Trouble on the Bus

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The Times is reporting that assaults, both passenger-on-passenger, and passenger-on-driver, all out of proportion to the increase in ridership, which is also at an all-time high. The article offers a smorgasbord of possible answers, from increased incident reporting to more crowding.

Speaking from personal experience, though I’ve never, ever come close to assaulting anyone, I myself get a lot more edgy on a bus than I do on a train. The bus tends to be a more stressful experience. On the bus, I’m still stuck in traffic. Plus, the lurching as it starts and stops is more likely to make me sick.

But also there’s something more intimate in a bus, and not in a good way. Subways and trains are more anonymous. On a bus you can see the driver. You can second-guess his decision to wait to pick up a passenger, etc. Everything in a train is calmer and more regular. There are rarely unexpected stops, the conductor is anonymous and distant. Everything seems out of your control, so it’s harder to get angry about it.

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When are Tickets Purchased?

In Metroblogging Seattle’s write-up of BRT in Quinto, Naomi says “You pay as you enter the stop, so that when the vehicle stops, it is quick to enter.” Wow, that’s a great idea, and makes me wonder, how will people pay for Link? The Tacoma link is free, so there’s no precedence there. Way down in the South Bay, VTA has machines on the track to buy tickets and then it’s a proof of payment system. SkyTrain in Vancouver works the same way. BART, and most other heavy rail systems, have turnstyles and ticket machines. Street cars in San Francisco are pay as you enter, like buses in Seattle. I’m guessing Link will work the VTA/Skytrain way and not the BART way, but I’ll make sure when I go to the tour lunch tomorrow and see completed (!!) stations.
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Meeting with Sound Transit Yesterday

Sound Transit and someone from WashDot came to work yesterday and talked about the RTID ballot for next year. The first guy talked about all the road work, which is about $7bn worth of improvements on choke points. He made a point to say that they were looking at SR-520 more than the press has been giving them credit for.

After him a rather polite and knowledgeable guy talked about the East Link rail for about 20 minutes before giving over to someone who explained the flexibility of light rail and it’s advantages over heavy rail. Basically, more flexibility when it comes to at-grade sections.

We then had a question and answer, where I asked the most unpopular question, “Vancouver is building the Canada Line in 7 years with $2billion USD, if Light Rail is so great, why does it cost so much and take so long?” The gentleman answered that the environmental rules were less strict in Canada, which I believe. The other differences were the Skytrains’ routes will be smaller and they won’t have to build across a lake. He said the date could be moved to as soon as 2018 (it’s 2027 now) if Sound Transit only had more money. I think if they would put ST2 on the ballot after the central link is finished, people would see its usefulness and be willing to fork over the cash.


Someone asked why the line is not gauranteed to go all the way to downtown Redmond and instead is only slated to go to Overlake Transit Center? Apparently if a tunnel is built through Bellevue it’ll cost about $250~$400 million a mile compared to $150 million for elevated and only $80 million for at grade. That’s a lot of money, and with that it would be difficult to get the train all the way to downtown Redmond. Also, Downtown Redmond is not a major employment center, but there is a major push to get the train to Redmond because parking around Overlake is already nasty and anyone taking the train into Bellevue or the city would have no where to park.

So my question is does Bellevue really need a tunnel? I know that they no longer consider themselves a suburb and want to be a real city with a subway and high-rises, but they are limiting the usefulness of their own train line by insisting on a tunnel. We’ll see how this goes, but I think if we have at grade stations in the city, they can handle at grade stations in Bellevue.

Finally, someone asked if there was any possibility of new park and rides in the city. The answer was, “No, the city of Seattle is against new parking lots, and areas around train stations will be for dense mixed-use developments.” That was my expectation, too. I think Nickels and Sims are planning on putting a lot of buses toward the stations, so park and rides won’t be very necessary.

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Sounder to Boeing Field?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Discussing a potential Boeing Field site for the Sonics arena, David Brewster notes:

Sound Transit’s new line passes right by, and there is a transit station planned (though currently deferred) just south of the Boeing Access Road, right by I-5, including a 350-car park-and-ride lot. The Sounder commuter rail line also passes right by, and the Sound Transit station plan is to enable transfers between light rail and commuter rail on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks. Throw in the proximity of Highway 99 just to the west and you have about as ideal a situation for getting people to and from the site as you could imagine.

The light rail stop we know about, but this is the first I’ve heard mention of the Sounder making a stop there. No Boeing Field-area stops are proposed in ST2. Still, I’m sure Brewster has better sources than I do, so chalk this up as an interesting new development.

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More Reasons…

I was pretty upset yesterday, so I forgot to mention one thing: the 3% statistic for transit is based on Vehicle Miles Travelled. Not commuter trips (the ones that cause congestion), not the total number of trips, but of Vehicle Miles Travelled. I’m sure it is much higher because people who drive travel from farther away and even people who take transit might drive when they get home.

The goals of transit are not always at odds with the driver. Some of the goals of good transit are reducing the number of miles travelled because transit allows more density, reducing the number of commuter trips made in single occupancy passenger cars and reducing the cost of living by letting people live without cars. Frank over at Orphan Road discusses the hidden cost of highways in this context and Carless in Seattle discusses the major factual error in the piece.
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The Hidden Costs of Highways

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Daimajin does a good job of dispensing with the Op-Ed in yesterday’s Seattle Times by George Kargianis and Phil Talmadge on the “hidden costs” of light rail, so I won’t duplicate efforts.

However, the reason the piece was truly infuriating — to me, anyway — is that it claims that there are hidden costs of light rail (which are speculative at best), while ignoring the hidden costs of highways, which are well-documented but little-understood.

Talmadge and Kargianis repeat the oft-told canard that transit funding is is disproportionate to the number of riders:

Transit ridership in Central Puget Sound amounts to less than 3 percent of the total daily travel. Yet, the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Metropolitan Transportation Plan for 2030 allocates half of total transportation expenditures to transit and hopes that transit’s market share will increase to 4.5 percent of daily travel. Meanwhile, our roadway system, with the other half of funding, would serve the other 95 percent of travel. The disparity between ridership being served and proposed dollars should be apparent.

But this fails to take into account two things. First, transit takes millions of cars off the highways, which frees up the road for people who do drive. This saves gas and increases productivity for the millions of people who’ve never seen the inside of a Metro bus.

Second, and more importantly, we’re not comparing apples to apples here. Sound Transit is providing the whole enchilada: the rails, the trains, the buses, the drivers, the repair guys, the fuel. Everything. All you need to do is buy a (very cheap) ticket. The road money just gives us concrete and asphalt. What we don’t see in the RTID are things like:

  • the cost of buying a car
  • hiring a mechanic to maintain it
  • car insurance
  • fuel
  • parking

And that’s just off the top of my head. But these are real costs of highways, borne by all of us, but rarely recognized. Sometime soon I’ll try, to the best of my ability, to calculate this. But when it’s all said an done, I’m quite sure that we’ll find that transit is quite a bit more cost competitive than Talmadge and Kargianis claim.

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They Hate Transit, I Hate More Highways


I’ve waited all day to discuss this. Basically, there are three arguments in this opinion piece:
1) No one uses transit here, so why bother spending money on it.
2) Trains across the I-90 bridge is dangerous. 3) Acquiring the center of the I-90 bridge for trains is not a good use of road-space, and may not be legal.

Few people use transit here because there is very poor transit here. The statistic “Transit ridership in Central Puget Sound amounts to less than 3 percent of the total daily travel” is not given in any context, so we do not know what counts as “daily travel.” Is it walking+biking+transit+driving? Does it count freight? How about airplanes and boats? Anyway, Metro buses have over 100 million rides per year, which is 58 for every resident of King county. Unless people average more than five trips per day, that number is more than 3 percent in King county. (Five trips per day would be 3.2% of travel done on transit, any fewer trips per person would increase that dramatically).

The argument here is sort of like before paved roads will built, saying “only 3 percent of daily travel is done with automobiles, why waste the money on the infrastructure? We need more horse paths!” The idea is that with better transit more people will ride it, and once a beginning infrastructure is built, more infrastructure will be added later. Transit makes cities more affordable to live in, because travel is enabled without a car. It makes them more environmental friendly, because of the above, but also because it enables higher density which reduces the number and distance of travel trips, which reduces fuel foot print. Transit also increase property values, and encourages tourism. There is a strong “network effect” on proper rail systems. To quote Calgary Transit: “Since the inception of LRT service, each new LRT line or LRT extension has produced a 15 to 20 percent increase in corridor ridership, resulting from the diversion of previous auto drivers to transit.”

If it is true that by 2030 only 4.5 of travel will be done with transit, I would say that is would have been a waste but, again, I don’t know where that stat came from, and if Ron Sims is talking about getting 50,000 commuters out of their cars by 2016, that would be mean trips in King County would be at least 6% transit by 2016 (50,000 people is 2.9% of the county’s population), even if people were making five trips a day. Anyway, even small reductions in volume reduce delays significantly for highways.

The second argument that putting trains across the I-90 bridge is dangerous I won’t argue with. I am sure Sound Transit won’t build anything knowing that it is not safe, and I trust their engineers more than pundits with an axe to grind.

The point that commandeering the center of the I-90 bridge is not a good use of road space is only obvious if you compare the number of trips across the bridge on the train and on the current center roadway. Any other comparison is apples-to-oranges. The argument that “The I-90 bridge would suffer a vehicle capacity loss of one-third compared with today” is pointless because we all know that the center HOV part does not actually carry one-third of traffic across the bridge! The vast majority goes in the other two lanes and the authors surely know that.

The piece asks:

Aside from the cost of converting the center corridor to light rail, one has to ask by what right would Sound Transit acquire this center corridor? This would constitute a “taking” of state highway property now belonging to all Washington taxpayers.

No, it wouldn’t. I-90 is an interstate and is thus owned by the federal government. The 18th Amendment (section 40) mentions money raised by special tax or levy, not money paid by the federal government. Thus this argument has no bearing. I don’t know the exact legality of acquiring this part of the bridge, but the 18th amendment has nothing to do with it. I will ask Sound Transit to respond to this today.

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Up tp 500 more Hybrid Buses

As has been reported elsewhere, Metro will buy up to 500 hybrid buses as a result of Transit Now! passing. These buses will be required to run through the transit tunnel, where the old, bus-trolley system was removed for the light-rails trolley system. By trolley system I mean the wires on top of the bus from which they get power.
Orphan Road pointed out that the fuel savings never materialized for the hybrid buses, but they are more reliable, require less servicing and break down less often than conventional buses. So while the hybrids cost about $200k more than normal buses ($718K vs $520K), “[t]he hybrid fleet as a whole is saving $3 million a year in maintenance costs over the [dual-mode] Bredas.”

This press release says, “Metro’s goal is to get up to 50,000 drivers out of their cars and riding buses by 2016.” Pretty cool, but I think trains could take another 100,000 out.

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More Hybrid Buses

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Metro is ordering a whole slew of new hybrid buses to help deliver the Transit Now service improvements.

You’ll recall the first batch of hybrids was rolled out in 2004. However, the P-I reported in December of that year that those buses failed to show significant fuel savings. They were, however, more reliable and helped to lower maintenance costs.

Still, Metro is a little more cautious in touting the energy savings this time around:

Metro currently owns 214 articulated hybrid buses, the largest such fleet in the nation. A National Renewable Energy Lab study found articulated hybrids provide a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gases and are 40 percent more reliable than diesel fueled articulated buses.

Notice there’s no direct mention of fuel savings. The reduction in greenhouse gases could simply be that the new buses use a cleaner diesel blend than the older ones.

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Why Public Transportation is better in Vancouver

Sightline has been making much news about how much better people in Vancouver are at using public transit than their neighbors to the south. The average Vancouver residents rides transit 126 times per year, compared to 62 times per year for Portland, and 42 for Seattle-Tacoma-Everett.

Sightline goes on to say that it’s all about density. That has an impact on how long trips take, because denser communities need fewer cars, and need to go less far to make trips. When comparing Vancouver to Portland (which, relative to Seattle, is well served by rail, street cars and buses), Vancouver still is more favorable in terms of average length of commute. This may be because density is so much less in Portland, it maybe because Skytrain is always grade-separated from cars.

But there’s a whole other story to this that is being missed: Gas in Vancouver is way more expensive than in Seattle. An imperial gallon is 25% more than an American gallon (160 oz vs. 128 oz), but that’s still well over $4.25 US for a gallon of gas. Also, Vancouver has no freeway through the center of the city. These two facts conspire against driving a car into or even around town.

Finally, something is simply different about Canada than America. According to this wikipedia article about the upcoming Canada line, the original idea was brought up in 1995, the final approval was given in 2004, and it will be ready for operation in 2009. The entire line is grade-separated which means it will never compete in traffic with cars, and is about 20 km long. The whole line was built for about $700 million (CAD) in private funds and about $1.515 billion (CAD) in private funds for a total of $2.215 billion (CAD). That’s a little more than $2 billion US. By contrast, the Link rail from Sea-Tac to downtown Seattle is 25.3 km long, only 5.3 km longer, has major portions at-grade (most of the part through South Seattle), and will have cost $5.3 billion USD by the its completion.

Things are just different in Canada.

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HopStop

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Following up on Matt’s post about NextBus, it looks like the burgeoning transit-planning space is getting a new entrant, HopStop, which covers NY, SF, and DC, among others (but not Seattle, alas).

The cool thing about HopStop is that they’re providing a free API, which will let transit-geek sites like ours provide a custom interface and feature set. Come to Seattle, HopStop!

The logical evolution for these sites is toward mobile phones, of course. That’s where the action’s going to be in a few years.

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Streetcar Over Budget?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Seattle Transit Blog flags a story in the Seattle Times about the South Lake Union Streetcar being — surprise! — over budget. Well, not over budget, per se, construction costs are peachy, but the city seems to have been a bit rosy in estimating the operating expenses:

Metro Transit, which will operate the trains, plans to bill the city $2 million a year, compared to the city’s original $1.5 million estimate. Startup costs will add $500,000, compared to the early estimate of $144,000. The current shortfall is about $1.5 million for the first two years of operations, said a City Council staff analysis issued this week.

So we’re looking at about $500K/yr in operating expenses. The streetcar was still a great deal, since the local businesses volunteered to put up half the construction costs. That said, there’s a lot riding on this project (so to speak). It represents a very different way of building a transit system, so it will be heavily scrutinized.

But it’s also the canary in the South Lake Union coal mine. I love the Whole Foods as much as the next guy, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about how South Lake Union is going to turn out. It could be a Potemkin village, if stories like this become the norm. So there’s a certain amount of “pressure” on the Streetcar.

That said, it will take time to really assess the Streetcar, since it will come online years before the neighborhood around it fully matures. And it’s benefits in connecting SLU to Westlake Station and Light Rail won’t be realized for decades, if you think about the potential connection to Eastside light rail. So when you start to see investigative reports on KOMO next year about the “empty” streetcar, keep that in mind.

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BRT vs Light Rail


Houston has decided to go with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) rather than Light Rail. Their project was more expensive than they expected, and the feds wouldn’t pay for part unless they switched from rail to buses. This is bound to continue the conversation here about BRT vs Rail that has been going on for sometime.

The BRT that they are selling us here and that which is going up in Houston are two very different things. According to the click2houston article: “B.R.T. is a diesel bus on rubber wheels that’s similar to light rail in that it follows a fixed guide-path and makes far fewer stops than a regular bus.” In Seattle, BRT is essentially more buses that make fewer stops but that’s it. They would not be on their own paths, and they would not have elevated platform stops.

Also, BRT is not the stopping point for Houston, it’s just an interrum as they move torward rail. Again, from the click2houston article.

Chairman David Wolff says B.R.T. allows METRO to live up to the spirit of the referendum. And notes as METRO’s building these lines, it will lay down tracks so it can switch to light-rail if ridership numbers justify it.

“That’s an additional expenditure which we wouldn’t have to do, but we want to show people that we want to get to light-rail as soon as we can,” Wolff said.

King County Executive Ron Sims, has been keen on BRT for years. After the viaduct vote went down, many more Seattle-area politicians have been talking about BRT. Erica C Barnett at the stranger had a nice summary six months ago.

The primary argument for BRT, especially during the Bush era of parsimonious transit funding, is that it’s cheaper and easier to implement than light rail. But while it’s undeniably less expensive to put buses on existing streets than it is to build the substantial infrastructure needed to create a new rail transit system, there are other measures of cost-effectiveness besides capital costs.


[T]he data is clear: BRT draws far fewer transit riders—and, importantly, far fewer new [Emphasis in the original, Ed.] transit riders—than light rail or other fixed-rail systems. In a 2001 study that’s often cited as evidence that BRT can work along the former monorail Green Line, the Seattle Department of Transportation found that elevated transit like the monorail or elevated light rail would add about 56,000 daily riders to the North Seattle-to-downtown corridor; BRT would add just 32,500. From West Seattle to downtown, the disparity was even more startling: nearly 28,000 riders for elevated rail, and just 10,000 for BRT.

Real-world statistics bear out the Seattle planners’ estimates: In Houston … there are six BRT routes running on 44 miles of freeway HOV lanes throughout the city. Currently, just 36,000 people use the system. In Portland, a much smaller city … a 33-mile light-rail system carries nearly twice as many riders as Houston’s: some 74,000 a day. Because of the higher ridership, the cost per passenger mile … is actually lower in many cities, including Portland, for rail than it is for “affordable” BRT.


Bus lanes, unlike rail, can be easily converted for use by other types of vehicles, in effect subsidizing private autos with public-transportation dollars. In Houston, highway lanes that were originally dedicated to “bus rapid transit” have been converted into HOV lanes where buses compete with private cars. This is exactly why you’ll never see real economic development around a bus stop: Buses can be moved; trains have to go where the rails go.

There is a really important point under the surface of Erica’s argument here. BRT does nothing to improve property values, while light rail improves property values considerably. That is why South Lake Union residents were willing to pay half the price of the streetcar there. And Streetcars aren’t even mass transit, just rail-based local transit. Imagine what a real rail system would do for this property values.

Admittedly, few places have tried BRT in America. As this article, with a more positive spin on BRT than the Stranger, says:

flexibility, she concluded that “bus service has a negative image, particularly when compared with rail service.”

She said rail-based plans are often viewed as the mark of “a world-class city” and an image-enhancer that can attract developers.

“As more experience is gained with BRT, its advantages and disadvantages will become better understood,” she said.

BRT is better than nothing, for sure. But it is not the sort of rapid, mass transit that will get people to leave their cars. Rail is.

More links:
Dan Savage on BRT.
Wikipedia on BRT
Bus Rapid Transit.net

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SLU Streetcar Over Cost


I missed this Friday, because I don’t actually subscribe to the Times, and the P-I has been running cover stories about local American Idol contestants. Apparently the South Lake Union Streetcar is about $3 million under budget because of cost over-runs, lower than expected advertising revenues, and higher than expected start-up costs. Metro, which will operate the car, wants $2mn per year rather than $1.5mn because the costs will be more than they had anticipated.
The good news is the city has already lined up advertisers for all of the cars and 6 of the 11 stations.

Nick Licata, who is not getting my vote in the future, was against its construction and still continues to cause trouble about it. “I think it’s unfortunately indicative of how we’re not paying attention to the more basic services around the city. How did Seattle become unaffordable? It’s through a number of these projects that benefit a small sector of the population.”

How did it become unaffordable? Because of the general housing bubble and a robust economy! Not because of a street car! Good transit will make the city more affordable as people will be able to lower the number of cars per household or even ditch their cars entirely.

This project is important, and I hope it succeeds, because if it is successful it will mean that more streetcars will be built. And the car was a bargain, more than half of the car was paid for by landowners by a neighborhood property tax.

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Buying Rail

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

It’s good to see WSDOT taking control of more rail lines in Eastern WA:

The purchase of the CW Branch of the Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad (PCC) is part of a nearly six-year effort to preserve the PCC, which is important to Eastern Washington’s agricultural industry. The state will pay $9.0 million for all track and right of way on the CW Branch, which runs from Coulee City to Cheney and Spokane, and certain real property on the PV Hooper and P & L Branch not previously purchased. The state will also receive the operating rights on all three branches.

“Rail is a vital part of our transportation system and supports a large portion of Washington’s agricultural community,” said Paula Hammond, WSDOT Chief of Staff. “This purchase conforms to the recommendations of the recently completed statewide Rail Capacity and System Needs Study and supports Governor Gregoire’s goals for economic growth in our communities.”

This is especially interesting in light of the article in today’s New York Times about the state of the dams in WA’s Lower Snake River. The focus is on opening the dams for salmon runs, but it also notes that the dams allow for barges to float wheat down river. Get rid of the dams, and you need to find an alternative transportation network, like rail.

Of course, you can own all the track you want, it doesn’t make a difference if the train doesn’t stop, as happened with the new intermodal facility at the Port of Quincy, WA.

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Revisiting the Monorail

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.


Seeing that poster the other day got me thinking about the aborted Seattle Monorail Project again. I know most people would rather forget it (opening day was supposed to be December 2007, just seven months from now), but there were some valuable lessons there, and certainly the alignment, Ballard – Downtown – West Seattle is going to need to be served by high-capacity transit sooner rather than later. Especially if the Viaduct goes away.

Transit Now will help in the short term, but even the snazziest buses will get caught in traffic on the West Seattle Bridge or stuck waiting for the drawbridge in Ballard. After the Monorail died, the idea was broached to put in a light rail spur connecting SODO and West Seattle. Assuming you could deal with the technical challenges of crossing the Duwamish River, that certainly seems feasible.

But on the North end, the idea of a monorail between downtown and Ballard is still appealing, for a number of reasons. First off, building another downtown tunnel through Belltown seems unfeasible, especially since it would have to somehow cross through the Battery Street Tunnel. Second, we’ve already got a monorail running down 5th Avenue, and people are at least used to it (and used to the monorail making its way through Seattle Center). Finally, a monorail bridge over the Ballard ship canal is more cost-effective than a tunnel.

My only real objection to the monorail is the cost of maintaining a separate transit system (two separate maintenance facilities, engineers, etc.). But if we’re going to maintain the Seattle Center monorail anyway ($4.5M for the latest round of repairs alone), we might as well make it go somewhere.

I’m fairly sure there’s zero political or public will for reviving this concept while the body of the last monorail project is still warm. Still, there’s something there worth saving.

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