Posts Tagged ‘transit’

Out with the viaduct … in with I-605?

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Replacing the viaduct with a surface streets could stall traffic downtown.
Replacing the viaduct with the surface-and-transit option could stall traffic downtown and encourage highway construction elsewhere.

The current mayoral race has placed the viaduct-replacement issue squarely back into the public limelight after most of us thought the issue had been put to bed, what with the governor’s and Legislature’s approval of the deep-bore tunnel option, as well as the accompanying funding commitments.

Both mayoral candidates have raised the issue of the viaduct replacement, with one issuing renewed and strident calls to reconsider the surface-and-transit option.

While the surface-and-transit option seems to be readily embraced by the nominally environmentally conscious activists, I’ve been wondering recently if their concerns may not be both overly simplistic and somewhat shortsighted, as well as possibly self-defeating.

We have heard and read much discussion in the media about the relative validity of arguments on both sides of the issue of whether the throughput of the existing Alaskan Way Viaduct can reasonably be reduced and/or otherwise accommodated by surface streets.  Activists promote the notion that greater and more attractive transit options will remove a certain amount of the vehicle traffic, leaving the remainder to be accommodated by an enhanced network of the existing surface streets.  Detractors protest that most of the throughput traffic is not transit-compatible and that diverting a huge volume of additional traffic onto the surface streets will create gridlock all day long on virtually all downtown Seattle streets.  These issues have been volleyed back and forth in the public debate ad nauseam, but there’s one additional concern that I have been discussing lately that I have not yet seen much coverage on.

Sharing the concern that simply cutting off one of our region’s major north-south highways will reduce downtown Seattle’s streets to a virtual standstill during most daylight hours, I wonder what impact the sharply exacerbated choke point of downtown Seattle within the Puget Sound area’s north-south regional transportation corridor would have on the pressure to consider future road-building in suburbia and exurbia?

You may remember that every few years pro-development forces on the Eastside raise the issue of the “Foothills Freeway,” or I-605, that would consist of a more distant loop around the easternmost edge of our metropolitan area.  If north-south circulation through the metro area is even further complicated by the removal of one of the region’s vital north-south highways, the I-605 promoters would essentially be offered more fuel for their fire.  Constant gridlock on I-5 and the downtown Seattle streets, coupled with the congestion already on I-405, could lead to a ready-made argument in favor of efforts to pursue an I-605.

And we need to ask: Even if some magical combination of street improvements and synchronized traffic signals could accommodate the existing Highway 99 flow through downtown (which I do not believe is possible), what about future growth?  Do the streets-and-transit promoters think the region will stop growing?

Now, in addition to the already oft-mentioned litany of environmental impacts from potentially gridlocked downtown Seattle streets (i.e., substantially increased vehicle idling and resulting air pollution, increased noise, and a markedly diminished pedestrian environment), we could add the potential consequence that the loss of the Highway 99 corridor through downtown Seattle could lead to the development of I-605.  Any environmentally conscious individual knows that the construction of a major new freeway in any metropolitan area literally paves the way to urbanization in its path.  Is that what we want virtually on the slopes of the Cascades?

Mayor Nickels, Gov. Gregoire and the state Legislature all recognized, and thankfully so, that the viaduct should not be replaced with a new modern-age monstrosity along our waterfront.  They also recognized that the vital transportation corridor that Highway 99 plays not only in Seattle, but in our entire region,  must be preserved.  The tunnel was and is the only option that accomplishes both noble objectives.  Environmental activists need to look beyond their Seattle-centric view of the world and see that Highway 99 is not just a Seattle problem, but a regionwide problem.  And the potential, long-term environmental impacts of the streets-and-transit option are far greater than the theoretical, short-term reduction of vehicle trips that that option is purported to create.

Weigh in on light rail neighborhood plans

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

DPD is in the midst of a series of public meetings on neighborhood plan updates in the works for neighborhoods that will soon have link light rail stations.

A meeting will be held on North Rainier Valley ( the Mt. Baker station area) from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday at Franklin High School at 3013 S. Mount Baker Blvd.

Another will be held on North Beacon Hill  (the Beacon Hill station area) from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 28 at El Centro de la Raza at 2524-16th Avenue S.

Next bus: 5 minutes

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

Way back in 2002, I lived in an apartment in East Portland just off Burnside Street. At first, I thought the proximity to Burnside would be kind of a bummer (the nearby Sandy Hut notwithstanding). But after I few days, I realized that my location meant I would never need a bus schedule again. That’s because I could see the bus stop’s digital display from my apartment hallway. Once it read “4 minutes,” it was time for me to grab my bag and head out the door.

The best bus schedules are those that tell you when the bus will actually be there, and a printed schedule, even if its online, isn’t always a good place to find that information. Does such a thing really matter? Many people who ride the bus are minutes from their stop, and they don’t want to stand out in the rain inhaling gas fumes for five minutes. And seeing a line of people in the rain waiting for their bus and inhaling gas fumes definitely isn’t going to get other people out of their cars.

But if you live in Seattle rather than Portland, and you ride the bus, you do have options. Some of you might already know about My Bus, but I only recently realized it was a real thing and not some mock-up. Choose your bus number and stop location, or search by neighborhood to see when buses are likely to arrive. It also tells you when the last bus left, so you can track your loved ones or, if you’re feeling really wonky, do some calculations on whether the 7:57 is consistently so late that you might as well just stick with the 8:13 and squeeze in some extra minutes of sleep.

The best part: It looks like they actually have more stops listed than on Metro’s site. Sometimes, when you’re taking an unfamiliar route, it’s nice to know where the actual stops will be rather than just guessing based on a route map or having to use the Trip Planner just to find out where the stops are.

They’ve got apps for web-enabled phones and texting options, too. I’m going to start using it and see how it goes. If anyone’s already using mybus, let me know if you’re really spending less time standing in the rain.

A reader also alerts me to the presence of One Bus Away, though I haven’t had much chance to explore that yet.  It has a call-in, SMS and iPhone-special version options.

Oh, and if you plan to stay in Seattle for a few more years, Metro plans to have real-time displays on its five Rapid Ride routes, starting in 2010 from Federal Way to Tukwila. Ballard and West Seattle routes will come online a few years later…

Saving bus service actually helps the economy

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

By now, most of us have heard Metro’s grim warning of a $100 million funding decline next year, and a potential 20 percent cut in service. We’ve also heard that an increase in local taxing authority might be a solution to keep our service. If it’s Thursday morning, the anti-tax, anti-transit crowd is undoubtedly out in full force. If history is an indicator, their arguments are hollow.

They’re probably saying more taxes will make the economy worse, and asking how we could even consider such a thing, and don’t we want to be business-friendly?

They’re backwards. Saving bus service will help us IMPROVE our economy, and improve a lot of people’s lives, even if requires a tax increase.

Of course, Metro hasn’t mentioned a tax increase per se, just maintaining a similar amount of revenue via a higher rate. But it’ll be argued as such.

With decent bus service, more people can leave their cars at home, saving operation and parking costs and wear and tear, and keeping away from the financial cliff. Transit gives people the option to not have cars at all, which can make poor people middle class. Anyone need reminding on the importance of saving individuals on the brink for the good of the rest of us?

Businesses are increasingly locating where the transit is good, because transit helps them attract employees. This is a major reason most office construction and tenants stick to a few urban districts in our region, and those in other areas are asking for better transit. Even if the boss doesn’t use it, the rank and file often do. I’ve heard 60 percent of my office uses transit at least sometimes, aided by our Downtown location.

Financial benefits to the region as a whole are less immediate but even more significant. We save tax dollars in the long run because good transit lets us reduce the amount we spend on road capacity, where our wish list is in the tens of billions because road capacity is outrageously expensive. Consumers end up saving because transit can reduce the amount of parking required (or wanted) for everything we spend money on. For example, the City of Seattle has reduced parking requirements for housing in a few areas, often saving tens of thousands of dollars per unit. Why throw these advances away?

Transit helps the nation use energy and materials more efficiently, from steel and leather to gas and oil. True, our whole metro is 1 percent of the country, but we can be part of the solution. Between the materials to produce the car and the resources to operate it, even a US-made hybrid sends money overseas hand over fist. We reduced oil demand when prices rose; again, why throw that away?

It’s hard to tell where the economy will go, and where tax revenues will go. Maybe things won’t be so bad. But count me as one who’s happy to vote yes if necessary to keep our bus service…and to stay up way too late tonight to write this.

Musings on affordability

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

We often hear the “30% of income” statistic used to define housing affordability. This is clearly inadequate. No one statistic will recognize our wide variables in lifestyle and situation. A suitable housing cost can be very different, for example, if a person doesn’t have a car, has a big family, doesn’t have a family, eats for free at a restaurant job, spends half their income on medical bills, etc.

If your expenses are mostly housing and food, paying 30% for housing seems downright quaint, however admirable and however great for retirement savings.

If a single metric is useful, how about 50% for housing plus transportation? It’s not perfect, but it’s much closer to the truth for pretty much everyone.

Local governments can do great things to encourage affordability. Some are happening now, and some aren’t.

First, take this...
Helping people live well without cars is a big start. It’s already easy for some people, but not enough. This means more housing near jobs and near transit, as well as better transit. It means corner stores, supermarkets, and other conveniences. Car sharing, taxis, and bike routes all help. We don’t have enough taxis because we don’t have enough customers, partially because we don’t have enough taxis. Again I’ll recommend a Seattle-only measure to increase bus service, since many neighborhoods are barely touched by Metro’s and Sound Transit’s planned improvements, and never will be with the 80/20 requirement.

Housing construction is expensive, and some of it is our own fault. Buildable sites are expensive because not enough land is zoned higher than what’s already there. Seattle’s famous “process” adds significant cost and risk for every project. We’re tacking on massive new fees onto projects above the older zoned heights. We’re disincentivizing new construction even though new supply is our greatest weapon to avoid SF/NY prices.

More on that: I don’t mean the new supply is affordable, because construction is expensive. But new supply means less demand for the old supply. That allows the old supply to gradually become cheaper over the years. That’s why the middle-class housing of 1920 or 1970 is generally more affordable today. (And the opposite is why similar housing in San Francisco or Manhattan is still outrageously expensive.)

Major kudos to the City for reducing parking requirements. This is already paying off as developers are developing parking in line with demand, rather than the average nimby’s idea of demand. The savings are dramatic for every space not built, and some projects that didn’t pencil with 25 spaces now pencil with 20 (with garage geometries, even one added space will sometimes trigger new costs in the hundreds of thousands).

In the third-rail department, our own expectations are part of the problem. In the US we tend to think 2,000 square feet is necessary for a family, and 800 square feet is barely livable for an individual. Basically we think we’re entitled to what much of the world would consider out-of-reach luxury. Why can’t a couple with two kids live in a two-bedroom apartment on a quiet street a few blocks from a park, at least until their careers advance a little?

Seattle is getting WAY better

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

Is Seattle getting better? Well…yeah. In my own mind this is so clear that the question is always a surprise.

The discussion is generally about pace of growth. It’s easy to understand slow-growthers’ points, like how cheap everything used to be, the comfort of the familiar, or the ease of parking.

But it’s the big-city traits that impress me, like density, walkability, transit, diversity, and energy. One of the great journeys of life is watching this city turn into something greater.

Some of our neighborhood business and mixed-use districts had better retail in the 70s and 80s, but way fewer people lived there, and these places tended to lack energy. Yes there was parking — it dominated the fringes of many areas, like moats of nothingness. Seattle (in-town) has grown by over 20% since we bottomed out in 1986, and a lot of the growth has gone to urban villages. The difference is even more stark in greater Downtown, where many edge neighborhoods were wastelands.

Of course more stuff in proximity usually means greater walkability. We have physical and policy problems there (the City often doesn’t walk its talk),  but we did then, too.

We’re finally getting light rail, and not just a line but a network. Each new line magnifies the value of the lines that connect to it. Our bus service is less exciting, with service far too limited, due in large part to the 80/20 rule. Because the County might never sober up, we need Seattle to subsidize buses the way the State subsidizes Amtrak, possibly with a levy.

We’ve improved immeasurably on the diversity front. While we’ve lost ground on some fronts as the poor areas have edged southward, Seattle has also had big influxes, such as Vietnamese, Russians, Ethiopians, and others. Today’s Seattle is more worldly and interesting, and as Microsoft can tell you, we’ve gained priceless talent (which I hope we don’t lose due to misguided immigration law).

Parks are another improvement area. Downtown still lacks central green space, but the edges are doing better.

By the way, here is Stephen Cysewski’s astonishingly cool photo collection about Seattle in the 70s and 80s.

They’re driving me crazy

Monday, October 13th, 2008

When drivers’ manners and safety are discussed, it’s generally about their impacts on each other. But ask anyone who walks – the whims of drivers have huge effects on pedestrians.

I admit to some bias as a constant pedestrian and non-driver. To be honest, I’m pissed.

Typical scene at Second & Spring

It’s not just the big stuff like red-light runners, speeders, and drivers that turn without looking right. All of those can kill or maim pedestrians. Why offenders are allowed to keep their licenses is a mystery.

It’s also the subtle rudeness. My special pet peeve is cars that edge into crosswalks at red lights. This doesn’t endanger (necessarily) but still manages to convey…that the driver doesn’t care about others, that they aren’t qualified to drive, that cars are more important, who knows.

For 20 years, my response has been to touch every car in every crosswalk. Some drivers don’t like that, which is exactly the point. If they look like they might turn without looking, they get a couple taps on the hood. They like that even less, but maybe they’ll think twice next time.

Cars parked on sidewalks are equally annoying. Again, they’re (usually) not safety hazards, except when they force people to walk in traffic, but aside from some rare scenarios (giving birth perhaps?) it’s always rude. Architects are well-schooled in symbolism – maybe one of you can weigh in here.

Drivers don’t want pedestrians to take over lanes of Fourth Avenue. And we don’t plan to — it would be both dangerous and rude, as well as illegal. It goes both ways.

P.S. We’ve done a good job cracking down on drunk drivers. But isn’t rude and dangerous driving just as bad when the driver isn’t drunk?

P.S.2 Thanks to anyone who drives with pedestrians in mind.

Ride Transit, Save $8,400

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

You might have read that Seattle transit users save an average of $8,400 annually compared to drivers. That’s according to a recent study that assumed transit users have one less car.

$8,400 is quite a figure! Is it true? Who knows, but the approach looks reasonable.

Better than clipping coupons

It’s good to think about this. We talk endlessly about housing costs and taxes, but personal transportation costs were hardly mentioned until gas hit $3. Even now, people aren’t necessarily connecting the dots: Transportation is a variable expense, and ditching the car (or using it less) can save you a bundle.

We often hear that 30 percent of income should be used to calculate housing affordabilty. But that assumes big transportation expenses. I’d argue that a combined figure for housing and transportation is a better metric. Perhaps a number like 45 percent is reasonable for both.

We Downtown residents often hear that we’re paying too much for housing. So we explain that many of us are actually pretty thrifty, all things considered. In fact, we often save far more than $8,400, because we ride in the free zone, or walk, rather than buying bus passes. We can even rent out our parking spaces.

That said, you don’t need to be in the center of town to make transit convenient. Any bus that goes past work probably goes past residential areas. Even if those areas cost a few hundred bucks more, maybe it’s worth it.

Now we just need more transit!