The Bus Bunching Mystery

'Metro Route 7' by Oran

Bus bunching is something that’s often mentioned as a problem spot for bus reliability and particularly frustrating when riders have to wait 20 minutes longer than expected only to find two buses rumbling along one after the other.  As it turns out, however, bunching isn’t some systematic anomaly that no one has the answer to.  While there are a lot of factors that end up fluctating actual headways (as opposed to scheduled headways), late buses only exacerbate tardiness, therefore resulting in bunching.

More after the jump.

Continue reading “The Bus Bunching Mystery”

News Roundup: Mainly PubliCola

photo by papahazama

This is an open thread.

Rethinking Station Access (I)

"Where's Mt. Baker TC?", by Oran

An important part of Seattle’s decision to not build park-and-rides near most Link stations was the idea that people could take walk, bike, or take the bus to the train.  Indeed, one frequent criticism of Metro is that bus connections are not good enough.  Although Link is usually the better option if you’re actually at the station, close examination of transit options indicates that at the close-in stations if you’re already on the bus, the transfer generally doesn’t pay if you’re headed for the downtown core.

To reach Rainier Beach Station, riders may take the 106.  Simply remaining on the bus will get you downtown in about 38 minutes in the morning rush.  Link takes about 23 minutes for the same trip, so it will get you to work a bit faster, even when you factor in crossing a couple of streets and waiting an average of 4 minutes for a train.

At Columbia City, the 39 is your downtown-bound bus option.  Incredibly, the station is not a timepoint (!), but it’s about 26 minutes to University Street, vs. 16 minutes for Link.  However, in the peak, almost anyone on the 39 for any significant length of time can also choose the 34, which is 11 minutes faster to University Street,  beating 39+Link.  Off peak, the train is either better or a wash, but the 39’s headways are pretty awful.  The 42 is 20 minutes to the ID vs. 12 for Link. More after the jump.

Continue reading “Rethinking Station Access (I)”

Second to Last Step for First Hill Streetcar Alignment

Update @ 5:20pm: Slog is hosting the letter that the Mayor sent to the City Council.

The Mayor’s office just sent out a press release announcing that he is asking the City Council to approve the two-way Broadway alignment. This is the recommendation made by SDOT. This isn’t a surprise but what caught my eye were a few details that I have bolded.

… There are many advantages to the recommended route. The Broadway/Jackson route is estimated to cost approximately $125 million, comfortably within the maximum Sound Transit funding limit of $132.8 million, and will provide an efficient and accessible new transit option.  The route also presents opportunities to rethink the Broadway streetscape in ways that support walking, biking and riding transit. In the Chinatown/International District, the Jackson Street route and the Pioneer Square loop integrate well with other transit and connect First Hill and Capitol Hill to this historic district and the adjacent stadium district.

The mayor is committed to developing plans to address the key transit issues that stakeholders identified throughout this process, including:

  • Improving transit access to the Boren/Madison area, through measures such as speed and reliability improvements to existing Metro routes;
  • Developing alternatives that provide north-south transit service in the 12th Avenue corridor; and
  • Extending the First Hill Streetcar to the north end of Broadway, to support the economic revitalization of Broadway and improve neighborhood access to the Capitol Hill light rail station.

All of this bodes well, although certainly doesn’t ensure anything.

Editorial: “Political” Lines

A pet peeve of mine, and mine only, is the habit of attacking one alignment or another as “political.”  It’s a tool of both Sound Transit critics (North Sounder, Central Link) and those who generally agree with ST (the Wallace alignment). It also turns up in discussions of certain Metro routes.

I think the problem with this accusation is that it presupposes that there is a platonic ideal of an objectively optimal route for any given project. In fact, any routing decision is a complex tradeoff between a number of different objectives and interest groups.  Most people agree that ridership, VMT reduction, lowest cost of service, and improving the mobility of low-income people are important objectives for a transit system. Many people here would add “encouraging dense development.” On some level many people think it’s important that those who pay for the service should benefit from it.  If you’re a rail advocate, speed, reliability, and quality of service are probably important ends in themselves.

Cursory examination of these objectives shows they are to some extent in conflict. There’s a word for trading off competing interests; it’s called “politics.” There is no other way to resolve these conflicts in a democratic society than to have our representatives haggle this out.

I don’t mean to suggest that this always results in sensible outcomes. To make up an example, if there had been a politician from Bothell that was obsessed with rail, and had therefore spent a decade of his time on the ST Board advocating for his constituents, we very well might have seen an earlier emphasis on service to Bothell.  In real life, I believe the recent overwhelming emphasis of certain Bellevue activists on reducing impacts on their neighborhoods to be misplaced, and in any case not an important regional consideration.*

Tarring our opponents’ ideas as “political” doesn’t move the discussion forward because it doesn’t contain any information.  Let’s instead look at what each proposal is trying to achieve and explain why those objectives are invalid or less important than our preferred ones.

*Not important, because Link is destined to run through someone’s neighborhood, unless you (stupidly) push it away from where the people are.  It’s just a question of which one!

City to Develop Transit Master Plan

Eastlake bus stop. Photo by flickr user photocoyote.

Central District News is reporting, in an impressive scoop, that the city is developing a transit master plan, in the model of the city’s bicycle and pedestrian master plans. They quote the mayor’s office:

The new Transit Master Plan, which we expect to begin developing within the next few months, is envisioned to serve as a blueprint for transit investments in the same way that the recently adopted Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plans are guiding the development of improvement to help make biking and walking easier in Seattle.

Seattle Department of Transportation spokesman Rick Sheridan outlined the broad goals of the transit master plan to the neighborhood blog:

  • Develop transit service and capital investment priorities and recommendations
  • Make commitments to provide minimum levels of speed and reliability for high-ridership transit routes
  • Identify minimum service frequencies and span of service for high-ridership routes
  • Generate more transit funding to support growth in Seattle and the region
  • Improve coordination with Metro and Sound Transit planning activities
  • Include a plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transit vehicles

When asked about how much public feedback would be incorporated into the plan, Sheridan told us that “public involvement is absolutely needed” to shape the plan.”

“There will also be an advisory committee supporting the work made up of members of the public,” Sheridan said. “However, full details concerning these elements have not yet been worked out.”

The plan is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2011.

Metro Puts Data for Developers Online

One Bus Away is powered by Metro's GTFS feed.

King County Metro has posted a data file that defines all of its routing and scheduling information to its servers for anyone to access.

The data is in the GTFS format, which stands for Google Transit Feed Specification. This feed powers Google Maps’ transit directions and third-party services like One Bus Away. Transit agencies across the world are exporting their data to the de facto industry-standard format, so some applications based around GTFS that are built for Portland’s data, for example, could also work for Seattle depending on the context.

“King County is home to some of the best and brightest tech minds in the world, and we want to tap into their ingenuity,” said Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond. “Our customers love the apps that are already out there for their phones and computers, and we think there is a lot of potential to create more.”

Metro began opening up the feed late last year, but this is the first time that anyone can access the data without first contacting the bus agency. Developers can access the data file directly online, but must agree to King County’s terms of use. Notably, the terms do not prevent developers from profiting from their use of the data.

Most transit agencies do not post their feeds directly online, and Metro is taking a progressive step that should be applauded.

Streetcar, Tram or Light Rail – ROW or Station Spacing?

Yonah at the Transport Politic weighed in on rail transit categorization/semantics last week, using the potential West Seattle to Ballard extension as an example.

The dividing line between what Americans reference as a streetcar and what they call light railis not nearly as defined as one might assume considering the frequent use of the two terminologies in opposition. According to popular understanding, streetcars share their rights-of-way with automobiles and light rail has its own, reserved right-of-way.

But the truth is that the two modes use very similar vehicles and their corridors frequently fall somewhere between the respective stereotypes of each technology. Even the prototypical U.S. light rail project — the Portland MAX — includes significant track segments downtown in which its corridor is hardly separated from that of the automobiles nearby. And that city’s similarly pioneering streetcar includes several segments completely separated from the street.

As a result, some have labeled this plan little more than a streetcar, whose slow pace and minimal capacity make it more useful as a development tool than a transportation one. Others are convinced that the project will morph into a multi-billion dollar mini-metro like Link, a high-cost concept into whose face city budget experts are afraid to look.

But Mayor McGinn’s proposal is neither of those things — it’s an effort to build a cost-effective rail transit line on the model used by cities across Europe, known typically as tramways.

Jarrett over a Human Transit has a different take, arguing that station spacing is a more important factor in determining what kind of rail transit something is.

More after the jump Continue reading “Streetcar, Tram or Light Rail – ROW or Station Spacing?”

Haugen and Clibborn Oppose USDOT, Transit Agencies On Private Provider Requirement

Senate Transportation Chair Mary Margaret Haugen and House Transportation Chair Judy Clibborn have sent a letter to the Governor (PDF) requesting Gregoire not veto the private provider provision we’ve covered before.

The letter’s points are nonsensical, and fail to address or even acknowledge any of the concerns raised in opposing letters from USDOT (PDF) and all of our local transit agencies (docx).

The chairs claim, for instance, that local jurisdictions have “always resisted even an evaluation of the benefits of sharing these restricted facilities” – when several of these agreements have been adopted already, such as shared use of Overlake Transit Center. Interestingly, we’ve heard that the provisions here in the budget may even conflict with existing state law regarding agreements with private providers – the budget does not amend the existing statute, but instead creates conflicting guidance for transit agencies.

As we covered before, the language in this amendment would tie any WSDOT funding for transit to that agency opening their facilities to private operators.

We’ve heard Starline Luxury Coaches may be involved here – they’re smarting from the Obama Administration removing the public transit restriction for game service, and they’ve weighed in on that issue heavily, and were involved in creating the original Bush rule.

When voters approved local transit projects, they didn’t agree to taxes to subsidize private motorcoaches.

Metro Releases Sounders and Mariners Service Schedule


On the heels of newly announced special Sounder service to soccer and baseball games, Metro announced this year’s schedule of special buses from (and in some cases, to) Sounders and Mariners games:

  • to and from all weekend Sounder games from Northgate, South Kirkland, and Eastgate.
  • to and from all weekend Mariner games from Northgate, South Kirkland, South Bellevue, and Eastgate.
  • From all weeknight Mariner games to the same four locations.

In all cases the trip will cost $5 each way, a rise from $3 a couple of years ago.  This fare is cash only and will be waived only for children under 2.

Unlike the Sounder service, whatever costs are not recovered by fares will be covered by the teams, which might explain their draconian structure.  It would appear that Link and Sounder are now covering the old downtown postgame shuttle and trips to points South

In any case remember that we have Senator Patty Murray to thank for lifting the ridiculous Bush-era provision that banned this kind of arrangement.

Transportation Benefit Districts are Back From The Dead!

Marko Liias’ HB 2855 is back in the special session! It’s been modified, though, so it would offer King, Pierce or Snohomish the opportunity for up to a $50 vehicle license fee with a public vote. Martin’s noted in the past that $40 would be enough to patch up Metro’s budget hole, and it’s certainly a good start for Pierce or Community Transit.

This bill will likely be on the floor today, and this is probably your last chance to take action during the session. If you want Sunday service back in Snohomish County, there are two things you can do (as usual) – call your own legislator, especially your representative, and call Speaker Chopp’s office to ask for a vote. (Bryan’s pointed out the District Finder)

Remember, every time your legislator hears that you care about this, even if they’ve already heard once or twice before, they’re reminded that people care about transit. We’re going to remind them of that all year!

February 2010 Link Ridership Numbers

from the Flickr Pool

February Link ridership numbers increased slightly over January’s average to 16,741 boardings each weekday, 13,744 on Saturdays, and 12,076 on Sundays. That actually beats out the record for weekdays, set in October, of 16,192.  The weekend records were set in the July opener and are unreachable for the foreseeable future.

Prediction and analysis on this subject are fraught with peril, but the major change in February was elimination of the 194 as part of a reorganization of Southwest King County service that also greatly improved bus access to TIB and Seatac stations.

These always turn into really long comment threads, but recall that we have a basically incomplete data set, Link’s most important promises won’t be realized for decades, and these numbers are neither so astoundingly high nor abominably low that anyone on the either side is likely to be convinced to change their opinion on the project as a whole.

For obsessives, the raw data is here.

A Peek at the Other Two East Link Stations

I-90/Rainier Avenue Link Station (from the Central District News)

In light of Bellevue routing and whatnot, East Link’s first two stations outbound from International District Station have been somewhat of an anomaly, at least up until now.  The Central District News has some new information about the I-90/Rainier Ave. Station, which is currently a freeway stop.  There will be platform entrances from 23rd Avenue on top of the Mt. Baker tunnel entrance, as well as an entry ramp to the Rainier Avenue bus stops below I-90. More below the jump.

Continue reading “A Peek at the Other Two East Link Stations”

Sound Transit: Looking at Changing Fare Structure

ST Express Proposed Changes
Proposed changes to ST Express bus fare.

We were just informed that the Sound Transit board will discuss a “fare simplification/coordination and rate change” proposal at this Thursday’s board meeting Operations and Administration Committe. The initial draft of the fare proposal can be found here. Information about the meeting can be found here.

From my cursory skimming of the proposal the biggest news is not the fare changes themselves; as ST’s fare have only increased once since 1999 compared to four times with CT, Metro and PT. Rather the big news is the structural changes underlying them. ST Express bus service would see the largest structural changes, shifting from a Sound Transit subarea basis to a county basis.

The image above outlines the proposed changes to fare structure as well as price. I’m under the impression that this structural change is an effort to bring ST’s fare structure more in line with the county operated transit operators. In coordination with county agencies this could possibly leading to a harmonized although not necessarily unified fare structure.

The other change is to increase Link’s base fare by $0.25 cents and eliminating the distance-based portion of the fare for youth and senior/disabled. This will cut the number of possible link fares in half from 12 to 6 and bring youth and senior fares in line with Metro’s bus fares next year.

The Seattle Times will have a story with interviews tomorrow and I’m sure Martin will contribute more analysis in the coming days, especially since he wrote about fares here just a few days ago.

I’ll just leave you with a few thoughts. To me there are three competing objectives when designing fare structures; equity, ease of use, and system efficiency. Depending on the historical precedence and context of the transit system these competing objectives lead to different fare structures. Flat fares are easy to use but create large winners and losers and don’t manage demand well. Zone based systems are harder to understand, make the system more fair and more efficient. Distance based fares are complex, more fair and more or less lead to efficient use of the transit supply. In Seattle’s context equity and ease of use will be the two competing objectives that will shape any fare structure change. Stay tuned for more details in the coming days.

Should Drivers have Plexiglas Barriers?

[UPDATE 8:00 am: This TV report provides some video of what the shields look like.  It’s hardly an airtight seal.]

The Seattle PI reports that Metro will install Plexiglas barriers between drivers and passengers in a handful of buses as a trial run.

After a bus driver was beaten and knocked unconscious while behind the wheel, officials with King County Metro Transit are exploring whether to enclose drivers behind Plexiglas barriers.

As a pilot project, security partitions will be installed in a small number of buses, General Manager Kevin Desmond said. More details, including costs, will be announced in the next few weeks, he said.

I’m not so sure that Metro’s limited dollars should be going to Plexiglas barriers. As the article notes, a barrier could cement a notion that buses are unsafe. And if a passenger’s first source of aid is behind a barrier, wouldn’t that make one feel less protected? While bus drivers can go through dangerous parts of town, it stands to reason that if a bus is an unsafe place to be then passengers and not just drivers should be protected. That means things like security cameras and a random police presence could be more effective for overall safety than Plexiglas barriers for drivers.

Route 28 Stop Consolidation

Route 28 (click to enlarge)

Route 28 is going through the same stop reduction process the 7, 16, 48, and 120 have over the last few years.  A total of 134 stops between Denny and N 145th St, spaced an average of 760 feet apart, will be pared down to 56 with a 1,300 foot (1/4 mile) interval.  On busy routes, stop reductions save time and therefore money, while improving the experience for most riders.

Comments about the stop closures can be submitted by phone to (206) 296-4511 or by email (with “Route 28” in the subject line) to

The reduction will be implemented on April 4th.  A complete list of stops scheduled for the axe is below the jump.

H/T: Commenter “Guest”

Continue reading “Route 28 Stop Consolidation”

Sunday Open Thread: Moving through Metro

My hometown system…

[UPDATE: A few points I should have made yesterday:

  • It’s interesting to consider that DC decided to move forward on this system at about the same time Seattle rejected starting theirs.  The difference, I think, is an institutional setup where elected leaders make decisions, rather than one where they have to go to the ballot for (super-)majorities for nearly every budgetary decision.
  • DC has a similarly balkanized system: spanning two states and one-quasi state, WMATA runs the subway and some regional buses; then you have at least five county agencies running buses, and two different states running their own commuter trains.
  • Seattle Times editors: please count the newspapers in the video.]

A Modest Fare Proposal

Sound Transit Fare Zones

The last fare thread had a lot of complaining about differential fares between agencies.  And although ORCA is intended to smooth over that complexity, in ideal world similar service would cost the same on each agency.

Judging from the comments, people seem to think this is really important.  An interesting way to judge the actual priority people are willing to give an issue is to trade it off against other priorities.  As it so happens, people hate fare increases, and given widespread budget crises there’s no way agencies are cutting fares.  So here’s a thought experiment that gives everyone the fare parity they value so highly, while also raising some cash for transit:

  1. Everyone adopts the Sound Transit fare zone map, with a new fare zone created for Snohomish County outside the ST district.  Other outlying areas can be absorbed into the adjacent fare zones.
  2. The unified fare system adopts the highest fares at each level.  For adults at peak times, that’s $2.25 1-zone, $3.50 2-zone, and $4.50 3-zone.  Off-peak, it’s $2.00/$2.50/$3.00.
  3. If you like, raise Link fares 80 cents and .5 cents a mile to match Sounder.  Use the same structure for the SLUT and Tacoma Link.
  4. Form a regional fare board to approve all future fare changes.

Longtime readers know that I don’t wring my hands much over fare increases to plug the budget gap, because a large part of the burden is actually borne by employers and the federal government.  What reservations I do have would be swept away by a more systematic way to get reduced fare passes in the hands of people who need them.  On the other hand, I’m not convinced the reduced complexity would really be worth the ridership declines you’d create.