Lazy Seattle

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Clark Williams-Derry takes a deeper look into a Seattle trend: many of us don’t go to work on Mondays or Fridays. After comparing traffic data, he concludes:

Now, I don’t know for certain what accounts for the difference. But I think it’s pretty simple: there are just enough people who don’t work Mondays or Fridays — either because of flexible, 4×10 hour work schedules, or because of people taking long weekends or vacation days — that traffic volumes never quite reach the “tipping point” between free-flow and gridlock.

That’s exactly how traffic tends to work: a roadway that’s operating near peak capacity — full, but flowing freely — can suddenly descend into gridlock if just a few extra cars enter the highway at once. That’s one reason that Seattle’s metered on ramps help keep traffic moving more smoothly: by regulating access, they help prevent the sudden bursts of traffic that can bring a highway to a standstill.

This certainly matches my experience. It also, I think, speaks to how well we could do with congestion pricing.


Westlake Going Two-Way?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.


I was wondering what would happen when the streetcar started running in both directions on Westlake, which is a one-way street North of Denny.

Well, it looks like the answer is that they’re going to make Westlake Ave a 2-way street. Check out the streetlights under wraps for Southbound traffic.

Based on this, it looks like the two-way option has been around for some time.


The Benefits of Rail

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

David Brewster thinks outside the box. But first, he plays a little fast and loose with density numbers:

The general rule is that only cities with densities of more than 10,000 people per square mile pass the threshold for extensive use of public transportation systems. That qualifies only New York and Chicago, which account for a large percentage of all public transportation in America. Seattle’s density, for its urbanized area, is about 3,000 people per square mile. Moreover, public transportation becomes dominant only in the downtown business districts of these cities.

As we’ve noted, Seattle’s density does put it within striking distance of effective rapid transit. Even so, he can’t account for Washington DC, where the density is far lower than New York or Chicago, but which has the second-highest percentage of transit use in the country.

Brewster does advance three “awkward” theories about why rail is a good idea: it attracts wealthy riders, it spurs real estate development, and it helps planners build compact, transit-oriented neighborhoods.

The first theory is counter-intuitive. He claims that light rail use in the Rainier Valley will be “disappointing,” because it’s not affluent, but that doesn’t really jive with the fact that bus use in such neighborhoods tends to be very high.

The second and third arguments are basically the same thing: the reason rail lines spur real-estate development is precisely because they concentrate growth along the alignment. When you create pockets of land that are very desirable for people to live, work or shop, those pockets are going to become valuable.

That latter argument is most compelling. If we start to clump our housing and employment centers in the right areas — Downtown Seattle, Bellevue, Overlake, Northgate, etc. — we can induce transit use. It doesn’t have to be the New York or Chicago all-trains-into-downtown-and-back model. A decentralized model that moves people among several nodes (think London or DC) could be just as effective.

We’ve gone over the basic arguments for rail so many times (buses get stuck in traffic, buses can’t carry nearly as many passengers as trains, buses will never be as fast, etc.) so many times that I don’t want to rehash them. But if I wanted to offer a slightly awkward case, to complement Brewster’s list above, it would be this: rail is romantic. Bus systems just don’t inspire T-shirts. There’s value in that: real, quality-of-life, this-is-a-great-city value.


David Brewster Makes Case for Rail Transit

At crosscut there’s an interesting piece about rail transit. David Brewster writes this about the densities required to make rail transit work:

The case for transit is not an easy one to make for the voters. Costs are very high, and only a few of the voters live near enough to the lines to get much direct benefit. The trickle-down case is difficult to make, especially since expensive transit systems usually force cutbacks in bus service to pay for the rails. So it’s not surprising that the case is invariably oversold. One of the worst ways it is oversold is to urge people to imagine that these first baby steps, or “starter lines,” will someday grow into a full system, as in larger, older cities.

Ain’t gonna happen. The general rule is that only cities with densities of more than 10,000 people per square mile pass the threshold for extensive use of public transportation systems. That qualifies only New York and Chicago, which account for a large percentage of all public transportation in America. Seattle’s density, for its urbanized area, is about 3,000 people per square mile. Moreover, public transportation becomes dominant only in the downtown business districts of these cities.

He’s confused. When New York built it’s first subway, there were 500,000 people living there. It wasn’t even as dense as Seattle. New York, Chicago, etc. became dense because of transit, not the other way around.

He does go on to say that Rail will attract different and more riders, that it will allow for smart urban planning and that it will increase development and investment. But he’s wrong on density.


Capitol Hill Times on Capitol Hill Station

I went to this meeting, but Capitol Hill times has a great round-up on the meeting that happened last month.

When completed, Broadway’s light-rail station will have three entrances. The north entrance, projected to be the station’s busiest, will be at the southeast corner of Broadway and East Olive Way. The station’s south entrance will be at Nagle Place East and East Denny, immediately west of Cal Anderson Park.

A third entrance on the west side of Broadway will be north of Seattle Central Community College, where Chang’s Mongolian Grill used to be. The station itself will be built under Nagle Place. Construction will not, the audience was told, impact Cal Anderson Park.


Other Tunnels @ Other Blogs, plus my Five Year Plan!

Mike at Carless in Seattle talked about a tunnel for cars through downtown. Sounds interesting. Oh and yes, there’s just one of me writing all of this, but I would happily invite other people here to blog if they are interested.

Then over at Orphan Road, Frank wrote about Cascadia Prospectus’s idea for a “University Street Transit Hub” that would connect Sounder and Link Rail underneath downtown Seattle which I completely agree, would be awesome, and would increase Sounder ridership quite. The problem is that all freight from Seattle going north, or from Everett/Canada going south, goes through that tunnel, so it would be a logistical nightmare to try to get any part of it closed for any stretch of time, and the platforms would need to be separated from the freight lines otherwise boardings would interfere with freight, and freight would interfere with the lives of passengers.

Well, the whole tunnel conversation got me thinking back to the time when I talked to some transit heads about a City only expansion to rail paid based on the two studies that Sound Transit is going to include in ST2 one that would connect Downtown, Ballad and the UW and a second that would connect Downtown, West Seattle and Burien/SeaTac. Well, the city would only pay for part of those two, especially not all the way to Burien, and I doubt Seattlites could afford both lines in their entirety, but I think the interest would be there once the Central Link passes. The most difficult part would be running a second set of trains through downtown. The current “bus” tunnel through downtown will barely be able to handle the Tacoma-Seattle-Everett Light Rail traffic added to the Seattle-Eastside traffic, running a West Seattle-Ballard line cause a traffic jam. In order to build the rail line of my dreams, it would take a second downtown subway on 2nd or 4th, and that might be an uphill battle.

Don’t be surprised if that ballot initiative shows up in 2011.


Morin Article

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The Richard Morrill piece in Crosscut has been sufficiently fisked today by STB, so I won’t duplicate efforts (1% of trips? Really? Have we not yet comprehended that it’s only peak rush hour trips, not the 3.a.m. dash for Dick’s Burgers, that cause traffic and therefore need to be mitigated with transit?)

I do want to respond to Dr. Morrill’s comment “the cost of driving must and will rise.” Well, that’s true and not true. In the long term, the costs from congestion will certainly rise. But in the medium term, the cost of driving a car is likely to decrease. Think about it: the average fuel economy in the US is about 21mpg, but the Prius gets north of 50mpg.

We’re not all going to drive Priuses, but the cost per mile traveled will definitely go down, certainly for heavy commuters who choose such cars. Finally, the cost of carbon emissions will certainly decrease as plug-in vehicles become available that can be charged by nighttime excess hydro power.

In other words, it’s hard to say. We don’t know what the future will bring. But we’re pretty sure that we’re going to add another 1 million residents in the next 30 years, so we should probably invest in a diversified transit portfolio: roads, trains, buses, seaplanes, jetpacks, PRTs, etc. as well as Morill’s preferred solution, demand management (i.e. tolls and congestion pricing).


Downtown Tunnel(s)

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Carless in Seattle references the idea of a bored (as opposed to cut-and-cover) tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct broached here by Cascadia Prospectus.

One interesting challenge for a non-waterfront downtown tunnel is that there’s already a maze of tunnels through downtown. In addition to the Bus Tunnel, which most people are aware of, you’ve got the Battery Street tunnel and, even less well-known, the freight rail tunnel that runs the entire length of downtown from Alaskan & Virginia to the King Street Station. CP’s parent organization, the Discovery Institute — which actually does a lot of great transit research when it’s not obsessed with hawking questionable intelligent design “theories” — actually came up with one of my favorite transit-projects-that-never-happened, the University Street Transit Hub:

The idea here is that you’d be able to build, at relatively low cost, a Sounder stop right in the middle of downtown, as opposed to just the one at King Street.


Morrill is Dead Wrong

I get exhausted writing these responses to confused articles, but Richard Morrill’s piece is such a doozy I just had to respond.

I find it nothing short of insane to spend far over half ($24 billion out of $38 billion in the November ballot package) of potential transportation investment (capital and operating) on trains which cannot possibly meet more than 1 percent of demand for trips, an amazingly small fraction.

Here and at other blogs, we’ve gone over the $38 billion stat ad nauseum, so I won’t bother to repeat the argument. But where does this 1% trip number come from? Sound Transit says “These investments will expand daily regional transit ridership to nearly 370,000 by 2030”, which is nearly as many riders as Metro’s 100 million a year. Even if you figure ST will only carry 370,000 riders on weekdays, that’s still about ten percent the population of the region. That number is just completely wrong.

There’s also a nasty class issue our leaders ignore. Who benefits and will be obscenely subsidized? Rich professionals, of course. And who pays? The more lowly workers in those scattered but necessary service, retail, manufacturing, construction, and transportation workplaces.

How do we know it’ll be the “rich professionals” that are subsidized? Even on my Microsoft Express bus a huge number of the riders aren’t professionals, but contingent staff.

We don’t need a six-lane Highway 520 or a giant new viaduct, or two additional lanes each way on Interstate 405, given the inevitable constraints on single-occupancy vehicle use in the not-very-distant future.

Are you sure about that, Richard? Everytime I sit in traffic for hours (even on the bus) I wish there was an actual HOV lane there, which has nothing to do with single-occupancy vehicles. And what does the Viaduct have to do with anything? Who is talking about that? RTID isn’t.

Oh well. Richard Morrill is battling strawmen with made-up statistics.



This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The Bellevue Downtown Association, which presumably stands to benefit tremendously from the RTID/ST2 package, has endorsed it. And why not? They’re getting a big, fat I-405 and a light rail link to Seattle, UW, and the Airport. Win, win, win.

Kemper Freeman, the big downtown developer, is opposed to the plan. But he seems to be increasingly isolated. Where’s the big money and clout going to come from to oppose this thing? So far, I’m not seeing it.


Attack of the Transit Pods!

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Personal Rapid Transit is coming to London’s Heathrow Airport:

Tomorrow’s public transit could look very different from today’s if Martin Lowson’s $20 million project at Heathrow Airport in London is a hit. Starting in 2008, Lowson’s company, Advanced Transport Systems, will be whisking passengers between Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 and a parking lot a mile away in tiny driverless vehicles that run on an elevated concrete track.

Unlike buses or trains, Lowson’s ‘pods’ are private — about the size of a taxi, fitting as many as four adults — and arrive on demand, within five minutes after passengers press a call button.

People laughed — perhaps rightly — when Steve Jobs boasted that the Segway scooter would “erect entire cities” around the Segway scooter. But, on the other hand, it’s obviously true that the design of our cities is more or less circumscribed by the transportation options available to us. A city designed around PRT would look very different than the one in which we currently live.

(Photo via)


Dump the Pump

Thursday is “Dump the Pump” day. As the APTA says:

The day is dedicated to raising awareness that public transportation helps improve the environment and conserve fuel. It also offers the opportunity for people to beat the high price of gasoline and support public transportation as an important travel option that helps reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

On June 21, public transportation agencies from coast to coast will join together to ask the public to park their cars and ride public transportation instead.

Make sure to dump the pump Thursday and don’t you dare drive!


Kingston-Seattle Foot Ferries?

I really have a soft spot for ferries. I just think they are the most “Seattle” form of transit. Today in the Seattle Times there’s an article about a group in Kingston pushing for a foot ferry down to Seattle. Right now, ferries from Kingston go to Edmonds, and so anyone travelling into the city would have to take Sounder.

I like this article because it shows citizens taking transit into their own hands.


Station-Station Travel Times

Sorry, Blogger has been fighting me, but if you click on the image you should be able to see the station-to-station travel times for Light Rail that would be built for ST2. 30 minutes from Bellevue to the UW. There’s no way you could drive that fast during rush hour.



This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

SeaTrans takes a look at streetcars in Philly (and Seattle). A real streetcar network, as opposed to a toy that runs along the waterfront, will be a good thing.

I have fond memories of the SEPTA trolley from my years living there. I lived right on a trolley line, and my absolute favorite aspect of city life was when the trolley would get stuck behind a double-parked car. The trolley driver would just lean on his horn until the double-parker came out of his or her house. What a way to wake up in the morning.

Ah, Philly…

Anyway, here in Seattle, where people (mostly) obey parking laws and seldom abandon cars in the middle of the street, streetcars will fit in nicely.


Streetcars Coming Back

This Article from Philladelphia talks about how streetcars are coming back to cities across the country including Seattle:

“Trolleys are taking back the streets,” says Harry Donahue, a founding member of the Friends of Philadelphia Trolleys.
Once-endangered, trolleys are experiencing a resurgence across North America.

“There was definitely a perception in the ’40s that anything dated before 1940 was old and streetcars fell in that category,” Dean said.

By the 1970s, only seven cities in the nation – including Philadelphia – were running trolleys, according to the Light Rail Now Web site.

There’s more to than that, but I won’t bore you with conspiracy theories. Unless you want me to.

There’s room for streetcars in transportation systems. They serve a similar function to a bus, but they create a more permanent presense, and are more comfortable to ride. People see them as more reliable, and that sense is a huge reason why places like South Lake Union and Portland’s Pearl District look to them during redevelopment.

On the City’s website there’s a report that was commissioned to study possible streetcar routes in Seattle. We are definitely getting on in South Lake Union that may eventually stretch all the way to the U-District. We’re also likely getting one from Chinatown, through Little Saigon up to First Hill and eventually to Aloha and Broadway. The report discusses other possible routes, including extending the Waterfront line to the Interlake area and one down through the Central District. It’s a good read, and discusses a lot of the benefits of streetcars and when building them is appropriate. Some of the advantages of Streetcars over buses:

  • Streetcars attract permanent investment because they are not easily re-routed.
  • Streetcars operate better in pedestrian environments because they are more easily accessed, especially by the disabled.
  • Streetcars attract more tourists and occasional riders than buses.

The report goes on to mention what seems to make a successful streetcar and what doesn’t:

  • They travel through high density corridors with a
    rich mixture of land uses.
  • Walking to, from and between streetcar stops is
    convenient and comfortable.
  • The mixture of land uses along the corridor
    encourages many short, convenience trips.
  • Street grades are 6% or less.
  • Travel lanes are 11 feet wide and intersection
    geometry is simple.
  • Overhead clearances are at least 14 feet.

We’ll see more streetcars in the next 20 years as the city completes it’s density drive.


Denver Considers a Public-Private Partnership

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Faced with a budget shortfall, the Rocky Mountain News reports that Denver is considering a public-private partnership for part of its light-rail. The article notes several other transit projects that have been built with a PPP model called DBOM, for Design, Build, Operate and Maintain.

If that acronym rings a bell, it’s because the same system was used for the Seattle Monorail Project. The plan was for the board to raise the money and sign the contract, then hand the whole thing off to the Fluor Corporation (or, more accurately, a consortium of companies led by Fluor). Additionally, you have the price guarantee: once the SMP signed off on the contract, Fluor would have had to build it, come hell or high water. There would be no sudden tax increases down the road because the project had run over budget, they’d just have to eat the difference.

And that’s what makes PPPs attractive: you can hand off the whole thing to a company that presumably has more expertise in the area than you do. Halliburton providing food and laundry services to U.S. soldiers in Iraq is probably the most famous (infamous?) example of a PPP. But there are many others.

I’ve been skeptical of PPPs, because any efficiency you might gain in terms of expertise is usually eaten up by the higher cost of providing the service. And sometimes it’s just a stalking horse to try and break the public-sector unions by firing government employees and re-hiring them as contractors.

But the monorail didn’t fail because it was a PPP. The monorail failed because the board of directors was in way over its head and didn’t want to build the political support necessary for a large infrastructure project. As interim Chair Kristina Hill noted at the time, “You can’t build infrastructure by initiative. There is no infrastructure in the United States that has been built by petition—none!—and you have to ask yourself why.”

The RMN article suggests that Seattle’s forthcoming BRT system — RapidRide — may be run via DBOM, and that would make sense: King County Metro is an experienced transit operator, so subcontracting out this one piece is a good use of the PPP strategy.


Barry McCaffrey, Transportation Planner?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

You may know Gen. Barry McCaffrey for his role as the nation’s “Drug Czar” during the Clinton Years, or perhaps as an NBC military analyst more recently. So, what, pray tell, is he doing authoring an op-ed for the Seattle Times on the need for infrastructure investment?

It’s all a little less shocking when you read his bio at the bottom, which notes that he’s now the chairman of HNTB Federal Services an engineering and architecture firm that specializes in — wait for it — designing and building transportation systems! (He also “maintains a residence in Seattle.”)

The editorial itself is broadly pro-RTID and pro-ST2, though it does lob a few questions out there about public-private partnerships and a surface solution to the viaduct. But barring that, it seems like we can count the former drug Czar as a “yes” vote for the fall ballot.


Buses Aren’t Good Enough

At Slog, Charles Mudede wrote about a film writer who couldn’t get around on bus fast enough to see the movies at SIFF. Fact is, buses aren’t good enough. They take too long to get between population centers here. Yesterday, I took the bus from Kirkland to the city (I woke up at a friend’s house after my birthday party). I was lucky there to have walked up to the stop at the same time the bus came, since I would have had to have waited 30 minutes for the next 255 that was actually a very good experience. I read the Sunday paper and enjoyed the ride. Later, I needed to go to Fremont, and I waited at 3rd and Olive for a 26 or a 5 for so long that I ended up just getting on the 358 and walking from 46th and Aurora down to Fremont. The entire trip took me 50 minutes including the wait (25 of those 50) and the walk (15 of the 50).

That won’t get people out of their cars. Buses here are only good if you are commuting on a regular schedule, otherwise, you might as well walk. If we want people to quit driving, or to move people who don’t, can’t or won’t drive around reliably, we need something more than buses.