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Matt Loar

Software Engineer
Transit Nerd
World Traveller

Belltown-Uptown Transit Improvement Open House

Posted 06 Aug 2013 in transit

SDOT has just announced an open house for the Belltown-Uptown Transit Improvement Project on August 21st from 4-6 PM at the Urban Oasis Cafe, 2929 1st Avenue.

Following the Broad Street BAT lane which was installed a few months ago, this round of improvements includes new trolley wire on Denny Way between 1st and 3rd for eastbound buses, so that southbound 1, 2, and 13 buses can skip the dog-leg on 1st and Broad with its attendant unprotected left turn.

Excitingly, this project would also eliminate the terribly substandard stop at Warren and Denny in favor of a new stop just west of 2nd Avenue next to the Cisco building. This new stop would also have a shelter. I contacted SDOT and they confirmed that Metro will close the stop at 3rd and Broad (in the triangular parklet) and the 8 will serve this new stop.

Construction is planned for Fall, with Metro switching over as part of the February service change.

More information is available from the SDOT flyer.

draft2github: a Webhook for Draft and GitHub Pages

Posted 02 Jul 2013 in software

Lately I've starting using Draft, a neat Markdown-based online text editor with built-in versioning by Nate Kontny.

Recently he added WebHooks support for publishing to places not natively supported. I recently moved my blog to GitHub Pages, and I thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to publish directly from Draft?"

A few hours later, I have draft2github, a Node.js-based WebHook server to do just that. This post was published using it - hopefully the first of many in the near future.

Metro's Kevin Desmond: I Give Up

Posted 01 Apr 2013 in transit

[This was originally posted on my Angry Transit Nerd blog.]

SEATTLE - At a press conference this morning, ostensibly called to discuss looming cuts to bus service, King County Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond shocked reporters by launching into a tirade against the Washington State Legislature and his bosses on the Metropolitan King County Council.

He began by presenting a map showing potential reductions in service across the county. "So Shoreline, yeah, they're fucked. Wedgwood, Laurelhurst, fucked. Burien, totally fucked."

He then lambasted the Legislature for passing only a temporary funding source in 2011, setting the stage for the current crisis. "How the hell am I supposed to do long-term planning for regional growth when I don't know if the rug will be pulled out from under me next year? I keep getting complaints about overcrowded buses, and I can't do a damn thing about it. I'm not a fucking miracle worker. I can't turn water into wine and I can't turn shit into service hours. The motherfucking Legislature needs to stop using Metro as a political football and give me a funding source.

"And don't get me started on West Seattle. That backstabbing [Governor] Gregoire was supposed to get me an MVET as part of this tunnel deal, but she threw me under the bus at the first opportunity. Plus the measly mitigation funding is about to run out and the stupid tunnel boring machine isn't even in Seattle yet!"

Desmond then tore into the members of the King County Council, saying "They publicly order me to go find ways to cut costs, but then they pull me aside in the hallway and say, 'Don't touch the route that goes by my house, because my neighbor's father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate rides it sometimes. So leave it alone.'" Pounding his fist on the podium, he added "it's fucking bullshit."

He then announced another fare increase to take effect next year, stating "I'm forwarding every piece of hate mail I get about this to Larry Phillips. Every damn one."

Desmond then became even more agitated, announcing that he was "going back to New York where the politicians realize that transit costs money." He then shouted "Desmond out," dropped the microphone on the floor, and stormed out of the room.

As of press time, King County Executive Dow Constantine had not responded to a request for comment.

[If you haven't figured it out by now, this piece is satire. For serious coverage of the press conference that happened today, see West Seattle Blog. Happy April Fool's Day.]

Dissecting the New September Service Change Proposal

Posted 01 Feb 2012 in transit

[This was originally posted on my Angry Transit Nerd blog.]

Today Metro released an updated proposal for the September restructuring associated with the start of RapidRide C & D. The headline change is that they're deferring changes to the 26, 28X, 31, and 355X until the opening of RapidRide E, a sensible move. Notably, the Queen Anne-Madrona restructure that Bruce Nourish of the Seattle Transit Blog has written about a couple times remains intact. However, in response to concerns about the loss of service on 6th Ave W, Metro has apparently done what an STB commenter suggested:

Concerning West Queen Anne service, why not extend Route 1 to serve 6th Ave W and Queen Anne Ave and terminate at the current Route 3 terminal? People on 6th Ave would still have some service and could transfer during off peak times to either route at Queen Anne Ave/Boston St. It would also provide a one-seat ride for 6th Ave W residents to downtown Queen Anne.

However it looks like that comes at a price for Kinnear residents, as the proposal would reduce off-peak frequency to 30 minutes and night frequency to 30-60 minutes, from current levels of 20 minutes mid-day and half-hourly until midnight.

Other changes:

  • Route 5 would continue to operate on Aurora instead of moving to Dexter.
  • The 15X would be preserved to prevent overcrowding on the D Line during peak.
  • The 16 would be use a more direct routing to Northgate via North Seattle Community College.
  • The new Route 18 would continue to First Hill via Yesler Way.
  • New Route 40 has been renumbered Route 20 and would continue to the Admiral District, but would no longer have weekend service.
  • All-day service to Colman Park would be preserved on the 27, but the 27 would use Boren Avenue and Seneca/Spring to downtown instead of Yesler. This makes no sense.
  • Route 30 is off the chopping block, but would be truncated to only operate between the UW and Sand Point.
  • Route 33 would be interlined with the new incomprehensible Route 27 so that buses continue to turn off 3rd Avenue and get stuck in freeway traffic.
  • New Route 32 would use Stone Way instead of Wallingford Ave N, and W Mercer Place instead of Harrison in Uptown.
  • Route 37 saved from the chopping block with 4 morning and 4 afternoon peak trips.
  • Reduce peak frequency on the new Route 50 to 20-30 minutes.
  • Retain peak-hour trips on the 55 to prevent overcrowding on the C Line.
  • Make the 56X more express by travelling directly from Admiral Way to the West Seattle Freeway, skipping Chelan Ave SW.
  • No added service on Route 120.
  • Route 125 would continue to use the Viaduct instead of serving SODO, and would terminate at Westwood Village instead of backtracking to Alaska Junction.
  • Route 128 would continue to double back on itself to serve South Seattle Community College instead of continuing to Alaska Junction via SW Genesee Street.

In many cases this constitutes a watering-down of the ambitious original proposal. But in light of the histrionics on the King County Council on Monday over one lousy bus route, getting these changes approved will still remain an uphill battle.

Go Big or Go Home

Posted 23 Nov 2011 in transit

[This was originally posted on my Angry Transit Nerd blog.]

As I'm sure anyone who reads this blog is aware, two weeks ago Seattle voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 1, which would have paid for transit speed and reliability improvements as well as road repairs with a $60 car-tab fee.

There has been plenty of speculation about why it failed. I think it's true that a lot of people weren't clear on what they would get out of it. But more importantly, it was clear what they wouldn't: any meaningful improvement in Seattle's transit system.

"But half of it would have gone to transit!" you say. True, but to think that a few queue jumps would actually substantially improve mobility in this city is delusional. What's worse, the update to the Seattle Transit Master Plan shows that our city's leaders are also delusional. This process looks doomed not to produce a bold new direction for transit in Seattle, but rather to recommend a slew of expensive projects that will prove inadequate to handle the transportation needs of our growing city.

Don't believe me? Take a look at the current TMP draft [PDF]. On page 3-5, they discuss the modes evaluated in the study. You may notice that the highest-capacity mode considered is this oxymoronic "rapid streetcar" concept. What's a "rapid streetcar?" I'll tell you. It's when someone says "Oh, giving light rail trains their own lane is a huge hassle. Let's just give them a lane when it's convenient, and we'll just run them in traffic everywhere it really matters."

They spend all of page 3-6 trying to validate this concept by talking about the trams in cities in France with smaller populations, 70% gas taxes, and in the case of Lyon, a three-line subway system. I absolutely love their choice of photos:

Look at that "rapid streetcar" moving effortlessly through heavy downtown traffic!

Okay, so I've expressed my skepticism about this "rapid streetcar" concept. But the real fun starts on page 3-7, where they examine the three corridors deemed to have the highest travel demand: Madison, Downtown to Ballard via Westlake and Fremont, and Downtown to Roosevelt via South Lake Union and Eastlake. First, this gem:

"Corridor 6 (Capitol Hill - Downtown, via Madison) was evaluated only for BRT and Enhanced Bus service, since rail is not feasible due to steep grades."

They're eliminating their highest-capacity mode not because the demand doesn't warrant it, but because it is incapable of handling the terrain. But wait, it gets better:

"Longer, higher capacity vehicles are not feasible on Madison due to steep grades." You see, the hill breaks on Madison are too sharp to use 60-foot articulated buses, which is why Metro currently only uses 40-foot buses there. But look at that graph. The dotted line is the maximum standing capacity of 40-foot buses on 5-minute headways. The projections say that these buses would be crush-loaded for most of the day, and that during rush hour passengers would be left on the curb. Better yet, the report estimates the the per-mile cost for BRT here is as high as it is for the streetcar mode on the other corridors, as Madison's narrow right-of-way, high traffic volumes, and diagonal alignment conspire to make serving it with high-quality bus service very challenging.

The Briefing Book prepared as the first step in this update of the Transit Master Plan, specifically the Travel Demand and Transit Market Analysis section, shows how the next two decades will present our city's transportation system with great challenges:

  • The Puget Sound Regional Council projects Seattle to take on 100,000 new residents by 2030. The authors of the Briefing Book add that if recent trends in more people preferring urban living continue, actual population growth could exceed the PSRC forecast.

  • Seattle is also expected to become home to 200,000 more jobs in the same timeframe.

  • The Center City is expected to accomodate 44% of the population growth and 63% of the employment growth. (This is easy to believe when you see the new apartment towers going up in Belltown and the Amazon juggernaut that has parked itself in South Lake Union and developed an insatiable appetite for engineers.)

What really gets me, though, is on page 2-50. Here the authors talk specifically about the Center City, with astute observations like:

A significant number of trips are made throughout the day between all market areas in the central part of the city; this same area is expected to accommodate a majority of population and employment growth in the next 20 years. Demand for short- to mid-length transit trips is high today and is likely to grow substantially.

And the kicker:

Transit service connections between Center City market areas (and Center City adjacent neighborhoods) vary widely in terms of service quality today. Although transit service frequency is generally 15 minutes or better, many connections cannot be completed in an amount of time comparable to the automobile or even the bicycle and often walk times are faster than transit travel times. A transit trip between Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill on local routes takes more than 30 minutes to complete. This would take about 10 minutes in a car and about 20 minutes on a bicycle. A transit trip between Belltown and Capitol Hill also takes about 30 minutes including walk time and wait time. This trip takes about eight minutes by car and 15 minutes on a bicycle.

I can confirm this. On Friday I took Metro Route 2 from 3rd & Bell to the Polyclinic on First Hill. Total distance: 1.6 miles. Total time on the bus: 25 minutes. I could have gone to Ballard in that time!

This is completely backward, yet unsurprising considering that our transit system has been and continues to be very strongly focused on suburban commuters to the detriment of city dwellers. Besides the obvious example of peak-hour-only expresses to far- flung suburbs, there's the fact that folks headed from downtown to Bellevue at rush hour can pay Sound Transit $2.50 to be whisked through an underground tunnel, over a bus-only on-ramp to the HOV lanes on I-90 and into Bellevue, whereas Queen Anne residents pay Metro $2.50 for a slow slog up 3rd Avenue to the 1st & Broad morass. The only thing resembling rapid transit in our town is being built by Sound Transit, and therefore has mile-plus stop spacing in Seattle to ensure that folks in Lynnwood have as fast a ride downtown as folks in Ballard.

(Seriously, mid-day 15s are scheduled to take 26 minutes from 15th & Market to 3rd & Pike. Sound Transit estimates the trip from Lynnwood to University Street will take 27 minutes. Plus Sound Transit keeps talking about 8-minute headways to Lynnwood, while Metro says RapidRide D will only be every 10 minutes during peak.)

So what do we do about it?

The really sad thing in all of this is that Seattleites demonstrated multiple times that they see the value in true rapid transit in the multiple votes on the Monorail. There were many problems with that plan, not the least of which is that monorails are simply not a practical technology, but Seattleites weren't afraid of a 1.5-billion-dollar price tag.

There has been debate on whether Seattle should take on the task of building out our rapid transit system. But I firmly believe that it should. Sound Transit is a regional agency with regional goals. Its planned light-rail network largely parallels our region's freeways and contributes to continued suburbanization. While I think they are the agency best qualified to build and operate rapid transit in Seattle, I think the City needs to take on responsibility for planning and funding extensions within the city limits.

I'm not the only one advocating for this. After I began writing this post a page appeared on Facebook advocating for a Ballard Spur off the Brooklyn Link station. And now Ben Schiendelman of the Seattle Transit Blog has set up seattlesubway.org, pushing for a true subway system serving the city.

I think the logical first step is push the city to fund an alternatives analysis, including fully grade-separated rapid-transit, for the Ballard-UW, Ballard-Downtown, and West Seattle Junction-Downtown corridors. As a funding mechanism, the city could reinstate the Employee Hours Tax. Having this work done would allow us to apply for federal grants and go to the voters with a solid plan and good estimate of the costs.

When it comes to actually building such a system, I have some ideas for funding that too. The most obvious one is general obligation bonds backed by property tax revenue. The state constitution allows the issuance of bonds in excess of limits if approved by a 60% vote of the people (you may recall this was the funding mechanism for the failed Forward Thrust plan several decades ago). The City currently has about $1 billion of capacity available, but a measure for even 200 or 300 million would be a good start.

As for the rest of the capital expenses and operations, I firmly believe the Legislature should grant local authorities the authority to levy a payroll tax. In Washington State we have a strong sense of taxes-as-user-fees, so much so that we enshrined "gas taxes are for roads" in our constitution. The biggest driver of transit demand and transportation demand in general is employment. Therefore, a tax on employment is a logical way to pay for transit. Other cities like Portland and New York fund their transit systems through a payroll tax. As a percentage of the wages and salaries firms pay to their employees, a payroll tax is more progressive than sales taxes. I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations based on Seattle's now-defunct employee hours tax and statistics from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, and I believe that a payroll tax of one-half of one percent (lower than Portland's tax of .6918%), levied solely within the City of Seattle, could bring in about $250 million per year. Thinking bigger, I would love to see a regional payroll tax replace the sales taxes for transit we currently pay.

Seattle needs to recognize that our city and our region are growing. Building dense, livable communities and connecting them with high-quality transit is essential to maintaining our economic competitiveness while meeting our climate and sustainability goals. The time has come. Let's do this!