Now is the time to regionalize transit funding

by Kelsey Mesher

Atomic Taco / Flickr

A countywide 2020 transportation measure would help address affordability, growth and mobility needs — and maintain Seattle’s current level of service.

With one of the largest and most progressive electorates expected to turn out this year, 2020 presents an opportunity to address our region’s largest challenges, including transportation. On Wednesday, February 26, the King County Council kicked off its first public discussion of going to the ballot to ask voters to support a countywide Transportation Benefit District, which could raise as much as $160 million annually for bus service, programs and improvements through a 0.2% increase in sales tax.

We have seen the successes of transit investment through Seattle’s Transportation Benefit District. In the last two years alone, Seattle has increased TBD-funded Metro service by 36%. As a result, more than 7 in 10 residents live within a 10-minute walk of very frequent bus service. While transit ridership has declined in cities across the country, Seattle has bucked the trends – increasing transit ridership and kept drive alone commute rates at bay. The City has also used TBD funds to support access and affordability programs, providing free transit for students and some residents of low-income housing.

Metro’s long range plan, Metro Connects, outlines how we can achieve outcomes like these throughout King County, which is why Transportation Choices Coalition strongly supports taking a countywide approach to funding transit. The alternative is continuing with a “pay-to-play” system where the most well-resourced cities, like Seattle (or potentially Bellevue or Redmond, should they choose to run their own measures), receive a higher level of service, creating a two-tiered transit system.

We are all well aware of the needs:

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What do we name the different Link lines?

A few months ago, Sound Transit backtracked on their decision to name the different Link lines after colors (e.g. Red Line, Blue Line, etc.). This was a wise move for several reasons, among them the history of red-lining in housing, the difficulty of explaining what “red” is to non-English speakers, and potential difficulties for colorblind users.

While Sound Transit have already committed to changing the naming scheme, they have yet to announce what that scheme will be. While many different name examples abound in transit systems around the world, I will contest that naming our rail lines “L-number” (e.g. L1, L2, etc.) is the best for a number of reasons, including local and international consistency, ease of explanation to new users, and simplicity.

Six possible line designators, chosen to be maximally colorblind safe.

Today, our bus-heavy system already uses numbers (the 8) and letters (RapidRide E), meaning any name will need to distinguish itself from those. Since our rail system is regularly referred to as Link Light Rail, naming Link lines L1, L2, and so on will make it easy for users to know that they need a train, not a bus, in a manner consistent with local standards. Additionally, many systems around the world use a similar naming scheme – Barcelona, Munich, Mexico City, Bilbao, and many more cities use a similar pattern. Copying their consensus will make life easier for visitors used to other systems.

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Station renames

Atomic Taco / Flickr

Sound Transit is planning to rename the University Street Station to “Union Street Symphony” ahead of the opening of the Northgate Link extension. ST has correctly determined that having a station named “University Street” and another named “University District” (in addition to a third station named “University of Washington”) will cause confusion to riders. While I agree with the motivation to change the station name, there are some problems with this rename. There is a different solution which addresses these problems while still clearing up the confusion.

The Downtown Transit Tunnel opened in 1990. Renaming a station that has existed in public for 30 years can be a bad idea. There are thirty years of printed materials with “University Street” station referring to a station downtown. There are thirty years of human memories, some people who probably rarely use transit, or who may not get the notice of a transit station name change. Some of these people may live in different cities and countries or using printed materials in different languages. Educating everyone on the new name will be difficult and expensive and will be a serious usability problem for riders. Especially people looking for “University Street”, not finding it, but instead finding “University District” which is many miles away.

A good rule to follow when naming transit stations is the principle that station names should tell you where the station is. In this case, the University Station is one of only two stations in the system whose name actually does that job (along with Sea-Tac station). That station is on University Street. It’s not on Union, and it’s not on “Symphony” (which isn’t a place). Taking the only station in the city whose name references where it is and naming it after somewhere it isn’t seems like a bad idea and move in the wrong direction. Paying $5.3 million to do it seems like a very poor use of public funds.

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Seattle Subway: the danger of tunnel vision

For the next ten weeks, Link riders will have to contend with infrequent trains, a forced transfer in Pioneer Square, and weekend closures to prepare for Northgate and East Link Expansions. These delays and closures could have been avoided by building for future expansion originally rather than planning and authorizing the system piecemeal. This time, the costs and impacts of the rework are relatively minor, but the consequences of this approach will be severe for future expansions unless the course is corrected.

Before Link opened in July of 2009, Sound Transit closed the tunnel to install tracks, power, and systems in preparation for bus/train operations. Plans were considered for expansions to Northgate and east to Bellevue, but the ballot measure to authorize that expansion, ST2, didn’t pass until November of 2008. Not enough time to plan and execute changes to future-proof the tunnel for expansion.

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Two easy ways to speed up I-405 buses

by ALEX KVEN

Some fixes to transit delays are expensive, or require taking on entrenched interests, but others do not. Here are two easy wins in the southern part of I-405.

On SR-167 northbound, the HOV/toll lane on the left-hand side turns into a regular lane shortly after S. 180th street. This is quite early to end this lane, as traffic is bad on weekday mornings. While the left lane needs to be available for left turns at S. Grady Way beyond I-405, solo drivers don’t need two miles of space to merge into the left lane. The HOV/Toll lane should extend at least as far as the I-405 HOV direct access ramp (anything less is completely inexcusable and reduces the value of that direct access ramp), so HOV vehicles can continue through to I-405 without hitting a patch of SOV traffic. This would improve reliability on routes 566 and 567.

Google Maps

On eastbound N Southport Drive at I-405 (shown above), the on-ramp to I-405 north has two lanes, a regular lane with a meter, and an HOV lane that bypasses the meter. During rush-hour, the queue behind the meter often extends beyond the length of the HOV meter bypass lane, forcing buses and HOVs to wait behind a long line of cars for a while (sometimes as much as 10 minutes or more), before they can skip the bottleneck.

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Surveillance Capitalism, Transit Information, and OneBusAway

OneBusAway is an integrated, open-source suite of software components that provides real-time and schedule information for public transit, supported by a nonprofit organization that is responsive to the needs of transit agencies and the riders.  It is also an important alternative to the surveillance capitalism business model for providing such information.  In this post, I will argue that King County Metro, Sound Transit, and other regional agencies should embrace it more fully, in particular by giving an official status to the OneBusAway apps rather than regarding them as just one of many “third-party” apps.

Regarding surveillance capitalism: a large portion of the software side of the global information technology infrastructure, including web search, email, social media, and much more, is often provided free to the end users, although the corporations that provide this, for example Google and Facebook, are often enormously profitable. The business model for this involves customized advertising and sometimes behavior manipulation, powered by intensive gathering and cross-correlation of detailed personal information. These companies provide some great products and services that are free to the end users.  But surveillance capitalism has a dark side as well, with negative impacts for privacy, autonomy, human dignity, and democracy.  The term comes from Shoshana Zuboff – please see her recent book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, or a recent interview.

Accurate and convenient schedule and real-time transit information, particularly when available to riders on apps on mobile devices, is an important part of making transit satisfying and easy to use.  Much of this information is provided via a surveillance capitalism business model, for example via Google maps.  Another source of information is via apps provided by venture-capital funded startups, for example Transit App or Moovit – it seems safe to assume that these, too, have an eventual goal of participating in the surveillance capitalism business model. (Venture capitalists seem unlikely to invest tens of millions of dollars in for-profit corporations just because they want the world to have better transit information.)  OneBusAway provides an important nonprofit alternative.

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The cost of HOV-2 on I-405

SounderBruce/Flickr

Any regular transit rider coming home from Bellevue, in a bus, in an HOV lane on I-405 southbound, knows well the feeling of moving 0-5 mph. Granted, it’s not always like this. There are certainly some days where it zips by traffic at nearly 60, while some other days it takes over 20 minutes just to get to I-90.

While unreliable HOV travel times are already quite frustrating, very often traffic flow in the HOV lane ends up being as bad or worse than in the general purpose lanes! Why is this tolerated by WSDOT, when the whole point of an HOV lane is to flow faster as an incentive for people to carpool or take transit? Why would anyone want to do this if they are just going to get stuck in the same traffic as if they drove alone?

I-405 south of Bellevue is getting the same type of express-toll lanes as to the north, but not until 2024. You would think that making the current HOV lanes HOV3+ would be a natural precursor to the eventual ETL extension, but WSDOT would not agree.

But how many service hours might be saved if HOV3+ were in place on I-405, in particular from Renton to Bellevue? In this calculation, I’ll assume that traffic in the HOV3+ lanes always moves at 45 miles per hour or better. That is the standard which WSDOT attempts to maintain for the express-toll lanes generally, and is also the point at which WSDOT says it will consider upgrading HOV2+ lanes to HOV3+ (though clearly that doesn’t seem to mean anything in practice).

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Seattle legislators: fund transit now

This is a very clear statement.  h/t Jason Weill

Seattle voters couldn’t be more clear:  They demand better transit and they are willing to fund it. Tim Eyman’s I-976 was demolished in Seattle, losing by over 3-1. This follows huge victories in Seattle for transit in 2014 (Seattle TBD), 2015 (Move Seattle), and 2016 (ST3.)

Despite repeated and very clear messages from Seattle voters, Washington State dedicates virtually zero funding to transit.  Worse, the State doesn’t properly enable us to fund our own transit.

Since ST3 passed in 2016, most of the debate in the state legislature has centered on various schemes to cut MVET funding, when it should have been centered on finding better ways to fund transit. Voters in the Sound Transit district proved that by voting no on 976 by nearly the same margin they voted yes on ST3 in 2016.  That result was in spite of an off year election which meant low turnout which typically trends conservative in most of the district.

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Kirkland needs to hear from you about its Active Transportation Plan

Downtown Kirkland. Joe Mabel [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

The city of Kirkland recently launched a Safe and Active Transportation survey. The survey is the first chance for public engagement as the city works to rewrite its Active Transportation Plan, which lays out Kirkland’s strategy for moving cyclists and pedestrians through the city.

The last time the city updated its Active Transportation Plan (ATP) was in 2009. The 2009 ATP was a big step forward for the time, but best practices for bicycle infrastructure have changed dramatically over the past 10 years and the city’s policies are badly in need of a rewrite. In particular, the 2009 plan focused on the needs of “strong and fearless” cyclists, often missing the perspectives of people who are not comfortable riding in traffic or taking the lane.

Take, for example, this quote from Defining a Network section of the 2009 ATP, which explicitly states that bicycle lanes are only needed on high-traffic streets.

Bicycle lanes are generally suggested when auto volume exceeds 5,000 vehicles per day. Therefore, some segments of the bicycle network do not need bicycle lanes to adequately support bicycle travel.

This might sound about right for the spandex-clad street warrior who can consistently maintain 12-15 mph. But if you are a child trying to get to school or a casual cyclist on a comfort bike, a two-lane street with no shoulder may be an insurmountable barrier, especially if it goes uphill as many of Kirkland’s neighborhood streets do. In 2015, Kirkland recognized the need for traffic calming on even low-traffic streets by funding its first two neighborhood greenways. It’s time for the rest of the city’s bike plan to catch up.

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Seattle Transit Advisory Board Members: No on I-976

Since 2014, the City of Seattle’s Transportation Benefit District (STBD) has consistently funded transportation improvements across the city, such as more frequent Metro buses, subsidized ORCA cards for income-qualifying residents, and pre-paid ORCA cards for Seattle Public School high schoolers. Seattle voters approved the STBD through a 0.1% sales tax increase and a $60 annual Vehicle Licensing Fee (VLF), also known as car tab, for citizens who can afford it (the city runs a VLF rebate program for income-eligible motorists). We aren’t alone– about 60 other communities across the state fund their TBDs by one or both of these sources, improving vehicle, bus, ferry, and rail access across Washington. 

When the program began in 2014, only 25% of Seattle households lived within a 10-minute walk of 10-minute or better all-day service. The original goal was for over half of all households to be served at that level by 2020. Through the STBD, the city met that goal in 2016, and continues to improve: today, 71% of households in the city enjoy frequent, reliable transportation access. The STBD directly added 6,780 weekly bus trips to Seattle residents, mitigating overcrowding, expanding access, and creating opportunity for Seattleites across the city. 

Investments from STBD benefit all areas of Seattle, including neighborhoods the city has designated as having low access to economic opportunity. Access to transportation has been found to be a crucial factor in upwards social mobility. Historically underserved populations, such as Southeast, Southwest, and far North Seattle, have benefited directly from faster, more frequent service (e.g., Metro bus routes 106, 120, and the E line), and multimodal street improvements. STBD also funds the ORCA Lift program and saved Metro’s 24-hour Night Owl service from being permanently cut. 

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Adding vehicle lanes on a new Montlake drawbridge makes transit worse, not better

Atomic Taco / Flickr

Ed. Note: As always, guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of the STB editorial board.

The City of Seattle may reverse its longstanding position regarding the Montlake Bridge, a major transit corridor leading to the University of Washington Station. A resolution is before the Seattle City Council that reverses the traditionally skeptical posture of the city towards adding lanes, advocating not just bike and pedestrian upgrades (which have wide support), but also, new vehicular lanes across the Montlake Cut. These lanes would carry not just buses, but other “high-occupancy” vehicles as well such as carpools and rideshares. This is a huge departure from the city’s position as of 2015:

Consistent with Resolution 31411, the City continues to support the position that improvements made by a second Montlake bascule bridge are unlikely to yield the benefits that justify the cost and environmental impact of a bridge…

Resolution 31611, section 2, adopted unanimously in 2015

STB covered this issue back in 2012.

A bridge big enough to carry three northbound lanes, to the east of the current bridge, which the state would build with this new direction from the city, would likely require on the order of $100 million of public funds, based on prior WSDOT estimates – state funds already lined up. Free money for public infrastructure – something for transit, bikes – what’s not to like?

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ORCA for All

ORCA cards Image: Oran Viriyincy

Earlier this month the Transit Riders Union (TRU) launched a new campaign called ORCA for All.

You could categorize a lot of the campaigns TRU has run over the years under the theme “ORCA for All.” From the push for a low-income reduced fare that became the ORCA LIFT program, to expanding and improving the Human Services Bus Ticket program, to supporting Rainier Beach High School students fighting for free transit passes, to pressuring the University of Washington — our city’s second-largest employer — to step up and fully subsidize transit for all UW employees, expanding access to public transit has been one of our core issues for years.

This fall we’re continuing ongoing advocacy for a transit pass program to serve the lowest-income riders — people who can’t afford ORCA LIFT — and also to reform the way our transit agencies respond to fare evasion. But the centerpiece of ORCA for All is something new: We want more employers, especially larger employers that can more easily absorb the costs, to subsidize transit passes for their workers.

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Transit Tracker Updates: Now called “Pantograph,” debuting the iOS app, new features

A few months ago, I shared with Seattle Transit Blog readers a side project of mine—the Puget Sound Transit Operations Tracker. This quickly became much bigger than I ever expected it to, with several local news outlets picking up the story, including the Seattle Times.

It became very clear to me that we all need better transit data, and that I’m well-equipped to help with that. Today, I want to share with you what I’ve been up to since then, and where I’m going next.

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Seattle Subway: Build the Aurora Line

Aurora Line conceptual rendering (source: Seattle Subway)

Aurora represents an incredible opportunity for transit expansion.  The four urban villages north of the ship canal carry a massive capacity for recently upzoned density. The huge lots of big box stores that dot the landscape are a prime target for Transit Oriented Development. Grade separated transit will allow the street to feature wider sidewalks and fewer lanes.  The Aurora that can be is a place the Aurora that is wouldn’t even recognize.  

Transit on the Aurora corridor is already a huge success. Aurora carries over 32,500 daily riders in packed buses, including the E line, the busiest bus in the state.  It’s clear that even more people will choose transit when we add the speed, reliability, and comfort of Link to the equation.

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Metro’s least reliable routes

It’s Friday, the end of the work week, and all everyone wants to do is get home as quickly as possible. For the transit rider, it is time to enter the arena of unknown bus reliability. Will my bus come? Will it be on time? How bad will traffic be? We have all mentally asked these questions, but some have to ask them more than others.

Today we will look at the 5 buses that have the worst afternoon reliability in the Metro system and consider what can be done to improve them. These routes are generally low ridership and wouldn’t merit much capital investment, so we’ll focus on quick fixes where appropriate. Conveniently, each one of our tardy routes is from a different portion of the county. (On time data is from the King County Metro 2018 System Evaluation. )

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West Seattle and Burien Metro routes need improved reliability, or a new routing

Buses waiting to turn onto South Dearborn Street (SounderBruce)

At 5 p.m. two Fridays ago I made the grave mistake a getting on a West Seattle bus at the 3rd & Pike Street stop.  See, I had to retrieve a child from summer camp by 6 p.m.  As the bus crawled along the Columbia Street and 1st Avenue South “temporary 2019” routing, the minutes ticked away rapidly, and at 5:52 p.m. the bus was reaching the 1st & Dearborn stop, still in downtown Seattle. 

To routinely spend one hour traversing downtown Seattle is not functional bus service, full stop; especially in a City where more downtown workers arrive by bus than any other mode.  The Seattle DOT needs to significantly improve the transit pathway, or King County Metro needs to change the routing for Burien and West Seattle Metro bus routes that use Highway 99.

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Permits will make park and rides more reliable and accessible

Eastgate Park & Ride (ECTran71/wikimedia)

King County Council will vote on a Park and Ride permit program next week.

by HESTER SEREBRIN, VICKY CLARKE, ALEX BRENNAN, and TIM GOULD

In Seattle, many of us are privileged with easy access to great bus service at any time of day. But the regional reality is pretty different for most folks. Until we are able to fund and build out King County Metro’s long-range plan, which will connect many more neighborhoods to frequent, high-capacity transit via a short walk or bike ride, lots of residents have to rely on driving to a Park and Ride as part of their daily trip. 

With increased growth and demand in our region, many of these lots are filling up fast, creating crowding on earlier transit trips, and leaving little to no parking for workers without the flexibility in their schedules to race for one of the limited spaces early each morning. Rather than building more parking lots, parking permits can help manage available space at Park and Rides, encourage carpooling, and create reliability for those who need it.

Next Tuesday, July 16, the King County Council Mobility and Environment committee will vote on a parking permit resolution to offer reserved solo driver parking permits for King County Park and Ride facilities. Join TCC and partners on July 16 at 1:30 pm to testify and show your support for smarter parking management. 

This Park and Ride resolution is similar to the policy the Sound Transit Board of Directors approved last year; applications for solo driver permits, including discounted permits for ORCA LIFT riders, are now available for Sound Transit Park and Ride facilities in Northgate, Auburn, Puyallup, Edmonds, and Mukilteo. 

Why Park and Ride Permits?

Park and Ride lots are convenient transfer areas that make transit more accessible for people who do not live near a bus or light rail route. Until we have a more robust transit network, Park and Rides are one tool to relieve congestion and promote the use of public transportation. All riders and taxpayers pay hidden costs for expensive parking infrastructure, and building more parking will only occupy land that can be used to build housing near high-frequency transit. Parking permits can help manage parking demand and curb the need to build endless parking lots. Without parking fees, parking costs impact all users, including those arriving by foot, bike, or bus, while only benefiting those who drive.

King County’s Park and Ride Proposal

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dxʷləšucid signs

Some time ago I contemplated whether our buses—wherever they are on Coast Salish lands—would bear place names in dxʷləšucid (Lushootseed), the language of indigenous Coast Salish peoples from Nisqually all the way to Skagit. It was early winter of 2018 when I began packing for my trip to the Samoa archipelago. Something caught the corner of my eye outside the faculty offices of the UW Anthropology department: the Burke Waterlines Map. I perused the map, pinned to the bulletin board unfolded, and, curious as to where the Lushootseed place names belonged on the map, began to piece together village by village, water site to water site, into my head already deeply colonized by the more familiar English place names I was taught to know, love and sometimes hate.

What if public transportation can bear these place names?

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Seattle Subway: It’s time to start work on ST4

#ST4Seattle Map by Oran

People love riding Link. The more Sound Transit builds, the more Seattle votes with our feet. But planning and building expansions can take decades. It’s clear that we need Link expansion beyond what is currently planned, and our rapidly growing city and the burgeoning climate crisis demand we take action without delay. That’s why it’s time for Seattle to start working on ST4, the next round of Link rail expansion.

Looking ahead to the completion of ST3’s Seattle expansions in 2035, we see a city that has made huge strides building high quality transit but still lacks a comprehensive subway system. It’s a system that will still have frustrating gaps, lacking stations in our densest residential neighborhoods like Belltown and First Hill.  We must think bigger and bring service to the entire city. A true Seattle Subway means being able to catch a train in Georgetown, Wallingford, or White Center and take a ride to Lake City, Crown Hill, or Fremont. ST3 is a huge step forward, but it falls well short of the vision of ST Complete, the vision of a Seattle fully connected by high-quality transit. 

Seattle can’t afford to wait; it is imperative that we take charge of our future. Seattle is adding more residents than all King County suburbs combined. Our next expansion vote should come in 2024, on the heels of the opening of major expansions to Northgate, Bellevue, Redmond, Federal Way, and Lynnwood. More people than ever will be riding Link. More people than ever will be asking: Why can’t we have Link in our neighborhood? We must be ready with the best possible answer: You can.

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The Bellevue Transportation Commission is stalling on downtown bicycle lanes

Main St in Bellevue, where a bike lane is being considered (Image: Dan Ryan)

By BRAD HAVERSTEIN

Bellevue may have decided to make the 108th Ave NE bike lane it built last year permanent, but when it comes to expanding the city’s downtown cycling network the Bellevue Transportation Commission seems to be at odds with City Council. On May 23rd the Commission split 3-3 over whether to add bicycle lanes along two blocks of Main ST between Bellevue Way and 108th Ave NE, despite the fact that City Council strongly supports the project. Following the split, the Commission voted to delay further discussion, but did not choose a specific date to revisit the plan, leaving it unclear how the process will move forward.

This is the second time that the Commission has punted consideration of extending Bellevue’s downtown bicycle network. City staff first proposed the Main ST project at the Commission’s March 28th meeting, but the issue was tabled after the Commission’s 4-2 vote to retain the existing protected bicycle lanes on 108th Ave NE.

The decision to delay comes after Commission Chair Lei Wu has received specific instructions from Bellevue City Council to evaluate options for Main ST and choose an alternative. At a May 13th study session the full Council discussed the proposal with Wu and expressed unanimous support for moving forward with an east-west bicycle facility. Since City Council strongly supports piloting more bicycle lanes, why is the Transportation Commission dithering on its responsibility?

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