Seattle: The Future of a City’s Liberty

If you know the Seattle area at all, you’ll enjoy this simple yet deeply pleasing animation by King County Metro Transit, showing how transit could improve over the next 25 years, if voters continue to support it.

What kind of video is this?  No pictures of diverse, happy people on public transit? No pictures of sexy trains or buses?  No network diagrams? (Those are here!)

Nope.  Just pictures of the liberty and opportunity of human beings, like this:Slide039



This image means that in 2040, if you’re in the Fremont district of Seattle (the center of the dark green dot) you’ll be able to get to anywhere in the brown area in 60 minutes. The animation steps you through how small this area is now, and how it grows over time under the plan.  It does this for over 70 sample destinations around the region.

If you want to get around on transit and walking, think of this brown area as the wall around your life.  Make it bigger, and your life is bigger: more jobs you could hold, more schools you or your kids you could go to, more clubs you can belong to, more people you can meet, befriend, maybe even marry.

At my firm, we almost never do a plan anymore without drawing these, showing how they differ based on various alternatives under study.

Because we think people are tired of arguing about rail vs buses, and about transferring, walking distances, waiting times, dwell times, platform heights, and all the other arcana that make most transit conversations seem maddening and inaccessible.  Instead, we want to talk about something everyone cares about: liberty and opportunity.

Diagram by King County Metro Transit, part of their “Metro Connects” strategic plan.  Produced in Remix.  

20 Responses to Seattle: The Future of a City’s Liberty

  1. Jacob May 14, 2016 at 12:02 pm #

    The problem with a map like that is the unit of comparison is spatial area — any given area of the map is treated equivalent to any other of the same size. From this map’s point of view, access to the brown dot just north of the King County line is just as important as access to Fremont’s green dot, or all of downtown Seattle.

    But what we really want to know are things like: how many jobs can we get to? How many bars/restaurants/libraries can we get to, etc? UM’s Accessibility Observatory has done interesting work getting at questions along these lines:

    • Gabe May 14, 2016 at 1:07 pm #

      As I understand it part of this approach is that you actually take a naive position on the spatial distribution of travel demand (and implicitly land use/function) – instead of framing things as ‘here’s where people go/will go and here’s what they do/will do’ you frame them in terms of potential.

      • Jason May 15, 2016 at 1:19 pm #

        Gabe: Piggybacking off your comment and the fact that the map explicitly shows “in the year 2040” I think it’s pertinent to remember that this kind of thing can help guide development over the next couple of decades. Somewhere that may not make sense to develop from a car-centric perspective may make a ton of sense to develop if it’s along one of these rail lines. And in turn developing such an area may help spur the sort of patterns that have been discussed elsewhere on this site where it’s beneficial to have multiple “downtowns” as a way of having the transit system avoid becoming a pure spoke-and-hub serving a single downtown.

    • Jarrett May 15, 2016 at 8:52 am #

      Jacob. Yes, all geographically recognizable maps are visually biased toward land area and away from population, which means they’re basically biased against cities. We know that. When we use these we also calculate what’s in the blobs (% of pop and jobs etc) so we have good numerical soundbites about access.

      But what Seattle’s doing here isn’t an analysis tool; it’s a public education tool. It invites people to explore how network options affect them. And anyone who can read a map can see what’s in or out of their personal sphere of liberty. I want people to know about that when they form views on transit projects.

  2. p May 14, 2016 at 12:26 pm #

    ‘arcana’ – I love it! A great feature word.

    The blob of liberty is very interesting, it is related to the Marchetti Constant, the idea that people have stable travel time budgets for what they think is a ‘reasonable’ commute.

    It also puts a boundary on the ‘reasonable’ area for how far a person could live away from their job (assuming that it is downtown). That in turn implies a fixed amount of potential housing space in that area, which has implications for density etc.

  3. asdf2 May 14, 2016 at 9:39 pm #

    It would be interesting to see walking+transit isochromes alongside those of other modes. For example, my personal experience is that the 15-minute walking+transit isochrome and the 15-minute isochrome for walking only are virtually identical. The 15-minute “car” isochrome is, of course, depressing. However, we can take solace that after factoring in time involved with parking and sitting in traffic, the actual 15-minute “car” isochrome is considerably less than what it may look like on paper, at least for trips that take place in the middle of the city.

    One interesting thing that isochromes can illustrate with a lot of power is how transit can be enhanced with some sort of “last mile” connector option. For instance, a network of driverless cars ferrying people around in the surbubs would significantly increase the “1-hour” transit radius from the city. By contrast, a gigantic parking garage abutting a rapid transit station does nothing in this regard.

    • d.p. May 18, 2016 at 1:33 pm #

      The reason for your experience of near-identical 15-minute walking/transit isochromes is Seattle’s decades-long resistance to the kind of useful urban frequencies and painless transfers that would expand your spontaneous freedom and range.

      Also notable is how little effect any part of Link has had on quarter-hour isochromes even in the quadrants it touches, thanks to its well-documented access penalties and (commensurate) paucity of places directly served.

      The world is full of cities where multi-directional transit ubiquity places significant swaths of the contiguous city within very close range. Of course, most of these places boast transit-supportive densities over much broader areas than in Seattle. For example, I recently moved back to Boston. Despite being a 4-minute walk from the “not BRT” line and a 9-minute walk from the closest subway, I have pretty much the entirety of the central city (by its broadest definitions) within my reliable 15-to-20-minute isochrome, in addition to a couple of places further afield.

      That measurement even includes a likely transfer, on top of the walk to the bus. Because frequency makes this possible. And while we’re talking about a total range of a couple of miles, because it’s a high-density city, it certainly and vastly exceeds the distance I can walk in that time, or even bike-share (depending on route and docking locations).

      Now imagine a city with the overall compactness and transit ubiquity of, say, Prague, and the percentage of the city traversable in 15-20 minutes by transit leaves your walking range even further in the dust.

      • d.p. May 18, 2016 at 1:52 pm #

        On another note, what should really embarrass the planners, boosters, and purse-string danglers is the middling reach of the 30-minute and even 45-minute isochromes seen in Jarrett’s sample image above. Which is centered on downtown Fremont, hardly a fringe-case starting point.

        This is 2040, and therefore assumes not only a healthy helping of Metro/SDOT’s RapidRide network improvements, but also the full extent of ST3’s $50 billion expenditures. And yet the overwhelming majority of the city is still just as remote — as “unliberated”, if you will — as it is today.

        I guess that’s what happens when you spend most of your billions in Interbay and the Duwamish dead zone and the road to Issaquah, rather than easing travel between the places that actual human beings are and want to be.

      • asdf2 May 27, 2016 at 9:55 pm #

        Politically, it is unreasonable to expect all the suburbs to be pouring their tax dollars into service within Seattle neighborhoods, while getting nothing but hourly milk runs in return.

        In general, it is very difficult for a transit trip to be 15-minutes or less on a door-to-door level. A walk of just 5 minutes to/from the bus stop on each end is already 10 minutes. Throw in another 5 minutes of wait time and you’re already up to 15 minutes, even if the bus were an instant teleporter from one stop to the next. Even assuming a 3-minute walk on each end, plus a 3-minute wait time, a 15-minute time budget would leave only 6 minutes for the actual ride – which, on a well-used bus with urban stop spacing, amounts to just 1 mile, which is just barely further than one could cover in a 15-minute brisk walk. Basically, the only way one’s 15-minute isochrome can be significantly larger with transit than with walking is to live immediately adjacent to a subway line that operates extremely frequently (e.g. every 5 minutes), with total separation from road traffic. Currently, a place like this does not really exist in Seattle, but when Capitol Hill Station sees 5-minute Link frequency in 2023, when the two lines combine, it might.

        • d.p. May 28, 2016 at 3:31 pm #

          Did you even read my current isochrome-from-home use case?

          I’m 3 or 4 minutes from the nearest bus, and 9 from the nearest subway. I can still reliably walk out my door and reach most parts of downtown Boston, the Back Bay, the South End, and parts of Roxbury and even cross the river toward Cambridge in 15-20 minutes, even with a bus-to-train transfer. This is especially true in the middle of the day, which I believe is the baseline for the Seattle isochromes above (for the purposes of weighting traffic and frequency).

          Yes, that requires near-instantaneous frequency, which in fact exists in the world. Yes, that also requires adhering to an accurate representation of non-exertive human walking speed (~3.1 mph with a bell curve that drops off extremely steeply), rather than falsely claiming you’re 33% faster than that (no one is).

          • d.p. May 28, 2016 at 3:42 pm #

            Furthermore, it should not be “politically unreasonable” to ask that $tens of billions and decades of debt be spent as productively as possible, or that low-density subarea project lists be constructed around cheaper, targeted ROW-priority commuter improvements rather than shiny Cargo Cult fetish objects of little mobility value to anyone.

            Anyway, my point about Fremont is that even ST3’s Seattle-subarea projects are shocking limp when viewed in light of their middling impacts on the holistic network. This is true at any cost and on any presently-offered version of the timeline.

            Hopefully, the Design By Snowflake Exceptionalism brigade will be rebuked at the ballot box, and will be forced to start from scratch in all subareas. The tech boom, with its concomitant false sense of infinite resources and Newspeak declarwtions of success in the absence of tangible outcomes, will not last forever.

  4. P May 15, 2016 at 8:38 am #

    I am not against cars. They are not mutually exclusive with good transit.
    For some journeys in some locations, car is best.

    That said, I think transit has a natural advantage over the car that is just not being looked at right now.

    In addition to transit being useful for areas where space is a premium, transit can be useful over longer distances of around 200 km away from a major city.

    High-speed rail could be used for commuting purposes if such a network was designed properly, with stations every 10-20km apart, or with a long express section, and then regular stops say 6-8km apart.

    The trick would be to ensure that HSR trips are no longer than about 45 minutes from the main city’s downtown.

    Trains carry about ten times the amount of people carried in a single motorway lane, take up less space than a motorway for the alignment and can travel at speeds far in excess of what a car could ever legally do on a motorway (100 – 110 km/hour).

    • Jason May 27, 2016 at 4:17 am #

      I’ve always felt that HSR commuting would be a bit too expensive though. Even in Japan few people do it nowadays because companies in this economy just aren’t willing to support $700 / month for it.

    • ararar June 2, 2016 at 5:56 am #

      HSR tickets are pricey (not necessarily if you order well in advance) but they are okay for weekly commuting, frequent business trips and week-end tourism (in addition to the usual longer trips), but prohibitive for commuting.

      If the price is artificially kept low, soon you’ll have too many people using those trains and the prices will have to be raised to keep up with the costs.

      Also for american distances it’s really hard to keep up with low-cost airlines.

  5. Jason May 15, 2016 at 1:15 pm #

    I’m assuming the disconnected red dots are suburban park-and-rides where you can’t really get anywhere from the station without a car?

  6. asdf2 May 15, 2016 at 10:17 pm #

    Some, but not all. A fair number of the red dots on the eastside are actually significant job centers (although some are certainly just P&R lots and north else. Another red dot, on the south side, is the airport.

  7. Rob May 16, 2016 at 8:53 pm #

    I love the maps. My only problem is that I can’t find much in the actual service plan that would result in these magnificent improvements to my transit-accessible range. I know that headways would get shorter, but I can’t imagine that alone could result in these improvements or offset the travel time deterioration I see every year lately. My transit range has been closing in, and I’m not sure what they’re proposing that would change that.

    I would be better convinced if the improvements could be broken out – how much is due to frequency, how much to transit priority, how much from light rail or direct service connections… None of that is adding up without more explanation.

    • Joseph E May 16, 2016 at 10:49 pm #

      Rob, most of the improvements would be due to the new light rail and BRT routes, in addition to more frequent service on regular bus routes. You can see the general plan on this map, which also includes changes due to Sound Transit’s expansion plans for light rail and BRT:
      Here is the full, draft plan:
      New light rail lines to Redmond, Ballard and West Seattle will speed up those trips; there are also extensions of light rail to Lynwood and Tacoma planned. More BRT and Metro Rapid routes will also speed up trips.

    • Joseph E May 16, 2016 at 10:50 pm #

      Specific to King County Metro, the biggest improvements will come from new and expanded Rapid Ride service, as detailed in this document:

  8. VipOne March 2, 2018 at 8:15 am #

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