What will be the new normal for post-COVID ridership?

Photo by AvgeekJoe / Flickr

Like many workers, I all but abandoned transit usage through 2020 and most of 2021, only returning mid-last year as my office reopened. Yet even as a lot of facets of society have returned to normal, transit ridership has struggled to rebound. There is still lingering uncertainty as COVID persists and most company return-to-office plans have either been delayed or scrapped altogether.

Prior to the pandemic, there were certain arbitrary figures that you could say were the high water mark of good ridership. I remember how big a deal it was when Sound Transit hit 100K daily boardings systemwide. These kinds of absolute figures don’t have much functional value, but they served as a common lingo for benchmarking among transit enthusiasts.

With the transition out of the pandemic, there is a pressing question of what the new normal might be. Will Metro ever hit 400K daily boardings again? Do we toss all the ST2 and ST3 ridership estimates down the drain? Or do we focus on other metrics instead? Two years into the pandemic and counting, it’s fairly evident that there has been and will be no “v-shaped” recovery for transit ridership.

The issue is that many of the variables that go into ridership projections are still riddled with near-term uncertainty. It remains to be seen whether inflation stabilizes, and if gas prices will follow suit. Budget-induced service impacts from depleted farebox recovery also loom. More difficult to quantify is if COVID has forever introduced an aversion to public spaces and crowds for some individuals. And the two biggest unknowns, in my mind, are land use forecasts and commute patterns, both of which are predicated on still-fluid remote work policies.

Here’s a crude back-of-the-napkin analysis for calculating potential lost ridership: Roughly half of pre-COVID ridership was commuters, of which we might assume a third will now be fully remote, another third will be hybrid (commuting a few days a week), and the remaining third will go back to the office mostly full-time. Rounding out the math, that gives us a quarter of trips that will disappear forever. According to APTA, nationwide ridership is still hovering about 50-60% of pre-pandemic levels.

The forecasts sound discouraging but I’m not sure it even matters if we get back to pre-COVID ridership. What does matter is that cities and transit agencies immediately adapt to our new housing and land use reality. More remote work probably means less activity in central business districts and a greater dispersion of activity across smaller urban villages and neighborhood centers. It also means more housing diversity and mixed-use development — even in single-family zones — is still badly needed.

As a consequence, I expect transit systems will shift away from being commuter-heavy. This naturally means downsizing peak-only services and building up frequent all-day cross-town connections. We saw signs of this shift early in the pandemic and there isn’t much reason to expect a drastic recalculation.

It’s good to remember that remote work reduces travel demand period, not just for transit. People working (near) where they live can be a good thing, as long as we build the right communities to support it.

East Link opening likely delayed until 2024

East Link construction, by Atomic Taco / Flickr

Mike Lindblom at the Seattle Times has the scoop:

Project staff mentioned a potential start date of February 2024 in a presentation Tuesday to King County Metro Transit rail-division employees. Metro personnel operate and maintain the trains.

“That information is a bit premature,” Ron Lewis, director of design, engineering and construction management, said in an interview afterward. Lewis said he can’t provide a reliable opening date until after a new study of risk factors, which he said should be ready by June.

This isn’t the most surprising development, albeit a disappointing one. Construction in 2021 and 2022 has been riddled with mishaps and the concrete drivers strike. Unfortunately, the technical complexity of the extension means that all the project float is likely to be eaten up. This places East Link opening three years behind what was projected in ST2.

The silver lining is that the delay buys some extra time to work on an optimal Eastside restructure that takes into account the post-COVID future. Eastsiders have also resiliently waited 14 years since ST2 approval; two more will hopefully feel like a breeze.

South Bellevue Park & Ride reopens to little fanfare

New South Bellevue P&R garage / photo by Bob Bengford

Over the weekend, the South Bellevue P&R inconspicuously reopened to the public after being closed for more than 4 years of East Link station construction. The new park-and-ride greatly expands capacity from the previous 500 some surface stalls to around 1500 spaces. Prior to its closure, the park-and-ride was a major source of commuter ridership for those coming from east via I-90 and south via 405.

East Link service itself is still some two years out but the City of Bellevue had prioritized early reopening of the park-and-ride. However, with ridership still hampered due to the pandemic, the garage is unlikely to see substantial use for now. With the reopening, routes 241, 249, 550, and 556 are also now using the new bus loop, sparing riders the unpleasant experience of having to wait on busy and pedestrian-unfriendly Bellevue Way.

Longer-time readers will remember that the location of the park-and-ride was in dispute when Bellevue bitterly clashed with Sound Transit over the alignment. There was a brief period of time when an alternative station location straddling I-90 was proposed. Although we would view picking between mega-garages as choosing the lesser of two evils, the existing site is far superior, in terms of pedestrian and transit accessibility.

With the park-and-ride reopening and live train testing finally commencing on the Bellevue-Overlake segment, glimpses of operational rail transit should plenty whet the appetite of Eastside transit riders for 2023.

A libertarian case for robust transit investment

SounderBruce/Flickr

Seattle Transit Blog is officially a non-partisan publication, but it’s no secret that our favored policy positions tend to align with those on the progressive left. As someone with a libertarian streak, I want to make the case that pro-transit libertarianism has a strong ideological foundation, and in so doing, disabuse anyone of the notion that progressives monopolize the transit advocacy space.

Several years ago, I interviewed Bill Lind for a short piece on the conservative case for rail transit. Lind was a shining light among transportation thinkers, but he – like many fellow conservatives – disdained bus transit in favor of rail. Nonetheless, I found his insight to be refreshing among a cohort that has historically fought against transit.

Unfortunately, Lind’s views are largely a minority in the modern Republican and Libertarian Parties. Although ambivalence around transit is fairly pervasive at the federal level, local Republicans have historically lobbied hard against regional transit spending and initiatives.

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Editorial: Don’t let Mercer Island impede regional progress

The 77th Ave SE configuration as outlined in the 2017 SEPA Addendum

[Update: the original post incorrectly implied that the Mercer Island city council meeting will be on 9/16, when it in fact will be on Tuesday 9/15. This has been fixed.]

It’s hard to believe that more than ten years have passed since Bellevue and Sound Transit began their long slog over East Link routing. It took rounds of council meetings, open houses, endless studies, and competing community activism to get to a compromise that both agencies continue to champion today.

Although neither side got exactly what they wanted, both the City of Bellevue and Sound Transit managed to escape the saga free of litigation directly between the two parties. This accomplishment is precisely what makes Mercer Island’s recent actions particularly frustrating. Bellevue — arguably responsible for higher decision-making impact — managed to abstain from habitual litigiousness; yet this act is somehow beneath Mercer Island.

Readers may recall that the 2017 Settlement Agreement was only the result of first a suit from Mercer Island and then a subsequent counter-suit from Sound Transit. Sadly, the city council’s recent announcement shows that the agreement was merely a short reprieve from what looks to be a lengthy legal contest. Most disappointing is the impact that this will potentially have on the rest of East Link’s beneficiaries.

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Upzone opportunities for RapidRide K

Zoning along Northup Way and 116th Ave NE in Bellevue

When the RapidRide K Line opens on the Eastside in 2025, it’s hardly expected to gain the same fanfare as East Link will two years before it. Nonetheless, better high-capacity bus service is no less deserving of a sensible complementary land use policy that maximizes available development opportunities.

The full alignment has yet to be finalized but wherever it ends up being, the K Line faces the same fundamental challenge as the B Line: lots of single-family zoning and very little infill for redevelopment. While it’s not reasonable to expect any major planning effort for gangbusters TOD, there are a few upzone opportunities worthy of attention: NE 85th in Kirkland and Northup/116th in Bellevue.

The City of Kirkland is currently pursuing a station area plan for the NE 85th Stride BRT station. In the likely event that the K Line ends up traversing 85th between downtown Kirkland and Totem Lake, it will serve the dual purpose of providing a frequent connection to Stride as well as support development in the station area. The initial development framework calls for incremental infill and mixed use zones just outside the I-405 right-of-way.

The 85th interchange is already receiving hot attention between WSDOT, Sound Transit, and Kirkland. It’s slated to be one of the most expensive ST3 projects so it makes sense that the City will want to squeeze as much as it can out of the investment. It remains to be seen how much success will be found in planning around a massive freeway although the early concepts look promising enough.

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What does COVID-19 mean for density?

Third and Pine (Oran, Flickr)

We like to style ourselves a pro-transit blog but I think it’s more accurate to say that we’re actually pro-density. Among density’s chief benefits is the ability to capture efficiencies from people living close together. Yet under COVID-19 guidelines, we’re being taught to live the opposite: socially distance, keep six feet apart from one another, and do our best to stay home and away from enclosed indoor spaces.

Some are using the crisis to make the argument that contagion is a major downside to dense urban living – they point to New York City and chalk up the high rates of infection to its population density. Yet while major metropolises have been the ones headlining daily news coverage on the virus, its spread has been anything but localized. There are now COVID-19 cases in the majority of counties in the US.

I’m not arguing that density should be tossed out as a key epidemiological factor in the coronavirus’s spread – I think it’s clear that being in crowded quarters almost certainly increases the susceptibility of infection. But there are serious fallacies in interpreting “social distancing” as “we shouldn’t live in cities,” as I outline below.

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Connect 2020 is a reminder to improve 4th & Jackson

Tilt shift of 4th & Jackson (Shane in the City/Flickr)

The recurring message for Connect 2020 riders is that alternatives are your friend during the ten-week period. While many downtown-bound Sounder commuters have traditionally headed straight to the International District Link station (IDS) to reach their final destination, a smaller portion connects to buses at either the near-side or far-side stop at 4th and Jackson. During Connect 2020, Sound Transit has been heralding this much humbler connection point as a good alternative to Link for transferring Sounder commuters. But you don’t need a disruptive service event to make that connection palatable – 4th/Jackson is actually already a superior option for many peak commuters, thanks to high service frequency and ease of access. With a little attention, it could be even better.

By a rough count, both near and far-side stops at 4th & Jackson see a combined frequency of 125 buses per hour in the heart of the peak period, an average headway of 30 seconds, over 12 times regular Link frequency and over 30 times today’s.

Furthermore, 4th & Jackson is simply easier to access from Sounder than IDS. Sounder customers are already there after exiting the stairwells and one or two street crossings. Connecting to Link, on the other hand, means passing Union Station and then going back underground. The transfer is also subject to the bottlenecks not only at the IDS ingress points, but also in the tight pedestrian ways at Weller and, to a lesser extent, outside Union Station’s north entrance.

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Microsoft, Amazon Take the Lead on Public-Private Transport Funding

Proposed ped-bike bridge connecting Overlake TC Link Station
Proposed ped-bike bridge connecting Overlake TC Link Station

As we mentioned in our news roundup last week, Microsoft is generously agreeing to pitch in on a new ped-bike bridge that would span SR-520 and connect to the new East Link station at Overlake. The contribution kills two birds with one stone: it greatly increases access to the station while also improving connectivity across Microsoft’s massive campus, which is cleaved in two by 520. Furthermore, it’s an encouraging sign that rail transit’s many regional beneficiaries, both public and private, are showing willingness to invest in improved station access.

From a transportation perspective, the news is very welcome for non-motorized and transit advocates alike. If all goes well, the new bridge would be the third built in the area in a matter of years. In 2010, the City of Redmond opened the NE 36th Street bridge, which connects the south side of Microsoft’s campus with the future Overlake Village redevelopment. The City also hopes to fund another ped-bike bridge nearby, currently planned to connect the station at Overlake Village with the 520 trail at Microsoft.

From a funding perspective, Microsoft’s example builds off of a good precedent. As Bike Blog notes, Amazon has already taken the lead on funding streetcar service and bike facilities in South Lake Union. Both Microsoft and Amazon campuses are somewhat centralized, so it’s logical for both corporations to be proactive about employee commute solutions. This, of course, beats the historical alternative, where transit agencies have had to rely on equally cash-strapped cities to fund station access improvements.

Private actors, on the other hand, usually have the capital to make these kinds of investments. Regionally, there’s no reason to believe that the Microsoft/Amazon model isn’t just as applicable elsewhere. North Seattle Community College and Northgate Mall, for example, both have high stakes in a pedestrian bridge crossing I-5. In Eastgate/Factoria, T-Mobile would benefit greatly from access improvements to the park-and-ride and freeway station.

The downside to public-private funding partnerships is that they’re contingent on voluntary contributions. Unlike general property taxes or LIDs (local improvement districts), government agencies don’t have the authority to mandate them. Employers might be better motivated by incentives, like tax credits and the like. Under the State’s CTR law, for example, employers who offer reasonable non-SOV commuting provisions are eligible for state tax credits.

The problem with the CTR law is that private financing of public capital projects don’t meet the definitions for “commute trip reduction,” disallowing Microsoft from claiming tax credits for its contributions to Overlake station access. One could easily argue otherwise– after all, free transit passes are only as good as the facilities and service that they’re used for. If the State wants to get serious about transportation sustainability, reforming the CTR law and providing meaningful transit funding would be logical steps to take.

Planning for East Link’s South Bellevue Station

south bellevue station renderings
South Bellevue Station renderings, from Sound Transit

With petty alignment squabbles behind us, most East Link work is now well into the stages of final design and station area planning. Recently, the City of Bellevue has been doing outreach to various communities in South Bellevue to gauge input on station area improvements. Most of the design and planning work still belongs to Sound Transit, though neighborhood improvements in the surrounding locale rest squarely with the City.

I’m not really eager to rehash the strenuous East Link saga that dominated Bellevue for more than four years, but I think some background will be helpful. Back in 2009, both Sound Transit and the Bellevue City Council came to consensus on a preferred alternative for South Bellevue, which would have routed East Link up Bellevue Way to serve the existing South Bellevue P&R. After the 2009 election, the Council’s makeup changed and they flipped, setting off a long battle with Sound Transit over routing.

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Rewind: Tuesday’s Senate Transportation Forum

Tuesday’s hearing, photo via Twitter user @LizSattert

This past Tuesday, Senate Transportation leaders held a public hearing at Stevenson Elementary in Bellevue.  One of many planned across the state, the forum was meant to gauge citizen input on state funding for transportation.  By all the accounts I’ve heard, it sounds like transit supporters dominated the crowd and podium, speaking primarily for preserving Metro service.

If you were in attendance, let us know how the meeting went in the comments.  You can also relive the hearing in real-time on Twitter, where the #moveKCnow hashtag is being used to document what will likely be a massive lobbying effort to prevent Metro cuts.

Rebutting Justice Johnson’s Dissent

East Link and I-90

Legal wonks out there will appreciate this gem: Andrew Villeneuve at the Northwest Progressive Institute has a blistering takedown of Supreme Court Justice Jim Johnson’s dissent (PDF) in the Freeman case. Johnson, one of only two to vote against Sound Transit and WSDOT, largely framed his opinion around constitutional protections for drivers and cited the 18th Amendment extensively.

Andrew’s entire post is a treasure trove of transit legalese, so I’ll let it speak for itself. But I do want to pull out probably the single most important distinction in this entire case:

What the Johnsons do not acknowledge in their dissent – and what anti-rail conservatives either don’t get or won’t admit – is that the urban King County portion of Interstate 90 is not simply a highway. It is a multimodal corridor that contains a highway. And this distinction matters.

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East Link Final Design Summer Update

Image from Sound Transit, via CDNews

Sound Transit is currently gunning through final design for East Link. Next week, there will be two open houses: one unveiling a 60% design update for the Bel-Red segment, and the other kicking off final design for the Seattle segment (International District eastward). The last segment for which there hasn’t been any final design community outreach is Overlake, but my guess is that that will probably happen sometime soon.

Though the vast majority of our East Link coverage is about the Eastside, the Seattle segment certainly deserves its share of attention as well. For one, the city gets another new grade-separated rail station on top of what is already promised from Northgate Link. And although the land use opportunity for Rainier Station isn’t significant, there’s some hope that station construction can be used to leverage connectivity improvements in the area*.

Since the poor existing connectivity is largely attributable to the the topography and I-90 ROW, there’s obviously no silver bullet. Still, ped/bike improvements will be most welcome, particularly to the I-90 trail and connections to Rainier. I’m also optimistic that this is a chance for the City to get rolling on Bicycle Master Plan projects (.pdf), which would presumably help channel riders within the Rainier corridor’s development-prone areas to and from the station.

Of course, all of this is guesswork, so you’ll have to find out more specifics from 6 to 8pm next Thursday at the Northwest African American Museum. The 60% open house for the Bel-Red segment, on the other hand, will be held on Tuesday from 5 to 7pm at Highland Community Center in Bellevue.

*Councilmember Conlin has been keeping close tabs on Rainier Station area planning as well.

Correlations Between Density and the Mayoral Race

The Seattle Times has a new map out ($) that shows the results of the mayor’s race by precinct. Although both McGinn and Murray have publicly expressed pro-transit and pro-density positions to some degree or another, it’s pretty clear that the denser precincts favored McGinn in the primary. The results are actually somewhat similar to those of the 2009 McGinn vs. Mallahan race, which suggest that McGinn has a fairly loyal voter base.

There are some other interesting observations to note:

  • Steinbrueck won only a handful of precincts: the most notable being central South Lake Union, home to many SLU upzone opponents and Mirabella, one of Steinbrueck’s clients.
  • Harrell fared best in Leschi, Rainier Beach, and portions of south Beacon Hill and Mount Baker, which suggest that he did well among minority voters. Interestingly enough, most of the rest of Beacon Hill and Rainier Valley favored McGinn.
  • Murray dominated West Seattle west of Fauntleroy with the exception of a few precincts in Admiral. It’s not clear if McGinn’s denial recommendation to deny Whole Foods’ alley vacation request had any impact on voters leading up to the primary.

The map is below the jump.

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Thoughts on Deviations and Walking

Eastgate Park and Ride (Stacy Osterman/Flickr)

Whenever we talk about removing bus network inefficiencies, deviations are almost always a big part of the discussion. It’s a mathematic no-brainer that routes operating in a straight-line are safer, faster, and more reliable than their zig-zaggy counterparts. However, decades of bad land use planning and car culture have resulted in lots of destinations that are simply out of the way. Park-and-rides, like Eastgate and Federal Way, are some of the more egregious offenders that have likely cost Metro millions in operating costs over the years.

Most agencies have some sort of a deviation standard that weighs riders served by a deviation against through-riders. There’s a naturally flawed assumption built into this model– that riders accessing the destination are assumed lost if the deviation is eliminated. The broader assumption behind this is that the pedestrian environment has no impact on a rider’s choice to take transit. These types of deviation formulas would treat auto-oriented and urban contexts equally, assuming ridership generation remains constant.

For example, Metro’s deviation standard (according to the new service guidelines) is as follows:

metro-deviation

More below the jump.

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WSDOT Announces Start of Mudslide Prevention Work

Photo by AvgeekJoe

Earlier this week, WSDOT announced that work has finally commenced on mudslide prevention efforts along the BNSF tracks between Seattle and Everett. Last winter’s record-setting mudslide season marred Sounder North Line, forcing the cancellation of 170 trips and obliterating ridership. The slides had also been partly responsible for a flurry of bad publicity that made the news rounds last fall.

Over the past year, WSDOT and BNSF have worked to isolate six problem spots along the North Line, two of which are set to be fixed by mid-October. The work includes hillside stabilization, building retaining walls, drainage control, and other measures aimed at preventing the slopes from being oversaturated during periods of sustained rain. $16.1 million in stimulus money is expected to fund the projects.

According to the Everett Herald:

One of the hillsides is near the border of Mukilteo and Everett, Melonas said. The other is at the south end of Mukilteo near the Pacific Queen shipwreck.

Four more trouble spots in Everett and Mukilteo are targeted for fixes. These projects are still being designed and won’t be done this winter, but all the work is scheduled to be done by early 2016, said Alice Fiman, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.

Seeing as this is one of those instances where whatever hurts/helps freight rail also hurts/helps passenger rail, the multitude of stakeholders (BNSF, WSDOT, Amtrak, Sound Transit) here may actually be helping spur the urgency of the project. On top of the obvious benefit to North Line service, these improvements may also be some of the most critical in establishing a reliable corridor for future high-speed intercity rail.

2013 Primary Election Night Open Thread

You’re bound to have some thoughts on the preliminary election results, so we’ve created an open thread for your commenting leisure. The results from the first drop will be posted to King County Elections’ website at 8:15pm tonight, and we’ll update this thread with the results when it happens. Keep in mind, however, that there are many more ballots left to count, so the closest races likely won’t see clear top-two winners for several more days.

UPDATE 8:22pm- The first drop is in! (only results for endorsed races included):

Seattle Mayor

  • Ed Murray: 30.24%/28,248 votes
  • Mike McGinn: 27.15%/25,364 votes
  • Peter Steinbrueck: 16.26%/15,189 votes
  • Bruce Harrell: 15.48%/14,458 votes

Other races below the jump.

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