The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Microsoft launches its own hi-tech Bus Rapid Transit service

MV Transportation
Paul Joseph Brown / P-I
Aaron Edwards, above, is general manager for MV Transportation, the company that will operate the 14 buses in the system.

Microsoft giving workers free ride -- with its own bus service

Wi-Fi-enabled system will debut this month

Windows, Office, Xbox, Zune -- and now, a regional bus system.

That's the surprise addition Microsoft Corp. made to its portfolio Thursday, announcing its own bus service -- complete with on-board wireless Internet access -- to shuttle its employees from their neighborhoods around the region to Redmond and back home again.

The 14-bus Microsoft "Connector" system, to debut later this month, was announced as the company unveiled plans to open new offices in Seattle's South Lake Union and Pioneer Square neighborhoods.

At launch, the bus system will handle no more than 1,000 employees a day. That's only a slice of Microsoft's more than 35,000 employees in the region.

But the fact that Microsoft would find it necessary to take such a step added new fuel to the debate over comprehensive regional transportation reform.

Bus route map

"This is something that the county bus system should be doing and they're not," said Stephen Gerritson, executive director for Commuter Challenge, a Seattle non-profit. "To some extent, Metro is dropping the ball here."

Even as bus systems struggle to add routes and companies expand their van pools, the regional transportation system is maxed out, said state Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle.

The region faces two major obstacles, said Murray, vice chairman of the Senate transportation committee. First: "Our population has grown so much and our employment base has grown so much that our transit system has not kept up with it."

Second: Roads and bridges are failing and aging, he said.

Microsoft drew praise from commuter groups Thursday.

"It is a great corporate decision to take a look at where the transportation system isn't meeting the needs of your commuters and fill in the gaps," said John Resha, general manager of the Urban Mobility Group, a partnership between King County, the city of Seattle and the Downtown Seattle Association. "The system we've got can't evolve quickly enough."

Will it catch on?

Microsoft isn't the first company to offer free bus service to its employees. Google offers about 150 bus runs daily across the San Francisco Bay Area, to and from its Mountain View, Calif., campus, spokeswoman Sunny Gettinger said.

"Part of the reason that we do it is because we really want people to have the opportunity to be able to work at Google in Mountain View and not feel like they're contributing to environmental issues by commuting," she said.

Gettinger, who uses the Google bus service, said it can end up being another place for employees to meet face-to-face. She has been able to resolve work-related issues just by running into the right person on the bus. Google has offices in Seattle and Kirkland but doesn't offer bus service in the Seattle area.

"I hope it will catch on. It's a fantastic idea. (Microsoft is) taking personal responsibility for the traffic that their company is generating," said Elaine Somers, a Seattle environmental protection specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency.

But others said that Microsoft probably will remain among the very few.

"This is not cheap what they're doing," said Kevin Desmond, general manager at King County Metro Transit. "Microsoft employees enjoy good benefits that many employers would give their right arm to be able to provide."

Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, acknowledged it is expensive but declined to say how much the company is spending.

The pilot program will include 14 buses, including seven large coaches with bike storage, and electrical outlets at each seat, in addition to Wi-Fi. Seven midsize coaches will be used for neighborhood pickups. There will be multiple runs in the morning and afternoon, Smith said.

Running one bus for one hour costs the Metro system about $110, which includes the driver, mechanic and fuel, Desmond said. At that rate, it would cost $9,240 per day to run 14 buses for six hours, or $2.4 million per year, not including weekends, the cost of new buses or Wi-Fi service.

Transit reform

Smith took the opportunity to voice the company's support for Proposition 1, the road and transit package on the November ballot. Microsoft's rapid growth has contributed significantly to clogged roadways, particularly on such arteries as the Evergreen Point Bridge.

He noted that the bus system builds on the company's existing efforts with bus passes for employees, car pooling, hybrid cross-campus shuttles and other initiatives.

"Microsoft has many short-term solutions, like the Connector, for transportation issues that our employees face," Smith said. "But our region needs a long-term solution for the transportation bottleneck that the entire region faces."

Under a 1991 Washington state law, employers with more than 100 workers are required to provide some sort of transportation program and must encourage alternatives to one-person cars.

The state offers tax incentives to businesses that provide ride sharing and public-transportation passes.

King County Metro works with hundreds of companies, said Desmond, who applauded Microsoft's system. For example, in a couple of weeks, Metro will beef up bus service to Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center -- an option partially funded by the hospital. Also, most of its monthly passes are sold through employers, who then give them to employees as benefits.

Microsoft worked with King County Metro Transit and Sound Transit on its new idea, Desmond said.

"We talked with them directly about how we route buses to meet their bus needs," he said. "There were elements of some of their route ideas which would have had a competitive nature with us."

Metro also works closely with The Boeing Co., which adds 70,000 commuters here each day. "We share data with Metro and Snohomish County," said John Hendricks, who manages commuting issues for Boeing nationally. "We run demographic data on where people live and what time they start to try to build better routes."

Boeing employees are avid users of van pools, though that system is suffering from a shortage of vehicles, Hendricks said. But the company would not consider a private bus system because of liability and the varying needs of employees, he said.

Employee needs

Besides reducing traffic congestion and minimizing air pollution, keeping employees out of bumper-to-bumper traffic also keeps them happy.

Microsoft's bus system coincides with a broader effort, spearheaded by human resources chief Lisa Brummel, to better recruit and retain employees amid stiff competition for talent against Google and others.

Smith said the idea for the bus system grew out of employee suggestions in response to an internal blog maintained by Chris Owens, Microsoft's general manager of real estate and facilities.

The wireless routers to be used for Internet access in the Microsoft buses are manufactured by Seattle-based Junxion Inc. They receive Internet signals through cellular data networks. They're also used by companies including Google and Yahoo and transit agencies such as King County Metro.

Microsoft employees will be able to reserve seats and track buses online.

"If demand grows, we'll listen to our employees -- they're really the ones who came up with this idea -- and we'll invest more," Smith said.

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