Pierce Transit’s first bus rapid transit line to split between mixed and exclusive lanes

The “Mountain” station design option (Pierce Transit)

Pierce Transit has released a new virtual open house for its bus rapid transit project, which is in the middle of final design. The bus rapid transit line will travel along 14 miles of Pacific Avenue (State Route 7) from Downtown Tacoma and Tacoma Dome Station to Spanaway, replacing the popular Route 1. The agency hopes to begin construction next year and open in 2023, which remains unchanged at the moment despite the pandemic and its financial effects.

The Pacific Avenue bus rapid transit line, which has not been named or branded yet, will take some cues from Community Transit’s Swift lines rather than RapidRide. Stations will be spaced a quarer-mile apart and feature off-board fare payment (including ticket-vending machines), allowing for all-door level boarding from its raised platforms. The buses will have on-board bicycle racks, more capacity than normal Route 1 coaches, and come at a frequency of 10 to 15 minutes.

The buses will also benefit from exclusive lanes and BAT lanes that run for about 7 miles in the south Tacoma section of the Pacific Avenue corridor. Transit priority signals are also in the works, which would provide overrides for buses and allow for the addition of queue jumps at intersections outside of the exclusive lane corridor.

The project is estimated to cost $150 million and will be funded by a mix of grants from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Sound Transit, the latter part of the ST3 package for the Pierce County subarea. Sound Transit approved its $60 million share in August, while Pierce Transit has reportedly secured $30 million in other funding. This leaves a Small Starts grant from the FTA to cover the remaining $60 million, which Pierce Transit has already applied for.

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News roundup: potentially grim

Sound Transit double decker bus servicing downtown Seattle on 5th avenue during Covid 19 shut down.
Bless you, PatricksMercy, for posting to the Flickr pool during the pandemic.

This is an open thread.


With Uber’s investment, Lime is getting back into the local bike share game

A Jump bike. Credit: Jump


Uber Technologies CEO Dara Khosrowshahi outside the New York Stock Exchange ahead of the company’s IPO, May 10, 2019.

Uber is leading a $170 million investment round in Lime, the electric scooter and bike rental company announced Thursday.

Bain Capital Ventures, Alphabet and separately its venture capital arm GV are also participating in the financing round, Lime said.

Under the deal, Uber will transfer its own electric bike and scooter division called Jump to Lime and the companies will further integrate their apps. Lime global head of operations and strategy Wayne Ting will become CEO of Lime while outgoing CEO Brad Bao will become chairman.

Lime had recently suspended bike operations here in Seattle and was in the process of switching to a scooter-only offering once the city’s scooter pilot was in place. Lime’s valuation has dropped by 80%, according to The Information ($).

Now it appears that Lime bikes will be back and Uber’s JUMP brand will be disappearing. I think most people agreed that the JUMP bike experience was superior (I know I felt that way), so it’s good to read that Lime’s new CEO agrees.

Despite a huge drop in bookings due to the coronavirus, Uber still has $10B in cash on hand to try and be the last one standing in the shared economy business: the company is reportedly looking at taking over Grubhub as well.

Meanwhile, Lime is optimistic about post-COVID prospects:

[CEO Wayne] Ting’s bet is that people are going to emerge from the pandemic wanting more socially distanced transit options, like bikes and scooters, instead of opting for crowded transit options, a stance echoed by rival Bird.

Already in some of its restarted cities, like Berlin and Columbus, Ohio, Lime is seeing average trip fares go up as people ride scooters for longer distances. Seoul is back to nearly all-time highs, Ting said.


Metro restores some trips, ridership still way down

Rapid Ride Metro Transit Bus reticulated bus headed to Seattle, WA from Edmonds. WA via Hwy 99 Aurora Ave

In response to “crowding” (by current standards) on some routes, Metro is restoring some trips this week on weekdays from 10am to 5pm:

Based on operator availability, we are dedicating roughly 15 additional buses starting today to six routes where coaches are either reaching capacity or passing up customers to maintain social distancing guidelines. These high-demand routes include:

  • Route 7
  • Route 36
  • Route 180
  • RapidRide A
  • RapidRide D
  • RapidRide E

The buses have been added on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., as that period has the highest ridership and most reports of pass-ups.

Metro continues to demonstrate operational flexibility that some observers, including me, thought was not in its nature. Other than the D, these are among the routes that have seen the smallest ridership drops, presumably because of transit-dependent riders and “essential” but not virtualizable jobs.

Last week Metro also released ridership numbers for the week ending May 1. Overall weekday boardings are at 105,000, or a 75% decrease from 2019. Not surprisingly, the drop is deepest in the weekday peaks, with late-night and weekend ridership declining much more gently. Meanwhile, bus service has dropped only 27%, meaning the average bus has almost three times fewer riders.


Whether to cut Sounder North?

Sounder Train at Carkeek Park (image: Sound Transit)

When we wrote recently about Sound Transit’s post-COVID funding shortfalls, the comments conversation turned quickly to Sounder North. The lightly used commuter rail line is everybody’s favorite local example of a transit service serving too few riders at extreme costs per rider. As the only Sound Transit rail serving Snohomish County to date, it has survived persistent concerns about costs in the past. Lynnwood Link is now nearing completion and is anticipated to open in 2024. Is it finally time to cut Sounder North?

Snohomish County, like other subareas, will shortly have to delay or suspend some future projects as the COVID-induced recession reduces tax and fare revenue. Some back-of-the-envelope math suggests cutting Sounder would avoid roughly one and one-half years of delays to Everett Link.

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Face mask laws coming

The Port of Seattle became the first governmental entity in the region to roll out a face mask requirement for everyone in public areas on Port property Saturday. SeaTac Airport is included in that mandate. On Friday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that an ordinance was in the works that would at least cover retail spaces open to the public in Seattle. A number of stores in Seattle, including Costco, already require such masks in order to be in the store.

King County Metro does not require the wearing of face masks while on board, but strongly urges customers to wear them.

At least eight states require the wearing of a face mask in public. This is not new legal territory, as several states had similar mandates on the books during the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic.

While face masks are helpful to protect people around the wearer from getting the virus from the wearer, they are no substitute for a medical grade face mask if the goal is to protect the wearer from getting the virus. Regardless, they are believed to have helped slow the spread of the virus in areas where wearing them in public has been encouraged.


Reviewing the new Link line names

In February, I wrote a piece detailing my thoughts on how to name the Link lines. In it, I prioritized usability and conformity with international best practice. The verdict is in, and Sound Transit have announced that Link lines will be numbered moving forward. In my opinion, this is great – they’re universal, and avoid a number of pitfalls that come with other possible schemes (as discussed in my previous article). Sound Transit have also released documentation detailing the reasoning behind their choices, which demonstrates their comprehensive approach to the process, and a willingness to engage with community feedback. I think it’s worth going over some of the background of their choices, which, while broadly a good job, does leave some room for constructive criticism.

Above: the original ST color scheme for lines 1-4. Below: a depiction of the same colors as they might appear to a red-colorblind (protanopia) user.

First things first, the new scheme is clear, and easily understood – take the 1 line to Ballard. Take the 2 and transfer to the 4. This is how many of the best networks are organized, and it’s really good to see that Sound Transit are mimicking that practice. They also reference the use of similar schemes in Toronto, Paris, Santiago and Madrid. As our system expands, a lot of critical decisions will be made in the design process, and it’s a good sign that ST planners are considering the practices that make other networks work so well.

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Society will reopen one day. When that happens, we need free public transit

Fare paid proposal diagram at Pioneer Square (Sound Transit)

As we all know, we are facing a dual crisis: a global pandemic, intertwined with the start of an economic depression. As restaurants, bars and stores are forced to close to curb the progression of COVID-19, hundreds of thousands in Washington State are losing their jobs. According to official statistics, nearly 630,000 Washingtonians filed for unemployment in the four weeks between the 15th of March and 11th of April; twenty-six times as many as the same time last year.

The damage won’t stop there, of course: as the confinement goes on, more businesses will close their doors, more people will find themselves without a source of revenue, consumption will decrease, yet more businesses will shutter, and so on. A full-scale economic crisis is at hand.

The Democratic Socialists of America have proposed many ideas to alleviate the impact of this crisis on the working people, including Medicare 4 All (which would protect our collective health), a moratorium on evictions and utility shut-offs, and a Green New Deal. The latter – on top of creating millions of jobs at a time where they’re sorely needed – would help prevent or at least mitigate a climate disaster whose magnitude would dwarf our current situation.

In this context, transportation policy would seem to be low priority: after all, nobody is supposed to be traveling, let alone traveling in groups. If anything, it’s even tempting to conclude that every bus and streetcar is a potential hotbed of infection, whereas the private, individual car is a biologically secure way to move around. Is the car-first American urban policy of the past 50 years being vindicated?

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KC Council considers South End service change for September

Metro map of planned route 160, which is also a preview of the future RapidRide I Line.

Metro service in South King County has been the unsung hero of Seattle-area transit for many years, serving lots of lower-income people in mostly unwalkable communities but never quite getting the service improvements even Metro admits it deserves. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted further the importance of the South End network, with virtually every South End trunk route on Metro’s list of routes most important to essential workers. It’s always welcome when Metro takes a fresh look at this critical service.

Recently, Metro has been engaged in a Renton-Kent-Auburn Mobility Project, thinking about how to improve the all-day network, centered around Kent Station, that serves the Green River Valley and Kent East Hill. Metro produced a proposed restructure last fall, and then made minor refinements after receiving public comment. The King County Council is now considering the result, which is likely to be adopted and take effect in September 2020.

The proposal is centered around a new route 160, which is intended to use the same routing as the future RapidRide I Line. The route would be effectively an extension of current route 169, absorbing the portion of current route 180 between Kent Station and Auburn Station. For now, route 160 would be scheduled at similar frequencies to route 169, with further improvements coming with the RapidRide I Line conversion in 2023. Other changes are complementary, and described later in this post.

Of course, Metro is in an environment of major operational and financial uncertainty as a result of COVID-19. The planned frequencies in this proposal do not reflect Metro’s temporary Reduced Schedule or any permanent cuts that may be necessary as a result of COVID-19 financial impact. If COVID-19’s economic effects continue, what riders finally see on the street in September 2020 may look significantly different from what follows after the jump.

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Move Seattle’s 1st quarter

We just got the annual report, but now there’s an update for SDOT’s 1st quarter projects (full report here). Covid-19 looms over everything, but the agency spent only about 2/3 of its budget mostly because of more quotidian delays: weather, permitting, and finding unexpected stuff underground.

RapidRide G (SDOT)

There’s tons of data on safety, sidewalks, bike improvements, and so on, but let’s cut straight to the transit.

The big corridor projects are divided into “Vision Zero” (safety) projects, “Transit-Plus” speed and reliability improvements, Rapid Ride, and the Burke Gilman Missing Link. You may recall that in 2019 none of the two transit categories had started digging yet. That’s still the case, but RapidRide H (Delridge) is accepting bids and expects to accept a bit this quarter. RapidRide G has completed design and is now dancing with the FTA.

Beyond transit, Missing Link construction started.

SDOT’s highly successful transit spot improvements program was right on schedule, finishing 5 projects this quarter out of 20 planned for 2020. They were:

  • 8th Ave/James St rear door pad
  • 24th Ave E/E Dearborn St curb restrictions at bus zone
  • Lenora St, between 4th-6th Ave RapidRide bus zone improvement
  • Airport Way S/S Royal Brougham, intersection improvement
  • 15th Ave NW/NW 65th St bus zone safety improvement

The City also broke ground on the Northgate pedestrian bridge, and the Lander Street overpass continues to rise.

The plan is still to start construction on RR G and H this year, though obviously the pandemic has unpredicable impacts.


Snohomish County plots out light rail station area growth, wants feedback

The preferred option for Ash Way Station, as chosen by the county council (Makers/Snohomish County)

While light rail construction in Lynnwood is temporarily halted, the next extension to Everett will continue early planning and design as originally scheduled. Snohomish County has opened a new survey into their subarea planning for stations at Mariner (128th Street) and Ash Way (164th Street), located in the unincorporated area between Everett and Lynnwood.

According to The Everett Herald, the county has been moving ahead with planning at a pace faster than expected by even Sound Transit. Construction funding for the Everett Link project, and its planned completion date of 2036, are both uncertain at this point due to the effects of the pandemic and stay-at-home order on sales tax revenue. If a cut to the project does arrive, planning will be allowed to continue using whatever funding can be pieced together, in a manner similar to Federal Way Link during the recession, with hopes of restoring funding in some form.

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News roundup: in trouble

Gig Cars Awaiting Deployment
“Gig Cars Awaiting Deployment”, by Atomic Taco (Flickr)

This is an open thread.


I-976 moves to the Supreme Court

Prospects for Link reaching Tacoma would recede further if I-976 removes the Sound Transit MVET (image: SounderBruce)

Yesterday, the Washington State Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge by King County and others to I-976, the initiative approved by statewide voters last November to remove car tabs. Yesterday’s decision fast-forwards the case so it moves directly from King County Superior Court to the Supreme Court without a transfer to the Court of Appeals. The accelerated review means a decision is likely sometime this summer.

For Sound Transit, the outcome may take longer to play out. Sound Transit asserts it may continue collecting the MVET whatever the outcome of this case. If the initiative is upheld in this case, it probably means another round of litigation to sort out the unique Sound Transit issues.

To date, the initiative has not taken effect. An injunction granted in November remains in force and is now extended until the Supreme Court decides the case. Collections of the motor vehicle excise tax have continued although those may have to be refunded if the initiative is upheld.

In a February decision, King County Superior Court mostly upheld the initiative. While the Supreme Court may see the issues differently, it suggests I-976 is more likely than not to be found constitutional. Immediate impacts would include a reduction of funding for the state’s multimodal fund by 85%. The Seattle Transportation Benefit District would see about half of its revenues disappear, though those taxes were scheduled to expire at the end of this year anyway and a replacement with a higher sales tax levy seems likely. The STBD’s reserves could cover most of the cost of refunding vehicle license fees for 2020 if required, but it would start 2021 in a cash-poor position even if local voters approve new STBD taxes later this year.

Sound Transit’s expansion plans are obviously threatened by I-976, particularly now that the effects are magnified by an impending recession. A deep recession and I-976 together would exceed any margin of error in the ST3 financial plan several times over. Projects not already in construction would be cancelled or suspended into the far future.

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Opportunity cost of a parking garage

Auburn (Google Maps)

Dan’s report on the ever-increasing cost of Sounder parking garages demands a little rough math. The per-space arithmetic is damning enough. But the opportunity costs are the practical reason to hope for something better.

The most expensive of these is Auburn Station, which is now to cost $120m in year of expenditure (YOE) dollars for 675 spaces (555 net new). Generous assumptions about inflation [1] make this $107m in current dollars. If this money were instead spread over 30 years for bus routes to Sounder, it would allow 10 additional buses to serve the Auburn area during Sounder operating times [2]. A similar, though slightly less dramatic, story plays out at the other stations. The potential of these buses to improve several different outcomes is an exercise for the reader.

In my earlier days, this would be an occasion to slam the stupidity of the people in the charge. But in my thirteenth year of doing this, I know that things like this happen because of incentives:

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Metro ridership shifts hint at the future

Where transit boardings have fallen the most (blue) vs the routes with the least ridership loss (yellow) (image: King County Metro)

Via a recent Metro briefing comes a striking map of how Metro ridership has shifted in the COVID era. The 10% of routes with the greatest ridership losses all serve the Eastside or a few Seattle neighborhoods close to the water. Very nearly all of the 10% of routes where ridership has been most stable are in South King County (as of last week of March).

It’s not quite a surprise, of course, except perhaps that it’s so stark. Higher income commuters are mostly commuting to an office and those workplaces have shifted to working from home. On the other hand, those whose workplaces are still open and who are required to be physically present are mostly commuting from South County.

Metro ridership is down about 75%. After a series of reductions between March 23 and April 20, just 34 routes are still running at normal or near-normal levels. Another 81 are substantially reduced and 104 routes throughout the county are not operating at all.

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