Transit app estimates local transit ridership decline

The people behind Transit, one of the more popular trip planning apps, have put together an estimate on how Covid-19 has affected every transit agency they track. Here are the figures for the Puget Sound.

The company says that the percentage declines are approximated based on previous years’ app usage, since they don’t have actual ridership data. Since these are all percentage declines against “normal”, you don’t see the typical weekend drop-offs. Still, some trends are obvious, such as the probably-shoulda-been-canceled Sounders home game on March 1.

Metro has also updated its own ridership measures, showing a continued decline over the month. There are now an average of 150,000 weekday riders, down from 400,000.

In related news, here is a big list of all local agencies, including many community-based shuttle services, that have had service impacts as a result of Covid-19.

Update 8:55am: Metro has an online tool for you to check whether or not a specific trip is cancelled.

Bus lane cams finally pass the legislature

Heidi Groover, The Seattle Times:

The bill would allow a pilot program for the new cameras, to run through mid-2023. Seattle could use the cameras to detect drivers who stop in an intersection or crosswalk, drive in a transit-only lane or stop or travel in a restricted lane.

The cameras would be allowed in limited locations in and near downtown and on arterials that connect to certain roads into downtown. That would include the West Seattle Bridge, Aurora Avenue and Avalon Way, Fitzgibbon said. Cameras for enforcement of crosswalks and intersections will only be allowed at 20 intersections “where the city would most like to address safety concerns,” according to the bill.

See our previous coverage.

It’s amazing that it took so long and that the legislature felt the need to put so many restrictions on the city, but kudos to the legislators and advocates who got this one over the finish line. Here are links to Rep. Fitzgibbon’s house bill and Sen. Liias’ Senate version so you can see the sponsors and the roll call votes.

Teleworking, solo driving rise in latest Commute Seattle report, transit use drops

Commute Seattle has released their 2019 mode split survey, and it shows a slightly higher percentage of single occupancy vehicle (SOV) drivers compared to last year, while remote work increased substantially, despite the fact that the survey was conducted well in advance of the 2020 Coronavirus semi-quarantine or Connect 2020. Transit use unfortunately decreased for the first time, on a percentage basis.

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The case of the missing Montlake queue jump

Google Street View from 2017 and 2019. It’s like that Megatouch game they had at all the bars back before everyone got cell phones.

Like many cross-lake commuters, I often find myself waiting for a connection on the Montlake Boulevard concrete island where Eastbound SR-520 buses pick up before traversing the lake. My favorite activity while stranded on this island is to refresh One Bus Away and watch the bus schedules go to hell as the U-district jams up in the morning. When I tire of that, my second favorite activity is to glare at the single-occupancy vehicles (SOVs) who are banned from turning right but do so anyway.

The intersection is designed so that cars entering 520 use a slip lane behind the bus stop, leaving only buses and HOVs to approach the light at the stop and turn right onto an HOV-only lane on the freeway onramp. It’s a clever design that essentially creates a bus queue jump without needing a separate turn pocket, but it only works if SOVs aren’t allowed to turn right at the light.

Except, it turns out they are now. Kinda.

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Route 44 improvements are refined at 30% design

At a presentation (PDF) to the Transit Advisory Board, Seattle DOT identified a list of Route 44 improvements that would be carried into 30% design. It’s encouraging to see that most of the big stuff, like the bus (BAT) lanes and signal priority, advanced.

The initial ideas were just “concepts” so while we shouldn’t expect everything to advance through the design phase. At the same time, death-by-1000-cuts is usually how these projects die. So what got cut?

One somewhat major idea was a set of left turn restrictions, which would have presumably made buses go faster. The second was an interesting idea to close off Wallingford Ave N at 45th, and create a mini park, which was pretty neat but which I’m sure raised the eyebrows of Wallingford QFC shopper-drivers.

Probably not happening

SDOT project manager Janet Mayer told me that the concepts were for reasons including “public feedback, infeasibility, lack of transit benefit, or lack of support from SDOT Traffic Operations or partner agencies.”

She did add that stop removals at I-5 will “most likely” be implemented by Metro as part of a restructure and that the reroute to 43rd in the U-district is underway right now as part of the trolley project there.

AAA is bringing car sharing back to Seattle

GIG vehicles (via company blog)

Monica Nickelsburg, Geekwire:

AAA is expanding its GIG Car Share service beyond the San Francisco Bay Area to Seattle. GIG will begin rolling out cars in Seattle this April and its full fleet of 250 Toyota Priuses will be deployed in the city by May.

Small Toyota Prius C cars seem like a much more sensible choice for car sharing than full-size German sedans and SUVs. Perhaps that will hopefully give GIG a better shot at amortizing the costs.

That said, a “full fleet” 250 cars is not that many (Car2Go and ShareNow had 750 each), so it’ll be interesting to see how GIG keeps them in use and not semi-abandoned in the far-reaches of the city, while maintaining equity.

Three fundamental challenges to the car share model remain: (1) Uber/Lyft are underpriced, (2) the addressable market is small, and (3) finding a parking spot at your destination is annoying. In addition, the bifurcated Seattle market presents a particular challenge: if you live in an urban village, you likely have good transit service already. If you live outside an urban village, parking is abundant and easy so why bother?

To be sure, GIG can make progress on some of these (apparently they have dedicated parking at BART stations), but others require a rethink from a city level.

(Oh, and don’t take the cars out of cell phone range).

Metro seeks feedback for RapidRide R, to replace Route 7

Photo via Metro

Metro has a new online open house up for Ranier Avenue RapidRide, now known as RapidRide R. The standard RapidRide treatment of off-board payment, new bus shelters and stop consolidation are being proposed. Additionally, the new route would extend the trolley wire to terminate the line at Rainier Beach Link Station, an improvement we suggested in 2014.

You can also view feedback from the last open house, which we wrote about here.

Note that this is an open house for Rainier RapidRide, which opens in 2024. In the interim, SDOT is paving the way (literally) with a Vision Zero and a bus corridor improvement project, which will wrap up in 2022.

Several stops would be consolidated, meaning an average of 3.3 stops per mile instead of just over 4 today, if my napkin math is right. That’s still well below the 1-2 stops per mile of the fastest BRT systems, but appropriate given the ridership characteristics of the 7 today.

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Sound Transit presents initial fare enforcement report

Proof of payment sticker at a train station
Credit: Oran Viriyincy

Link’s 2009 opening inaugurated the proof-of-payment system and introduced the Puget Sound to the concept of the Fare Enforcement Officer.  Over the last decade, as POP and FEOs have expanded to RapidRide and Link’s ridership has exploded, FEOs have come under much scrutiny. Following King County Metro’s 2018 examination of fare policy, Sound Transit has spent much of 2019 doing its own investigation.

Last week, Sound Transit staff presented a preliminary report on fare enforcement to the board’s executive committee.  Over the past year, the staff have been collecting feedback using three methods: a self-selected online survey, a series of rider surveys, and focus groups designed to seek out underrepresented communities.  The committee seemed receptive to major changes, and seemingly no one wanted to defend the current system of one warning then $124 fine.  (At least you don’t have to go to Shoreline any more to pay it.)

The report showed, unsurprisingly, those most likely to be unable to provide proof of payment tended to have incomes below $50,000/year. More surprisingly, the vast majority of those surveyed – even those who didn’t have a fare – said the FEOs were “professional” and “approached every rider near me.”  This contrasts with some of the community focus group findings, where “participants perceived fare enforcement as being racially biased and targeting youth.”

The main reasons for not paying fares, across income groups, however, have more to do with the complexities of the ORCA system than malicious intent.

Data from the rider survey

There are several features of the current system that make it customer-hostile: the 24 hour delay before fares are loaded on your card, the lack of a customer service office in Westlake, the lack of ticket machines in general. These and many more are detailed in the report, along with some sensible reforms like re-prioritizing FEOs to focus on customer service or not doing enforcement on the first day of school. `

The committee wanted more data and more understanding of the current fines: how many are collected, how much money is spent in the court system, and more. As always, though, there’s a tradeoff between moving quickly and being thorough. We’ll see how quickly the agency moves to make changes.

The entire report is available online; the 4-page executive summary is a concise overview of the methods and findings if you’re interested in learning more. If you have feedback for the agency, they will be hosting a public meeting, sponsored by Transit Riders Union and others, at El Centro in Beacon Hill next Wednesday February 19th.

News roundup: soggy

RapidRide J simulation (SDOT)

This is an open thread.

More scrutiny for SDOT and Madison BRT

Broadway/Madison (SounderBruce)

Heidi Groover and Daniel Beekman with a good scoop in The Seattle Times:

But the draft assessment focused on SDOT’s management makes the broader claim that the department is not yet prepared to manage a major FTA-funded construction project.

PMA Consultants concluded that SDOT “does not yet have the management capacity and capability to implement an FTA-funded major capital program.”

Seattle has received federal transportation dollars for road projects like the Lander Street overpass and Mercer Street rebuild. But the city has in recent years also sought federal funds for several ambitious transit projects.

SDOT had previously revealed that they were pushing the start date back to 2023 per the FTA’s recommendation, but hadn’t given more details. More consultants are being hired to help with oversight.

One striking thing looking at the project’s org chart is how many consultants are already involved. I count 12 separate firms. On one hand, over-reliance on consultants can make it difficult for an agency to develop in-house expertise. On the other, if it takes this many years to build a single BRT line and we don’t know if we’re going to build any more BRT lines because we don’t know if another ballot measure will pass, I’m not sure there’s a better alternative.

SDOT’s expansion over the last decade or so from primarily road maintenance to more ambitious multimodal capital projects has been uneven. I would have thought that by now we’d have reached the point where building transit infrastructure is a more routine affair.

The fight over bus lane enforcement is about cultural norms

Cars blocking crosswalk — still shot from Rooted in Rights video

In the past few years, we’ve seen a rise in “preemption” laws, whereby conservative states try to clip the wings of their liberal cities.  Examples in the Trump era include banning cities from increasing their minimum wage or acting as immigrant “sanctuary cities.”  Of the national preemption laws tracked by the progressive Partnership for Working Families, Washington State only bans rent control (and even that one is up for debate right now).  

Preemption is not inherently bad — federal preemption is an important part of the constitution! — but many of these bills simply seek to impose Republican cultural norms on Democratic cities, like removing voting rights or preventing firearm bans. While Washington does relatively little of this kind of preemption, the fight over HB1793 – automatic bus lane enforcement – shows that the desire to impose cultural norms is alive and well. 

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Metro picks New Flyer for big electric bus purchase

With the debate about full electrification timetables out of the way, Metro is moving ahead with its plans for ordering 120 battery buses this year:

In 2017, Constantine and Metro General Manager Rob Gannon called on the industry to invest more in battery-electric options, including the creation of coaches that could travel farther and handle the varying terrain requirements of the region.

New Flyer, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada with four manufacturing plants in the U.S., stepped up to the challenge, producing both a 40-foot and 60-foot battery-electric bus that met Metro’s specifications and timeline needs. These long-range battery-electric buses can travel approximately 140 miles on a single charge. The 11 existing short-range battery-electric buses in Metro’s fleet are 40 feet long and can travel 23 miles before requiring a 10-minute charge.

Metro announced the vision of buying 120 electric buses back in 2017. At the time, Proterra seemed to be in the lead (Metro operates a few Proterra buses on the Eastside) but New Flyer – which provides 60′ articulated coaches for LA Metro – seems to have won the bake off.

Buses will be run out of a temporary base while Metro brings online a permanent electric base.

This is all good news, of course, but it still saddens me that we seem to have stalled out on running new trolley wire in this city. Trolleys have their quirks, for sure, but they don’t require heavy batteries strapped to them and can climb hills quite well.

Protecting bus lanes

Photo collage by CMAP

Automated bus lane enforcement may have died in the state legislature, but that’s no reason the city can’t get creative when it comes to enforcing bus lanes.  

While true grade separation is the holy grail of reliable transit, an at-grade bus lanes can be protected much like a bike lane.  

Chicago’s regional planning agency collected the above collage of protected bus lanes around the world.  In each, the bus lanes is elevated or protected from general traffic, making it difficult for cars to enter.  

Meanwhile New York City’s DOT tweeted out an image of one recently:

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Use the Link timetables during Connect 2020

If you’ve gotten used to just waltzing up to the train station and waiting for the next train, the 12-minute headways during Connect 2020 may be something of a shock. Fortunately Sound Transit has published a Connect 2020 timetable, so you can plan ahead.

You can view the PDF or just go to your favorite mapping app (Google Maps, One Bus Away, Transit, etc.) to see the timetable in action.

Also, surface transit is an option for those wishing to avoid the transfer dance and head directly to SODO station

Fares, faregates and fare enforcement

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

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

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

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

Indeed.

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Bus lane / queue jump coming to 3rd and Virginia

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

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

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

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