Ride Link Without Pants This Sunday

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If you’ve got nothing better to do this Sunday, here’s another excuse to take Link.  New York-based Improv Everywhere is having its 8th annual ‘No Pants! Subway Ride’ and invites cities around the world to pantslessly jump on board.  With light rail now up and running in Seattle, Emerald City Improv is snagging the chance for locals to participate in the global event.  The ‘No Pants’ ride, which was conceived in 2002, attracted 1200 participants in New York City alone last year plus 1000 more in other cities.  Here is some information about this year’s Seattle event (RSVP on the Facebook page):

Every January, Improv Everywhere in New York stages their annual “No Pants! Subway Ride.” Cities around the globe participate. This year, Emerald City Improv in Seattle invites you to participate in our first annual “No Pants! Light Rail Ride.”

This event will occur SUNDAY, JANUARY 10th, from 12:00- 3:00

1) Willing to take pants off on light rail
2) Able to keep a straight face about it

Meet at the plaza at 4th Ave and Pine St, across from Westlake Center, at noon.

For the sake of decency, though, you’ll probably need to wear underpants.  Assuming ST police and security manage not to throw any fits, we should hope to avoid what happened in New York during their 5th annual ‘No Pants!’ ride:

The fifth annual No Pants ride was abruptly halted by a cop. All passengers, including those not participating, were forced to exit the train as it was taken out of service. 8 people were handcuffed in their underwear and taken into custody. A month later a judge dismissed all of the charges. It is not illegal to wear your underwear in public in New York City. Just ask the Naked Cowboy. The incident was reported by news agencies around the world. David Letterman made two monologue jokes, about it and staged a No Pants Cab Ride as a parody. Keith Olbermann interviewed Agent Todd about the legality of No Pants. Around 150 people participated in the ride.

Why Transit

photo by Mike Bjork

I get asked occasionally why I blog, and why I blog about transit.  I’m not going to bore you with self-analysis on whatever psychic rewards I get out of this, so instead, here’s a brief Boxing Day summary of why I think transit, and rail transit in particular, is important:

  1. Cost effectiveness: A 4-car light rail line running (800 passengers) at 7.5 minute frequencies can carry 6400 people in each direction.  At 2.5 minutes, it’s 19,200.   According to FHWA, highway lane of traffic at capacity can carry 2,200 people in single occupancy vehicles under ideal conditions.  Given that regional growth will continue, what’s a more plausible way to expand capacity in, say, the I-5 corridor?  North Link, or 16 new lanes on I-5?
  2. Positive Societal Effects: There are a bunch of societal drawbacks to driving, some well-understood and others not: air pollution, water pollution, trade deficits from oil imports, sedentary lifestyles, traffic deaths, hideous parking-lot-oriented architecture, sprawl, personal transportation costs, and congestion.  Widely available transit is a partial antidote to all of these.
  3. Quality of Life: We usually talk about the other things because they’re more quantifiable, but ultimately it comes down to quality of life.  In major cities around the world, rail is simply the best way to get around.  As Seattle enters that class of metropolis, residents shouldn’t tolerate the lack of such an important amenity any more than they would tolerate the absence of parks and libraries.

News Roundup: Rail Grinding

Video by Eric Jensen.

A Sneak Peak at Seatac Station

VIPs on the Mezzanine Level, from left to right: County Executive-Elect Dow Constantine, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Sen. Patty Murray, County Executive Kurt Triplett, and Port Commissioner John Creighton (photo by the author)
VIPs on the Mezzanine Level, from left to right: County Executive-Elect Dow Constantine, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Sen. Patty Murray, County Executive Kurt Triplett, and Port Commissioner John Creighton (all photos by the author)

As Brian noted, Senator Murray had the honor of announcing Seatac Station’s opening date as Saturday, December 19 at 10am, just in time for the holidays.  The real star of the morning, however, was one of the system’s more beautiful stations.  I’m probably the least of the STB team’s photographers, but since I was the one there you’ll have to peruse my photos in the STB Flickr Pool.  Some select photos and additional comments below the jump.

Continue reading “A Sneak Peak at Seatac Station”

Rail Safety Roundup

I think I misfired a bit by focusing on the bogus liability discussion and not on the broader safety issues John Niles was raising.  (By the way, Mike Lindblom did a great piece on this subject back in 2004.)  A few points and I’ll leave the subject — at least till the next accident.

  • We trade safety for convenience and cost all the time.  Holding Light Rail to a standard beyond all other modes of transportation doesn’t make any sense unless you’re trying to stop light rail.
  • Almost everyone agrees that, all else being equal, grade separated is better than not, for many, many reasons.  Some people really don’t like the visual impacts of elevated track, but that isn’t me.  The problem is that all else isn’t equal.  For various political and financial reasons grade separation simply wasn’t going to happen if this were to get built at all.  If you put basically no value on having rail in the region that’s a small price to pay, but for the rest of us that’s a big deal.
  • Running Light Rail down the street is not a daredevil stunt.  It’s done all the time in cities across the United States and around the world.  There’s likely to be an adjustment period, but after that people will get used to it.  There’s no reason to be an alarmist.
  • I went back and read John Niles’s report more carefully.  I think the technical core of his argument is that non-passenger injuries should have been included in the FTA safety analysis, and therefore that the project should have been rejected by the FTA.  Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but I should point out that (a) it’s far from clear, from a legal standpoint, from the document that one should include external injuries; (b) I don’t see any reason to view the FTA criteria as particularly valid, in a metaphysical sense, given the way we treat other transportation modes; and (c) given that the money is already awarded and spent, the whole argument is irrelevant.
  • All that said, the reason we’ve been given that there isn’t a short, tasteful fence along the length of the surface segment is that emergency vehicles have to be able to make turns and U-turns over the tracks.  That’s a valid interest, but someone ought to do the analysis on whether that actually saves more lives than fencing the thing off except at designated crossings.

Earth Day

We like to think of every day at Seattle Transit Blog as an earth day, but today people around the world are celebrating Earth Day. How are you honoring Earth Day today?

LINK Station Spacing

All forms of transportation can be characterized in two dimensions. The first, accessibility is a measure how easily it is to join and leave that particular facility. The second dimension is speed of travel on that facility. These two dimensions are inversely related. As accessibility increases speed decreases and vice versa. Streets are a perfect everyday examples. Local streets are slow but offer very high accessibility, while freeways have very low accessibility but very high speed.

So how accessible is LINK for pedestrians compared to other mass transit systems in the Northwest? Well, not very, especially compared to Portland. Station spacing is an important measure of how dense of a network a transit system has. The ideal station spacing for pedestrian access and continuous linear TOD is roughly two times what an average pedestrian would walk, so roughly ~.5 mile to ~1 mile. Now look again. Magically MAX and Skytrain fall into that range. Both the Expo and Millenium lines hover perfectly in the range, while MAX jumps around a bit more because of variation in land use patterns and geography. So, coincidence or planning?

Northwest Mass Transit Systems
Northwest Mass Transit Spacing

So what happened to LINK, why is it so off the mark? Well for starters we have weird geography which has forced our growth pattern into a long and narrow shape. This necessitates a long central line of ~55 miles, Everett to Tacoma. This length forces planners to reduce accessibility to increase speed to a competitive level. In comparison the 2nd longest line is MAX’s Blue line at 33 miles. Another double whammy is money. Sound Transit is a three county regional transit provider who’s mission is to build a regional transit system. Subarea equity has forced Sound Transit to build out rather than fill in Seattle proper with highly accessible mass transit. Yet another reason is that we are late to the game. MAX and Skytrain were built to influence growth patters. They were design to maximize accessibility, area coverage, and TOD opportunities. Now LINK is trying to follow growth not shape it.

So before I close I do want to point out one jem in the ruff, East LINK. After removing the distance inured by Lake Washington, East LINK looks like it will be the poster child of the entire system when it comes to walkable, TOD communities. It is hovering just above the walkable range, and because of the S shape of the probable alignment these distances are actually much shorter. In addition to that the City of Bellevue has made Seattle’s zoning department look childish in its attempt to up-zone station areas.

Below the fold is another graph showing how LINK, Skytrain and MAX stacks up against mass transit systems around the world.
Continue reading “LINK Station Spacing”

China’s $586 Billion Stimulus Plan

From this NYT article:

At a time when major infrastructure projects are being put off around the world, China said it would spend an estimated $586 billion — roughly 7 percent of its gross domestic product — over the next two years to construct new railways, subways and airports and to rebuild communities devastated by an earthquake in the southwest in May.

We’ll see whether Obama’s stimulus plan will be more cash handouts, or infrastructure investment. Infrastructure takes a little longer to trigger activity, but has a much better long-term prospect compared to handing cash out to consumers. The Bush administration’s stimulus package was used by consumers to pay down debt for the most part. If another cash handout is used that way, it won’t have much stimulus effect.

I think China’s got the right idea here.

Kemper Freeman

Chi-Dooh Li, who wrote a pro-prop 1 opinion piece last year, has a piece this time around explaining Kemper Freeman’s history in transportation activism, and why he’s wrong on light rail:

Kemper Freeman is an honorable man.

He is an intelligent man with a great breadth of life experience.

So why is he telling people in this region that they are better off riding buses than taking light rail trains?

There are great cities in this country and around the world where planners, politicians and people have managed to catch a common vision of integrated transportation systems that move people from place to place with the greatest efficiency and lowest cost. Trains, buses and automobiles all play a vital role.

Leave out trains or buses, and you have serious traffic congestion – on the highways and in the city streets.

As they say, read the whole thing. It’s an interesting look.

Global Warming

Most of the leftist Anti-Prop 1 arguments have been environmental. I know it sounds heretical for a supposed pro-environment, pro-transit, progressive to argue about the topic of global warming, but I think the effect of global warming in this package is overstated for the following reasons: many of the new roads are for freight and transit, huge new roads are being built anyway with little or no discussion from the left, and the fact of the matter is the oil argument is unconvincing for the reasons I lay out below.

The roads themselves

This is not a huge expenditure on roads as far as roads expenditures go. Washington state approved a bigger roads bill than this just two years ago, and a bill about half the size just two years before that. Also, two years ago President Bush signed a $286 billion dollar highway bill, and China will build more than 30,000 miles of highways this decade, most of those three lane express-ways. When you compare the literally hundreds of thousands -if not millions – of highway-lanes being built all around the world, the 156 miles of new highway lanes (not new roads, but new lanes) doesn’t seem like much at all. In fact, even in those estimates many of the new lanes are rebuilding existing lanes, or re-routing traffic onto highways from “street” roads.

If you look at the graffic at the left, only 15% of the Roads and Transit spending is so-called “bad roads”, those that are not transit, HOV lanes or freight capacity (that’s the Sierra Club’s own definition of good roads, by the way). Compare that number to the WSDOT projects linked to above, or the proposed State Highway 2 expansion – which would become unnecessary with 405 expansion, or Sierra Club donor, and Eastside real-estate (and fasion?) mogul Kemper Freeman’s I-605 proposal (aka the Snoqualimie Valley freeway).

Even with the 15% bad roads that would be built, not building them does nothing to ensure those fossil fuels don’t get burned, or that those roads won’t get built later.

The oil will get burned by someone no matter what

This article is pretty techincal from an economics stand point, but the message is important:

If Americans buy less oil but all the oil will end up sold in any case, demand simply has been redistributed rather than lowered. Instead the key is to get that oil to stay in the ground.

You could replace the argument with “Puget Sound Residents” and it still stands. Suppose we choose not to burn oil, or rather, we choose not to build roads because we fear it means more oil would get burned. The sad fact is that all the cheap oil left will be burned one way or another. Much of it will be burned in Asia, where massive militaries are being built to protect their own oil interests now that the sun is setting on our Empire. As the dollar declines, we will be able to afford ever less and less oil, and that leads to the next point.

There isn’t enough oil, it will take a new technology one way or another

If oil supplies were so small, and we could simply burn them all away and that would be the end of the fossil fuel era, then we shouldn’t really mind building the roads other than they’d be a waste of money since no one would be able to drive on them. If we use up all the oil, we’d have no fuel to burn, no one would drive, the roads would go unused and it’d be a huge boondoggle. Us transit folks wouldn’t even be troubled tremendously, since none of us drive, at least not that much anyway.

We’ve hit peak oil, and it will take a new technology one way or another to move those cars anyway. Sadly, the problem is not that we have too little fossil fuels, but that we have too much:

The trick in the argument is to equate oil with fossil fuels in general. This is plausible enough for natural gas, which commonly occurs in the same places as oil, and is also in fairly limited supply. But the elephant in the corner in these arguments is coal. The US has enough easily accessible coal to supply hundreds of years of consumption at current rates, and the same is true of the rest of the world.

The Salon article mentions coal only a couple of times in passing. Yet coal and coal-fired electricity already compete directly with oil in all major uses except personal transport. If current oil prices are sustained for long, we can expect to see electricity displacing oil in home heating, and electrification of rail transport at the expense of diesel, reversing the trend of recent decades when diesel has been cheap. This is already happening.

As for cars, there are at least three well-established ways in which they could be fuelled by coal. First, there are electric cars. Second, there is coal liquefication, used on a large scale by South Africa in the sanctions period. Third, gasification could be used to replace liquid petroleum gas. All of these options have problems, but none are insurmountable given a high enough price; they might be competitive if oil stays above $60 a barrel long enough, and they would certainly be competitive at $150/barrel. Then there are more exotic options, like fuel cells using coal-based methanol.

But even in the worst case scenario it will take many years and some technological change to switch from oil. Luckily, we have some of the world’s best scientists looking at alternative energy sources. This is about a Tokyo Institute of Technology (my alma mater) scientist’s attempt to turn solar energy into magnesium which could be used as car fuel. Another scientist in Pennsylvannia is working on burning water for propulsion, which obviously requires a separate power source, but that could be a solar energy generated battery, or through cold fusion, whose research seems to have made a number of advances in just the past year. My point is, there’s no gaurantee that new roads means new fossil fuel burning onto eternity. And as a species if we are not able to keep from burning fossil fuels we are doomed anyway.

I know that’s not a heart-warming argument, that we are doomed if we don’t come up with an alternative. But that’s the facts as they stand today. I don’t mean to be flippant about global warming; it’s the biggest challenge facing mankind. But whether we move to other fossil fuels or move forward and find an alternative, it’s going to take a technological change to effect the climate one way or another.

As for the current vote, if we don’t drive, then RTID won’t have the money to pay for its roads projects, which are mostly funded by an increase in the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax. And some we’ll likely end up paying for anyway. So if we think that our driving days are numbered, why should we care about a roads package funded mostly by taxes on cars?

In summary, RTID isn’t a lot of roads. It’s also mostly good roads, and in the future driving doesn’t necessarily mean fossil fuels. Even if you think we need to oppose all roads because of global warming concerns, you are better off making that choice with your feet literally and stop driving. Well, I am ready for you to rip me apart on this, as a pro-environment progressive, but I guess I’ve opened the door.

Neighborhoods and Transit in the PI

The PI has a bunch of articles today about Density, Transit and Neighborhoods all over the city. The series is in response to the Mayor asking Neighborhood groups to update their plans to accommodate more growth. The last plans were written ten years ago.

I always think of the “neighborhoods” movement being a gigantic NIMBYism front that fights all growth, but the articles show that it isn’t that that way everywhere, and that some neighborhoods are working to preserve their character whilst growing.

There’s one about the South End, Rainier Valley in particular, where residents mistrust the city government and are unhappy with the way development has been going. A lot of this has been the traffic nightmare brought by light rail construction, which is almost over. There’s this quote from Jim Diers, former director of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods

“During the neighborhood planning process, there was not one neighborhood, including those in Southeast Seattle, that fought growth targets.”

But people get their backs up when they are told how to grow and have no say in neighborhood planning, Diers said, noting that many residents were caught off-guard by the proposal.

There’s an entire article about Diers, who was the first Department of Neighborhoods head, served under Royer, Rice and Schell but was fired when Nickels came into office. He claims that the neighborhood movement has been weakened by Nickels, and that Seattle is getting away from a model that is being copied around the world. He takes the classic NIMBY stance.

There’s an article about Beacon Hill, where the growth plan adopted 10 years ago worked well, but people there are scrambling to ensure the development around Beacon Hill Station is in tune with neighborhood goals. Then there’s Roosevelt, where the Neighborhood Council tries to place nice with the city in order to get their vision for their neighborhood straightened out. With the Roosevelt Station planned, it will certainly become and even more dense neighborhood, and by playing nice instead of obstinate, they were able to convince Sound Transit that they needed a tunnel instead of overground. Finally, there’s this piece about Madison Park, where the rich residents feel that a neighborhood plan might be the only protection against rampant development.

It’s a great series that gives a good idea about what the neighborhood movement can and can’t do, and even gives clues on how to get involved. I get involved in my neighborhood meetings (I went to the Capitol Hill station meeting), and I encourage everyone else to do so if they are interested and have the time.