I-5 HOV Lanes

Diagram of proposed I-5 HOV lanes

One of the quirks of I-5 is the lack of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes between I-90 and Northgate. Instead, there are reversible express lanes. This may have made sense in the 1950s, but it’s much less useful in today’s world of frequent two-way buses and dispersed urban centers.

Even the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) recognizes the problem. From their website:

HOV lanes do not continue on the mainline where there are Reversible Express Lanes. At the time of design it was thought that Reversible Express Lanes would serve the HOV needs of the area between Northgate and downtown Seattle. HOV needs for this area are now being re-examined.

As part of East Link, WSDOT is building two-way HOV lanes along the center of I-90. But the I-5 express lanes are not disappearing, and so unlike with I-90, there isn’t an imminent need to replace lost capacity. In addition, I-5’s frequent left exits make it harder to design a free-flowing HOV lane.

But hard doesn’t mean impossible. It can be done, and all it would take is a bit of paint, signage, and Jersey barriers.

Southbound, the existing left-side HOV lane would be extended along the missing span, between Northgate and the downtown express lane merge. Single-occupant vehicles (SOVs) would be allowed to enter the HOV lane to enter or exit the freeway at the Northgate express lane entrance, the left exit onto SR-520, and the left entrance from Mercer Street. (The 65th Street left entrance is already HOV-only.) Continue reading “I-5 HOV Lanes”

Bringing Frequent Service to South King County

Map by Oran (click to enlarge)
Map by Oran (click to enlarge)

Low-density suburbs present a unique challenge for designing an effective bus network. For reasons of geometry, it’s cost-prohibitive to run a direct bus between each suburban corridor and the center city, or to build a grid of ultra-frequent routes running along each arterial. Instead, suburban bus networks are generally organized on the “trunk-feeder” system. A high-capacity route runs between the center city and a suburban transit center, and a series of shorter and less frequent routes run between the transit center and the rest of the suburban area.

Metro has long used this principle to guide its service planning in Kent and Renton. Route 150 provides frequent all-day trunk service between the Kent Transit Center (TC) and downtown Seattle, via the Southcenter Mall (also an important connection point), while Route 101 acts as the trunk between Renton TC and downtown. A pile of other routes connect to one or more of these transit centers, including the 105, 148, 156, 164, 166, 168, 169, 180, and 183. In addition, Metro operates a handful of park and rides (P&Rs) that are also useful as connection points, most notably the South Renton P&R.

When Central Link opened in 2009, it instantly created a new super-high-capacity trunk line, running very close to the 101 and 150. Many people expected Metro to propose an extensive reorganization of Kent and Renton service, moving connection points from the existing transit centers to the new light rail stations. While Metro did reorganize some services, it made few changes in Kent and Renton. To this day, the 101 and 150 each have a long freeway-running segment that largely parallels Central Link.

Riders in Kent and Renton have been resistant to change; they like having a quick one-seat ride to downtown. However, the current network leaves much to be desired. Route 101 only comes every half hour, and it makes a time-consuming detour to South Renton P&R on its way to Renton TC. Route 150 does run every 15 minutes, but it spends 15 minutes slogging through Southcenter, a path that would take 5 minutes to drive. These deviations represent a significant time sink for the riders who aren’t using them.

Continue reading “Bringing Frequent Service to South King County”

Waiting for the Bus

People really hate waiting. Research suggests that many people misjudge the amount of time they spend waiting for the bus, overestimating by anywhere from 50-100%. This is a problem for transit ridership, since you don’t have to wait to drive your car.

The Atlantic Cities recently suggested that real-time arrival information might be the answer; a University of Washington study found that people who used OneBusAway (a real-time bus information service) were able to accurately measure the amount of time they spent waiting.

However, let’s say we assume that waiting is truly the root of all evil. Could we revamp an existing transit system to avoid waiting, or at least make it as pleasant as possible? What would it look like? Here are a few suggestions.

Note that I don’t think all of these suggestions should be implemented as is. Rather, they’re meant to provoke discussion about the goals of our current transit system, and whether those goals are the right ones.

Maximize frequency. If one bus runs every 30 minutes, and another bus runs every 15 minutes, the average wait time for the second bus will be half as long. Double frequency again, and wait time again goes down by half. The gold standard is a line like the NYC Lexington Ave subway, which comes so frequently that you’re liable to watch two trains go by as you make your way from the fare gates to the platform. More realistically, a bus that comes every 10 minutes or less has an average wait time of 5 minutes or less, which is a huge improvement over the status quo. But there’s no such thing as too much frequency.

Choose frequency over span and coverage. If a bus only runs once every hour, then for the amount people will have to wait, it might as well not be running at all. Better to use those service hours on improving frequency during a shorter window of service, or to improve frequency on a different bus that follows a similar route.

Choose frequency over speed. If a bus only runs once every 30 minutes, but it has a long non-stop segment, then it would be better to reroute it so that it has a timed connection to a nearby train or frequent bus. The resulting trip will be slower, but less time will be spent waiting.

Prefer bus routes along neighborhood-commercial streets. Don’t force people to walk from a vibrant commercial street to a quiet residential road, or a loud car-centered arterial or freeway. Use the streets that provide a better waiting experience, even if they’ll make the bus slower. As a litmus test, if a street is a great place to walk, it’s probably a great place to wait for the bus; if no one is out walking, then no one will want to wait there, either.

Prefer bus stops in front of good waiting places. If you’re at a coffee shop or restaurant that’s adjacent to your bus stop, then you almost don’t have to wait outside at all; you can stay inside until you know the bus is about to arrive. A bus stop in front of a bank or a parking lot offers no such advantage. Worst of all are freeway stops, where you’re exposed to both weather and noise, with nothing to distract you.

Prefer connections at great waiting places. The wait for the second bus is even worse than the wait for the first bus. You can’t avoid the wait by running out the door at the last minute. The best connection points are blocks with tons of interesting retail establishments and street life. The worst connection points are freeway exits or interchanges.

Don’t have too many stops. Sitting on a stopped bus isn’t as bad as waiting for the bus to come, but it’s not nearly as good as sitting on a bus that’s moving. A carefully chosen set of stops, where each stop provides a relatively pleasant waiting experience, will minimize the amount of time that riders spend waiting for the bus to resume moving.

Prefer stop amenities to on-vehicle amenities. For example, heated bus shelters would dramatically improve the waiting experience on cold winter days, while Wi-Fi would give people something to do. This is especially important for stops that must be placed in terrible locations, such as major freeway stations.

To reiterate, I don’t think that all of these changes are appropriate all the time. But I do think it’s interesting to think about the kind of transit network we’d have if we truly wanted to eliminate the unpleasantness of waiting. It might be better, and it might be worse, but it would undoubtedly be quite different from what we have today.

Financially Sustainable Transit

King County Metro has a revenue crisis. They are currently facing a $75 million annual shortfall, and without a new source of revenue, they will be forced to institute a 17% cut in service hours.

Most of Metro’s money comes from taxes and fares. So if Metro needs new revenue, then it’s only logical to look to these sources. King County is actively working on a plan to raise the sales tax and the vehicle license fee (paid annually on vehicle registration renewal) to address this shortfall, as well as providing some additional money for local road maintenance. I strongly support their efforts, and will enthusiastically vote for the measure when it hits my ballot.

However, there’s something that’s always bugged me about Metro’s fare structure. If Alice rides the bus for two stops, and Bob rides for 15 miles, they both pay the same $2.25 fare. (And if Bob has a monthly pass, he may end up paying less than Alice on a per-trip basis.) No other transportation service works like this. Taxi fares are based on distance and time. Toll roads cost more the further you drive. Airlines set fares based on costs and demand. Long-distance trains and buses, commuter rail… the list goes on. Only local transit networks have flat fares. Continue reading “Financially Sustainable Transit”