WE CAN END TRAFFIC CONGESTION
AND MAKE IT POSSIBLE TO GET AROIUND WITHOUT OWNING A CAR
WITH A FLEXIBLE, DOOR-TO-DOOR, APP DRIVEN VAN SERVICE
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Request for Response to Transit Proposal
January 1, 2018
We Have Filled Up the Roads
I remember driving north through Seattle on I-5 in December of 1970. That was when I moved to the Northwest. I-5 had just been finished. The new freeway had fewer lanes then, but it was still almost empty.
However, time by its very nature continues infinitely into the future. If you keep growing, even if you grow slowly, you will eventually double your numbers. We have widened our roads and freeways since 1970 and widened them again. But we have nevertheless filled them up. What was unimaginable in 1970 is upon us. We are at the point where traffic often cannot flow.
Traffic will only get worse unless we do something very different than what we are doing now. Our transit leaders admit that they know of no way out of our traffic jams. The Washington DOT Congestion Report envisions only continually worsening congestion. No one else has proposed a solution, so after much study I will make the attempt myself.
We must take this question seriously because traffic congestion creates great inefficiencies, because owning, operating, and parking a car has become too expensive for many, and because so many buses and cars being driven mostly empty emit way too much carbon.
The View from Above
If visitors come here from other planets and study our species – the way we study mountain gorillas – they probably send back reports about how warlike we are and how badly we treat other species here on earth. They may warn other space travelers to steer clear of Earth out of fear that we humans might corrupt them morally or even serve them up for dinner. But they would continue to observe us at a distance because they would like our music.
They would also report back that we have a curious habit of driving large buses around which are mostly empty much of the time, and that we clog up our roads with vast numbers of cars which are also driven around mostly empty, with only a driver aboard.
If we set out to design a transit system that is difficult to use, we could not design one more difficult to use than the one we have now.
Our transit system does not pick us up where we are, nor does it take us all the way to where we are going. It is not easy to get to and from transit centers and rail stations.
We can ride the bus to the transit center. But we do not like to wait for buses in the dark and in the rain. We do not like to be leered at by drivers passing by. Many of us do not feel secure standing at bus stops, which is necessary multiple times if a transfer is involved. We do not like taking a hike from home to the local bus stop, from the exiting bus stop to the destination, from the destination back to the bus stop, and from the local bus stop to home. Hikes are necessary because buses do not deliver door-to-door service.
So, most people commute single occupancy, driving almost everywhere they go, filling roads and freeways. Only six percent of us ride the buses and trains. (Washington DOT 2017 Corridor Capacity Report)
Whether the mass transit form is freeway buses, BRT bus rapid transit buses, Link Light Rail, or Sounder Rail, mass transit will never realize its full potential unless we develop a better way to get to and from the mass transit and connect our disconnected transit system. We have a last mile problem which we fail to acknowledge.
Many buses are driven mostly empty, particularly in the suburbs and even in Seattle at night, wasting fuel, wasting labor cost, depreciating valuable equipment, and failing to deliver services to the many who need them. I refer to these as “ghost buses”. When you see a bus go by, look up into the bus to see how many or few riders are on board.
Why do our transit agencies offer a fragmented and disconnected transit service? Would we hire a taxi or an Uber vehicle that did not pick us up where we are and take us all the way to our destination? When it comes to public transit, why do we settle for anything less than a full portal to portal service? Why do we put up with such a waste of our money? The explanation is that our transit administrators are conventional thinkers, while the transit board members who hire them are focused more on other municipal issues and generally go along with whatever the administrators recommend. None of our transit boards are directly elected. They do not campaign for election or ask for our votes. They are all appointed. We have almost no say in their selection. And we are conventional in putting our complete trust in transit boards and the administrators they hire.
I am making the unconventional proposal that we implement a flexible van service using an Uber style app for ride hailing. The vans would provide door-to-door service from wherever you are to wherever you need to go, from front door to transit center, to train stations, to major BRT bus stops, and to local destinations. The number of vans in service and the size of the vans would vary with demand.
Flex vans would initially be paid for as an add on service, with an Orca card charge of maybe $1 per mile, with maybe a $2 minimum fee. These are place-holder numbers for now. Vans would be priced to break even in terms of operating costs. A van with six passengers would in theory cost one-sixth of the per mile cost of riding solo. The vans would deliver mostly short, connecting rides. Their roles is to connect up our disconnected transit system and solve the last mile problem, to gather riders and carry them to transit centers and train stations, as well as to local destinations.
The vans would fill up. The vans in turn would fill the freeway buses, BRT buses, Link Light Rail, and Sounder Trains. Money would not be wasted on ghost buses. The vans would pay their own way. Bus ridership would increase and revenues would rise. Negative cash flow would be reduced. More money would be freed up to complete Link Light Rail.
With more people using transit, it would be feasible to take a third of the cars off the roads and freeways and put an end to traffic congestion. The savings would be significant: It would not be necessary to widen the freeways nor to build giant park and ride structures. Tens of thousands of hours would not be wasted by people stuck in traffic. The economy would be improved with freight and personnel being delivered more efficiently.
The flex vans would also provide portal to portal local service, from wherever you are to wherever you need to go, a complete transit service, which would allow people to get around without owning a car.
Currently it is very difficult to execute any transit trip which involves a transfer. Door-to-door service would be of great assistance to those who cannot afford a car.
Local buses which are currently underused would be moved to the freeways, where they would run full. Underused bus routes, particularly at night, would be covered by flex vans.
I would propose that the flexible van system begin in Seattle and its immediate suburbs, and be expanded to operate throughout the Sound Transit jurisdiction. In theory the system could be extended state-wide.
The flex van solution would be the easiest and quickest solution to implement. It is the only solution which could be implemented without widening roads and freeways and without building new park and ride structures. It would cost much less than any other solution. It is the only solution which would eliminate traffic congestion and make it possible to be mobile without owning a car.
Please excuse the repetition of certain points in different sections of this paper. I repeat certain points because they are relevant under several topics.
We Fail to Make Good Use of Our Transit Assets
In terms of freeways, highways, and buses, we do not have a capacity problem. Our freeways are ten lanes wide in places and even wider. We have highways which are seven lanes wide. Highway 99, for example, has three lanes in each direction, a center turn lane, and wide shoulders. Our roads are gigantic.
In terms of vehicles on the road, we do not have a capacity problem. We have thousands of buses, although many of them are driven mostly empty. With almost three million people living in the greater Seattle area, there could be a million private cars on the road during rush hour. However, most cars are driven with three seats empty.
We have enormous spare capacity, but we misuse it. It is the unwise use of all that spare capacity that is the problem.
Our Transit System Ignores New Technology
In this new century we perfected smart phones. Uber developed a ride hailing app which is so efficient that Uber fares undercut traditional taxi fares. Uber uses these tools to pick people up wherever they are and take them all the way to wherever they are going. Uber’s only flaw is that it only carries one passenger or group of passengers at a time.
Unfortunately, our transit system ignores Uber’s technological advances and has failed to apply them. Our transit systems could easily provide the same or better door-to-door service as Uber provides and do so at a lower cost through the implementation of a van system, which would have six or more passengers aboard instead of one.
Why are our transit leaders so conventional? It all goes back to the trains. The first mass transit was trains. They had to run fixed routes because they could not leave the tracks. They could not pick up passengers just anywhere because the trains were tall, and a platform was needed for people to climb aboard. When buses replaced trains, they were set up, out of habit and conventionality, also to run fixed routes. Buses picked up and dropped off riders only at fixed bus stops as the trains before them had done. The buses did not pick up passengers other than at regular bus stops because the trains had not done that.
How to Prove Flex Vans Would Work:
Door-to-door Transit to and from Transit Centers
The easy way to prove that door-to-door transit would work is to offer service from front door to transit center and back home after work. This service has already been proven to work in the Bay Area where Uber vans pick people up at their front door and carry them to the nearest Bart or Muni station. At the end of the day these vans carry people back home. It costs less per person to ride in an Uber van than to ride in an individual Uber car because multiple riders are sharing one vehicle and the services of one driver.
I mention home to transit center as the first test case because it is easy to visualize how such a flexible van system, powered by cell phone app, would increase transit ridership and reduce the number of cars on the freeways.
Door-to-door Local Flex Van Service Would Work Too
A subsequent proof of concept would be for delivery of local service. Some will have more difficulty visualizing how this would work.
A door-to-door van service delivering local service would pick riders up at the front door or wherever they are and carrying them to local destinations – to shopping, restaurants, work, ferries, car rental, church, school, day care, soccer practice, child visitation, and back home again.
It helps to bear in mind that our local bus system is ineffectual. For example, it is not easy to shop by bus. To shop for groceries means taking a hike to the bus stop, taking a bus to another bus stop, taking another hike from the bus stop to the grocery store, and then reversing the process carrying heavy bags.
It also helps to bear in mind that there are a lot of people who do not like to drive, who do not see well at night, who are too young or too old to drive, or who cannot afford a car.
The same vans that carry riders from home to transit center could also be delivering local service and charging $1 per mile with a $2 minimum fee. Rides would be summoned by an Uber style app or by flagging down a van. Ghost buses, those driven mostly empty, would be replaced with vans delivering complete transit services.
A local van service would be good for the local economy. It would be especially popular at night. It would increase the number of people going out at night to shop and to have dinner and take in a movie, because they would not have to worry about traffic and parking. They would not have to worry about drinking too much and being charged with DUI.
Door-to-door Transit Would Solve the Last Mile Problem
There should be no disagreement that we have a last mile problem. To travel the last mile or two or three to the transit center, you can drive. But you may find that the parking lot has been full since 7 a.m. You can ride a local bus to the transit center, but that would involve studying schedules, taking a hike to the bus stop, and waiting in the dark and the rain for a bus. The bus might be late. Or you might be late and miss your bus. In no case would the bus pick you up at your front door or deliver you back to your front door.
There Was No Solution to Traffic Congestion, But Now There Is
There is continuing debate over what we could do to alleviate traffic congestion. The Traffic Lab series in the Seattle Times is a constant lament about how bad traffic is, how traffic is only getting worse, and how nothing can be done to make it better.
The unstated but clear assumption by every newspaper editorial writer and every politician who addresses the issue, is that the traffic situation is hopeless.
But there is a solution: a flexible van system, providing door-to-door and portal to portal service, which would solve the last mile problem, make it easier for to take transit than to drive.
*This was not feasible in the past. The first mass transit was trains. They had to run fixed routes because they could not leave the tracks. When buses replaced trains, they were set up, out of habit and conventionality, to run the same fixed routes.
Flexibility was also not feasible because neither passengers nor drivers had mobile phones, although it would have been feasible, on the going home route, for buses to leave the fixed route and drop people off at their homes. There is no record of bus systems ever exercising enough creativity to do this.
As early as the 1930s police cars began to be equipped with radios. Riders generally had home phones. Riders could have called the bus company to ask for a pickup, and the bus company could have radioed bus drivers to pick them up. But there is no record of bus systems exercising enough creativity to do this.
Now days, most people have smart phones. Some still have cheaper flip phones. Either could be used by riders to hail a ride and get picked up wherever they are.
Door-to-door service is now completely feasible, and the only reason public transit does not provide it is a lack of creativity.
Van Pools Show That Flex Vans Would Work
Van pools work. Many transit systems offer van pools. Microsoft, Amazon, and other companies offers rideshare programs. According to the Washington DOT Congestion Report, around ten percent of commuters use our van pool programs. Only six percent ride buses. Around 74 percent drive their own cars. I support van pools. A six-person van pool takes five cars off the roads.
However, van pools are limited in that they only carry a fixed group of people and they only carry them to and from work.
Flex vans would be even more popular than van pools because of their additional flexibility.
There Would Be Financial Motivation to Use Flex Vans
According to the AAA, it costs on average around $706 per month to own, drive, maintain, and insure a car. That figure assumes one is driving around 15,000 miles per year, which a lot of people do. A van system could provide door-to-door service for much less than $706 per month.
There is also the hassle factor. Using the vans would make travel a lot easier. There would be no anxious bumper to bumper driving and no problems finding and paying for parking.
As stated previously, many people do not like to drive. Many do not see well at night. Many are too old or too young to drive. Many would prefer not to own a car if there were some alternative. Many people cannot afford a car.
Once the flex van system is operational and drivers have a way to get to the transit centers other than by driving, we should start charging a fee to park there. The fee should exceed the cost of the van trip, and that would add additional incentive to ride the vans. I would propose a parking fee of at least $8 per day.
A benefit of charging a fee to park at transit centers is that market economics would take hold. Parking spaces would available for those who really need to park there, although they would have to pay accordingly.
If even more incentive is needed to get people to use the vans, we could charge a per mile fee to drive on the freeways or an odometer tax on all road usage.
For all these reasons, there are sufficient ways to incentivize riders to leave their cars at home and take the vans.
With Flex Vans We Could Get Around Without Owning a Car
If a van service were implemented, many people would leave their cars at home. After months go buy, with cars sitting unused in the garage unused, many three car families will become two car families. Many two car families will become one car families. And some would become no car families. They would ride a system of door-to-door vans, buses, and trains. When they needed to go solo, they might would ride a taxi or take Uber or rent a car, all of which would be available at transit centers or by an Uber style app.
A Flex Van System Would Facilitate Urban Development
City planners have been approving construction of apartments and condominium buildings which have relatively few parking spaces or even no parking spaces. Neighbors have objected because residents of said apartments and condominiums fill up on-street parking.
If it were easy to get around without owning a car, and if the price of getting around were reasonable, more such no and low parking apartment buildings and condominium buildings would become feasible.
A Flex Van System Would Offer Greater Security
Up here at the 47th parallel, it gets dark in the Winter by the time we leave work, so commuting by bus currently involves waiting for a ride in the dark and taking a hike home in the morning or after work. A van service would eliminate the hike to the bus stop, the waiting at the bus stop, the hike from where you dismount the bus to your ultimate destination, and the hike from the bus stop to your home. A door-to-door, portal to portal solution would be more secure.
Drivers would be vetted and trained, and all would be members of the transit union.
Riders would be less concerned about troubled people and drunks because they could be shunted into separate vans or receive rides from Uber or taxi drivers, who would be trained in how to handle them.
A Flex Van System Could Coordinate with Uber and Taxis
Informal ride sharing – mediated through cell phone apps – is now a big thing. Uber has become very popular, and Lift and Sidecar are on the rise. Many taxi drivers are switching to Uber. Taxi companies themselves are adopting the Uber style app system.
Down time is a big problem for taxi drivers. My taxi driver friends tell me that they sometimes spend half of their time just sitting idle waiting for a call.
A comprehensive and connected transit system should cooperate and coordinate with taxi drivers and Uber drivers, provided they too would have to be members of the transit union.
Taxi and Uber drivers would provide rides for those who want to ride privately and are willing to pay more or for those going out to more distant areas where few riders are going and it is harder to fill a van. Taxi and Uber drivers would provide rides for troubled people and drunks, and drivers would be trained in how to handle them.
The role of a union is to negotiate fair wages and working conditions, train its members, insure their good behavior, eliminate irresponsible employees, and assist management in improving service. I suggest across the board union membership because it would allow all transit sectors to work together. This does not mean that Uber and taxi drivers would necessarily work directly for transit, but simply that certain quality and training standards would apply along with a reasonable level of compensation.
Flex Vans Would Increase Transit Efficiency and Reduce Waste
Too many of us drive single occupancy, filling up the roads with cars which could be carrying four or more. We have on average three or more empty seats in each vehicle. If we were all coming from the same neighborhood and going to the same neighborhood, if we were all leaving and returning at the same time, and if we all knew and trusted each other, we could share rides and fill each car. If everyone rode this way in full cars, this would take three out of four cars off the road and eliminate traffic congestion. But we are not always coming from or going to the same neighborhoods; we are not always leaving and returning at the same time; and we are mostly strangers to each other. So, we drive alone and over-fill the roads and freeways.
And, as mentioned above, many or most of the buses in the suburbs and even in Seattle at night are ghost buses, driven mostly empty most of the time.
We pay sizeable sales taxes, real property taxes, and vehicle tab taxes to cover gigantic transit deficits, with a little bit of money left over to service bonds taken out to pay for improvements. It is presumed that transit will always run at a loss and that operating costs will always have to be heavily subsidized. There is no future envisioned by transit leaders in which operating costs will not be heavily subsidized.
Freeway buses are often full. But most buses in the suburbs are mostly empty ghost buses most of the time. Buses in Seattle are sometimes packed during the day, but at night, most buses are ghost buses most of the time.
In summary, this is wasteful and inefficient. Further, it represents a failure to deliver transit services to those who need services.
Door-to-door Transit Is the Best and Only Option
Door-to-door transit would be the least expensive solution. It would be the quickest solution to implement. It is the only solution which would reduce traffic congestion. It is the only solution which would make it possible to get around without owning a car.
It is also a solution which would be easiest to implement politically. There would be political resistance to raising the fuel tax to finance wider roads. There would be political resistance to enacting a regional toll on all freeway use or an odometer tax on total mileage driven. There is great political resistance to the car tab tax, which next to the sales tax on food, is the most hated tax of all.
But there would be no resistance to a flexible van system summoned by an Uber style app. Priced as an add on service, it would pay for itself. It would take a lot of cars off the roads and freeways, and so it would make them flow again. Sleep deprived passengers would like it because they would be able to snooze during their commute.
Kyoto And Paris Protocols
Transportation produces around 43 percent of all Washington carbon emissions. If we were to implement a flex van system, we would drive fewer vehicles, drive them fewer miles, and burn less fuel. It would be easier for us to switch to electric vehicles. We would be doing our part to curb global warming. We would set an example for other cities. Seattle could lead the way in establishing green and comprehensive transportation.
Current goals to hold global warming to two degrees Centigrade are laughable. Do we believe that we can erect a stop sign that Mother Nature will obey? Do we believe that once temperatures rise two degrees they will stop there? If temperatures rise two degrees, more methane will be released, a negative feedback cycle will be set up, and there would be no way to know where global warming, ocean acidification, and sea level rise might end.
The only way to stop global warming is to convert immediately to powering everything with solar, wind, wave, tidal, hydro, and geothermal. The only plan of action is to stop drilling NOW, for all new capital to be invested in developing renewables instead of drilling for more oil and gas. In one of my songs I say:
Hey Exxon Mobile, look up not down
To solar and wind and wave.
Stop drilling NOW. The future is green.
Be a big green energy company. …
You can make a tidy profit
Without fracking up the world. …
Hey Shell Oil, how much did you spend?
Eight billion dollars in the Chukchi Sea?
You left. You said there was no oil. But really there’s a lot.
It was Mother Nature’s storms that drove you off.
Eight billion dollars
Would build enough solar
Enough solar power to permanently power
Two hundred thirty thousand homes.
If we implement door-to-door transit, we would be doing our part to reduce carbon emissions.
How serious we are about meeting the Kyoto and Paris protocols? Currently our response has been half measures.
Self-Driving Cars Will Not Solve Traffic Congestion
An automated single occupancy vehicle would still take up one space on the roads and freeways. While they might be safer, automated vehicles would not reduce the number of vehicles on the roads.
However, a self-driving flex van would take vehicles off the roads, and that technology may be part of our transit future.
My opinion is that self-driving should never mean no driver at the wheel. There are situations which will arise which no computer will be able to deal with.
Door-to-door Transit Will Work for Children
We have thousands of school buses which sit around mostly idle most of the time. Schools should get out of the transit business. Flexible vans, driven by trusted professionals, could do a better job of transporting children.
Under our current school bus arrangement, children must take a hike down to a major intersection and wait for the school bus to come. Parents fear for their safety and escort them down to the bus stop. At the end of the school day, the school bus drops the kids off at the school bus stop. Again parents, fearing for the safety of their children, are waiting for them.
A flexible van system would work differently. Vans would pick kids up at the front door and bring them home to the front door.
And why is it that school buses travel fixed routes and stop at fixed school bus stops? Because those who design school bus systems – probably the school bus manufacturers – and the school districts operating them are imitating regular transit buses, which travel fixed routes and stop at fixed bus stops. Again, the explanation is conventionality.
Children also need rides to day care, soccer practice, piano lessons, and parental visitation. Vans could deliver such transportation services. Drivers of these vans for children would be trained and vetted to guarantee child safety and security. Parents tell me they get tired of serving as taxi driver for their children.
Flex Vans Would Improve Life for the Poor
Some people cannot afford a car. The poor need a ride to their local jobs, to the post office, to church, to the grocery store. It is difficult to impossible to use our existing fixed route bus system to run errands and make several stops. To do so involves making careful transfer plans, waiting for long periods of time for buses, taking several hikes to areas poorly served by buses, and having to carry heavy groceries from bus stop to home.
For several years during the Great Recession, Snohomish County had no bus service on Sundays. On their only day off, the working poor were unable to get around except by walking or pedaling.
However, a coordinated flexible van system, with vans summoned via cell phone or pager, could supply the local transit needs of the poor. And if a person can do without a car and reduce his monthly transportation cost from $706 per month to $200 per month, that person would be getting the equivalent of a $506 raise. The poor would not be quite so poor.
Our bus system benefits most those riders who work downtown, those who generally have good jobs and make sizeable incomes. Conversely, our bus system benefits least those who are poor and who need local transit services.
Flex Vans Will Make Ferries Work Better
We have a ferry system that hauls thousands of cars back and forth across Puget Sound every day. Ferries haul cars back and forth because we have no easy way for people to travel to the ferry except by car and no way for them to travel from the ferry landing on the other side to their ultimate destinations except by car.
Under my proposal vans would carry commuters to and from the ferries. Vans would not in most cases go onto the ferries because there will be vans waiting on the other side.
There would also be buses carrying passengers to the ferries, and those buses will have been filled up at transit centers by passengers carried to the transit centers in vans. Those buses would not in most cases go onto the ferries because there will be buses waiting on the other side.
On the other side vans would be waiting to carry passengers to nearby destinations. Buses would be waiting as well, to carry riders on to transit centers further away, from which riders might then take final vans to their ultimate destinations.
There would be fewer vehicles on the ferries and more walk on passengers. Mile long lines of cars waiting for a place on ferries would become a thing of the past. And there would be room on the ferries for those who really do need to take a vehicle across.
We would save enormous sums by not having to build so many ferries with large car carrying capacities.
Flex Vans Would Work in the Suburbs
There is a bus stop up a steep hill a half mile east of our home in Lynnwood. There is a bus stop down a steep hill a quarter of a mile west of our home. Buses running on both routes are infrequent. In Lynnwood most of the buses are ghost buses, driven mostly empty day and night. Bus service is infrequent in many neighborhoods.
The Transit Center, with its 1,368 parking stalls, is maxed out by 7 AM. The Boeing parking lots at the Everett plant, where many Lynnwoodites work, with their 21,000 parking spaces, is maxed out even earlier. My neighbor revs up his car and leaves for Boeing at 3:30 AM to be sure of a parking space. A flexible van system would give Boeing workers a much better way to get to work. Vans would pick riders up at their front door and either take them directly to the Boeing plant or to a transit center, from which large buses would carry them on to Boeing.
It is easy to visualize how a van system would work in the Suburbs. Riders would summon a van via an Uber style app, and the van would carry a rider from home to transit center or local destination.
Example: Everett to Renton
Assume that you live in Everett and work at the Paine Field Boing plant. Next, assume that you have been transferred from the Everett Boeing plant to the Renton Boeing plant.
In this example there are points A, B, C, and D. Point A is your home. Point B is the Everett Transit Center. Point C is the Renton Transit Center. Point D is the Boeing plant in Renton. Our current transit system only carries you from Point B to Point C. It does not carry you from Point A to Point B. Nor does it carry you from Point C to Point D. It is up to you to walk or figure out some other way to go from A to B and from C to D.
Our current system offers commuters a fragmented transit service, and that is why most people do not use it.
Example: Lynnwood to Bellevue
Assume that I want to attend a seminar in a Bellevue neighborhood which is not close to the Bellevue Transit Center. I would summon a van using my Uber style cell phone app. The van would carry me and five other passengers, to the Lynnwood Transit Center. From there an express bus would take me and 50 others to the Bellevue Transit Center. From there a final van would take me and five others to our ultimate destinations, all in the same zone.
Lynnwood and Bellevue would be divided into zones, with one, two, or more vans orbiting each zone, picking up riders, and delivering them to the Transit Center or to other destinations.
Some passengers do get to the transit center by bus. Some walk. A few pedal. Some get dropped off at the “kiss and ride”. But most drive to the transit center. If they find no parking spaces available, most get on the freeway and drive to their destinations. For that reason, the number of passengers who can be served out of the Lynnwood Transit Center, even when Link Light Rail is completed this far north, is limited. The solution again is door-to-door transit, carrying riders from home to transit center and to local destinations.
Door-to-door Transit Would Work in Cities
There are many Seattle bus lines which are heavily used. Many people live close enough to those lines and are going to destinations close enough to those lines so that those lines are popular. I support buses running fixed routes if they have significant ridership.
However, Seattle is a large city, and many areas of Seattle are a half mile or a mile from the nearest bus stop. Currently some riders walk to the nearest bus stop. Others never ride a bus and always drive wherever they are going. But a van system would give people what they now get by driving their own cars – door-to-door service.
Some Seattle thoroughfares are so filled with cars that buses are stuck in traffic. I 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 bus rapid transit buses to be rapid.
Flex Vans Are Needed in Downtown Seattle
The need for flexible vans is most obvious in downtown Seattle at night. There are ghost buses rolling the streets of downtown Seattle at night which are mostly empty. They should be parked and replaced by vans summoned via cell phone app. The vans would take a rider all the way to a nearby destination or to a transit center where the rider could continue on in a bus or van to the rider’s ultimate destination.
Vans would also be popular during the day. Many people downtown, especially tourists and those from the suburbs, have no idea when a bus is coming or where they should stand to catch one. So, they give up on taking buses. They bring their cars downtown, pay big fees to park there, and create stop and go traffic jams.
In the heart of Downtown, a rider would not necessarily board a van going all the way to his neighborhood. There would be vans going generally north, generally south, generally east, and generally west, and a rider could take any one going in his or her general direction. Once a rider is on board, the driver and the app would then see to it that the rider is delivered to the rider’s local destination, to the nearest Link Light Rail station, or to the nearest transfer point where the rider would pick up a further ride on a bus or van.
These transfers would be much easier to make than the transfers which are currently so difficult to make. Van drivers would either take a rider all the way to his destination or coordinate with and deliver him to another bus or van which would take him all the way to his destination.
Except for heavily traveled bus lines, most buses would be replaced with vans of various sizes, especially at night, all of them working together in a fuzzy logic way to cooperatively deliver complete transit experiences.
Door-to-door Vans Would Be a Big Draw to Tourists
A flexible van system would be ideal for tourists. The sites they want to see are often not far away, but they typically do not know how to get there by bus. They would would enter their desired destination in their cell phone app, and a van would pick them up and take them all the way to their local destination or take them to a transit center. Seattle would become known as the world’s most tourist free city.
Rural Areas Need Door-to-door Transit
Many rural areas have no bus service. Many have some service, but it is infrequent. Riders must take long hikes to meet buses running infrequently, and those rarely take them all the way to their ultimate destinations. As a result, buses in rural areas often are ghost buses, driven mostly empty.
A flex van system would make life much easier in rural areas, especially for those with low incomes and those who do not see well enough to drive or those who do not like to drive.
Door-to-door Transit Math
The dollar estimates used in this section and throughout this paper are place holder numbers, which would be revised as costs are reviewed.
Some will say that a flex van program would be more expensive. My response is: 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 inefficiencies which traffic congestion forces on business? More expensive than most of the ghost buses here in Lynnwood being driven around mostly empty most of the time? More expensive than our current transit system, which is heavily subsidized by our taxes and is a country mile away from covering its operating expenses out of the fare box? More expensive than driving a single occupancy vehicle, which costs on average around $706 per month to own and operate.
Transit leaders have told me that a flex van program would cost too much. They are saying that we cannot afford a van system which would fill up the vans, which would be scalable so that only the necessary number of vans would be operating, which would fill up the buses and trains, which would produce more revenues, which would reduce negative cash flow, which would make more capital available for expansion, which would eliminate traffic congestion, which would provide more and better transit service to those who need them, and which would be of great help to the poor. They are saying that we must instead widen the freeways, build five story park and ride structures, and continue to subsidize under-used buses.
On the other hand, they are saying that we can afford a bus system where many buses are ghost buses, driven around mostly empty most of the time. It is a system which fails to eliminate congestion and fails to deliver transit services to those who need them.
A flex van system, working in coordination with our bus and train system, would carry many more riders than our current system. Per passenger costs would drop because vans, buses, and trains would run full or closer to full.
It costs me $12 to take Uber around three miles from my home to the Lynnwood Transit Center. If there were six passengers sharing the same van, the cost per person would be $2 each. My daily cost for the round trip would be $4 per day.
I would propose that vans charge an add on fee, in addition to regular bus fares. The fare would be $1 per mile with a minimum charge of $2. In the future the fare might be rolled into the total cost of a transit ticket.
Once a van system is in place, the transit system should then start charging fees to park at the transit center. I would suggest a fee of $8 per day. A parking fee would produce more income for the transit system. It would motivate people to take the vans to the transit center instead of driving and parking there. Because of the convenience and relatively low cost of a door-to-door van–bus–train service, more people would take transit.
Charging for parking at the transit center would not only produce needed revenues; it would also insure that there would be open parking spaces available for those who really need to park there.
It costs around $130 per hour to operate a bus. This does not include the capital cost of buying the bus. If the fare is $4 then the bus will break even if there are 33 passengers per hour on average riding the bus. ($130 / 4 = 33) If there are 33 passengers riding into Seattle but only a few passengers riding the bus back to Lynnwood, this math would still work if round trips could be made in one hour. If the round trip takes more than one hour, more passengers would be needed on the inbound trip to Seattle keep the average up to 33 passengers per hour.
With a van system feeding riders to buses and trains, they would run at higher capacity and generate higher fares. They might even break even in terms of operating cost or at least run at a smaller operating loss.
Buses can cost from $500,000 to more than $1 million. After 20 years of service, even if they have been driven mostly empty most of the time, they are depreciated down to a low value and sold for next to nothing to transit services in Mexico.
Vans designed to carry six to eight riders might cost around $40,000, but probably no more.
In theory, a van averaging a speed of 20 miles per hour, carrying six people at all times, and charging each person $1 per mile could generate $120 per hour, more than enough to the cover operating costs, which would be less than operating costs for a bus. Labor cost of around $50 per hour would be the same for both buses and vans, but equipment costs, fuel costs, and depreciation expenses would be less for vans.
Average ridership might be less than a constant six passengers because the van will not always be full and because many side trips would have to be made to pick people up and drop them off. On the other hand, average revenues would be increased if there were a minimum fee of $2 per trip and if many of the trips were less than two miles.
The comparison is more stark when you consider that out in Lynnwood and other suburbs, many or most buses carry fewer than six passengers at a time. This means that a van costing $40,000 would be generating as much revenue as the typical bus costing $500,000.
Vans cost less to operate than buses. Vans can be electric. Vans are more nimble and can deliver quicker pickups and drop-offs. Vans can pull into a driveway and stop near the front door of Fred Meyer.
Again, vans would be popular especially at night, when it is not safe for women and children and all of us to stand on street corners in the dark waiting for buses.
The cost to operate vans would be easier to control than the cost to run buses on fixed routes. This is because the number of vans in use would be scalable. If there are fewer passengers hailing rides during mid-day or after 7 PM, fewer vans would be operating. On the other hand, under our current approach buses must continue to operate, drive their full routes, and drive their full schedule, even if there are few riders aboard.
It is a long–standing transit policy to charge less than actual operating costs to ride buses. Transit leaders do this out of concern that if the ride is not cheap, people will drive and not take the bus. This may be true to some extent because currently our buses are offering incomplete rides. However, the cost of driving, the cost of parking, plus the stress of driving make the bus trip a valuable service, for which passengers will pay a reasonable fee if the bus or van carry them all the way from where they are to where they need to go. Fares should be increased to a level closer to the breakeven cost. Most of us can afford to pay more than $4 for a bus to downtown Seattle.
Our current transit system subsidizes rides even for those who can afford to pay the full cost, which does not make financial sense. Conversely, there should be discounts for the unemployed, students, and those with middle and lower incomes.
We should not be discounting bus fares to provide an incentive for people to take the bus. There is enough incentive already. Driving is stressful and dangerous. Parking can be expensive. The average cost of driving a car is $.61 per mile, so a 40-mile round trip commute costs $24.40, plus the cost of parking.
With a transit system which comes closer to breaking even, we would be spending less money subsidizing underused buses. We would free up more money for capital improvements, such as completing Link Light Rail.
If the added convenience of taking vans instead of driving in single occupancy vehicles is not enough to induce people to ride the vans, we could charge a per mile fee to drive on our freeways or an odometer tax on total miles driven. A small per mile fee would produce large revenues, all of which could be used to make capital improvements to the transit system and finish Link Light Rail sooner.
Snohomish County is predicted to add 200,000 more residents in the next twenty years. King County will add even more. So, traffic congestion will only get worse. If we continue with our current transportation and transit policies, we will need to widen the roads. It would take many years to do that and would cost an enormous amount of money. And by the time the roads are widened, there will be more drivers and more choke points. We are already in gridlock. What will our gridlock look like in 20 years if we fail to do things differently?
I conclude that there are many reasons why many people would be motivated to ride the vans, that further motivation could be created by charging by the mile to drive, and that van ridership would be substantial.
Objection: A Van Program Would Add Even More Cars to The Roads
Response: If a flex van were driven around empty, it would add one car to the roads. If it were carrying one passenger, it would add one car to the roads but take one car off the roads, which would mean it would break even in number of cars on the road. If there were six passengers on board, the flex van would be adding one vehicle to the roads but taking six away, a net reduction of five vehicles.
Further, the van system would be scalable, meaning that it would only add vans to the roads when there are more riders requesting service. And each rider who receives service represents one fewer drivers on the roads.
Flex Vans Could Deliver Packages and Produce Additional Income
The Burlington Northern Railway makes much more money carrying freight than it could make by carrying people. So, the Burlington Northern does not carry people. It rents space on its tracks at a high price to Sound Transit and Amtrak.
Likewise, there is more money to be made in carrying packages than in carrying people. Link Light Rail could include cars which would carry roll off bins of freight, such as Amazon and Wall Mart packages. Packages would be transferred to flex vans, which would carry them the last mile to the purchaser.
Packages are easier to carry than people. They can be delivered after rush hour is over, when there is a lull in passenger ridership. Packages are not in as much a hurry as passengers. Packages can be packed tight and stacked up. Packages do not need fresh air or a cushioned seat.
In the same way that FedEx and UPS compete with the Post Office, the Post Office in turn should compete with them. Likewise, public transit should be unafraid to compete with private delivery services. Publicly owned enterprises should be run in a business-like manner. Public transit should be unafraid to compete with privately owned enterprises. A public transit system should be set up to earn a profit on such services as package delivery in order to finance better service delivering passengers.
Uber could implement a door-to-door flex van service, but it probably will not. Public transit should be unafraid to compete also with Uber. Public transit should leave solo transportation to Uber and taxis, but it should forge ahead with van services.
Door-to-door Transit Would Help Us Complete Link Light Rail
Link Light Rail can transport tens of thousands of riders from north to south and east to west on an exclusive right of way which not subject to bottlenecks or to roll over accidents.
Transit leaders say Link can never reduce traffic congestion and can only provide a way around traffic congestion. I believe they are wrong. If a flex van system is implemented, more riders will use the vans to get to and from Link stations. The vans will supplement Link and dramatically increase Link ridership. More drivers will become Link riders and freeway bus riders and BRT rapid bus riders. They will leave their cars at home, and traffic congestion will be reduced.
However, this congestion reduction is not going to happen unless a flexible van system is added to the transit mix.
We should finish Link Light Rail, from Everett to Tacoma, from West Seattle to Kirkland, from Downtown to Issaquah. A line from Shoreline and Ballard south to West Seattle and a crosstown line from Ballard to the University District should be built too, which I will discuss below. We should push to get all this done in six years. If the Chinese can build a 15,000-kilometer national bullet train system in a decade, we can finish Link Light Rail in six years. We voted for Link Light Rail in 1996, and 21 years later, the system is less than one-third done.
Voters passed Sound Transit 3 in November of 2016. It raised the sales tax, raised the car tab tax, and raised the property tax. Voters taxed themselves, hoping desperately that doing so might reduce traffic congestion.
The only way to complete Link Light Rail quickly is to raise the necessary money to do so. The way to raise the money is to dramatically increase ridership. The way to do that is to implement a door-to-door flexible van service to solve the last mile problem and carry riders to and from the mass transit.
We should replace mostly empty ghost buses with vans, which will cut waste and increase revenues. We should price transit services to cover operating costs in full – with discounts for those with lower incomes. We should charge for parking at transit centers. These changes would increase revenues and free up money for expansion. If more money is needed, we should charge a toll to drive on all the freeways or an odometer tax on all miles driven. We would use the increased revenues to fund construction directly and to support bond sales sufficient to finish the entire project. A finished project will attract the most riders and generate the most revenues.
We should set up a Washington State Bank, as North Dakota has done. We should issue more bonds to raise more capital. The new bank would buy the bonds. It would charge no loan fee and would charge a lower interest rate than is paid currently on transit bonds. We should draw on all possible sources, implement a van service to increase ridership and raise fare box revenues, eliminate under-used buses and move them to heavily used freeway routes, sell bonds, raise state funds, and raise federal funds.
We Should Extend Express Buses or Rail to Lewis-McCord
Recently Paine Field was opened to passenger service, and Alaska and United will begin service there in 2018. In the newspaper we read that it will be more convenient to fly from Paine Field because a drive through congested Seattle can be avoided. This shows how uncreative people are. Already, we can travel by express bus from the transit centers at Everett, Lynnwood, or Mountlake Terrace to downtown Seattle. And from there we can take Link Light Rail to SeaTac. No one needs to drive from Snohomish County to SeaTac.
SeaTac is running out of room for expansion, and a new airport will be needed. But the place for that new airport is not Paine Field. Land there is far too valuable as a location for aviation related, high payroll companies, rather than for airport parking, motels, and strip clubs. The right place is Joint Base Lewis McCord, which has miles and miles of open fields which can be turned into as big an airport as might be needed. For that reason, we should extend Sound Transit express buses or Sounder or Link Light Rail to McCord at the same time as passenger service is instituted there. See www.jamesrobertdeal.org/paine-field.
We Should Extend Express Buses or Rail to Olympia
It is a disgrace that there is no regular, several times daily, bus service from Seattle down to Olympia, especially when the Legislature is in session. Express buses, Link Light Rail, or Sounder Rail should be extended to Olympia, with vans waiting to deliver riders all the way to their ultimate destinations.
We Should Serve West Seattle and Ballard using the Best Technology
West Seattle and Ballard have been waiting 21 years for light rail to come to their crowded streets. There are plans to dig tunnels and build elevated light rail to serve both. We unwisely voted down a ready-to-go monorail plan in 2005, which would have served this route, and which would have been completed by now.
That plan should be resurrected, although we should not use rubber-wheeled monorail. We should use a better technology, a quiet, efficient, medium–speed maglev. Much of the route from West Seattle to the ferries and Alaskan Way and then up to Ballard, is to be elevated along major thoroughfares. If a train is to be elevated, it should be a maglev train. Maglev can also run through a subway. Maglev has no moving parts to wear out, and although construction costs may be higher, maintenance costs are lower. A light rail train screeches as it goes around turns, as wheel flanges scrape on rails, but a maglev train is whisper quiet because it is not in physical contact with the rails.
The federal government subsidizes only proven technologies. In 2005 maglev was relatively new. Now the Japanese and Chinese have proven that it works. The opposition to monorail came from light rail proponents who feared that monorail would make light rail look bad. The monorail was to be built through a new monorail agency. Ironically, it should be Sound Transit which should build a West Seattle to Ballard maglev train.
There is a proposal to build a cross town light rail train from Ballard to the University District at some time in the distant future. A maglev would go up more quickly and deliver better service.
The Seattle Center Monorail Should Make a Comeback
Our 1.5-mile-long, truncated, 1962 Alweg monorail is a laughing stock. Tourists ride it and ask, “Is that all there is?” Governor Rossellini had intended that it be extended once the World Fair was over. He was disappointed that he could not convince Seattle officials to do so. Apparently, the city beautiful crowd was against it. They were against tall things in general. They were paranoid about passengers in an elevated train looking into their windows.
The Alweg is a powerful machine, capable of carrying large numbers of people and capable of climbing steep hills. The appropriate use of its capabilities would be to extend it north up Queen Ann Hill, and to extend it to the southeast up to the hospital district. The original Link Light Rail plan was to serve the hospital district with a subway station, but it was eliminated apparently to cut costs and to shorten the route. As with other trains, an Alweg extension would be most successful if it were supplemented by a van system, which would carry passengers to and from monorail stations.
The cost of extending the Alweg north and south would not be prohibitive. The technology is proven. The maintenance facility is in place along with the experts to maintain the system. It would only be necessary to buy more train sets, build new elevated tracks, and build new stations. It might make sense to completely replace the Alweg with a new heavy duty medium speed maglev. The Alweg currently makes a profit. It may be the only transit system in the country that can say that. It would run an even bigger profit if it were extended north and south.
Door-to-door Transit Will Require More Drivers, But That’s Good
A flex van system would employ more drivers, but some of those new van drivers would be drivers currently operating so-called ghost buses, which are often mostly empty. With a van system there would be more fare revenue with which to pay drivers.
There should be cooperation among regular bus and train drivers, van drivers, taxi drivers, van pool drivers, and even Uber drivers. Vans of various sizes will be needed because at sometimes and in some areas, there will be more or fewer riders. There are drunks and other difficult people who will be needing rides too, and there should be a separate group of vehicles for them, driven by drivers trained in how to deal with them. The way for all these classes of drivers and sizes of vehicles to work together would be for all classes of drivers to be members of the transit union. Thus, they would all receive proper vetting, would all receive proper training, and would all receive fair compensation.
Objection: Too Few Will Ride the Vans
Response: Driving is tense. Parking is expensive. Many people hate to drive. Many do not see well, especially at night. Many are not old enough to drive. Many are too old to drive. Many cannot afford to own and operate a car. More people are living in apartments and condominiums, which provide little or no parking, and so they too cannot easily own cars. For those who do own cars, it would still cost less and be more convenient to use the van-bus-train system instead of driving solo.
If van ridership drops, for example during mid-day or after 7 PM, the number of vans on the road could be adjusted downward. A flex van system would be more scalable than a bus system because it would not have to run fixed routes on a fixed schedule and keep running for 18 hours per day even if there are few riders aboard – which is what buses must do. Vans will be activated and deactivated as demand ebbs and flows during the day and night. For that reason, it would not be a serious problem if too few were using the vans. The number of vans in service would simply be reduced. In all cases there would be fewer wasted trips, the contrary of our often-underused buses.
Objection: Too Many Will Ride the Vans
Response: This would never be a problem. If there is a surge in ridership, more vans would be put into service. The more vans that are on the roads, the more cars will be taken off the roads and the more feasible the van service will become financially. More vans could easily be brought on duty if there were more riders requesting rides. Full vans carrying four to ten passengers are more economical than half million-dollar ghost buses frequently being driven around mostly empty.
Transit Leaders Should Be Directly Elected
There are 18 members of the Sound Transit Board, ten from King County, four from Pierce County, three from Snohomish County, plus the Washington Secretary of Transportation. Board members are not directly elected. The three county executives are automatic members, and the executives appoint board members from among the mayors, city councilors, and county councilors in their respective counties.
An Edmonds resident might like Dave Earling’s policies as mayor but disagree with his policies as Sound Transit Board member, but the only way the resident could get Dave off the Sound Transit Board would be to get him out of the mayor’s chair.
Likewise, the boards of Community Transit, Metro, and Pierce Transit are all either mayors, city councilors, or county councilors, all appointed by their respective county executives.
Transit board members mean well. They are evidently ethical and honest people. However, they are not transit scholars. Their career focus has been on more traditional municipal issues. They listen to their hired staff, who are traditional thinkers. Together they all think only in terms of buses and trains running fixed routes, with people somehow making their way to and from the buses and trains on their own. They apparently think that if they draw lines on a map, which pass within at least a mile of most locations, and run buses on those lines at 20 or 30-minute intervals for 18 hours each day, that they have done their job – even if very few people ride those buses. The system is offering rides, and the riders are blamed if they fail to accept the offer. Our transit leaders know of no way to induce people to ride the buses, except to keep the fare price low.
Our transit leaders presume that there is some logic behind the inept way we deliver transit services. They apparently presume that the way things have always been done is the way things should be done. They apparently presume that there is some logic in our inefficient transit system, when there is little or none. So, they are most comfortable with sticking with what they have done before.
We in turn put our trust in our transit leaders. We presume that they know what they are doing. Most of us are overworked and have little time to become transit scholars. So, we put up with our disconnected transit system without questioning whether it makes sense. We are desperate for some way out of our ever-worsening gridlock, and so we vote for enormous tax increases for Sound Transit construction projects, even though our transit leaders make no claim that they will lessen traffic congestion.
I conclude that our transit leaders have let us down. They do not think outside the box. They do not identify what the core problem is, that our current system is disconnected and that we have a last mile problem. They ignore a simple solution which is now available due to the invention of the cell phone and the Uber app.
When I addressed the Community Transit Board regarding door-to-door transit, they looked at me as if I were from the moon. One member responded that a circulator bus had been set up in Brier but that no one rode it. I submitted a written proposal, but Community Transit did not respond.
When I wrote to Sound Transit representatives, they replied with a polite letter telling me about their van pools and referring me to other transit bureaucrats I could talk with. Having written their polite letter, they took no further action.
Virtually all the well-paid officials who run our transit system drive everywhere they go and never take a bus. They should try riding our non-comprehensive, disconnected transit system. They would learn how difficult it is to use our current bus system to go to their transit jobs, then go to the post office after work, then to the grocery store, and then home.
Our transit leaders truly have no clue as to how to solve the traffic congestion problem and how to provide connected local transit services for the poor and those who do not drive. Everything they say shows that they know of no real solution.
For example, although Governor Inslee has done many good things for Washington, the only transit suggestion which he has offered is to “eliminate choke points”. He was speaking of the congestion on I-405 between Lynnwood and Bothell. However, it will take ten years to widen and eliminate I-405’s many choke points, and even if our freeways are widened, there will be more drivers and new choke points.
Growth is a six–letter word. It is both a blessing and a curse.
Recently, drivers were allowed to drive on the freeway shoulder from Bothell to Lynnwood, a temporary solution that will become permanent. Not having a shoulder reduces safety and poses problems when emergency vehicles need to speed ahead to reach accident scenes. Are first responders going to drive on the grass along the freeway?
When election time comes, there are no campaigns for positions on transit boards, and there are no debates about how we should spend the vast sums which Sound Transit is collecting and what it should be doing to eliminate traffic congestion. Voters have almost no input at all regarding the selection of our transit representatives. I do not know if this arrangement has been taken to court. I see it as a case of taxation without effective representation.
I conclude that transit board members should be directly elected. This would bring discussion about transit planning into the open.
The Planning Method to Employ – Predicting the Future
The proper planning method would be first to identify why most people do not use transit. Most people do not use transit because it does not deliver a comprehensive, portal to portal service, because it does not solve the last mile problem, because it does not pick us up where we are, nor take us all the way to our ultimate destination. The obvious solution is to pick people up wherever they are – summoned by an Uber style app – and deliver them all the way to their ultimate destination.
We should get past the assumption that we must “build something” to solve our traffic and transit problems. The freeways and highways are already built. They are gigantic. They are big enough. Making them bigger is not going to help because time continues infinitely into the future and our numbers will continue to increase. More and more people will take to the roads. We should finish Link Light Rail, but building it without providing a way to get to it will not eliminate traffic congestion.
Washington has no long-term transit and transportation plan other than to finish Link Light Rail, to continue widening the roads, and to continue making expansions, adaptations, and adjustments to what is a flawed plan.
It is said that we cannot predict the future, but we can set goals and work to achieve them. If we do that, there is a sense in we can in fact predict the future. Our planning method should be to envision a future where it is not necessary to own a car to get around and put in place a flexible van system where rides are summoned through a cell phone app.
The key points to remember are: There are limits to how many single occupancy vehicles can be crowded onto our freeways and highways, and so we must do something different from what we are doing now. A van system would be popular because there are so many people who do not like to drive or do not see well enough at night or are too poor to afford a car. A van system connecting our disconnected transit system would be much less expensive that widening the freeways or building multi-story transit center parking garages. A van system could be set in motion in a matter of a few months and provide both immediate reduction in congestion and a genuine improvement in transit services for those who do not drive and cannot afford to own cars. A flexible van system would take vehicles off the road and reduce carbon emissions. The successful implementation of a flexible van system would set an example which other cities and other countries could imitate.
Request for Response to Transit Proposal
I am sending this request for response to my transit proposal to Sound Transit, Community Transit, Metro Transit, Pierce Transit, the Seattle Department of Transportation, the Washington Department of Transportation, Governor Inslee, and Mayor Durkan. I am asking that they give my proposal full consideration and respond with financial calculations as to its feasibility.