Traffic Versus Pollution

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

In addition to all the wonderful freedom they provide, cars have two major negative effects on society: pollution and traffic (three if you count the health problems related to auto-centric lifestyles, but that’s still pretty new and second-order compared to the first two). We often conflate the two, but they’re really separate problems.

In fact, one could easily see solving one of them while exacerbating the other. That’s the impression I get reading this article on plug-in hybrids. The more energy efficient our cars become, the cheaper they are to drive. Common sense tells us that people will then drive more, thereby making traffic worse.

This is not to say that energy-efficient cars shouldn’t be welcomed with open arms. It’s just that a good deal of public support for mass transit comes from a combination of the two. If operating a car gets cheaper, there goes one half of the coalition. Thus, it may reduce the demand for transit, while, perversely, making congestion even worse.


“Going the Way of Seattle”

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

In case you were wondering, that’s not a compliment in Canada:

The provincial government’s plan to build massive amounts of new road space in the Gateway project will significantly alter the region’s transportation and land-use patterns.

The provincial government has mainly promoted the Gateway Program as a necessary investment to reduce congestion for commuters and trucks, and it also has argued that road expansion means that emissions will be lowered because vehicles will be idling less as they wait.

. . .

And former Vancouver councillor Gordon Price, also a close watcher of the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland scene, calls it “a tragic turn in the direction of this region.”

“If [the provincial government] does what it says it’s going to do, we are going the way of Seattle.”

The article has some useful contextualizing of Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver’s relative efforts to be environmentally friendly with their infrastructure development, though it singles out Seattle as the “perpetual loser” in the 3-way race, sometimes in spite of itself:

Seattle went the other way, rejecting proposals for regional mass transit twice in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ever since, Seattle has become legendary for devising one transit plan after another, only to have each one shot down by one coalition after another of opponents. Ironically, that happens in spite of the fact that the Seattle public shows signs of wanting to do the right thing environmentally. Bruce Agnew, of the Cascadia Project, notes that sales of hybrid cars are higher per capita in Seattle than anywhere else.

(Via Casciadia Report, who takes a middle-of-the-road stance on the Vancouver expansion project)


Reading Tea Leaves Inside the Viaduct Timeline

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Even if we don’t know what we’re going to do with the main section, work is starting on the rest of the structure. Here’s the plan, courtesy of the P-I:

Closing parts of the Battery Street Tunnel from mid-2008 to 2010 for seismic strengthening, a new ventilation system and possibly to lower its floor for greater vertical clearance. Detours may be needed. John Pehrson of the Belltown Neighborhood Association said new ventilation towers may block views of Elliott Bay.

Retrofitting a 3.5-block segment of the structure, between Lenora Street and the tunnel, which planners intend to connect to whatever replaces the 1-mile viaduct segment along the central waterfront. Todd Vogel of the Allied Arts Waterfront Committee said the retrofit could prevent burying viaduct lanes under Elliott and Western Avenues to reduce noise.

A $545 million removal of the old viaduct between Holgate and King streets, from 2009 to 2012, and building a new intersection between the sports stadiums.

Part retrofit, part rebuild, and part… wait-and-see. But here’s the interesting thing for surface-transit supporters. You’ll recall that Governor Gregoire said the day after the vote that the time frame for deciding the fate of the viaduct is “two years, before the state’s next biennium budget is approved.”

The surface-transit option’s best hope is that the Viaduct is closed for a significant portion of those two years, to prove that we can live without it before a decision is made. It should go without saying that no one wants to see the road destroyed in an earthquake or an Oakland-style disaster. But a construction closure, like the one being planned between Holgate and King, would be just the ticket to prove that we can, in fact, live without it.

But the timeline doesn’t work: the state budget will be passed in 2009, probably before the Holgate-King section gets closed. Why not start tearing it down sooner? It’s risky to close the thing down for construction without a final plan, but if we’re serious about what it’s going to

Either way, it’s going to be close: the 2008-9 budget will get approved any day now. So assuming the 2010-1 budget is similarly approved in May of 2009 — and assuming the viaduct doesn’t get hashed out in the final, frenzied days of the approval process — the fate of the viaduct will likely be decided before it closes for reconstruction. If you’re a rebuild supporter, that’s a good thing.

On the other hand, if you’re Greg Nickels, and you don’t want to see another viaduct, this is your only chance:

Early next year state crews also will begin moving Seattle City Light power lines from the 1953-vintage viaduct and burying them underground.

Gee, Mayor Nickels. . . It sure would be a shame if Seattle City Light had to close the viaduct down while it moves the power lines, wouldn’t it? I mean, if the public utility decided that, hey, in the interest of public safety, the viaduct had to close for a few months and people had to find another way to get around. That wouldn’t help your argument at all, would it? (wink, wink)


37 miles of bike-lanes coming

Seattle is installing 37 miles of bike trials in the city, according to its Bicycle Master Plan. The Ballard News Tribune has a nice, if slightly Ballard-centric analysis. The plan includes bike trails, bike lines, “sharrows” (pavement arrows that indicate for cars to share the line), bike shoulders and much, much more. There’s a real nice section about bicycles and transit. The deadline for comments on the plan has been extended to May 18th, so take a look at it here.

Hopefully, this will help reduce car-head and piss-off the old-timer haters that have proudly put this city in statis for decades. Certainly, it doesn’t please The Stranger’s Erica C Barnett, but she’s a little, well, unstable.

Cross-posted at I am Seattle


Double Decks!

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Snohomish County is adding double-decker buses to its fleet. Apparently they’re better than the articulated buses because they hold more passengers and can be used in inclement weather.

One of the knocks on rapid transit by bus is that, while the initial costs of building a system are low, the operating costs are higher, since a bus can hold up to 60 or 80 people per driver, but a train can hold several hundred people per driver. Double-decks would help make buses more cost effective to operate.

Apparently they fit easily under the freeway overpasses, which is, of course, a good thing.


Mobility Plan Passes Council

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The City Council is moving forward:

Seattle will spend $8.1 million to develop a new “mobility plan” in hopes of finding an alternative to building another elevated Alaskan Way Viaduct.

City Council members voted unanimously Monday to create the plan, which may call for more transit, changes in surface streets, trip reduction, and vehicle tolls.

The surface-street option was rejected by WSDOT early on, but many have argued that that study was flawed because it simply removed the highway and didn’t think holistically about trip reduction, increased bus service, etc. This new study would presumably take all of those factors into consideration.

I’m optimistic. This is the first sign of genuine political movement toward a third way. However, it’s important to remember the lessons of the failed monorail project: if an idea doesn’t have the backing of the political establishment, it can easily be killed. Councilman Steinbrueck has made great progress in shepherding this through, but we’re still a long way away from anything approaching a political consensus.


Tunnel Boring = Completely Awesome (not at all boring)

The tunnel boring-machine has broken through the other side of Beacon Hill, completing the 4,388-foot-long tunnel that will contain the Beacon Hill Station northbound. The Japanese-made tunnel boring machine weighs 375 tons (!!!), and can bore the holes within 5 millimetres of the engineers specifications. With the weight of the trailing gear it weighs nearly 650 tons.

Now the crews are going to take the machine apart, take it back t other side of the hill, and bore the southbound tunnel. The machine takes 21 truck loads to haul.

Beacon Hill Station will be 160 feet below ground and will only be accessible via high-speed elevators. Cool stuff. I wonder if that station is going to be smelling and nasty with hobos and other transients. I sure hope not, and I hope that there is security on those elevators otherwise it could be a scary situation.


Getting On The Bus

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

One thing I’ve noticed in the past year or so is that it’s gotten much more difficult to park downtown. Through a combination of factors — more electronic meters, fewer free parking areas — the city has really changed my personal calculus: I think twice before driving downtown, even on a Saturday. And I’m much more likely to take the bus.

Some folks aren’t so happy about the changes:

Some neighborhood activists complain that the city’s goals are unrealistic, at least until there’s more convenient public transportation in Seattle.

“The city’s living in a planner’s fantasy that … if you make it hard to park people will magically walk or ride their bike,” said Matt Fox, a longtime activist in the University District, where the city has substantially reduced free parking.

“Until the transit alternatives are in place, I think this is a punitive approach that’s going to make people’s lives really miserable.”

Well, I have a hard time believing it’s going to make anyone’s life truly “miserable” (there are far worse things happening in the world), but I can see where he’s coming from. However, we’re in a bit of a Catch-22 with waiting “until the transit alternatives are in place.” Adding more bus service will be easier when there’s more demand, and there’ll be more demand when there’s more service. In the meantime, Metro’s Transit Now initiative will help.

But my instinct is that the barriers to entry are still too high for many people. The bus system is darn confusing if you don’t have a route that you know and use frequently. It’s reminiscent of the Simpsons episode where Lisa tries to take the bus to the museum and finds herself deposited out in the boonies. When she asks the bus driver why the bus didn’t stop at the museum, he replies “that’s the No. 22. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, this is the 22A.” It’s funny because it’s true.

It surprises me that a city with this many information workers can’t come up with a more intuitive way of communicating bus routes. Use colors, use shapes. Have more intuitive bus maps. Identify, say, 8 major routes and make them stand out from the pack somehow. We’re sort of getting there with the BRT component of Transit Now, but so much more could be done for what’s basically peanuts compared to the cost of, say, laying a mile of rail.


Parking Disappearing, Becoming More Expensive in the City

The PI ran two articles about parking in the city today, in different sections no less!

The article in the local section talked about free parking ending in the South Lake Union (someone please give this neighborhood a better name!). The City will be installing parking meters, and will sell parking at its 1,250 spots for 75ยข an hour. This is half as much as the $1.50 it charges in other neighborhoods. Another 750 spots will be charged at $1.25 an hour in SLU, and the remaining 600 will be charged at the normal $1.50 rate. The rates will be adjusted to ensure there is enough parking for short-term business visitors.

The cover-page article talked about the City’s plan to bring another 350,000 residents into the city by 2040 without cars. That’s 350,000 residents into the city proper, the region is expected about 1.5 million within that timeframe. The city hopes these new residents will take advantage of transit and have fewer cars on average than the typical resident does now. Either by sharing with their family or using flexcar-type programs. For this, the city has eased the rules on parking for commercial and residential developers, and turned more parking spots into pay spots.

I like the idea of people taking more transit, but density is sort of a chicken and the egg problem with regard to transit. Does more density allow for easier and better transit? Probably. But does more transit allow for more density? Definitely. If you want people to ditch their cars, build better transit first, don’t wait for them to decide to take the bus before you put the bus there.

However, with gas prices continually going up, maybe people will decide that the bus is the thing to do.


Downtown Tunnel will be a bus and train tunnel

I hadn’t realised that the downtown tunnel would still run buses through it when it reopens. According to the tunnel’s website, most of the Metro routes that went through the tunnel will be put back into it when the retro-fit is finished sometime at or before September this year. The tunnel buses, which had been electric only though the tunnel, will become diesel-electric hybrids and go wireless with in it. How this will effect air-quality in the tunnel is not mentioned. Once the train finally starts running in 2009, the tunnel’s hours of operation will increase to 18-21 hours a day which will be pretty nice.

Update: The tunnel will be ventilated by fans that have been installed.


Double Decker Bus on Community Transit

Community Transit is running a Scottish-made double-decker bus on its routes on a rotating basis. The bus is 14 feet-tall, and apartently can fit 80 people compared to 60 for articulated buses. If this bus recieves good reviews from passengers and drivers, Community Transit will consider getting more of the coaches.

Pros of double-decker vs articulated buses.

  • 80 people on double-decker vs 60 for articulated.
  • Won’t jack-knife in bad weather.
  • Easier to turn

Cons of double-decker

  • More expensive, $650,000 vs $580,000.
  • Slower boarding.
  • At 14 feet tall, can’t fit through all tunnels, and under all bridges.

I am for double-deckers on these long-distance routes. Articulated buses are annoying on city streets, but they are necessary to fit under bridges and powerlines.


Route 509 Expansion

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

When I first heard mention of a $1B line-item in the RTID to connect SR 509 with I-5, I assumed they were talking about eliminating the stoplight where 509 meets 518 and making it an “all freeway” exchange. It struck me as an odd thing to spend a billion bucks to get rid of a single traffic light.

But I was wrong! The proposed connection, which is nearing approval would happen south of Sea-Tac. The P-I article, though, still doesn’t answer the question of what problem the expansion is designed to solve.

WSDOT’s website, though, provides an answer:

Extending SR 509 will ease congestion on I-5, improve service between industrial districts by allowing up to 9,000 trucks per day to bypass I-5, SR 99 and local streets, and provide for southern access to Sea-Tac International Airport.

It also seems like calling it a “509 expansion” is a bit misleading: in addition to the 3 miles of new 509 freeway, the project will also add a lane to I-5 for the 6 miles approaching the 509 interchange. I’m sure the 509 piece is more expensive (because it’s brand-new freeway), but still, a good chunk of this project is widening I-5.


Mountlake Terrace Transit Center

I reserve the phrase “The City” for Seattle, since I’m a Bay Area guy, and that’s the terminology down there for San Francisco. But uses it differently in this article about a new transit center in Mountlake Terrace. Apparently the transit center will be in the middle of I-5, with a pedestrian bridge toward a park and ride built in the 2009 timeframe. It looks cool, and includes a 880-space garage that will double park-and-ride capacity. I am all for the median bus lane, but doesn’t that mean these buses will have to merge left toward the median for Mountlake Terrace and then back right for the other stops which are on the left-side near exits? I wonder who thought that scheme up…

Apologies I wrote this post last week but clicked “Save as Draft” rather than publish.