But 100,000 hours is a lot of buses

It’s just that buses are expensive. The P-I has an article about Prop. 1 that discusses the claim that there isn’t enough new bus service in the package. The West Seattle Times argees, though they don’t support rail to Lynnwood over West Seattle, an argument there’s really no way to get around without telling them to look up what “subarea equity” means.

Ron Sims is being slightly disingenuous in his saying that skyrocketing ridership means we need more service hours on buses. Absolutely we do need more service, but the reason Sims wants Sound Transit to pay for more of what would essentially be local buses is that Metro has already reached the state legislature-defined cap of .9% sales tax. Metro cannot possibly raise any more money without the state legislature increasing the cap and another Metro ballot measure passing. Pierce Transit and Community Transit are in a similar situation. I would support both of these, though I doubt the legislature will move on the former.

As a regional agency, Sound Transit should not be in the business of paying for local buses, and with the region’s long term interests in mind, we should not be providing buses at the expense of light rail. My reasoning is simple – apologies in advance for all the numbers – the proposal on the ballot would bump Sound Transit’s portion of the sales tax to .9%, which for the North King subarea, 100% would be spent on light rail construction and bond servicing until 2009, when about .1% will go toward operating Central Link. In Seattle, Metro moves about 135,000 people a day for .9% in Seattle, Sound Transit will move about 45,000 for .1%, the operations portion of the link budget. After at most 30 years, Central Link’s bonds will be paid off, at which time Central Link will cost just .1% of sales tax to move more than 45,000 people per day. Similar results will be seen for North Link, East Link and South Link. All of light rail in Prop. 1 will be operated for just .2% sales tax, and by 2036 when the bonds are paid off, the other .7% could be reinvested into building more light rail.

For an example of how rail can more more people more cheaply, we need only look to Washington DC. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the operator of DC Metro, spends almost exactly the same amount of money as King Country Metro does, $560 million to $580 million. Except for that $560 million DC metro moves almost a million people a day on rail (three times what KC metro moves per day with its buses) and the WMATA agency provides buses that carry another 120,000! It’s only possible because of the investment put in place years ago, and residents there can reap the benefit of a reliable, traffic-separated transit system that’s relatively cheap.

For increased bus service, 100% of the money would go toward operations. Even assuming operation costs will not rise, that tax capacity could never be spent on service increases in the future beyond simply keeping up with the rise in population. But that rise in population seems to be ever more reliant on transit as a means of getting around, as noted 6.7% increase in bus ridership in 2008. Making matters even worse, operations costs are rising far faster than sales tax receipts because of fuel costs, which is why Transit Nowwill end up providing so little.

I understand that we have real transportation challenges facing us, but in the end, buses are just much more expensive to provide in the long run the rail is. We need the willpower and patience to not just go after the quick solution now, but provide a solution that can grow and be expanded in the future. If Metro needs more money for buses, Ron Sims should go to the legistlature and ask for taxing authority. Or maybe he should just cancel his foot-ferry idea and put the money to buses. That $24 million a year could be a lot of service hours.
Mutlimodal Man points out my numbers on the DC metro comparison are a bit off, but the main point still stands.

Metro & Link in the Rainier Valley

Most readers would agree that Light Rail is going to transform the transit picture everywhere it goes. There’s lots of vague talk about how it will allow a dramatic realignment of bus service. With Central LINK now about a year away, what can we expect in terms of changes to Metro service in the Rainier Valley? With the sounding board a couple of months from kicking off, I’ll speculate on what it might look like. We’ll start with the routes likely to be affected, and then discuss some general service concepts.

The Puzzle Pieces

First of all, there’s no bus route that exactly follows the LINK routing, and is therefore clearly a target for elimination. The nearest candidate is the 194 to the airport, with essentially every stop covered by either the train or Sound Transit Route 574. Although it’s a few minutes faster than the train under ideal traffic conditions, it’s reasonable to assume that LINK’s superior headways, reliability, and smoother ride will annihilate the Seatac-Seattle portion of the 194’s ridership, if Metro continues it at all. It certainly will once the airport extension is complete at the end of 2009.

The next two candidates are the 42 and 48, which follow MLK for almost the entire Rainier Valley segment. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 48 terminate at the Mt. Baker station to improve its legendary unreliability. The 42 deviates little from the rail line, except for the portion along Rainier and Dearborn, so it may very well disappear altogether.

However, that orphans a large number of brand-new bus shelters along MLK, as well as stranding residents living at MLK and Graham St, about a mile from the nearest station. Something is going to have to provide local service.

Routes 7 and 36 largely parallel Central Link, along Rainier and Beacon Avenues, respectively. The 7, in particular, is a short and level walk from MLK all along its route. Beacon Avenue is a steep climb up Beacon Hill away; still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see service curtailed on both lines to shore up some underserved areas of Seattle and shift service to East-West.

Much like the 48, the 9 also runs down Rainier from Capitol Hill, and this is other good candidate for truncation at Mt. Baker station.

The 34 and 39 serve Seward Park and Downtown. It would be logical to terminate these lines at the light rail stations, and use the savings to increase the fairly sparse service on evenings and weekends.

The 106 comes up from Renton, and comes near Rainier Beach station before crossing the line at Othello and continuing on via I-5 to downtown.

Lastly, all the routes that come from South King County certainly have the option of dropping riders at Tukwila, Seatac, or Rainier Beach station to get on the train, but I doubt it will happen. Although it would mean a more reliable trip for most commuters, and create tremendous operating savings for Metro and ST Express, transfers kill ridership. Furthermore, none of those stations are particularly convenient from I-5, so the average travel time to downtown would likely be considerably worse. Sound Transit could do a lot more to improve bus access at Tukwila station, but that’s a subject for another post.

Below are a few general service concepts that make sense in the area. An important input is what Metro hopes to do with respect to bus service hours. Will they take them out of the neighborhoods to serve other areas? Keep it the same? Or double down on growth in the Southeast?

Service Concepts

These shouldn’t be thought of as mutually exclusive, but are listed in decreasing order of likelihood, in my humble opinion:

1) Preserve the Status Quo. Because people tend to protest more strongly when service is taken away than when it is never provided in the first place, inertia may lead to essentially no change beyond minor diversions to serve the stations. There’s some merit in being conservative; if the vast majority of riders choose to board the train at the earliest opportunity, then Metro can quietly truncate the lines when it’s clear that no one is using the last segments.

2) Peak-only to Downtown. In the peak hours, commuters can still have their one-seat ride into downtown. But the rest of the time, service frequency can be greatly improved by delivering riders to the train, utilizing capacity that will probably be underused. Might as well take advantage of all that capital investment!

3) Shift from North/South to East/West. This would mean reducing frequency on buses like the 7, 36, and 42, possibly by truncating them at stations, and boosting the 39 and 106 to provide more service to the stations.

4) Circulators. For a radical change, Metro could junk the whole route system that exists in the Rainier Valley, and focus on a short-haul circulator system that connects the stations with surrounding arterials. For instance, a bus could run along MLK between Othello and Columbia City Stations, and then turn onto Alaska, go South on Rainier, and then back west along Othello St. Another could cover the West Side counterpart on Beacon Ave. Similarly, a bus could shuttle between Mt. Baker and the International District Stations via Rainer Ave. and Jackson St.

I don’t think the fourth option is going to happen, because it means reducing use of the existing trolley lines, which have their own constituency in Metro. Also, change confuses people and is therefore unpopular.

Metro will start publicly mulling over these issues soon. What would you like to see happen?

Nickels op-ed – any other ridiculous reasons to delay?

Welcome Seattle Times readers!

“10 lame reasons to delay mass transit” has ten pretty amusing reasons to delay a transit vote – like “you can worry more about climate change” and “standing all the way home [on the packed bus] improves your calf muscles and physical stamina.”

I have one – if we wait two more years, the people living in new development in downtown will have no way to get to work. They’ll start more small businesses!

If you’ve got more, share ’em. Also, vote on the Seattle Times poll for light rail this year!

In the meantime, we have a great transit package to pass, building light rail as well as investing immediately in increasing express bus and Sounder service. This is the best opportunity we’ve had in forty years to connect our region – Sound Transit 2 will create real regional solutions to our transportation mess. Keep checking back here for news on the package, what it will do for you, and why we need it!

Bus Chick on the Bus

I see that the P-I’s own transit blogger, “Bus Chick” (a.k.a. Carla Saulter) is now gracing the side of selected metro buses.  I noticed it on the 42 this morning, but didn’t have a camera handy.  Luckily Flickr pool superstar Oranviri had my back:

Those of you have been to our meetups will agree that it’s far better that Metro go with Carla’s face than any of the STB guys. :-)

Guide to Light Rail Art

The Times art section has a little piece today about some of the art at the LINK stops in the Rainier Valley.

Given that they have to spend 1% of their costs on art, I’d probably prefer that they find a way to use that to simply beautify the station with elegant design, like the DC Metro, rather than create pieces that will please critics, befuddle everyone else, and occasionally get everyone mad beyond reason. But if public art is your thing, check the piece out.

Thoughts on the Amtrak Funding Bill

Frank over at Orphan Road has been keeping track of the $15B Amtrak bill that just passed both the US House and Senate with a veto-proof majority. A lot of this bill is for grants, so this could mean something for Seattle.

The first thing the bill does is ensures Amtrak can operate for the next five years without fear of losing funding. Amtrak wasn’t designed with a consistent funding program, so they’re unable to issue bonds like Sound Transit does – they’d have no way of paying them back, because they can’t levy any taxes. Basically, this means Amtrak service gets worse every year as their equipment ages and the small portion of track they actually own slowly becomes the worse for wear. This bill will buy Amtrak some new equipment, and it funds some capital upgrades so they can improve service in the Northeast Corridor, the high speed line between Washington DC, Philadelphia, NYC, and Boston.

Some background before we go further: In Washington, we have a partnership between the Washington State DOT (WSDOT) and Amtrak to provide more service than Amtrak would normally be able to fund. I’ve never been clear on exactly how the costs are split up (Brian might be willing to comment to that), but the state owns most of the trains themselves and pays for most of the service we have. This partnership service is a route called Amtrak Cascades.

Cascades currently runs four daily round trips from Seattle to Portland, one Seattle to Vancouver BC, and one Seattle to Bellingham – although that last one will be extended to Vancouver as well sometime in the next year. The Oregon DOT also funds two round trips from Portland to Eugene. In 2007, the Washington State routes got more than 675,000 riders, the vast majority of those riding between Seattle and Portland.

When there’s bad traffic or a big border delay, this service is already often faster than driving. It takes 3h30m from Seattle to Portland, and 3h55m from Seattle to Vancouver. This really isn’t consistently competitive, though – so WSDOT has a nominally 20 year plan of incremental upgrades to get Seattle-Portland down to 2h30m, and Seattle-Vancouver down to 2h45m. This comes from a lot of small projects, and a few big ones, like building some new segments of passenger-only track on which we could operate at 110mph, instead of the current 79 (and often slower).

Back to the bill: There are two types of grants this bill offers that could affect our service very positively. The first is that it offers grants to develop state passenger corridors. Guess what Amtrak Cascades is? This bill provides $2.5 billion in matching grants, where the federal share can be up to 80%, for state corridor projects. The other type of grant is for the 11 corridors in which the federal government thinks high speed rail is a good idea – these total $1.75 billion. Guess what kind of corridor Amtrak Cascades runs in? Now, we might not get a penny of this money, because the California High Speed Rail Project has a $10 billion bond issue going before voters this November, and their plan is very competitive, but there’s a good chance we’ll get some of this money to improve intercity service.

Transit Report Card: New York City

Third in an occasional series where I wildly generalize about a transit system based on limited experience.

Segments ridden:
More or less all of the Manhattan Routes
D train to Coney Island & Downtown Brooklyn
7 train to Shea Stadium
Various approaches to Yankee Stadium
Bergen County NJ Transit Line (Waldwick – NY Penn Station)
PATH: Pavonia to 14th St
Staten Island Ferry

Scope: A+
If you’re reading this blog you probably know that the subway more or less blankets the city. But what you might not know is the extent of the commuter rail system, which covers all of Long Island, half of New Jersey and deep into Connecticut and upstate New York. Look for yourself; it’s truly massive.

And don’t forget the PATH subway system into New Jersey and run by the Port Authority, as well as the Newark and Hudson Shore Light Rail systems run by New Jersey Transit.

Service: A+
24-hour service on the subway, unparalleled anywhere in the world. As for commuter rail, I rode into the city on a Sunday and found myself with 36 trains a day in each direction to choose from.

Routing: A
Not an A+ because there’s very little in the way of routing that bypasses Manhattan. The city could use some ring lines like they have in Tokyo, London, and Paris.

Grade/ROW: A+
As with all third-rail systems, no pedestrian or auto is ever going to get anywhere near the track.

New York has extreme density where there’s rail transit, not so much where there isn’t. On the other hand, the not-so-dense places would give the average resident of, say, Greenwood some sort of aneurysm.

Culture: A+
Undoubtedly, the city in America where it’s most foolish to own a car, unless you go into the outer suburbs a lot. If not here an A+, then where?


If you have even a little bit of transit tourist in you, get thee to New York City before airfares go up again. Driving is a nightmare, parking can cost over $20 for a half hour (plus tax), and the subway system approaches perfection (unless you require wheelchair accessibility, as I discovered when trying to cart around a baby stroller on this trip).

If you’re a total cheapskate, get a hotel out in the suburbs and take the commuter rail in.

What’s a little frightening is that with all the transit options available, there used to be more. There are tons of transit tunnels and stations abandoned at the peak of the automobile age. The city tore down dozens of miles of elevated track in the last century as well. And yet the system still carries more daily riders that all the nation’s other systems combined.

Smart NYC travelers fly into Newark and take one of the various New Jersey transit options into the city, rather than suffering through a 2-hour AirTrain and Subway slog into Manhattan from JFK.

Multimodalism is at its best here. At Penn Station, for instance, you have Amtrak, PATH trains, commuter rail, 6 subway lines, and God knows how many buses all coming together in one gigantic terminal. The Newark airport has an AirTrain system that connects all the terminals with not only the car rental complex, but also a train station that supports both commuter rail and Amtrak.

This kind of integration makes it plausible to nearly eliminate “puddle-jumper” aircraft, since outlying residents can simply take the train to take advantage of the many destinations available out of the New York airports. I think this kind of thing is very useful as gas prices skyrocket and scarce landing slots have to be devoted to bigger aircraft.

I’m told there are a few traditional tourist attractions in the city as well.

American Bullet Trains?

There’s action in Congress to pour $14 billion into improving the tracks between New York and Washington, reducing the travel time from 2:45 to under 2 hours. Hooray for that.

It’s still early going, of course. Besides budget-cutting zeal and NIMBYs, there are two big things to worry about. First, stations may be added for political reasons, defeating the “express train” concept:

The Wilmington [Delaware] station is Amtrak’s 11th-busiest in the nation, so Castle said he would “fight like heck” to make sure any high-speed trains stopped here.

I won’t comment on Wilmington specifically, but we can expect to see this kind of thing all along the line.

Secondly, they’re looking for a public-private partnership. Now, I’m not ideologically opposed to this kind of thing if it gets projects done. But if one of Amtrak’s few profitable routes gets cannibalized by a private operator, that can only hurt service elsewhere in the nation.

TGV image from Flickr contributor vorgefuhl

Transit Report Card: Washington, DC

Second in an occasional series where I wildly generalize about a transit system based on limited experience.

Segments ridden:
Red Line: Shady Grove – Union Station
Blue Line: Springfield – Stadium/Armory
Orange Line: W. Falls Church – Stadium/Armory
Yellow Line: Gallery Place – National Airport
Green Line: Gallery Place – Navy Yard
Time ridden: You name it. I grew up here, so I can’t even begin to recapitulate it.

Scope: A
There aren’t a ton of places to go in D.C. and the surrounding area that you can’t get to via Metro, but it falls a bit short of the blanket coverage you see in New York. The vast majority of the service lies inside the Beltway (analogous to I-405) which has all kinds of benefits for preventing sprawl and allowing a car-free lifestyle.

Service: A
Service is frequent except in the wee hours. Message boards tell you when the next train is coming, in pretty much every station.

Routing: B
The Red Line in Maryland follows some major arterials, rather than the nearby freeway. That isn’t the case along the Orange Line in Virginia, however. Inside the beltway, where most of the system lies, there really aren’t enough freeways to even tempt planners to route along them.

Grade/ROW: A+
As with all third-rail systems, no pedestrian or auto is ever going to get anywhere near the track.

Revisiting this with a newly critical eye, the TOD is kind of disappointing. The city itself is really dense, which was the case before the Metro came. Although many stations are underground and therefore impossible to evaluate without stopping there, my limited experience in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs at the ends of the line is pretty disappointing. My read is that local authorities are really starting to get it, however.

Culture: A
For many suburbanites, driving to work is unthinkable. They’re certainly not deterred by park-and-ride fees approaching $5.00 a day, on top of a fare of as much as $4.50 each way. I don’t personally know any people that work in the city anymore, but what I gather from sources like Matt Yglesias is that in the core a car-free lifestyle is increasingly viable and popular as the city emerges from epic mismanagement a couple of decades ago.


If you are visiting DC for the traditional tourist itinerary, there’s no good reason to rent a car. Driving and parking are difficult in the main tourist areas. The Metro goes right to National Airport, and there is straightforward bus service if you must fly into Dulles or BWI.

I happened to be in town the very day the USDOT reversed itself and gave the go-ahead to Dulles Rail. Having spent most of that trip in the Dulles Corridor, I can say that there’s tons of high-rise office space surrounded by parking. That’s a good sign, as it indicates that there’s tons of available real estate with mild zoning restrictions. Furthermore, it’s certainly interesting to see how the attitude of federal bureaucrats can change when the system is in their direct experience, while it’s “let them take buses” out here in the stix. But let’s give Virginia’s leaders credit for persevering in the face of really negative feedback.

In terms of sheer beauty, little in the transit world really comparesto a DC Metro Station. The underground architecture, while composed mainly of concrete, is roomy and appealing. Interestingly, as far as I can tell, exactly 0.0% of the capital expenditure was devoted to public art. If it were up to me, I’d encourage all transit systems to build intrinsic beauty into their architecture, rather than add some art of controversial value to each station.

I’ll finish with a brief anecdote. I attended a game at Nationals Stadium downtown, which was built half a block from the Navy Yard station. I was impressed with WMATA’s event management, with the nearest gate to the stadium being exit-only before the game and entrance-only afterwards. Additionally, there were lots of WMATA personnel around to direct the crowds in the station and make sure that every last car was packed to the gills. It was an extremely well-organized operation, especially considering the stadium had only been open for a month.

At any rate, I soon was waiting for a transfer at L’Enfant Plaza, when I overheard this conversation:
“The next train comes in eight minutes.”
“Eight Minutes?!”

Think of the implications of that conversation:
(1) The agency is able to predict with precision the next arrival.
(2) They inform riders with a simple-to-use message board.
(3) The riders are conditioned to think that 8 minutes is an unreasonable time to wait at 10 pm.

Jealous, aren’t you?

Photo courtesy of washingtontravelcast.com

A Google Maps tour of Central Link, part 2

Hey there! It’s been a few days, and I thought I’d finish showing off the recent satellite photos of Central Link construction.

We left off with Beacon Hill. Here’s the east end of the tunnel (upper left), as well as Mount Baker station (lower right). This is an elevated platform, set back from the street with a few businesses in between. I centered this link so that you could see both the tunnel exit and the station, so you may need to scroll a bit on a smaller screen to see everything. Just to the east (right) of the station, where you can see a couple of construction trailers, there will be a pedestrian plaza connecting the station to the street.

The next station is Columbia City, the first surface level station on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. You’ll notice that I didn’t center the image here on the station – I want to bring attention to the east-west street at the south end of the platform, Edmunds Street. Sound Transit replaced the sidewalk and curb ramps between MLK and Rainier Avenue to make pedestrian access between Columbia City’s downtown and the light rail station more pleasant.

There are two more surface level stations, Othello and Rainier Beach. Othello is the more exciting of the two – built across from the only continuous block of street-fronted businesses on MLK, it’s extremely pedestrian friendly, and with 1500 housing units in planning around the intersection, it should become even more so. Rainier Beach isn’t particularly interesting right now, aside from the new Chief Sealth bicycle trail built in the adjacent Seattle City Light right-of-way (that’s the green part), and it does offer great access to the p-patch just to the north. Look for changes here over the next decade.

Here it gets interesting again. The light rail crosses both I-5 and the BNSF tracks. This BNSF crossing could be the site of a future station, as Sounder runs here and there’s plenty of space – maybe we’ll see a combined Sounder/Link/bus facility if Sounder eventually runs all day. These crossings used an interesting construction technique called a ‘balanced cantilever’ – central columns were built on each side of I-5 and the tracks, and from each column, aerial concrete segments were added one at a time to each side, keeping the weight to each side of the columns balanced. Eventually the segments met in the middle of the space they span.

Most of the aerial guideway was not built this way, though – it was built with this amazing big yellow gantry. This gantry, now gone (this part of the construction is complete), would pick up a dozen sections of trackway at a time, lift them into place, and hold them there while they were tensioned from the ends. Once the columns were in place, it could build about two spans a week, “walking” to the next empty span after building trackway across each.

This elevated trackway continues, unbroken, until Tukwila International Boulevard Station (why wasn’t it just Link Tukwila Station?) – where even this new imagery shows its age. The adjacent holes in the elevated trackway have long since been filled. This station is basically complete, with only the park and ride really left to finish paving. This is the only parking lot in Central Link, and I hope it’s later converted to transit oriented development!

The final leg of our tour is Airport Link. While Central Link is scheduled to open in July of next year, the last mile or so to the airport itself was dependent on the Port of Seattle’s airport expressway realignment, and opens at the end of the year. See this loop? That’s now paved and open, the new ‘return loop’ for drivers who have arrived at the airport before the people they’ve come to pick up are ready. Cars aren’t allowed to simply park in front of the arrivals hall, but congestion was getting bad, so the Port (as I understand it) wanted to extend the amount of pavement available for circulating traffic. A side benefit of this was to provide Sound Transit with the site for Sea-Tac Airport Station.

This station will have a pedestrian bridge over to the parking garage, so the walk will be similar to parking a bit away from the terminal. Sometime in the future, when all this construction is complete and the roadway has been moved to its new location, the Port would like to extend Concourse D (the short one just west of the light rail station) much as they have Concourse A (the southernmost concourse). This will likely present an opportunity to build a new, much shorter route for Link riders in the future.

One more note – when Central Link opens, shuttle buses will meet the trains at Tukwila Station to get you that last mile until Airport Link is done – so don’t worry, you won’t be stranded with your bags hailing a cab!

Amtrak Cascades: Families & Discounts


A few follow-ups to points raised in the comments to the previous post:

K said…

You’ve heard of these groups of more than 2 people called “families”, yes?

Yes of course! I was one of 7 myself. First of all, as you might expect, Amtrak maintains discounts for children 15 and younger, fully 1/2 off:

Child 2 – 15 50% Up to two children per paying adult. Children must travel with adult.

1, 2

Infant Under 2 Free One infant per paying adult. Infants must ride on adult’s lap.

Also, as Steve points out in the comments, Amtrak maintains an off-season discount program from November to May which offers free companion travel (2 for the price of one) for trips from Seattle to Portland. Fully half the year! This ends on the May 23rd, but is something to keep in mind for your spring travel next year.

But my point extends to any number of people, discounts or no. It all comes down to how much your time, the environment, &c., are worth to you. Some are better off driving and some not, but in order to know who is which, it’s necessary to look at the numbers, to help overcome our natural biases.

I’ve extended the calculator to take these options into account here. Simply adjust the size of your party, the cost of tickets, or the MPG of your car, to get personalized information of what the costs are.

Anonymous bellevue said…
I wish they would offer a multi person ticket rate, I like taking public transit but I’m never alone so the cost just does not work out.

See the above points about discounts and such.
Again, I’m not saying rail makes sense for everyone everywhere. I do think that people (even transit-savvy people) underestimate their options when it comes to Amtrak, though.

So even if you’re skeptical, please do check out the updated calculator and fill in your info, to get a real sense of the costs and how it compares to driving.

Amtrak Cascades: A Better Value Than You Might Think


Your local ex-motorist finally had his first rail trip last weekend, down to Portland and back, and I’ve some thoughts on the process, which I’ll be sharing over my next few posts.

The first question, for the many who have never taken regional rail or thought much about it, is why take rail? What does Amtrak have to offer, compared to the other options: the road-trip or the short distance flight?

I’ll skip over flights here because they’re easy to dismiss, particularly if you’re paying for them. They’re almost 3x the cost ($159 vs. $56), and while they’re faster in flight, when you count travel to and from the airport and security clearance time, the advantage wears down.

Cars on the other hand, you may see as your old, trusted companion for these trips, when perhaps they shouldn’t be. It may seem obvious to you that the $60 round trip cost of a train ticket is more expensive than driving yourself, but it’s as often false as true. One of our natural human biases is that we often ignore costs which accrue over time, if we’re not confronted with them directly. For example, as I mentioned in an earlier post, depreciation costs thousands a year, but you think more about this cost if you’re confronted with it each year than if you buy the car outright. This is despite the fact that the salable price for your car continually declines, so the economic cost is the same. Likewise, a roadtrip may feel like a liberating, low-cost experience, while the cost of the Amtrak ticket may seem high, when in fact the out-of-pocket costs are the same (for a single traveller, with the fuel efficiency below). You might think differently because paying the cost of fuel isn’t a precondition to starting your voyage, the costs come up after you’ve committed to the trip, and are thus easier to dismiss.

I put together this calculator to quantify this point. Note that you can edit the calculator values to put in your own car’s fuel efficiency, for example.

Now, this shows Amtrak and driving costs (for the single traveler) are essentially equal, on average, but there are qualifiers on both sides of this comparison. First of all, fuel costs are by no means the full cost of the car trip. Other costs include depreciation from the mileage you’re putting on your car, the potential cost of an accident, and the cost of your time in the car. Just like busing it to work, in the train you can work, read, or watch a film, while you can’t do the same in a car, and this has real value, as we’ll see.

Finally, the train is much more fuel-efficient than your car. While it’s difficult to say exactly how much more, wikipedia puts the figure somewhere between 1.25x and a whopping 20x the efficiency in the train. Note too, that the unimpressive lower figure is dubious, and more likely to be in-line with other rails systems, at 6x or better. Naturally, a train which uses less fuel also emits less pollution, to a similar extent. Adding to this effect is that rail, as point to point transport, encourages walkable, dense cities, rather than the highway system’s sprawl, so your use has long-term effects even beyond the benefits of the ride.

On the other hand, to be fair, cars do offer you greater flexibility, in timing, destination and route, and, importantly, the fuel and depreciation costs are fixed, while the rail costs are per-person. So you can pile 5 people into a car and travel at a fraction of the cost of the multiple rail tickets you’d need to buy. So there are legitimate reasons that it may be reasonable or necessary to take a car.

But even these points may not be as clear as they seem. While 5 people splitting the costs may be a clear win, 2 people is much more common scenario, and isn’t necessarily clear-cut. Even though the rail costs are now twice as much, this extra $60 over the cost of fuel has to then be weighed against the value of your free time. That $60 works out to just $5/hr of time ($60/(2 people * 6hrs round trip)), and as I mentioned, rail time is computer/book/movie time, while car time is often just that. Now, I’m not saying one is always and everywhere a clear win over the other, but along with the environmental and city benefits, one might think that paying $5/hr to be free to work or to write may be well worth it. Put another way, even at minimum wage, it takes fewer hours of work to earn those costs than the time over which you enjoy the benefits. At a standard wage (WA median household income / (52 wks * 40hrs) = roughly $30/hr), you’re each working for an hour to liberate yourself for 6.

So there you have it, for 1 person it’s a clear win, and for 2 or more, or for last-minute, higher-cost purchases, you should weigh the time and environment you save against the costs you pay. The point here is not to say that we should never need or use a car, but to give these things their appropriate measure, and have them coexist. So for your next trip to Portland or Vancouver, consider leaving the car at home and checking out Amtrak.

Update: I’ve got a follow-up post on Families and Discounts, in response to some questions in the comments.

Precursor to Congestion Pricing Started

Anyone been on the “HOT” lanes on 167 yet? A friend snaped these pictures northbound from Auburn Friday.

It’ll be interesting to see how they are used, and whether other HOV lanes will become HOT lanes. The first ones to spring to mind are those on 520 and 405.

Liveblogging from ULI Reality Check

Update (daimajin): That’s a well dressed live blogger!

Good morning! I’ll be liveblogging from the Urban Land Institute’s Reality Check workshop today.

This workshop is about understanding growth, and planning for our urban layout as 1.7 million new people are born and move here by 2040. Where will they live? How will we move them?

Governor Christine Gregoire is currently standing in front of a breakfast with about 250 local leaders – from elected officials to business leaders to prominent researchers – explaining what we’re going to do today.

Wow, she’s just said (and I paraphrase): “What international city has on-street parking? What international city has two-way streets downtown?” She’s also just pointed out that I-5 brings us congestion – and that mass transit is part of the solution. The rail system we expected to start in the 1970s has been delayed nearly 40 years.

08:40 Update: She’s discussing funding mechanisms for transportation, and who permits development – the fact that we need to streamline permitting, for instance, where we now have a mishmash of city, county, state, and federal, rather than an integrated system.

She’s addressing framing very well here. She’s pointing out that we are not forcing anyone out of their cars, or to move to places where they don’t want to live, but rather we’re creating affordable housing and transportation that people will choose to live in, and choose to use.

She’s brought up LA and Houston as examples of cities where the choices made, where the planning used, did not effectively address growth – and that we don’t want to go that way, but we need to work together now, because we don’t have more time to wait.

It looks like we’re moving into the workshop room shortly. I’ll post again once people start.

Want to Boost the Economy, George? Build Transit!

Check out this graph from the Institute of Policy Studies (original PDF here).
If you look at the left column, government spending on mass transit creates the most jobs on a number basis, and the second highest number of jobs on a total wages basis. Giving people money for personal consumption, as Congress and the President have just done, is basically the worst way.

The thing that they authors didn’t take into account was long-term benefits of the investments, which make domestic consumption and health care look better than they actually ought to. For example, defense spending created the Internet, which has created entire economic sectors, and education spending creates a better educated work force which has downtstream effects on the future generation’s earning prospects. Similarly, what has been the total return-on-investment for New York City’s 100-year-old subways?

Obviously, the other Washington is trying to give a short term “shot-in-the-arm” to economy, so the long term effect wasn’t as important to their decision. However, this does give credence to the idea that, in the long run, mass transit can provide significant economic stimulation. I think it’s worth noting that spending $152 billion for 300 million people averages a little more than $500 per person. Extrapolating that to the nearly two million folks in King County you’d get almost one billion in federal money right there, or $1.8 billion over the entire Sound Transit district.

Food for thought when national politicians start talking about spending for the economic growth. Via Overhead Wire, Via Free Public Transit.

And the NIMBY of the Century Award Goes to….

That’s Will from Horse’s Ass’s photo, which was taken next to the piroshky spot on Broadway which will be Capitol Hill station, a subway station for Link Light Rail.

This is the text:


Wow. And I thought transit was about moving people around…

Lane Closures on I-90

A four month lane closure on I-90 has begun. The closure is so Sound Transit and WSDOT can add 24 hour HOV lanes on the bridge. This is getting things one step closer to eventually running light rail in the current express lanes on that bridge, as the bridge was originally intended for.

Photo emailed to me, photographer unknown.