Seattle Synchronizes Downtown Traffic Lights

According to the P-I, Seattle has synchronized its downtown traffic lights:

Seattle officials said Wednesday that they’ve synchronized signals at 258 downtown intersections for the first time in more than two decades and promised quicker, less polluting trips through the central business district will result.

Drivers will still encounter red lights between Jackson Street, Denny Way, Boren Avenue and Elliott Bay, but the city predicted a 12 percent reduction in stops and 40 percent shorter travel times through the 1.25-mile long district.


The new downtown signal changes will slightly favor north-south travel during rush hours, with 55 percent of traffic cycle time open to traffic in those directions and 45 percent regulating east-west travel, Sheridan said. The cycles also can be changed to reflect events at Seattle Center and the sports stadiums.

I’ve heard arguments against synchronized traffic lights, as synchronized signals tend to encourage faster driving — which makes walkability and pedestrian safety a problem. However, no one could possibly speed through our downtown, so this sounds like a win for everyone. Hopefully buses will see a nice speed increase as well.

Talking Transportation for King County

Over a thousand residents of King County met Monday night for the first Countywide Community Forum. Sponsored by the founder of Dick’s, these forums provide a way for the King County auditor to hear directly from resident of King County on matters of pressing importance. The first forum topic? Why, of course, transportation in this region.

I attended a session on Capitol Hill, where I met Dave and Kristen. Dave, early 30s, works for a non-profit that educates kids about climate change and Kristen, mid-20’s, is a property manager. I biked to the co-op where the meeting was being hosted, so you can guess the politics of the three of us.

First, we watched a ten minute video that actually discussed the major transportation issues of the day in an intelligent yet expansive view — nearly all viewpoints were represented. Those who spoke during the video were Ron Sims, King County Executive; Tim Gould, of the local Sierra Club; Julia Patterson, Sound Transit board member and King County Councilmember; Bruce Agnew, of the Discovery Institute; and Kemper Freeman, Jr., the owner Bellevue Square. The only one who said that we shouldn’t increase funding for transit was Freeman.

Not very strongly addressed in the video but mentioned in accompanying letters is the debate between bus rapid transit and light rail. Ron Sims, who came across as very pro-transit in the video, wrote:

For us in our region, investments in bus rapid transit, or BRT, will do far more to alleviate congestion across the SR-520 and I-90 bridges than light rail. […] Plus, according to King County’s carbon modeling, light rail across our bridges would actually create more congestion problems than it solves, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and adding more gridlock.

To which Joni Earl, CEO of Sound Transit, responded to in her letter (while Earl’s letter was distributed with all of those who appeared in the video, she was the only one who wasn’t in the video itself):

The only way to operate buses with speeds, frequencies, and reliability approaching rail is through (1) capital investments in dedicated bus right-of-ways that rival the cost of rail and/or (2) restrictions of general purpose traffic on both freeways and surface streets. And buses entail higher operations costs: it takes 10 bus drivers to carry the capacity of one light rail train. In our estimation, while rail by itself cannot do the whole job, buses by themselves are not efficient or cost-effective in the long term as a sole solution for the future.

But I realized something when talking to Dave and Kristen: these shots across the bow went unnoticed to these citizens who aren’t transit geeks. Indeed, neither knew that there is a raging BRT versus light rail debate. Both seemed to accept at face value that I said light rail was better for major corridors — which may show that a political discussion on Capitol Hill will probably never come down to taxes. The debate to them was about whether we should invest more in transit, in general, or more in roads, in general.

Kristen admitted that she had come mostly to learn about the issue, but described herself as someone who drives everywhere. She has a perception that current buses are slow, unsafe (especially for young women), and are simply impractical for many of her travels to places such as Renton. And is she wrong? Many of us put up with buses because the economics work in our favor or because the alternative is worse, but Kristen didn’t feel the need yet to put up with anything. Like many of our society, living without a car just isn’t an option. And, furthermore, the bus is to be avoided at all costs.

Keep in mind, Kristen isn’t “bad” or on the wrong side of the fence at all; she just happens to live in a metropolitan area built around the personal automobile. Like most of King County, she’s all for funding public transit without ever planning on using it. She believes that most of our county doesn’t expect a short-term solution to congestion and the reliability of transit — she believes that people are eager to invest because they understand that investment is the only way to begin to address these problems.

Dave was really nice, and spent a lot of the time agreeing with each of us! He spoke about land-use that encourages dense, walkable communities.

In an unexpected twist, I heard the first pro-BRT argument that resonated with me in a long time. Bruce Agnew mentioned in the video that light rail is along Sound Transit’s identified corridors is likely the best solution for those areas, but in the suburbs east of I-405, BRT could be effective, yet cheap. I say this as someone who is very pro-rail: I think it’s a good idea to connect suburb cores with BRT. I hate that “BRT” can mean a dozen different things to the same amount of people, but many people in suburbs are dying for frequency, not right-of-way (yet).

After discussing transportation for a half-hour, Dave, Kristen, and I each filled out a survey. Some of my favorite questions:

  • What should be the most important priority for the allocation of additional transit services? They should be allocated:
    1. To the routes that require the least subsidy.
    2. By a formula that builds ridership in the suburbs like the current 40:40:20 formula.
    3. To meet the needs of transit-dependent people who have no other mobility options.
    4. Based on the total population and proximity to employment centers.
    5. Other
  • What source would you like to see used to raise the majority of local funds for [projects like the SR-520 bridge replacement, the Viaduct replacement, widening I-405 or SR-167, expanding light rail, and/or creating a bus rapid transit system]?
    1. Gas taxes (can only be used for roads due to the state constitution)
    2. Car tab taxes
    3. Sales taxes
    4. Tolls on new or upgraded freeways or highways
    5. Tolls on existing freeways during the most congested times
  • Which one transportation-related improvement do you think would most improve the transportation system in King County?
    1. Adding more capacity or routes to public transit (bus and rail)
    2. Adding more general purpose freeway or highway lanes
    3. Changing land use codes to encourage higher population densities and alternatives to traveling by car
    4. Taxing congestion with variable tolls
    5. Other

After the surveys were completed, we said goodbye. It was good to be able to be a transit geek in public. However it was quite ironic that for the vast majority of our time, we spoke about density, transit, and offering alternatives to driving — but each of us owns a personal automobile.

First Streetcar Meeting: Today at 4pm

A reminder that the first of a series of meetings designed to get public comment on Seattle’s potential streetcar expansion is being held later today at city hall. Here are some words from the P-I:

City officials are holding several public meetings over the next three weeks to discuss plans to lay tracks that would connect a dozen neighborhoods to downtown.

The first meeting, on Wednesday, will focus on the Central Line, which would run mainly along First Avenue from Seattle Center to King Street Station.

Streetcars on that line would stop every six minutes at the Olympic Sculpture Park, Pike Place Market and Washington State Ferries.

“There will always be a streetcar coming,” said Ethan Melone, project manager for the Seattle Department of Transportation.

There is a sense of urgency. Transportation officials hope to start construction by late 2010 and have the route running by early 2012 when the Alaskan Way Viaduct is expected to be torn down.

As proposed, the Central Line would cost about $205 million to build. About $95 million of that could come from a local improvement district that would be formed along the route, similar to the district set up in South Lake Union. Property owners would have to agree to pay a share of the cost.

Given that I work in the building closest to the Olympic Sculpture Park, I say bring it on! More practically though, the city does seem incredibly optimistic about the revenue from advertising as well as the savings banked from Metro service hours. I feel like this could open any of the new streetcar routes to some fair criticism, and I would like to see more conservative numbers from the Seattle DOT as the plans move forward.

Is anyone here going to go to one of the public meetings? Which line, if any, should Seattle build first?

Sound Transit Tests Link and Buses Sharing Tunnel

Last Friday night, Sound Transit tested Link Light Rail sharing the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel with buses.  Buses and Link will share the tunnel until Link headways and/or extensions eventually re-align bus service to the surface.  Here’s how the test is described in this week’s Sound Transit CEO Corner:

Last Friday evening, after the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel was closed for the weekend, we successfully ran light rail trains and buses together in the tunnel.

This was a significant achievement — the first time ever that trains and buses ran together in the tunnel. Friday’s test was necessary to make sure the tunnel’s signal system works properly, allowing trains and buses to use the tunnel at the same time. The good news is the test showed that the system works very well and trains and buses can both safely occupy the tunnel.

Two light rail trains and nine buses were used in Friday’s test, which took about 90 minutes.