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)

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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.

Seattle steps up its affordable housing efforts

Sydney Brownstone in the Seattle Times:

This year, Seattle will invest the most it ever has in affordable housing, a total of $110 million, Mayor Jenny Durkan said Monday.

All of that funding will go toward the construction and redevelopment of new units, the most ever generated through Seattle investments in a single year – 1,944 in full – across the city.

Truly good news to see the city step up its investment like this. Check out the Mayor’s blog post for more about the funded projects.

Thanks, Seattle voters! There are many reasons to be pessimistic about our housing situation but the city’s ability to fund, permit, and construct new affordable multifamily housing is a bright spot. Imagine what would be possible if the federal government got back into the housing game, perhaps by passing Rep. Ilhan Omar’s ambitious $1T housing bill .

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the city seems stuck in a vicious cycle:

Nonprofit developer Mercy Housing relied on federal, state and city financing to build the project at a cost of nearly $500,000 per unit. The per unit price would have been far higher if the city hadn’t donated the land. The cost to build one new apartment or condo unit in San Francisco today — whether market-rate or affordable — tops $700,000, nearly triple what it cost about 10 years ago.

Construction costs are rising, land values are increasing, and construction workers can’t afford to live in the city, so costs rise even more.

SDOT and Metro have some big ideas for Route 44

Source: SDOT

Last election cycle, virtually every city council candidate knew enough about Seattle transit to say they supported “better east-west connections.” You don’t have to ride the bus very much to know that getting across town can be a slog. Promising to fix it turns out to be a popular idea.

At a series of open houses last week, SDOT, in partnership with King County Metro, previewed Level 1 concepts for one of the most important of the east-west routes in the city: the 44. The route, which runs from Ballard to the University District, had been initially proposed as RapidRide but then de-scoped to “multimodal improvements” when the Move Seattle Levy was reset.

While the RapidRide amenities and branding are nice to have, the most important things are the speed and mobility improvements. With these initial concepts – which are drafts for discussion purposes – SDOT is trying to get creative in making east-west transit faster.

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Book Review: Saving America’s Cities

I recently followed the recommendation of a bunch of folks on Twitter and picked up Lizabeth Cohen’s Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age. It’s fairly weeds-y, and I’ll admit that I skimmed a few sections here and there.  But overall I was glad to read a book about urban renewal that goes beyond the simple Jane Jacobs / Robert Moses dichotomy to which we’ve become so accustomed.

The book follows Ed Logue, a New Deal-era labor organizer and lawyer who, after World War II, leads redevelopment efforts in New Haven, Boston, and New York between the 1960s and 1980s, successively.  The book tells the story of urban renewal through Logue’s career, as he learns from his mistakes in one city and makes new ones in the next one, all fueled by Great-Society-era federal largesse and modernist hubris. 

In New Haven, he tries to bring the suburbs to the city with the Chapel Square Mall, a bog-standard renewal project that raises the ire of local merchants and bulldozes mostly low-income minority neighborhoods.  While you can understand the city’s plight — tax bases and federal dollars are fleeing to the suburbs, while the remaining businesses like Yale are tax exempt — the approach here is more machete than scalpel.

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Policy choices matter

Paxtyn Merten, Puget Sound Business Journal [$]:

Since moving entirely into downtown Seattle’s F5 Tower in August, workers have capitalized on those benefits. Phillips said drive-alone rates among employees are just under 25 percent, down from 55 percent at the former headquarters.

About 29 percent drive and park vehicles, which F5 partially subsidizes within the tower, though there’s only 322 parking stalls in the tower for F5’s 1,500 headquarters employees. When the neighboring Rainier Club hosts events, 60 of those spots disappear as well, Phillips said.

“There’s a long waitlist for the garage because we had more parking at Elliott,” Phillips said. “We see that waitlist get smaller and smaller and smaller. The method to the madness of the waitlist is people will rethink, ‘Why not try the bus? Why not try light rail?’”

For context, 25% is the average drive-alone rate for all of downtown, per Commute Seattle’s mode split survey. For the commercial core, the drive-alone rate is actually lower, at 15%.

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News Roundup: Protected

Sound Transit Double Deckers

This is an open thread