The Only Solution To Our Traffic Nightmare
by James Robert Deal, Attorney
Traffic is bad and getting worse, and there is no solution in sight, as one would conclude from reading Eli Sanders’ “Welcome to Town, Here’s Why You’re Stuck in Traffic” (Stranger, 1-28-15).
I believe there is a solution: a flexible van system which would deliver door-to-door service to those who subscribe to it. It would use on-call vans to connect up the fragmented and disconnected transit services we now offer, with the goal that transit will become so convenient to use that half of us will leave our cars at home. It should not be necessary to own a car to get around.
Widening the freeways, eliminating choke points, and finishing Link Light Rail will take decades and billions of dollars. After decades there will be more people, more cars, and new choke points, and we will have to spend billions more. More mass transit and wider freeways will not solve our problem unless we figure out a way to get people to and from mass transit – whether it is buses or trains.
Link Light Rail carries a tenth of its capacity because it is not easy to get to and from rail stations. Out in the suburbs enormous Park & Ride lots max out at 7 a.m. Late-comers have no choice but to drive on into the traffic jam. Even in the HOV lane – filled up by lane violators – it can take 90 minutes to drive from Shoreline to Bellevue. The Everett Boeing parking lot, with 6,000 stalls, is maxed out at 6 a.m.
A big part of the problem is that most cars are driven single-occupancy. If half of those now driving SOV would start using the flex van system and leave their cars at home, there would be half as many cars on the roads. Traffic would flow again. Those who really do need to drive would be able to do so. With fewer drivers parking at Park & Ride lots, those who really need to park there would be able to do so. (We should charge to park in Park & Ride lots.) And if we can take half the cars off the road, we would really be doing something to reduce CO2 emissions.
Assume I need to go from my home in Lynnwood to a seminar in Bellevue. Through my Regional Transit UberX-like app, I would request a van. The van orbiting my zone would arrive within five to ten minutes and take me and three or five others to the Lynnwood Transit Center. I would then take a fast bus to the Bellevue Transit Center, where I would board another van serving the appropriate zone, which would carry me and three or five others on to our ultimate destinations.
Technology would not be a barrier. Regional Transit could sub-contract with UberX to set up the software. Vans would be driven by responsible, well-trained union drivers. And a flex van system could be up and running in a matter of months. A flex van system would be more secure; a rider would be picked up and delivered to his or her front door and not have to hike long distances and stand in the dark and the rain at bus stops.
The role of flex vans in Seattle and other major congested areas would be to pick people up wherever they are and deliver them either to their ultimate destinations – if they are not too far away – or funnel them to a major transit center, where they would take a fast bus or light rail.
Those using the flex vans would pay extra, anywhere from $50 to $75 to $150 per month – depending on their van usage – on top of what they currently pay for regular bus fares. There should be reduced fares for the needy. Those who prefer to get some exercise and hike to the bus stop can continue to do so and pay the same basic bus fares as they do now.
Vans would roam the many van zones throughout the area. The more people who use the vans, the more vans there would be, the faster the service would be, and the more revenue they would generate.
“Oh, that would be too costly”, some will say. More costly than what? It costs around $745 per month to own and operate a car. Would it be more costly than that?
Would a flex van system be more costly than widening the freeways? Than converting every transit center into a multi-story parking garage? Than the wasted hours we spend stuck in traffic? Than the time we cannot spend with our families? Than the inefficiencies this creates for our business? Than our current inefficient transit system, which is subsidized around 80% by our sales taxes? We need a transit system that is so convenient to use that more people will use it.
A family owning one, two, or three cars, might go to owning two, or one, or maybe even (shocking idea) no car at all. The savings would effectively add to their disposable income.
A flex-van system would require capital investments in more vans and more buses. Buses would run more frequently, and more buses would run full. Increased fare revenue would offset increased capital and labor cost, so the transit system would need a smaller subsidy. Cash flow could be freed up, maybe enough to complete Link Light Rail to Everett and Tacoma without raising the sales tax rate, and even build a maglev train from Shoreline to West Seattle – the most feasible technology for that neglected route.
The flex van system would target two populations, first, those who commute long distances on arterials and freeways. It would deliver tens of thousands of additional riders to transit centers and then on to their ultimate destinations and take tens of thousands of cars off the arterials and freeways.
Second, it would target those who cannot afford a car, those who cannot drive (maybe because their eyesight is bad), and those who would just rather not drive, like me. I hate to drive. Large numbers of people would sign up for such a service. I would. It would mean that I could leave my car at home and not worry about avoiding wrecks, finding parking, and filling the gas tank.
To use the current bus system, you must research bus schedules and take a hike to the bus stop on your own. At the other end, the bus drops you off short of your destination, and you have to take another hike. This is inconvenient, and so most people do not use public transit.
Why do we put up with this inefficiency? First, because the flexibility I propose would not have been possible before cell phones and smart phones came along and before UberX proved us that such flexibility is feasible. Second, we generally presume that the way things have always been is the way things ought to be. Trains ran fixed routes, so buses run fixed routes. We are often unthinking creatures of habit.
There is nothing wrong with buses running fixed routes and schedules, provided they are heavily used. But late at night, even on routes where buses are packed during the day, most buses run mostly empty. Flex vans could take over at night and deliver riders securely all the way to their homes. On most local routes here in Lynnwood, most buses run mostly empty most of the time. The sales tax we pay to subsidize the buses is mostly wasted.
If UberX can provide door-to-door service on a single passenger basis, public transit can do so on a multi-passenger basis.
For more details go to www.Comprehensive-Transportation.Blogspot.com.
See my letter to Governor Inslee and the Department of Transportation.
See reply from DOT.
See Seattle Weekly article on for-profit app-based taxi services, with many or most vehicles operated on a part time basis.
See: Westneat’s “Hey, we’re world class! For truly terrible traffic”
(Seattle Times 10-21-14)
See: Lindblom’s “Region’s Commute Times Worsen” (Seattle Times, 10-20-14)
See: Traffic is Hurting Snohomish County Business (Herald, 1-5-15)
OBJECTIONS TO A FLEX VAN SYSTEM
Some will say that a flex van program would be expensive. I respond: More expensive than what?
More expensive than widening the freeways?
- More expensive than converting every transit center into a multi-story parking garage?
- More expensive than the wasted hours we spend stuck in traffic?
- More expensive than the time we cannot spend with our families?
- More expensive than the inefficiencies this creates for our business?
- More expensive than most of the buses here in Lynnwood driving around mostly empty most of the time?
- More expensive than our current transit system, which is subsidized around 80% by our sales taxes?
- More expensive than driving a single occupancy vehicle, which costs on average around $745 per monthto finance, operate, maintain, and insure?
People would buy a flex van pass if it would cost them less than what their cars cost them. They might go back to being – shock – two car families instead of three car families and save a lot of money. They might go back to being – shock – one car families and save even more money. They might eve become – shock – no-car families and save even more money. When they go on a trip, they will rent a car.
I would suggest that we start charging rent for the privilege of parking at the transit centers. It is a valuable privilege to park on such expensive ground. There are times when people need to park there – when they are in a special hurry, for example, and there should be spaces available for them.
I would suggest that we charged for a flex endorsement on the Orca card, and charge the real value of the service. If the real cost of the door-to-door service is $2, $3, or $4 per direction, that is $4, $6, or $8 per day, the monthy cost would be $86, $129, or $172 per month. If it costs $745 per month to own, operate, finance, and insure a car, then the monthly fees that we would charge for flex van service would be a bargain.
Those would be the standard charges for those able to pay. Those who can afford to pay the real cost should pay the real cost. For those of limited means, there should be a sliding scale, going down to $0 for the unemployed, those earning minimum wage, and those of limited means.
The freeway buses carry so many passengers that they come close to breaking even on a cost versus revenue basis. With flex vans breaking even, the system will come closer to covering its operating costs. That would be a revolutionary concept – a transit system that covers its operating expenses!
This would free up sales tax capacity that could be used to fund Link Light Rail all the way to Paine Field, Everett, and Tacoma. Is it possible to extend Link to Everett without raising the sales tax? Maybe. Maybe we could get to Everett with a smaller sales tax increase – using the flex van concept.
Objection: A flex van program would just add more cars to the roads. If a flex van were driven around empty, it would be adding one car to the roads. If it were carrying one passenger, it would be adding one car to the roads but taking one car off the roads, which would mean it would break even in number of cars on the road. The cost of the driver would be an additional cost. The depreciation of the flex van would be an additional cost, but it would be offset by the fact that the passenger’s car would not be depreciating. The flex van could be an all-electric van, and so it would emit less carbon than a private vehicle which might burn gas and not be warmed up.
If there were four passengers on board, the flex van would be adding one vehicle to the roads but taking three away. This would apply to the freeways as well. With fewer cars on the freeways, the freeways will flow better, and cars will burn less fuel. Those who need to drive will be able to.
Objection: Too few riders will sign up for flex van service. Response: Lower the price until you find a price where a sufficient number of riders will be willing to join. Charge for parking at the transit centers, and give commuters a choice between paying for parking at the transit centers or paying for the flex van.
Objection: Too many riders will sign up. Response: The more riders who use the flex van system, the more financially feasible it becomes. More vans can easily added if there are more riders. Full vans carrying four to ten passengers are more economical than half million dollar buses frequently being driven around mostly empty most of the time.
Conclusion: a flex van system would take more cars off the road than it would add. It would open up roads for those who need to drive. It will bring in more revenues and help reduce the amount by which bus service is subsidized by our sales tax. It will make it feasible to extend light rail north and south without raising the sales tax rate or by raising it less than we would have to others. We will give a lot more for our money.
Some propose that we enact congestion taxes in order to reduce the number of cars on the freeways – the stick method. I say that the carrot is the better approach: Give commuters an option better and cheaper than driving solo.
A flex van system would reduce carbon emissions. Are we serious about reducing carbon emissions, or is this just a phrase that we pander to? What would do more to reduce carbon emissions than to get half of our commuters to leave their single-occupancy vehicles at home?
BUS RAPID TRANSIT
We read in the Seattle Times that bus rapid transit is having problems in Ballard. BRT cannot work if the streets are too crowded with cars for BRT buses to be – rapid. The solution is to make it so easy to use public transit that riders will gladly leave their cars at home, which we can accomplish only by giving commuters what they now get by driving their own cars – door-to-door service.
A flex van system might improve our ferry service. Vans would carry commuters to the ferries. Buses, vans, taxis, and rental cars would be waiting on the other side to carry us on to our destinations. There would be fewer vehicles on the ferries. Long ferry lines could be a thing of the past.
We have thousands of school buses which sit around mostly idle most of the time, sometimes for months at a time. Flex vans could be used instead of school buses. Currently our children must walk several blocks and wait in the dark and the rain for buses. Instead, flex vans would pick them up at home in the morning and deliver them home after school. School start times could be adjusted so that flex vans would carry children after carrying workers to the transit centers or to their jobs. School districts would save money; children would travel more safely; parents would worry less.
Objection: Parents might worry about having their children ride with adults. Response: The flex vans that would be carrying children to and from school would be carrying children only and would be driven by union bus drivers. For children in high school, there should be no concern about their riding with adults. All of the adult passengers would hold Orca cards, and their identities would be known. There would be special vans for those who are drunk or who are deemed dangerous.
WE NEED A COMPREHENSIVE
TRANSIT AND TRANSPORTATION PLAN
A flex van system would attract more ridership than does a system operating only buses – because it would deliver a more complete and comprehensive level of service.
Assume that you live in Lynnwood and have been transferred from the Everett Boeing plant to the Renton Boeing plant. Assume that Point A is your home ; Point B is the Lynnwood Transit Center; Point C is the Renton Transit Center; Point D is the Boeing plant in Renton. Our current transit system does not deliver you from Point A to Point D. It delivers you from Point B to Point C, but it does not get from Point A, your home, to Point B, the transit center. Nor does it get your from Point C, the Renton transit center, to Point D, your destination at Boeing Renton. Our current system offers commuters a fragmented transit service, and that is why most people decline to use it.
Our long-term goal should be to develop a train, bus, van, and rental car system that would provide fast, safe, non-stressful, affordable, and environmentally responsible transportation to most parts of the city, county, and eventually the region, with passengers able to leave their cars at home.
WE NEED A LONG TERM
TRANSIT AND TRANSPORTATION PLAN
Washington needs a 50-year transportation and transit plan. We need to envision where transit and transportation can be in 50 years and make sure that everything we build now fits with that long term vision. Transportation improvements we are building now should be pieces which will work with the transportation plan we expect to have in place in fifty years.
Washington has no long-term transit and transportation plan. The current approach is to keep making expansions, adaptations, and adjustments to a flawed plan – instead of changing the plan.
We should get past the belief that we have to “build something” to solve our traffic and transit problems. The freeways and highways are already built. We just have to use them more efficiently than we do now. We jam them up with too many SOVs (single occupancy vehicles) and we max them out to the point where they do not function efficiently.
We do not have a capacity problem. We have a lot of empty seats on a lot of our buses. We have generally three empty seats in the typical single-occupancy vehicles which jam up the freeway.
Afflicted by our any-growth-is-good mentality, we tax the capacity of the system by making more people and more cars to max out the system. Our species has an unconscious and so far unstoppable urge to develop every developable square foot of the planet. There will be 9.0 billion of us by 2050. We are sleepwalking blindly towards ecological catastrophe. We will kill off 75% of the species in the world by simply denying them a place to exist. Our highway expansion program is a tool for furthering the Great Die Off. And most people assume this is fairly inevitable. I do not.
I will give you an example, the debate about whether we should build acres of free parking around transit centers. We have gigantic Park and Ride lots around the area. They are intended as a mechanism for making it easy for drivers to take the bus instead of drive on the freeway during rush hour.
We fail to ask whether there is some alternative to big Park and Ride lots. There is. Subscribe Park and Ride users to a ride sharing program that would pick them up at their front door – in all kinds of weather – and drive them to the Park and Ride. After work the ride sharing program would deliver them back home – to their front door.
All of us now carry smart phones or non-smart phones. A flex van system is more feasible now than ever before.
A transportation utility district would be set up, preferably as part of Sound Transit or Community Transit or Metro, which would deliver door-to-door service. Many people would sell one or two of their two or three cars. Some would go carless. We would be doing something to get us closer to complying with the Kyoto greenhouse gas protocols. Bus routes which carry few people would be discontinued, and they would be replaced with a flex van service which would provide the comprehensive door-to-door service people need.
Door-to-door service would not cost more than our current system. The current transit system is very costly. We pay sales tax to cover around 80% of the operating cost of our bus system. Fare box receipts cover only around 20%. And that does not even cover the cost of buying the equipment. Our current system is frightfully expensive, and it does not take enough vehicles off busy highways and freeways. We are not making enough progress towards meeting the goals set out in the Kyoto Protocols.
I would love it if someone would pick me up and drive me to my destination. I would pay for the service, especially if it meant that I would save the cost of licensing and maintaining one of our two cars.
For further discussion of these possibilities please visit http://comprehensive-transportation.blogspot.com.
TAXIS AND RIDE SHARING
Informal ride sharing – mediated through cell phone apps – is now a big thing throughout the United States, and in Seattle. Apps such as Lyft, Sidecar, and UberX have become very popular.
Many taxi drivers are switching to UberX. Taxi companies themselves are adopting the UberX system. For taxi drivers the big problem is down time. My taxi driver friends tell me that they can sometimes spend three-quarters of the day just sitting idle waiting for a call. There will always be a place for taxis, because there are times when a person wants a private ride all the way to his or her destination.
Likewise, there will always be a place for UberX, which presumably would offer taxi-like private rides instead of the shared rides which the flex van system would offer.
Regional Transit could sub-contract with UberX to set up the cell phone app. Vans would be driven by responsible, well-trained union drivers. This could all be set up in three months. If UberX can provide door-to-door service on a single passenger basis, public transit could do so on a multi-passenger basis.
Most of the cost of running a bus or a van is labor, and there would be more labor cost with a flex van system. However, the increase in ridership would greatly outweigh the increase in labor cost.
This could all be set up in three months.
James Robert Deal, Attorney
James at James Deal dot com