WE CAN END TRAFFIC CONGESTION
AND MAKE IT POSSIBLE TO GET AROUND WITHOUT OWNING A CAR
WITH A FLEXIBLE, DOOR-TO-DOOR, APP DRIVEN VAN SERVICE
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April 15, 2018
If we were to design a transit system that would be 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.
Unless we live close to a bus stop and unless our destination is close to the bus stop where we get off, buses are inconvenient. 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, a hike from the exiting bus stop to the destination, and more hikes on the return trip, sometimes with a load of groceries. Hikes are necessary because buses do not deliver door-to-door service.
We have a bus system where we must go to the bus. What we need is a system where the bus – or the van – comes to us.
Why do we put up with such an inconvenient bus system? Well, we put up with it by not using it. Most of us commute single occupancy. We drive our cars, usually single occupancy, everywhere we go, filling the roads and freeways. Only six percent of us here in the Seattle area ride the buses and trains.
Mass transit, whether by buses or trains, will never realize its full potential unless we develop a better way to get to and from the mass transit. Our transit system is disconnected. We have a last mile problem that 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 people 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. You will be surprised at how many buses roar by mostly empty.
Why do our transit agencies offer such a fragmented and disconnected transit service? It all goes back to the trains. The first mass transit was trains. Trains had to run fixed routes because they could not leave the tracks. When buses replaced trains, they were set up as imitation trains, also running fixed routes. Trains picked people up and dropped them off only at fixed stops, and so buses did the same. The trains did not deviate from their fixed routes and pick up and drop off passengers, so neither did the buses.
My proposal is that we implement a flexible van service using an Uber style app for ride hailing, with vans which would provide door-to-door service from wherever we are to wherever we need to go, from front door to transit centers, 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.
My proposal is that we retain the model where we run buses on fixed routes if those routes get significant ridership. But whenever fixed routes are underused, we should supply service using flex vans.
So that they would pay their own way and not increase system operating costs, flex vans would at least initially be paid for as an add on service, with a swipe card initial charge that I would estimate at $1 per mile, with a $2 minimum fee. This is my place holder estimate of operating cost and might need adjustment.
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. They would connect up our disconnected transit system and solve the last mile problem. They would gather riders and carry them to transit centers and train stations, as well as to local destinations.
The vans would fill up and pay their own way. The vans in turn would fill the freeway buses and light rail trains. Money would not be wasted on ghost buses. Bus and light rail ridership would increase, and revenues would rise. Negative cash flow would be reduced or turned positive. More money would be freed up to make capital improvements.
Yes, it would be necessary to hire more drivers. However, some van drivers would be those who formerly drove mostly empty buses. Newly hired drivers would be busy driving mostly full vans. The vans should be priced on a per mile basis to pay their own way.
A system with buses running fixed routes on a full day schedule is not scalable. Buses must run for 18 hours per day even if there are few riders on board. A van system would be scalable, with more or fewer vans called into service as requests for rides rises and falls during the day.
With more people using transit, we could take a third of the cars off the roads and freeways and put an end to traffic congestion.
Objection: It Would Be Too Expensive
When I propose a flex van solution to transit leaders, they sometimes say it would be too expensive. My response is “More expensive that what?” More expensive than ghost buses being driven mostly empty? More expensive than widening the freeways? More expensive than building multi-story park and ride structures. More expensive than tens of thousands of hours wasted by people stuck in traffic? More expensive than impaired freight mobility?
It would convert currently underused buses, which take in little revenue, to heavily used freeway and BRT bus rapid transit buses running on major highways between transit centers. Underused bus routes, particularly at night, would be covered by flex vans delivering secure rides. Bus routes with heavy usage would continue as before, with flex vans available to bring passengers to meet them.
We Fail to Make Good Use of Our Transit Assets
In terms of roads, we do not have a capacity problem. Seattle area freeways are twelve lanes wide in some places. Some highways are seven lanes wide. Our roads are gigantic.
In terms of vehicles, we do not have a capacity problem. We have thousands of buses on the roads, although many of them are driven mostly empty. We have tens of thousands of private cars on the road, although most are driven with three seats empty. We have enormous spare capacity, but we misuse it.
And in terms of parking, we have excess capacity. Every business is required to have ample parking. Shopping centers have acres of parking. The Boeing plant in Everett has 21,000 parking spaces, which are often full by 7 a.m. Excess parking is waste of real estate assets. A van service could reduce the need for such much parking and make this land available for tax paying development.
Backwards Thinking About Transit
We are backwards in our thinking when it comes to transit. We should focus first on delivering a comprehensive transit service, which carries passengers from where they are all the way to where they are going.
Instead, we draw bus lines on a map, making sure that the lines come within a half mile of all parts of the service area. Therefore, according to an erroneous theory, people will take long hikes to come and meet these buses as they pass by occasionally. In most places you cannot even wave down a bus. No, you have to be at a proper bus stop. So, as you see the bus coming you must run and try to get to the bus stop before the bus gets there and leaves without you.
Buses are set up so that they will pick us up in public places on busy streets and drop us off in public places on busy streets.
We raise tax to finance expensive buses to run along these lines for 18 hours per day, costing around $130 per hour to operate these buses and pay the drivers. Sometimes almost no one rides these ghost buses. In Lynnwood at night there are many completely empty buses, roaring along the streets. During rush hour you might see six aboard. (A van could carry that many.)
There it is, in plain view, our tax money being squandered. How is it that we have allowed ourselves to think that this makes sense and to ignore the grand waste?
We are all overworked and overcommitted. We do not have time to philosophize about improved transit. We are generally trusting in our nature. We trust our elected leaders and our public agencies to be responsible and look out for our best interest. But our leaders are much like us. They are often very good at dealing with traditional municipal issues, but most are not deep thinkers when it comes to transit. Our leaders are also easily misled by salesmen selling defective goods and services, such as a fixed route bus system.
Why do we trust our leaders so much? It is because we are conformists by nature. Our ancestors lived in herds or large family groups. We needed order. We had to get along with others, so we tried to go along with whatever seemed to work. So, we respect our leaders, and we respect them too much. Our leaders are often bamboozled by slick salesmen into doing wasteful and stupid things. This is a human defect which we should work to avoid.
Our transit experts develop a fixed route system. The buses run every half hour or 15 minutes. The experts got the politicians to raise enough taxes to pay for all this bus service. Unfortunately, only six percent of us use the fixed route transit system. The system offers rides that few want to take.
Turning our backwards thinking around means focusing first on what people need in terms of mobility. People need complete and comprehensive trips instead of fragmented trips. They need a service which picks them up at home or at the restaurant or grocery store, and which takes them to wherever they need to go. They want an affordable system. A six-passenger interconnecting van would cost in theory one-sixth the cost of a solo ride. Such a system was not feasible until portable phones came along and until Uber proved that an on-the-fly pickup and drop off ride hailing system was possible.
Proof of Concept – Home to Transit Center
When I discuss door to door transit to transit leaders, they look at me as if I were from the moon. This is not the way they have done business, and they have difficulty changing. So, a proof of concept is needed
I suggest home to transit center and from transit center back home 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.
It is also easy to visualize because it is already in use. In the San Francisco Bay area 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.
Proof of Concept – Local Flex Van Service
A door-to-door van service delivering local service is more difficult to visualize. The test case could be set up in select neighborhoods in which users could not only get a van ride to the transit center but also get a ride from the front door or from wherever they are to local destinations – to shopping, restaurants, work, ferries, car rental, church, school, day care, soccer practice, child visitation, and back home again.
Our local bus system is ineffectual. For example, 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.
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, who cannot afford a car, or whose licenses have been revoked.
The same vans that carry riders from home to transit center could also be delivering local service, charging the same $1 per mile fee 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 enliven the local economy. It would be especially popular at night. It would increase dinner business. Riders would not have to worry about traffic and parking or about drinking too much and being charged with DUI. They would not have to worry about getting lost in an area they might not know well, especially if they are newcomers to the area.
Door-to-door Transit Would Solve the Last Mile Problem
To travel the last mile or two to the transit center, you can drive your car. But you may find that the transit enter 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. I would not want my wife or daughter standing at a bus stop in the dark.
There Was No Solution to Traffic Congestion Until Cell Phones and Uber
There is continuing debate over what we could do to alleviate traffic congestion. The Seattle Times, for example, runs a series of Traffic Lab articles. They are a constant lament about how bad traffic is, how traffic is only getting worse, and how nothing can be done to make it better.
However, smart phone technology plus an Uber style app applied to a system of vans of different sizes would solve the last mile problem.
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 conventionality.
Van Pools Show That Flex Vans Would Work
Van pools work. I support van pools. Microsoft, Amazon, and other companies offers rideshare programs in the Seattle area. According to the Washington DOT Congestion Report, around ten percent of commuters use van pool programs, while 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.
Motivations to Use Flex Vans
When I speak with transit gurus, they question whether people would use the vans. There a several factors which would motivate them to do so.
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. Some families own a fleet of cars, one each for husband and wife, and one each for each child of driving age.
If a van service were implemented, many families would sell off most of their cars. They might even become no car families. They would ride door-to-door flex vans, buses, and trains. When they needed to go solo, they might ride a taxi or take Uber or rent a car, all of which would be available by app or at transit centers. The family savings would be enormous.
Another factor motivating us to use the vans would be to avoid the hassle and anxiety of bumper to bumper driving and to avoid having to find and pay for parking. We could take a nap on our way to work instead of struggling to keep our sleep deprived eyes open.
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.
Charging an $8 fee to park at the transit center, a fee that would exceed the cost of riding a flex van to the transit center, would add additional motivation to use the flex vans. Doing so would ration use of transit center parking, meaning that those who really need to park there would be able to do so.
If even more incentive is needed, we could charge a per mile fee to drive on freeways or an odometer tax on all road usage. This should be a last resort.
So, in response to those who question whether the vans would be used, it is clear that there would be ample incentives for riders to do so.
A Flex Van System Would Facilitate Urban Development
City planners have been reluctant to approve construction of apartments and condominium buildings that have relatively few parking spaces or even no parking spaces, lest on-street parking be maxed out.
With a flex van system that would make it possible to get around without owning a car, more such no and low parking apartment and condominium buildings would become feasible.
A Flex Van System Would Offer Greater Security
Commuting by bus in winter, when the days are shorter, involves waiting for rides in the dark and taking hikes in the dark. 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 same hikes on the return trip. Thus, a door-to-door, portal to portal system would be more secure.
Flex van 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 such people 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 and Should
Work in Coordination with Uber and Taxis
A comprehensive and connected transit system is one which is integrated, where all parts of the system work cooperatively with all others, where big buses, little buses, vans, taxis, and Uber drivers would all be kept busy through referrals from transit regarding those needing a special solo ride. The only provision I would make would be that Uber and taxi drivers would have to be well trained members of the transit union.
The role of a union is to negotiate fair wages and working conditions, train employees, 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 transportation providers to work cooperatively. 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.
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, burn less fuel, and do our part to reduce carbon emissions.
Door-to-door Transit Would Work for Children
We have thousands of school buses that sit around mostly idle most of the time. Schools should get out of the transit business. Flexible vans, driven by professionals who would be trained and vetted to guarantee child safety and security, could do a better job of transporting children.
Flex vans would pick children up at the front door in the morning and bring them home to the front door in the afternoon, instead of at school bus stops. Parents would worry a lot less.
Children also need rides to day care, soccer practice, piano lessons, and parental visitation. Parents tell me they get tired of serving as taxi driver for their children. Flex vans could deliver such helpful services.
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. Many of the poor have drug or emotional issues, and it would be wise for them not to be driving. It is difficult to impossible to use our existing fixed route bus system to go for a run to grocery, post office, and Redbox, because that would involve making several transfers. To make transfers involves making careful transfer plans, waiting for long periods of time to make bus transfers, taking hikes to areas poorly served by buses, and having to carry heavy groceries and other loads from bus stop to home. Flex vans would be a blessing to the poor.
The Best and Only Solution
I have been contemplating this issue for many years. For so long I held back in writing about it because it was so different. I wondered why no one else had I was doubtful that for some reason it might not work. My mother always encouraged me to “take faith”, and so I have. After considering all the other alternatives, I am now ready to campaign for it and rally support of it. I am certain that a flex van solution is by far the best and only solution.
It is the easiest to implement,
It is the quickest to implement.
It is the least expensive to implement.
It is the only solution that could be implemented without widening roads and freeways and without building new multi-story transit center park and ride facilities.
It is the only solution that would eliminate traffic congestion.
It is the only solution that will make it possible to be mobile without owning a car.
It is the best solution for reducing carbon emissions.
Send comments and questions to James@JamesDeal.com. Responses will appear in a subsequent issue.
It Was Inevitable
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. I challenge those who disagree with my proposal to respond to it and say why they disagree, and not to ignore it, as the media here often do. And if my theory is somehow wrong, it is at least a useful tool for finding some better solution.
We must take this question seriously because traffic congestion is unpleasant. We are stuck in a traffic jam. Traffic congestion creates great monetary inefficiencies. Delay increases labor cost. The cost of owning, operating, and parking a car has become too expensive for many. Because so many buses and cars being driven mostly empty, wasting our taxes and belching out too much carbon.
The View from Above
If visitors come here from other planets and study our species – the way we study mountain gorillas – I hypothesize that they send back reports about how crime ridden and warlike we are, how we exceed at polluting our special planet, 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, although only 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.
Door-to-door Transit Is the Best and Only Option
As I said in Part One, I am certain that a flex van solution is by far the best and only solution. It is the easiest to implement. It is the quickest to implement. It is the least expensive to implement. It is the only solution that could be implemented without widening roads and freeways and without building new multi-story transit center park and ride facilities. It is the only solution that would eliminate traffic congestion. It is the only solution that will make it possible to be mobile without owning a car. It is the best solution for reducing carbon emissions.
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 would be great political resistance to raising 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, because it does not raise taxes of do any of the other options just listed.
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.
Current goals to hold global warming to two degrees Centigrade are laughable. Do we really 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 feedback loop will be set up. We have no idea how hot it might get nor how high the oceans might rise.
The only way to stop global warming is to stop drilling NOW. There should be no new exploration or drilling for oil and gas. All new capital to be invested in developing solar, wind, wave, tidal, hydro, and geothermal. The only sensible plan of action is to stop drilling NOW. To do otherwise is to continue driving down a one-way dead-end street going the wrong way. The sooner we stop and turn around, the better off we will be.
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. We would be setting an example for other cities and other countries.
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.
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. It is a 45-mile journey on I-5 and then I-405.
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. It is a 22-mile drive from Lynnwood to Bellevue. 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.
A few passengers get to the transit center by bus. A few people walk to the transit center. A few pedal. Some get dropped off at the “kiss and ride”. But most drive to the transit center. If they find that none of the 1,368 parking spaces is available, most get on the freeway and drive all the way to their destinations.
Unless a van service is implemented, the only truly convenient currently way to get to the Lynnwood Transit Center is to drive. Given the limits on parking spaces available, 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.
Proof of Concept
Flex Vans Would Work in Downtown Seattle
Flex vans are most needed in downtown Seattle.
The easiest case to visualize would be flex vans delivering secure rides in downtown Seattle at night. Downtown buses which were packed during the day are ghost buses at night. Those buses 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 or hand the rider off to a van or bus going all the way to the rider’s ultimate destination.
During the day downtown streets are often jammed. People would use an alternative if one were available. We want people to use transit to come into Seattle to work. We also want them to use transit to travel to local, in-city destinations. That is at least partially impractical if the current bus system is the only option.
Many people downtown have no idea when a bus is coming or where they should stand to catch one. Suburbanites many not know how to use the buses. So, they bring their cars downtown, pay big fees to park there, and create stop and go traffic jams.
In the heart of Downtown, whether during the day or at night, a rider would not necessarily wait for a van going all the way to his neighborhood. Instead the rider might take a van going generally north, generally south, generally east, or generally west. Once a rider is on board, the driver and the app would see to it that the rider is taken to the rider’s local destination or to a connecting van. These transfers would be much easier to make than the transfers which are currently so difficult to make. Instead of you looking for a bus, a van would be looking for you.
Vans of various sizes would work together in a fuzzy logic way to cooperatively deliver complete transit services.
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. Tourists 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 friendly 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 carrying now passengers, 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 were more riders requesting service. And each rider who receives service represents one fewer driver 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 that would not be subject to slowdowns.
Transit experts say Link can never reduce traffic congestion and can only provide a way around traffic congestion. If we continue in our current direction, they are right. If we implement a flex van system, they are wrong.
The vans will supplement Link and dramatically increase Link ridership. More drivers will leave their cars at home and use the vans to get to and from Link.
We should finish Link Light Rail, from Everett to Tacoma, from West Seattle to Kirkland, from Downtown to Issaquah. A line from 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 should be able to 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.
To complete Link Light Rail quickly we must raise more money or save money we are now wasting. A flexible van service would help us do both by solving the last mile problem.
Savings will come from replacing buses with vans.
Increased revenue will come from increasing ridership, which the vans will do. It will come from pricing services as far as possible to cover operating costs and raising ticket prices – while giving discounts to those with middle and low incomes. Increased revenues will come from charging for parking at transit centers, from renting cars at transit centers, and from carrying packages.
The combination of savings and increased revenues would free up money for completion of Link Light Rail and other improvements. 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, so we should finish it as soon as possible.
We should set up a Washington State Bank, as North Dakota has done. We would issue bonds to raise the capital needed, and the new bank would buy the bonds – which would be a very secure investment. The Washington State Bank would charge no loan fees and would charge a lower interest rate than investors charge currently on transit bonds. We should draw on all possible sources of money and finish Link Light Rail.
We Should Extend Express Buses or Rail to Lewis-McCord
Recently Paine Field was opened to passenger service, and Alaska, United, and Southwest 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. This trip would be even easier if we had flex vans to carry us from home to transit center.
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. Paine Field is surrounded by homes. And land there is far too valuable for location of aviation related, high payroll companies, rather than for airport parking, motels, and strip clubs.
The right place for the new mega-airport 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. To carry riders to McCord, we should extend Sound Transit express bus service or rail to McCord. See www.jamesrobertdeal.org/paine-field.
We Should Extend Express Buses or Rail to Olympia
It is a disgrace that there is no regular service, several times daily, between Seattle and Olympia, especially when the Legislature is in session. Express buses or rail should be extended to Olympia, with vans waiting to deliver riders all the way to their ultimate destinations. This service would be heavily used if flex vans were waiting at each end to carry passengers 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 more effectively than light rail, and it would have been completed by now.
That plan should be resurrected, although in a different form. We should not use rubber-wheeled monorail. We should use a better technology, a quiet, efficient, medium–speed maglev. Most 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 turns a profit. It is one of the few transit systems in North America which do. But it is a laughing stock, only 1.5 miles long. 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 down 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 over it to Seattle Pacific University, 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.
James Robert Deal , Attorney & Broker
PO Box 2276 Lynnwood WA 98036
Direct Telephone Line: 425-771-1110
Toll-Free Line: 888-999-2022
AgencyOne Realty LLC