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On Friday I rode all the rail transit in the Seattle metro area.  It is possible to do this in one day (weekends only) due to the reverse-commute Sound Sounder runs.  Here’s the itinerary:

You can read my running commentary on the trips in my Twitter feed for August 5, 2011.  On the basis of my rides on Friday, I developed a rating matrix of the six rail transit modes, plus Swift BRT.  Three of the vehicles were waiting for me when I arrived at the station: the SLU Streetcar, Central Link and Tacoma Link.  If I hadn’t been so lucky, they would have lower ratings for frequency.   Swift, although it is bus rapid transit not rail, is included as well.  Bus transit, whatever other benefits it provides, simply cannot compete with rail in terms of ride quality.  My return trip from Everett to Seattle via bus was by far more exhausting than the commuter rail trip to Everett.

Service

Frequency

Experience of Speed

Ride Comfort

Ticketing Convenience

Transfer Convenience

Monorail

4

8

7

2

3

SLU Streetcar

6

3

7

6

4

Tacoma Link

8

5

7

10

8

Central Link

8

6

7

7

7

South Sounder

3

9

8

8

7

North Sounder

1

7

8

8

5

CT Swift

3

7

4

7

4

Below is a quantitative comparison of the six rail modes, plus Swift BRT. The surprise to me was the high ridership and frequency of the Monorail – it is actually the best performing rail service in the region. But then, it is by far the oldest (most mature) rail service in the region. Rail is still in its infancy in the Seattle region.

Service

Frequency
(Peak/Base/ Evening)

Average
Speed (mph)

Length
(miles)

Fares

Weekday
Ridership/ Mile

Year
Opened

Monorail

10/10/10

36

1.2

$2.00

3,400

1962

SLU Streetcar

10/15/15

7

1.3

$2.50

2,200

2007

Tacoma Link

12/12/24

12

1.6

Free

1,600

2003

Central Link

7.5/10/10

25

15.6

$2.00-$2.75

1,500

2009

South Sounder

25/–/–
(9 trips)

48

47

$2.75-$4.75

120

2000

North Sounder

30/–/–
(4 trips)

36

35

$2.75-$4.50

20

2004

CT Swift

10/10/20

22

17

$1.75

200

2009

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Sound Transit, the agency responsible for regional rail and bus transit in Seattle’s Puget Sound region, has issued a request for comments on the scope of an upcoming Alternatives Analysis for the North Corridor.   The ST2 funding package included an extension of Link light rail through this corridor, from Northgate to the Lynnwood Transit Center.  However, to apply for federal funding, ST must perform an Alternative Analysis.  I submitted the following comment to Sound Transit, and I recommend that you also make your opinions heard.

The Alternatives Analysis should include evaluation of an elevated Light Rail route primarily in the SR 99 alignment. In particular, I recommend an evaluation of an all elevated alignment turning westbound onto Northgate Way NE, curving across the Washelli Cemetery, northbound in the SR 99 alignment to approximately 220th Av SW, and following the Interurban Trail alignment to the Lynnwood TC.

Design of high capacity transit in the Puget Sound region must balance between two conflicting objectives: fast regional service, and providing access to neighborhoods.

In an analysis of urban rail systems in North America (written up here and accessible here) , I found that highest ridership density was correlated with shorter station spacings, even with lower speeds. Providing users with more places to access the system, particularly on foot, resulted in higher ridership. In light of this, a SR 99 alignment will bring light rail stations within walking distance of more people and destinations than an I-5 alignment through this corridor, and thereby provides a more useful and well-used system. Additionally, an I-5 alignment will result in stations in which a large portion of the walkshed is consumed with freeways, reducing ridership potential. The problems with this arrangement are found here: http://www.publicola.net/2010/01/25/rule-1-dont-put-a-light-rail-station-next-to-a-freeway.

However, the north corridor is a segment of an envisioned transit route between Everett and Seattle. The route’s usefulness for longer regional connections depends on its speed. If the corridor is built in an SR 99 alignment, the speed must nearly match the proposed speed of the I-5 alignment. I would consider Lynnwood TC to Westlake travel times of 25 minutes optimal, 30 minutes reasonable.

The Alternatives Analysis should include a thorough evaluation and comparison of this SR 99 alignment with the conceptual I-5 alignment in the ST2 proposal, in regards to station locations, ridership, TOD potential, travel times and environmental impacts.

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The 2010 update to my Urban Rail Matrix (available here) includes ridership data from the APTA’s 2010 quarter 1 report.  This is the first report since the initial Seattle Sound Transit Link light rail segment and the Airport Link extension were both in service.  So how does Link stack up against the established rail systems?

Link had an average weekday ridership of 20,000 people during that quarter.  Ridership has been trending upwards since then, but let’s go with the nationally available data.  On the metric of ridership per mile, Link comes in at 1,282.  Out of the 46 rail systems in North America, 8 of them have lower ridership per mile, which means Link’s ridership density is pretty low at this point.  But we can find established systems with even sparser patronage:  Cleveland’s light and heavy rail lines, Dallas DART and the Staten Island Railway.  The median ridership density of all 46 systems is 2,717 people/mile, which is a reasonable benchmark for Link.  That equates to weekday ridership of 42,000 for our current system, or 51,000 after University Link opens in 2016.  My projection is that Link won’t hit the median ridership until it expands to Northgate or until significant new housing or office development occurs along the existing line. 

For comparison, Portland’s MAX has an average ridership density of 2,262 people/mile, and Vancouver’s SkyTrain has a density of 10,023 riders/mile.  Vancouver’s high ridership 1Q2010 included the Winter Olympic’s spike, but they consistent produce high ridership because the metro area has grown up with the SkyTrain lines as the spine.  A disproportionate amount of the region’s businesses, shops and homes are alongside SkyTrain stops.  Seattle metro needs to follow the same path to have success with rail transit.

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Urban Rail Matrix

Late last year I guest posted on the Seattle Transit Blog about a data matrix for North American urban rail systems.   The post is here.   I have now posted the entire MS Excel spreadsheet on Scribd.  Click here and then press the green download button.

The spreadsheet has been updated to reference 2010 quarter 1 ridership data from APTA, and to include the rail lines that opened in 2009 such as the Dallas Green Line, the Portland Green Line and Vancouver’s Canada Line.  For the first time actual Seattle Link ridership data is included.  I will blog about that next.

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