How To Measure East Link’s Success

East Link presentation slide. (Sound Transit)

Over the weekend The Seattle Times ran a story about the technology that will allow East Link to operate on a floating bridge and several other outlets picked up the story, including yours truly. Another outlet to pick up the story, CityLab, had a strange take for an urbanist publication:

Whether the project proves fruitful will depend on flawless execution—and on real ridership numbers matching the expected tens of thousands of passengers each day. It will also depend on whether it really cuts down on the volume of motor traffic, as it’s intended to.

Cutting motor traffic seemed like defining transit on highway engineer terms to me. Plus, Sound Transit was careful when promoting its successful ST3 package to advertise an alternative to sitting in traffic, rather than a cure for congestion. Meeting ridership projections is important, but “flawless execution” suggests setting a high bar just to see transit fail. Here’s how I’d define success for a transit upgrade:

  1. Does it save existing transit users time and improve the experience?
  2. Does it attract new riders?
  3. Does it empower better land use decisions and encourage walkability?
  4. Does it reduce car dependency?
  5. Does it create resiliency in the network?

East Link will reach Redmond Technology enter by 2023 and extend to Downtown Redmond in 2024. (Sound Transit)

Congestion is an inherent part of living in a booming metro. One can expect a successful light rail line to pull some people out of cars and into trains. Unfortunately, induced demand suggests road space created is likely to be filled by other motorists. The irony in defining success by highway traffic congestion relief is that to light rail users congestion is irrelevant. Light rail has its own right-of-way skirting right past congested urban highways. This is how grade-separated light rail creates resiliency in the transportation network: a major collision can temporarily take an interstate out of commission, but light rail in its own right-of-way will keep on moving. Congestion relief is how someone who does not actually ride light rail would likely define success, but the primary job of light rail is to serve transit users, not motorists.

East Link will provide transit users in downtown Bellevue a frequent ride to downtown Seattle all day long that reliably takes 25 minutes or less. That’s a massive upgrade in frequency, reliability, and speed. It’ll probably shave ten minutes off the 550 bus, plus be impervious to the all-too-frequent I-90 traffic jams. If we were providing that kind of time savings to motorists, they’d be throwing ticker-tape parades.

It seems a safe bet that East Link will meet ridership projections, which are pegged at 50,000 by 2030, as the whole region booms–with Bellevue and Redmond, where East Link serves, among the leaders in job and population growth. There’s ample reasons to expect healthy ridership. For one, Sound Transit made the projections before an unexpectedly large regional population boom. Secondly, regional transit use is trending up. Seattle’s transit ridership growth rate led the nation, and the light rail extension to Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium is already operating at 2018 projections. Finally, the land use changes and subsequent development along future transit spines are materializing at station areas, such as Bellevue’s Spring District boom long ahead of light rail operating.

It’s hard to justify East Link skepticism. A line connecting Seattle to downtown Bellevue and Redmond was one of the no-brainer routes in front of Sound Transit. Downtown Bellevue is sprouting 40-story high-rises while Redmond’s Microsoft campus is a major job center. It’s hard to see this line not paying off long-term. East Link will almost certainly succeed on urbanist terms by improving transit service and encouraging better land use decisions.

The featured image if from a joint Sound Transit and King County Metro open house presentation from 2014.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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I think the five items you mention are a great assessment of any transit change. If I had to guess, here is how I think it will go down:

1. I think this will definitely save people time and improve the experience. It won’t be that much faster from downtown Bellevue to downtown Seattle, but it will be much faster from the various other stops to downtown Bellevue (and from Seattle to a lot of the other stops, especially those east of downtown Bellevue).

2. I think it will add a few, but so far Link really hasn’t added that many riders, simply shifted them around. Partly this is because Link hasn’t added that many new fast connections. Getting from the U-District to downtown was already fast (since the buses in HOV lanes and in the tunnel) much of the day. It really is a wash for a lot of riders. It is definitely faster from Capitol Hill to the UW (arguably the biggest improvement) but my guess is most of those folks just put up with the slow bus back in the day (as parking is hard to find in both the UW and downtown). Bellevue is a little different, especially in those non-downtown stops, and I think this could easily move people some people out of their cars.

3. As always it is very hard to credit transit for this. There are areas in Seattle that have seen no major change in transit, yet are much more walkable. Parts of Bellevue (and Kirkland) have done the same thing, and will continue to do so, but it is hard to say if Link will really influence things. It may be impossible to tell.

4. My guess is won’t change car dependency much at all. I don’t see this as a huge change in the network. Getting to most of these places before was pretty good and it remains to be seen whether someone in the area will feel like they can “get anywhere” on transit, now that the train moves them to a handful of places much faster. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the train becomes one largely used for folks commuting, as opposed to a regular, essential part of their lives (like it is in cities like New York, Chicago, Boston and D. C.). In other words, I expect a lot of people will say things like “I like the train, but I still use my car to visit my sister, go out to eat, get to the park, that sort of thing”.

5. I think it will definitely create resiliency. It isn’t that buses are less reliable than trains, but the buses didn’t run in their own lanes most of the time. No system is perfect, but since the HOV lanes weren’t bus lanes (as they should have been) they were subject to traffic problems, especially on the weekends (when lots of cars happen to be carrying a lot of people).

Michael C. Lindblom

A nice overview by Doug!

Just for the record, my stories for The Seattle Times have never claimed that East Link would reduce car congestion (it probably won’t), nor that doing so is a major yardstick for whether Sound Transit lines are worthwhile.

I’ve only brought up freeway traffic as needed to rebut boosters if they say or suggest the rail projects would make highway driving easier.

The #1 criterion for us is daily ridership on the trains or buses. Traffic congestion was an angle that CityLab tossed in.


Nice work, Mr. Lindblom. I very much enjoy and appreciate your coverage of transportation issues (I subscribe to the Seattle Times).