The Distributor

Meydenbauer Bay is close to Bellevue’s Downtown Park, the Bellevue Collection, and Old Bellevue’s Main Street. The major transportation corridor, I-405, sits east of downtown, conveniently demarcating a central business district that will soon frame the region’s most congested artery.

The City of Bellevue is the jewel of the Pacific Northwest. Nestled in valleys in the foothills of the Cascades, on the shores of Lake Washington just 20 km east of Seattle, this young city boasts a thriving tech sector, a shopping district with some of the highest tax revenue per square foot on the West Coast, and placid established neighborhoods with single-family homes scattered across the hills between its western shore and Lake Sammamish. Bellevue’s growth continues to increase and Amazon projects adding 15,000 new employees in support of an expanding corporate presence.

On the west end of downtown, the Bellevue Collection anchors a retail and entertainment district with mixed-use mid-rise buildings and the new Downtown Park. A park-like connection to Meydenbauer Bay bookends a bucolic shopping district along Main Street in Old Bellevue and the City plans to provide a greenway from the bay all the way to the Eastrail regional multi-use path. Eventually, the Grand Connection will bridge Interstate 405, bridging the downtown with new development in the Wilburton area. While the motorway itself is mismanaged and completely inadequate for the demands of a thriving modern city; in fact, public transit agencies propose to spend billions of dollars to add service to the corridor in the form of future Bus Rapid Transit that will capture far fewer riders than expansions of privately-operated point-to-point shuttle services. Additionally, a light-capacity rail line serving downtown Seattle and the Microsoft Campus in Redmond will feature a station at 110th Ave NE and NE 6th St, just east of the existing Bellevue Transit Center. This nexus of regional transit for bus and rail will be ½ mile east of the Bellevue Collection, walkable via the NE 6th St pedestrian mall between Bellevue Way NE (10400 block) and 108th Ave NE.

It’s the ideal environment for a low-speed autonomous shuttle.

But what if the City were to embrace something much more reliable and robust than a surface route for an autonomous shuttle yet much more cost-effective and flexible than a rail-based transit line? What if the City were to construct a new tunnel restricted to autonomous vehicles and providing for the cross-town movement of people and goods? This is the NE 6th Street Distributor.

The Distributor will connect Bellevue Square to the new Link Light Rail Station. The tunnel itself will daylight just east of 110th Ave NE in the center of NE 6th St with bus access to the Transit Center provided via the existing lanes to the outside. Distributor traffic itself will have full access to 112th Ave NE.

The idea of an east-west distributor is not new. In the 1970s, an elevated monorail-type system was proposed, offering direct access to the second or third floor of office buildings along NE 6th St. Other plans have called for an east-west tunnel along NE 4th St, making good use of terrain. The Sound Transit East Link light-capacity rail line travels through a tunnel along 110th Ave NE between Main St and NE 6th St, where it daylights between the Bellevue Transit Center and I-405. In Bellevue, a tunnel of just 2000 feet in length might cost far less than one-quarter of the SR 99 tunnel constructed in Seattle’s complex urban environment in glacial till. And it wouldn’t need to be 54 feet in diameter. In fact, such a tunnel could be constructed using the driftless method (used on the I-90 Mount Baker Ridge Tunnels in the 1980s) with a roadway width of 44 feet, providing space for a center platform at stations, adjacent life safety corridors, and fire suppression equipment and systems used in modern tunnels.

Autonomous shuttles such as the EasyMile 10, Proterra Catalyst, Navya Autonom, or Olli II provide the ideal vehicle for moving people in a personalized setting. These vehicles can provide frequent service, are relatively brisk in a dedicated environment, and, most importantly, they are easy to use, with flat floors and sliding doors over a generous opening. The shuttles are all-electric and exhibit a proven track record of safety, even in complex environments with pedestrians and bicyclists. Use of center platforms allows for stairs with an elevator on one end and escalators on the other, reducing costs for surface access while simplifying the user experience. Most importantly, unlike transit buses, the shuttles can turn around in a limited space, eliminating the need for a large-radius cul-de-sac at the west end of the tunnel.

Key characteristics of the low-speed autonomous shuttle include excellent visibility, flat-floor boarding, a mix of seating and supported standing space, and sliding doors with a full-height entrance, all working in concert to create a welcoming atmosphere.

Simply put, the Distributor will connect people all across downtown Bellevue with transit service to the east and with I-405, where the opportunity exists to redevelop the NE 8th St interchange and possibly construct new Mobility Marketplaces that could function as Park & Ride facilities serving downtown and the region.

Clear and simple signing will direct users to stations along the route. Wayfinding on the surface will change over time but high-speed mobile network availability in the tunnel with augmented reality navigation on mobile devices might make much of what we see today obsolete.

The real benefit of the Distributor is its ability to handle freight and deliveries with new smaller vehicles envisioned for cities. Pull-in, pull-out parallel parking spaces would be provided on either end of the center platforms at stations along the route, with a 14-foot wide area ensuring an ample buffer for personnel, allowing parking and unloading out of the weather. While these spaces could support mid-size delivery vans such as the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Ford Transit, or Nissan NV200, the real power of this space is driverless vehicles. Time spent driving between locations could now be concentrated at the logistics hubs at each platform. Vehicles that could be unloaded quickly would not require parking at all. Even a small logistics hub east of I-405 or in a converted parking facility would be all that is necessary to move goods between a 26-foot box truck and smaller autonomous delivery vehicles authorized to use the tunnel. This last-mile logistics solution may add the security and predictability necessary to provide direct-to-customer package deliveries, on time, in the Distributor. Don’t forget to grab a pre-ordered cup of coffee on the way back to the office during your four minutes of freedom.

The Distributor: It’s not a pretty name. Much like Chicago’s freight-oriented Lower Wacker Drive, the Distributor will stand the test of time but it will not be the gritty guts of the City. Today, modern illumination systems, a dedication to public art, and the flexibility of what amounts to the open-source access of the roadway system create limitless potential. Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago brings freight to the Windy City’s office buildings in its unique downtown, connecting to Congress Parkway and the world. The Distributor will bring the world the downtown Bellevue, connecting I-405 and East Link to the one of the region’s most sought-after residential and shopping districts. The jewel of Bellevue has a heartbeat. Its east-west pedestrian mall can remain a place for people, trees, and gathering spaces. The city’s pulse, the free movement of people and goods unconstrained by traffic congestion and weather, will be hidden from sight yet accessible to all.

This work is the author’s original technical creation. Development of this concept was made possible by the Transportation Futures Fellowship of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development, a program of the Discovery Institute.

$30 Goes a Long Ways

an intersection in the snow

My friends, I want you all to witness history being made with a front row seat. I’m standing with Tim Eyman for Governor of the Great State of Washington and I’m expecting to be elected Secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation in the November 2021 Special Elections. By then, under the authority of people expressed through Washington State Joint Senate Resolution 8200, the heads of Departments will be elected by stakeholders who make use of the agency’s services. In the case of this public agency, the WSDOT, each car owner will be allotted one vote, just as each business will be allotted one vote for the Secretary of the Department of Labor and Industries based on its share of the number of people employed in the State and subject to State taxes of any kind.  Perhaps you’d like to read the remarks at the formal ceremony where I announce my acceptance of the certification of the vote and the position.

“Governor Eyman, thank you.  Feel free to take a seat.  This is a long speech.

“It’s a pleasure to serve in the administration of someone who believes in limited government. People of the Evergreen State, the Great State of Washington, welcome. Welcome to the WSDOT Headquarters in Olympia, Washington. In this building you employ some of the most educated and informed individuals in the nation. I should know, I’ve worked for several of them and they were my clients who earned my respect. Today, they seek leadership to address the challenges ahead of us in a meaningful and productive fashion.

“No longer will we wave our hands about, warning that the sky is collapsing and that obvious solutions to serious problems are actually exactly the opposite of what we propose to do. Congestion is the problem and we as an agency will immediately fulfill our obligation to address it for the benefit of our State’s economy. Being delayed by traffic congestion is no longer going to be considered a consequence of other peoples’ problems and therefore outside of our ability to fix.  Our chief mission is to relieve congestion and improve safety on the State Highway System and our primary strategy is capacity expansion.

It looks like the sunset is a lot closer than we thought.

“Under the emergency authority granted to the Secretary by the Legislature, I will direct our staff at the WSDOT to take immediate action on five major transportation problems. I am immediately prioritizing Interstate 405 between I-5 in Tukwila and SR 520 in Bellevue for southbound improvements in speed and reliability.  The first improvements will be under construction next week.  The entire freeway will be free of all high-occupancy vehicle restrictions on January 1st, 2022, and all traffic signing and pavement markings to that effect will be removed within 30 days. The tolling equipment will be turned off by Executive Order of the Governor in 30 minutes. Interstate 5 will receive immediate capacity enhancements such as extended entrance ramps, auxiliary lanes, and additional uphill lanes in numerous locations. We will begin converting SR 26 to a multi-lane motorway, finish widening I-90 from Sprague to Idaho, and replace or otherwise improve the top ten most hazardous intersections in Eastern Washington. In two years, 60 roundabouts will be under construction in Western Washington, replacing traffic signals and all-way stops with safe and efficient management of traffic.  SR 522 will receive the last segments of widening to four lanes in 9 months, being built by a private equity technology investment firm at no cost the taxpayers of this State. We hear they just want their workers at companies in their portfolio to have better housing options in a less expensive county.  And we will immediately sign a memorandum of understanding with an investment coalition ready to tackle I-5 through downtown Seattle.

“Taxpayers in the State of Washington have made it clear that they expect their transportation tax dollars to be spent on real transportation. We all want clean water and nature uncorrupted by the effects of our presence on this planet and we work toward that in this State, especially if we can prevent it using sound science. That’s why WSDOT will still comply with all reasonable environmental compliance asked of us, including water quality protection, stormwater management, and land and aquatic wildlife movement accommodations. But we are not paying for it. The Department of Ecology must ask the legislature to fund its regulations. We will follow them at a price we set and we will negotiate with our friends at Ecology to come to an agreement on their share, which we expect will be 100%.  But we’re giving our our fellow Department a break by planning to pay for all bridge improvements over waterways using motof fuel excise tax receipts dedicated to the State Multimodal Fund. WSDOT will keep these projects on track and support another agency by affording it time to justify its existence with the people.

“With local transit funding now completely subject to the will of individual municipalities, our Multimodal Fund has plenty of pork in it so we’re proud to partner with you on fish and wildlife movement.  These culverts are like freeways, I’ve heard.  A bald eagle told me that.

“Speaking of this great nation’s liberty and the spirit of the great people of this State, we know we are free to move and free to organize in whatever way best suits our individual and shared missions.  This Department will be immediately assessed for reorganization such that it serves the needs of the taxpayers, people who drive their own cars on the roads. (After all, there are transit buses on the roads NOT paying for that service through our State’s motor fuel excise tax.) Functions duplicated and provided at the local level, such as public transit, will be removed from our agency and coordination will occur in accordance with economic benefit to the users of the system. In small communities, we will partner with them to deal with context even as we quickly move to pursue intergovernmental cost share agreements. All of our local agency money will be delivered competitively on the basis merit in three categories: safety improvements with demonstrated benefits, system preservation through sound maintenance, and congestion reduction by means of capacity enhancements. We’re proud to serve the people in very own communities, you and I. There’s nothing we won’t do to be above reproach and careful stewards of every stretch of road we own and manage for the good of the people.

“Without action from the legislature on behalf of the taxpayers and our Constitution, this agency cannot acquire more income. We therefore must work within our means until we demonstrate our worth to the taxpayers and be given more. I therefore will refuse to honor any agreements related to the I-5 crossing of the Columbia River until all authorized parties agree to widen the bridge to 16 lanes with accommodations for future light rail when it is funded by the local agencies’ agreements. Tolling in support of a solution that provides a real benefit makes economic sense but WSDOT will work to no longer impose tolls. We accept proposals from private operators to build, maintain, and operate motorways and critical links. In this case, we encourage the private sector to act to provide immediate and sufficient capacity on this critical link to our neighbors in Oregon. No one at this agency will stand in your way.

This would have been a great roadway for use by Bus Rapid Transit direct to regional Park & Ride facilities that were slowly being turned into self-sustaining Mobility Marketplaces

“Just last week, a private sector group led by a perennial advocate for sensible transit spending successfully sought a court injunction to end all Sound Transit work within or immediately adjacent to freeway rights-of-way in Washington State. These corridors are valuable and should be dedicated to uses that serve the people who pay for the service of driving on a road with their gas taxes. You’ll be surprised to hear who I’ll be appointing Legislative Policy Advisor later today and my Economic Advisor is on his way down here but stuck in traffic. There will be a lot less traffic congestion when the Legislature passes aggressive laws that defend our left lanes from slow vehicles, a speed limit increase authority to 80 miles per hour for all rural motorways, and a ban on red light camera fines, protecting your Fourth Amendment rights and your rights under Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“The demand for bold action on resource consumption, a reduction in vehicle miles traveled, has not fallen on deaf ears. We’re going to drive reductions in resource consumption by reducing congestion and providing people with better travel experiences overall. Who knows? The next source of nearly-limitless power might be invented by someone who spends an extra 30 minutes at home each night with a few extra dollars on hand. We’re going to work so we can all get to work improving our State. I’m here to make it easier for people to use the roads and I want them to know we all care.  Let’s make a sound move forward, together.  Governor Eyman, sir.  Thank you.”

Dangerous Combinations

steering wheel with banana

Attending #AVS19 is another great opportunity to identify where user experience and vehicle systems functionality inconsistencies could lead to safety and operational risks. In a conversation on Monday, I described how I recently used lane-keeping assist but was frustrated with the system’s deprecation behavior when my hands were not on the steering wheel. So I installed a banana on the steering wheel (to provide torque simulating a human hand resting on the wheel) and thereby provided what feels to the user like Level 4 automation, where no human intervention is (presumably) required. The problem was that I used this modified self-steering with non-adaptive cruise control. An industry colleague pointed out that Volvo disallows the operation of two Level 1 systems at the same time, even though they feature both #LKA and #ACC. Using a Level 0 and Level 1 function to simulate Level 4 is a huge risk, as neither system was designed to function that way.

Interestingly, BMW introduced the concept of disallowing cruise control nearly 15 years ago on vehicles equipped with both cruise control and dynamic stability control. Disabling the DSC would lead to the cruise control being inoperative.

Why is this important? In today’s world of various Automated Driving Assistance Systems (#ADAS), users are often misled into a false sense of security regarding these systems and their operation. They expect nearly-autonomous operation from a relatively-reliable systems that are intended for supervised use only. Using a non-adaptive system with no external sensors (conventional cruise control as opposed to ACC) with an adaptive and semi-automated system such as LKA can lead to a false sense of security. If I can bypass these systems with very little forethought, will others who don’t understand the risks of these interactions do the same?