Friday, April 30, 2010

Transit is Part of Healthy Community Design

“Complete Streets” are designed and operated for all users - pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders, serving people of all ages and abilities. This week I joined the City of Marysville contingent at a national Complete Streets workshop in Mount Vernon.

Marysville city staff and leaders have been committed to improving walking, biking and nutrition as part of the Marysville Healthy Communities Project for several years. Moving forward with more formal policies and standards in support of better and safer roads is a logical next step, workshop attendees agreed.

Community Transit has been part of Healthy Communities efforts in Marysville, Everett and Lynnwood. About half of Community Transit’s riders don’t own a car, and more than 57 percent walk to or from their bus stop each day. Bicycling extends the “reach” of transit beyond a healthy 1 mile, 20 minute walk to up to 3 miles - the distance of 50 percent of all trips made by Americans, and a distance that can be biked in 30 minutes at a “no sweat” pace.

Street designs, speeds and intersections are safe for biking and walking are very important for transit. Riders who board the bus on one side of the street usually have to cross to the other side to return home. Standing at a bus stop next to a busy road can be unpleasant - but much better if there’s a bike lane or landscaped buffer, a slower speed limit for the cars and a bus shelter and bench for the waiting passengers. That’s what “complete streets” offer to transit users. Community Transit, Island Transit and Skagit Transit were all at this week’s workshop along with our respective communities

A bonus of carpooling to the workshop with the City of Marysville traffic engineer was his realization that the city regularly makes sure it has extra room near roads for mailboxes and fire hydrants. But Community Transit can’t put a bus stop or shelter in some places (like State Avenue & Grove Street in Marysville) because there’s not enough public right of way there. He plans to add five feet for transit to his new ask list.

I am proud to be a citizen of Marsyville because city staff and leaders are open to such ideas. According to a Snohomish Health Dsitrict study, we need to do everything we can to make our city more active because Marysville has the highest obesity rate of any zip code in Snohomish County. It's that kind of data that makes it clear why complete streets are so critical.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

ORCA Turns One Year Old

Besides the 40th anniversary of Earth Day today there is another local birthday this week. One Regional Card for All, the regional transit smart card turns one year old!

Last year on April 20 I hosted a press conference in Seattle with Candace Carlson, the Regional Fare Coordination System Program Administrator, to introduce ORCA to customers. We discussed the “limited rollout” that lasted into September, when early adopters were invited to get a card, try it out and let us know their experience.

The limited rollout concept was proposed because we didn’t want to overwhelm the system with too many transactions off the bat, and we didn’t know what the extent of customer assistance new ORCA users would need. It was more than a Beta test, since we were using customers’ money, but we knew there were bugs that only a good supply of transit users could help us find.

In July 2009, Microsoft became one of the first business accounts to convert from FlexPass to ORCA, and the number of cards being used in the system grew tremendously. Business Accounts are employers who supply all employees with a transit pass, even those who may not use them. Hundreds of businesses have used FlexPass for years, and their conversion to ORCA is now almost complete.

On September 15, Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl and general managers from the other transportation agencies heralded ORCA’s “Big Splash” with a call for all transit users to switch to ORCA.

(Remember Steve the ORCA greeting attendees then mysteriously disappearing for awhile? It was a hot day for mascots!)

A couple of key milestones have occurred since then. December 2009 was the last month that paper Puget Passes were sold to the public. This was an important move since some other agencies around the country that have implemented smart card systems continued to sell their regular passes and, as a result, had low conversion rates. Eliminating the paper passes is good for the environment and saves the agencies money, which is one of the goals of ORCA.

Also, at the end of the year Community Transit and Sound Transit joined Everett Transit and Kitsap Transit in eliminating all paper transfers. This meant it was cash or ORCA, and ORCA was the only way to get a two-hour transfer on those systems. King County Metro Transit and Pierce Transit still offer paper transfers that are good on their systems only.

This week, Kitsap Transit reinstated paper transfers for the rest of this year because it is having a difficult time converting its low income fare customers. This is a fare category unique to KT and requires registration like an RRFP card, so those riders must get the card in person.

Community Transit is happy with the “ORCA is your transfer” policy, and we have seen many cash customers switch to ORCA in 2010. We did a lot of outreach, including having our drivers hand out 4,000 blank ORCA cards to cash customers last December. Also, when we launched Swift – which does not take paper transfers – last November, many of our riders on that corridor made the decision to get a card. This year we’re continuing to push for more converts to ORCA.

So, what’s there to celebrate on ORCA’s first birthday?

Well, there are about 150,000 active ORCA cards out there, and many more in circulation. Also, there are nearly 200,000 average daily transactions on the ORCA system. That’s pretty good for the first year!

ORCA is meant to be a convenience. Transit riders no longer have to carry exact change and can use the same card to transfer between different transportation systems, whether you have a pass or not. Riders can load their ORCA card with a variety of period passes, like a monthly pass, or put cash value in an E-purse and draw down with each trip. Our drivers love ORCA because fare payment is quicker and simpler than before.

So, does ORCA work perfectly for every user all the time? No. And my Blackberry service goes out from time to time too. But for such a complex system with so many users there have been a lot of fixes in this first year, and the vast majority of regular users are finding success.

You can get more information about ORCA at or by visiting

What do you think of ORCA?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bike to Work Begins

It might not look like friendly weather outside today, but the biking season has begun! My records reflect that I biked home from work in shorts and a tank top on March 24, 2010 (high 68). I was not alone that day as a very happy bicyclist on the roads of Snohomish County - though some of you had on jackets.

If you’ve been thinking this might be the year for you to find some friends, pump up your tires and participate in Snohomish County Bike to Work events, this is the place for you. Through this blog post (and future ones titled “Bike to Work”) we’ll share riding tips and route ideas, encouragement and event information. Feel free to post your questions and comments, or to email directly for personal assistance.

A Bike to Work kickoff event is scheduled for April 29 in Everett. If you’d like some advice or inspiration, stop by. We'll also be handing out the new Snohomish County Area Bicycling & Trail Map.

It’s true: I am a crazy bike commuter, one who rides year-round no matter the weather or miles. But you could be a sane one. Because most trips people take are 5 miles or less. It might take 20-30 minutes to bike where you usually drive, and think what you’ll accomplish along the way. You’ll get your daily exercise, burn some extra calories, say “Hello” to your neighbor, notice the fresh green of the trees, smell the latte stand, forget your worries and be fully present as you pedal.

I’ve been bike commuting for more than 10 years now, but I felt the same exhilaration on the first mile of the first day (even when a mile was about how far I was willing to ride at first). Biking is so easy – well, a kid can do it.

But why should kids have all the fun?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Earth Day, every day

This Thursday, April 22, marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. Earth Day originated on the same date in 1970, when 20 million Americans took to their community streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment.

Did you know that taking public transit instead of your own vehicle is one of the simplest ways to reduce your carbon footprint? Each year, public transportation use in the United States saves 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline. And the average public transit rider consumes only half as much oil as an automobile rider uses. If you're curious how large of a footprint your lifestyle leaves, try out the Earth Day Network's Footprint Calculator.

Although Earth Day comes every year, Community Transit works hard to operate like it's Earth Day, every day. Aside from helping you live green, the agency has been active in reducing greenhouse gas emissions for many years. In 2002, we were the first transit agency in the state of Washington to introduce a Clean Diesel program, switching our fleet of buses to ultra-low-sulfur diesel. We installed special particulate traps that lessen tailpipe emissions - buses without these traps produce about one pound of pollution every 52 miles, while our buses must travel more than 500 miles to produce that same amount. We even recycle our bus wash water, which saves almost 13 million gallons of fresh water each year.

From installing solar panels at the Mountlake Terrace Transit Center to generate 5,500 kWh per year - pumping energy back into the local power grid and offsetting 7,700 pounds of carbon dioxide annually, to choosing hybrid vehicles for Swift, our highest-mileage and highest-ridership bus route, we take our core value of environmental stewardship to heart.

But buses aren't the only way to travel greener - Community Transit actively promotes other SOV alternatives. We operate one of the largest vanpool fleets in the nation, as well as connect people to ride sharing services, and we work with about 75 Snohomish county-based employers to help them meet our state's Commute Trip Reduction law. And right now we're gearing up for the annual Snohomish county Bike to Work events, including the Bike to Work Challenge and National Bike to Work Day (learn more at the kickoff event on April 29).

In 2009, Americans took more than 10 billion trips on public transportation. This Earth Day, we thank our riders for helping Community Transit provide 11.3 million of those trips.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Does Size Matter?

The answer is “yes and no.” Different size buses serve different purposes, just as minivans and sedans are not interchangeable. Here’s a rundown of the buses in Community Transit’s fleet:

30-footers: These buses seat 25 and have only one door. We operate them exclusively on eight of our local bus routes, and occasionally on other local routes when larger capacity buses aren’t needed due to either lower ridership or higher frequency of service (two very different scenarios!). Some of the tight turns or rural highways in our county require the use of 30-footers for safety reasons. We have 48.

40-footers: The bulk of our fleet seats 39 and has two doors for faster boarding. Some of these buses are configured for the longer trips of commuter routes to King County, with more comfortable seats and other amenities. Our newest 40-footers were purchased in 2008. Our oldest are 1995 models (we extended the usual life on these to save money for service last year). We have a total of 116.

60-foot articulated buses: These buses seat 60 people, including seats in the “bendy” part that people either love or hate. Almost all “artics” are dedicated to commuter service to King County, though some local trips on Highway 99 have so many riders that we have operated “artics” there at times. We have 111 in our fleet.

62-foot Swift buses: These buses were custom-designed to suit Community Transit’s bus rapid transit service. There’s a third door and wider aisles for faster boarding, leaving lroom for 43 seats and more and overall capacity of 80. Swift buses are the first hybrids in Community Transit’s fleet. That decision was made after a cost analysis showed that the extra cost of the diesel-electric hybrid would be balanced out over time by the lower cost of operation in the stop-and-go environment of Highway 99 service. We have 15.

Coming soon: Double Talls will start going into service this fall as the newest addition to our fleet. They will replace older articulated buses with 42-foot double decker buses that provide more seating per bus (73 people). We’ll have 23 by the end of the year.

People often ask, “Why don’t you use smaller buses and save money?” One answer is that smaller buses don’t save money in our system. First and foremost, labor is one of our largest costs, and the same skills and training are needed to drive a 30-footer as a 40 or 60-footer. The smaller engines of even smaller vehicles tend to wear out under the heavy wear of transit use – our buses average more than 50,000 miles a year each.

A recent review of Community Transit maintenance and fuel costs over the past nine years showed that while 30-footers cost slightly less in fuel (2 cents less per mile than a 40-footer), they cost 7 to 10 cents more per mile in maintenance than the 40-foot buses. Articulated buses tend to have the highest cost of operation per mile (though also the most boardings). That’s one reason we’ll be replacing our oldest articulated buses with more efficient Double Talls in the coming year.

The bottom line is that putting the right bus on the road is both an art and a science. Within a bus route that operates throughout the day, there are some trips that are more crowded than others, and some sections of the route where the bus is full while others where it looks temporarily empty.

We are constantly evaluating the costs of our current bus fleet and planning for the fleet of the future, one that will best carry our riders while getting the most value for taxpayer dollars. For an international perspective on public transportation, check the World Bank's take on bus size options here.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Curb the Congestion wins Governor’s Award

OLYMPIA— Did you know that there are 28,000 fewer vehicles on the road every weekday thanks to employers and communities across the state who support commute trip reduction programs? That’s enough vehicles to stretch single file, bumper to bumper, from Olympia to Everett.

Governor Chris Gregoire recognized the efforts of these employers and communities this week by announcing the winners of the 2010 Governor’s Commute Smart Awards at a ceremony hosted at the Governor’s Mansion in Olympia on April 13.
Local employers Tetra Tech of Bothell and The Everett Clinic were honored, as well as employee transportation coordinators Sabrina Combs of the City of Bothell and KC McNeil of Romac Industries of Bothell.
Community Transit’s Curb the Congestion partnership with Snohomish County earned recognition as a “Commute Smart Community Champion.”

The Curb the Congestion program was designed to reduce traffic congestion on three specific corridors in Snohomish County by promoting alternatives to driving. The concept started with 164th Street. Snohomish County completed a major road improvement project there in 2004, but despite widening the road from five to seven lanes and installing bike lanes and sidewalks, by July 2005 the road was again failing adopted congestion standards.

Snohomish County determined that widening the road further was not feasible, and redirected its efforts from infrastructure improvements to establishing and implementing a program to change transportation behavior. Community Transit was brought in as a partner in late 2007 to create and manage the program. Two other corridors, 128th Street in south Everett and 20th Street in Lake Stevens, have been added to the joint effort, named “Curb the Congestion.”

Friday, April 2, 2010

Service to Boeing Important to the Region

By Kristin Kinnamon, Community Transit

The Community Transit Board of Directors approved the final pieces of a painful service reduction plan at its April 1 meeting. A financial report earlier in the meeting underlined the reason for the cuts. Sales tax collections for the first quarter of 2010 are 21 percent lower than they were in 2007, before the recession began.

Part of the plan to save $11 million a year involves shortening Community Transit’s operating day to reduce costs. That has a particular impact on bus service to the Everett’s Boeing plant, the county’s largest employer, no matter the state of the economy or its own boom and bust cycle. Boeing has 27,000 workers in Everett. Neither roads nor factory could accommodate all those people at once, so Boeing has three shifts with staggered start times throughout the day.

Boeing also has a strong transportation incentive program that encourages carpools, vanpool and transit use.

Community Transit buses to Boeing currently leave the bus yard at 3 a.m. to get to Gold Bar and Stanwood to bring workers in for the 5:30 a.m. shift. The board accepted the original staff recommendation to stop serving that early shift, but modified the staff proposal by having buses go out at 4 .m.l rather than 4:30 a.m. This will get riders to work for the 6 a.m. shift, the largest of the morning.

Workers on the earlier shift are encouraged to consider finding fellow bus riders to form a vanpool. Community Transit has 80 current vanpools serving the Everett’s Boeing plant. Vans also come from Island, Skagit, Kitsap, King and Whatcom counties.

Stanwood Mayor Dianne White, who joined the Community Transit board just weeks before the first vote on the service changes, said cutting Boeing service to Stanwood all together was not acceptable. “That’s 200 cars a day on I-5, five days a week,” she said.

The four roundtrips on Route 247 from Stanwood to Boeing averaged 240 boardings a day - roughly 120 people - in 2009.

Board member and Sultan Councilman Steve Slawson fought to retain Boeing service to Gold Bar on Route 277. Slawson is a Community Transit rider himself and argued that the early-morning service is extremely important to the handful of riders who take it, not just to get to Boeing but also to connections with Route 424 to Seattle.

With the operating day starting at 4 a.m. , the first Route 277 trip can get as far as Monroe to serve the 6 a.m. shift start. A second trip on Route 277 will extend to Gold Bar.

“This sends a political message to Boeing - we want you here,” White said after the revised plans were adopted unanimously.