Decongestion Tolling for Downtown Seattle

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An afternoon peak toll on certain streets leading to Interstate 5 entrances (Mercer, Yale, Olive and James) would reduce chronic congestion at key chokepoints and allow the street grid to work better for all users. Luckily, this approach is both legally and technically feasible for the City of Seattle.

Seattle was the fastest growing large city in the US in 2013, and South Lake Union has rapidly transformed from a low-rise warehouse district to a serious job center rivaling downtown.  Transportation capacity has not kept up.  Mercer Street has been a mess for decades, but now the Dexter disaster, the Westlake wrangle and the Amazon crush also snarl peak hour traffic and delay bus trips for dozens of minutes.  And construction in SLU isn’t finished yet: more buildings, workers and parking spots (!) are on the way.

Transportation planning usually focuses on the capacity of a single road, but the auto transport system is actually a complex network of linked components:

  • Parking capacity
  • Local street and intersection capacity
  • Freeway onramp capacity
  • Freeway capacity

Seattle Toll Points2The conventional American traffic engineering solution is to increase the capacity of the limiting component.  In downtown Seattle and SLU, freeway capacity and particularly freeway onramp capacity are the bottlenecks in the network.  Downtown streets become gridlocked, not due to massive traffic volumes, but due to cars queuing to enter I-5.  The gridlock delays all road users in the area, including transit riders on routes unrelated to I-5, such as Metro Transit routes 26, 28, 40, 70, 8, 3 and 4 and the SLU streetcar.  But there will be no new I-5 onramps or traffic lanes on downtown streets: there is physically no room.  So is this congestion solvable?  Yes, but only through a different mindset.

A constrained traffic planning approach is to reduce the number of cars accessing I-5 from downtown, to match the capacity of the onramps and feeder streets.  Marginally reducing the number of cars queuing for I-5 access via a toll, at the right price, would allow the street network to work for everyone.

Technically Feasible

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ACTION ALERT: Fare Integrate the Seattle Center Monorail

The 10 year concession agreement for operation of the Seattle Center Monorail will be discussed at this Tuesday’s meeting of the Seattle City Council Parks, Center, Libraries and Equity Committee. Thanks to commenter Ricky for pointing out this opportunity to comment on monorail operations. The City has already received a Request for Proposal from the current operator, Seattle Monorail Services, which basically continues the status quo.  If you are unable to attend the Council Committee meeting on Tuesday, December 2nd at 9:30 a.m in the Seattle City Council Chambers, you may send comments to the Seattle City Council members on the committee: Jean Godden, Bruce Harrell, Tom Rasmussen and Kshama Sawant (alternate).

The Seattle Center Monorail is a publicly-owned asset operated for private profit (of which the City receives a cut). The monorail does not accept Orca cards or Puget passes; it is cash only. Due to these fare policies it is generally ignored by local residents and workers. An amendment to the legislation authorizing the concession agreement could require that the private operator install payment readers for Orca cards and accept Puget Passes, similar to the City-owned Seattle Streetcar. As a revenue offset, cash fares could be raised significantly (San Francisco charges a $6 cash fare for cable cars). The Seattle DOT budget could be used to offset any remaining revenue loss due to accepting passes, just as it is used to subsidize streetcar operations. The table below summarizes the dissimilar fare policies of the monorail and the Seattle Streetcar, also owned by the City of Seattle.

Seattle Center Monorail

Seattle Streetcar

Regular Cash Fare

$2.25

$2.50

Youth Cash Fare

$1.00 (age 5 – 12)

$1.25 (age 6 – 17)

Senior/Disabled Cash Fare

$1.00

$0.75

Orca Readers

No

Yes

Accept Puget Pass

No ($45/month pass available)

Yes

The monorail is Seattle’s most underappreciated grade-separated rail asset. It travels between Westlake Center to the Seattle Center grounds in 2 minutes at 10 minute frequencies, all day and evening long. Yet tens of thousands of residents daily ride the myriad of surface buses between downtown and Mercer Street, taking at least 10 and occasionally as much as 30 minutes to traverse this short distance. Why? One big reason is the lack of fare integration. Monorail fare integration is a transit best practice that would greatly improve mobility in the area.

10 Ways King County Metro is Better than Ever

We shouldn’t lose sight of many ways King County Metro service has improved in the past several years.  It is easy to do so in the midst of the constant financial struggles, plans for service cuts and measures to shore up funding (Plans A, B, C and now D) that dominate the news lately.  This post catalogs 10 improvements that Metro has introduced over the past years – in case you are new or forgot how it used to be.

I began riding Metro buses around 15 years ago, and for many of those years catching a bus meant pulling out your trusty printed schedule, seeing when the next 30-minute frequency bus was scheduled, walking to the stop at the appropriate time, waiting 0 to 10 minutes for arrival (it was impossible to know when the bus would actually arrive), instinctively knowing whether to pay upon boarding (cash, paper ticket or flash pass ready) or later when exiting, after watching the surroundings carefully to know when I had arrived. Some people in some places still travel this way on transit, but Metro has provided lots of better options.

The top 10 Metro improvements begin after the jump.

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Yes for Transit Campaign Kickoff Events this Week

Yes for BusesThe Yes for Transit campaign in support of this November’s Seattle Transit Proposition No. 1 is holding two volunteer events this week.  The campaign kickoff event is on Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m. at Fado Irish Pub and, for those who can’t attend, the Transportation Choices Coalition is hosting a campaign volunteer happy hour at their office today at 4:30 p.m.

David Lawson covered the funding measure here earlier, but in short, it will protect King County Metro bus routes in Seattle from proposed service cuts by raising an estimated $45 million per year.  The funding sources are the same as in the failed countywide proposition earlier this year: replace the expiring $20 CRC annual vehicle fee with a $60 vehicle fee and increase the sales tax rate by 0.1%.

At both events transit supporters can learn about the campaign, donate and sign up as a volunteer.  It may be exhausting to gear up for yet another campaign to save buses, but it is critical to avoid the devastating cuts Metro has planned for 2015.  Seattle-only transportation measures have failed with voters in the past, so advocates should not be overconfident.

About Wednesday’s kickoff Rob Johnson of the Transportation Choices Coalition says:

Please join Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, Transportation Choices and fellow Seattle transit supporters to celebrate the kick off of this important campaign!

There will be beverages to drink, appetizers to enjoy, and plans to be made to keep our transit system moving. And of course, invite your friends!

Details:

What:        TCC Volunteer Happy Hour
When:       Tuesday, September 16 at 4:30 p.m.
Where:     Transportation Choices Coalition, 219 1st Ave S., Suite 420, Seattle WA 98104

What:       Yes for Transit Campaign Kickoff
When:       Wednesday, September 17 from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m.
Where:     Fado Irish Pub, 801 1st Ave S., Seattle WA 98104

Airport Transit Rankings – How Does Link Stack Up?

Link at SeaTac/Airport Station

Arriving at an unfamiliar airport, you see multitudes of signs directing you towards taxis, shuttles and public transit.  So many questions arise: Which should you take?  Do I have enough time to take transit?  The answers to these questions vary widely depending on the airport.  There is a lively and valuable debate over the priority, value and social equity of airport transit links.  However, this post is from the point of view of a traveler, ranking the transport options between the world’s 50 largest airports and their central city by comparing the best transit alternative to a taxi.  After traveling a fair amount in the past few years, I wanted to compare transit outcomes for travelers and identify the best practices.

Airport Transit Graph

Transit Service Type Transit Time Penalty* (Minutes) Average Frequency (Minutes)
Airport Express Rail 3 17
Subway/Metro 15 8
Light Rail 16 11
Regional Rail 18 24
Seattle (Link) 21 10
Express Bus 25 32
Bus 50 32
Multi-modal 53 17

(*) Time penalty over taxi.  Transit time accounts for waiting and transferring time.

The total travel time required to use airport transit is compared to the uncongested midday travel time of a taxi.  Congested taxi travel times were used for some notoriously clogged cities, such as Jakarta and New York.   The transit time is based on a traveler arriving at the airport (the largest international terminal, to be precise) in midday, and waiting one-half the vehicle frequency for the next ride.  The same method is used to estimate time for any transfers, including any shuttles required to access the transit station.

Seattle offers Sound Transit Link light rail service between Sea-Tac Airport and downtown Seattle.  It performs in the middle of the pack (31st out of 50) on the transit time penalty, but much better on frequency (tied for 10th out of 50).  Link is in the ball park for light rail airport service, although a bit on the slow side compared to the taxi alternative.   Light rail and subway systems can offer much better frequencies than the other types of airport transit because they pool demand from a variety of high-demand, all-day sources.  As an extra bonus, although not accounted for in the rankings, a variety of destinations in the metro area can be reached as frequently from the airport as downtown.  Dedicated airport transit services, even at the largest airports, don’t generate sufficient ridership for sub-10 minute frequencies.  In that aspect, Seattle is blessed that its airport is along a natural corridor of transit demand.

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