Friday, September 21, 2018

Seattle’s Transit Tunnel Is About To Get Busier



Early Saturday morning I had the opportunity to participate in a simulation of bus and light rail service in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT). The DSTT is unique among transit systems, with both buses and trains sharing the roadway and stopping at the same platforms. With the tunnel already facing mass-transit congestion (a good problem to have), the simulation tested if the tunnel could support increased capacity.


The tunnel was conceived in the early 1980s as as a solution to buses’ sluggish travel times between the north and south ends of downtown. Construction of the 1.3 mile project took three years and cost $455 million. Five stations, each with a unique design and adorned with colorful art, make up the DSTT: Convention Place, Westlake Center, University Street, Pioneer Square, and International District. Between each station are pairs of 18-feet diameter tubes.

Service officially began in September 1990 with dual-mode buses that switched to overhead electric power when entering the tunnel. The tunnel closed 15 years later for a two-year retrofit that included replacing the original unused rails, lowering the roadway to facilitate level boarding, and constructing a stub tunnel where trains could reverse direction. The tunnel reopened in September 2007 with hybrid buses, and Link light rail began operating between Westlake Center and Sea-Tac Airport in July 2009.

In 2016 Link is expected to begin extended service from downtown to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington’s Medical Center and Husky Stadium. The latter neighborhood is second only to downtown as a regional transit destination, so frequency of service during peak hours (currently 6am-8:30 and 3pm-6:30) will be increased to every 6 minutes (up from 7.5 minutes currently). This will exacerbate the current conflicts between buses and trains; buses are not allowed to proceed when the tunnel between stations or station platform ahead of them are occupied by a train. Saturday’s simulation tested whether buses can be efficiently run between trains.

Volunteers from several transit agencies staffed each station to act as timers and data collectors. I was positioned at the southbound platform of University Street to note the exact time each bus and train entered the station. Over the course of four hours the trains did run roughly every six minutes, and there were frequencies of 40, 45, and 50 buses per hour. I found that the buses tended to travel in groups of two, three, or four, with an average of six buses running between trains. Bus operators were held at their stops for seemingly random periods of time, ranging from 10-90 seconds, to simulate passenger pickup and dropoff and the associated delays with fare payment, wheelchair loading, and crush loads. From my perspective as a frequent user of the tunnel (and from talking with Metro employees), the simulation went smoothly. However, it’s still possible that without actual passengers and operating routes the simulation could not accurately reflect the actual congestion that may occur.

A post at Seattle Transit Blog goes over potential changes to the system. Based on my experience today, I also have several suggestions for improving operations. Firstly, I noticed there is a 15 second buffer between a train exiting the station and a following bus (or vice versa) entering the station. Unless there is a regulation on this, the buffer could essentially be reduced to zero to speed things up; in other words, the bus/train could enter the station as soon as the leading train/bus leaves. The stations are at least 350 feet long and provide an ample safety distance.


Related to this, buses are apparently not allowed to enter the tubes between stations if a train is in it (indicated by the red/green traffic lights at tube entrances). This is an even larger cause for delay, since the tube segments are much longer than the stations. Buses should be allowed the enter the tubes immediately and stop a reasonable distance behind any waiting trains at the next station. Additionally, buses should be allowed to maneuver through the center lane if the bus ahead is delayed; currently this lane is wasted space.

Another ongoing issue is the “bays” at each station. Each northbound and southbound platform consists of two bays, lettered A through D, where buses are supposed to actually stop. Almost all of the bus routes are designated at bays A and C (the “front” of north/south platforms), with only a few at B and D. This results in overcrowding at one area of each platform. This also causes multiple bay A and C buses to line up, with waiting passengers having to choose between two risks. If their bus is second, third, or even fourth in line, they could try waiting at the designated spot and hope the driver stops again at the front of the platform. Or, they can try walking down one or two bus lengths and risk being left behind when the bus gets a chance to move up before they get there.

A potential solution is to create additional bays for spacing out stopped buses. During peak hours, before entering the tunnel buses could line up in the order of their designated bays, ensuring predictability for passengers. Redundancy would be minimized because there are spaces for at least six articulated buses along each platform. Alternatively, each bay could have a digital sign that indicates which bus will stop there several minutes ahead of time, based on what order buses entered the tunnel. That would present similar technical challenges that face underground OneBusAway signage and have delayed cell phone coverage in the tunnel, where all of these features are needed most.

This will all be a moot point if buses are removed from the the tunnel, which is a possibility if a train turn-around is built near the International District station in 2019. And while the simulation showed the potential of improved collaboration  between Sound Transit and Metro, only actual operations will show if they can provide the best possible service to downtown (not considering incoming service cuts). As light rail builds out and Seattle grows it will be essential to continue integrating the region’s transit systems.

Scott is a graduate student at The University of Washington’s Department of Urban Design and Planning. This post was originally published at his personal blog, The Northwest Urbanist

Seattle Should Pass A Minimum Paid Leave Law

Courtesy of a Harvard Study on paid leave.

The United States is the only country among wealthy European, Asian and North American countries that doesn’t have a national minimum vacation requirement. France goes so far as to require a 30 day vacation minimum. When you combine leave with holidays, Portugal and Austria have 35 minimum days of paid vacation. The graph above and the graph below are both from a Harvard study on paid leave that is worth reading. Most working adults do have some paid leave but a significant proportion don’t have any at all. Additionally, many people have an absolute minimum:

Courtesy of a Harvard Study on paid leave.

The average amount of paid leave for all working adults is 12 days plus 8 public holidays. This means the average American has the same amount of leave as the minimum required in many other countries. Additionally, nearly a quarter of Americans have no paid leave or holidays. This burden falls disproportionately on those that make less money. Only about one-third of part time works have paid leave and only two-thirds of hourly workers making less than $15/hr have paid leave.

The Argument Against Paid Leave

The arguments against minimum vacation requirements are almost exactly the same as the arguments against paid sick leave and ultimately fall flat. Most of the criticisms of the paid sick leave ordinance revolved around increased business costs. As an example, John Schmidt who owns a few restaurants in Seattle (Eastlake Bar & Grill, Greenlake Bar & Grill, Lunchbox Laboratory) claimed that the paid sick leave law would increase his costs by $1,000 per employee. This opposition was somewhat predictable, coming from the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and other business interest groups. To the credit of Seattle business owners, nearly 70% supported the law in a follow up study. Furthermore, these dire costs didn’t pan out. The worst thing that can be said of the law is that some business may have raised some of their prices a little. This evidence comes from an industry back study and is hardly an apocalyptic outcome and might not be true. If it is true though, it’s likely that passing on cost to consumers in order to benefit low wage works is exactly the progressive outcome Seattlites wanted. It is unlikely that the affects of a minimum paid leave law would be any different than paid sick leave.

Why Seattle? Why now?

It seems like Seattle has all the right prerequisites to pass a minimum vacation ordinance. After recently passing minimum wage and paid sick leave laws, there are established grassroots organizations and politicians that would be natural allies to this cause. Additionally, this would improve the working conditions for many people in the city. Lastly, like the minimum wage law, this would set a precedent for the nation and could be a jumping off point for a national campaign. If you agree with this you can contact city council and tell them you support a minimum paid leave law. Council Member Sawant might be the most receptive.

Also if you agree that Seattle should have a minimum vacation requirement, we encourage you to support a national minimum.

Sunday Video: The Denny


Would you believe it? A Seattle designer created this amazing utility bike that has garnered national attention and was selected as the best utility bike design. Take that, Portland!

What We’re Reading: Beer Me, Please

Elysian Brewing Company by angela n. on Flickr.

Stay away: The Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel is closed today.

Drink it up: A map of every Seattle brewery, this could take you a while…

Social welfare reform: There’s a battle brewing over public housing policy and practices in Seattle. The mayor and the Seattle Housing Authority are odds.

Share the road: Maybe the mantra isn’t one that we should be touting.

In the dust bin: California has tossed away the old delay metric in Level of Service (LOS) analysis–too bad cars!

Closed: The Battery Street Tunnel will be closed later this month for 4 days, so watch out drivers!

The Denny: A new urban bike has been crowned king, and it’s Seattle-based.

Judgemental maps: It’s fun to be a jerk sometimes, and these mapheads have done a fine job at that.

Real ridesharing: It only took a few years for Lyft and Uber to decide that actual ridesharing would be a good idea.

Free ORCA pass: If you live north of 85th Street, you could get free rides and a free ORCA pass.

Parking design: Yeah, that doesn’t seem right, but this woman has worked to make parking lots a whole lot better.

Parking costs: We’ve said it a lot, parking adds cost to housing, which reduces affordability; the rules are outdated.

Phasing plan: There’s a good phasing plan for real highspeed rail in the US.

No more roads: Missouri voters turned down a horrendous roads tax.

Carbon tax: Voters are beginning to feel a lot better about a carbon tax.

Family-friendly Vancouver: The story of how Vancouver, British Columbia became on of the most family-friendly urban places in North America.

Pricing caps: France is toying with the idea of putting pricing caps on housing, but will it work?

Unincorporated cycletrack: King County is wading into uncharted territory with a cycletrack to connect two trails in the rural east county!

Bertha bust: The New York Times highlights our failed tunnel effort, and reminds of how screwed up the fix-it solution is.

A conundrum: Many renters could get a mortgage, but they just can’t afford a home.

Cycling and wealth: The data surrounding cycling rates and income are very interesting, and maybe what you expect.

Parks won: In case you missed it, we had a vote on a Metropolitan Park District, and the parks won!

Measuring Housing Need Compared to Job Growth



Trulia’s blog provides another important contribution about housing costs. The most recent post includes the graph above. This graph reinforces the evidence that the price of housing is largely determined by the need for housing and the amount available. You might remember previous graphs they’ve produced showing the connection between costs and units built or between costs and permits approved.

Trulia’s graph doesn’t look at the actual number of units built, but it does make an important point about population growth. Frequently people make the mistake of thinking that the number of people moving to an area is the same as the number of people who wish to live in that area. A common erroneous assumption is a nearly 1:1 relationship between units built and new residents. Unfortunately, cities don’t work like that. Instead, most growing areas would likely grow faster if they had more housing, indicating that there are people who would like to live there but can’t. In other words, it’s hard to figure out what the need for housing actually is. Trulia tries to solve this problem by understanding why people move in the first place. In other words, if there are job opportunities in an area, it’s likely that people will move there, especially in an economy with high unemployment.

reasons-to-moveThis assumption is reinforced by other research. The Census Bureau acknowledges that a big reason for moving to a new area is employment. The Census Bureau regularly examines why people move. The reasons break into basically 3 categories: housing, relationships, and jobs (as seen in the graph to the left).

While housing reasons make up more than 48% of the total moves, housing is likely a small motivator for moves to new metropolitan regions. In other words, people may move for better housing, but this doesn’t necessarily change the need for housing in a region if they already lived in that region. To illustrate which moves change how much housing is needed and why those people move, the Census Bureau breaks down moves by distance and reason.

Meanwhile, in the table below, it is quite evident that housing disproportionately motivates the reason for intracounty moves and more than half of the moves of less than 50 miles. In other words, moving for better housing, is the biggest reason people move, but it doesn’t change how much housing is needed. As moves increase in distance, the motivation for moving changes significantly. Jobs and family motivate over 60% of the other moves and account for as much as 78% of moves over 500 miles.

Take Another Look


Picture 1


I see her brighten the bus stop as I pull up. Third and Union southbound, some time before midnight. Hers is a smile which renders her ageless; you see the girl she used to be, echoes of a happier time. She’s thirty-five and thin, ready to go home now, her rich black hair tied in a workaday ponytail, unbrushed for now.

I’ve seen her a few times previous. Why does she smile so when she sees it’s me driving? Perhaps she feels safer on my 7, or maybe she just enjoys the warm vibes. I greet everyone with enthusiasm. I get excited when we’re full up and late on the 7 at night. There are times when I feel myself bubbling over, thrilled beyond measure to be here, can’t hide it, thrilled to be in the vortex, Metro’s busiest route, the throbbing heart of this great city, maybe even– dare I say it? Changing the atmosphere just by being myself, reaching out to all these lives as though they were friends– because of course, they are. This euphoric bliss happens delicately, seemingly without my trying, and I feel lucky to touch it when it’s here.

Tonight I gab with various folks. Just passing the time. Here’s a Jack-in-the-Box employee and I, discussing the value of being a people person at our respective jobs. Tonight he’s looking for a payphone, and we wonder where any are. Another man extols the virtues of his bicycle’s disc brakes after I ask. Disc brakes on a bike seem luxurious to me. They’re great going down McClellan hill, apparently.

Eventually she steps up to the front. At first I think she’s getting off at an earlier stop tonight, but no, she just wants to talk. She’s happy to try, despite the trouble of speaking the new language. I feel honored that she feels comfortable enough to do so. Would you do the same in her place? It’s no easy feat, making small talk in a language and country that isn’t your own, but sometimes the feeling of connection is worth it.

“Are you just getting off work?” Yes, she is. An Indian accent. “You work late,” I marvel, noting the clock. 11:41. “Do you like it?”

She waxes and wanes in response, smiling, agreeing with my hand gesture of “more or less.”
“A job is a job,” she says finally.
“It’s true, a job is a job. A good thing to have.”

She explains that back home, people did laundry for her. Servants took care of stuff like that. Now, not only does she do her own laundry, she does everyone else’s, for work. Completely different world. She cried at first, disillusioned, feeling lied to by the great Dream, disappointed and alone on a crushingly fundamental level. They moved halfway around the globe and here she is now, mopping floors, working part time here and there, long and late hours, menial labor seven thousand miles from home. Working the dry-cleaning machine, struggling to keep her tears to herself.

She’s been here three years and has lived that entire time on Rainier Avenue. What a notion of America she must have, so specific to her experience. How little those around her know of her past. Take a second look at the gas-station attendants, the gardeners and cooks around you. Some of them used to be dignitaries, scientists, and more before they came over. A good bus driver friend of mine was once Assistant Vice President at the University of Tehran. His passengers get on without a clue.

I think it was Gombrich who said, an accent is a badge of honor. It means that person, or their family, possessed the unthinkable courage to completely restart their lives from scratch, with no safety net, in a place they don’t know and often are not welcome in. That is fortitude.

Is she a stronger person now, though, than she was before, moving beyond all those years of soft living? I think so. The expanded perspective, the seeds for empathy, the learned skill of appreciation…. Out loud I say, “well, it makes your character stronger. You know?”
She gets it. “Yes, it’s true.”
“And you are always so happy, smiling. Every time.” She beams anew in the darkness. “As long as you can be happy, people can be happy, that is very impressive to me. Anyone really, who can be happy in this life,”
She affirms the sentiment, and I continue, “I love driving the bus! Helping all the people, talking to people….”
Now she’s laughing, in surprise, delight, in newfound freedom. You can make the most out of anything.

“Where you are from?” she asks. It’s normally a question I don’t care for, but I know what she means.
She’s happy at the response, excited at the commonality of displacement. She asks for a night stop, thirty feet closer to her apartment, and thirty feet away from the drugged-out thugged-out ghettotastic reunion that’s forever taking place in the bus shelter,  over there by the gas station, the omnipresent hustle bubbling on just this side of violence. Those thirty feet make all the difference. Thanking me, she dashes off into the shadows. She had her keys ready.

What We’re Reading: Highway to Hell

Seattle Light by Jonathan Cheng on Flickr.

Highway to hell: Long Beach, CA plans to remove the first freeway in southern California. The freeway revolt in Los Angeles that you probably never knew about. The Senate Democrats cave to House Republicans on national transportation funding–we may keep the roads, bridges, and buses going, but the system is still broken.

Design and development: The Seattle City Council wants a new housing affordability strategy. Urban Kchoze argues that building width, not height, is what really matters when designing and constructing buildings; he looks at a number of case studies. Capitol Hill Housing buys up Squire Park, a controversial situation due to the number of affordable units in the building. A developer sues a homeowner for delaying their E 15th St and Madison Way project. The San Francisco Transbay Transit Center is spurring a lot of development that is quite unique. And a cool microhousing project is on the way for Howell and 15th.

All for the bikes: The Fremont Bridge bike counter sets another record, but just barely–and it appears that we’re on the way to top 1 million bicycle rides across the bridge. The Westlake bikeway continues to evolve, and this iteration has some seriously unique features that we’re not so keen on–like a cycletrack in the middle of parking lot drive aisle. Seattle Bike Blog talks helmets and Pronto! Houston is making bike interstates out of its utility networks. And a study suggests that buffers are need between bikes and parked cars if you want to keep cyclists safe.

Maps this week: A proposal to get rid of gerrymandering; not only would the political landscape likely be a lot different, but congressional districts would just make sense–people, not politics. A simple map of DC’s Metrorail shows the walkshed of each station within the District and its immediate suburbs. The new geography of consumer debt, it’s widespread.

Transit talk: The freeway stations along SR-520 are now both open, and Tim Bond gives a report on them for transit riders. Meanwhile, Frank Chiachiere wades into the progressive/regressive tax debate and argues that labeling taxes as such that is really a blurred lines situation. FiveThrityEight rates your transit, how do you rank? And bikeshares help support transit.

The random stuff: Forget Uber or Car2Go, BlaBlaCar is taking over Europe–it’s a unique carsharing venture. Saville is banning outdoor dominoes (and lots of other stuff) because they’re noisy. Former Mayor Paul Schell dies. European cities are trying out different cooperative approaches to getting real estate refurbished and occupied. Big cities that restrict development ultimately hurt the economy.

Metropolitan Park District Passing


Parks DistrictThe first round of results have dropped, and most prominently in tonight’s election returns is the Seattle Metropolitan Park District. Currently, the proposition is passing 52.4%-47.6%. We anticipate that this trend will continue as the remainder of the count is tallied over the coming days. Younger and more progressive, liberal, and urban-inclined voters tend to turn in their ballots later than older and more conservative voters.

Another significant Primary race for Seattle is the challenge from the newcomer Socialist Alternative candidate Jess Spear against incumbent House Speaker Frank Chopp (D-43, Wallingford). Spear presented herself as a young, social welfare-minded candidate in the same vain as City Council Member Kshama Sawant. In a nearly identical redux of Sawant’s campaign before council, Spear attempted to knock Chopp out of the Legislature. At this point, it looks unlikely that Chopp will be seriously challenged in the General Election; he leads nearly 80%-20% in the race.

For elections results within the City of Seattle and King County, be sure to visit the King County Elections results page. Legislative District and Congressional races are best viewed from the Secretary of State’s election page as many district boundaries straddle two or more counties.