A more affordable strategy for 405 BRT

As we start to plan for BRT along 405, we’re finding that it consumes huge sums of cash to rebuild freeway segments that can provide direct access to buses in the managed express lanes at the center of the roadway. Just one of these stations, at NE 85th Street in Kirkland, is expected to cost $250 million–most of which is the cost of rebuilding the interchange to accommodate direct access to the Express Toll lanes. Little of this cost would be necessary if we could manage our roadway capacity more effectively. Easier said than done? Consider this…

Our roadway capacity is a finite resource, yet most roads have no means for managing the demand other than waiting in a line we call “traffic.” During peak hours, people sit in cars, burning fuel, wasting time, and keeping anyone from going anywhere. Could we somehow re-shape traffic so that everyone can get where they need to go without clogging our roads?

Consider the last time you went to a popular restaurant. Did you have a reservation? Or did you have to wait for a table? Now imagine a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations, yet the crowd extends far beyond its doors.

This is what we see on many freeways today, but the negative impact is much larger, spanning our economy, environment, and families. On-ramp meters that limit the flow into the freeway actually exacerbate this problem on local streets, shifting the congestion from the freeway to local streets, impeding access to local destinations (and impacting the speed, reliability, and cost of local transit services).

Instead, imagine if you could make a freeway reservation, perhaps via a website, SMS, phone call, smartphone app, or even integrated with navigation software–which is even easier than making a restaurant reservation. So now you have a reservation. Where do you put your car if it isn’t on the road?

We often exclaim, “The freeway is a parking lot!” But this mocking also hints at the solution: cars at rest should be in parking lots, not roads. And there are many grocery stores, coffee shops, malls, churches, schools, and restaurants where parking spots are abundant. Any vehicles that can’t be handled on the roads should be diverted to queue in nearby parking lots rather than gridlocking streets. Instead of being trapped in traffic, drivers could park their car and read a book, grab a snack, sit and chat with others, or just put in a few extra minutes at work. The reservation might suggest a place to park and wait; this provides another revenue opportunity for our transportation system: advertising. Your freeway reservation might even include a coupon for a discount at a nearby shop or cafe where you relax or run some errands while you wait.

But sometimes you can’t wait for a reservation. Maybe you need to pick-up kids from child care before the late fees kick-in, you’re running late to catch a flight, or you absolutely can’t be late for work. In these cases you’d be willing to pay a couple bucks if you could just go now. If you can’t spare any time, you should have the option to pay with your money.

Or maybe you simply forget to get a reservation. If that happens, you’ll be charged the prevailing freeway access fee when you enter the freeway.

And if you’re sharing your ride with anyone else (carpool, bus, or other HOV), you get a free pass as a ‘thank you’ for helping increase the capacity of our transportation system.

What if there’s an accident that blocks traffic? People holding reservations could be contacted with an suggestion to postpone their reservation, perhaps including some kind of incentive to encourage them to delay their travel, such as a coupon for a local business.

With peak hour freeway reservations, tolls, and rideshare incentives, we could convert time wasted in traffic to do something useful while significantly reducing roadway congestion. Recent advancements in communication technology make it easy for drivers to easily request reservations and drastically reduce freeway congestion.

The end result? More time with families, living life, earning money, or connecting with others…and less time and energy wasted behind the steering wheel. Freeway reservations eliminate the need to build and manage dedicated HOV lanes or toll lanes, optimizing freeway capacity for greatest efficiency with minimal initial cost. We’ll spend a lot less money on circumventing poorly-managed capacity by properly managing the capacity we have. People will spend more time getting stuff done, rather than sitting in traffic. And buses will move faster, more reliably, both on freeways and on local streets.

Connecting our cities to BRT on 405

In 2024, a new rapid transit line will connect to cities along I-405 every 10 minutes, providing direct service as far as Lynnwood and Burien.

But there’s one big problem: the stations aren’t close to where people need to go.

Consider the proposed station at NE 85th St in Kirkland: the BRT station is separated from Downtown Kirkland by a mile-long hill that climbs the equivalent of 22 flights of stairs, a 40-minute round-trip journey for a fit and capable walker. Sound Transit’s proposed solution is to build a set of bus lanes between 405 and the edge of Downtown Kirkland–throwing $50,000,000 at the least congested segment of the connection, mind you. To travel to or from the station, you’ll spend probably 5 to 10 minutes waiting for the shuttle, and another 5 to 10 minutes for the bus to trundle along thru Downtown Kirkland traffic, just like everyone else.

Isn’t there a better way? Something that’s more pleasant, or maybe even beautiful, fun, distinctive, or inspirational?

Instead, imagine…stepping into an aerial gondola for a four-minute ride with a glorious view of Downtown Kirkland and Lake Washington. Or glide down the hill on your bike, and then roll your bike into the gondola to return to the top of the hill. You know what’s even more amazing? It seems that many on Kirkland’s City Council are already on board with this idea, including Dave Asher, Penny Sweet, and Mayor Amy Walen. Kirkland’s City Manager, Kurt Triplett, has been promoting creative transportation strategies like this for years, and is also excited about the possibility of this aerial connector.

But providing a great connection at one station isn’t enough. We need to think creatively about how to create effective connections between BRT and the places where people need to go, all along this route. How do we create more efficient connections to stations in Bothell? Renton? And Woodinville?

Would you rather trundle along in another bus…or enjoy a unique view of our lovely city from above? Which of these will bring more people to businesses in our urban centers? Which of these will actually compel our residents, customers, employees, and visitors to ride transit instead of further clogging our streets…or taking yet another parking spot? Or maybe you have a better idea? Perhaps a series of covered escalators and walkways? Or just some frequent automated electric shuttles? Maybe some kind of monorail? A mini-metro? Or a cable car on an elevated steel truss guideway? Whatever it is, surely we can do better than just another bus.

Rapid transit that fits Kirkland

There’s a lot of uproar in Kirkland against buses on the trail. But the uproar is a red herring that distracts us from the real question: what locations in our city should be connected by rapid transit? Only after identifying those points should we consider which routes best connect them.

To identify those points, first consider that rapid transit stations are best supported by a large number of residents, employees, and customers; likewise, these urban villages need rapid transit to thrive. The key a thriving city–and a successful rapid transit system–is to identify and connect the areas which are (or are well positioned to become) urban villages. In Kirkland, this likely would include (from north to south, based on the Kirkland Zoning Map):

  • Evergreen Hospital & Totem Lake Malls
  • Totem Lake Business District
  • Rose Hill Business District
  • Downtown Kirkland
  • Houghton/Google
  • Carillon Point
  • Yarrow Bay Business District

405 only connects Totem Lake and Rose Hill, but is an inadequate corridor for rapid transit on its own. Likewise, the Cross Kirkland Corridor (CKC) fails to connect Downtown Kirkland, the Rose Hill Commercial District, and Evergreen Hospital (being at least a 15 minute walk from all of these). Neither 405 nor CKC adequately connects Kirkland’s urban villages on its own.

Instead, we should identify a primary line that connects most of Kirkland’s urban villages, and which opportunistically uses existing rights-of-way such as I-405, the CKC, or other streets, as appropriate.

Urban villages that are not easily served by the primary line–such as Lake Washington Institute of Technology and the Juanita Commercial District–should be connected with high frequency transit service such that transfers are reasonably easy. This could be done with busways, streetcars, or automated elevated people movers of various sorts.

I’ve drafted an alternative which blends the CKC and 405 BRT routing (https://goo.gl/sQ8JzP) into a single line which connects most of our urban villages, as well as a connector for those away from the main line, and some routing alternatives. This ‘hybrid alternative’ brings together the best of both options, giving us a chance to build a rapid transit system that best serves all of Kirkland’s urban villages.