Category: Transportation

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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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.

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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.

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”

Driving a Metro Bus Through the Pandemic

The post excerpted here originally ran on Huffington Post, where you can read the entire piece.

Driving a city bus has always had its hazards. Until recently, exposure to a deadly pandemic was not among them. But as most workers are staying home to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, bus drivers remain on the front lines, transporting strangers around the city in what one driver referred to as “rolling petri dishes.”

With protective equipment such as masks and gloves in short supply, drivers say they have no way of knowing whether they’ve been exposed. Every interaction with a rider, another driver said, is a potential opportunity for infection: “Everybody’s got a gun now, but we don’t know who has bullets.”

In Seattle, where the first U.S. cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, were detected in February, conversations with nearly a dozen bus drivers revealed widespread anxiety about driver and passenger safety.

While many drivers sympathize with riders who still rely on buses to get to work or the store ― or just have nowhere else to go ―  some drivers said they didn’t understand why so many buses were still on the road. They have no idea how many of their fellow drivers have been infected because the public transit authority, King County Metro, won’t say. And drivers are frustrated with what they see as a lack of clear direction from management about how to protect themselves, when to stay home, and how they will be compensated if they take time off.

Nathan Vass is a veteran Metro driver who recently decided to take unpaid time off because he thinks he may have been exposed to the coronavirus. He said that his route, which is one of the busiest in the city, has remained crowded through the pandemic — an observation confirmed by Metro’s ridership statistics, which show that buses serving lower-income areas, like the one Vass drives, have seen much lower reductions than commuter and suburban routes.

Vass said he’s not sure what’s worse: Failing to serve people who rely on transit by shutting the buses down, or allowing the virus to spread unchecked by keeping them in service.

“If we’re going to continue allowing transit, we have to be OK with the fact that we’re spreading the virus as well,” said Vass, who recently published a book chronicling his experiences as a bus driver. “Transit is just not conducive to restricting the transmission of viruses.”

Metro, like other transit systems across the country, has reduced service dramatically during the pandemic. But drivers in Seattle — unlike, for example, in Vancouver, Canada, where the bus agency recently closed off every second row of seats — have been offered limited official options for enforcing social distance.

A recorded message, which is only in English, instructs riders to sit six feet apart, but that’s an impossible standard to achieve on the more crowded routes. And even if riders do sit six feet apart, the coronavirus lingers on surfaces, so if an infected person sneezes on a handrail or touches a seat with dirty hands, they can still infect the next person who sits there.

At the same time, Metro has officially designated bus drivers “first responders” and instructed all drivers who don’t show COVID-19 symptoms to keep showing up for work, even if they think they’ve been exposed to the virus.

“That is the opposite of everything we’ve been told, from CDC on down,” said Audrey Monroe, who has driven for Metro for almost four years. “It seems wild to me that that’s their policy when we know that you can have no symptoms and still be shedding the virus.”

Metro will not say how many drivers have been infected. According to King County Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer, releasing illness numbers “could lead to individuals being identified and could cause other spaces to be mistakenly seen as being without risk,” and might cause drivers not to seek needed medical care. A driver for Community Transit, an agency that serves the suburbs north of Seattle, died of COVID-19 last month; so far, the agency has confirmed 10 cases among its drivers.

Read the rest of this piece at HuffPost.

Sound Transit Considers Fare Enforcement Reforms, Touts Survey Suggesting Most “Fare Evaders” Could Afford to Pay

Sound Transit says this distribution of reasons riders said they failed to pay shows that “most riders are able to pay” their fares, which range from $2.25 to $5.75 for a one-way ride.

After a fare-checking incident on the first day of school led to widespread criticism of Sound Transit’s fare-enforcement policies, the agency said it would reconsider how it checks and enforces fare—just as soon as it could complete an in-person rider survey, an onboard rider survey, and a series of focus groups to determine what issues riders were most concerned about and the reasons people engage in “fare evasion” on Sound Transit trains. (“Fare evasion” is a term that suggests intent, or even theft, but it includes many situations where the “evasion” is unintentional, such as when a person buys an unlimited monthly pass but forgets to “tap” her card before boarding; hence the scare quotes)

For the onboard surveys, staffers shadowed fare enforcement officers until they caught someone without proof of payment, then gave them a survey about why they didn’t pay. The most common responses were that the rider forgot to tap their card, that their card didn’t work, or that they “couldn’t find where to tap.” This finding, according to the survey, “provides further support for the finding that most riders are able to pay but occasionally fail to do so for a myriad of reasons.”

The comment seems aimed squarely at advocates who have argued for free or reduced fares on the grounds that people who avoid fares typically do so because they can’t afford them. Those advocates expressed frustration last year after Sound Transit adopted a wait-and-see policy toward any changes to fare or fare enforcement, pointing out that a 2018 audit of King County Metro showed that a large number of riders who failed to pay did so because they couldn’t afford the fare. (In comparing the two surveys, it’s worth noting that Sound Transit’s survey included a bewildering array of 14 possible reasons for nonpayment, plus “other”—nearly twice as many options as King County Metro’s 2018 survey). If it turns out people could pay if they wanted to, but don’t, that would create a new bulwark against calls to make the system more affordable or accessible to low-income people.

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The on-board survey did find that people making between $0 and $50,000 were the least likely to pay, but the report doesn’t break that number down further, making it hard to draw conclusions about different groups within that broad income category. Currently, people making less than 200 percent of the poverty level, or about $25,000 for an individual, are eligible for discount fares through the ORCA Lift program.

The King County Auditor’s independent review of Metro’s fare enforcement policies led to changes such as reduced fines for fare evasion and the creation of new avenues to address fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in ORCA Lift. Sound Transit is considering similar changes, but has rejected proposals to make its service free, and has resolutely defended its fare-enforcement practice of checking all riders on each car for fare, despite the fact that this practice has still resulted in racially lopsided enforcement.

The agency released the results of the surveys and in-person sessions last week, and held a listening session to talk about some of the proposals that emerged from the process at El Centro de la Raza on Wednesday night. The meeting was unusual for a “roundtable” style public meeting in a couple of respects: First, agency staffers kept the initial presentation short. Second, participants got a chance to rotate among six different tables to discuss a total of three separate topics instead of just one. Finally, because the public comment came at the end of the meeting, after everyone had spent an hour throwing out ideas, it was actually informed by the discussion, rather than rehearsed and packaged in advance. Continue reading “Sound Transit Considers Fare Enforcement Reforms, Touts Survey Suggesting Most “Fare Evaders” Could Afford to Pay”

“Eastlake Is Moving Forward,” Herbold to Pay Ethics Fine, and an Impasse on LEAD

1. During a Monday-morning “celebration” of the 14 miles of new bike infrastructure the city built last year, Mayor Jenny Durkan said that she was committed to building a protected bike lane on Eastlake Ave. a, rather than acceding to demands from neighborhood activists that the city ditch the bike lane for an unspecified neighborhood greenway somewhere else. “We need that bike lane,”  Durkan said. “We can’t have a connected [route] if people can’t get from the north end to downtown Seattle. … Eastlake is moving forward.”

The bike lane is included in plans for the Roosevelt RapidRide bus route that will replace King County Metro’s Route 70 bus; the Seattle Department of Transportation released an environmental assessment of the proposal last month. Neighborhood activists have protested that the bike lane will require the removal of parking along Eastlake, and city council member Alex Pedersen said last week that he would prefer to have cyclists use unspecified parallel “neighborhood greenways” for at least some of the route.

Neither Durkan nor SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe would commit to a specific timeline to complete the most contentious portion of the center city bike network—a long-delayed protected bike lane on Fourth Avenue. Durkan decided to press pause on the bike lane in anticipation of “mega traffic” downtown during demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and a number of other major construction projects downtown. Although Carmageddon failed, once again, to materialize, the Fourth Avenue bike lane remains delayed until 2021, and was scaled back last year from a two-way protected on the east side of the street to a one-way northbound lane on the west side, in the same spot as an existing unprotected lane.

Vicky Clarke, the policy director of Cascade Bicycle Club, made a point of mentioning “gaps in the system” repeatedly in her remarks, and noted pointedly that bike advocates are looking forward to the city “funding and building a two-way bike lane on Fourth Avenue next year.”

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2.City council member Lisa Herbold will pay a $500 fine for violating the city’s ethics code when she contacted Police Chief Carmen Best over a trailer that was parked in front of her house last year, on the grounds that she was using, or appeared to be using, her elected position for “private benefit” or a non-city purpose. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission will take up  the case at its meeting on Wednesday afternoon.

The case stems from an incident last year in which KIRO radio host Dori Monson and conservative activist Ari Hoffman had encouraged listeners of Monson’s show to buy up derelict RVs and park them in front of council members’ houses to protest the presence of “drug RVs” in Seattle. When a trailer showed up in front of Herbold’s home in West Seattle, Monson assumed someone had taken him up on his idea, and encouraged listeners to show up and join the “protest.”

In response to the trailer and the crowd of people outside her home, Herbold texted police chief Carmen Best and asked her to look into whether the U-Haul that brought the RV to her street had been rented by Hoffman and, if so, to consider charging Hoffman with theft. Best declined to investigate and suggested that Herbold call SPD’s non-emergency number.

“If someone has reported a trailer stolen, one has been delivered to the street in front of my house,” Herbold wrote. “I’m not complaining, I want to ensure the property is returned to its owner.” In a followup, Herbold continued, “I’m not asking you to move it. Ari [Hoffman] will twist that as [a] special SPD response for a Councilmember. I would like to find out if 1. anyone has reported it stolen, 2. Give you the license plate number of the uhaul so you can confirm from Uhaul that Ari rented the uhaul & towed it there and you can consider whether it’s appropriate to charge him with theft.”

As it turned out, the trailer was owned by a homeless woman and her family, who had planned to tow it away later that week and did not know that they had parked it near a council member’s house. They returned to the trailer to find that random people, including a reporter for KIRO Radio, had entered the trailer and rummaged through it without permission, and that the outside of the trailer had been covered in graffiti, including the words “DORI MONSON FOR PRESIDENT” across one side. The woman who owned the trailer, who was pregnant, was reportedly threatened with a knife by one of the “protesters.”

Monson never apologized for encouraging his listeners to show up and vandalize the trailer (an act he called “pretty great!!” on Twitter), though he did put give the woman and her family a “hunski” from his money clip on the air the following day. The reporter who entered the trailer, Carolyn Ossario, was reportedly fired over the stunt.

3. Last week, the members of the city council’s public safety committee, led by Herbold, sent a letter to Mayor Durkan asking her to release the full $3.5 million allocated in the city’s 2020 budget for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program by March 1, and to affirm that LEAD—which offers alternatives to arrest for people suspected of committing low-level crimes—is a crime prevention program, not a homelessness program. The letter requested a response no later than last Friday.

Durkan’s office did get back to Herbold’s office on Friday, but they did not agree to fully fund LEAD by March, and they had no response to the committee’s request that the mayor acknowledge that LEAD is not a homelessness program. Supporters of LEAD consider this an important distinction, because the city requires homeless services to focus on moving clients into permanent housing, whereas LEAD is focused on keeping them out of the criminal justice system.

Last year, the council added $3.5 million to LEAD’s budget in an effort to reduce caseloads and allow the program to take on new clients. Instead, Durkan reduced LEAD’s approved budget to the $2.6 million she had proposed in her initial budget, and made the rest of the funding contingent on the findings of a consultant hired to review and craft new performance metrics for the program. As a result, LEAD has delayed expansion plans and is considering cutbacks. A compromise plan the mayor’s office proposed last week would provide enough funding for LEAD to reduce caseloads and take care of a backlog of low-priority cases, but program director Lisa Daugaard says this defeats the purpose of the program, which is to reduce crime by working with individuals who have the greatest impact on neighborhoods.

The response from the mayor’s office is signed by Tess Colby, Durkan’s homelessness advisor. On the issue of funding, Colby wrote: “The split of the contract budget into two phases will not impede LEAD’s ability to staff in accordance with its needs. LEAD is not proposing to hire 52 case managers in the first quarter of 2020, but rather over the course of the year. I note this because the budget we have requested from LEAD will cover expenses associated with the addition of new case managers to right-size their case management ratios. This is consistent with LEAD’s plan to grow in response to referrals and intakes. Thus, the pace of hiring will not be slowed during the first phase of the contract.”

Daugaard said LEAD has no plans to expand until they know they can actually retain the new case managers for the rest of the year; it makes no sense, she told me, to hire people and start ramping up their client base now if the funding might run out in the middle of the year. For now, it seems that the council, LEAD, and the mayor are at an impasse: Durkan says LEAD can proceed as normal, LEAD says they can’t move forward without a guarantee of funding, and the council can do little except register their protest, since the mayor holds the purse strings.

Cyclists Pack Pedersen Forum, Libraries Still Lack Narcan, and an Update on LEAD

1. Bike and bus advocates showed up in force for a “town hall” meeting featuring District 4 city council member Alex Pedersen in Eastlake last night, but many said afterward that the moderators who chose the questions from a stack of cards submitted by the public—a representative from the Eastlake Community Council and a Pedersen staffer—rejected or ignored their questions.

I was live-tweeting the forum, and noticed early on that most of the questions seemed to be from people opposed to a planned protected bike lane on Eastlake, rather than the dozens of bike lane supporters in the audience. For example, early questions centered on how businesses were supposed to deal with the loss of hundreds of parking spaces directly on Eastlake Avenue; why cyclists couldn’t just ride on a parallel greenway somewhere near, but not on, Eastlake’s business district; and what can still be done to prevent King County Metro from replacing the milk-run Route 70 with a RapidRide bus route that will be faster and more frequent but won’t have as many stops.

During the meeting, I noticed that a pile of questions had been set aside, and that the moderator seemed to be favoring questions from people who opposed bike lanes and RapidRide over questions from the bike lane supporters who packed the room. So I asked via Twitter: If you were at the forum and asked a question that didn’t get answered, what was it?

Pedersen was fairly circumspect in his responses, suggesting repeatedly that people contact his office and promising he would get back to them by email. He did, however, say he supported changing the Eastlake bike lane plan—which has been debated, studied, and affirmed repeatedly over a period of several years—so that cyclists would have to shift back and forth between the arterial and short stretches of “greenway” on unnamed parallel streets. “I think [the Seattle Department of Transportation] should look harder at a combination of protected bike lanes on some part of it and greenways on some of it,” Pedersen said.

Invoking the specter of 35th Ave. NE, where a long-planned bike lane was scuttled after neighborhood activists complained that the loss of on-street parking would destroy local businesses, Pedersen added: “There was a lack of transparency” about the proposed bike lane, which he opposed. “People were just trying to figure out what was going on with it.”

“I think [the Seattle Department of Transportation] should look harder at a combination of protected bike lanes on some part of [Eastlake] and greenways on some of it.” — City council member Alex Pedersen

During the meeting, I noticed that a pile of questions had been set aside, and that the moderator seemed to be favoring questions from people who opposed bike lanes and RapidRide over questions from the bike lane supporters who packed the room. So I asked via Twitter: If you were at the forum and asked a question that didn’t get answered, what was it? Here are some of their (slightly edited) answers:

• Given that every study shows bike lanes make streets safer for everyone and are good for business (and that cyclists spend more than drivers), what data are you paying attention to? How will you incorporate the data that already exists about protected bike lanes around the world?

• Have you seen any analysis of the percentage of people who are NOT in Eastlake that commute to Eastlake for any of the businesses that are afraid of losing 320 parking spots? Do people drive to 14 Carrots from other parts of the city?

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The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. 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 keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

• Have you seen any research about the actual impact of bike lanes on businesses?

• What options are you prioritizing to help my whole family get around without using a car?

• Many people bus and bike through Eastlake, but don’t stop because traffic is so dangerous. What can be done to make Eastlake more welcoming to visitors and encourage fewer single occupancy vehicles, supporting the goal of Vision Zero?

• When will the city consider a residential parking zone in Eastlake (which prevents people from commuting in by car and parking all day in neighborhoods)?

• Why is the RapidRide and bike lane project important for Eastlake and the surrounding area?

Jessica Westgren from Welcoming Wallingford, a group that supports housing density and alternatives to driving, asked Pedersen verbally why he wouldn’t return calls and emails from her organization. Pedersen responded that she should send him an email, ideally including specific information such as “I’m having this issue on my block.”

 

Mayor Jenny Durkan, flanked by parents who lost their son to an opioid overdose and local officials

2. Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city will be distributing 700 doses of naloxone (Narcan), a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses, in response to a surge in overdoses from fentanyl in counterfeit oxycodone pills—and, in particular, an increase in the number of teenagers who have died of fentanyl overdoses. Fentanyl is especially deadly, and overdoses happen quickly; an overdosing person can die long before first responders arrive, which is why having Narcan on hand (and knowing how to use it) is so critical.

Durkan said that kits will be distributed in schools, bars, and nightclubs—”any place where it is likely that someone might overdose.” The city is also planning 25 Narcan training workshops.

Since Seattle public libraries are among the places people use opioids—and are, because staff are always present, safer consumption sites than alleys or parks—I asked if the libraries would also start stocking Narcan, and if library workers would be trained to use it. (The library system has been slow to adopt harm reduction policies, and only added sharps containers in restrooms after I published several stories on the issue last year.) Durkan said “we’d like them in the libraries,” but her staff added later that this would be an issue for the library union to negotiate.

Library spokeswoman Andra Addison later confirmed that the library does not have current plans to stock Narcan or train library workers to use it. “The Library currently uses 911 for all medical emergencies. Use of Narcan in our libraries would involve union representatives, and those discussions are just under way,” Addison says. Asked to clarify what the issue would be for the library union, Addison said, “working conditions and the impact on working conditions.”

3. City council member Lisa Herbold has released a copy of the letter I mentioned on Wednesday, urging Durkan to confirm that she will release all the funding the council provided for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program in its adopted budget no later than March 1, and to affirm that LEAD—which offers alternatives to arrest for people suspected of committing low-level crimes—is a crime prevention program, not a homelessness program. Durkan has hired a consultant to look at LEAD’s performance and to determine performance metrics for the program; currently, LEAD is classified as a homelessness intervention and required to meet housing goals, even though more than a quarter of its clients are not homeless. Continue reading “Cyclists Pack Pedersen Forum, Libraries Still Lack Narcan, and an Update on LEAD”