Monday, 20 January, 2020

How to Combat Ridehailing’s Ills

The Uber app deployed on a phone. (Credit: Benjamin Keller)

As someone who walks around Seattle on a regular basis, it is hard not to notice that a startling share of the cars whizzing down the street share a familiar look. The ubiquity of the Toyota Prius with a glowing dash is hard to miss. While our city has been out ahead of our peers, Seattle’s first step in this initiative–the “Fare Share Plan“–falls short of the promises of decongestion and full protections for drivers that are sorely needed.

Ridehailing’s Impact

Ridehailing has a negative impact on society in a variety of obvious and hidden ways, with the evidence for these effects only recently coming into focus since Uber’s founding in 2009. Economists, engineers, and public policy experts have been able to illustrate how ridehailing is impacting social welfare through increased congestion, reduced transit usage, increased wear on roads, the proliferation of underpaid contract workers, and the increase in traffic fatalities through induced demand for car travel.

While Seattle had not seen a decline in bus ridership until 2019, it has still seen significant crowding out of bus ridership by ridehailing services. These private companies are cannibalizing demand of what is intended to be a public good. These services shift dollars from our transit agencies to shareholders in New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo.

It is estimated that for every passenger ride delivered, an Uber driver drives an additional three miles on Seattle’s congested roads. All those unnecessary miles translate to more cars on Mercer Street, Denny Way, and I-5 than ever before. That’s also more wear on those roads, ultimately leading to more costs for taxpayers to repair and maintain. Climate emissions also continue to climb in Seattle and statewide, despite ambitious goals set for carbon neutrality by 2050.

All those additional miles are also uncompensated work that drivers are left to pay for without fares to cover. An Economic Policy Institute study pinned the true hourly pay for drivers at $9.21, far below Seattle’s minimum wage of $16.39 per hour. And, because this study used a conservative estimate for vehicle expenses, it likely overestimated the true pay of drivers.

Two rides per hour amounts to roughly 16.4 miles based the data that Uber has provided to Seattle over the years and the IRS estimate the expense for that average mileage to be a whopping $9.43 per hour–far above what the study suggested. These studies generally use very conservative variable cost estimates, which are closer to $4 to $5 an hour. New York City didn’t fall into this trap and used the full $10 per hour estimate for expenses in their minimum wage law.

Funding Transit

Uber and Lyft have been competing for market and mode-share through subsidized rides on the backs of their drivers and venture capital investors. Researchers from Oxford University and the University of Chicago were able to quantify that, “each $1 spent on UberX rides generated a “consumer surplus” of $1.60. Across America, that surplus was estimated to be $6.8 billion a year.” Uber is practically giving its services away!

SDOT Proposes a More Complete Bike Lane Connection on East Union Street


The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has released updated plans for a protected bike lane it plans to install on E Union Street by the end of the year. The design is very close to the ones that we reported on last Spring, with a key update: the bike lanes will now extend uninterrupted from 14th Avenue to 26th Avenue.

The 2019 plans had included a two-block gap on either side of 23rd Avenue. Due to concerns about maintaining vehicle capacity through the 23rd Avenue intersection, SDOT was reluctant to remove a vehicle lane to make way for a bike lane. The newest plans show that they’ve been able to make it work.

Updated map showing a complete connection between 14th and 26th Ave on E Union St, with a full connection from MLK Jr Way for westbound riders (City of Seattle)
Updated map showing a complete connection between 14th Ave and 26th Ave on E Union St, with a full connection from MLK Jr Way for westbound riders. (City of Seattle)

While we don’t know exactly how the updated intersection will function, SDOT’s newest plans do show parking being removed on the east side of the intersection in front of Uncle Ike’s Pot Shop. “We are working to minimize impacts to parking and bus stops, but we may need to make additional changes to meet the city’s safety and operational standards,” SDOT said.

The Urbanist Meetup This Tuesday Features Futurewise

The Panama Hotel in the International District.

For our monthly meetup on January 14th, we are excited to be joined by our friend Kate Brunette from Futurewise. For 30 years, Futurewise has worked to prevent exurban sprawl, to protect our State’s natural resources, and to make our urban areas livable and accessible to all.

Founded to help support implementation of Washington’s innovative Growth Management Act, Futurewise focuses on preventing the conversion of wildlife habitat, open space, farmland, and working forests to subdivisions and development, while directing most growth into our urbanized areas. Their mission also incorporates a focus on livability, housing, transportation, social justice, and environmental justice in our urbanized areas. They write a monthly installment called Wonkabout Washington in The Urbanist detailing such work across the state.

As part of its mission, Futurewise advocates in Olympia for legislation to protect our state’s rural landscape and encourage dense livable cities. During the last session they helped pass important legislation that encouraged cities to provide more housing options such as accessory dwelling units, reduced parking requirements in transit rich areas, limited abuse of State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) appeals for policies like Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA), and provided for important new tenant protections. This year they are back at and will be sharing what they hope to accomplish in Olympia as well as taking your questions.

The Urbanist’s monthly social event is free, all ages, and open to everyone. Come by if you want to meet other people who care about our city, network, or hear from an inspirational speaker at a local establishment. You can find us in the lower room, and our guest speaker starts at 6:30pm.

We will be at the Panama Hotel Coffee and Tea House in the Chinatown-International District. They have coffee, tea, beer and wine, and snacks available. They are also a cool independent cafe in a wonderful historic building in one of Seattle’s great urban neighborhoods. We hope you can join us!

Sound Transit Previews Potential Sounder South Capacity Expansion Projects and Timelines


On Thursday, members of the Sound Transit’s System Expansion Committee heard an update from agency staff on the the Sounder South capital expansion program. The program is funded as part Sound Transit 3 (ST3) and is expected to provide about $1 billion in capital investments to expand capacity of the commuter rail line through 2036. These investments are planned to be made on a rolling basis and ahead of line extension southward to Tillicum and DuPont, which are due to enter operational service by 2036.

In the fall, Sound Transit outlined a variety of possible capacity options, including adding more trips throughout the day, increasing peak-hour frequencies, modifying span of service, and extending platforms and adding cars to trains. Other station access improvements are already underway and are expected to be included in any new round of capacity expansion in ST3.

The Sounder South corridor, track ownership, and existing and planned service extent. (Sound Transit)
The Sounder South corridor, track ownership, and existing and planned service extent. (Sound Transit)

Having taken the temperature of the public on priorities and conducting early outreach with Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway on additional track use, the project management team has developed some initial concepts to deploy capacity expansion improvements. The concepts are based upon identified constraints, ridership demand modeling, and program priorities.

While the cost of added slots for track use and extensive negotiation process with BNSF is an obvious challenge and constraint, agency staff emphasized two other key constraints to keep in mind.

One of those key constraints is King Street Station where over 80% of all riders board and disembark from trains. The station and its tracks are in heavy use from commuter rail and other transit services at peak times–including from about 16,000 daily riders on South Sounder service. Access to commuter rail platforms is especially tight, given the two modestly sized accessways and street-level pedestrian space. Adding capacity to trains, while useful to riders, is also a challenge since station access demand is often already at capacity.

Sunday Video: Is It Wrong To Fly?


In this video, Joss Fong and her colleagues at Vox ask the question, “Is it wrong to fly?” They examine the impacts of air travel, the movement to reduce flying, and existing options to partially mitigate it. The team also looks into challenges and solutions in making flight sustainable, social responsibility, and the ethical question of flight itself.

What We’re Reading: Weakening NEPA, Bus Lanes Approved, and Building Density


LA-LAS HSR: Virgin Trains USA plans to have an electric high-speed rail line up and running by 2023 between Southern California and Las Vegas.

Expanding Penn: New York’s governor wants to expand track capacity at Penn Station in Manhattan to accommodate more passengers ($).

Weakening NEPA: The Trump administration wants to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act by striking consideration of climate change ($), but Congress may end up trying to block the changes.

Learn from Finland: Finland has ended homelessness.

GND CA: California state legislators have announced a Green New Deal platform.

New tenant: PCC, not New Seasons, will go in as the new grocery at 23rd Ave and E Union St.

Stop victim-shaming: Charles Marohn of Strong Towns says that the federal government should stop victim-shaming people who walk.

Urban architecture: CityLab explains how every city in the 1980s needed a science center.

Legalizing public housing: California could wind up eliminating a law that is blocking more public housing in the state.

Preserving businesses: A small business stabilization pilot program is launching in Seattle.

Bus lanes approved: The federal government is now allowing red bus lanes to be widely used across the country ($).

Transit is key: The Globe and Mail‘s editorial board says that transit is key to Canada’s future success as it grows.

The big issue: Homelessness charts as the biggest statewide issue in Washington in the latest Elway poll.

Underbuilt: A new report says that Washington has underbuilt housing by 225,600 units in the past 15 years.

Unsustainable nation: In the past decade, America built 24 times as many miles of new highways and arterials than new quality transit services.

Reducing evictions: Federal Way has made it hard to evict tenants without good cause.

Building density: Lloyd Alter explains why building density matters as much as building efficiency.

Future-proofing: Seattle Subway says that ST4 must be passed to future-proof light rail expansion from unnecessary growing pains, missed opportunities, and added costs.

What’s a Republican?: Washington Democrats look set to mop up in 2020 elections.

Dwindling coal use: A decline in coal use in 2019 may have led to an annual reduction in carbon emissions in the United States.

Sound Transit Has a Plan to Deliver 130th Street Station in 2025, but Will the Board Fund It?

In 2024, Link will extend to Lynnwood on elevated guideway similar to the Northgate approach. (Photo by author)

The first Sound Transit Board committee meeting of 2020 was an eventful one as staff presented three options to deliver a NE 130th Street light rail station that is being added to the Lynnwood Link extension. The station will give Seattle one more station nestled between Northgate and Shoreline South, but the question is when will the station open?

One option would deliver the station nearly concurrently with the rest of Lynnwood Link, as transit advocates have urged. Lynnwood Link will open in 2024, while 130th Station would open around 2025 in the plan presented. The other two options staff presented have the potential for later timelines.

One big fan of an early opening is Councilmember Debora Juarez, who sits on the Sound Transit Board and represents Council District 5 where the station is located. “Building this station early will save taxpayers money, decrease service disruptions, reduce carbon emissions, and get more people of out their cars,” Councilmember Juarez said. Mayor Jenny Durkan agreed, saying opening the station early is a “no-brainer” at the meeting, and the majority of the public testimony was also positive.

The Sound Transit Board of Directors is expected to make its decision next month, and that decision will be complicated by the fact that cost estimates have increased on all stations along Lynnwood Link–jumping 81% for the NE 130th Street Station. The extra $33 million isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but with suburban areas also trying to fight for upgrades and faster timelines in their jurisdictions, the board may have other ideas for the money needed to speed up NE 130th Street Station’s opening.

Speaking of, Northgate Link is still coming in under budget to the tune of $50 million, staff reported. That may present an elegant solution for Sound Transit to find the money to expedite 130th Street Station. Northgate Link is also staying on schedule, with five months of float time in case anything goes wrong–or signaling a chance it may open early.

The first option would deliver the infill station in 2031, seven years after the rest of Lynnwood Link opens. One drawback of that approach is in full display right now as light rail riders endure ten weeks of delays and disruptions due to the Connect 2020 project laying the groundwork for East Link. When Central Link first went in, Sound Transit didn’t plan for future expansion of the network, which is now an emphasis of Seattle Subway’s advocacy. Sound Transit estimates that 61,000 daily riders would be affected by 130th Street construction in 2031, making it the most disruptive of the three options.

The middle option is a hybrid “incremental” approach, partially building the station to reduce costs and disruptions when the station receives finishing touches, testing, and begins service. The timing of this option is a little uncertain. Finishing and opening the station could be expedited somewhat over the 2031 timeline, but without a definite timeline, Sound Transit indicated any time between 2025 and 2031 is possible.

Washington’s Draft State Rail Plan Presents Foggy But Promising Future

BNSF Railways track heading into Downtown Seattle from Interbay. (Credit: Doug Trumm)
BNSF Railways track heading into Downtown Seattle from Interbay. (Credit: Doug Trumm)

Washington’s long-awaited draft state rail plan update has been released. Due out in 2019, the draft finally surfaced last week from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) highlighting the status of the state’s railway infrastructure as well as projected demand and needs. The draft plan shows that mainline railways are becoming more congested, which is in line with a growing economy and population.

Also featured in the draft plan are forthcoming passenger rail enhancements, possible Amtrak Cascades service growth scenarios, and discussion of intercity passenger rail studies underway. A final state rail plan is expected to be adopted in the spring, but the public can comment on the draft plan through February 14th. The plan could serve as a catalyst for a major expansion of passenger rails service.

Context of the state railway system

A map of railway ownership throughout Washington. (WSDOT)
A map of railway ownership throughout Washington. (WSDOT)

The bulk of Washington’s railway system is privately owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and Union Pacific. Several dozen other private and public entities (e.g., state, ports, and local governments) own shortline railway segments for economic development purposes that connect to the mainlines. Thus, passenger rail is largely operated over private tracks owned by BNSF. The exception is the Point Defiance Bypass, which is forms a small segment of tracks from Tacoma to the Nisqually Valley and is owned by Sound Transit. That segment currently has commuter rail service as far south as Lakewood but will once again feature Amtrak Cascades service sometime this year.

The draft rail plan includes a baseline analysis of mainline railway service levels as of 2016 and three growth scenarios through 2040. The analysis uses the traditional transportation planning quantitative measure: level of service (LOS). There are five LOS ratings with LOS A being limited to no delays and LOS F involving regular delays and system breakdown. All three growth scenarios assume no additional track improvements are made to facilitate more capacity.