Category: Transportation

Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?

Mockup of new, clearer signage Sound Transit has proposed to reduce fare evasion and errors

1. Sound Transit board members had some pointed questions for agency CEO Peter Rogoff on Thursday, when staffers presented the agency’s plan to address concerns about fare enforcement to the board.

The proposed changes, which come after months of community outreach and both onboard and online surveys, include new signage that will indicate more clearly that people must pay fare in order to enter light rail stations; reduced fines for people who still fail to pay their fare; more warnings before a rider receives a fine; and new, in-house “fare education ambassadors” who will replace the private security guards who currently check fares and issue citation.

Board members, including Joe McDermott (West Seattle), Claudia Balducci (Bellevue), Victoria Woodards (Tacoma), Dave Upthegrove (Federal Way), and Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, wanted to know why Sound Transit staff have not proposed taking fare evasion and fines out of the court system, as King County Metro has done. Failure to pay fare on Sound Transit’s system, which includes Link Light Rail as well as express buses and Sounder trains, can result in a $124 fine plus late payments and potential criminal penalties if a rider does not pay the penalty. Unpaid fines can end up in collections and can damage a rider’s credit for years.

What would it take, Balducci asked, to get the staff to take requests from board members seriously and come up with a plan that didn’t expose riders to financial hardship and a potential criminal record for failing to pay a $3 fare?

“The challenge we have is figuring out for those folks who are persistent fare violators and are not among those classes that I just cited—people who clearly are economically distressed or are drug-addicted or homeless—what, then, do we do, if not the courts?” Rogoff said.

It’s unclear exactly how many people fit into the category of “persistent fare violators” that Rogoff described. According to Sound Transit spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham, about 7.6 percent of riders did not pay their fares in October. (Sound Transit has been charging fares since July, after making rides free for several months in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Currently, fare enforcement officers do not scan riders’ cards individually to see if they’ve paid their fare; instead, they ask riders to show that they have a card or a ticket.)

“Fares are critical to pay for transit services, and Peter’s comments referenced concerns about the potential level of non-compliance that could result if penalties were reduced to the point that it became known over time that there was little or no consequence for fare evasion,” Cunningham said. “The result of that would be increased costs for taxpayers and potential impacts on projects and services. It can be reasonably assumed that some segment of riders, potentially increasing over time, would respond with chronic fare evasion.”

But there may be an additional reason Sound Transit is so reluctant to bring fare evasion penalties in-house. “State law vests the District Court with exclusive jurisdiction to impose fines for fare evasion infractions,” Cunningham says. In other words: The state legislation that created the agency establishes that failing to pay fare is a civil infraction that must go through district court. Taking fare enforcement out of the jurisdiction of local courts might require a change in state law. Historically, Sound Transit has tried to avoid reopening its authorizing legislation, since Republican legislators have tried to change it in the past to, for example, make Sound Transit’s board an elected body.

“Difficult” is not the same thing as “impossible.” But any major changes to Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policy would require a significant shift in thinking at the agency about its mission as well as the reasons people don’t pay fares. Rogoff’s response indicated that his longstanding position on “fare evasion”—a concept that implies conscious ill intent, if not outright criminality—has not changed, even as the political environment in Seattle and across the country undergoes a seismic shift.

At a time when agencies at all levels of government are working to undo and prevent future harm to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, Rogoff is still drawing distinct lines between the people who don’t deserve to get caught up in the criminal justice system—”someone who’s poor… someone who’s homeless, someone who’s drug-addicted”—and the modern-day turnstile jumpers who will keep robbing the system unless there are harsh consequences when they do.

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During yesterday’s meeting, Rogoff suggested that King County’s alternative fine resolution program, which is intended for people who can’t pay that agency’s $50 maximum fine, has been something of a failure. “Within King County, some 90 percent of [alternative resolution participants] never show up for their appointment and then nothing becomes of those cases, which is to say that there is no consequence for persistent violators in that circumstance,” Rogoff said. “We need a better mousetrap, and we’re trying to figure that out with the community and with King County Metro.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?”

Maybe Metropolis: The Pandemic Has Forced Seattle To Reconsider Its Neo-Suburban Model

By Josh Feit

Judging by the sheer number of permits the city has issued in the past five months allowing businesses to turn sidewalks, parking spots, and city streets themselves into places for people to hang out, there’s an unforeseen consequence of the pandemic: A citywide Seattle neighborhood renaissance.

Under a temporary program called “Safe Starts,” SDOT has issued 135 such permits since the COVID-19 crisis hit, with 73 more local business requests for permits in the queue. (The numbers, based on data through September, are actually much higher because the West Seattle Junction Business Improvement Association got an unprecedented single permit allowing all 230 shops and restaurants in the district to set up a single table and chair outside their storefronts).

Seattle’s neighborhood businesses are using all these permit options (they’re free) to turn neighborhoods outside the downtown core into people-centric hot spots. Just grab a table in the middle of the street on 9th Avenue N. between Thomas and John Streets in South Lake Union, and you’ll quickly get a sense of the new block-party atmosphere that’s helped redefine the city in recent months.

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Neighborhoods aren’t merely dedicating more public space for eating and drinking. The elevated energy is also being formalized on neighborhood side streets. As part of another SDOT program called “Keep Moving Streets,” 13 stretches of neighborhood streets, totaling more than 20 miles, have sidelined cars in favor of people. Instead of reading “Street Closed,” SDOT signs barring cars could just as logically read “Street Open.”

The takeaway for city policy makers should be clear. While inveterate single-family-zoning advocates continue to decry urbanization in any form (in order to preserve neighborhood character, they say), Seattle’s neighborhoods are not as fragile as the naysayers have claimed. On the contrary, the uptick in neighborhood action seems to have amplified, rather than destroyed, neighborhood character.

Hilariously, one business that has chosen to convert sacred parking space into café seating, Café Javasti, was an adamant parking space patriot during Wedgwood’s retrograde fight against a protected bike lane on 35th Ave. NE.

“I don’t understand why we’d ever go back.” — West Seattle Junction BIA Executive Director Lora Swift

From “outdoor cafés to outdoor retail racks,” West Seattle Junction BIA Executive Director Lora Swift said, the neighborhood has a “new cadence” and a “more European feel.”

She says she’ll be advocating to keep the permits in play through “at least 2021,” adding that she’d like the programs to stay in place longer than that. “I don’t understand why we’d ever go back,” she said, noting that her enthusiasm is “underscored by requests from the community… to continue to this new Seattle. We’ve gotten so many emails.” Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: The Pandemic Has Forced Seattle To Reconsider Its Neo-Suburban Model”

Morning Fizz: Homeless Agency Hiring Delayed, Benefits of Hotel Shelters Confirmed, Parking Meters Canceled

Expiring. Image by Josh Newton, via Unsplash.

1. The new King County Regional Homelessness Authority won’t choose a director until mid-January, pushing back the timeline for the new authority to get up and running into next spring, according to a document posted to the authority’s website on Thursday.

Under the original timeline, the CEO would have been hired in September The timeline has been pushed back repeatedly as the county hired an executive search firm, the California-based Hawkins Company.

Delaying the hiring process, and thus the timeline to hire staff and stand up the authority, has impacts on other agencies, such as Seattle’s homelessness division. That division is supposed to sunset when the authority is up and running, and its staff are not guaranteed jobs in the new authority. One result is that HSI is increasingly short-staffed, which makes it harder for the city to get contracts (and money to providers) out the door.

This may seem in the weeds, but the worst-case scenario is that the city will be unable to get money to nonprofit service, shelter, and housing providers, who would then be unable to provide those services.

Will that happen? Who knows. But right now the remaining staff are working under major uncertainty, with moving timelines and little solid information about what things will look like in December, March, or next summer, when all contracts are supposed to transfer to the KCRHA.

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2. This week, researchers at the University of Washington and King County DCHS confirmed what service providers like the Downtown Emergency Service Center have been reporting anecdotally for months: Opening hotels to people experiencing homelessness not only reduced the spread of COVID-19, it also contributed to residents’ feelings of stability, health, and well-being, reducing conflict between residents and leading to more exits to permanent housing than congregate shelters.

The preliminary findings come as the city of Seattle is finally considering hotels as an option for people living unsheltered; last week, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller outlined a plan to lease up to 300 hundred hotel rooms for about 10 months. The goal of the city’s program will be moving people rapidly out of the hotels and into housing, either through referrals to “rapid rehousing” in the private market or to one of the 600 permanent supportive housing units that will open over the coming year.

“Pay stations will no longer be on every block. For some spaces, the nearest pay station will be one block away.”

Last week, Sixkiller said the service provider at the largest county-funded hotel, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, lacked an “exit plan” for people living there, leading to long-term stays rather than quick turnover of rooms, as the city’s plan calls for. Asked for more details about how the city’s hotels will differ from those funded by the county, a mayoral spokeswoman said, “The City’s new plan moves unsheltered people from the street into a hotel unit.” (The county-funded hotels are occupied by people who moved from shelters, not the street.) Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Homeless Agency Hiring Delayed, Benefits of Hotel Shelters Confirmed, Parking Meters Canceled”

Alex Hudson: The Path to a Just Transportation Recovery

By Alex Hudson

When the pandemic began and much of the world stopped moving, public transit carried on, connecting essential workers to jobs and people to food, health care, and other critical services. Bus drivers bravely continued working to get people where they needed to go, and adapted to help deliver food to seniors and patients to care. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a deep truth: public transit is, and always will be, essential.

There is worry that ridership is down now and won’t return. These fears are based on a return to pre-COVID levels of congestion and skyrocketing used car sales. But the risks of veering away from transit in a post-pandemic world are huge. If drivers get back in their cars exclusively, we’ll cut people off from opportunity and will be stuck in worse congestion than before, resulting in wasted time, more greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants that make our planet less livable, and hundreds of lives lost to preventable crashes.

The vision for public transit in a post-pandemic Puget Sound hasn’t changed: It must be fast, frequent, reliable and affordable. COVID-19 has simply underscored the urgency of addressing how we plan for and fund it. As we recover, the smart and most affordable investment we can make is in building a resilient and accessible public transit system that connects people to opportunities, creates good paying jobs, and supports our climate goals.

Here are three steps we can take to get there:

Invest in transit like it’s a key part of a just economic recovery—because it is. There can be no economic recovery without well-funded public transit. In Seattle, essential workers account for 33 percent of transit riders. These folks keep Seattle’s hospitals running, our grocery stores stocked, and provide social service, caretaking and education that all of us are depending on. In addition to getting people to their jobs, transit investments create good, green, family-wage jobs that last. An analysis of the 2009 stimulus package found that stimulus dollars spent on transit projects created more jobs than dollars spent building or maintaining highways. “To create the most jobs per dollar, invest in transit and maintenance,” the analysis concluded.

Transportation is a household’s second-highest cost, and the average household in King County spends more than $12,500 per year on their vehicles. In 2019, seven million Americans were at least three months behind on their car loans. As unemployment remains high and household finances are stretched to the breaking point, public transit is a desperately-needed affordable alternative to driving that millions of people across the country are counting on.

To keep our communities strong during this challenging economic climate, public transit must be centered in recovery plans and cannot be left out of the federal stimulus packages. All new COVID relief funding on the local, state, and federal levels must include investments for transit, teleliving, biking, walking, and rolling. To make sure this happens, we have to continue building strong coalitions across business, labor, environmental, and social justice advocates. We need everyone at the table.

Pay for it now, or pay the price later. Transit is a fundamental pillar of a functional economy, yet we have seen that the funding that keeps transit moving is fragile and overlooked at every level of government. TransitCenter estimates that across the country, transit agencies will see a $26 billion-$40 billion annual shortfall due to COVID. Declines in fare revenue, as well as the underlying supporting taxes, leave our agencies facing extreme budget shortfalls and elected leaders grappling with no easy choices.

Funding for transit in Washington has never been resilient or adequate. The 18th Amendment to our state Constitution restricts how we can spend transportation dollars. Rather than using gas tax money to create a more efficient and sustainable system overall, the state is forced to funnel money into highway projects, many of which only further pollution and congestion. This outdated restriction must be reconsidered—our social, economic and environmental future depends on it.

Washington lacks progressive revenue options for transit, and the passage of I-976 left local governments with even fewer tools. We need to move away from regressive, restrictive, and volatile sources of funding like the gas tax and replace them with sustainable and resilient funding options, like an equitably designed road user charge or congestion pricing and a statewide air quality surcharge. While working toward reform, we must continue to utilize the existing tools and support local transit ballot measures, starting by passing Seattle Proposition 1 and renewing the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, which funds transit investments in Seattle, for another six years.

Prioritize racial equity in our recovery plan and undue long standing disparities. The pandemic has exacerbated inequities that exist within and are caused by our transportation system. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) experience disproportionate impacts through exposure to air and noise pollution caused by racist planning decisions which built traffic arterials and highways in their communities, lowering home values, separating communities, and increasing exposure to air and noise pollution and preventable traffic violence. Health disparities caused by exposure to air pollution, such as higher rates of asthma, have left BIPOC communities more vulnerable to contracting COVID. Creating an equitable transportation system is literally a matter of life or death for BIPOC communities in Washington. Continue reading “Alex Hudson: The Path to a Just Transportation Recovery”

How to Kill Scooter Sharing In Seattle

Image via Jan Antonin Kolar on Unsplash

 

By Erica C. Barnett

On Wednesday, almost two and a half years after the city of Seattle banned “micro-mobility” companies like Lime and Spin from operating electric scooter-sharing programs in the city, a city council committee took a tentative step toward allowing a small “pilot” program to test out the concept, authorizing scooters to operate everywhere bikes are allowed (streets, bike lanes, and sidewalks that make up parts of bike lanes) and to adopt a fee schedule for scooter companies interested in participating in the new “pilot” program.

The pilot will allow three companies—Lime, a “seated scooter” company such as Tesla-backed Wheels, and a third company providing some combination of seated and standing scooters—to each put 500 scooters each on Seattle streets. (The two-wheeled “seated scooters” look extremely similar to a better-known two-wheeled micromobility technology, minus the pedals). A fourth company, and 500 more scooters, could be added if another new technology emerges and the city wants to try it out.

If the initial pilot is successful, that number could be increased to as many as 6,000. For comparison, Seattle’s original free-floating bike share program started with 1,500 bikes, but within four months had expanded to a maximum of 12,000.

Shared electric scooters could, according to Seattle Department of Transportation analysis, replace up to 175,000 car trips a month; provide a non-motorized alternative for people trying to get out of West Seattle while the West Seattle Bridge is closed; make it easier for people to access transit; and cut monthly CO2 emissions by up to 85 metric tons. They’re also popular with a more diverse group of users than bikes, according to SDOT mobility solutions manager Alex Pazuchanics.

“It took bikeshare a decade to get to the point that scooter  share got to in 12 months [in other cities], and I think that’s because it’s accessible to more people who wouldn’t necessarily ride a bike,” Pazuchanics said in an interview after Tuesday’s meeting.

Scooters have been ubiquitous across the US for years, with programs in more than 100 cities at every latitude and with every type of topography, from Miami to Boston to Tacoma. With Seattle finally, belatedly, on the brink of giving them a try, here are some of the factors that could still sink our nascent scooter program.

• Poor planning for parking.

The biggest concern about bikesharing in Seattle, which is now provided by just one company, Lime, is that users sometimes parked them carelessly, blocking sidewalks or leaving bicycles “strewn around” in ways that some people found unsightly. Leaving aside the latter complaint (has anyone told them what people do with cars?) the issue of sidewalk and curb ramp blockages is significant for people with disabilities, who need the ability to navigate sidewalks without obstacles in their way.

SDOT’s response to these concerns has been to focus mostly on user behavior—for example, by requiring companies to fine users $20 if they park their scooters outside designated areas, such as the “furniture zone” of sidewalks and in planting strips, or having users take “quizzes” at the beginning of each ride to confirm that they understand the parking restrictions. “I think it’s important that we fine users that are not using the devices properly,” council member Dan Strauss, who sponsored the two bills adopted in committee Wednesday, said.

Council president Lorena González wondered Wednesday why the city wasn’t instead providing more places for scooters to park legally, much as the city does for cars. “When we talk about the parking and enforcement issues and obstruction— all of those things will continue to be problems continue to be problems so long as we are not being thoughtful and deliberate in providing dedicated space and making sure that users of these devices have somewhere appropriate to put them,” González said.

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• “But things are different in Seattle…”

Seattle likes to subject every “new” transportation alternative—from biking as an alternative to driving alone to bikeshare to scooters—to endless scrutiny on the grounds that Seattle is somehow different than all other cities. Usually, this is attributed to some combination of our culture (“people will never give up their cars!”) or weather (“no one rides bikes in January!”) or topography (have you heard? We have hills).

All these issues have come up repeatedly in recent discussions about scooters, including on Wednesday, when several speakers noted the existence in Seattle of both hills and rain. For example, Strauss noted that “if, at the end of the pilot program or during the pilot program, we see that the city of Seattle is not suitable for this sort of program because of hills or rain or other factors, then we can end the pilot.”

• The unfinished Bike Master Plan

The success of any scooter program relies heavily on a connected network of bike lanes, which will be the only legal alternative to riding in the street. (Unlike bicycles, scooters will not be allowed on sidewalks). Thanks to COVID and, before that, a general lack of enthusiasm for biking infrastructure from Mayor Jenny Durkan, key elements of the bike master plan have been canceled or delayed indefinitely, including a long-planned bike lane on Fourth Avenue between Pioneer Square and Belltown, a protected bike lane on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, and a bike connection between Georgetown and downtown.

“Micromobility is going to change the way we get around our city, and unless we connect the bike network, we’re not going to have a safe place for people to use these micromobility tools,” Strauss told me. For now, though, the city seems to be hoping that scooter riders, much like bicyclists, will figure out a way to get where they’re going using a combination of bike lanes and routes that parallel arterial roads, such as greenways, to minimize the danger of collisions.

“One of the challenges [with the scooter pilot] is that it brings a whole new user,” says Joel Miller, SDOT’s micromobility program lead. “There is a responsibility to just educate people [that] you might not want to take the same route in a scooter than you would in a car.”

SDOT also believes that as the speed limit on more city streets is lowered to 25 miles an hour, the roads themselves will become safer for scooters. Council member Tammy Morales, who represents southeast Seattle (an area that still lacks any direct protected bike routes into downtown) pointed out that whatever the actual speed limit, “I can assure you that very few people drive 25 miles an hour on Rainier, MLK, or Beacon Avenue South.” Without safe, convenient ways for scooter users to get where they want to go, the whole project could be doomed to failure—or, worse, fatalities.

• Too few scooters…

As mentioned above, the “pilot” program will distribute just 1,500 scooters across 84 square miles of Seattle, which could prevent critical masses from forming that make them a truly reliable and convenient short-distance transportation mode. If you look for a scooter for a few times and there are none around, you could be inclined to delete the app from your phone.

And because the scooters will include various types of devices (seated, standing, and perhaps a third option), people won’t necessarily get the type of vehicle that they want—someone who prefers to stand on a four-wheeled scooter, for example, may not want to sit on what is essentially a two-wheeled, pedal-less bike.

SDOT’s Pazuchanics says with fewer people going anywhere because of the pandemic, “there’s not as much demand and it doesn’t warrant the kind of scale that we thought was necessarily in a full-scale pilot program.” He says SDOT will continue to “monitor what is the right amount so that you as an individual will have enough confidence that there is a device available to you, but you’re not at a saturation point” where the scooters are just everywhere.

• … in the wrong places

The “equity” requirement for the scooter pilot says that at least 10 percent of the initial fleet, or 150 scooters total, must be located in “environmental justice community areas”—generally lower-income areas with high concentrations of people of color. But because those areas are spread so broadly across the city (and encompass such huge swaths of land), there is a good likelihood that some of these areas will end up with no scooters at all. For people living and working in such areas, it will be like the scooter program doesn’t exist.

Miller, who answered similar questions at the committee meeting, says “equity” doesn’t necessarily mean just equitable distribution, and that the city still needs to “talk to community, and with COVID, that’s something we haven’t been able to do yet.” He said SDOT hopes to set up community conversations, with compensation for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend, in the spring.

• Overzealous enforcement

In addition to fines for parking in the wrong place, council members expressed concern that people would flout the rules by not wearing helmets, which are required under a county law that is rarely enforced. Although no one from SDOT suggested changing city policy to empower police to crack down on helmet avoiders, Miller did tell the council that some scooter companies provide helmets along with the devices (a disposable, biodegradable sleeve inside the helmet keeps the grossness factor down), and noted that some provide discounts for riders who provide a selfie showing them wearing a helmet at the beginning of a ride.

Seattle will be the first city to mandate that each scooter provider limit a user’s first ride to 8 miles an hour, a speed that can feel frustratingly slow, in order to give riders time to learn to to maneuver and accelerate. “It might not be as convenient, it might not be as fun, but it’s going to be a lot safer,” Miller told council members Wednesday.

But will an artificially slow ride (or two or three) make people scroll over to their Uber app, or hop in their cars? Strauss doesn’t think so. After the meeting, he told me he considered slowing down people’s trips a reasonable tradeoff if it leads to fewer crashes. “I think that if people know that that slower option is only going to last for one to three trips, I don’t think that that would drive them away from riding the scooter,” he says.

 

Plan to Preserve Metro Bus Service Heads for November Ballot

After a lengthy debate over the correct size and duration for the proposed renewal of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District—a Seattle-only tax originally intended to supplement King County Metro bus service—the city council voted unanimously to put a six-year, 0.15 percent sales tax proposal to fund bus service on the November ballot. The measure will provide a little over $39 million a year for bus service, compared to $56 million a year under the measure that expires this year—enough to preserve between 150,000 and 200,000 hours of existing in-city service.

The original 2014 STBD ballot measure included a $60 vehicle-license fee, which was supplemented by a $20 fee passed by the council, but the city has been unable to spend the revenues from either fee since Washington state voters passed the car-tab-killing Initiative 976 last year; the state Supreme Court is set to rule on the initiative’s constitutionality later this year.

It’s a sign of how much the funding landscape has changed that the biggest debates on Monday were about whether to preserve the sales tax approved by voters in 2014 at its existing level, as Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed, or increase it slightly, and on whether the funding package should last four years or six. Every option the council considered would, at best, offset service reductions from the county—a major difference from the original 2014 ballot measure, which expanded transit service by 350,000  hours

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Proponents of a larger tax hike—to 0.2 percent—argued that it may be possible, in theory, to reduce the tax after the county passes its own region-wide taxing measure, or when a court overturns I-976, making car tab revenue available again. Opponents expressed skepticism that voters would pass a significant tax increase during a recession that has already resulted in unprecedented unemployment. “Even though a 0.1 percent regressive tax maybe isn’t going go be the straw that but the aggregate impact is something that I’m very concerned about,” council member Andrew Lewis said.

Along somewhat similar lines, proponents of a shorter-term ballot measure—four years, as opposed to six—argued that a levy that expired earlier would light a fire under the city and county to come up with a regional ballot measure whose cost and benefits would be spread across the entire county instead of concentrated in Seattle. Opponents (those who supported a six-year renewal) argued that a six-year measure would put the city in a stronger bargaining position with the county if and when the county gets around to proposing a regional measure.

Worth noting: Although most council members seemed optimistic that a countywide transit measure would pass, very recent history suggests otherwise. The whole reason the city proposed a Seattle-only ballot measure in 2014 is that a countywide measure failed overwhelmingly earlier that same year, losing by double-digit margins in the suburbs, and by eight points overall. The fact is that the county could put together a regional bus funding measure on the city’s preferred timeline, only to see it fail—an outcome that may be more likely, not less, during an economic downturn.

The proposal that passed Monday also includes a measure limiting the portion of the new tax that can be spent on things like low-income transit passes, rather than service hours, to $10 million—the same cap as in the mayor’s original 0.1 percent proposal—and increases the amount that can be spent on “emergent needs,” such as bus service for West Seattle residents stranded by the closure of the West Seattle Bridge, to $9 million.

Council member Alex Pedersen, who sponsored the original 0.1 percent legislation and was the only council member to vote against expanding it to 0.15 percent, said the unanimous vote demonstrated that “despite the divisions and conflicts that many people might see reported in the media, the mayor and city council can pull together and row in the same pos direction when we direct our energy toward the hard responsibility of governing. … It may not be perfect for each of us, but it is necessary for everyone.” And with those less-than-rousing words, the stopgap transit funding measure headed toward the November ballot.

COVID-19 Has Sparked Interest In Car-Free Streets. Will It Last?

This excerpt originally appeared at Huffington Post, where you can read the full version of this story.

Gordon Padelford, the founder and director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, can barely finish a thought without pointing out a toddler on a balance bike or a couple walking their dog in the middle of the road.

“I’ve never seen that before!” he exclaims as we take a walking tour of one of Seattle’s new “Stay Healthy Streets,” which the city has closed to most vehicle traffic so people can be outside while maintaining a safe social distance. One of the streets just happens to run right by his house.

“Three hours after it went in,” Padelford said, “two kids and a dad biked by, and I had never seen kids that young biking in the street. As soon as people were invited to use the street, they did.”

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All over the country, cities are closing down streets to car traffic and opening them up to people. It started with Oakland, where Mayor Libby Schaaf announced the city would close 74 miles to through traffic on April 10, and has spread across the country— to Portland, Oregon, Boston, San Francisco, Baltimore, Minneapolis, New York and beyond.

While the details vary slightly, the basic idea is the same: Block off a street to everything other than local traffic with removable barriers, and hope that people walking, biking or rolling will show up.

In Seattle, where more than one-quarter of city streets lack sidewalks, roadways can double as battlegrounds. Mayor Jenny Durkan got off on the wrong foot with bike and pedestrian activists when she dramatically scaled back the city’s ambitious bike plan in 2019, leaving Seattle’s traditionally underserved south end without any direct bike connections to downtown. Durkan initially seemed tentative about the idea of street closures, starting off by temporarily closing just 2.5 miles of streets in April and adding a few miles over the next few weeks.

But by early May, Durkan announced that the city would restrict 20 miles permanently, winning praise from groups like the Cascade Bicycle Club.

As soon as people were invited to use the street, they did.”—Gordon Padelford, founder and director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

Car traffic on major streets in Seattle declined 60% after Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee (D) issued his stay-at-home order in mid-March. But the gradual end of pandemic restrictions, combined with new anti-crowding measures on buses and trains, could bring that number skyrocketing back. King County’s public transit agency, for example, recently limited its bus capacity to a maximum of 12 to 18 riders.

At the same time, the city is facing massive budget cuts exacerbated by the April discovery that the West Seattle Bridge connecting West Seattle to the rest of the city had suffered major damage and would be shut down. A replacement will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Finding other ways to get people around cheaply could soften the blow.

“Making aggressive investments in active transportation and walking and biking— that is going to be part of the city’s overall recovery strategy,” Seattle Department of Transportation Director Sam Zimbabwe said in an interview. “The type of investments we need to make are going to look different as people start to travel more. We need to look at every possible way to keep the city moving, and that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to jump in a car.”

Metro Could Require Reservations for Late-Night Service

King County Metro is asking people who use its late-night bus service to provide feedback on whether the transit agency should require reservations to take the bus between 1am and 5am. The online survey describes the new “concept” this way: “a reservation-based system [in which a]ll passengers boarding buses between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. would book their essential trip in advance using a free reservation system (interpreter and TTY services would be available).” 

Currently, Metro requires riders to wear masks and maintain six feet of separation from others—a requirement that works out to a maximum of 12 riders on a 40-foot bus and 18 on a 60-foot bus. After those limits are reached, drivers are allowed to pass up riders waiting for the bus. The reservation system, according to the survey, would “ensure there is enough space on transit to support essential trips during Night Owl service.”

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before.

The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Torie Rynning, a spokeswoman for Metro general manager Rob Gannon, said Metro is considering a reservation-based system after hearing “from some riders who are not able to board their desired bus due to our ‘social distancing’ capacity limits.” Rynning said Metro doesn’t have details about what a reservation system might look like, but it would likely require, at minimum, access to a phone. Rynning said requiring reservations is just one option Metro is considering for late-night service; another is “increasing [the] supplemental service] that Metro has already added on the routes with the highest late-night ridership.

According to Metro, ridership has decreased dramatically during the late-night hours, declining between 53 and 57 percent overall between 10pm and 5am.

Both Metro and Sound Transit, the regional rail and bus agency, have struggled with the question of how (and whether) to accommodate so-called “non-destinational riders”—a euphemism, generally speaking, for homeless people who seek warmth and shelter on buses and trains—at a time when space on transit is at a premium and transit is free. Sound Transit has decided to resume charging fares (and fare enforcement) on June 1. Metro has also set a “target date” of May 31 to start charging fares again.

Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Modes of service | Sound Transit
Image via Sound Transit

Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, announced this morning that it will resume charging fares on Link Light Rail and Sounder trains on June 1. Fare enforcement officers will begin riding trains again and “educating” riders about the reintroduction of fares and providing information about how to access reduced-fare ORCA Lift cards starting tomorrow, May 19. Starting in June, fare enforcement will begin again. Officers are supposed to “follow social distancing guidelines” when checking fares.

A temporary “recovery fare” of $1 for Link trains and $2 for Sounder will be available through an app called Transit GO Ticket and at fare machines for one month.

According to a press release, “riders taking repetitive trips without apparent destinations” have been “associated in part” with “a dramatic increase in unsanitary conditions, rider complaints and incidents of vandalism after fares were temporarily suspended in March.” In other words: Homeless people riding trains for free have trashed our trains and made other riders uncomfortable.

“Beyond providing money to support transit operations, the resumption of fares will also allow Sound Transit to increase safety and security for essential riders,” the announcement says.

The notion that some riders are “essential” and others are effectively joyriding ignores the fact that, during COVID, most of the places that homeless people are allowed to be during the day, including libraries, community centers, day centers, and even many feeding programs, have shut down. Non-“essential riders” ride buses and trains because they have nowhere else to be, which is a symptom of the unaddressed crisis of homelessness, not the essential maliciousness of people experiencing homelessness.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

In an email following up on today’s announcement, Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick emphasized that complaints about, and hygiene issues related to, non-destination riders were among the primary reasons for the decision to reinstitute fares. “For the four week period ending on April 26, we recorded 293 biohazard incidents and 59 vandalism/graffiti incidents on Link. … On a per-passenger basis, biohazard incidents skyrocketed by almost 1700 percent while vandalism/graffiti incidents increased more than 1400 percent.”

Using “per-passenger” numbers as a “skyrocketing” metric is misleading. Because ridership has dropped, according to Sound Transit, by 85 percent, it would be more useful to look at increase in incidents rather than the number per rider. Sound Transit was unable to provide 2019 incident data by the end of the day on Monday. But extrapolating from the numbers that they did provide, a 1700-percent increase in incidents per rider suggests there were about 113 biohazard incidents last April, compared to 293 this year, and about 22 graffiti and vandalism incidents, compared to 59. Both numbers more than doubled, but neither increased anything like 1400 or 1700 percent.

This framing presents public transit as something that should be accessible during a pandemic to people who are “heroes,” like health care workers, and not people who are using it for “inessential” purposes, like staying warm and dry.

“The frequency of these incidents are unacceptable by any measure,” Patrick continued. “Our first obligation as the region’s transit provider in these times is to provide a safe, secure, and sanitary trip to passengers who are taking truly essential trips. This includes the many health care workers who are heroically traveling to our health care facilities on light rail to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.”

This framing presents public transit as something that should be accessible during a pandemic to people who are “heroes,” like health care workers, and not people who are using it for “inessential” purposes, like staying warm and dry. This judgment might seem fair if Sound Transit were comparing nurses to, say, school kids hopping the bus to hang out with their friends across town, but it gets a lot dicier when the people being deemed non-“essential riders” are riding because their other option is sitting on.a sidewalk in the rain. Libraries, community centers, and food courts aren’t homeless shelters either, but they do routinely provide places for people experiencing homelessness to go during the day. Now that those places are closed, people are turning to buses and trains for daytime shelter—and being told they are ruining it for everybody else.

In an ideal world, of course, no one would use public transit (or libraries, or community centers) as shelter, because everyone would have a place to live or at least a place to be. In this less-than-ideal world, there are more than 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County alone, and no matter where they are, there will be someone complaining that they’re causing problems or just taking up space. King County Metro has also seen an increase in these “nondestination” riders, and a rise in complaints. But while Sound Transit has responded by reinstating fares, reinstituting enforcement, and explicitly trying to drive away riders taking “repetitive trips with no apparent destination,” Metro has acknowledged that homeless people are riding transit in greater numbers because they have nowhere else to be.

“I’m not going to deny that the non-destinational riders present a challenge, especially when that group is seeking to use our buses as a shelter,” Metro general manager Rob Gannon told me earlier this month. “That is a challenge that is not unique to transit systems. That is a pervasive challenge of homelessness, and the lack of services that are currently available is exacerbating that situation.”

Jeff Switzer, a spokesman for King County Metro, says the agency “is still evaluating the best time to reintroduce fares and has not yet landed on a date.”

As Metro Considers Its Post-COVID Future, Agency Resists Calls to Crack Down on Homeless Riders

This article originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

It wasn’t so long ago — just 2018 — that Seattle could be proud of its status as the only city in the nation where transit ridership was actually going up, and the number of people commuting to the center city by car was going down. COVID-19 didn’t just reverse this trend; it obliterated it. Ridership on King County Metro buses is down about 73%, while ridership on Sound Transit’s light rail line has shrunk an estimated 70%. In an attempt to protect drivers from riders who might be COVID-positive, both agencies eliminated fares, and Metro implemented back-door-only boarding, in March. Both agencies also cut service, which has led to overcrowding on popular routes, such as the Route 7, that serve essential workers getting to and from the center city.

In response to complaints, Metro added more service in April. But they also limited the number of riders who can be on a bus at one time, which has meant that people waiting at bus stops are sometimes passed up because buses are over capacity. This has created tensions, which have coalesced around so-called “non-destination riders” — people who are not going to work or running essential errands, and who generally happen to be homeless. The number of non-destination riders is higher, proportionally, than it was before. But it’s also higher in absolute terms, because libraries, community centers and day shelters — all the places people experiencing homelessness used to go during the day — are closed. This leaves only a few places for people without homes to sit down, get warm and doze off for a while.

Some riders and drivers began calling on King County Metro to address the problem by barring homeless people from riding. Other suggestions included kicking them off at the end of the line, starting to charge fares again or forcing them to wear masks. Seattle is hardly the only city whose homeless population is using buses as a substitute for shelter during the pandemic. And it’s far from the only city where people have accused homeless riders of crowding the transit system, or making it dirty or putting people at risk by not wearing masks. Leaders of some transit systems have rushed to judgment — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stained his legacy by stating that homeless riders were “disgusting and disrespectful.” But to their credit, Metro, and its general manager, Rob Gannon, have not.

In a wide-ranging conversation this week, Gannon talked about non-destination riders, how Metro will get people back onto buses again, and the agency’s financial future.

Let’s start with what the new normal looks like. How much has ridership fallen off, and where is Metro currently seeing the highest ridership? 

Even though our ridership was down dramatically — between 70 and 75 percent—we’re still seeing about 100,000 boardings each day. If you look out your window and see an empty bus, that is not a guarantee that that bus is going to be empty the entire trip.

The more heavily-used routes are in the South End and southeast King County. On the RapidRide lines — the A, the E, the D Line — we continue to see a level of ridership that makes it difficult to have a coach that is not subject to crowding conditions, which is why we’re trying to add back service.

“We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.”

Farebox revenues are currently nonexistent, and sales taxes, which are always volatile, are likely to take a long-term hit. How have you balanced the need to add more buses with the need to keep Metro’s budget in line with the current revenue reality?

We’re anticipating that the lost revenue associated with the pandemic response — meaning, sales tax being severely depleted and farebox not recovering because we’re operating with free fares right now — will amount to $220 million to $265 million in losses in 2020. That is now offset by about $243 million coming in [from the federal CARES Act], so we are sustainable for the current year.

What we don’t know is what the longer-term impact of the pandemic will be on the economy — when will sales tax begin to rebound and when will ridership start to come back? So our 2021-‘22 outlook is pretty stark right now. We see a recession coming and we know the Seattle Transit Benefit District [a Seattle tax that adds service inside the city] is set to expire at the end of this year. And we know that the city continues to deliberate about when and how to bring that measure back in front of the voters. I-976 [an initiative that will, if upheld, slash revenues from car taxes and fees] brings uncertainty, generally, to the financing of public transportation. So 2021 and 2022 are going to be a period where we have to consider service reductions, and the where and the how of that is something we’re going to continue to assess.

“I’m not going to deny that the non-destinational riders present a challenge, especially when that group is seeking to use our buses as a shelter. That is a challenge that is not unique to transit systems. That is a pervasive challenge of homelessness, and the lack of services that are currently available is exacerbating that situation.”

It’s hard to believe that as recently as March, Metro was holding open houses throughout Southeast Seattle on route options for the RapidRide R, which is supposed to replace the Route 7 on Rainier Ave. S. Are this route and the other planned RapidRide lines being put on hold?

The planning is not on hold. In high-level terms, when we identified those RapidRide corridors as places to enhance the service experience and to enhance the way customers can get where they need to go, that was based on some well-founded analysis and community participation. We still think those are all the right areas. The question now becomes: will we have the resources to stay on that investment timeline? We’re still doing planning, we’re still going to figure out how to engage the community, we’re still going to bring those services online. We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.

There have been complaints from drivers and riders about homeless people riding the bus and not wearing masks or taking up seats on buses that are supposed to only be for essential rides. How do you respond to these complaints, and what is Metro currently doing to ensure rider and driver safety? 

First and foremost, we’re trying to make sure that our bus system is safe and reliable in this current health crisis. It started very early with daily cleaning of the buses, disinfecting, moving to a free-fare situation to limit the amount of interaction at the front of the coach, putting up a safety strap [between the front and back of the bus], and doing rear-door boarding. We have also been in everyday contact with our employees, trying to understand what conditions they face and how we can make it safer for them, fulfilling requests for PPEs, outfitting operators with sanitation kits and gloves and hand sanitizer and wipes, and, on April 11, bringing masks into the equation [for drivers]. So a lot of that isn’t about the non-destinational rider. It’s about how do we make the system safe for all those who use it?

The rider that is finding shelter on the coach — in one sense, we all find shelter on a coach, because it is the alternative to walking, to being exposed to the elements. What we hope to see is that a rider comes on board, pays a fare, and rides to a specific destination. When they don’t, when they try to use the bus as a shelter, it inevitably presents problems of crowding. It makes it more difficult to keep the buses as clean as possible. There is occasionally conduct inconsistent with the guidance for the transit system, and we have seen an increase in those incidents. Continue reading “As Metro Considers Its Post-COVID Future, Agency Resists Calls to Crack Down on Homeless Riders”