Suburban Slum Watch

A few months ago, the Atlantic picked up on it, and now it’s CNN.

…once rundown downtowns are being revitalized by well-educated, young professionals who have no desire to live in a detached single family home typical of a suburbia where life is often centered around long commutes and cars.

Instead, they are looking for what Leinberger calls “walkable urbanism” — both small communities and big cities characterized by efficient mass transit systems and high density developments enabling residents to walk virtually everywhere for everything — from home to work to restaurants to movie theaters.

I think it’s important to point out how important rail is to this kind of car-free vision. Rail encourages the high-density housing that spurs high-density retail within walking distance. Furthermore, as someone who sometimes uses the bus mid-day and weekends, I’ll point out that without the large capital investment in rail (and ever-spiraling gas prices) the temptation to reduce bus service to inconveniently long intervals is just too high.

When distances are at most a couple of miles and parking is free, the only way transit can compete is with frequent and reliable service, which is much easier to do with rail. The easy platform-level boarding is also a big plus for those pushing carts and strollers (because they’re going about their daily lives!).

The so-called New Urbanism movement emerged in the mid-90s and has been steadily gaining momentum, especially with rising energy costs, environmental concerns and health problems associated with what Leinberger calls “drivable suburbanism” — a low-density built environment plan that emerged around the end of the World War II and has been the dominant design in the U.S. ever since.

Thirty-five percent of the nation’s wealth, according to Leinberger, has been invested in constructing this drivable suburban landscape…

I wish they’d broken down that 35% figure a bit more, but it’s a useful reminder that the current drive-everywhere status quo isn’t some sort of state of nature, but a directly intended product of subsidies and that right-wing bugaboo, “social engineering.”

The result is an oversupply of depreciating suburban housing and a pent-up demand for walkable urban space, which is unlikely to be met for a number of years. That’s mainly, according to Leinberger, because the built environment changes very slowly; and also because governmental policies and zoning laws are largely prohibitive to the construction of complicated high-density developments.

Zoning is the ultimate affordable housing issue. Today’s “luxury condos” are tomorrow’s middle class flats, and the day after’s run-down apartments. If our laws essentially prevent building this kind of landscape, Seattle will become an unattractive place to live, which will, uh, solve a lot of our growth management problems.

(Via FP Passport)


Metro still hasn’t released anything about Ballard or Aurora RapidRide, but tidbits continue to drip out in the P-I:

If adopted, the proposals would bring wider sidewalks and an end to the center turn lane to a 35-block-long stretch of Aurora Avenue from North 110th Street to the Shoreline border, said Rick Sheridan, a spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation. Three lanes would carry traffic in each direction, including one lane reserved for bus and business traffic…

A bus rapid transit line would be included in the redesign. The proposed line would shuttle people into the city’s core with minimal stops and buses coming at 10-minute intervals.

Sheridan said the designs are preliminary and that construction wouldn’t start until 2011 at the earliest.

So it seems that there will be a bus lane for at least part of the Aurora line, much like Ballard. Good.

That makes four of the five RapidRide lines (Ballard, Aurora, W. Seattle, Pacific Highway) that will have at least some portion of the route with a semi-dedicated right-of-way. It’s just the Eastside that gets nothing in this department.

But hey, maybe we can overcome Ron Sims’ objections to East LINK, so that they can get something too.

Search for “RapidRide” in the bar at the top of the page for our other coverage of this topic.

UPDATE 8:46 AM: Business Access and Transit (BAT) lanes are explained here.

Image from

Sound Transit tour video

Thanks to all the people that showed up on Friday for our Light Rail tour. Eric from “Ride the Link” took video, which you can see here. See if you can pick out the four STB contributors with speaking roles.

And thanks to the good people at Sound Transit for making it possible.

Ben on KOMO

If any of you were listening to KOMO radio Monday around lunchtime, you know that our very own Ben Schiendelman was on for about 30 seconds talking about bus etiquette. I can only applaud KOMO’s exquisite taste in guests.

Here’s the audio. Thanks to Frank from Orphan Road for hosting the file, since Blogger doesn’t seem to think that’s worth its while.

New CT Maps!

I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a while, but whoa, look at the new Community Transit Route Maps! They’re attractive, clear, and have tons of information. It’s such a substantial improvement over their old maps, which were both hideous and uninformative.

In particular I appreciate the ability to understand how the routes fit into the context of the other routes in the area.

I’d wouldn’t want to have the sparse service that CT provides, but I’m continually impressed with the creativity and resourcefulness they display with limited funding.

Transit Report Card: New York City

Third in an occasional series where I wildly generalize about a transit system based on limited experience.

Segments ridden:
More or less all of the Manhattan Routes
D train to Coney Island & Downtown Brooklyn
7 train to Shea Stadium
Various approaches to Yankee Stadium
Bergen County NJ Transit Line (Waldwick – NY Penn Station)
PATH: Pavonia to 14th St
Staten Island Ferry

Scope: A+
If you’re reading this blog you probably know that the subway more or less blankets the city. But what you might not know is the extent of the commuter rail system, which covers all of Long Island, half of New Jersey and deep into Connecticut and upstate New York. Look for yourself; it’s truly massive.

And don’t forget the PATH subway system into New Jersey and run by the Port Authority, as well as the Newark and Hudson Shore Light Rail systems run by New Jersey Transit.

Service: A+
24-hour service on the subway, unparalleled anywhere in the world. As for commuter rail, I rode into the city on a Sunday and found myself with 36 trains a day in each direction to choose from.

Routing: A
Not an A+ because there’s very little in the way of routing that bypasses Manhattan. The city could use some ring lines like they have in Tokyo, London, and Paris.

Grade/ROW: A+
As with all third-rail systems, no pedestrian or auto is ever going to get anywhere near the track.

New York has extreme density where there’s rail transit, not so much where there isn’t. On the other hand, the not-so-dense places would give the average resident of, say, Greenwood some sort of aneurysm.

Culture: A+
Undoubtedly, the city in America where it’s most foolish to own a car, unless you go into the outer suburbs a lot. If not here an A+, then where?


If you have even a little bit of transit tourist in you, get thee to New York City before airfares go up again. Driving is a nightmare, parking can cost over $20 for a half hour (plus tax), and the subway system approaches perfection (unless you require wheelchair accessibility, as I discovered when trying to cart around a baby stroller on this trip).

If you’re a total cheapskate, get a hotel out in the suburbs and take the commuter rail in.

What’s a little frightening is that with all the transit options available, there used to be more. There are tons of transit tunnels and stations abandoned at the peak of the automobile age. The city tore down dozens of miles of elevated track in the last century as well. And yet the system still carries more daily riders that all the nation’s other systems combined.

Smart NYC travelers fly into Newark and take one of the various New Jersey transit options into the city, rather than suffering through a 2-hour AirTrain and Subway slog into Manhattan from JFK.

Multimodalism is at its best here. At Penn Station, for instance, you have Amtrak, PATH trains, commuter rail, 6 subway lines, and God knows how many buses all coming together in one gigantic terminal. The Newark airport has an AirTrain system that connects all the terminals with not only the car rental complex, but also a train station that supports both commuter rail and Amtrak.

This kind of integration makes it plausible to nearly eliminate “puddle-jumper” aircraft, since outlying residents can simply take the train to take advantage of the many destinations available out of the New York airports. I think this kind of thing is very useful as gas prices skyrocket and scarce landing slots have to be devoted to bigger aircraft.

I’m told there are a few traditional tourist attractions in the city as well.

Re: Rising Gas Prices and Transit Agencies

Daimajin posed the question about how Metro should compensate for higher fuel costs. Systematically, this is how I see it:

Raising taxes

  • No negative impacts on ridership


  • Introduces tax fatigue, poisoning the well for capital projects like light rail.
  • Is likely to be regressive

Raising fares

  • The usual suspects (Kemper Freeman, et al) don’t object.
  • $2.00 is easier to pay than $1.75.
  • Corporate pass purchasers (eg, Microsoft) are relatively price-insensitive


  • Highly regressive to poor, occasional transit users.

Capital Investment for less diesel dependence

  • Sustainable, both environmentally and economically


  • Makes the funding squeeze worse in the short term
  • Takes a long time
Although cheaper passes and higher spot fares would benefit me personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea. First of all, as noted above many pass purchasers are corporate and therefore price-insensitive. Secondly, a lot of cash payers are poor, either because they use transit irregularly, or they can’t scrape together the money to buy a pass up front.

I would hate to see a 0.1% tax increase go to maintaining current service hours instead of getting light rail out to Microsoft, etc.

So what do I propose? How about going to $2.00/$2.50 across the board (aligning with ST express two-zone), and a tax increase for capital improvements like trolley bus lines, streetcars, and light rail?

Source Request

If you’re an employee at Metro working on the reorganization of routes in the Rainier Valley after LINK starts running, and I haven’t contacted you already, I’d love to hear from you for a piece I’m working on. Please email the address at right (

I’d be happy to talk on or off the record.


You learn something new every day

For the first time in a while, I used a Metro peak-hour transfer to get on a Sound Transit bus this morning. The driver insisted that my transfer, which had cost me $1.75, was only good for $1.50. I paid the extra quarter to avoid a scene, but didn’t think it was right.

Lo and behold, he knew what he was talking about:

Valid transfers from Community Transit, King County Metro Transit (Metro) and Pierce Transit are accepted on ST Express as a one-zone ST Express fare (Adult $1.50, Youth $1.00, Senior/Disabled* $0.50).

In retrospect, this actually simplifies things, since the different transit agencies have different fares. Nevertheless, this highlights the tradeoffs in having at least four different fare systems (and soon a fifth, RapidRide) in the three-county region. If the fare system is intricate enough to confuse someone like me, it’s too complicated; on the other hand, I woudn’t want tax-averse out-of-county voters forcing lower service levels on us in a combined Puget Sound super-agency.

On a different note, the driver also was enforcing “Pay as you enter” at the Rainier/I-90 stop outbound from Seattle. I suppose this is correct, but certainly isn’t SOP for most drivers on the 554. All in all, not a good day for me in terms of bus etiquette: today, I was the idiot without his fare ready.

Bus Lanes to Ballard

I’m not sure how this escaped our notice up to now, but the giant repaving project going on on Elliott and 15th Avenues NW involves installing peak-only bus lanes. This is a crucial improvement if RapidRide BRT in this corridor is to be worth anything.

We still haven’t seen any other details about what Ballard RapidRide will entail.

Of course, the project is mentioned in the context of a driver whining about losing road capacity, but the P-I at least makes an effort to acknowledge the number of people this will help.

It’s good to know there will be a decent option for densely packed Ballard residents before light rail gets there 2030-ish. Hopefully, the existence of this capacity won’t be used as an argument against eventually getting there with LINK.

American Bullet Trains?

There’s action in Congress to pour $14 billion into improving the tracks between New York and Washington, reducing the travel time from 2:45 to under 2 hours. Hooray for that.

It’s still early going, of course. Besides budget-cutting zeal and NIMBYs, there are two big things to worry about. First, stations may be added for political reasons, defeating the “express train” concept:

The Wilmington [Delaware] station is Amtrak’s 11th-busiest in the nation, so Castle said he would “fight like heck” to make sure any high-speed trains stopped here.

I won’t comment on Wilmington specifically, but we can expect to see this kind of thing all along the line.

Secondly, they’re looking for a public-private partnership. Now, I’m not ideologically opposed to this kind of thing if it gets projects done. But if one of Amtrak’s few profitable routes gets cannibalized by a private operator, that can only hurt service elsewhere in the nation.

TGV image from Flickr contributor vorgefuhl

Metro Service Changes

Along with Sound Transit, Metro has rider alerts for their service changes. It’s basically a bunch of shuffling of routes around the new Issaquah Transit Center, shifts of stops for the 5X, 358, 230, 914, and 916.

There’s one more trip each for the 212, 221, and 271, a nice bonus for the Eastgate area.

The 74 local will be renumbered as the 30.

Also, in July they’re raising Off-peak Senior, Disabled and Youth Fares by a quarter. I suppose that’s in line with the recent adult fare increases.

Re: No Question…

A few points that I think were missed in this weekend’s Battle Royale about the Rainier Valley segment:
  1. Federal funding rules don’t allow transit agencies to take TOD into account when doing ridership projections. So a line through Sodo’s warehouses would have had lousy ridership projections, and probably not have earned any federal dollars. So a Sodo alignment means no alignment at all. People actually live near the Rainier Valley line.
  2. Seattle’s neighborhoods are famously risk-averse, and likely to fight a rail line that will ultimately benefit them. Poorer neighborhoods are generally less litigious and less politically active, meaning that both political and engineering risk were lower for this segment.
  3. The Rainier’s valley development pattern was unique. MLK is/was a fairly underdeveloped strip of auto repair shops and small, run-down apartment buildings, but also is two or three blocks from major arterials on either side: Rainier Avenue and Beacon Avenue. This made it uniquely suited to draw ridership from two vibrant and transit-intensive populations while still being capable of inspiring large TOD projects with minimal political opposition.
  4. I would have liked to have seen our Ballard/West Seattle contingent — leading advocates of in-city before regional rail — come out a little more strongly for the Rainier Valley segment. I think the Seattle-first argument would have substantial merit if transit were being funded by a dictatorship, but fortunately we actually require democratic assent in this country. Unfortunately, the electorate is shackled with extremely narrow parochialism. At any rate, Central Link was an opportunity to provide substantial in-city service while also meeting regional goals: the best of both worlds.
Furthermore, as several commenters pointed out, what’s done is done. If you’re concerned about operating delays incurred by the Rainier Valley segment, the proper response is to pressure the city and Sound Transit for additional safety improvements to improve operating speeds. For instance:
  • Pedestrian overpasses, instead of signalized, at-grade crossings.
  • Crossing gates at all auto intersections.
  • Fencing along the route to discourage pedestrian crossing at unauthorized points. It doesn’t have to be triple-strand concertina wire; even a tasteful, 4 foot black iron fence would be a sufficient deterrent in 90% of cases.
  • Construction of underpasses for major arterials.
Most of this stuff is relatively inexpensive, and can be added incrementally as funding and political will allow.

The American Way

Buried deep in the PI business section a few days ago:

The Commerce Department reported Friday that housing construction rose by 8.2 percent in April to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.03 million units. While apartment construction rose by 36 percent, building in the much larger single-family sector of the market fell by 1.7 percent, the 12th consecutive monthly decline, pushing single-family activity down to a 16-year low.

This is another data point showing that a home in the “country” and a huge yard aren’t irreducible demands by Americans, but just another taste that is responsive to economic incentives.

Bad economy or no, the population is in a very pro-transit mood right now. 2008 is the year to go to the ballot.

Comment Etiquette (III)

It’s been a couple of months, so I’ll make this request again:

Please select a nickname and type it in under the “nickname” box on our comments page. Going through a comments thread with “Anonymous” is tedious and confusing. I can distinctly recognize at least two regular commenters using the Anonymous tab, and it’s annoying.

It doesn’t require getting an account or anything. Just type in a name, like SLOG.

Example above, with the correct box indicated in red. For whatever reason, Blogger doesn’t allow you to turn off “anonymous” without doing the same for “Nickname”.


Sound Transit survey

Sound Transit is asking your opinion again. 0.4%, 0.5%, 12- and 20-year plans are all on the table. So are both 2008 and 2010 ballot measures.

I’m really skeptical of the actual value of these kinds of self-nominating survey responses, but I figured I’d suggest what I’d heard at the meetup, which is that the 0.4% measure go to the ballot, with an additional 0.1% measure. That maximizes our chance of getting something passed.

Of course, what’d happen is that the 0.4 would fail and the 0.1 pass, leading to more confusion.

More than anything, I just want them to propose whatever their polling tells them has the highest chance of passing. The details aren’t important, because I know that the highest priority segments are the ones that are going to be built, regardless.

ST Ridership up 15%

UPDATE: Correction Below.

Sound Transit’s Quarterly Ridership Report is up, and it’s good news. It’s brief, so go have a look. Weekday boardings are up 15% from the same time last year, which is pretty impressive given the relatively small amount of service added in that time. Some interesting nuggets:

  • South Sounder ridership is up 30%, largely because of added trips. I think this shows that ridership is a little less elastic with respect to parking at the station than some would assume. In other words, creative solutions (like satellite parking) are able to continue building ridership after the nearby lots are saturated. That isn’t to say that parking shortages aren’t a problem.
  • Sounder cost-per-boarding is down slightly to $10.79, while the express bus cost is up slightly to $6.73. Without seeing the station breakdown, that puts farebox recovery for Sounder at around 40%, about the same as ST Express and pretty good for a transit system. That includes essentially empty reverse-commute trains. As economies of scale build up on Sounder and gas prices increase, I expect the comparative numbers to improve further.
  • Tacoma Link ridership is only up 1%. It may simply not have the scope to serve many people, especially since the 594 most Express buses takes a needless detour into downtown on its way South.

Picture Credit: Seattle Times, August 14, 2007.