36th District Candidate Debate Review

Candidates, photo by the author

On June 13th, all seven candidates appeared at the Queen Anne Community Center for a public debate sponsored in part by the Seattle Transit Blog.  Sponsoring this event was a big win for transit, as much of the debate revolved around transportation at the state and local level.

I was impressed by all of the candidates – though nobody beat Gael in political savvy, most were strongly pro-transit and each was sharp and had reasonably good grasps on the issues.  The candidates ranged from Left-Wing Linde that proposes a state banking system, to Republican Ryan that believes homelessness is caused by real estate taxes.

In regard to transit, here was an interesting series of questions:

Question: Should we prioritize road maintenance over building new roads?

Answer: Everyone says yes.

Question:What % of transportation budget should go to transit, bike, feet? (currently 7%)

Answer Ryan:  (I wrote “depends” in my notes, don’t recall exact answer)

Answer Evan: 15%

Answer Sahar, Noel, Gael, Brett: 50%

Answer Linde: 75%

Question from audience: How can you both increase transit spending to 50% of budget, while prioritizing road maintenance? Are you just telling us what we want to hear?

Answer: Nobody answers this correctly (in my humble opinion).  Gael answered best by changing the subject, saying that we need to spend money on transit at the state level to chase federal grants.  Noel had a reasonable approach, saying this 50% is a starting point for negotiations.  Brett said his 15% came from the proportion of people that use transit.  I think a fair answer anyone could have given is that the first question was effectively just saying we shouldn’t be building new roads, or at least focus on fixing our existing roads first.

One transit-adjacent issue that most candidates need to work on is the issue of toxic runoff.  This came up as two seperate questions, and I wasn’t satisfied with several answers.  Sahar  and Noel gave answers that revealed they need to study the issue more, and although Gael seemed to understand the issue well, her answer to the problem was very weak (#1 measure: improved government procurement).  Linde suggested we tax lawn fertilizer.  The shining winner on this issue was Brett, whose answers were detailed, intellegent, and implementable (get Puget Sound listed as a national Great Water, provide incentives for green roofs, subsidise transit and electric cars, and #1 solution would be reducing single occupant vehicles).

From left to right in the picture:

Sahar Fathi (Prefers Democratic Party), Ryan Gabriel (Prefers Republican Party), Brett Phillips (Prefers Democratic Party), Evan Clifthorne (Prefers Democratic Party), Linde Knighton (Prefers Progressive Party), Noel Christina Frame (Prefers Democratic Party), Gael Tarleton (Prefers Democratic Party)

Making Transit Fun: The Brooklyn Slide

I’ve recently finished reading Darrin Nordahl’s ebook Making Transit FUN!, and it’s inspired a few ideas.  I’ll write up a review soon, but for now I present my latest idea: the Brooklyn Slide.  Imagine if instead of walking down two long sets of stairs or escalators in the future Brooklyn Station, you could shoot down a slide from the surface right to the platform.  This would save countless hours of passenger commute time, and would be fun.

Considering Sound Transit is only halfway done with design, there’s still plenty of time to add this little, cheap design enhancement.  Though I show a straight slide in my illustration, this could be helical after a straight section.  This could also likely work at the Roosevelt Station, Capitol Hill Station, or Bellevue Station, as they have similar designs.  If there’s any concern about safety, cleaning, liability, or maintenance, I refer you to previous designs implemented in parks throughout Seattle on city land, built safe enough for children to use.

Transit slides are not unprecedented, there are several that have been built as retrofit installations.  The difference here is that we have the opportunity to build one right into the station from the start.

Brooklyn Slide, Matt Gangemi

Tap-on, Tap-off


In preparation for tomorrow’s Ride Free Area forum, I thought it would be a good time to discuss distance based fares.  One of the real problems I’ve had with ending the RFA is that King County Metro’s fare system is nearly flat. 

Flat fares are a bit like having a single price for ice cream, where someone buying a small cone pays as much as the next guy with his family-size banana split.  Of course this is a great deal for the hungry ice cream eater, but a terrible deal for the small cone customers and over time they just stop coming in.

Hopping back to the real world, let’s look at typical trip inside the current RFA.  Walking from 5th and Union to 3rd and Cherry, according to Google Maps, takes 11 minutes.  A bus trip, however, takes only 9 minutes.  Not a big difference, but if it’s cold outside it would be worth a little money and if you’re in a hurry every minute counts.  But how much is this trip worth to you?  My guess is that $4.50 round trip per person, is high for 4 minutes of time saved (that’s almost $70/hr!).  $5 a way could get you a taxi, which would be faster, involve less walking, and you could take friends for free.

Now compare that to a banana split trip on KC Metro.  Maybe a #15 from Blue Ridge.  That’s a 46 minute ride off-peak, shaving countless minutes off a walk or a large number of dollars off a taxi.  Yet the price is the same.  And that’s just within the city – go to a small additional fare for a 2-zone ride and you can go all the way across the county.

The market figured out a good solution to this problem a long time ago – charge a small enough amount for the small cones that people keep coming in for ice cream.  In the transit world, that’s distance-based fares.  Sound Transit’s Link light rail has done exactly this – charging based on distance*.  Link uses ORCA cards and requiring a tap-on and a tap-off.  If you forget to tap-off you’re charged the maximum fare.

Metro can and should copy Link’s strategy.  ORCA, combined with GPS, would allow this functionality.  All we’d really need are rear door ORCA readers – an upgrade that Metro failed to invest in last year because it wouldn’t work with their fare system (sigh).

An added benefit of this strategy is that it doesn’t just focus on downtown Seattle.  You would be able to get across any neighborhood at a reasonable price. 

* I still think they should go further – the minimum fare of $2 is likely not going to attract many short trip riders.  Make it $0.50 and more people will use it.

Use ORCA for Everything

Suica Card, Wikimedia

In my previous post, I proposed selling carrots on Metro buses, and allowing people to use their ORCA cards for this purchase. 

ORCA cards have the ability for what’s called an E-Purse.  This stores money on your ORCA card for travel that isn’t covered by a regular pass.  I use my E-Purse* to pay for the occasional ferry trip, which is outside the coverage area of my pass, and deposit money into it using a credit card and ORCA’s website. 

When writing the carrot piece I had no idea if ORCA cards could theoretically be used to purchase non-transit goods and services.  After all, if your employer is paying for part of your ORCA card and recieving a tax benefit for doing so, it wouldn’t make sense to allow people to buy carrots (or anything else) with that money.  So I sent an e-mail to the contact page on the ORCA website, and recieved this reply (emphesis mine):

The E-purse that is on the ORCA card can only be used for transportation services.  The reason for this is to prevent cardholders who receive transportation benefits from using them for non-transit purposes in keeping with FTA and IRS regulations.  However, there is memory capacity on the card to implement a second E-purse that could be used for non-transit purchases.  Although this isn’t on our short term horizon, it may be something that we explore in the future. 

So it’s possible.  Let’s think of the implications of carrying real money on your ORCA card.

  • Just as it’s quick and easy to board a bus using ORCA, you could pay quickly at convenience stores. 
  • Pay for parking with a swipe? 
  • Vending machines.
  • Bus carrots.

Of course, these benefits would be incentives for more people to carry an ORCA card.  And it turns out that there’s at least two systems that have already implemented this – Tokyo’s Pasmo and Suica Cards.

* Which I always coordinate with my E-Shoes – it’s a bold look for a man.

One Solution to the Bus Food Problem


There was recently a long, passionate, and strange argument in the comment section of STB about whether food should be allowed on the bus.  Some of the more bizarre (to me) arguments include: buses are so slow, I need to eat at some point in the journey and people shouldn’t eat on buses because Americans are fat.

I have a solution.  I’ve been reading Darrin Nordahl’s book Making Transit Fun (we’ll have a review here in a few weeks), and this idea would fit right in to the theme. 

The idea:  change Metro policy to disallow all food except carrots.  Hire a pleasant, friendly salesperson to wear Metro orange from head to foot.  Buy large local organic carrots, wash and dry them, and cut the ends off (so carrot top litter doesn’t become a problem).  Then have her hop on and off not-packed-full buses, selling carrots for $0.50 each.  And give her an ORCA card reader to charge from your ePurse. 

Yes, carrots are loud.  But that’s part of the fun.  Imagine hopping on a bus and finding it full people crunching on carrots. 

Benefits include:

  • Carrots are healthy.  There goes the Americans are fat argument.
  • Carrots are food.  There goes the OMG I WILL STARVE argument.
  • Carrots are clean.  They have little smell, aren’t wet or sticky, and have no wrapper.
  • This would be fun.  It would support interaction between bus riders.  It might boost ORCA adoption, as you can actually buy something with it.  It might even drive up ridership, as people see the news stories about bus carrots.  It would certainly make the bus feel a little more friendly and inviting.

Long Distance Buses in Turkey

As BoltBus starts up 4x a day bus service between Seattle and Portland, building on QuickCoach‘s 7x a day service between Seattle and Vancouver BC, it might be a good time to look at a country with inter-city bus travel that really works.  I’ve already looked at Istanbul’s wide array of travel options, now let’s consider the best way to get between cities in Turkey.

Ankara Bus Terminal, Tomek Türkiyede

Continue reading “Long Distance Buses in Turkey”

The Tragedy of the Infrequent Route

Harbor Island, Google Maps

Among Metro’s routes that head downtown, we’re about to lose the worst performing bus, the #35.  This will cut off Harbor Island, leaving an over 1 mile walk for the dock workers on the north end.  If you care about system efficiency, it’s hard to argue that keeping a service with 1.4 passenger miles per platform miles is a good use of resources.  Passenger miles per platform miles means when you count all of the time the #35 is running there’s an average of 1.4 people on board at any given point.

Although not a perfect case, the #35 does bring to mind an important point.  Details matter.  When you cut a bus service down below a frequent schedule, some people find it inconvenient to have to wait so they find other ways to travel.  When that schedule drops to a few times per day other riders find there’s not enough of a backup plan in case they miss the last bus, so they start driving to be sure they can get home.  And when these few buses arrive at strange hours of the day (the #35 arrives at 3:39 and 4:09 in the afternoon, and that’s it), it may drop almost all of its ridership since there are far stronger factors that affect work hours than just a bus schedule. Continue reading “The Tragedy of the Infrequent Route”

A Problem Many Cities Would Like to Have

Seattle, Matt Gangemi

People love Seattle.  So what do we do about our popularity?  Here are our choices.

1. Allow additional housing capacity throughout Seattle (how and where to do this is open for debate), allowing people that want to move here to move here without kicking those with less money out.

2. Keep our restrictive zoning that only allows a small rate of growth, and allow affordability to plummet as rents go up to match demand.

The housing crisis won’t last forever.  We can ride the next building boom, or watch as the suburbs do it for us.


Enlarged View, Matt Gangemi

A conversation over at the Utility vs. Fun post reminded me of an idea I had years ago.  Note that this post is for fun only, and we live in a world that’s far too serious to ever implement such a plan. 

Spinland would be a completely constructed city, built on a body of water.  In this case I’ve chosen the north end of Lake Washington, as this will also provide a new pedestrian means of crossing the lake.  The inner portion of the city will float and turn using power from incoming water (additional hydro power can likely be generated).  It will turn very slowly, specifically three times per day (around 0.4 mph at the edge for this size city). 

Residences will be located outside the spinning area, and clustered together.  Businesses will be located on the spinning disk, and will also be clustered together.  A cluster of offices will pass a cluster of homes at 8am, and again at 4pm.  There will be clusters of retail areas, schools, and other services also located on the disk.  Continue reading “Spinland”

A Tax on the Poor, Benefiting the Rich

Matthew Yglesias, joining Publicola in responding to a recent Seattle Times editorial, pointed out on Tuesday that:


parking mandates are a regressive subsidy. The 16 percent of Seattle households with no car are a disproportionately low-income slice of the city’s population.

Let’s expand on that a bit.  I think it’s fairly clear that the main beneficiaries of parking minimums are those with more vehicles, which would tend to be citizens with a higher income.  On the other side of the equation, who do these minimums harm?  I would group the carless as either urban types that don’t care to drive, the elderly or disabled that can’t drive, or the poor that can’t afford to drive.  Yet these groups are currently being forced to pay higher rents, to make sure if they do ever buy a car they will be less likely to use up “free” street parking.
Continue reading “A Tax on the Poor, Benefiting the Rich”

The Ama

Please, put down your drink.  Then read Michael van Baker’s post about gondolas.  It is hilarious yet intelligent, stringing history together with current events to come up with a possible future.  It’s genius.  I don’t love the recent criticism that Amazon isn’t philanthropic enough – that’s their business, and I believe that social services should be provided by the government.  That said, the Seattle Center to SLU to Capitol Hill line likely benefits Amazon more than any one entity.  And considering how slow our tax-averse state is to build infrastructure, a helping hand from the private sector would be appreciated. 

I wonder if stringing a fiber optic line on the thing would be useful.

The Peak Oil Post

Considering how important peak oil is to our society and our future, I’m constantly amazed at how few people have heard of it, much less understand it.  I’m no expert on the subject, and most of the information in this piece comes from the Internet – I won’t even bother to reference much, you can get it all from Wikipedia.  But I thought a brief summary of the issues involved might raise the level of debate when the issue comes up.

What is peak oil?
Hubbert curve, WikipediaPeak oil is simply the point at which petroleum production is at its historical and future maximum. It is not an end to oil production, only a point in time when the market changes dramatically. In fact, it’s roughly the point at which half of all oil that will ever be extracted has been extracted. The consumption of oil has increased almost continuously from the day a use for it was discovered, and at the point of peak oil this will have to change. Continue reading “The Peak Oil Post”

Parking is Hard to Find when Parking is Free

On Tuesday, I was correctly admonished for not providing data in an opinion piece where I criticized another opinion piece for not having data.  Sorry about that.  As penance, here’s some data about the neighborhoods that have recently increased paid parking hours from 6pm to 8pm.

SDOT published a very detailed report (34MB PDF) from two large parking surveys.  The first was performed in November 2010, before rates were increased.  The second was performed in June of 2011, after rates increased.  The report was intended to show the effect of this rate increase, but I’m more interested in the shape of the curves to see if charging for parking after 6pm could be beneficial.  Of course the real useful data, comparing parking rates and turnover before and after the longer parking hours were implemented isn’t available yet.

Let’s start with Capitol Hill, the area discussed in the original Times piece:

Capitol Hill Weekday Parking, SDOT

Continue reading “Parking is Hard to Find when Parking is Free”

Dear Seattle Restaurants: You’re Doing it Wrong

Seattle parking meter, SDOT

When I read the headline “Parking fees drive diners away” in Seattle’s largest car-loving paper, I expected some sort of evidence to back this claim up. But it turned out to be an opinion piece without adding any facts to the debate. Skimming past the usual logical but flawed argument of higher parking rates = fewer customers, I came to the final argument. That employees are having to pay more for street parking.

For those who must drive, the additional two hours of paid parking require them to spend another $6 to $8 per shift. This amount is not trivial to our employees.

Let me be very clear: street parking in retail areas is not for workers. It is not for residents. It is for retail customers.  If your business relies on a substantial amount of business from people that drive, parking space that’s less than a block from your business is very valuable resource. The greater number of people you can get in and out of that space within a day will directly translate into more business for you. Having your employees parking in those spaces the entire time they’re working in your restaurant is a terrible idea. Charging for parking encourages people to move their cars quickly. Charging more than private lots encourages people to park in private lots if they need to park for a long amount of time. If your employees are encouraged to switch to a private lot, this is good for your business.

On Food Trucks as a Reasonable Compromise

Martin recently posted about the lack of success Seattle’s food trucks.  There’s plenty of good discussion in the comments about whether food trucks are even a good idea.  I thought I’d take a step back and look at what the best system would be, and how to best approximate that system.

If I had a magic wand that could change downtown Seattle exactly how I’d want it, when it came to restaurants we’d have a lot more areas that look like this:

Pike Place, Wikimedia

Continue reading “On Food Trucks as a Reasonable Compromise”

The Right Tool for the Job: Istanbul

Istanbul, Matt Gangemi

In my last piece, I looked at a system that uses just one tool: buses, buses, buses.  Let’s take a look at a system that does the opposite.

Istanbul is an ancient city, built and rebuilt on Greek and Roman ruins.  It is geographically constrained, and has an unfortunate highway running through it that connects Asia to Europe.  But despite these constraints they’ve built a wonderfully functional transit system. Continue reading “The Right Tool for the Job: Istanbul”

Downtown Walkable Radius

Inspired by Roger’s post, I thought I’d look at whether downtown makes sense from a pedestrian standpoint.  Here’s the map:

1/2 mile and 1 mile radius from 3rd and Spring

Green Circle: 1/2 mile radius.

Using 3rd and Spring as roughly the center of the city, I first drew the green circle.  I consider 1/2 mile the distance a person would walk rather than look for alternate transportation.  You can see immediately why downtown works so well.  All of downtown fits in this circle, making it easy to hop between offices for meetings or to head out for lunch.  The waterfront is in this circle, as is Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, the Convention Center, the ferry dock, and many large hotels, which make this also a great place for tourists.  There is that pesky I-5 cutting through the right side, which cuts off most of what’s east of there from easy walking.  But luckily 99 is above ground within this circle, so it doesn’t get in the way too much. Continue reading “Downtown Walkable Radius”

Courts: Light Rail Allowed Over I-90

I-90 Bridge, Wikipedia

Kemper Freeman’s lawsuit has failed to make it past summary judgement.  The Superior Court of Kittitas County filed a summary judgment on Freeman’s lawsuit against the State of Washington, finding the use of part of the highway for light rail is allowed under state law.

The issue in question stems from the 1944 Amendment under the state’s constitution stating:

All fees collected by the State of Washington as license fees for motor vehicles and all excise taxes collected by the State of Washington on the sale, distribution or use of motor vehicle fuel and all other state revenue intended to be used for highway purposes, shall be paid into the state treasury and placed in a special fund to be used exclusively for highway purposes. Such highway purposes shall be construed to include the following:

(a) The necessary operating, engineering and legal expenses connected with the administration of public highways, county roads and city streets;

(b) The construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, and betterment of public highways, county roads, bridges and city streets; including the cost and expense of (1) acquisition of rights-of-way, (2) installing, maintaining and operating traffic signs and signal lights, (3) policing by the state of public highways, (4) operation of movable span bridges, (5) operation of ferries which are a part of any public highway, county road, or city street;

(c) The payment or refunding of any obligation of the State of Washington, or any political subdivision thereof, for which any of the revenues described in section 1 may have been legally pledged prior to the effective date of this act;

(d) Refunds authorized by law for taxes paid on motor vehicle fuels;

(e) The cost of collection of any revenues described in this section:

Provided, That this section shall not be construed to include revenue from general or special taxes or excises not levied primarily for highway purposes, or apply to vehicle operator’s license fees or any excise tax imposed on motor vehicles or the use thereof in lieu of a property tax thereon, or fees for certificates of ownership of motor vehicles.

Freeman argued that since I-90 was built with motor vehicle taxes, it cannot be leased or sold to Sound Transit for use with light rail.  The court disagreed, stating:

The court agrees Article 2, Section 40 restricts the use of motor vehicle excise taxes to the use for highway purposes but it does not restrict the State from eventually declaring the highway surplus and then using it for non-highway purposes, provided, however, that the motor vehicle funds used to constuct the highway are in effect repaid to preclude any allegation that the State is circumventing the intent of Article 2, Section 40.

full judgment here 

On Seattle as an Extremophile City

The Gondola Project has responded to d.p.’s claim that Seattle should not want to be the first North American city with a gondola system, because of the effort and expense required to be a first mover.  They make the case that:

  1. If it’s rational for Seattle to wait for other cities, it’s just as rational for other cities to wait for Seattle.  The result is that nothing gets built.
  2. It’s arrogant to dismiss the heavy lifting done by places like Caracas, Medellin and Rio de Janeiro (and I’d add Algeria) simply because they’re poor.
  3. Seattle has already placed itself in the extremophile position (sorry, my fault).  Other cities will look to us to be the first mover.

Read the whole thing here.

Great arguments.  But I think they missed one point.  Sometimes it’s great to be the first mover.  The Pacific Northwest, and Seattle in particular, is very good at being cutting edge.  And we profit from being first.

Let’s take the example of green buildings.  The Pacific Northwest leads the US in green buildings, specifically LEED buildings though we’re going much beyond LEED into net-zero and Passivhaus.  Being on the leading edge has grown our architects, engineers, and construction firms into sustainability experts.  This expertise is highly valuable, and our services are in demand throughout the US and the world.  There are now 1.8 billion square feet of LEED certified commercial space in the world and as early adopters we’ve been one of the go-to cities for expertise.  Similar examples can be found in airplanes, software, and even coffee.

Sure, gondolas may not go anywhere.  It might just be one weird system that Seattle has that nobody else wants to touch – perhaps it may even fail before we get that far.  Or it can be one more symbol that Seattle is still an innovative city that’s not afraid to be out in front of the pack.