20:40:40 Must End

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

20:40:40 is a rule built into funding legislation for King County Metro that allocates funds for new service hours by area. 40% goes to the east side, 40% goes south, and 20% goes to Seattle and north (more complete explanation in this PDF). This sounded strange to me the first time I heard it, and now it seems unbelievable. Seattle has 35% of the population of King County. We must have 5x the ridership of either other area (anyone have #’s for this?). So we pay more in taxes, much more in fares, and get 20% of the benefit?

The justification for 20/40/40 was that Seattle has more buses than the rest of the county, and it was a way for them to catch up. But I’ve yet to hear of a full eastside bus (especially off-peak, which is what improves with more service hours), yet the #2 leaves people behind because it can’t cram any more people on the bus.

20:40:40 was actually an ingenious plan, from the non-Seattle perspective. There is no way, with 35% of the vote, Seattle could have stopped it. I suppose it was nice of the county to give us anything at all.

But maybe all this is beside the point. Although we could certainly use more service hours in Seattle, what we really need is more infrastructure. With our same number of drivers, we could double frequency and quadruple capacity by adding traffic-separated streetcars.

New York – cars = awesome

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Check out the StreetsBlog story about New York’s Summer Streets event. They closed down 7 miles of streets and let people live car-free for two Saturdays. The street aerobics class reminds me of ballroom dancing classes on the pedestian streets of Shanghai.

Of course our turn is coming. I just hope we embrace the idea as well as they have.

Exurbs v. City: A Quick Cost Comparison

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

In a recent Hugeasscity comment, a friend was described that drives 100 miles to work everyday so that they could have a large house in the suburbs. I ran a quick calculation to see what kind of house they could afford in the city with the money they’re wasting in the commute. The difference, with less than a 30-year payback, was $500k. This analysis did not take into account the wasted time from the commute.

Let me quickly go over this analysis again, just to let it sink in. At 200 miles a day x 5 days a week x 52 weeks a year, you’re putting 52,000 miles a year on your car. Using a lifespan of 200,000 miles for a $20,000 economy car getting 30mpg, that’s $7,700 worth of car you’re burning through a year. Add $1,400 a year in maintenance (low, I’d say for that many miles), $600 a year for insurance, and $7,000 in $4/gal gas, and you’re up to $16,700 a year (I came up with $14,000 in my comment – I think I used a cheaper car?). In 30 years you’d spend $501,000 doing this.

Now I ask, what kind of upgrade of a house can you get in the city for an extra half million? Assuming you don’t need a ritzy area (which you don’t if we’re comparing the suburbs) that’s a big house and a big yard. And you don’t need to spend 3.5 hours a day (at an average of 55mph = 910 hours/year = 16% of your waking life = 24% of your non-working waking life) driving a car.

Note that this comparison isn’t apples-to-apples. First of all, you’d have to get rid of a car when you live in the city to save on all of those insurance and maintenance benefits (though they’d both shrink immensely if you didn’t drive much). But then most of the money was in the gas and wear on the car itself – both of which are all but removed in city life. But the real difference in this comparison is that in the exurb case the money you spend is just gone – sent to oil companies and car manufacturers. In the city case, this money still exists in your house. Yes, perhaps half of it will go into the interest in your loan, but you get the rest back when you sell your house (and likely more, if housing prices go up in 30 years).

Of course a working-class commuter probably can’t afford a half-million dollar home in the first place. I think the lesson here is that if you can find a city house that you can live with and afford (even with a larger mortgage than you’re comfortable with), it’s a strongly better deal than anything you can get out in the country.

This is an extreme example. But it’s a real-life example, and likely a common one. Also, the lesson applies for shorter distances as well – the numbers get more mild as you approach the suburbs, then drop off once you don’t need a car at all.

Which brings me to the tie-in to Seattle transit infrastructure. With rail or bus access within walking distance, we can extend that carless-commute out a ways from the city center. You still waste life (though less of it), but you don’t waste close to as much money.

Seattle’s Next Infrastructure Downgrade?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Seattle will soon close part of three streets for a few hours, for exactly one day per street this summer. This is not a big deal for many cities, and the town where I went to college would do this once a month on their main street throughout the summer. But can this be the beginning of a positive change?

I’ve long thought that a great idea for a city of any size is to have a few car-free streets. If you build narrow streets this allows for Europe-style density, and if you leave them wide then you have potential for public meeting areas. Noise is dramatically reduced, safety is increased, and the neighborhood becomes much more walkable.

Car-free streets generally have tables set up for outside dining, served by nearby restaurants. You’ll see children playing, and people promenading – window shopping, people watching, eating ice cream. The street becomes a destination, not something in your way to a destination.

But how does car-fixated Seattle react to this small step toward something beautiful? Well, read the comments yourself.

I Owe the SLU…S $1.75.

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

After work the other day I walked over to the SLU trolley to meet family at the Center for Wooden Boats. If you know how to sail, I highly recommend renting a boat for an hour on a sunny day. The streetcar was just about to leave as I made it to the stop, so I hopped on expecting to pay onboard.

I knew I only had $1 in my wallet, and also knew that they only take credit cards at the kiosk outside the streetcar. However, I have $1.75 tickets in my wallet that I keep for use on the bus. Also I remembered that their website lists a good dozen forms of payment you can use on the streetcar*, so I wasn’t worried.

But… apparently Metro cash tickets aren’t on the list. This means that I owe the streetcar $1.75, and that I will have to start carrying a pocket full of quarters (6 for a round trip) if I ever want to ride it again. Man do I wish they’d start the Orca pass.

* “The following forms of payment are also accepted to ride the Seattle Streetcar; Metro Pass, Puget Pass, Flexpass, GO Pass, U-Pass, Visitor Pass, Regional Reduced Fare Permit (with monthly or annual sticker), and active Metro bus transfer slips.”

People are driving less, so we need more roads.

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Prospectus blog has an, um, interesting commentary today talking about how much we need to more road capacity, financed by private corporations who will toll us for the privilege.

Apparently the logic goes like this:
1. Gas prices have gone up. Therefore:
2. Driving has decreased. Therefore:
3. Revenue for building more roads is down. Therefore:
4. ??? Therefore:
5. We need to build more roads.

I haven’t quite figured out step 4 of the logic, but the rest looks solid. One might guess that less driving should result in needing fewer new roads, but I’m sure step 4 will clear up that misunderstanding.

I’m having less success with another line of logic in the piece. See if you can figure out what I’m missing:
1. We can’t afford new roads. Therefore:
2. We can have private companies build new roads. And:
3. They can toll us to make their money back. And:
4. Although this will cost us more, they’ll be able to build roads faster.

Maybe the previous step 4 will clear up not only why we need more roads, but also why we need them faster. Oh, and how paying more for them will make them affordable.

(I’ve asked for clarification on this step in the comments, but “comments are screened for tone” and sarcasm might not make it through the filter)

Croatia’s Walkable City Centers

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I’ve recently travelled to Croatia, and wanted to share the most wonderful part of my travels with Orphan Road: walkable cities. Not all of the cities and towns I visited were walkable, but a large portion had at least a walkable downtown area. This downtown area, without exception, was car-free.

Without exception, these walkable areas were the most enjoyable areas of a city and most of the locals didn’t seem to even own cars. Outside of these walkable areas there was much sprawl and traffic, as we experience here. Inside the walkable area were restaurants, small grocery stores, and shops on main roads and very high density housing on minor roads and above the shops. The furthest you’d ever need to walk on a daily basis is around 10 minutes away. Train and ferry stations generally land in or near this part of town, allowing the residents to travel throughout Europe quickly and easily. I sat in the Dubrovnik town square with a few thousand Croatians cheering together for their soccer team, projected on a screen next to an ancient clock tower.

How did the Croatians tackle the tough decisions to make these cities so enjoyable? They didn’t. Every one of these areas were built by the Romans. Dubrovnik, Rovinj, Split, Korcula, Hvar, (etc.) started out as Roman palaces, were built out further as medieval castles, and were inherited by modern times as car-free centers simply because cars won’t fit in the narrow streets.

Can we re-invent these cities here? Can you imagine Pike’s market without the line of cars through the middle? Dense areas with lively streets an easy walk from transit? Maybe even a small dense car-free area at the Beacon Hill Link station? I think it’s worth a try.

A Way Forward: Seattle Built, King County Run Transit

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

In my previous post, I argued that:
1. Seattle needs a city-level mass-transit system – not to replace, but to augment the bus system.
2. King County is the wrong agency to build this.

There were several comments about how the branding a Seattle transit agency would be confusing. I’m not sure I agree (many other cities handle this fine), but I’m ok with not having a new agency as a requirement.

Here’s my proposed compromise: We build all of the infrastructure, buy the trains, then ask King County to run it. They may need to pay for a few new drivers, but it would certainly be an easier sell than having them come up with all of the initial capital.

Of course, this is exactly what’s happening with the streetcars. But I’d argue that streetcars aren’t enough. Unless they’re completely traffic-seperated, they’re just busses with increased ridership (good, but still slow and inefficient). What we need is a monorail-scale plan. We could still use streetcars (though light rail may be better), but elevate them, put them in tunnels, or just make their path completely seperate from cars.

What about Seattle?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Different problems generally require different solutions. So why does King County only use busses?

At some level of ridership, busses are less efficient than rail. This can be seen by imagining the extremes – say Auburn with it’s own light rail system or New York with only a bus system. The first case is far from affordable and the second far from useful.

Our region has decided that long-distance commuting has passed this point – hence the creation of Sound Transit and thereafter Link. This system won’t replace busses – just compliment them by providing a traffic-free trunk that will lead to density.

But what about short-distance travel? We can again imagine Manhattan with only busses – the streets would be packed with the things to the point of not being useful. Such a city would quickly break down and lose its density. There must come a point where busses need to be complimented by faster, higher capacity transit.

Back to King County Transit. They do busses – and that’s it. That’s ok. As I’ve stated, busses are useful. Just because New York has a subway system doesn’t mean they don’t need their busses. But I’d argue busses aren’t enough.

I think we’re well past the point of bus transit limiting our city’s density. Watch the crowds at 3rd and Pine at 5pm for some evidence of this. We need a rapid way to get between neighborhoods.

Maybe the solution is to convince King County Metro to try something new and fix Seattle. But it seems out of their scope of interest or charter – after all they get their funding from the whole county, and why would a Kentian want to spend a large sum of money getting Seattlites from Fremont to Capital Hill?

I think the reason we don’t have an in-city rapid transit system is because we don’t have an in-city transit agency – something that can act on our behalf and let us tax ourselves for our own benefit. I know the Monorail fiasco is still a fresh open wound, and our city failed in its attempt. But just because we’ve failed to build an in-city rapid transit system (or an effective transit agency) doesn’t mean we don’t want or need one.

Why add traffic-separated mass transit? A quick cost analysis.

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I will ignore all of the other wonderful benefits of traffic-separated transit for this post, and just talk about dollars (using very rough, estimated numbers).

Let’s take my morning commute: the #2, #2X, or #13, depending on which one comes first. There seems to be a total of around 12 busses serving these lines*. The end result is having a bus come 16x an hour during peak times. It takes each of these ~20 minutes to get the 2 miles downtown thanks to traffic. The full route is around 45 minutes.

How many busses (or, more realistically, trains) would it take to run this route at an average of 15 mile per hour, which would only be possible with traffic-separated transit? Well, that’s more than double the speed, so that would be half the number of trains. So 6.

You’d still get the same frequency of service, but you’d now have 6 less busses and drivers, less maintenance, fewer busses to clean, etc.

Assuming a driver costs on the order of $100k a year**, this is $600,000 saved each year on this one route without even looking at maintenance of the vehicles.

What will it cost us to convert our system for such savings? The deluxe (grade-seperated, think: monorail, or elevated/tunneled light rail) route may be quite expensive, but at a savings of more than $600k per route may pay back quickly. The cheap route (paint on the road reserving a lane for busses, along with signal priority) may create traffic for drivers, but will surely pay back the day you paint the road.

An added cost benefit is that as soon as travel times are cut in half, ridership will immediately go up. Assuming we go for streetcars or light rail instead of busses (and can therefore fit in more riders per vehicle), then we get added farebox income without any additional cost.

*Correct me if I’m wrong – it’s my best guess based on time tables.
**I’m sure the average driver makes much less than this, but factoring in benefits, managing this employee, etc. this may even be low.

[Frank]’s comment made me realize I hadn’t stated the point of this post strongly enough: One bus moving at 15mph can carry twice the number of (much happier) people the same bus can carry at 6mph. It simply drives the loop twice. Basically, we’re paying a whole lot of bus drivers a whole lot of money to sit in traffic with a lot of unnecessary busses.

Bus to Marymoor Park

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The concept of having busses travel to recreational locations has been covered elsewhere, so I’ll be brief.

I heard about Marymoor’s concert in the park series, and found the King County web site. It’s a very green-oriented site, encouraging all kinds of carbon-footprint reduction and recycling. There are even compostable beer cups.

But I noticed despite asking us to bike there or drive a hybrid (they’ll still charge you $5 for parking, but you can park closer), they didn’t encourage me to take the bus or provide any bus information.

I guess that’s because the bus doesn’t go there. Sure, it’ll leave there in the morning on weekdays and return there in the evening. So if you live in the park and work downtown you’re ok. But if you live in Seattle and want to visit and not stay the night you’re apparently out of luck.

Our Bus Subway

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I use Seattle’s bus tunnel like a rail subway system. Any time during the day I can walk down an escallator, hop on a bus, walk back up, and I’m across town. I can get from downtown to King Station for asian food of all varaities, and make it back by the end of my lunch hour. Because it’s free, because it’s easy, because it’s fast, and because service is frequent it really beats dealing with surface street busses.

I’m excited about how much faster real rail will be next year, as the bottleneck of people getting on and off will be reduced. But I’m afraid of keeping all of the functionality we have with busses. Will I have to stop somewhere and pay? Will they run along with busses in the tunnel, or will the busses be moved to the street? What will be the initial headway? Will it stay open late?

If anyone out there knows the answers to these questions, I’d love to hear them. If not, tell me how/if you use the tunnel.

Great reason to have an ST2.1 vote in 2008 provided by: The Discovery Institute?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

How does a pro-roads organization come to favor rail? Well, they don’t. But they provide a great reason to push for infrastructure improvements immediately. The world is awash with global capital right now (article here). Sure, they want to use this cheap capital for building roads, but the argument is the same for building massive rail improvements quickly.

Here’s the situation. Remember the collapse of the mortgage industry, specifically the sub-prime mortgages? Well the bubble was caused by a glut of global capital looking for a safe place to rest, and the bubble popped when investors realized that sub-prime mortgages were not a safe bet. This capital hasn’t gone away – it’s still there looking for safe, long term investments (see: Dubai for one of the places it has landed). For a great primer on this, listen to a rare This American Life documentary on the subject (here).

What would be a safe, long-term investment for global capital? Discovery says infrastructure fits the bill. We may disagree on what that infrastructure should be, and I don’t think they realize the full financial potential out there, but we agree on the major financial points. This global capital is available now. We don’t know what the financial picture will look like in several years. Actually, this is a great reason to do more than just ST2.1 immediately – let’s build an in-city light rail system while we’re at it. We just may not ever get this good of an opportunity again.

End of the Road

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

(inspired by [daimajin]’s post)

I know I’m preaching to the converted here, but I’d like to list another reason for building rail-based transit that has nothing to do with the gasoline that cars burn. It’s the roads that they drive on.

Let’s start with peak oil. Some say we hit it years ago and OPEC has been hiding this fact*, others say we are hitting it now (hence the price spikes), while some say it’s a decade or two away. But nobody says it’s much further than that. When we hit peak oil the price will rise at an exponential rate and never come down.

The road supporters either ignore this fact or tell us that we’ll find an alternative fuel for our cars. Although I mostly disagree (battery power has some potential – the others are dead ends), I won’t debate that here. What I will bring up is the roads themselves.

Roads, at least the top level, are made of asphalt concrete: asphalt mixed with rocks. Asphalt is an oil product. This layer of asphalt concrete breaks down over time and use, and needs to either be patched using more asphalt concrete or regenerated by removing it, grinding it up, and adding more asphalt.

So what happens to our miles and miles of roads when the price of oil goes up? Road maintenance requires a lot of oil. We either spend much more on roads (not new roads here – the same old roads) increasing cost with time, or we abandon roads over time.

Of course, this is an amazing waste of money, time, and resources. Steel rail is expensive, but we won’t run out of steel any time soon. Electric power lines are expensive, but we’ll be glad we have them once the rest of our transportation system starts breaking down.

So this is one of the reasons that building new roads seems ridiculous to me. Any new roads can only expect a few decades before we will have to consider abandoning them.

* Apparently OPEC members benefit from exaggerating their oil reserves. The amount of oil they are allowed to sell is proportional to how much reserves they report that they have.

update It looks like some predictions of peak oil say there will be no peak oil, notably OPEC and our EIA. Of course, OPEC’s model predicted in 2007 that “oil resource base is sufficient to satisfy demand increases until 2030 at a price of $50-60 per barrel, increasing afterwards to account for inflation.” Oops. What’s a barrel of oil at now, $132?

Another ferry route ends

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Last year I was excited about the Lake Union Water Taxi. It sounded like a fun way to get from downtown to, say, Fremont – ride the streetcar to South Lake Union, hop on the $3 ferry, and enjoy the ride. It probably wasn’t the fastest commute, but I was considering it as a fun end of a work evening (consisting of happy hour downtown, streetcar ride, boat ride, go out to dinner, bus or taxi home).

I missed the short season they had last year, but was prepared with a calendar reminder this year, which just popped up telling me to try this.

But sadly it won’t be open this year.

Oh well, I suppose I’ll have to wait for the next romantic commuting option to come along. I think Venetian gondolas would be a good idea – anyone have some investment capital and an accordion?

Questioning ST Design Decisions

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I didn’t live in Seattle when Sound Transit planned the route of the light rail, so stop me if this has already been debated to death. Also, I know it’s far too late to change anything. I’m just curious.

Can someone tell me why, exactly, Link takes it’s expensive and circuitus path? Considering it will take as long (or longer) as it currently does via bus to get from downtown to the airport, this would not seem like a great idea.

One would think a straight line would be the easiest, cheapest, and fastest route. This would take us through some industrial areas, which would seem to have inexpensive land. It would also drive by Boeing Field, which could be useful if it ever runs as a commercial airport. Plus it seems like there would have been little/no boring reqired.

Yes, the route drives through a few communities, but this seems like a reason to not put light rail there – you end up stopping at stoplights. Building communities around transit seems like a much better idea.

I imagine a strong difference between city-based transit, that tries to conform to neighborhoods, and regional transit, that should be built for speed. This is clearly regional transit, but seems to be designed as city transit.

Replacing Big Car Trips With Little Skinny Car Trips.

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Depending on the season, the weather, and my mood I carpool, take a bus, pedal, drive, walk, or ride a scooter to get around. Although I’d love to be able to use public transportation or my own motive power to travel everywhere, it’s nice to have the option of using fast personal transportation. However, millions of people choosing the convenience of a car has led to our current oil and environmental situation.

I’d like to recommend a partial, temporary, imperfect, yet practical solution: the scooter. Sure, I only get to drive mine four months out of the year. Yes, I can only fit two people and perhaps 3 bags of groceries. But these are really the only two compromises compared to a car. The benefits include:

* 100+ mpg
* much faster in city streets in traffic
* easy to find parking
* you travel outside, in contact with your environment
* you can park around 4 of them per parking spot
* garages downtown charge you as little as $4/day

If small personal vehicles were used more often for short trips, this could save quite a bit of fuel, parking, and traffic. It’s no replacement for a good transit system, but it’s nice to have something to get around in until we get build one. It looks like the council is interested in doing something to help scooterists out, but it’s at the early stages at best. Seattle would be doing itself a favor by making the city a bit more scooter friendly.

Did I mention they get over 100 mpg?

Wire-free weekends

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

It looks like we run diesel busses on the weekend in case construction might occur, cutting power. A group has formed to move a diesel bus route away from their street. Of course that just moves the problem around.

Why are we abandoning our bus trolley system every weekend in response to an infrequent and avoidable problem? Here’s an idea: Maybe we should put trolley power on two circuits where this occurs.

Crossing the Road

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

One piece of a transit-friendly city that is often neglected is the experience of walking. Shifting from a world of driving to a world of public transportation usually includes more foot travel. This can be an enjoyable leg (heh) of a journey or a drawn out burden depending on many factors from storefronts to weather to incline. The issue I’d like to focus on here is the interface between foot traffic and car traffic.

A bit over a year ago I left a job across the water for a job in Seattle. Something I’ve noticed since more often becoming a pedestrian is how car-centric our city is. Other than a small handful of areas that value people – the Pike Street Market area being the only one that springs to mind – intersections seem to be designed to let the most cars through as quickly as possible.

Let’s take a few examples. Walk to 6th between Union and University. Someone’s gone through the trouble of installing a mid-block crosswalk and light for the high amount foot traffic coming from a hotel. Great. But when you push the button, you’ll find that you can stand there for a good 2 minutes before it will give you a walk signal – even if there are no cars. Walk a half block south. That intersection is just as cruel – rarely backed up with cars, but always backed up with people. Walk another block south – here’s a crosswalk most try to avoid, as it’s an offramp from a freeway and if you want to cross you’d better have a book handy.

This post isn’t just about my pet-peeve intersections – there are many. It’s the planning that sits behind it. Clearly somone put thought into intersection rules, and have decided that cars should have priority. What would our city be like if the bias went the other way?

If I were king, here’s how I’d run things. If you push a button, the light immediately turns yellow, then red, and the little green walking man appears. To keep things fair, this won’t happen again in this direction for another 2 minutes no matter how often you press the button. I’d make high-ped-traffic areas completely car free. I’d banish high-volume streets to the outskirts of the city. I’d add pedestrian and bike overpasses near freeway on/off ramps – if I was feeling nice and allowing them at all.

We may spend millions of dollars on making our transit systems a few minutes faster, just to have to wait for cars once we step off the train. I know the drivers out there will feel this is unfair, but then they’re in warm weather-proof pods and are probably too distracted with their coffee and radio to notice anyway.

An optimistic view into Nickels’ mind

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I’m going to propose a theory of what may be in the heads of our civic leaders. Tell me if I’m an insane dreamer.

* The city killed the waterfront trolley.
* The city killed the waterfront trolley again.
* The mayor may want a city tax for in-city transit.
* The city has proposed a streetcar system.
* This streetcar system oddly lacks a waterfront streetcar.
* There’s been a proposal to not replace the Viaduct, but instead move people using a “thousand little fixes”.
* We could really use West Seattle transit to the city.
* We could really use transit from Ballard to the city.
* They’re reinforcing the highway 99 tunnel to withstand earthquakes.

What if they replaced the viaduct… with a streetcar? Perhaps they’ve already made the decision to do this, but don’t want to tell anyone about it until they gather support for reducing/removing car traffic on this part of 99.

It could run from scenic Alki, through the tourist filled waterfront, into the tunnel and past the Seattle Center and Queen Anne over the Aurora Bridge and down the hill to eclectic Fremont, ending in Ballard. It would connect many of the tourist-attracting areas of Seattle with one line, solve transportation issues, connect to downtown, stop at all of the cruise and ferry piers, and could even be traffic-separated for a long portion of its journey.

It wouldn’t be for commuters (though it could be used as such). It would be for travelling around in our city in an enjoyable and scenic way.