Is Via Coverage Service?

seattletransitmap.com

In last week’s article on Via, I was pleasantly surprised by a projected cost per rider of $16, and early results suggesting a rate of $13. This rate is certainly not as good as the best bus routes, but competitive with some less effective ones and way better than other services like paratransit. Classifying Via as “coverage service,” I proclaimed the results “decent.”

Some commenters pointed out, rightly, that I stretched the meaning of “coverage” service. The term is usually understood to mean service to an area not dense enough to serve efficiently, for the sole purpose of providing some connectivity for those that needed it. That is not what is happening here. Indeed, most Southeast Seattle residents can walk to at least one of multiple north-south frequent transit corridors in a fairly narrow space, and at its widest point route 50 provides a connection to all 4.

However, while most everyone has a connection point into the system, there is likely unmet demand for access to Light Rail. The lack of east/west connectivity is by now a Seattle cliché. Along MLK, the 106 has theoretical 15 minute headways, though often worse. Service is excellent in the Rainier Corridor, but for the most part users there that want to get to Link face a very long ride to a poor transfer at Mt. Baker. As elsewhere in Seattle, topology sometimes cuts off otherwise obvious routes. Broadly speaking, Rainier Valley residents lack a short hop to rapid transit that is tantalizingly close.

This is not an accident: through two separate restructures since Link opened, providing access to it has not been a priority. Each time, existing riders demanding their one-seat rides downtown had their way. In the first restructure, service hours went to improving connections to and through the Central District and West Seattle, as well as the Streetcar, rather than within Southeast Seattle. And that’s fine, though it does leave an unmet demand.

Via critics are right, though, that the optimal way to provide this connectivity would likely be through fixed bus routes. Unfortunately, Metro can’t run more buses at peak times today. Even if existing routes downtown must remain at current frequencies, there are plenty of good targets for additional investment: more buses on the 50, 60, 106, and 107. Better yet, entirely new concepts to plug some of the Link access gaps (some old brainstorms here and here) are much more palatable as an add-on to the existing network than as a substitute.

When Metro’s new bus base capacity comes online, we can have an interesting discussion about Via, the Transportation Benefit District, and new and improved routes in the Southeast. But until then, Via is probably the best option in this area.

News Roundup: Brighter

Newer LED lighting on the right (Sound Transit)

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Early Via shuttle results are decent

Via service area in the rainier valley

Express an interest in transit at just about any cocktail party in the Rainier Valley, and you’ll hear how what Sound Transit really needs to do is provide a shuttle to get people to the stations. Inevitably, people are proposing a solution to their specific problem without much awareness of scale or efficiency. Much like park-and-ride spaces, shuttles are probably more effective at allowing people to conceive a way to use light rail than actually providing that access at scale. On the other hand, Metro and ST seem to have worked their way into a contract that projects a pretty good yield from what some might call coverage service.

The Federal Transit Administration is willing to give shuttles a shot, possibly anticipating that autonomous vehicles will eventually transform the economics. Metro and Sound Transit won $350,000 from FTA in a research project combined with LA Metro. This sum, combined with $100,000 each from Metro and ST, would have funded a peak-only shuttle at a couple of Seattle stations and Tukwila International Blvd, according to Project Manager Casey Gifford of Metro.

Enter Seattle, with Transportation Benefit District funds that Metro doesn’t have the capacity to serve with more buses. Its $2.7m contribution dramatically expanded the concept to include four Seattle stations and service over the full span of Link operations. Tukwila, which didn’t top it up, is only available from 6-9am and 3:30-6:30pm.

For the next 12 months or so, riders traveling between a Link Station and the areas shown above can use an app or phone number to summon a minivan operated by Via. They can pay for the ride just like any Metro bus, except for cash: an ORCA that fully transfers to Link, or a Transit GO ticket that doesn’t. Although this payment scheme will shift some more ORCA revenue from ST to Metro, only the small amount of Transit GO tickets (and additional volume) would put more fare revenue into the system as a whole.

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News Roundup: A Good Sign

King County Metro

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Kohl-Welles: Free Fares on Snow Days

Route 255 Snow Shuttle

This week, King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles introduced legislation to eliminate Metro fares whenever Metro activates the Emergency Snow Network. It’s early in the process and there is no cost estimate at this time (press release here).

This legislation continues the process of chipping away at the fare structure without taking the financial hit of eliminating fares entirely. Much like New Year’s Eve, snow days are an especially good day to eliminate barriers to using the system, and are rare enough to make the cost negligible. Transit is likely to welcome many newcomers that will be clumsy with a fare, and reducing car use helps avoid total system collapse. As Kohl-Welles told The Stranger, it can also be a matter of life and death, as people struggle to get out of the cold.

News Roundup: Positive

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News Roundup: Always Open

Stephen Rees/Flickr

The Tunnel is Now a Fare-Paid Zone

With buses leaving the tunnel Saturday, there is no particular reason to be on the platform without a paid fare. Therefore, Sound Transit will consider the platform a fare-paid zone beginning Saturday.

“ORCA readers will be removed later, during the rollout of Next Gen ORCA,” said ST’S Kimberly Reason.

As trains get ever more crowded, the platform will become the most practical place to enforce fares at certain times of day.

Inflation on Transit Projects

Representative Alignment, which this estimate refers to (Sound Transit)

Graham Johnson’s KIRO report on ST3 cost escalation was notable for its literate discussion of inflation adjustment:

Sound Transit says the estimate in ST3 was $5.8 billion in 2014 dollars, which the agency considers equivalent to $6.8 billion in 2018 dollars. The newest estimate is $7.5 billion in 2018 dollars.

First of all, good for both ST and Johnson that they took the care to compute and report this. Although the real increases here are indeed a story, revising an estimate from 2014 to 2018 dollars is no news at all. That context is usually sorely lacking in stories about increasing costs.

Our comment thread had a spirited discussion as to what inflation measure the estimate used. ST’s Scott Thompson verified for STB that they used “Construction Cost Index for construction estimates, Right of Way index for real estate, and the Consumer Price Index for soft costs.” This seems reasonable enough. But there are at least three different ways one can deflate rising costs, and they serve different purposes.

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Rainier Avenue Bus Lane Advances

In 2017 and 2018, the Move Seattle project looked at options for reallocating the five lane widths of Rainier Avenue from Kenny to Henderson St, to improve safety and speed up buses. The safest and most climate-friendly strategy would have deployed two general purpose lanes, two bus lanes, and a two-way cycle track. But given the desire for at least some parking, and turning lanes at intersections, this was never an option. Instead, SDOT asked the community if they preferred a bus lane or a protected cycle track in this corridor

Outreach in 2017 didn’t indicate an overwhelming preference. In-person feedback was about 4:3 in favor of the bus lane. Online comments from the most relevant zip code where also slightly pro-bus lane, while Seattle-wide online comments were about 4:3 in favor of the bike lane. Interestingly, there was a form-letter campaign from the Cascade Bicycle Club for the bike lane option, presumably also reflected in the online response. Separately, the online responses had a wildly disproportionate racial composition for the Rainier Valley. Drivers heavily preferred the bus lane.

SDOT
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News Roundup: Upset

Community Transit 2017 Alexander Dennis Enviro 500 17855
Zach Heistand/Flickr

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News Roundup: Exceeding Expectations

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STB Meetup March 4

We haven’t had a meetup in a very long while. Please join us for an evening of mingling and camaraderie at the Big Time Brewery in the University District, March 4th, 6pm.

There is no cost, and it is open to all ages. However, please be gracious and don’t show up if you’re unwilling to purchase a meal or some drinks from our hosts.

An RSVP in the comment thread would be appreciated.

Emergency Snow Network to End at 4am Wednesday

Metro just announced that the ESN is wrapping up at 4am on February 13th. Buses are not returning to normal service, but instead the “snow routes” indicated on many individual route schedules.

Metro expects to operate about 90% of its routes tomorrow. We’ll update here as details emerge. Sign up for route alerts to see what’s happening with your particular bus, but expect delays, and for OneBusAway data to be garbage.

Rob Gannon says “If weather and road conditions allow, our target is to return to full service on Friday.”

UPDATE 7pm: Metro has more details:

Seven routes will have all trips canceled on Wednesday, Feb. 13: 71, 78, 200, 237, 268, 308, 309.

Thirteen routes will have some trips canceled on Wednesday, Feb. 13: 9, 29, 37, 125, 201/204, 208, 224, 243/244, 316, 330, and ST 540.

All Metro morning and afternoon peak commute routes will experience some level of reduced service: an estimated 3 out of every 4 buses will be in service as we work to ramp up service, respond to road conditions and repair our fleet and recover.

Riders: To find out if your particular trip is canceled on Wednesday, text your stop ID to 62550 or check Next Departures on the Puget Sound Trip Planner or its app.

Spend $2 Billion if You Want, but it’s not a Transit Project

Tim Adams/Wikimedia

Sound Transit declined to fund changes to the voter-approved Sound Transit 3 plan that would bury the segments in Ballard and West Seattle, and rightfully so. However, they opened the possibility of external funding to make this change. Perhaps the City of Seattle, or some other entity, will cobble together the money. Perhaps it will go to voters as a “transit package.” But those voters should be clear that most of these improvements, whatever their value, are not about transportation.

Some tweaks to station locations, costing in the low hundreds of millions of dollars, might improve ridership a bit. The $100m high bridge over the Ship Canal would improve reliability, and if it can be mated to a 15th Avenue stop it wouldn’t otherwise kneecap ridership. But the big-ticket items are about reducing “impacts”: $700m for a West Seattle tunnel, $300-400m to move the Chinatown Station to 4th, and $350m to go under Salmon Bay.

There is no analysis that suggests that a tunnel to West Seattle or Ballard in the proposed alignments, or a Fourth Avenue stop, will improve transit outcomes for riders. Some of it is about reducing construction impacts, and the rest is the reluctance of property owners to damage their perceived aesthetics. I concede that many people in Seattle don’t like elevated track. I find it adds character to a neighborhood. Many of the world’s most liveable cities have lots of elevated track. Vancouver makes it work beautifully in a similar Northwestern context to ours.

If people think elevated track is ugly, and wish to bury it, they’re welcome to this viewpoint. Likewise, if you are very concerned about the net worth of West Seattle Junction landowners, already receiving a huge boost from the arrival of Link, you are welcome to vote accordingly. But if you’re interested in plans that spend money to improve transit outcomes, keep looking.

News Roundup: Likeable

SounderBruce/wikimedia

A Dilemma at UWB

The junction of the I-405 and SR522 Stride BRT lines will be frustratingly close to the University of Washington – Bothell (UWB) and Cascadia College joint campus, close enough for a tempting diversion but too far to actually be convenient.

Universities are good all-day transit demand generators, but too many campuses in the area were placed with only cars in mind. One of these is UWB, which lies just off an arterial and across a swamp from I-405. BRT, always constrained by where the major roadways are, can never be efficient for both through riders and those with business on campus.

SR522 buses must take a detour to provide front-door service to campus, though a half-mile walk from Beardslee Blvd isn’t insurmountable for most. For I-405 buses, the nearest interchange is almost a full mile away.

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Voters Both Ahead of and Behind Public Officials

Red bus lane in front of UW Medical Center
Popular! (Oran Viriyincy/Flickr)

The Seattle Times published results of an extensive public poll ($) on local transportation issues this week. It asked hundreds of adults in households with registered voters, in both Seattle proper and King County, what they thought about where we are and what we need to do. The results suggest that King County deserve a little more credit than many give them on core questions relating to transit, but are not yet with us on all issues. The wild popularity of measures mired in endless controversy shows the extent to which Seattle politicians have allowed a few extremists to hijack the process.

First, a warning: the report freely admits that the survey over-sampled homeowners, who conventional wisdom suggests are more conservative on these issues. The Times posted the full, “topline” results, but not answers sliced among various demographic groups. These sample segments would be quite small with large margins of error. While some may seize the excuse to not challenge their preconceptions, even given the skew there are things to learn:

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News Roundup: Gov. Inslee Insists

SounderBruce/wikimedia