Pragmatism, Efficiency, and Who Shares

Atomic Taco (Flickr)

On Sunday, the Seattle Times wrote up ($) SDOT’s Employer Shared Transit Stop Pilot program, which started a week prior. It’s a good writeup, although transit nerds probably won’t learn too much they didn’t already know. From SDOT’s page:

The City of Seattle and King County Metro are collaborating with Seattle Children’s Hospital and Microsoft to conduct a six-month pilot that will allow these participating organizations’ employer-provided shuttles to temporarily share a select set of public transit stops with King County Metro buses. This pilot was carefully developed over the last two years. The pilot project will test the feasibility of allowing employer-provided shuttles to use public transit stops while minimizing impacts to public transit operations.

As someone who both cares a lot about public transit, and the space given to public transit, and also someone who uses an employer shuttle occasionally (not one in this pilot), I have a few reactions.

First, I applaud SDOT and Metro for spotting a growing trend, and proactively experimenting with a pilot program to get real-world experience in managing it. Rule changes are generally easy to reverse if they don’t pan out, and I’ll take data over endless process and waffle any day.

Second, I think there will be mixed operational results from the stops chosen (you can see a full map on the SDOT page). Some, like SB 15th Ave E @ Mercer, seldom see more than a bus every ten minutes, and an additional shuttle using the stop is unlikely to cause delays for public transit riders. Others, like SB Queen Anne @ Harrison, are very heavily trafficked. That traffic includes RapidRide D*, on which SDOT and Metro have spent a lot of money in the name of speed and reliability. A noticeable level of conflict between shuttles and transit in the peak period seems inevitable, and any resulting delays will undermine the effort and money spent on the RapidRide program.

Of course, this variety of stop profiles will yield more interesting data, and may have been an intentional part of the pilot’s stop choices, although SDOT doesn’t call it out as such.

Finally, I note the dead hand of America’s great cognitive bias in street space allocation: when a new actor arises and asks for street space, the first people whose interests are traded off are all those who don’t drive and park their own car in the public right of way. Particularly depressing is the suggestion quoted in the Times article, that “if more loading zones are freed up, officials eventually could change some of those loading zones to public parking.”

Curbside parking (as distinct from loading) is, in general, the least valuable use of space, on a busy thoroughfare in a dense neighborhood. If the primary motiviation for a permanent shared stop program is to eventually add a couple of dozen parking spaces to SDOT’s street parking inventory across the entire city, then that is a fatally worthless premise. If, on the other hand, the purpose is to make each street function better overall (e.g. can we please have a bike corral by the pilot stop at Ballard & Market?), and any negative feedback on transit conflicts is taken seriously, then this program may prove meritorious.

If you have your own scaldingly hot take on this pilot program, please share it with us in the comments, and then email it to

My email Q&A with SDOT, lightly edited, is after the jump.

* UPDATE: As pointed out in the comments, the D Line skips this one stop in Uptown. Nevertheless, it’s a busy stop for all the routes coming southbound out of Queen Anne, and SDOT and Metro have spent a chunk of money on making those routes faster and better, so I think the point mostly stands.

Continue reading “Pragmatism, Efficiency, and Who Shares”

Storm Warning for Friday and Saturday


Cliff Mass is sounding the alarm on his blog, about some pretty serious weather incoming from the Pacific:

Starting Thursday, we will enter a period of extraordinarily active weather with the potential for heavy rain, flooding, and a highly dangerous windstorm with the potential to be an historic event. The coastal waters and shoreline areas could well experience hurricane-force gusts, with a lesser but serious threat for strong winds over the interior. Keep in mind that there is still uncertainty in the forecasts, more so for the wind than the rain.

I have no more insight into the likely impact of these storms than the average STB reader, but disruption and delay to all modes of travel in Western Washington seems certain, and the Puget Sound Friday freeway commute, in particular, is probably something you’ll want to avoid if you can. On the coasts of Washington and Vancouver Island, rain will be torrential, and wind gusts may approach hurricane force, so nonessential travel anywhere near there should be avoided.

Keep an eye out for updates from the National Weather Service and local agencies (WSDOT, King County Metro, Sound Transit, Pierce Transit, Intercity Transit, Community Transit). My favorite reading in these situations is the detailed local synopsis put out four times daily by the NWS.

SDOT Proposes Pine St BAT Lane

pine st lane

The Seattle Department of Transportation is proposing to install six blocks of 24/7 bus lane, downtown, on Pine St, between 9th Ave and 3rd Ave. The proposed installation will mirror a similar installation on Pike St, between 2nd and 7th, completed last summer: It will be a painting and signage exercise in the right-hand curb lane, with turns permitted. If approved, the lane should be installed this fall. You can send comments on this proposal to

I don’t have much to say on this specific proposal, except “Yes, please do this last year.” Pike/Pine is the primary transit corridor for service between Westlake Station, the downtown core, and Capitol Hill; plus it serves more than half a dozen suburban commuter routes in the peak periods. Riders on these routes deserve all the relief from car traffic they can get. The opening of University Link next year will change the nature of Pike/Pine, making it an east-west oriented corridor, but by no means negating its importance to the transit network.

If this lane is installed as described, buses making the Pike/Pine loop will be have continuous lanes starting west of I-5, with just one problematic gap: One long block southbound on 2nd Ave. Buses here bog down terribly in the afternoon peak, although I’m not sure what can be done about this, given the eventual certainty that SDOT will (and should) extend the 2nd Ave cycletrack north along that block and into Belltown.

Perhaps, then the next area for attention should be the intersection of Pike and Boren, another rush-hour schedule killer. A well-executed BAT lane and queue jump could free buses from traffic, and get Pike St riders quickly across First Hill’s worst car sewer.

SDOT Proposes New Bus Lane, Pedestrian Signal for Ballard

The Seattle Department of Transportation has, at last, formally proposed a Ballard transit project I’ve been hearing rumors of for nearly a year: a northbound Business Access and Transit (BAT) lane for 15th Ave NW, between the Ballard Bridge and Market Street. This stretch of 15th Ave is one of its most congested sections, and it currently lacks any kind of transit priority. The new lane should bring about a noticeable improvement in transit travel times and reliability.

Ballard BAT lane

The project has, furthermore, been extended to include a major walkability upgrade: a new pedestrian signal at 52nd St. This half-mile of 15th is a six-lane car sewer comparable to Aurora, and while it is legal to cross at all of the intersections between 51st and 54th, in practice, a person would have to be insane to attempt any of those crossings when the road is busy. Today, 15th between Leary and Market is a wall to pedestrians and bicyclists, and this crossing will bisect that wall.

I have nothing but good things to say about the proposed work. The cost in dollars to restripe a road is minimal, and the street space being reallocated for transit is coming from a turn lane that almost no-one uses. SDOT is doing a great job of improving RapidRide D on a shoestring capital budget.

For pedestrians and bikes, this new signal will singlehandedly make 52nd the safest, lowest-stress way to cross 15th between the 58th St Greenway and the Interim Burke-Gilman trail (is it time for another Ballard Greenway route?). I’d argue this new striping will even improve life for drivers, who will have a less-stressful merge onto 15th from Leary.

My only regret is that the project will not involve any sidewalk work on 15th (other than at 52nd): the current sidewalks are broken, narrow and and inaccessible. Still, sidewalks are very expensive, and the prospects for this area to redevelop are good enough that it makes sense to wait and get new sidewalks for free.

Watch this space for more proposals (from SDOT) and ideas (from STB) on making the Elliott/15th corridor better for all users.

Spokane Cliffhanger!

Spokane Cliffhanger
Spokane Cliffhanger! Artistry by Oran.

Last night, the initial ballot counts dropped for the Spokane Transit Authority’s Proposition 1, to fund STA Moving Forward. Prop 1 is down around 900 votes out of about 70,000 — 49.4% yes / 50.6% no — with about 8,000 ballots left to count. I don’t have any further insight into the precinct by precinct numbers, but informed locals suggest it’s passing in the city, and losing outside:

I’ll update this post as more news comes in. Here’s hoping urban procrastinators come through!

UPDATE 12:45: A nice map from the Spokesman-Review showing the precinct-by-precinct results.

UPDATE 17:55: The SR reports that late ballots did not significantly alter the overall vote difference. The measure is now failing 49.5%-50.5%, and while some ballots remain to be counted, the measure has almost certainly failed at this point.

Spokane Moving Forward: A Coeur d’Alene Connection?

1928 Washington Railroad Map Excerpt
1928 Washington Railroad Map Excerpt

[This is the fourth and last in a series covering Spokane Moving Forward, the Spokane Transit Authority’s proposed ten-year plan to improve transit in the Spokane region, which will go to an areawide ballot tomorrow. Previously I discussed the proposed Central City Line, improvements for Cheney and the West Plains, and Core urban service in Spokane.]

In my first post about Spokane Moving Forward, I wrote of Spokane, “It’s the city for a huge geographic swath of the northern United States … the most populous urban area between Seattle and Minneapolis. Only Boise, population 208,000, and 350 miles to the south, comes close.” There was a time, though, when Spokane’s regional prominance was vested not only in the power of urban agglomeration, but in infrastructure: the railroad era. Before ubiquitous automobiles and paved roads, it was difficult to get far in northern Idaho or far-eastern Washington without going through Spokane.

The 1928 railroad map above, which captures the Washington rail network close to its apogee, tells the story. From Spokane, a knot of railways unraveled north up the grand valleys of the Columbia Mountains, strung west over the endless wheat country of the Columbia Plateau, and wove south into the myriad hills of the Palouse; but it was to the east, Coeur d’Alene, that the railways pointed like a bundle of arrows. The obtuse angle formed by Cheney, Spokane, and Coeur d’Alene has been the principal axis of urbanization and travel since the beginning of European settlement, and just like in Puget Sound, much of the pedestrian mobility we seek to enable today is merely an echo of that past.

With a population of about 45,000, about half the size of suburban Spokane Valley, Coeur d’Alene is the second-largest city within typical commute distance of Spokane. A sizable commuter population drives to the half-way city of Liberty Lake, the easternmost extent of today’s STA service, parks, and rides STA Route 174 express into the city. Conversely, as a lakeside resort town, Coeur d’Alene figures in the minds of Spokanites as a pleasant get-out-of-town day trip. There is therefore, considerable and longstanding interest on both sides of the state line, in an all-day interurban service that could connect Spokane and Coeur d’Alene.

Reality presents some fairly significant challenges to this idea. Any permanent service between Coeur d’Alene and and Spokane would require a financial partnership with Citylink, the tiny transit agency which provides hourly service to the towns east of the Idaho line. Such a partnership would require a major increase in Citylink’s budget, and it’s not yet clear where that money would come from. With an travel time of 35-40 minutes, a nonstop service would unavoidably have a high cost per passenger. An interurban service could reduce that cost and provide more connectivity with intermediate stops at Post Falls, Liberty Lake, and Spokane Valley, but each stop would likely require a deviation from the freeway, chipping away at the service’s speed and directness.

The Moving Forward ballot measure includes funds to operate a Spokane-Coeur d’Alene service on a pilot basis, although it will be several years before the pilot could take place, as the measure involves no debt financing, so in the early years, much of the revenue would be dedicated to capital projects. For all the challenges, there are good reasons to hope that such a pilot, if it happens, could eventually turn into a permanent feature: All the local governments involved, plus WSDOT, strongly support the idea, and like airport service, it’s an idea whose utility registers immediately, even to people who don’t habitually ride transit.

This concludes STB’s series on STA Moving Forward. The election is tomorrow. If you are voting in this election, get your ballot in as soon as possible; if you have friends or family who are voting, remind them!

Spokane Moving Forward: Division, Sprague and Core Urban Service


[This is the third in a series covering Spokane Moving Forward, the Spokane Transit Authority’s proposed ten-year plan to improve transit in the Spokane region, which will go to an areawide ballot on Tuesday. Previously I discussed the proposed Central City Line, and improvements for Cheney and the West Plains.]

Spokane’s two biggest transit corridors, Sprague and Division, will feel familiar to residents of Seattle or Tacoma: they are the old highways, just like Aurora or Pacific. Essays in the nascent craft of highway building circa 1930, these streets are wide, noisy and fast; but for much of their length they retain a street grid and a street wall (if not good sidewalks or safe crossing points), before transitioning to strip malls and box stores at the periphery. When 1970s freeways rendered* them obsolete as thoroughfares, people and businesses with money abandoned these streets to lower-income people, and the businesses, and the buses, which cater to them.

Connect Spokane, the Spokane Transit Authority’s long-term plan, identifies Sprague and Division, along with several other Spokane streets, as High Performance Transit corridors. STA’s HPT taxonomy lays out three types of HPT service (I described them in my last Moving Forward post, and you can see a complete map of the desired HPT network here), but essentially, in the medium term, the agency would like to get all urban HPT corridors up to a “lite BRT” service quality that’s something like King County’s RapidRide lines; in the long term, light rail or “heavy” BRT is contemplated for Sprague and Division.

The money required to achieve the full HPT network set forth in Connect Spokane is almost certainty not obtainable with the funding authority that remains available to STA under state law. Instead, for this ballot measure, STA has chosen three corridors to implement “HPT lite“: Division, Sprague, and Monroe-Regal, shown on the map above. A HPT lite treatment is a package of rider amenities, branding and reliability improvements, on a corridor that already meets, or is close to meeting, the frequency standards of the HPT network. Seattle riders, again, can think along the lines of RapidRide, although STA’s idea of rider amenity extends quite a bit beyond the bus stop, and includes building significant amounts of sidewalk in areas while have little or none — expensive and unsexy, but essential for the safety of riders.

Speaking only of service which can realistically compete with owning a (second) car — there are other, meritorious parts of Moving Forward that I won’t get to discuss — what the voters of Spokane will buy, if they pass this measure, is HPT lite radiating out of downtown on the major points of the compass; a flagship HPT line connecting the ridership centers of Spokane Community College, Gonzaga University, and downtown; an interurban HPT line connecting Cheney, West Plains, and downtown; and (non-HPT) frequent service to provide a couple of crucial crosstown connections, and radial service on the remaining points of the compass. A person who lives and works in Spokane (or Cheney) could get around for their daily needs on that network.

Finally, on Monday, I’ll discuss the most tentative, but most attention-grabbing idea in STA Moving Forward: a possible interurban connection between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene.

* I’m cheating a bit with Division: this is the current north-south highway. In the not-too-distant future, it will likely be replaced by the North Spokane Freeway.

Community Transit Joins the Real Time Party


Community Transit has joined the real time rider information party, although the data is as yet only available through their own website, not OneBusAway:

Customers can access BusFinder at on their computer or mobile device, or by calling Community Transit’s customer service phone line at (425) 353-7433 (RIDE) and selecting Option 1.

Mobile device users will be redirected to a mobile version of BusFinder. The mobile version is a web-based application, not an app that needs to be downloaded.

BusFinder works best by entering the bus stop number found at all Community Transit bus stops. Users can also enter a stop name, which is the primary street of the bus stop followed by the nearest cross street. The program is intuitive, so entering a primary street will create a list of options from which you can choose your stop.


Riders catching buses in King County should use the Map or Nearby Stops features to find their stop, as Community Transit stop numbers are not displayed on Metro bus stops. Once a stop is found, it can be saved in Favorites for future use.

CT Spokesman Martin Munguia tells me that publishing a real time feed for consumption by OneBusAway and other apps is on their radar, but as yet has no firm ETA; their team is focused on working out the kinks with their own site first. He also clarified that CT stops in King County transit centers all have CT stop numbers, and alluded unspecifically to “a couple of alternative solutions for King County stops that I hope will be implemented by this summer.”

UPDATE: Apparently, King County transit center signage does not include CT stop numbers, but  “We are working on a solution, vague as that may sound. There are options and we are in negotiation on the best and quickest to implement.”

I’m thrilled to see CT make this leap in usability. Real-time arrival data, on all but the highest-frequency routes (few of which really exist in Washington), is something which I can no longer function without, and I know I’m not the only one. Up-to-date confirmation that the bus is on its way is priceless to riders. I will say, though, that the real champagne moment for most riders will be when CT is plumbed into OneBusAway, the de facto virtual transit interface for Puget Sound.

I have questions out to the current OneBusAway maintainers at Sound Transit to see if any other agencies are in the pipeline, but I can separately confirm one: Spokane Transit will launch a public beta of their own real time service late this spring, with a public feed to follow shortly thereafter.

Once CT and STA are on OneBusAway, the five biggest bus agencies in the state will be on a single real time app — a huge measure of convenience for travelers. Next up: Sound Transit needs to get its rail services up to speed with its buses, C-TRAN needs to gets its own real time service (Next Ride) on OneBusAway, and Whatcom Transit needs to get itself a real-time service. I know the latter two can do it, because they’ve been beaten to the punch by smaller-but-scrappy Intercity Transit.

Seattlites: Phonebank for Spokane Transit

STA Bus in Browne's Addition
Phonebank for more of these.

Next Tuesday evening, Transportation Choices Coalition is running a phone bank in support of STA Moving Forward, the Spokane Transit Authority’s ballot measure to maintain and improve service throughout the Spokane region. As I wrote in March, Spokane is a real city, our state’s second largest, with lots of transit riders, and a well-run transit agency that’s full of smart, cost-effective ideas to grow ridership and improve mobility. STA, Spokane transit riders, and the Yes! for Spokane Buses campaign deserve your support.

TCC needs about seven more people on their phone banks that night. There will be pizza and beer. I plan to be there: That’s how much I want this to pass!

Where: Transportation Choices Coalition Office, 219 1st Ave S, Suite 420.
When: Tuesday, April 21st, 4-7:30 PM. (You don’t have to stay the whole time.)

You can optionally RSVP at this Facebook event.

Spokane Moving Forward: Cheney And West Plains

Map of STA Cheney/West Plains service
STA Cheney/West Plains Service

[This is the second in a promised series covering Spokane Moving Forward, the Spokane Transit Authority’s proposed ten-year plan to improve transit in the Spokane region, which will go to an areawide ballot in April. Previously I discussed the proposed Central City Line.]

16 miles southwest of Spokane lies Cheney, a town of about 10,000 permanent residents, one of the largest outlying population areas within the Spokane Transit Authority’s service area. Cheney would warrant some transit service, but not a great deal, were it not for the fact that it hosts the main campus of Eastern Washington University, the state’s third fourth largest university. With about 13,000 students, EWU swells the population of Cheney by about 7,000 when it is in session, with the balance commuters, mostly from Spokane.

Like college students almost everywhere, EWU students use transit in droves, and for more than just the commute. STA Route 66, the trunk route to Cheney, is STA’s third-highest ridership route, with nearly 2,600 weekday boardings — pretty impressive, for a service which only operates every half-hour in the off-peak — and is the only route to primarily use 60′ coaches. As you’d expect for such a productive service, it’s near the front of the line for improvement, if voters elect to fund STA Moving Forward at the ballot.

More after the jump. Continue reading “Spokane Moving Forward: Cheney And West Plains”

Agencies Working on Olive Way Freeway Station

Route 545's Detour in Capitol Hill
Route 545’s Detour in Capitol Hill

Two-and-a-half years ago, Zach concisely made the case for an idea that’s been kicking around the Seattle transit world for a decade or more:

Every now and then there is a simple fix to an existing inefficiency that improves transit access, decreases travel time, and costs very little. Such an opportunity exists at the Olive Way/Melrose Ave on-ramp to northbound I-5.

In a well-known story, in 2005 Anirudh Sahni successfully lobbied for a morning-only Capitol Hill stop for Sound Transit Route 545 at Bellevue/Olive, sparing mostly Microsoft commuters living on the Hill an unpleasant walk over I-5 to Olive/Terry. […] Made by 30 AM trips, the Bellevue/Olive deviation [adds] a minimum of 5 minutes to each AM trip. Simply adding a stop at Melrose/Olive/I-5, a mere shift of about 750 feet, would save 2-3 hours of cumulative delay every day on the 545.

In a recent turn of events, the kind with which all long-time STB authors are familiar, we heard via a recent offhand remark that an idea we’ve been shouting (seemingly into the void) for years is now under serious study by an alphabet soup of agencies. Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray:

The short answer about the Olive Way flyer stop is, yes, we’re looking at it. No decision has been made whether to go ahead with it and if we do, it won’t likely be before mid 2016. We’ve been looking into it as a way to shave about 5 min off the 545 trip, which would be the only route to use it. It would replace the stop at Bellevue and Olive. Right now the City, ST and WSDOT are talking about logistics and scale, but we’re a ways from having much more to say about it.

So, on the plus side, I’m thrilled that this excellent idea is under study: I hope the Olive Freeway Station gets built as soon as possible. My thanks to Sound Transit for taking the lead on this smart, cost-effective, rider-focused project. My only area of concern is the restricted scope of the study that Gray outlines: there is no good reason that only the 545 should serve this stop, rather every bus that goes past this stop should be considered as a candidate. Zach’s post contains a comprehensive list of 2012 routes that could have served this stop, and while it is now a little out of date, it does capture which points of the compass riders could head from this stop.

While I could see that there might be legibility or peak period capacity issues with having many routes serve this stop, at a minimum, the scope of this project should be extended to include service from ST 512. The 512 never uses the express lanes, so it always uses the Olive ramp, creating no legibility problems for riders. The 512 provides off-peak service for ST’s flagship Snohomish County corridor, I-5 north to Everett, and reliably carries full seated loads every day of the week, well into the evenings. The ST board has decided that BART-like rail is worth the cost on this corridor, and thus the comparatively negligible cost to figure out how to make this bus stop work for riders in the intervening seven years must surely also be justified.

Spokane Moving Forward: The Central City Line

central city line

[This is the first in a promised series covering Spokane Moving Forward, the Spokane Transit Authority’s proposed ten-year plan to improve transit in the Spokane region, which will go to an areawide ballot in April.]

Enter Spokane as a visitor, and the the first place you’re probably going is downtown, to the shops, businesses, or restaurants, or to the spectacular and rightfully well-known Riverfront Park. If you’re a tourist, and you’ve done your homework, you might head next to Browne’s addition, which is a place of delightful parks, restored Victorian mansions and boarding-houses, and small, but lively restaurants; a neighborhood which feels very like the historic streetcar suburbia of inner-east Portland.

Speaking of homework, if you’re neither a resident nor a tourist, where in Spokane are you probably going? Probably to school, perhaps at Gonzaga University, perhaps in the University District — a budding, multi-college effort to build an urban campus just to the east of downtown — or maybe at Spokane Community College. All these walkable city destinations lie like a string of pearls centered on downtown Spokane, and ask to be joined together by high-quality transit service. Fortunately, STA has an idea to provide just that.

The product of studies going back at least fifteen years, the Central City Line is a proposed five mile, east-west route, which would connect all of these destinations with electric transit, operating at high frequency (10-15 minutes) throughout its span of service. After an alternatives analysis which contemplated several kinds of vehicle, STA has narrowed the possibilities down to three: electric trolleybus on fixed overhead wires (just like Seattle); ultracapacitor buses which would recharge at fast-charging stations on the route; and dual mode trolleybus/battery operation.

Early concepts for this corridor placed its east end at the north edge of Gonzaga’s campus, but last July, as part of its preparation for applying for Federal Transit Administration money, the STA board chose a Locally Preferred Alternative which extends down Mission Ave to Spokane Community College. The rapid evolution of off-wire electric bus technology is probably crucial to the inclusion of Spokane Community College, as the extension down Mission to the Community College adds two miles to the original three-mile route, and entails crossing a freight railroad and a long road bridge, both of which would add complexity and cost to the project if it were done with overhead wire.

I don’t have much to say about this project beyond that it seems like a great idea, and I hope it gets built as soon as possible. My only minor gripes about it are (a) that its legibility in the city center will likely be compromised by downtown Spokane’s (totally counterproductive but seemingly unassailable) 1970s-era system of one-way streets, and (b) the neighborhood along Mission Ave, which surrounds the extension to SCC, is rather low density for a place that will be getting the best transit service for hundreds of miles around, and as far as I can tell, there’s no plan to rezone it.

You can read all about the Central City Line at its page on the Spokane Moving Forward website. The “Supportive Materials” section, in particular, contains almost all the information you could possibly want to know about the proposed alignment. Next post, we’ll talk about STA’s plans for the western inter-city corridor, along I-90 from Spokane to Cheney.

Spokane Transit: Why You Care

Downtown Spokane WA postcard
Downtown Spokane, in 1963. Flikr user Ethan.

As promised a few weeks ago, over the next week STB will have short series on Spokane Moving Forward, the Spokane Transit Authority’s ten-year plan to dramatically improve public transit in its service area. Voters in STA’s service area will vote on a 0.3% sales tax to fund the plan next month. We’ve written previously about Spokane’s transit history and present, and about last year’s Transit Plaza controversy.

First, though, I want to motivate you, average STB reader, and presumed west-sider: Why do you care about Spokane, when it’s seems — and, to be fair, kind of is — such a long way away? Here’s a few reasons:

  • It’s a real city, with a real urban core. Recent, high-quality, Creative Commons-licensed photography of downtown Spokane is sadly lacking, so you’ll have to take it from me, and the postcard up above, that downtown Spokane is endowed with a gorgeous, diverse collection of high rise buildings, from railroad era to modern.
  • It’s got a bunch of people in and around it. With around 209,000 residents in the city proper, it’s the second largest city in the state. (Tacoma is the other serious contender, with 198,000). Its metropolitan area extends east into northern Idaho, encompassing Coeur d’Alene, and about 600,000 people in total. It’s growing, and expected to continue growing.
  • It’s the city for a huge geographic swath of the northern United States. Spokane is the most populous urban area between Seattle and Minneapolis. (Only Boise, population 208,000, and 350 miles to the south, comes close). Like all real cities, the way it is experienced echoes far beyond its borders, because a critical mass of people have experienced it enough for it to feel familiar, making it a shared point of reference.
  • Its got lots of transit riders. Spokane Transit provided about 11 million rides last year, making it the fourth largest agency by ridership in the state (after King County Metro, Sound Transit, and Washington State Ferries) and its busiest routes would be solid routes in Seattle or King County. STA’s top three routes pull in 2,500-3,400 riders per weekday, which is about half of Seattle’s comparable routes (e.g. 6,600 on Route 5, Greenwood local) — a great showing for a city a third the size of Seattle.
  • Its got lots of transit voters. Spokane votes Democratic, and while in an ideal world, we’d have a smart bipartisan consensus in favor of moving people and goods — not just cars — transit at the state level is a Democratic-identified cause. The way we’re going to change Washington’s transportation trajectory to something more sustainable is to grow the number of pro-transit state legislators, and for that we need urban growth everywhere it can happen in the state, not just Puget Sound.

First up, because I know STBers love projects, I’ll discuss the proposed Central City Line. Subsequent posts will cover the West Plains Transit Center and service to Eastern Washington University in Cheney, possible service to Coeur d’Alene, and broad-based improvements to service throughout the area.

Finally, one personal note: I lived without a car in Seattle for four years, and didn’t visit Spokane until I bought a car. That was an omission I regret! Spokane is totally worth a weekend trip, and it’s a really short, cheap flight (or a much less convenient train ride) away. While weekend transit service levels today aren’t quite at the level of real convenience, weekdays are, and it’s totally doable without a car.

Jarrett Walker’s Network Design Class Comes to Seattle

Next month, noted transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker is bringing his firm’s Transit Network Design course to Seattle:

Transit Network Design: an Interactive Short Course is designed to give anyone a grasp of how network design works, so that they can form more confident and resilient opinions about transit proposals.

The course is ideal for people who interact with transit planning in their work but don’t necessarily do it themselves — including land use planners, urban designers, developers, traffic engineers, sustainability advocates, transit employees of all kinds, and people who work on transportation or urban policy generally. Advocates who want to be more realistic and effective will also find the course valuable, especially as a companion to my book Human Transit.

Jarrett’s firm consulted on Seattle’s previous Transit Master Plan, which first outlined the goal of a citywide frequent-service Urban Village Transit Network; on Spokane’s 1998 transit network redesign, which forms the basis of that city’s booming contemporary network; on Bellevue’s promising Transit Master Plan; and will work with King County Metro on its incipient long range planning process. If you regularly ride transit in Washington, you’ve almost certainly benefited, directly or indirectly, from the clarity of thought Jarrett’s work has injected into contemporary service planning.

Most recently, Jarrett’s contributions in Houston made national news, where he helped that city radically re-imagine its failing, vestigial transit network. The new network reflects both the land use and travel demand patterns of contemporary Houston, a very multipolar city, along with a modern understanding of how to design transit networks that can compete with driving — offering services that are frequent, direct, and reliable. If you want to go from reading about this stuff to really understanding it, taking this class is the fastest way.

The two-day class will be offered April 16th & 17th. I’ve taken it myself, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

ACTION ALERT: Write in Support of Director’s Rule 6-2015

If you’re a person who cares about improving housing affordability, and reducing legislated car-dependence, stop what you are doing, and send an email to, expressing support for the adoption of DPD’s proposed Directors Rule 6-2015.

This proposed rule change would create a sane definition of “frequent transit” near a proposed development, allowing transit service to be considered frequent if that service is provided by multiple routes with staggered schedules (e.g. Route 66 & 67 in the U-District), or if service is provided, in the same direction, at multiple separate stops within walking distance of the development.

It also clarifies the way frequent service is calculated, to vacate a flawed appeal ruling obtained last year by a West Seattle NIMBY group, which effectively prevented transit from ever being considered frequent if a single headway during the day was 16 minutes or more. Instead, only that hour with the substandard headway will not count towards the twelve hours of frequent service required.

You can be sure that DPD will be snowed under by messages from Lesser-Seattleites seeking to legislate their car ownership and lifestyle preferences onto the rest of us. They need to hear from people who chose to live car-free or car-lite, who want the right to make their own choices about housing, and who want the option to live car-free or car-lite not just in urban centers, but in the streetcar suburbia that comprises most of Seattle’s land mass.


Update on Metro’s TVM Trial

Ticket machine at 3rd & Pine.
Ticket machine at 3rd & Pine. Illustration SDOT. (The TVM is actually installed elsewhere).

A while ago, King County Metro installed a TVM in the Westlake area, as part of a trial project. I asked Metro for an update, and spokeswoman Metro Rochelle Ogershock kindly sent me this response:

The six-month pilot began in December and will continue through May. At the conclusion of the pilot, we’ll assess elements such as equipment performance, usage, potential benefits to bus schedules and how this TVM might fit with the overall redesign of Third Ave. before deciding whether to continue or expand the program. We also plan to periodically survey users to find out how useful they think the machine is. We estimate about ten percent of riders who board at this stop currently use cash to pay their fare.

Since the TVM was installed three months ago, approximately 400 tickets have been purchased. We have also noticed quite a few incomplete transactions, which suggest riders have been trying the machine out to see how it works. As time goes on, we would expect the ratio of completed transactions to cancelled transactions to increase.

Most people who have been buying tickets from the TVM have been using their credit or debit card to purchase their ticket (69%). This may indicate that the machine is attracting people who don’t have exact change for the bus, which can be a barrier to riding.

Based on some early surveying of usage, it appears that many who catch the bus at that location are not familiar with the machine and how it works. Those people who are familiar with the TVM find it convenient and easy to use.

As Metro and SDOT continue to work on the overall redesign of Third Ave, the use of TVMs will be need to be assessed before we know if or how they might fit in with the longer-term vision. The 30 percent design phase should be completed this fall. Also, the city’s outdoor advertising initiative will potentially introduce new street furniture and transit-supportive features. Once we know how the city proceeds late this year, we will be able to create a comprehensive approach for guiding future transit and pedestrian improvements.

You can look over the Third Ave. Transit Corridor Improvement site for more detail.

So, on the one hand, I’m very glad that Metro and SDOT are attempting to get away from on-board cash payment, especially in downtown Seattle. Metro deserves praise for running this pilot. On the other hand, 400 tickets over three months is about 4-5 tickets per day, which, given the passenger volumes at northbound 3rd & Pine, is pretty underwhelming. I hope Metro manages to find some way to get more purchases from this machine, and that the hitherto-low level of activity isn’t taken as prejudicial to the concept of off-board payment, which is essential to the long-term scalability of buses in downtown Seattle.

One obvious optimization that occurs to me, is to install a second machine at (or move this one to) the northbound RapidRide stop on Pike. Passengers who use the machine at this location will actually get the full benefit of off-board payment, which is the ability to board RapidRide at any door. Doubtless STB commenters will have other ideas.

No UW: The Other Reduced Weekday

Metro Route 31
Metro Route 31

One of the things I’ll appreciate about my bus service, after Prop 1’s purchases have taken effect, is that Reduced Weekday schedules, whereby Metro cancels an arbitrary-seeming selection of express routes, and peak period trips on the other downtown-oriented routes, will no longer exist in Seattle. Frank did a great job of covering the meltdown last Veterans Day, as stranded riders raged at Metro for the delays and overloads caused by those cancelled trips.

With the approval of the initial Prop 1 purchases, the vast majority of Prop 1’s revenue has been committed, but I want to point out a corner of the system, where, like with Reduced Weekday schedules, we are doing things that aren’t particularly rider friendly, and which could be improved by modest or incremental expenditures of Prop 1 money, should that become available.

On days when the University of Washington is not in session, Metro runs a “No UW” schedule, which affects about 15 routes countywide, six of them in Seattle (and eligible for Prop 1 money). Similar to Reduced Weekday, No UW schedules cancel a handful of trips in the peak periods of routes which serve UW. For the purposes of Metro scheduling, the UW is out of session for one large, contiguous block of time in the summer (June 15th-September 15th), a couple of short breaks (Christmas, Spring), and a smattering of minor weekday holidays.

Adjusting schedules over the summer break makes a great deal of sense. The UW is a huge ridership center, and the change in ridership with almost all the students gone for the summer will be significant.  Over three months, the remaining riders have plenty of time to adapt to the reduced schedule, and the savings will add up to something significant. The case for cancelling a few trips via footnotes on schedules on the few other days seems much more tenuous, when weighed against the complexity and irritation those cancellations create for riders.

Here’s how I see the No UW schedule breaking down by route, and here’s what I’d do if I had a little Prop 1 money to spend:

  • 31/32, 75: two trips cancelled each. The 31/32 together form a core, frequent crosstown, a service on which we should particularly strive for a good experience. The savings on these cancellations seem hardly worth the effort. Let’s just buy these trips back.
  • 48: 12 trips cancelled; 67: five trips cancelled. The 48 is among the highest-ridership routes in the county, and with the opening of University Link next year, the 67 corridor will become one of the utmost importance in NE Seattle. Other similarly-important routes which serve the U District (44, 70, 70-series) don’t observe the No UW reductions. I think it makes sense to buy these trips back: the extra buses will be no means be empty, and the additional frequency will encourage ridership on these key corridors.
  • 65, ten trips cancelled; 68, nine trips cancelled. Buying back these trips would be more of a stretch. These routes aren’t rock-star corridors in the way of the 48 or 67; they mostly serve residential areas that feed the UW, while downtown riders end up on expresses.

By my reckoning, there are 40 Prop 1-eligible trips on each No UW day, and about 15 No UW days (other than Summer) each year. This amounts to a fraction of the service Seattle purchased to fix the Reduced Weekday problem, which was 4,600 hours for 458 trips per day, 9 days per year. I estimate it would cost around 600 hours to buy back all the No UW service (other than Summer), or about 300 to buy back everything on the 31, 32, 48, 67 and 75.

While the intent of Reduced Weekday, to squeeze every last drop out of our Metro money, made sense in a context of austerity and cuts, in Seattle’s context of growing service levels and ridership, it had outlived its usefulness, and will not be missed. Likewise, I think it makes sense for Seattle to study the possibility of reducing the reductions of the No UW schedule. While No UW has not (to my knowledge) caused a meltdown a la Reduced Weekday, it adds complexity for minimal savings, which is something we should try to eliminate from our transit network.

Seattle Prop 1 Purchases Approved

26 Bus
Metro Route 26, by WhenEliseSings

As we mentioned on Twitter last night, both the Seattle City Council and King County Council yesterday approved Seattle’s initial purchase of bus service, utilizing Executive Constantine’s partnership framework and the revenue from November’s passage of Prop 1, a Seattle-only sales tax and $60 car tab fee. The details of Seattle’s purchases have not changed materially since David unpacked the details in this post.

Seattle has smartly chosen to spend its money on core service quality (improving reliability, addressing overcrowding, making schedules more consistent and comprehensible) and major frequency improvements on high-performing routes. In particular, I’m thrilled at the evening frequency improvements that will take effect in June, and I will undoubtedly be riding the bus more as a result of them.

Thanks to everyone who worked on, advocated for, and voted for this measure, which will make our city so much better.

Seattle’s Streetcar Fare Proposal is a Step Backwards

Transfer mockup via Oran
Transfer mockup via Oran

A week ago, Publicola’s Darren Davis invited his readers to submit “impassioned, prosy comments” on the Seattle Department of Transportation’s fare change proposal for the one, soon to be two, streetcar lines the department manages. Intrigued, I decided to take Darren up on his idea, and drill into the details of SDOT’s proposal, to see if there were any devils worth writing about. It turned out there were.

SDOT’s fare proposal has four central components:

  1. Harmonizing the streetcar fare with Link Light Rail, by reducing the adult fare by a quarter, and raising the youth/senior fare by a quarter.
  2. Implementing the ORCA LIFT program, a regional reduced fare for low-income adults.
  3. Implementing a new, streetcar-only day pass, available from streetcar ticket machines.
  4. Ceasing the acceptance of the paper transfers issued on King County Metro buses. Transfer credit will be available only when using ORCA.

(Currently, streetcar-only day passes exist, but are sold only in advance, to bulk purchasers. The existing day pass is pretty obscure: I didn’t even know that fare media existed despite regularly using and writing about transit for the 4.5 years I’ve lived here. This is the first time Seattle will be selling streetcar day passes from ticket machines on the street, and for all practical purposes, this will be the first time the public will be exposed to them.)

Parts (1) and (2) of SDOT’s proposal, harmonizing single-ride fares, are grand ideas, and I support their implementation wholeheartedly. They achieve the stated purpose of the streetcar fare change, which is to enhance regional integration of transit, and give transit riders a more predictable, comprehensible experience.

More after the jump. Continue reading “Seattle’s Streetcar Fare Proposal is a Step Backwards”