Friday news roundup

  • New Eastrail bridge breaks ground next to future Wilburton station. Could open before East Link?
  • Capitol Hill Seattle: Seattle city council moving back to some in-person meetings
  • West Seattle bridge closer to re-opening in “mid-2022”
  • The Atlantic: Jerusalem Demsas takes on the NIMBY-population-growther nexus
  • Seattle Times: Gene Balk crunches the data and Seattle is [slightly] losing population
  • The Urbanist is launching a letter-writing campaign to try and fix Link’s escalator woes. Write yours here.
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Bikes, buses and Rainier Avenue

Ryan Packer, The Urbanist:

SDOT says that the first phase of this transit lane could save riders on the Route 7 one minute per trip, but that the full extension could save riders 6 minutes during times of highest congestion on Rainier Avenue. That could translate to as many as 141 cumulative hours saved per day, given the ridership of that highly used bus route. Even as the pandemic and work-from-home measures have temporarily sapped ridership across much of the bus network, ridership on Route 7 has remained high due to prevalence of transit-dependent households and essential workers along the route, Metro reports.

A comprehensive overview of the state of Rainier Avenue in 2022 in the context of some much-needed bus priority work. Route 7 (and/or RapidRide R) is exactly the kind of route that will continue to have robust, all-day ridership post-COVID.

This is a side note, but it seems that SDOT has done everyone a disservice in keeping a zombie protected bike lane in the aging bike master plan for MLK (south of Mount Baker) and Rainier (north of Mount Baker). Given the traffic volumes on those corridors, its unlikely we’ll see bike lanes on MLK or Rainier any time soon. SDOT won’t radically reduce car capacity without air cover from City Hall, and the current administration and transportation chair are unlikely to provide it.

That said, there absolutely can and should be a flat, safe direct bike route through the Rainier Valley and we shouldn’t be playing bikes vs. buses hunger games all the time. How might we repurpose all that surface parking, for example, before new development fills it in? The city ought to commit to a real study with some viable options — even ones that require a capital investment — add one to the next Move Seattle Levy so we have something to get people excited about besides (say) replacing bridges in Magnolia.

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Monorail proposes another fare increase

Table of proposed fare increases

Seattle Monorail Services, the private operator of the Seattle Center Monorail, has proposed a pair of 25 cent fare increases to take effect this year and next. The increases are “to keep up with rising costs and our commitment to preserving this historic system”. Three years ago the one-way fare was only $2.50 but was raised to offset the cost of accepting ORCA. Depending on how transfer credit is apportioned the $3.00 fare may have been less than half of what the Monorail would have received per ticket before its acceptance of ORCA.

Cash payments are currently “temporarily” suspended as a COVID-19 safety measure. ORCA cards are accepted at turnstiles and credit cards can be used to purcahse tickets at a self-service kiosk. ORCA cards can be purchased from TVMs in the DSTT, but no TVM exists (yet) at Seattle Center.

The $3.50 mark would put fares above all bus fares in the county, even with the longest (currently) possible Link fare, at the lower end of distance-based Sounder fares, but still cheaper than all ferry fares.

The public is invited to comment on the proposed fare increases via email: denise.wells@seattle.gov or by phone: 206-615-0258 through Monday, June 27. 2022.

Comments will also be accepted at a Public Meeting online via Webex on Wednesday, June 22, 2022 4:30 pm, details here.

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News roundup: delayed

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Free transit this weekend, new ORCA on Monday

King County Metro:

The current ORCA website will be permanently shut down at 11:59 p.m. tonight, Thursday, May 12, and will transition to the new site on May 16.  Customers can still add cash to their cards at vending machines, customer service locations and participating retailers.

In order to transition to the new ORCA system, fares will not be collected between 3 a.m. Saturday, May 14, and 2:59 a.m. Monday, May 16, on most area transit systems.

Ride your heart out.

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SDOT shuffles the scooter & bike share mix

Ethan Bergerson, SDOT blog:

After careful review, we selected three scooter companies to receive operation permits for 2022–2023: LimeLINK (by Superpedestrian), and Bird. In addition to scooters, riders continue to have the option of renting shared bicycles from Lime and Veo.

In addition to welcoming back Lime and LINK (by Superpedestrian), we are excited to welcome Bird. Bird operates in over 400 cities and has a demonstrated commitment to safety and sustainability. They will bring their newest third generation of scooters to Seattle, which offers a safer ride and longer battery life than their earlier models.

It wasn’t that long ago that bike share seemed to be on the way out in favor of scooters.

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Sound Transit’s CEO search

Mike Lindblom, The Seattle Times:

Above all, the position “requires incredible soft skills,” the search firm, CPS-HR of Sacramento, heard from staff and interest groups. “Most often, we heard about the need to listen,” a report said.

While relevant to any top executive, the feedback reflects worries by the board about reliving Rogoff’s first year, when colleagues complained to the human resources department about his abrasive manner. Rogoff apologized, narrowly escaped being fired, and completed executive coaching.

“I think it’s a great callout. A leader does need to have soft skills and we certainly need that in a CEO,” said board Chair Kent Keel, a council member from University Place near Tacoma. Keel mentioned a distinction between hard-charging “East Coast” and a subtler “West Coast” public agency culture.

Are we building consensus or are we building public transit?

Soft skills are fine, if what Keel means balancing stakeholder interests while building useful and usable transit projects. If he means the Seattle Process on steroids, that’s deeply concerning. The primary goal is to provide excellent and useful transit, not simply appease the squeakiest wheels, who often times don’t actually care about great rider experiences.

There is simply no transit agency in America attempting to build anything as ambitious as ST3 (arguably excepting Los Angeles?). The agency probably needs to look overseas, to Europe or Asia, where complicated transit projects actually get built in a reasonable frame for a reasonable budget.

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Portland’s driving dilemma

The New York Times recently ran an excellent feature on Portland’s efforts to curb emissions while still building highways:

But despite Portland’s efforts, the number of cars and trucks on its roads has kept rising as the city and its suburbs have grown — along with tailpipe pollution that is warming the planet. While Portland has set ambitious climate goals, the city is not on track to meet its targets, largely because emissions from transportation remain stubbornly high.

Now the city faces a fresh challenge: To deal with traffic jams, state officials want to expand several major highways around Portland. Critics say that will only increase pollution from cars and trucks at a time when emissions need to fall, and fast.

The overall contours will be quite familiar to Seattle residents, but the chart comparing Portland and Seattle-area emissions per capita is quite an eye-popper.

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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.

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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.

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San Francisco’s Van Ness BRT

The ROI on bus lanes is remarkable:

Another benefit of the lanes is a more consistent trip time for riders. Travel-time variability decreased by up to 26% northbound and 55% southbound, according to the data. And the lanes appear to have encouraged more people to take the bus, with ridership increasing 13% in the first week the Bus Rapid Transit lanes were in service, a pattern that has remained consistent in the following weeks, Tumlin said.

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Eliminating cash fares

Erica has an excellent overview of Metro’s latest report on the possibility:

In a recent report on the future of Metro’s fare system, the agency outlined its plans for smoothing the transition to eliminating cash fares, which—according to Metro—will make boarding faster, ease conflicts between riders and drivers, and eliminate the need to periodically repair Metro’s 1,509 on-board fareboxes, which are a decades-old model that is no longer being produced. Replacing fareboxes with new ones that accommodate cash payments would cost around $29 million, Metro estimates—a substantial cost for a system that is still recovering from the pandemic. Cash riders also have to pay a second fare to transfer to Sound Transit trains and buses, a problem that will only become more acute as Metro terminates more routes at light rail stations.

The flip side is access: many people simply don’t have ORCA cards. It would be impossible to even contemplate until next-gen ORCA is more widespread. Getting ORCA cards into more pockets is always a good thing, and if this facilitates wider distribution of ORCA LIFT and other similar low-income programs, all the better.

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New ORCA app and website coming next month

MyORCA.com:

Beginning in May 2022, the new myORCA mobile app and website will make paying for transit rides in the Puget Sound region faster and easier.

Later in 2022, we’re adding more retail locations where you can buy and reload ORCA cards and launching a new card design.

MyORCA replaces the aging orcacard.com and orcacard.biz sites, which was never really usable on mobile phones (and barely usable on desktops). It will include exciting new features like instant fare uploading. There will be a virtual open house on May 4 to learn more.

It’s the first milestone for the next-generation ORCA system. Previous coverage of next-generation ORCA here and here.

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Local agencies lift mask requirements

After a somewhat confused day of messaging, all local transit agencies jointly lifted their mask requirements after a federal judge knocked down the CDC’s rule. David Kroman in the Times:

Immediately after the Monday ruling, Seattle-area agencies largely kept their current policies in place, albeit without strong enforcement mechanisms. By late Monday and early Tuesday, however, that shifted.

Eight Seattle-area transit agencies — Community TransitEverett TransitKing County MetroKitsap TransitPierce TransitSeattle Department of Transportation, Seattle Center Monorail and Sound Transit — said in a joint statement Tuesday that masks are now optional.

The rule was set to expire on May 3. The administration may appeal.

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