1. Mayor Jenny Durkan, joined by staffers from the Washington State Department of Transportation, King County Metro, Sound Transit, and the Seattle Department of Transportation, held a press briefing yesterday to lay out the regional plan for dealing with the upcoming three-week closure of SR 99 through downtown. Although the city has presented most of the details before (this PowerPoint provides a lot of useful details), the officials addressed (or, in some cases, dodged) some of the outstanding questions about their plan, including everything from why Metro can’t just make buses free during the closure to why the city is encouraging commuters to take advantage of a promotion that gives Uber and Lyft riders a discount if they use the car service to get to light rail stations. A few of those questions and answers of particular interest to those who don’t plan on driving downtown (for everyone else, the TV stations and Joel Connelly have got you covered):
• Given that one of the major contributors to congestion is cars “blocking the box”—that is, sticking out into intersections and preventing cyclists, pedestrians, and other vehicle traffic from getting through—why doesn’t the city’s plan include beefed-up police enforcement of laws that make box-blocking illegal?
According to Mayor Durkan, more vigorous real-time enforcement by officers would only make the problem worse. “Normal traffic enforcement can’t help that much, because when you have a police officer pulling traffic over it just blocks traffic more,” Durkan said. The city is hoping that the state legislature will give it the authority to use cameras to enforce the law in the future.
• With the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel becoming light-rail-only on March 23, how does the city plan to ensure that buses move smoothly on surface streets?
A lot of the plans are highlighted in the city’s presentation, but here are a few you may not know about. King County Metro plans to institute off-board payment, and all-door boarding, for all buses on Third Avenue, which will require the agency to install ORCA card readers at bus stops. For bus stops that don’t have readers, Metro will be paying off-duty bus drivers to stand at the back entrance to buses and manually scan passengers’ cards as they board in the back. All-door boarding—standard in many cities—reduces the amount of time buses sit at stops, and is considered a best practice by groups like the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Many cities have instituted both all-door boarding and a proof-of-payment system that doesn’t require the installation of card-tapping machines at single bus stop; although Bryant noted that Metro has to have some way of collecting fare, other cities have systems like this, with fare payment enforced by transit workers. Other cities also have card readers right on board buses; it’s hard to see why Seattle couldn’t install a similar system’s to, say, San Francisco’s, which relies on a combination of trust and enforcement.
• Couldn’t Metro really speed things up by bringing back the Ride-Free Area?
The Ride-Free Area, a zone encompassing most of downtown where riders could board buses for free (if you went outside the zone, you had to pay as you exited the bus) was discontinued on September 29, 2012, to the consternation of advocates for low-income and homeless bus riders and anyone who liked to hop on the bus for short trips downtown but didn’t have an employer-funded transit pass. Metro planner Bill Bryant said yesterday that the Ride-Free Area led to fare evasion and slowed buses down when they got to their destinations downtown, as people lined up to pay when deboarding the bus. If the point of all the changes discussed yesterday is to improve travel times through downtown, though, the ride-free area seems worth revisiting; the passenger-bunching problem, meanwhile, seems fixable—perhaps by installing on-board card readers on buses, as described above.
• Why is the city of Seattle promoting a promotion by ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft to give passengers a $2.75 discount—the amount of a Metro transit ride—if they use one of the companies’ cars to get to a light-rail station or transit center? Durkan has suggested tolling Uber and Lyft trips into downtown on the grounds that the car-hailing companies increase vehicle miles traveled, so promoting their use seems potentially inconsistent with the goal of getting people out of cars, whether those cars are privately owned or operated by a ride-hailing company.
Durkan has apparently been feeling the pushback on this issue, because she gave a heated response to my question about why the city was promoting the companies’ discount program, which began on December 17, almost a month before the viaduct will close. “I think that’s a totally false framework,” she said. “We’re not saying it’s going to remove all these trips; what we’re trying to do is have a range of services [to]… increase the number of people that get to transit. They think that can be one way. It’s their program. If it works, that’s great.” (I did not suggest in my question that Durkan was saying that Uber and Lyft were the only solution.)
Durkan continued: “Some people will say no one will take the bikes, but we made bikes available at every transit stop. People have to pay for those bikes. It’s not a one-seat ride. I think no one of these pieces is going to fix everything. But by hopefully having a range of choices, we can make sure that people can do what they need to do to get out of their single-occupancy vehicles and driving them into town.”
2. Linea Laird, the city’s interim SDOT director, sent a letter to scooter-sharing companies, including Lime and Bird, this week requesting that the companies indemnify the city from legal responsibility for any injuries or deaths that result from scooter crashes, and asking the companies to reveal whether they had technology that could prevent scooters from functioning on sidewalks or in bike lanes, suggesting that if scooters are allowed, people will only be able to ride them in vehicle traffic (a situation that would, logically, result in a lot more injuries and deaths.) Portland, which started allowing scooters earlier this year, allows riders to operate them in bike lanes, but not on sidewalks.
Laird’s letter reads, in part:
Thank you for your interest in obtaining the necessary permits to utilize Seattle city right of way for free-floating scooter sharing. Seattle’s successful Free-Floating Bike Share Program has provided new choices for mobility and fun. Key to the program’s success is our commitment to equitable and safe micro mobility policies that ensure Seattle taxpayers get fair value for the use of the public right-of-way.
Although the City of Seattle currently does not allow scooters, we are aware of the positive benefits this mobility option has brought to other cities. We are also aware of the safety challenges and concerns. As we evaluate your interest in deploying scooters in Seattle and weigh the public benefits of doing so, we request that you provide some additional information including the following: […]
How many injuries have occurred related to use of your scooters in each city where you have deployed? For each incident, please provide any information available regarding:
• who was injured (e.g. the scooter rider, somebody else);
• the nature of each injury;
• the cause or causes of the incident; and,
• the location of the scooter during the event (e.g. sidewalk, bike lane, road)
If Seattle permits scooters, would you agree to indemnify the City in any claim, lawsuit or other dispute relating to their deployment or use? […]
Does your company have any technology or other method for preventing or discouraging motorized scooter use on sidewalks, bike lanes, and other areas where they are not permitted under Seattle Municipal Code § 11.46.010? Alternatively, does your business plan envision scooter use on sidewalks or bike lanes?
Durkan has previously indicated that she considers electric scooters a bit of a menace (“Every mayor who’s got ‘em comes up to me and says, ‘Don’t take ‘em,” she said at a recent event), so scooter companies may see the very fact that her transportation department is looking for solid data and asking about compliance plans as a sign of progress—or an opening gambit. The city’s contracts with e-bike companies like Lime and JUMP contain a section that indemnifies the city for damages from crashes (except when a crash results from the city’s own negligence); the version posted online says that the indemnity clause only applies when a rider is not wearing a helmet, but the mayor’s office provided more recent version in which the city is indemnified whether or not a rider is helmeted.