Time to Hand Over Your Car Lanes, Seattle Drivers

Martin Duke at Seattle Transit Blog has a post up today that laments the failure of Proposition 1, which will cut 550,000 service hours from King County Metro's bus service, and it includes this important point (emphasis mine):

One effect of the cuts will to be consolidate desirable service into a few trunk lines. It is more important than ever that these lines function effectively to avoid the total collapse of the system. In these corridors, cities must ignore complaints from other stakeholders and remove parking or general-purpose lanes to ensure these buses are not stuck in traffic. Moreover, future city transportation levies must invest in priority treatments for buses. The returns from these projects are often astronomical, and if anything the case for them has improved.

With a massive reduction in service hours, Metro must take other measures to ensure their transit services remain viable and convenient to as many users as possible. Converting mixed-use lanes to bus-only lanes is the best way to do this. There are going to be even more cars on Seattle roads when these cuts take effect, and commuters that continue using the bus will suffer as much as anyone, stuck in overfull vehicles behind the tens of thousands of cars clogging up local streets.

A majority of the county's drivers have made it clear that they're not interested in paying any additional money to support the transportation network in their cities, even when 40 percent of Prop 1 revenues would have gone to road maintenance. The average driver only pays a few hundred dollars a year in state gas taxes (which haven't increased since 2008), and current vehicle licensing fees are laughable relative to the needs of our transportation network. Transit users, on the other hand, have seen their fares increase by 80 percent in the past five years, or about $600 annually. It's time to turn over some of those roads to those that are actually willing to pay for them. The case has always been strong for more bus lanes in Seattle, but now it's imperative.

Is It Time to Go Eyman on the Washington State's Transportation Funding Authority?

King County Metro is headed downhill after tonight's vote. Photo from this video.

Given the impending failure of Proposition 1—the measure meant to save King County Metro from a crippling 17 percent cut—is it now time to reconsider the state's role in transportation funding altogether? The ultimate blame for this failure lies with the state legislature, with it's Republican-led senate, which denied the County the right to adopt more progressive (and more popular) revenue measures. As a result of their failure of leadership, King County had no choice but to propose a regressive, unpopular car tab fee paired with a sales tax increase, and here we are.

This is very much a hare-brained scheme at this point, written more out of sadness and frustration for my home state than any kind of serious intellectual exercise, but perhaps we can take a page out of Tim "I hate government" Eyman's book. People in Washington have been shown in the past to have something of a libertarian streak, so maybe it's time to turn that impulse to a pro-transit purpose and revert transportation funding authority to the county level. Local control! Local control! According to WSDOT, about half of fuel tax funds already go to cities and counties, so why not send them the rest, too?

Not all funding, perhaps, but most of it. The state has a built-out network of interstates and highways, and any additional spending is generally just (extremely expensive) tinkering at the edges. They do rn the state ferry system, which is justifiable and worthy of funding, but most everything else they do could be done by counties. Giving most of that money directly to the counties would probably result in less waste on mega-projects and more thoughtful, high impact expenditures on transit and active transportation resources.

Photo fro kirotv.com.

The initiative, as I imagine it, would ask voters to decide whether all (or most) gas tax revenues should be diverted, after collection, directly to the city/county governments' departments of transportation. It would maintain all existing revenue sources, but divert those related to transportation away from the state. It would also transfer the authority to raise or lower gas taxes to the county level (if this is legal). It might also transfer authority to set other revenue sources for transportation (if this is legal), but I have a feeling this might reduce support for the initiative, as it could scare some people into thinking their local government would go crazy on the revenue proposals.

The main question for me is in the 18th Amendment to the Washington State Constitution, since it's invulnerable to citizen initiative. It says the following:

All fees collected by the State of Washington as license fees for motor vehicles and all excise taxes collected by the State of Washington on the sale, distribution or use of motor vehicle fuel and all other state revenue intended to be used for highway purposes, shall be paid into the state treasury and placed in a special fund to be used exclusively for highway purposes.

That special fund is interesting, but on the face of it I don't see why you couldn't give the cities and counties 90 percent of gas tax revenue if they're already receiving 50 percent. The Amendment also says that funds must be used for highway purposes, so it probably couldn't be used for things like new buses, transit tunnels, or light rail. But this Seattle Transit Blog article notes that "highway purposes" includes the "construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, and betterment of public highways, county roads, bridges and city streets," so it sounds like anything from regular maintenance to marking out new bus lanes could be acceptable—even bus stops and real-time arrival signs could be justified under a liberal interpretation of "streets."

This is all just musing at this point, and I'm far from a legal scholar on this or any other issue, so I'm really curious to hear what others think. Is this legally and technically feasible? Even if it is, is it a good idea, or would it just make things worse? Could it have some terrible consequence that I'm not seeing? Would it even pass? What else could be done in lieu of this solution that would improve on the status quo? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Seattle Transit Service Hasn't Gotten Worse, It's Just Different (And Probably Better)


 I found out just before publishing this that Sightline had already written a similar post this morning, but there's a little divergence in our conclusions and our focus, so hopefully this adds something to the discussion.


A new report from Transit Score is out (they also run Walk Score), and the news isn't good in Seattle. Since 2012, Seattle's Transit Score dropped from 59 to 57, the largest drop of any city in the top 25 (Seattle's #7 rank was unchanged). One of the biggest changes to service over past two years has been the rollout of the sorta-BRT RapidRide service, so naturally, the Seattle Times is asking: Has RapidRide helped or hurt Seattle bus service?

It depends on what you value. If you've read anything from Jarrett Walker's blog Human Transit (and if you're reading this, you probably have), you're aware that transit agencies have many choices about how they serve the public, and that they have to balance coverage with ridership. (Walker has a good summary of the issue here.) At the extremes, you can provide infrequent service to the entire regional area (maximum coverage), or you can focus 100% of your resources into the highest-ridership routes available (maximum ridership/efficiency). In practice, all transit agencies fall somewhere between these extremes, and Seattle is no different.

In the case of RapidRide, the goal was to emulate some of the characteristics of bus rapid transit, i.e., greater stop spacing, off-board fare payment, dedicated bus lanes, and increased frequency. RapidRide was implemented in high-(bus)-traffic corridors to get the most bang for the buck, both in terms of ridership and congestion mitigation. Investing in the buses and physical infrastructure of these routes costs money, so some low-usage routes were eliminated to pay for it (hailed by some, scorned by others). In other words, King County Metro made a decision to increase efficiency at the expense of some coverage.

Was this the right decision? I would argue yes; I'm sure quite a few people would argue no. In a city where a growing share of residents are living in a relatively small geographical areaand those residents are far less likely to own cars—the case for consolidated, high-frequency transit service grows stronger and the benefits of coverage decline. That doesn't mean that we should move to the extreme of maximum efficiency, minimum coverage service, or that coverage has no value. It just means that in a world of scarce resources we have to make value judgments, and we've chosen to emphasize service where more people will benefit from it.

TransitScore's methodology isn't explicit, but two of its measures seem to pretty clearly put a premium on coverage: first, the score itself is a sum of all routes, and each score is modified vehicle type (rail, ferry, bus, etc.), frequency, and how far away the nearest stop is. Notice that this doesn't take into account ridership, and although they don't say exactly what the distance penalty or frequency bonuses are, it seems likely that having a bunch of low-frequency bus routes nearby probably gets you a better score than one or two high-frequency routes. 

Second, and more simply, Transit Score penalizes bus stops that are further away from people's homes, and stop consolidation inevitably increases the average distance to a bus stop. If I remove half the stops along a route, some people will have to walk further to get to or from their nearest stop, and no one has a shorter walk:

So yeah, maybe it kind of sucks for that guy. But while Transit Score considers this a purely negative change, stop consolidation serves a purpose: it reduces the amount of time the bus sits at stops loading or unloading passengers. It's especially beneficial to people riding long distances and can significantly speed up commute times, bringing them closer to parity with cars. This isn't to say that stop consolidation is always good, or that there aren't benefits to having frequent stops. Stop spacing really is just a derivative of the coverage issue, so once again, it's about values. 

Transit Score's algorithm seems to value coverage above speed or efficiency, but that's just one way to balance these two competing concerns, and there are as many alternatives as there are people. If you're one of the relatively few who lost out in the recent restructurings, you're likely to agree with the decline in Seattle's score, and I can't really fault you for that. But while some people will win and others will lose any time these types of changes occur, I'm pretty confident that the winners significantly outnumber the losers here, and I think that's a change for the better.


 In advance of any accusations of racial insensitivity, I did want to recognize that many of the routes eliminated were in lower-income areas disproportionately represented by racial and ethnic minorities. I think that's worth looking into, but I also want to make the point that a lot of the route reduction occurred because the opening of the Central Link light rail system made many of those routes duplicative and redundant. It may be more accurate to look at the neighborhood scores in Central and Southeast Seattle prior to 2014 as artificially inflated by these duplicative services, and to view their new, lower scores as a more accurate reflection of the actual quality of service that's prevailed since Central Link opened.

Quote: Why We Need More Growth In Cities

Roger Valdez from Smart Growth Seattle was at a community meeting yesterday, the topic of which (sadly) was downzoning one of the most booming and popular neighborhoods in Seattle, Capitol Hill. Via Facebook, he passed along this quote from a young person who sees the true value in new construction, and why places like Capitol Hill need to be epicenters for continued growth. It was so well said, and personal, that I wanted to share it here as well: 
"I also want to bring something else in that I think a lot of us are losing track of.

I think many of you feel that your values are slipping away, that the community is changing and that there is nothing you can do. But I actually see that happening in a different way.

I think that we need to stop and ask ourselves a question: why do you want to live in Capitol Hill? Why do people who are my age move here to Capitol Hill? Why do we move to Seattle when we could live in other cities – the weather is dreadful! So there are other things about here that are bringing us here. And the main thing that I think it is, what it all boils down to, is our spirit of inclusiveness.

That was my story. I moved here from my small town that I grew up in. I wouldn’t dare get caught dead walking down the street holding hands with another man. And Capitol Hill was the neighborhood that really called out to me – “that’s where I want to live!” And I think there a bunch of other people out there like me.

I just want to talk about the trade offs inherent in what we’re doing and what this process is . . . there are trade offs. There are multiple sides to what we’re doing here.

To restrict growth whether either because of fear of change of fear of losing our parking spot, really, I think, goes against our culture of inclusiveness, against what makes Seattle what it is, what makes Capitol Hill what it is.

By restricting growth we’re essentially telling people you can only live here if you have enough income to get a mortgage on a single family home or pay crazy high rents because there are just so many more people looking for apartments here than there are apartments in the market.

If inclusiveness is our competitive advantage as a city, which I believe it is, then we should be doing everything we can to accommodate growth here, in the right form, in both this neighborhood and other neighborhoods around Seattle with similar characteristics. We should be welcoming growth not pushing people away, not condemning them to live across the lake or places that are less awesome than this.

…that’s who we are as a city.

Keep my face in your mind. We’re the people who want to move into the apartments in neighborhoods like this, to make it a better place. We can all change together.

Thank you."

34th and Stone: the Burke-Gilman's most dangerous intersection?

The Burke-Gilman trail is an incredible transportation and recreational resource for the city of Seattle. Not only do I (along with hundreds if not thousands of others) use it nearly every day for commuting to work from Ballard, I also credit it with getting me back into riding my bicycle several years ago. Jumping straight into riding the streets of Seattle was daunting after growing up in the suburbs and not getting on a bike since my sixteenth birthday; the Burke-Gilman offered me a safe, comfortable place to regain my skills and ultimately opened up the rest of the city to me and my bike.

With special concern for newer riders, and those who are just new to the Burke-Gilman, I have to draw attention to the very unsafe conditions in Fremont at North 34th St and Stone Way. Anyone who's biked through here is probably familiar with the problem. I was motivated to write this post after seeing a bicyclist come within a few inches of being hit by a taxi today, and while I'm tempted to blame the generally manic and dangerous driving of cab drivers here, the fact is that neither the driver nor the bicyclist really did anything egregiously wrong. To see why, we need to look at the intersection.

First, here's the view headed westbound on the Burke Gilman:

Westbound view. A = Burke-Gilman trail, B = car lane.

Westbound view. A = Burke-Gilman trail, B = car lane.

I've marked the lanes in question with letters: the space below the "A" between the fence and the dark building is the Burke-Gilman trail, and the space below the "B" is the eastbound car lane. What you can probably gather from this image is that the people going eastbound on the Burke-Gilman (i.e., toward me, traveling down the "A" lane) can't see what's going on in the "B" lane as they approach the crosswalk. 

The following image illustrates the scale of this blind spot even better:

Eastbound view, with crosswalk displaying walk symbol.

Eastbound view, with crosswalk displaying walk symbol.

For more than 100 feet the bicyclist is unable to see what's going on in the car lane, and vice versa. The problem is actually worse than that, since the car lane is at a higher elevation than the trail up until the building blocks the view, so neither drivers nor bicyclists have any idea what to expect until they get to the crosswalk. And as I highlighted in the above image, the bicyclist is sometimes being told during the length of this blind spot that he or she is cleared to ride through the crosswalk.

Here's what it looks like from the eastbound car lane, at the stop line on 34th St. at Stone Way:

View from eastbound car lane. The trail is behind the Solsticio building, and the presence of bicyclists on both sides of it may further confuse drivers.

View from eastbound car lane. The trail is behind the Solsticio building, and the presence of bicyclists on both sides of it may further confuse drivers.

The reason this is a problem, of course, is that crosswalk signals tend to say "walk" when the parallel vehicle lanes's traffic lights are green, so cars can and do take right turns through the crosswalk while bicyclists and pedestrians are using it. And although I'm sure it's technically illegal for a car to take a right turn through a crosswalk without taking due care to look for pedestrians and bicyclists, in practice this isn't done very easily; drivers really can't see who might be coming up from behind that Solsticio building without already starting to encroach on the crosswalk. I'm certainly not trying to defend their actions, but this is at least partially the fault of the road design making it very difficult to see potential hazards (i.e., people).

On the flip side, some of the blame goes to bicyclists who don't slow down enough while moving through the crosswalk. (I'm guilty of this.) Even with a walk signal it's a very risky move to roll through a crosswalk at 15 mph or more when cars just a few feet away have a green light to pass through the crosswalk. We can get indignant about the fact that we have the greater right to the space, and we probably should, but that doesn't change the fact that if there's a collision we're the ones getting hurt.

Currently, the crosswalk signal only says "walk" for a portion of the time that the parallel car lanes are green, so in theory bikes and pedestrians get their chance to get through then cars get theirs. In reality this is a very busy, often backed-up road for cars, and if they see what looks like a clear crosswalk during the walk signal period they're usually going to go for it. If it hasn't happened already (and I'd be very surprised if that were the case), it's just a matter of time before someone is hit and possibly seriously injured. And it's especially likely to be a bicyclist who doesn't know to be wary of cars they can't see until the last minute. Something needs to be done.

What should it be? I'm not sure. Because of the amount of traffic on 34th St during rush hours and the lack of a right-turn-only lane it seems unlikely that we'll see any kind of partial limitations on right turns--if they were prevented until the crosswalk signal said "stop" you'd end up with the one driver waiting to turn blocking dozens of cars behind him for half the duration of the green light. I don't honestly care what the solution is as long as it works, but the first idea that comes to mind is to eliminate all right turns from the eastbound lane of 34th St.:

Alternate route for 34th St drivers, along N Northlake Pl.

At worst this would divert drivers a few blocks, and, based on my own anecdotal experience, many of them are headed east of Gas Works park (which starts at the bottom right of the above map) anyway. A possible compromise could be engineered in which drivers can take a right at Stone Way during the car-only phase but must travel through otherwise, but that might be overly complex. 

Regardless of the solution, the city needs to take a look at this and start work on a solution. If the several near-misses I've seen in the past few months are any indication, the status quo is a serious accident waiting to happen.