded. I seriously doubt it. As a city and a nation, we are rapidly becoming less peak-oriented. There is still a rush hour, but from a transit standpoint, a smaller percentage of trips occur during this time. With some work, it is quite possible the trains could run every 90 seconds, according to Sound Transit. Even running them every 2 minutes would provide the same potential throughput (30 trains an hour through downtown) as a second tunnel could provide. Running the trains more often would require elevating or burying the tracks in Rainier Valley — something Sound Transit has never even considered. But it is also quite possible that we never see 6 minute trains in Rainier Valley anyway, which means the downtown tunnel could handle the extra load with ease.

In the highly unlikely event that we do have capacity issues during rush-hour, there is a very simple, much less costly solution: run express buses. There are plenty of riders who would love to have their express buses back. You wouldn’t need to bring all of them back, just the ones that have proven very popular. For both train and bus riders, reusing the existing tunnel is better.

Sound Transit has suggested that getting rid of the tunnel would be “Not consistent with ST3 plan”. If find this hard to fathom, given they are studying the elimination of stations like Avalon and Interbay (Dravus). Unlike those changes, this would actually be better for riders, not worse. To the extent that people even care about a new tunnel, I’m quite confident they prefer better transfers with better downtown stations.

There are other technical issues that may make it difficult to reuse the tunnel. That is why a study is needed. It is possible that mixing the tracks (otherwise known as interlining) is more disruptive and expensive than adding three new stations (and a tunnel). I doubt it, but stranger things have happened. That is why it makes sense to study the technical issues, to get an idea of the various trade-offs.

Deadlines for comments are today. Please let the board know you want them to study reusing the existing downtown tunnel for West Seattle to Ballard Link.

Sound Transit reviews WSBLE study results

[UPDATE: Several factual corrections, courtesy of Sound Transit. – MHD]

Sound Transit’s System Expansion Committee met on February 9th to review the results of studies on details of the West Seattle and Ballard Link Extension (WSBLE). The full ST board will meet February 22nd to consider this, and March 23rd to choose a preferred alignment (routing) for project, if it’s ready to do so. This article explains the study findings without much opinionating. Future articles are in preparation that will make specific recommendations.

ST has released a 3.5 hour webcast of the meeting, and a 124-page slide deck of the study results. Meeting timestamps: 0:00:00 roll call, 0:04:30 intro reports, 0:16:30 public testimony, 1:14:00 Everett Link studies, 1:43:00 WSBLE studies.

Last year the board selected a preferred alignment in West Seattle, but asked staff to study Chinatown/International District station (CID) and a few other details a bit more. The studies ST ordered last year concern how to avoid negative impacts in the CID, opportunities to mix and match South Lake Union stations from the two routes studied in the DEIS, refinements to the Smith Cove / Interbay stations, and how to reduce cost and improve access in Ballard.

The report presents a lot of alternatives. These address some of the issues identified last year. They may also add construction time, risk, and another $900 million to the already much higher cost than originally planned and promised to voters. Skipping some stations may eliminate those cost increases.


The report first presented ways to reduce the impact of the 4th Ave Shallow option which was studied in the DEIS. This would avoid impact to existing buildings, but would add $700 million in costs, raising the cost of the Pike St to Holgate St segment to $3.1 billion, and the Midtown station would still be 200 ft deep.

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$1 low-income fare will expand to Pierce Transit

Pierce Transit 2021 Gillig Low Floor Electric 526
New Pierce Transit electric bus / photo by Zach Heistand

The Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners voted unanimously today to approve a proposal to have Pierce Transit join the ORCA LIFT low-income fare program, bringing its extent to all transit services that accept ORCA except Washington State Ferries. Pierce Transit’s ORCA LIFT fare will be $1, joining King County Metro, all Sound Transit services, the Seattle Streetcar, Everett Transit, and Kitsap Transit buses and intra-county ferries in charging just $1 for riders in the program. Pierce Transit’s low-income fare will take effect April 1.

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News Roundup: Bangkok

Bangkok has four rail systems. (RMTransit video) Thailand’s development went through a car-oriented phase, but is now turning toward transit, and is building high-speed rail lines and improving Bangkok transit. This is similar to the trajectory The Netherlands went through forty years earlier. At 12:39 you can see a train door and interior that looks a lot like Link, and a route-number display similar to what ST is planning in ST3.

SDOT has a Seattle Transportation Plan Online Engagement Hub website with a proposal for Seattle’s next transportation plan. The interactive site is taking comments through February 21st.

How to lower subway costs. (RMTransit video, referencing Alon Levy’s transit cost research.) At 10:12 he calls out Link, saying its stations are larger than necessary.

This is an open thread.

News Roundup: Streetcar

Seattle’s streetcar dithering criticized in federal audit ($). Federal grant administrators are getting anxious about delays in spending the City Center Connector grant money, and grants for the Broadway streetcar extension (from Denny to Roy), and a SODO overpass grant.

But the feds also gave Seattle a grant to improve SODO’s pedestrian and bicycle safety. ($)

Free transit is extended to Seattle low-income housing residents ($)


Emeryville, California is an urban success story (Thomas Y)

Egypt’s new capital is an Ozymandian nightmare (Adam Something)

North End Modifications to the Lynnwood Link Connections Plan

This is another in a series of posts about the Lynnwood Link bus restructure. This covers the area north of Seattle. I have two maps, but neither should be considered a full-fledged proposal. They are a set of ideas, and I doubt either would be adopted in its entirety. The first one is austere — a bare-bones system that is intended to provide coverage where it is needed most. The second covers more of the region, while providing an important corridor with very good frequency. It is unlikely we can afford the latter, or have to settle for the former. We would likely get something in between.

Common Themes

Despite the differences, there are some common themes:

  1. Straighter routes. Turning takes extra time, especially at major intersections. Traffic signals favor cars going straight, which means a turn may take several light cycles.
  2. Avoids roads that are congested, but have few riders. 145th and 175th, for example, don’t have many apartments, but lots of traffic.
  3. Infrequent routes should exist for coverage, not connectivity. An infrequent bus that runs along the same pathway as a frequent bus will not get many riders, even if it saves some people a transfer.
  4. Coverage routes should save riders a considerable amount of walking. The routes should be spread out whenever possible.

Austere Proposal

It is easier to read the map if you expand it to full size (it will open in its own window), providing a legend on the left side, listing each route. Selecting a route brings it to the foreground. The 333, 334 and 336 on this map would be infrequent (30 minute headways in the middle of the day). This proposal saves service hours by following the general guidelines mentioned above as well as cutting back coverage, frequency and direct connections, such as:

  1. No service along the county line between Aurora Village and Mountlake Terrace. Very few riders use those stops.
  2. No service along 145th, west of the Link Station. This is more than made up for with service along all of Meridian. The service hole that the proposed 46 creates along Meridian between 130th and 145th has a fair number of riders.
  3. No service along 175th. There won’t be many riders either way, but at least going north-south is very fast.
  4. No coverage for parts of the proposed 336 (NE 150th, 30th Avenue NE). These areas are close enough to more frequent buses.
  5. The 334 (replacing the 331) is extended east to Bothell, to cover a service hole mentioned in this post. If Sound Transit added a bus stop for the S3 at 83rd Place NE (where there is a crossing and existing bus stops) you wouldn’t need this extension. That would save Metro a considerable amount of money, while giving riders in the area better bus service.
  6. No 324, which means no direct connection between Lake City and Kenmore/Bothell. I don’t believe this is necessary, nor do I think the 324 would perform well. Relatively few people are taking this trip. Those that are going this way will likely take a more frequent bus simply because it will arrive first.
  7. No direct connection between Aurora Village and Mountlake Terrace. Riders can take the 130 or a Link/Swift Blue combination. Some of the riders who make this trip right now are transferring to Swift, in which case it would be the same number of transfers, while also saving them wait and travel time (Link is fast and frequent).
  8. No direct connection from Aurora Village or the northern part of Aurora to Shoreline Community College. The RapidRide E is very frequent, running every 7.5 minutes in the middle of the day. Riders can easily hop on the E, then take the bus directly across 160th, instead of waiting for a bus that winds back and forth to get to the college.
  9. No direct connection between parts of Aurora and Link. The proposed 46 and 334 run along a corridor served by the very fast and frequent E. Very few riders will bother waiting for their direct connection, and instead just take the E and transfer. In both cases the buses are going the opposite direction most people want to go, further hurting ridership. People generally don’t like going the wrong direction, especially if it would take a while (e. g. north up to 175th, east along 175th, then north up to 185th to the station before heading south).

Overall, with the exception of the first item, coverage is largely a wash. Some people have a longer walk to a bus stop, others are closer. Frequency is reduced, but in areas with relatively few riders. A few direct connections go away, but the extension of the 72 makes up for it. Not only does this give a lot more people a direct connection to the college, but it gives those same riders a connection to the RapidRide E. While there are drawbacks to this proposal, they are largely worth the cost savings, and it would mean better service elsewhere.

Robust Proposal

This proposal provides additional coverage, direct connections and frequency. Specifically, it:

  1. Covers the greater Hamlin Park/Briarcrest area (east of 15th NE) with the 335.
  2. Restores coverage for the Hillwood neighborhood (west of Aurora Village) with the 336.
  3. Covers 205th (south of Lake Ballinger) after all. The 333 could be timed with the 130 to provide good combined headway between Aurora Village and Mountlake Terrace.
  4. Extends the 334 (from Ballinger/North City) to Aurora and Shoreline Community College. This adds a direct connection to an important destination, while also giving lots of people a good connection to the RapidRide E.
  5. Individual routes are as infrequent as with the austere proposal, but the combined headways along 185th would be excellent. If timed properly, you would have 7.5 frequency connecting Aurora with North City (and the station). Some of the trips would still involve two transfers, but with fast and very frequent service along 185th and Aurora, this would make up for it.

There are a range of options here, and I would like to know what people think in the comments.