Should Amazon Cover Costs of Intern Bus Crowding?

This story originally ran in Seattle Magazine.

Last month the Seattle Times reported that hundreds of new Amazon interns, each wearing identical company-issued black backpacks, are crowding out other commuters on King County Metro’s Route 70. The overcrowded buses, which forced drivers to skip some stops when full, led Metro to take the unusual step of adding service to the route for the rest of the summer without the extensive public process that typically informs long-term service increases.

Metro service development manager Bill Bryant says the bus agency routinely provides extra service for special events, like Pride or the Women’s March, and temporary disruption such as the periodic closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. “We really do not want to see any situation where specific trips on a route are passing customers by on a regular basis,” he says. “We received multiple reports that people were getting passed by [on Route 70], and we decided to pull the trigger.”

According to Metro spokesman Scott Gutierrez, about 400 more people than usual were riding Route 70 when Metro decided to add service. The current uptick in service during morning rush hour—two extra buses between 6:30 and 10:30 a.m.—is costing Metro about $3,600 a week.

Shefali Ranganathan, director of the transit advocacy group Transportation Choices Coalition, says the “bottom-line question is, should Metro explore a broader partnership with Amazon where Amazon buys service hours from Metro” to mitigate their impact on the system. “Maybe this is something [Metro] should approach not just as a one-off [service improvement] but as a broader partnership that would benefit Amazon and the broader community, which is what Microsoft does,” Ranganathan says.

There’s precedent for this: Back in 2012, Amazon paid for the South Lake Union streetcar to run more frequently, although that money was compensation for land the city gave Amazon to expand its South Lake Union campus.

Microsoft, somewhat controversially, has given its workers a way to opt out of the public transit system entirely by creating a private option, the Microsoft Connector, which has grown into the largest private regional bus system in the nation. Since last year, Amazon has offered its own limited shuttle service, called Amazon Ride, which runs four shuttle buses between the company’s two main campuses in South Lake Union and the University District. The company also spends $12 million on ORCA transit passes for its employees.

Of course, Amazon’s expansion in the city isn’t limited to a few hundred summer interns. Earlier this year, the company announced that it was hiring 100,000 new U.S. employees by mid-2018, and advertised more than 9,000 new job openings in Seattle. Most of those new jobs will be in South Lake Union, meaning that the pressure on Metro service will only grow. “The growth in South Lake Union, just across the board, continues,” Bryant says. “The choice to add service to keep customers moving and to prevent pass-bys is not a hard choice for us.”

As a transit agency charged with getting cars off the roads, Metro wants to make sure all those new customers keep coming back to use its service, rather than giving up and driving to work alone. But Metro has also made a commitment, through its service guidelines, to serve low-income and minority communities, such as Southeast Seattle. When Metro decides where to add service during its twice-annual service adjustment process, it looks not just at demand but at how well the system is serving the goal of racial equity.

A few tens of thousands of dollars shifted over to South Lake Union over the summer may not sound like much. But if Amazon’s growth creates the demand for permanent shifts in service, that could put Metro in the position of choosing between racial equity and full buses passing people by.

Amazon, which provided information on its existing shuttle service through a spokesman, did not respond to a request for information about any plans to expand its shuttle service. Although the company confirmed that it is actively working with Metro to plan for increased ridership from the UW to South Lake Union, Bryant says “we haven’t had any significant conversations with Amazon about significantly increasing their shuttle service.”

Morning Crank: The Right Side of History

Peter Rogoff

In the spirit of last Friday’s Morning Crank, here are five things I heard at the Transportation Choices Coalition’s New Year’s transportation forum, held last Wednesday at City Hall. I moderated the panel, which included city council member Rob Johnson, TCC advocacy director Abigail Doerr, King County Council member Claudia Balducci, and Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff. In truth, the statements I’m quoting are from Rogoff and Johnson, whose comments dealt specifically with the political situation in Seattle; this is not an attempt to silence Doerr or Balducci, the two other women on the panel, whose thoughts on Metro, transit on the Eastside, and the future of transportation advocacy were cogent and valuable. For my Seattle politics site, though, I’ve focused on the remarks specific to Seattle politics, and encourage you to watch the whole event yourself on the Seattle Channel website; the whole thing runs about an hour.

1. Johnson, on what it will take to ensure that Metro’s expansion of Rapid Ride bus service throughout the city will be true bus rapid transit, not just express buses stuck in traffic: “We need to connect with individuals on the ground about the rationale for why [we’re building Rapid Ride]. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a conversation with somebody who articulates their strong environmental values and in the same breath talks to me about how important it is for people to have more parking spaces in the city. We need to do a much better job connecting the values of our city around sustainability, the environment, and race and social justice with the importance of capital facilities like bus-only lanes.

“The 44 is a critical bus route that runs, basically, from the very tail end of Ballard all the way through Fremont, Wallingford, and the University of Washington, and I believe we should be expanding that as a Rapid Ride corridor and running it all the way to University Village. When we do, we’re going to receive opposition not just from the community but from business owners who will say, ‘Taking away a parking space hurts my business. My argument would be that everyone who gets on and off a bus has a wallet too, and they could be spending money in your business.”

“It’s really disturbing for me when I hear somebody talking about how glad they were to see the neighborhood district councils stand up for single-family zoning and then in the next breath disparage the president for wanting to build a wall between the US and Mexico. I see those two things as actually linked.” – City Council member Rob Johnson

2Rogoff, on the long history of collisions, many of them fatal,  between light rail trains and pedestrians in the Rainier Valley—a lower-income area, populated largely by people of color, that is the only part of the regional system where light rail runs primarily at street level: “This is not just a light or rail grade crossing safety risk. It is also, quite frankly, more prominently a pedestrian safety risk. There’s a tendency for people to be walking on the streets looking at their devices with earbuds in their ears and it’s killed a whole bunch of people. It already did. There’s only so much we can do, frankly, for someone who insists on walking singularly focused on their device, with music playing in their ears, when our warnings, our available warnings, in addition to putting down gates to actually block [the crossing] is lights and alarms.” (Rail crossings in the Rainier Valley, it’s worth noting, do not include physical barriers between pedestrian areas and the tracks.)

3. Johnson, on the possibility that the city and county will lose federal funds in retaliation for remaining “sanctuary” jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration crackdowns: “We will fight back against those cuts. There is a strong argument that we can make that says you can’t cut our transportation dollars because of a decision that we make on immigration, but we also are prepared to lose every single penny of those federal funds to make sure that we are a welcoming city.

“The biggest concern for me is watching the appropriation process on an annual basis, making sure that the federal funds that have been allocated to us as a region actually get appropriated to us.”

4. Rogoff, on the possibility that the Trump Administration could cut federal funding, to Sound Transit (Trump is reportedly taking its cues on transportation from the Heritage Foundation, which advocates eliminating federal funding for public transit, and his transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, is a GOP insider who is closely affiliated with the foundation):  “[Trump] said a lot of things, actually throughout the campaign. … There’s a lot of upticks that come with [transportation budget] proposals in some administrations and downticks that come with proposals [in] other administrations, but often Congress levels out the upticks and downticks quite a bit. Congress is going to have to consent to the budget presented by the White House. … I would just say, watch this space and see if their proposals will be as draconian as expected.”

Rob Johnson

5. Finally, Johnson, bringing down the transit-loving, density-friendly house on the contentious University District upzone, which Johnson’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee will discuss tomorrow morning:  “This is about making sure that the council members that represent those districts where we’re going to see long-term investments are also going to be willing to stand up to single-family homeowners who are saying,  ‘Don’t turn my single-family home into a place where you can build a duplex or a triplex.’

“I feel, as the chair of the committee, that it’s my responsibility to make sure that we’re a welcoming city for everybody, and it’s really disturbing for me when I hear … somebody talking about how glad they were to see the neighborhood district councils stand up for single-family zoning and then in the next breath disparage the president for wanting to build a wall between the US and Mexico. I see those two things as actually linked. I see us, as a city, really needing to build more housing for more people, because we’re adding 40 people per day but we’re only building 12 housing units per day, and that’s creating an economic circumstance where lower-income people and middle-income people are being forced out of the city, and I think we need the political will for folks to step in that space and create change for more density around those stations. I firmly believe that. It may result in me only having this job for four years, but if that’s the case, I feel like I’ll have gone down on the right side of history.”