“I Think Frequency is an Overrated Thing”

From Human Transit:

“I think frequency is an overrated thing. Let’s say there’s a 20-minute [wait].  You can look on your phone, wait inside and have a beer.” — Portland Streetcar Citizens Committee member Peter Finley Fry, justifying the 18-minute frequency of the Portland Streetcar’s new Eastside loop, quoted last August in Willamette Week.

I don’t mean to pick on Mr Fry — I’m sure he is a person who sincerely wants to make transit in Portland better, and thinks he is doing so — but this quote is perhaps the crowning example of an incredibly misguided, but surprisingly prevalent strain of thought among the political leaders, advocates and managers of transit systems in the northwest; one which, until we slay it, guarantees we will flail ineffectually (and at potentially great cost) in our efforts to provide an alternative to near-universal car ownership by working-age adults.

The highway engineers, social engineers, and car manufacturers of the 1950s, who overthrew the entrenched dominance of public transit virtually everywhere in the United States, used many different tactics and appeals to do so, but one thing they certainly didn’t do was tell people they would have to wait 15 or 20 minutes before they could start their journey, so they should just cool their heels and read the newspaper for a bit. Quite the opposite: they promised freedom to travel where and when you wanted.

If we wish to emulate their feat, and install transit as the (vehicular) mode of choice in the dense parts of our cities, we need to internalize their language, their promise (go where you want when you want), and a proper understanding of how frequency affects travel time for spontaneous trips within a city. On transit, if you wish to travel spontaneously, or arrive at a particular place at a particular time, the average delay is half the headway. At 18-minute headways, that’s nine minutes of expected delay.

Continue reading ““I Think Frequency is an Overrated Thing””

Zipcar vs. Car2Go

Promo Photo from Car2Go

I’ve been a ZipCar member for 8 years, beginning in Boston in the pre-smartphone era in which I would (gasp!) call in to find available cars.  I’ve used Zipcars in Seattle, Washington DC, Vancouver BC, Boston, and Pasadena, even sleeping overnight in one (a long story involving a Delta Airlines fail and fully booked hotels near National Airport). ZipCar allowed me not to own a car from 2005-2012, and has provided me with a level of urban mobility of which I couldn’t have otherwise dreamed.  When I lived in the U.K., ZipCar was only available in London, so I used WhizzGo instead for my trips to places outside the rail network (such as Malham Cove).

Enter Car2Go. It made quite the splash on the Seattle carsharing scene in December, going from obscurity to near ubiquity in a matter of weeks (see our posts here and here).   Alongside Zipcar (née Flexcar), carsharing is now big business in Seattle.  After 8 weeks of using Car2Go, I thought I’d write this post both as a comparative analysis of Zipcar and Car2Go and as a chance to give readers the chance to comment on the new carsharing landscape.

Much more after the jump…

Continue reading “Zipcar vs. Car2Go”

Edge Cases Make Bad Policy

A while ago I mentioned in passing that a transit system cannot simultaneously attract choice riders and focus itself on the lowest common denominator. This tension comes up in nearly every transit policy debate, and usually invokes groups with at least one of three limitations: limited mobility, limited English proficiency, or (extremely) limited funds.

The problem is easiest to illustrate with limited mobility. Imagine that Metro has enough resources to send four buses an hour through a neighborhood towards downtown. There are several ways they could deploy this service: all on one central arterial with 15 minute headways, on two arterials every 30 minutes, or hourly on four arterials. Obviously, the right answer depends on the width of the neighborhood, the grade of the hills, and the completeness of the sidewalks.

Nevertheless, the contours of the argument should be clear. 15 minute frequency, given reasonable reliability, is enough that it’s there when one needs it, and the bus schedule need not dictate your appointments. If the bus routes also avoid pathologies like circuitous routing and opaque information, many car owners would be happy to leave the auto at home for trips in the direction the bus takes them, or dispose of their vehicles altogether.

The counterargument, of course, is the proverbial little old lady that lives on one of those neglected arterials. It’s hard for her to walk all those blocks to the stop, and no one wants to be the bad guy to cut off her connection to the world. This aspect also comes into play when Metro tries to straighten a route or consolidate stops.

Reform of the fare structure and fare payment system often runs afoul of advocates for the poor. The most salient example is resistance to the introduction of ORCA adoption incentives through differential fares or abolition of paper transfers. More ORCA usage would of course speed up operations, but is frequently stymied by the very small segment of the poor that literally cannot collect $5 for a one-time ORCA purchase, or have no access to the multiple means of recharging a card. Those of us who would gladly pay more for a better riding experience cannot do so because of its projected impact on the less fortunate.

As the fare for a short hop on the bus is already pretty high, one way to increase Metro’s farebox recovery is to make the fare system more complex. Together with ORCA adoption issues and focus on one-seat rides, this presents challenges for people with limited literacy, digital access, or English proficiency. Change is unpopular because people have already labored to figure out their trips within a very complex system, and resistance to change is what preserves the complexity of that system.

The sum of all these concerns is to keep the transit system in stasis, leaving transit advocates with no hope for “better,” only “more.” Certainly, a transportation system has to take care of the most vulnerable among us. But we ought to have higher aspirations for a transit system, and making everyone suffer through slow and infrequent service effectively sabotages any hopes for that.

RapidRide C & D: No Schedule, No OneBusAway

OneBusAway Alert for C/D Line
Note that “8 minutes” is simply the headway divided by two.

RapidRide, notoriously, lacks a published schedule at all times at which the service operates at a frequency of every 15 minutes or better, which is from the start of service until 11 PM, every day. Moreover, OneBusAway has never worked reliably (if at all) for the C & D Lines (except for the late night publicly-scheduled trips). For myself, I know this lack of information makes me prefer the new Route 40 for most of the Ballard-Belltown trips I make, even though RapidRide serves the doorstep of my apartment building. While exchanging emails with Metro staff a few weeks ago, I inquired about these issues:

What is the rationale for not publishing a schedule for RapidRide in the periods where the bus runs less frequently than every 10 minutes? I’m aware of the given reason that it makes it easier to add buses, but it’s highly unlikely that Metro will ever need to add service in the off-peak on these routes, and 15 minutes is not, in fact, “so frequent you don’t need a schedule” (especially when the real-time arrival signs default to “refer to schedule” when one doesn’t exist). Moreover, it’s not possible to reliably plan a trip using the provided public data, as travel times vary so much throughout the day (particularly on the D Line), its not possible to know immediately how long your trip will take.

Alternatives already exist which provide peak-period operational flexibility to the agency while conveying to riders the off-peak timepoints required to plan reliable and fast connections; for example, Vancouver’s schedule layout, which is used for all of its bus routes:


Will Metro acknowledge the inadequacy of the current schedule information and commit to finding a format to better inform riders, for RapidRide and all frequent-service routes, as is done by other agencies across North America? Because no significant restructures will be happening next year, lots of staff time should be available to address this and other service-quality problems with RapidRide and the frequent transit network.

Since I wrote that email, Metro seems to have enabled real-time arrival signs at almost all the “station” stops outside of Downtown and Belltown (I mentioned why those stops were delayed previously), so many riders will know, once they get to a stop, how long they will wait. That is an improvement, but much of the point of a bus schedule, or OneBusAway realtime information, is to minimize time spent sitting in bus shelters, and it’s too late by the time you get there.

Metro’s response, and a discussion, after the jump.  Continue reading “RapidRide C & D: No Schedule, No OneBusAway”

Disappointment with RapidRide and the Budget Dodge


I think that the underlying emotion behind the recent flap over RapidRide ORCA readers is, as Adam hints in his clarification, disappointment with what was sold to us as “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT). It’s a denunciation done not with glee but with anguish.

It’s true that BRT is a continuum rather than a specific set of criteria, but that doesn’t mean that the term has no content and can be assigned to any new bus brand. At the least, it should incorporate at least some of the elements that make North American rail service traditionally much, much better than its bus counterpart:

  • Service all day and deep into the evening
  • Separation from traffic/signal priority.
  • Frequent Service
  • Off-board payment

Aside from the first, which was present in all six RapidRide corridors before RapidRide, the new lines largely fail to provide any of these.* Let’s take them in order:

Continue reading “Disappointment with RapidRide and the Budget Dodge”

A Budget Neutral Fix for Southeast Seattle

8-106 Restructure Proposal
8-106 Restructure Proposal

What if there were a budget-neutral restructure that would make Route 8 dramatically more reliable (and possibly more frequent) in Southeast Seattle, improve connectivity between the Rainier Valley and Renton, and make trips between downtown Seattle and Renton faster, without sacrificing anyone’s access to the transit system? In this post, I’ll outline one restructure idea, which I believe does all of those things. Below are the basic components; throughout, refer to Oran’s lovely map above:

  • Delete Route 106 west of Rainier Beach Station. Instead, inbound 106 trips from Renton would turn at Rainier & MLK and follow the current 8 route to Broadway & John, then head to a layover near Convention Place station (discussed below); outbound trips would do the reverse. This new route would either be number 106 or some “new” number, but for this post, I’ll label it descriptively as “8S/106“.
  • Extend Route 107 to serve South Beacon Hill, serving the alignment of the 106 between MLK and Myrtle, before heading to Othello Station. In Rainier Beach, the 107 route would be straightened to serve Rainier & Henderson before Rainier Beach Station (just like the 106 does), avoiding a time-consuming backtrack.
  • Operate Route 8 on its original alignment, which is the same as the current alignment, but terminating in the east at Group Health Capitol Hill.
  • Make the 8S/106 frequent service. While it’s difficult to estimate exactly how much frequency improvement this configuration would make possible, I’m confident it would at least suffice to raise the frequency of the 8S/106 to that of the current 8.

After the jump, the details on what this restructure would achieve, and how.

Continue reading “A Budget Neutral Fix for Southeast Seattle”

The Awfulness of Mt. Baker Station

Google Maps

I pass through the Mt. Baker transit hub, using just about every mode, perhaps a dozen times a week. With all this exposure, I often think I’ve fully cataloged its faults, only to stumble upon whole new layers of design flaw.  At the moment, ST doesn’t plan very many more elevated stations, but perhaps exploring these flaws will spread a few lessons.

As always, these flaws are not the result of incompetence or malice of individuals, but instead very real technical, legal, political, and/or fiscal constraints. I’ve footnoted a brief explanation of why many of these flaws exist, courtesy of ST spokesman Bruce Gray. These explanations in no way diminish the ongoing inconvenience for riders.

Minimal Intermodal Interface Continue reading “The Awfulness of Mt. Baker Station”

The Trouble with Directly Elected Boards

Philosophically, I think we vote for way too many offices in Washington. It’s fair to say I’m a high-information voter, and I can hardly track the performance of a Lt. Governor, State Auditor, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Commissioner of Public Lands, County Elections Director, School Board, Port of Seattle board, and dozens of judges, to say nothing of the four executives and 15 legislators that represent me at one level or another.* I can’t imagine what it must be like to vote with only a mild interest in local politics. I suspect that if we abolished the entire structure in favor of appointments by Governors, County Executives, and Mayors — and simply held them accountable for performance — we’d probably be objectively better off.

Direct elections to esoteric board positions fundamentally erode accountability. Perhaps a close Port watcher can set me straight, but I think the Port of Seattle seems like a good example of an organization with an elected board and a nearly continuous whiff of scandal and mismanagement.

The bill in Olympia that would replace the appointed Sound Transit Board with an elected one has similar faults. Moreover, the wild swings possible with the mood of an electorate are particularly dangerous to any large capital project which requires steady and competent execution.

In spite of all this, many locals inexplicably like long and complicated ballots. For those people, it really comes down to institutional design. Districts might be arranged to dilute or concentrate the power of the urban core. Board positions could be unpaid or full-time positions, influencing the kind of person that runs for each. In the case of this bill, it’s a part-time position with nominal pay.

There’s a certain strain of opinion that is pro-transit and pro-rail in the abstract but believes that Sound Transit is hopelessly corrupt and/or incompetent. A lot of these people gravitated to the monorail project about a decade ago. Others have concluded that a failure of ST to adopt their preferred policy on a particular issue is proof of their perfidy. If you’re in that camp, then I suppose reforming the board couldn’t possibly make things any worse. Personally, I see ST as a well-intentioned bureaucracy that suffers under some unfortunate external incentives and constraints, and has some of the inherent weaknesses of large organizations. None of those weaknesses are actually solved by an elected board.

Furthermore, I think proceeding with all possible haste will get us where we want faster than trying to expend organizational time and energy trying to optimize governance. Writing the RTA law right in 1995 might have produced a better Sound Transit and a better rail system. Rewriting it now will do neither.

* Not an exhaustive list of elected offices!

Ambaum/Delridge: Another Success in Frequency over Coverage

King County Metro 120 and 132 in Belltown
King County Metro 120 and 132 in Belltown

Previously, I’ve written about one of Metro’s success stories, the 1997 Aurora corridor restructure, a change to the bus network that traded several infrequent routes for the Routes 16 and 358 that we know today. As I described at length in that post, during the day Metro was previously operating three separate routes on (or primarily on) Aurora Ave, each with different stop patterns, and two closely-spaced local routes in Wallingford; night service followed a quite different pattern.

In essence, this was a tradeoff of geographic coverage (in the form of closely-spaced routes, closely-spaced stops, and different route variants on one road) for improved frequency and a simpler service pattern on the remaining services.  After an initial dip, the two remaining routes have outshone their predecessors in both ridership and rides per platform hour: a win for riders, taxpayers, and the environment.

In this post I’ll discuss another success story, the 2003 Ambaum/Delridge restructure, an analogous change to the bus network, this time focused on Southwest Seattle and Burien, with similarly excellent results, including today’s Route 120. Even better, most of this post is written for me, as I was kindly given a 2005 staff report from Metro analyzing the results of this restructure in detail; I shall quote and paraphrase at length from this report throughout the post.

Continue reading “Ambaum/Delridge: Another Success in Frequency over Coverage”

A Better 7

King County Metro 7
King County Metro 7

When the Sound Transit board chose an MLK alignment for the Rainier Valley segment of Central Link — an alignment which comes tantalizingly close to serving the RV’s blockbuster ridership corridor on Rainier Ave — they unwittingly created a thriving ecosystem of bloggers and commenters trying to figure out better ways to connect transit riders with the train. The city is weighing in with its Transit Master Plan Corridor 5, which calls for electrifying Henderson and presumably extending Route 7 (or a successor route) to Rainier Beach Station.

After the jump, I’ll present a simple idea, one that I think is considerably superior both to current conditions and the city’s proposal.

Continue reading “A Better 7”

Who Subsidizes Whom


There was a brief skirmish in the Seattle Subway comments about whether the Eastside subsidizes Seattle’s transit service or the reverse. And this is normally a case where we’d bring some facts and settle this. And in fact John worked this out years ago. But I have to say I don’t care.

There seems to be a deep human need to convince oneself that one’s group is paying for everyone else and everyone else is a leech. The problem is how you draw the lines of your survey makes all the difference.

First of all, Eastsiders commonly use Seattle’s infrastructure, and the reverse is certainly true as well.

Secondly, if we expand the boundary from transit to transportation, clearly there’s more need for transit in the urban core and roads elsewhere. It’s entirely natural that in each case the transfers would move in opposite directions.

Moreover, why stop with transportation? Why just local spending? Throw in other budget items, state and federal funding, and more indirect influences like tax subsidies and regulatory preferences, and you have a hopeless tangle of cross-flows. It’s because we’re a single metropolis with an integrated economy and this provincialism gets us nowhere. More after the jump.

Continue reading “Who Subsidizes Whom”

Aurora: A Case Study in Frequency versus Coverage

358 passing mural at North Park C Store
Something old, something new.

Much of the debate surrounding many of the recently-proposed Metro restructures boil down to frequency versus coverage: given Metro’s tightly-constrained operating budget (among other reasons), Metro can’t operate numerous frequent closely-spaced fixed-route services. Rather, Metro must choose between numerous infrequent routes that attempt to provide service within a few minute’s walk of almost everyone’s doorstep, and a smaller number of frequent routes that focus service on ridership centers, serving riders in less-productive areas either with peak-only service or requiring them to walk further.

In addition to policy concerns and value judgements, there are some general empirical observations that can inform these debates. One I wrote about recently is that more-frequent routes are often much more efficient to schedule than infrequent routes. Another, which I plan to address in this post, is whether riders — regardless of what they tend to say in public hearings — prefer frequent, direct routes, with simple schedules and service patterns, or a selection of less-frequent routes that might minimize walking or slightly reduce travel time but run less frequently and only at certain times.

Conveniently, Metro performed a restructure that can serve as a test case for this question more than a decade ago one of its most important and highest-ridership corridors, and I have obtained historical data to show the results of this change. History, data and analysis after the jump.

Continue reading “Aurora: A Case Study in Frequency versus Coverage”

Why Current Queen Anne-Madrona Service is Inefficient

King County Metro 3 in East Queen Anne
King County Metro 3 in East Queen Anne

A month and a half ago, when I wrote about a possible restructure of trolleybus service on the Queen Anne-Belltown-Downtown-First Hill-Madrona corridor, I promised “within a week” to explain why the restructure could deliver so much more service with roughly the same amount of money. Obviously, I’m several weeks late in doing this, but I hope you’ll forgive me.

To tackle this subject, I have to introduce a some planner jargon:

  • Clock-face schedule. A schedule that attempts to place a bus at a stop at consistent times past the hour (e.g. :07, :27, :47 for a 20-minute headway service). For routes operating at headways longer than 10 minutes, these schedules are the most comprehensible to riders; at shorter headways, riders tend not to worry about schedules.
  • Cycle time. This is the amount of time a bus takes to run a complete round trip and be ready to start out on the next trip. This includes driving time, required layover break time, and schedule padding, but does not include the deadhead time from the base to the starting point.

Let’s take a simple example. Suppose we have a route that takes 27 minutes to drive each way. Metro’s union rules require a five-minute break at the end of each cycle, and let’s suppose five minutes of padding per cycle are required to make the bus keep time reliably. The cycle time of this route is 27 + 27 + 5 + 5 = 64 minutes. Knowing this, we can work out that a pattern that maintains a clock-face schedule with 30-minute frequency would require three buses in service at once; 15-minute frequency would require five buses; and 10-minute frequency would require seven buses. Continue reading “Why Current Queen Anne-Madrona Service is Inefficient”

The Bus Network We Could Have

Queen Anne / Downtown / First Hill / Madrona Restructure Map
Queen Anne / Downtown / First Hill / Madrona Restructure // Map by Oran

[Clarification: “Driving buses around almost-unused streetcar turnback loops” is an example of institutional inertia rather than political interference by the council. The canonical recent example of council interference is the continuation of Route 42 after Central Link entered service and Metro staff proposed its abolition.]

Ever wonder why I write so much about reliability, simplicity and efficiency in our bus network? It’s because much of our bus network is terribly designed, and it’s costing us in money, ease of use, service frequency, and ridership.

The map above distills the information contained in an internal Metro spreadsheet STB has obtained, which provides a fully costed-out schedule for a budget neutral restructure of bus service on the extremely busy Queen Anne / Downtown / First Hill / Madrona corridor. I alluded to this in last week’s discussion of Route 4.

It illustrates a point I’ve made in previous discussions, namely that Metro knows how to build good bus networks, but due to a combination of institutional inertia and political interference by the King County Council, Metro is still driving buses around almost-unused streetcar turnback loops from a century ago. What’s missing is not the smarts to redesign these routes, but the leadership to implement the necessary changes.

This schedule was developed as part of the internal deliberations for the potential 600,000 hour cut scenario that has been avoided thanks to the passage of the $20 CRC. This funding reprieve must not cause Metro to lose its new-found zeal for efficiency restructures such as the one described above, that are overwhelmingly in the interest of riders and the taxpayer, but are certain to draw organized protest from the small number of people for whom the current configuration happens to work very well.

Over the course of the next week, I’ll present the spreadsheet and get into the nuts and bolts of how and why this schedule works, along with other improvements that this restructure would enable.

For readers unable to read the map, a textual summary of its contents after the jump.

Continue reading “The Bus Network We Could Have”

Bus Brands

Photo by Atomic Taco

One important usability enhancement for transit services is branding. Indeed, a difficult-to-quantify benefit of rail is that it immediately communicates to the average North American frequent, limited-stop, all-day service, and dedicated right of way*. Conversely, buses mean indeterminate service hours, frequency, and operation in traffic. For all the differentiation that one can achieve between buses, for people who aren’t paying attention, any sort of bus stop is a totem of service uncertainty.

That said, it’s worthwhile to help out people who are paying attention, and proper bus branding can tell people a lot without requiring encyclopedic knowledge of the bus system. Los Angeles County has a complex but clearly defined hierarchy. Here in King County, we have basically three bus brands**:

  • RapidRide: all-day frequent service, limited stops, fare inspection. Other once-promising aspects (off-board payment, especially) have been significantly diluted.
  • Sound Transit Express: Limited-stop, long-haul, freeway based, (generally) all day. For the most part, not particularly frequent.
  • Metro: Everything else. It might be more frequent than RapidRide or come by twice a day.

I think there are a lot of problems with the way this is set up. For one thing, ST and Metro seem more concerned with getting credit for what they’re paying for rather than establishing service levels with their brands. So, for instance, the peak-only, largely freeway-based 555/556 is an ST route while the peak-only, freeway based 212 is not.  The 255 and 550 have very similar character and yet are served by different agencies. I’m open to persuasion as to what service threshold should split the brands, but basing it entirely on the revenue source is nearly useless to the customer. It’s not totally useless due to different fare policies, but that’s a whole different rant (and off-topic for this thread).

At the same time, there are occasional proposals to add still more bus brands. There are quite a few routes in the Metro system that are just a fare inspector away from the RapidRide level of service. A few years ago, there was talk about separately branding the trolleybus network. There are mutterings that Seattle’s pending investments in priority bus corridors should spawn a new brand to highlight the new level of service. And the frequent transit network would be another good basis on which to highlight certain service.

What do you think? Have we reached a saturation point with bus brands? If not, what should be the service level definitions?

* The resurgence of streetcars may dilute some aspects of this brand; we’ll see.

** Leaving aside Community Transit, private lines, and other randomness.

Is Route 4 Redundant?

Map of south sections of Metro routes 3 & 4
Map of south sections of Metro routes 3 & 4

About ten months go, Zach wrote a post asking whether the southern tail of Metro’s Route 4 is redundant in the context of Metro’s current bus network:

I have a distinct impression that it no longer serves any unique transit market and in fact diminishes the performance of Routes 3, 8, and 48, all of which serve unique destinations.  From 3rd/James to 23rd/Jefferson, the shared 3/4 provide 7-15 minute headways until 1am.  Once the 4 turns south on 23rd, it duplicates the 48.  From its turn at Dearborn it runs in a couplet on 24th and 26th, needlessly threading the needle between 23rd (Route 48) and MLK (Route 8).

In this post I’ll drill down into the stop-level data to answer a complementary question: Are people using the unique part of Route 4 to Judkins park and beyond? I’ll also examine stop-level data for Route 3, and suggest an inexpensive capital modification to the trolleybus network that could dramatically improve the reliability and almost double the capacity of these workhorse routes. Continue reading “Is Route 4 Redundant?”

Improving Routes 10 and 12

Photo by Rob Ketcherside

In two previous posts on STB, I’ve discussed the possibility of improving Route 16 based on timepoint data showing unreliability on one problematic segment, and presented detailed stop-level data showing ridership patterns on Route 36. In this post I’m going to meld the two and suggest improvements to the Route 10/12 pair that would improve reliability and more closely match service with ridership, introducing savings by limiting service to 1st and 19th Avenues.

1st Ave

Routes 10 and 12 stand out immediately on a map of downtown’s bus service as they possess a unique through-routing arrangement: trips from the 10 come into downtown on Pine St, turn into 12s, head down 1st and turn left on Marion; similarly, 12s come in on Madison, turn in to 10s, and head out on Pike. (Two late-night trips on the 10 turn back on Pike St and head back to Capitol Hill; service on the 12 ends before service on the 10). Unlike typical through-route patterns, such as from Ballard to West Seattle, this does not have the effect of reducing bus travel time through downtown, or providing one-seat rides between popular destinations: surely no-one is going to ride from Capitol Hill to First Hill via 1st Ave. The main benefit is that it saves a short walk for some riders going to or from stops on 1st Ave.

As part of the regular pattern, Routes 10 and 12 serve four stops on 1st Ave: northbound just south of Seneca, and just north of University; and southbound mid-block between Union and University, and between Seneca and Spring. The Seneca/Spring stops are two blocks north of the nearest stops on Madison and Marion; the Union/University stops are about four blocks walk to 4th & Pike, which all service from Downtown to Capitol Hill passes through. If these stops were closed, it seems likely that virtually all current riders would simply switch to the nearest open stop, which for most people would probably be two to six minutes walk away.

Much more below the jump.

Continue reading “Improving Routes 10 and 12”

My Right of Way is the Highway


In a good post on HSR Yglesias makes a common sorta-true observation:

Now a separate question is whether there’s any feasible way to actually do this in a country that doesn’t have a French (or Chinese) level of central political authority empowered to build straight tracks through people’s suburban backyards. The answer seems to be “no.

Of course it would be very difficult to build a sufficiently straight right of way through sprawling single-family subdevelopments, much less a place like Greenwood. As luck would have it, however, we’ve built very straight, wide, reasonably graded rights of way between all our major cities via the interstate highway system.

Although building local transit lines in the freeway is a suboptimal choice, HSR has limited stops. Building connecting tracks into the center of cities, or linking with existing tracks for these stops, is comparative child’s play, and can even enforce discipline with respect to the number of stops between major destinations.

That’s not to say that we’re on the cusp of change; for starters, Washington’s 18th amendment would almost certainly prevent taking lanes in places where the median wasn’t wide enough. And there are undoubtedly lots of necessary projects beyond putting down tracks and stringing wire. But the necessary political change is “merely” a shift from total preeminence of the car, rather than a sudden willingness to have bullet trains in the backyard. It’s clear to me that if true bullet trains are ever going to happen in the Northwest it’ll be this way.

Stupidity is not an Explanation

I don’t think anyone who uses Metro or Sound Transit services doesn’t have some kind of complaint about how they run operations or allocate service. Sometimes that’s based on a selfish view that one’s service is needed while someone else’s service is obviously wasteful, but usually there are legitimate principles at stake.

The natural reaction is to assume that the agencies in question are stupid and/or ignorant if they don’t see it your way. However, a good general rule, on any issue, when critiquing the work of professional organizations that if you think it’s simple stupidity you probably don’t understand the forces at work.

There is a lot of change that I’d like to see. But the first step to realizing change is to properly assess the obstacles. The stupidity explanation really doesn’t survive initial contact with most agency planners. In reality, we have to look at the institutional incentives.

For instance, one continuing theme at STB is that there should be better service on key transit arterials even if it means a smaller geographic service area. This idea is not unknown to Metro staff, and its spirit is evident in documents like the Regional Transit Task Force final report. The fundamental obstacle is that you’ll get a much larger crowd of angry voters when you remove service, whatever its merits, than when you elect to not expand other service. And that goes back to a County Council that collectively will not back Metro when a few dozen people organize a complaint.

One way around that dilemma is to throw money at it: provide both the intensive and sprawling routes, and when the next round of cuts comes the interest groups will be more balanced. Of course, more funding is not a plausible course of action at the moment. The last good chance we had to do this was Transit Now, which included a lot for high ridership corridors but also spent significant resources on sending buses to even farther flung exurbs. Metro deserves some amount of credit for upholding RapidRide to the extent they have.

Why was service spread the way it was? The obvious answer is 20/40/40, which for the time being is still in place. Even in its absence, however, it’s arguable that voters wouldn’t have voted for a package perceived as disproportionately benefiting Seattle. Perhaps the true villain is the ability of many voters to see beyond narrow subarea interests. There’s plenty of that going around everywhere in the County.

Transfers at Rainier Beach

Photo by Oran

[Important note: this is not an editorial advocating anything. It is an attempt to quickly analyze some planning tradeoffs.]

When Central Link opened, Metro eliminated some redundant lines (194, 42X), but the bulk of I-5 routes from South King County continue to run into Downtown Seattle, at great cost and with a parallel Link line able to carry those people at nearly zero marginal cost. The best place to make a transfer from I-5 is at Rainier Beach Station, although that location has serious problems. What are the tradeoffs?

First, Google Maps pegs the driving time from Exit 157 (MLK) to Sodo Station as 10 minutes, vs. 3 minutes to MLK & Henderson. Link takes 15 minutes from there to Sodo, meaning that in the baseline scenario the transfer is 8 minutes slower. If you like, subtract a minute for buses being slower than cars.

To this time loss, one must add walking time. If Metro did the user-friendly thing and put the stop on the south side of Henderson, there’s a crossing of two not-crowded lanes. Experience at other stations suggest an easy jaywalk that might take a minute, more for those that insist on a signal. Moreover, there will be wait time: for bus to train, the average varies from 4 to 8 minutes depending on time of day; train to bus, typically 8 to 15 minutes.

On the other hand, the Rainier Beach run is essentially uncongested, while I-5 is often not. The gap shrinks with any delay on I-5. Also, the further north the destination, the smaller the gap is. Going north from Sodo, trains have signal priority and limited-stop advantages over buses, and in some cases a tunnel advantage as well. This adds up to between zero and 6 minutes savings to Westlake in the schedules.

Although in some cases time may be a wash, in general trips with this transfer will be slower and this will cost riders. Unlike the 194/Link tradeoff, all of these trips will still require a bus and won’t attract those that refuse to get on one.

On the other hand, by my count Metro runs 295 trips every weekday via I-5 and the busway, plus 179 on Saturday and 117 on Sunday. With a half-hour of savings per trip, that comes out to around 44,000 service hours, of which 26,000 are charged to the South subarea. For comparison, a draft service cut plan last year took about 45,000 service hours out of the South, and that’s before union concessions saved another 20% of threatened service hours. Alternatively, those hours could be redeployed elsewhere, even by roughly halving headways on routes like the 150.

Other fringe benefits include much improved connectivity between Southcenter and its transit-dependent customers in the Rainier Valley. At some operating cost, buses may terminate at Rainier and Henderson, where there is more bus layover space.

Restored service on the low-ridership southern end of MLK is canceled out by reduced connectivity at the Spokane St. busway stop.

Such a shift also frees up capacity in the busway and DSTT, which can provide a new route to West Seattle post-viaduct and improve reliability on Link.

There are also 198 weekday and 68 weekend trips on Sound Transit buses on the busway, all of which are charged to the Pierce County subarea. Sound Transit and Metro also run 84 and 6 weekday trips, respectively, and 62 weekend ST trips, that bypass the busway to go right into Downtown Seattle. I’ve omitted those from the analysis above.

Whether this kind of service change is worthwhile depends ultimately on how you comparatively value intra-South County service with respect to the quickest possible connections to downtown. Everything has an opportunity cost, and resources can be spent on expresses into Seattle or into reducing headways between suburbs. High capacity transit services like Link provide an option, albeit imperfectly, to avoid gutting one to emphasize the other.