Residential, woonerf. Attributed to: La Citta Vita – license – original

Over the past few years, the southern section of Manhattan’s Broadway has steadily transformed from a major vehicle arterial into a “complete street” and pedestrian boulevard. Instead of a “car sewer”, Broadway is now an inviting thoroughfare for walkers and cyclists, and a destination for shoppers, diners, and tourists.

The changes have also improved mobility, even for drivers. It may seem odd that removing traffic lanes could make driving easier. But as the article says:

In pursuing a policy that discourages automobiles from using the street, traffic planners see themselves as issuing a corrective to history: They say the diagonal of Broadway should never have been allowed to cut a path across the orderly right angles of the Midtown street grid. The resulting three-way intersections can slow down cars and tie up the broader system.

Like New York’s Broadway, Madison Street cuts across the grid, creating difficult traffic patterns and an inhospitable environment for pedestrians. When Madison Street was first laid out, it played a vital role in regional connectivity. A cable car ran the length of the street, and ferries waited at the other end to take passengers across Lake Washington. Today, Madison Park is a quiet residential neighborhood, and cars and buses travel across Lake Washington along two wide freeways. In addition, the Pike/Pine corridor has experienced a renaissance, becoming one of the most vibrant (and expensive!) parts of the city. And yet, Madison continues to carry four lanes of fast-moving traffic, cutting through the south end of Capitol Hill in the process.

We have a unique opportunity to reshape the southern end of Capitol Hill. By changing the role and layout of Madison Street, we can create a better environment for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users. And we can do this while simultaneously improving mobility for drivers (or at least not harming it).

14th and Madison. Attributed to: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tigerzombie - license - original

14th and Madison. Attributed to: Rob Ketchersidelicenseoriginal

The problem

Madison Street breaks the grid. Between Broadway and 16th Ave, Madison has 10 intersections; Pine only has 6.

Intersection density is great for people. It’s not so great when vehicles enter the picture. Each of those 10 intersections is an opportunity for a bus to be slowed down by a left-turning vehicle or a traffic light. In addition, Madison Street’s intersections tend to be large and complicated, which makes them difficult to navigate on foot. A pedestrian walking from Pine to Union along 13th Ave needs to cross four intersections, and Madison will be the toughest.

Because Madison is designed primarily for cars, it’s not a street that people cross frequently. In planning terminology, Madison has poor permeability. It can be crossed (unlike Aurora or I-5), but its width and speed make crossings more difficult than they could be. For this reason, Madison serves as the de facto boundary between several neighborhoods: the higher-income Capitol Hill on one side, and the lower-income Central District on the other. (You can see where Madison Street is just by looking at a map of racial diversity.) Between 12th and 16th, Madison plays two roles: it carries traffic to downtown and the First Hill hospitals, but it is also home to many pedestrian-oriented businesses, as you would expect from a street that runs between Pike and Pine.

To summarize:

  • Madison Street is too wide, and carries too much vehicle traffic, for the pedestrian-oriented Pike/Pine corridor.
  • Madison Street’s complicated intersections are difficult for people to cross, and they delay cars and buses.

The proposal

16th through 24th: Road diet

The section of Madison Street between 16th and 24th is a perfect candidate for a “road diet”. Currently, Madison has two travel lanes in each direction, plus sporadic street parking. A reconfigured Madison street would have one travel lane in each direction, a center turn lane, and significantly wider sidewalks, with street parking punctuated by bus bulbs. (Bicycle lanes wouldn’t be appropriate for such a steep street.) Reducing the number of travel lanes would slow down traffic, which would reduce collisions and make the street easier to cross. Madison has a huge number of intersections, and a turn lane would keep general traffic moving. Bus bulbs would ensure that buses aren’t delayed by difficulty reentering traffic.

In short, a road diet would make Madison safer and more permeable. Some traffic would switch to the nearby arterials (especially John/Thomas and Union), but that’s expected. There are lots of alternate routes for drivers.

12th through 16th: Madison Street Park

From 12th through 16th, Madison Street would be recreated as a “woonerf”: a street where people have the right-of-way over vehicles. Instead of narrow sidewalks, the whole street would be designed for pedestrians and cyclists. The Bell Street Park illustrates what this section of Madison Street might look like.

Compared to Bell Street, there is a unique opportunity on these blocks of Madison. Several of the nearby blocks are severely underutilized. For example, to the north between 13th and 14th, there is a single-story Bank of America, and a surface parking lot. Potentially, some of Madison’s wide right-of-way can be vacated, and given or sold to a private developer in exchange for neighborhood improvements (e.g. affordable housing). These larger parcels might be more attractive to a developer than the tiny ones that are currently available.

Minor Changes

Several intersections between Madison and other arterials would be reconfigured to remove arterial traffic from Madison Street Park, and to improve transit operations. Metro Routes 2 and 12 would be rerouted to take advantage of the new configuration.

What Doesn’t Change

West of 12th, Madison functions as part of the downtown/First Hill street grid. It’s also an important access point for Virginia Mason and Swedish Medical Center. East of 24th, Madison is the sole arterial (and main commercial corridor) for Madison Valley and Madison Park. There are no alternative routes for cars or people. No changes to either of these segments are needed.

The precedent

Here in Seattle, a similar effort is already underway. Broad Street starts in Belltown and just keeps going, creating several awkward intersections and hostile overpasses near Seattle Center and South Lake Union. The Mercer West and Alaskan Way Viaduct projects will remove Broad Street, and recreate the street grid where Broad Street used to be. Like Madison, Broad carries a lot of traffic, all of which will be diverted to other nearby arterials.

The Seattle Department of Transportation has successfully implemented “road diets” on many streets throughout Seattle. Road diets reconfigure streets to reduce top speeds, improve safety, and minimize delays. While some road diets have attracted controversy, they have all been very successful at reducing collisions, and none have been reverted.

Seattle Parks and Recreation has transformed four blocks of Bell Street into Bell Street Park. Instead of relegating people to narrow sidewalks, the street/park’s design encourages pedestrians to use the full right-of-way. The street is still usable by cars and buses, but it’s clear from the design that people come first.

The end result

It’s still possible for a vehicle (e.g. an ambulance) to travel down the length of Madison Street. But arterial traffic will be diverted, ensuring that the only vehicles on Madison between 12th and 16th are vehicles that really need to be there.

In return, Capitol Hill gets to replace a car-centered arterial with a human-centered boulevard. Instead of being a burden, Madison will become a delight. It will be a safer and more vibrant street at all times of day.

This change would be radical, but like the Broadway and Broad Street changes, it has the potential to reshape Seattle for the better. If we’re willing to dig a $2 billion tunnel underneath the waterfront for the sake of six lanes of through traffic, we should be open to the idea of spending a much smaller amount of money for the sake of our whole city.

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Aleksandra (Aleks) is a software engineer who moonlights as a writer and copy editor. Aleks's love of cities started as a child, when she would ride the commuter rail into Boston with her family for day trips. Her mission is to share that love with the world, by ensuring that our cities have a place for everyone. Aleks primarily writes about transportation and land use. She is also the webmaster.

11 COMMENTS

  1. It all sounds great except the “Bicycle lanes wouldn’t be appropriate for such a steep street.” Any steep arterial undergoing major renovation needs barrier separated bike lanes uphill. Downhill is optional since riding in the traffic lane is more manageable with traffic on your side.

    • Tacking on to what Jarrod says….Aleks, since it’ll kill a lane in each direction, is it partially a matter of space that you say that? Because, if you’re losing road space and converting it to sidewalks and such, wouldn’t there be ample room to provide cycle lanes if the neighbourhood wanted them? Or is the steepness just too much that cycle lanes are better provided on alternative streets? And, are there other factors beyond just the steepness?

      • My argument would be that cycle facilities are better provided on alternate streets that are less steep. But if there are a lot of cyclists who really want lanes on Madison, who am I to say no? 🙂

  2. There is actually an upcoming opportunity to implement a road diet between 16th and 23rd! SDOT is currently planning outreach for a north-south neighborhood greenway (the Ridge Greenway) that will cross Madison in the vicinity of 17th or 18th. Greenways focus on improving dangerous intersections and street crossings. I think a road diet on this stretch of Madison would be perfect, complete with a pedestrian refuge in the middle of Madison.
    The city needs to hear from people!
    Contact: John.Vandersluis@seattle.gov
    Dawn.schellenberg@seattle.gov
    http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/ridgegreenway.htm

    Thanks, Mike
    Central Seattle Greenways

  3. I’m all for a 2 billion dollar bike tunnel under Madison Street because it makes just as much sense as deliberately choking Seattle’s primary central east-west arterial in favor of some north-south pedestrians! We can re-route deliveries and commuters through the Arboretum then expand that roadway to four lanes with bike paths and sidewalks.

  4. What needs to happen:

    1. remove on-street parking 24/7 on Madison St from 6th ave to 12th Ave
    2. convert the curb lanes into BAT lanes
    3. traffic signal priority … get the buses from 6th ave to 12th ave quickly
    4. ENFORCEMENT – illegal stops/parking AND illegal BAT lane usage
    5. Road Diet east of 12th … but remember trucks and buses will still use Madison St east of 12th (if for nothing other than Trader Joes & Madison St Co-Op

    6. re-wire the intersection of Union St, 12th Ave, and Madison St so that while traffic has to make the jiggle to the right, buses will be allowed to go straight and have their own TSP light to stop traffic so they can get across the 6-way intersection and not have to make the awkward turn onto 13th ave and then onto Madison like they do today.

    The only bad idea is turning Madison (any part of it) into a woonerf … that works on non-artierial streets but Madison supports way too much traffic for that to work.

    Also … Madison St is not really a problem to cross maybe with the exception of the 6-way intersection at 12th ave as cars race up Union with no regards to pedestrians crossing Union there. however … as to the rest of the street? people cross all the time seemingly without any problems (I myself cross it at least 6-8 times a day).

    Now Boren Ave … THAT is a street that is a problem to cross … even at the few marked crosswalks / traffic lights.

    • I agree with all of your points 1 through 5.

      You said:

      > The only bad idea is turning Madison (any part of it) into a woonerf … that works on non-artierial streets but Madison supports way too much traffic for that to work.

      I disagree. My claim is that Madison actually *reduces* the amount of traffic that the street grid can carry. It does this because it cuts against the grid. The awkward 5-way intersections are a major source of traffic delay. And because Madison “seems” so convenient, it attracts a lot of drivers who would otherwise use 5 or 6 different alternate routes. It’s similar to how I-5 creates traffic jams on cross streets with freeway ramps (e.g. Denny/Mercer), while unnecessarily reducing traffic volumes on alternate streets (e.g. Thomas/Harrison/Republican).

      What would happen if we split Madison at 12th? Drivers primarily heading E-W would divert to Pine/Madison, or Olive, or Union. Drivers primarily heading N-S would divert to 23rd, or 19th, or 15th, or 12th, or 10th/Broadway. Drivers truly heading NE-SW, e.g. from Madison Park to First Hill, would use some combination of these routes (e.g. Madison to Pine to 12th to Madison). Because there are so many alternate routes, each one only needs to accommodate a fraction of the traffic that Madison currently handles between 12th and 15th.

      Fixing the 6-way intersection that you describe at Union would be another major benefit of a woonerf, since 2 of those directions would disappear completely.

      • but can the alternative streets absorb all the traffic that would be removed from Madison?

        I mean I like the idea … I just don’t think there will EVER be the political will to make such a drastic change

        • From Broadway to 23rd, Madison St carries 23,600 vehicles per day. It’s unclear how many of those vehicles use the segment between 12th and 15th, but for the sake of argument, we’ll assume that they all do.

          23rd Ave, which is structurally very similar to Madison, carries about 16,600 people south of Madison. So we’ll say that it has room for an additional 7,000 vehicles.

          Union St probably has about half of Madison’s capacity (11,800). It carries 8400 vehicles between 12th and MLK. That’s another 3,400 vehicles.

          John/Thomas, east of 12th, isn’t even on the list. We’ll assume it currently carries about 5,000-10,000 people. The segment between Broadway and 12th carries about 15,000. That’s another 5,000-10,000 vehicles.

          Pine also isn’t on the list. We’ll assume there’s another 5,000-10,000 vehicles’ worth of capacity in there.

          And last but not least, 15th Ave stops at Madison, and doesn’t go all the way to Pike. Extending it 200 feet would enable Pike 15th as an arterial route, adding room for another few thousand vehicles.

          Yes, these are back-of-the-envelope calculations. But I’ve made some very conservative assumptions, e.g. that there are 0 vehicles which travel from Pine to Madison. Even with those assumptions, the numbers suggest that the existing street network could easily accommodate another 25,000 vehicles — more than we need to meet Madison’s demand. And connecting Pike to 15th would make it even better.

          Do we have the political will to make a change like this? Well, as I mentioned in the article, consider Broadway in New York. We’re talking about a street that used to carry an order of magnitude more traffic than Madison. Bloomberg’s transportation planers weren’t waging war on cars; they understood that a diagonal street like Broadway caused more problems than it solved. If New York can make “such a drastic change”, then surely Seattle can, too.

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