Proposition 1, explained

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The Central City Line will make use of modern electric buses like the VanHool ExquiCity, which is already quite popular in Europe. Ours could be one of the first installations in the United States.

INTRODUCTION
If you live in the Spokane area, Proposition 1 is the most important measure on your ballot this year. By funding the STA Moving Forward plan, the measure will expand regional transit services by adding the first high-frequency bus rapid transit routes, several new transit centers, and late-night service on multiple lines. In addition, it will provide the necessary funding to maintain existing service levels. But lost in the noise has been an honest conversation about what exactly the measure will do. So let’s break it down.

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Idea #26: Incredibly simple and easy-to-use “night bus” service

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London’s “night bus” service is internationally renowned, becoming somewhat of a cultural icon. Spokane could operate a simpler, more streamlined service at relatively low cost. (PHOTO: Doug Wheller on Flickr)

Right now, if you go out on a Friday or Saturday night in downtown Spokane, you have relatively few decent transportation options at your disposal. While most bars close at 2am, STA service ends at 11pm, leaving you with the difficult choice between an expensive taxi/Uber/Lyft and a designated driver. That discourages people from going out, especially considering the hassles associated with parking and choosing a designated driver. The simple fix? Night buses on STA.

Such a system could model itself after similar successful programs in Europe, which have reduced traffic deaths and DUIs and increased economic activity. While London manages a large-scale night-time operation (and will soon introduce 24-hour Tube service on select lines), smaller cities (like Freiburg, Germany, where I lived last fall) make use of a more streamlined shuttle-esque model with a fixed route and the same starting point for all routes. Spokane could learn a lot from these systems as it works to develop extended weekend service.

  • Simple routes. All routes could start at the STA Plaza, for simplicity and convenience. Limit stops and use park and rides and transit centers as terminuses. Consider two north routes (including via Gonzaga University), a South Hill route (via Browne’s Addition), and a Valley route, at the bare minimum. Don’t do pickups; this is outbound service for those out downtown Friday and Saturday late nights.
  • Simple timetables. Assuming this service would be operated mostly on Friday and Saturday nights, cater to the audience. Make the departure times super simple. All routes could leave the STA Plaza at the same time. Use easy-to-remember departure times. In Freiburg, the five night bus routes left the Central Train Station at 11:11pm, 12:12am, 1:11am, 2:22am, 3:33am, and 4:44am. Spokane could use a variation of this model.
  • Simple fares. To simplify the fare structure, charge a $5 flat rate for everyone, regardless of whether or not they have a monthly or daily pass. This further separates nighttime service from daytime commuter service.
  • Simple connections, if necessary. Last-mile connections to taxis or Uber/Lyft drivers should be made as uncomplicated as possible; allow these operators to create a stand in park and ride/transit center lots.

Sure, Spokane isn’t Europe. But we do have a strong downtown late-night scene, especially in the Globe/Borracho/Nyne/Zola area. A super-simple night bus would allow these revelers to enjoy the night a bit longer and hopefully reduce instances of DUI. It would also be cheaper than a more complicated solution, and would offer far better fare recovery for STA. And what better way to introduce improved service than with one that would be so easy to use?

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: Would you use such a “night bus” system as described here? What holds you back from going downtown on a Friday or Saturday night? Would better nighttime transportation make it easier for you? What’s your vision for the future of later service on STA? Share your thoughts below in the comments, on Facebook, and on Twitter. We love to hear from you!

Unless we take action to improve transit now, 2040 in Spokane will be like 2015 in Seattle

In 2006, true light rail was on the agenda for the South Valley Corridor from Spokane Valley to Liberty Lake. It would have decreased travel times, lessoned traffic, and spurred development. It’s time to resurrect the idea, along with others. (PHOTO: David Evans and Associates)

It’s time for some cold, hard facts.

Spokane is growing. By 2040, the region will have added roughly 165,000 people. In other words, by 2040, the population of Spokane County will surpass 625,000. That’s not an insignificant number. In fact, that would put Spokane County at roughly the same size as the City of Portland. Consider the implications of such growth. More kids in schools. More homes and apartments in development (70,000 more units). More jobs and centers of employment (68,000 more jobs). And more cars on the road.

Already we’re seeing the start of this wave of increasing traffic. Consider South Regal on a weekday morning, where the prospect of three new big-box stores is already complicating rush-hour commutes. Consider Five Mile or Country Homes, where traffic has increased and neighborhoods have grown by orders of magnitude without any semblance of mitigation. Consider Hamilton on any weekday afternoon, where an increase in student population is driving record traffic. Area drivers are complaining of increased commute times and lost patience. This traffic costs us precious dollars. The increased load weighs heavily on our streets, which must be more frequently resurfaced. The increased pollution caused by idling in traffic harms our environment. Perhaps most importantly, the lost working hours cost us millions of dollars every year in lost productivity. And there’s no sign of relief.

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POST-MORTEM: Who killed Proposition 1?

Proposition 1 would have provided millions of dollars in additional transit funding, including over 200,000 additional yearly hours of bus service. It seemed like a no-brainer. So why did it fail?

Proposition 1 would have provided millions of dollars in additional transit funding, including over 200,000 additional yearly hours of bus service. It seemed like a no-brainer. So why did it fail? (PHOTO: Yes for Buses)

Proposition 1 was a reasonable, balanced transit package that funded system improvements across the STA network. It eschewed big projects in favor of smaller-scaled, bus-centric investments, and it sunset after ten years in order to give voters a sense of accountability over the small 0.1% sales tax hike. So why did it fail? Several theories have been floated in the past few weeks, and I think that I might have a few answers.

THEORY #1: The “Yes” campaign did not sell the package strongly enough to people who don’t regularly use transit.

A former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Penalosa, famously remarked that “a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

It’s clear that the “yes” campaign did not do a strong enough job of selling the measure to those who do not regularly use transit in the Spokane area. Instead, a large emphasis was placed on the “elderly, low-income, and disabled” riders who currently avail themselves of STA services. That’s great, and transit is certainly important for those groups. But what about everyone else? Certainly there would be benefits for everyone else?

Consider that perhaps advertising for the “yes” campaign should have emphasized that Proposition 1 would make transit available for more people, including the middle-class and wealthy, giving even those groups the ability to use transit. Perhaps ads should have focused on the traffic reductions that strong transit service can bring. Many drivers in Indian Trail, Five Mile, and the Moran Prairie have noticed wildly increased commute times, especially during the mornings, as new residential and commercial developments have been approved. Numerous WSDOT and federal studies have found that traffic congestion in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene metropolitan area is set to double by 2030 as the population grows and streets and freeways struggle to pick up the slack. Sell transit to traffic-minded drivers! Transit means reduced traffic congestion. Moreover, by connecting transit to the ongoing talks about urban expansion in the Spokane area, a better conversation would have been started about the issues that lead to traffic in the first place. All of these issues are connected, and it felt at times like the “Yes for Buses” campaign neglected to drive this narrative home with voters.

THEORY #2: The package was too timid, meaning that voters could not distinguish the difference between current STA service and promised future service under Proposition 1.

This certainly applies to some individuals who see the benefits of transit but did not see real improvements in the STA system. And this could be either a fault of the STA Moving Forward plan or a fault of the advertising in the Yes for Buses campaign. By the end of 2014, the original proposal for the Central City Line, a streetcar, had been scaled back to a battery electric bus, for example. Well, what’s the improvement in terms of comfort or service of a battery electric bus? Not much. Certainly the streetcar proposal would have had a greater “distinction” factor that would have clearly offered a contrast with existing service. Some have even called for a resurrection of the South Valley Corridor light rail plan. And overwhelming 2014 passage of the Riverfront Park Bond proves that area voters are willing to spend money on flagship projects.

On the other hand, perhaps voters simply didn’t see how the package would benefit them. What would the sales tax increase mean functionally for me as a young person, for example? Easy. New weekend bus service would allow a Gonzaga University student to catch a bus back to campus as late as 1am or 2am. That’s far cheaper than shelling out cash for a Lyft or Uber ride. And that’s just one example. We could also talk about a high-performance line on from South Regal to North Monroe or the West Plains Transit Center. Either one would have produced material benefits to riders, but they weren’t the focus of the “yes” campaign’s advertising.

THEORY #3: Uncertainty and misinformation from elected officials (especially David Condon and the Board of County Commissioners) and local media (especially the Spokesman-Review and local TV stations) contributed to lack of public understanding of the measure.

Finally, outside of the Spokane City Council, most area elected officials were lukewarm at best on the proposal. Al French of the Board of County Commissioners was famously in favor, but his compatriots were less sympathetic. Spokane Valley officials decried the proposal. And David Condon was absent from the debate altogether, which certainly should become a campaign issue this fall as he looks toward re-election.

In the media, the proposal faced sharply negative billing. The Cowles-owned Spokesman released a negative editorial, and KHQ started trashing/editorializing on the Central City Line almost a year before the package hit the ballot. Other news outlets were slightly less critical, but failed to properly print facts, often conflating the Central City Line with the larger Proposition 1 package, despite its relatively small $17 million appropriation as part of the measure. Sometimes the modern electric trolleybus or streetcar study renderings were used as part of reports, despite the fact that they had been eschewed in favor of the battery electric bus. One breathless KHQ report even called the Central City Line a “light rail” system. Of course, this attracted the ire of conservatives and confused even more independent-minded voters.

CONCLUSION

It is clear that Proposition 1 failed largely as a result of ineffective campaign tactics on the part of Yes for Buses, but also due to its confusing lack of distinction from existing service and an absence of support from more conservative elected officials and editorial boards. Hopefully the proposal can be resurrected in the future, perhaps as a Spokane-only package a la Seattle’s similar arrangement to essentially “purchase” bus service from King County Metro within its city limits. In the meantime, we await an appropriate solution.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: What do you think caused Proposition 1 to fail at the polls in the Special Election? Are voters tax-weary? Was the package improperly or incorrectly sold to the public? Did lack of public official support create a vacuum for conservatives to pounce? We love to hear your thoughts. Be sure to share your ideas, thoughts, and concerns below in our comments section, on Twitter, on Facebook, or in person. We love to hear from you.

Stop Hyping/Trashing the Central City Line

In 2006, a study looked into the feasibility of a streetcar along a "center city" circulator route in downtown Spokane. Notably, the idea was found to be largely feasible. (PHOTO: nc3d.com)

In 2006, a study looked into the feasibility of a streetcar along a “center city” circulator route in downtown Spokane. Notably, the idea was found to be largely feasible. Unfortunately, Proposition 1 does not include this proposal. (PHOTO: nc3d.com)

There’s been a lot of controversy over the past week or so surrounding Proposition 1 and the Central City Line. The Spokesman-Review just yesterday wrote a frankly somewhat schizophrenic editorial urging voters to reject the funding package but support improvements in bus services. (This despite the fact that rejection of the package would result in massive service cuts.) While we don’t take positions on ballot measures, we can’t help but feel that most of the coverage surrounding the Central City Line has neglected or mischaracterized key details. Our primary point? The Central City Line is an improvement over existing service, but deserves neither hype nor criticism. While the CCL will certainly improve circulation, increase frequency, and solve criticisms of the STA Plaza, it is at its core a flawed, relatively timid proposal which will not generate a significant economic impact.

While conversations surrounding rail transit have been ongoing for years, what became the Central City Line began with the Spokane Streetcar Feasibility Study (PDF link). Published in 2006, the document was the result of a conversation between the City of Spokane, the Downtown Spokane Partnership, and the Spokane Transit Authority. While the proposal did find the possibility of a streetcar largely feasible and a possible incubator of $350 million in economic benefit, the Great Recession scuttled implementation plans for the $108 million (2005 dollars) system. Instead, the organizations commissioned a Central City Transit Alternatives Analysis. This study looked at three alternatives: the streetcar proposal, an electric trolleybus, and an enhanced bus. The Locally-Preferred Alternative (in other words, the idea which best balanced tradeoffs such as cost, routing, economic development impacts, etc.) was determined to be the modern electric trolleybus. See below for a photo and more…

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GSI, DSP push STA to postpone Plaza renovation

The renovation of downtown’s STA Plaza suffered a major setback Thursday that could spell danger for the transit provider’s entire operation. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Greater Spokane, Incorporated and the Downtown Spokane Partnership on Thursday pushed the Spokane Transit Authority to postpone its planned renovation of the Plaza downtown. The two groups were concerned that the planned revamp, which would relocate passenger services to the first floor, add more retail spaces, create a larger indoor waiting area, and develop real-time bus arrival information, didn’t do enough to address the issue of loitering (read: waiting for buses).

Unfortunately, with the STA Plaza as vital as it is to the authority’s operation, this three-month postponement could spell doom for projects like the Central City Line and plans for a high-performance transit network in the Spokane region. Especially if a solution to the impasse isn’t found quickly. DSP and GSI oppose the planned reboot despite the relatively low cost of such a measure, as compared to realigning STA’s operations at an alternative facility. Moreover, the two groups have yet to present a compelling case that loitering (read: waiting for buses) has harmed downtown’s economic vitality, or that such a problem is unique to Spokane (have you ever seen the Transbay Transit Terminal in San Francisco? San Jose’s Diridon Station?). They have also failed to pony up the necessary dollars to move the facility, as they propose. Until such a case can be presented or such funding can be found, this can be chalked up to just another short-sighted attempt to hold Spokane back from making progress on improving vital services and infrastructure like transit. 

Urban cities have loiterers. They have panhandlers. They have homeless people. Spokane doesn’t have a “street kid” problem or a “loiterer” problem or a “homeless” problem. It has a “well-connected cynic” problem.

What do you think? Do you use the STA Plaza? How does it compare in your experience to transit terminals in other cities? Do you support the plaza renovation, which would create indoor waiting spaces and retail in attempt to further decrease loitering on the street? Should the Plaza cease to exist, perhaps in favor of a Portland-style transit mall? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Facebook, and on Twitter. We love to hear from you.

Why not Streetcars?

Spokane’s streetcar grid was as extensive as any on the West Coast, and more extensive than some. It operated for years and years, but now is reduced to a mere memory…if that. (PDF: MetroSpokane)

Did you know that Spokane once hosted one of the most extensive streetcar systems west of the Mississippi? This graphic from MetroSpokane shows us just how extensive it was, extending all the way to 37th in the south and Francis in the north. And this was fifty, sixty, seventy years ago!

Imagine the possibilities of a revitalized streetcar line, even on just a few of these routes. Spokane Transit Authority is working on developing its high-performance transit network plan, but lamentably, the proposal will eschew streetcars in favor of electric trolleybuses in the Central City Line. Electric trolleybuses operate using overhead wires for electricity, but travel via wheels on pavement. On the other hand, streetcars require significant investment in rail placement in order to be effective. And that’s in addition to the wires, which are still required.

Complicating the matter further, the modern electric trolleybuses are not manufactured in the United States, which conflicts with federal “Buy American” standards. It could be years before European manufacturers ramp up a stateside production line, and by then we will have lost out on millions to billions of dollars in potential economic growth and investment related to these transit projects. Meanwhile, United Streetcar is manufacturing modern streetcars right here in the Northwest, in the Portland suburb of Clackamas, Oregon, and vehicular and transit use along the proposed Central City Line in Spokane continues to increase.

Perhaps it’s time we re-thought waiting. Who needs a modern electric trolleybus, anyway? They’re more unsightly (Seattle is thinking about removing theirs), they’re less exciting, and they don’t attract the same levels of transportation-oriented development investment. Let’s go big. Let’s be visionary. Let’s build a streetcar.