No, we’re not entering a period of “untransit”

ST3 concept map / soundtransit3.org

Danny Westneat’s latest column in The Seattle Times asks a bold question:

Why are we continuing with the same transit planning — such as for Sound Transit’s future light-rail segments — without factoring that a third or more of the workforce may not be commuting to a downtown core, or commuting at all?

Westneat is knee-jerk reacting to Amazon’s recent announcement that it plans to pause work on its Bellevue office expansion: a total of six towers encompassing some 3 million square feet. The implication is that if a corporate behemoth like Amazon can’t be bothered to continue building office towers, then transit – as we know it – might as well be dead:

This sea change, if it continues, may cause cities over time to “untransit” — to unwind their transit-oriented, spoke-and-hub development patterns, Stern predicts. Cities will stop concentrating on building dense housing near transit lines, she wrote, and shift to infrastructure to support remote work (such as municipal broadband, or small “remote work” centers away from the old business core). Cities may adopt more mixed-use zoning everywhere to bring a taste of the old commercial downtown out to residential neighborhoods (where so many are now “going” to work).

I’ll first acknowledge what is true in this assessment. There is already broad consensus in the transit and urbanist community that the new normal for remote work will undoubtedly impact future land use: central business districts will no longer have a regular weekday “swell” of workers. Super-tall office-only skyscrapers are likely a thing of the past. And mixed-use upzoning is undoubtedly on the planning menu for non-CBD neighborhoods.

What I find much more questionable is this notion that “cities will stop concentrating on building dense housing near transit.” I’m not sure there is a planner out there who actually believes this. Regardless how commute patterns change, expanding buildable TOD maximizes the return on transit investment. Housing and transit can never be divorced, whatever remote work world we live in. If anything, it’s the massive suburban park-and-rides at outlying stations that should be converted into developable uses rather than sit empty.

Westneat furthers this line of argument by suggesting that remote work blunts the merits of continued Link expansion. I find this thinking to be bizarre – Link was not and never has been planned to be a commuter-centric system. If you look at a map of ST2 and ST3 extensions, it’s clear that the long-term plan is to connect all the PSRC regional growth centers by either rail or BRT. There’s nothing about the plan that screams commuter-heavy downtown-centricity.

I’ve also previously mentioned that the new remote work normal also means less emphasis on expensive commuter peak-only services and more investment in all-day cross-town routes. Paired with a frequent regional rail network, a system like that would actually be well served by “mixed-use zoning everywhere.”

Transit ridership is slowly recovering

From the Sound Transit ridership dashboard

Last month, Metro reported an average weekday ridership exceeding 200,000 boardings. This is a mark that hasn’t been seen since the pandemic started, with the exception of last October (which typically represents the peak month of ridership in a year). More encouraging is that year-over-year growth is currently sitting at about 40%, which certainly trends with the lifting of pandemic restrictions.

Sound Transit has also clawed back much of its lost ridership, sitting just shy of 100,000 daily boardings in April. Central Link ridership is back to a respectable 66,000 boardings, although it’s unreasonable to make comparisons to pre-pandemic levels with the Northgate extension having opened just last Fall.

There’s some discussion about the effect of high gas prices on ridership recovery. From a recent KOMO article:

“If it gets up to like $7 a gallon I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” said Apollo Rising, Seattle driver. “I’m probably gonna use the bus a lot more.”

“We hear it sometimes on social media that people are choosing transit because of the cost,” said Sean Hawks, spokesman for King County Metro. “It’s $2.75 for a bus fare but even less expensive fare if you’re a senior, youth or have a disability or have a lower income.”

Many remember the summer of 2008, when drivers fleeing gas prices helped boost transit ridership to what were then record-levels. My suspicion is that we’re not seeing exactly the same effect now largely since many workers are still working from home.

As I stated last month, crossing arbitrary thresholds can provide feel-good moments but they should not be the barometer we use to gauge system health in a post-pandemic world.

New ST3 International District Station options face stiff resistance

Photo by SolDuc Photography / Flickr

Since Sound Transit released the DEIS for the new West Seattle-Ballard extension, stakeholders have been poring over the findings and submitting their comments. One major group of stakeholders is the Chinatown-International District (CID) neighborhood, which recently came out in full force either against the 5th Avenue alternative or against all options entirely.

Mike Lindblom has a detailed scoop:

Neighborhood advocates insist the station must go a block farther west, under Fourth Avenue South near South King Street, with the highways and sports stadiums. That would lessen the impact on an area that’s been sacrificed for generations to regional construction. 
. . .
But choosing Fourth Avenue possibly creates a traffic nightmare, because builders would demolish and replace the six-lane elevated street. In that scenario, about 15,000 daily car and bus trips, and stadium surge traffic, must be detoured during six years of partial road closures, compared to only 5,000 on Fifth for a 2½-year closure.

Total construction time on Fourth Avenue is estimated at nine to 11 years, a couple of years longer than Fifth.

It’s important to remember that while Sound Transit has not yet identified a preferred alternative for this segment, it finds itself in the usual quagmire of picking and choosing between neighborhood impacts, ridership, and cost. The 5th Avenue option certainly has superior neighborhood and transfer access, but construction would come at a great cost to the CID.

Back in April, Seattle Subway endorsed an even-shallower version of the 4th Avenue shallow option (CID-1a). Their proposal would effectively be at-grade, flush with the BNSF tracks and the 4th Avenue viaduct rebuilt over it. It’s not clear how compatible this super-shallow option would be with the deep Midtown Station profiles that are currently on the table.

While not without its own problems, a 4th Avenue alternative does open creative possibilities for re-doing the entire King Street Station-IDS hub, which is currently a patchwork of office buildings, limited walkways, and pedestrian-unfriendly 4th Avenue. A lid over the BNSF/Sounder tracks and repurposing Union Station are some of the ideas worth considering.

Link work to impact service through early next year

Peter Lewis / Flickr

Sound Transit is marketing a slate of service impacts from 2-Line (East Link) construction and 1-Line maintenance as a “Future Ready” program. Starting next month and stretching into Q1 of 2023, existing 1-Line service will undergo intermittent periods of reduced longer headways and shuttle service. From the press release:

Time periodsTravel impact
Monday, July 11 to Sunday, July 24Monday, Aug. 22 to Sunday, Sept. 4In order to replace tile at the Columbia City Station, train frequencies will be reduced to 20 minutes in each direction during all operating hours during the closure of one track, requiring all trains to use a single track between Mount Baker and Tukwila.
Friday, Oct. 21 to Sunday, Oct. 23Friday, Nov. 11 to Sunday, Nov. 13As a result of work on the overhead catenary system in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT), train frequencies will be reduced to 20 minutes in each direction until 11 p.m. From 11 p.m. until end of revenue service, a Link bus shuttle will be available to connect passengers between Capitol Hill Station and SODO Station.
A period of five days in late Q3 2022In order to repair and replace the overhead catenary system, Link will be shut down between Rainier Beach and Tukwila International Blvd. stations with a Link bus shuttle connecting passengers between these two stations.
A period of at least three weeks in Q4 2022Trains will be single tracked through the DSTT and train frequencies will be reduced to 20 minutes.
Q1 2023This work is needed to complete connections between the current 1-Line service and new 2-Line tracks that will link riders to the Eastside. Impacts are still to be determined.

Some of the work is par-for-the-course as it concerns completing connections to the 2-Line, which will branch off of the main trunk south of International District Station. Some other work is a bit more puzzling: the replacement of platform tiles at Columbia City, for example, demands a closer look as to whether this was a contractor misstep or some other root cause.

While this is all happening, Sound Transit is also continuing to work on escalator replacement in the DSTT. This is a long time coming and a big source of consternation, as our friends at The Urbanist point out.

A new cross-border service starting June 2nd

Photo from FlixBus Facebook

[UPDATE: Service details added below]

With Cascades service between Seattle and Vancouver out for most of the remainder of 2022, cross-border travelers between the cities will have a new option in FlixBus. The German-based intercity carrier is launching a new Seattle-Vancouver route, slated to begin service this Thursday, June 2nd.

The suspension of Cascades service along with the folding of BoltBus last year has proven to be a double whammy for anyone hoping to get between Canada and the U.S. via transit. With COVID restrictions continuing to have latent impacts at the border, it remains to be seen how quickly cross-border intercity transit can recover. The Seattle-Vancouver service will be FlixBus’s second cross-border route, after the NYC-Toronto and Buffalo-Toronto routes, which only just launched this month. Service details below:

FlixBus’ first cross-border routes between Seattle and Vancouver will run 5 days per week in each direction on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, and will also include stops in Everett and Bellingham, Washington. 

Vancouver-bound buses will leave Seattle (6th Avenue and S. Lane Street) at 7:30 a.m. with stops in Everett and Bellingham, crossing the U.S.-Canada border and stopping at Pacific Central Station and Richards Street-Waterfront Station between 11:30-11:40 a.m.  

Buses heading to Seattle will leave Richards Street-Waterfront Station at 12:45 p.m. with stops at Pacific Central Station, Bellingham and Everett before arriving in Seattle by 3:55 p.m.  

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.

Continue reading “A libertarian case for robust transit investment”

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.

Continue reading “Editorial: Don’t let Mercer Island impede regional progress”

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.

Continue reading “Upzone opportunities for RapidRide K”

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.

Continue reading “What does COVID-19 mean for density?”

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.

Continue reading “Connect 2020 is a reminder to improve 4th & Jackson”

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.