The Case for a Ballard to UW Waterfront Rapid Bus Line

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King County Metro Transit’s long-range plan would bring the county’s RapidRide total to 40 by 2040. But something not envisioned is a route connecting Ballard and the University of Washington (UW) on streets closer to the water. The two neighborhoods will have a RapidRide connection when Route 44 is upgraded in 2023. That still leaves Lower Wallingford without a direct connection to Ballard, and southeastern part of Fremont without a direct connection to the UW. That made me wonder if a “Cut Line”–tracking along the northern edge of the Salmon Bay, the Fremont Cut, Lake Union, Portage Bay, Montlake Cut, and Union Bay–would be useful and ridership-inducing.

Access to the UW is weaker than it should be for both Lower Fremont and Lower Wallingford. These neighborhoods are dense and have added more than a thousand new apartments this decade–and with their urban village designations they’re zoned to get denser. Route 31 and Route 32 together are intended to approximate frequent service along part of this corridor during peak times. In practice, this doesn’t always work out so well and it’s not uncommon to see the two buses come one right after the other and then leave a big gap instead of being more evenly spaced. Consistently frequent service throughout the day best serves transit-dependent folks and helps win people over to a car-lite or carless lifestyle. Plus, on a route serving the university, many commutes do not happen at typical hours. Meanwhile, the 31 doesn’t run after 8pm.

Metro Connects 2040 map. Notice the gap in Lower Wallingford.(Metro Transit)

For its western portion, the Cut Line can piggyback on RapidRide upgrades to Route 40–slated for 2023–and Route 44. The Route 40 RapidRide will hopefully being a dedicated transit lane on Leary Way which could then serve the Cut Line. The routing in the central portion (along N 35th St, Wallingford Ave N, N 40th St, and NE Campus Pkwy) includes opportunities to add queue jumps or in-lane stops that–paired with transit signal priority, stop balancing, off-board payment, and all-door boarding–should speed up the route considerably. Route 31 and 32 could also see their reliability and speed improve from these upgrades.

The Cut Line would meld the 40 and 32 into one crosstown line. (Author/Google Maps)

Building Demand for the Ballard Spur

The eastern tail of the Cut Line serves U Village and Seattle Children’s Hospital. Along with Route 44, the Cut Line could serve as a starter line to build demand for a Ballard-to-UW subway that proved so popular during the outreach portion for the Sound Transit 3 (ST3) package. Strong ridership on both would further demonstrate crosstown transit demand between Greater Ballard and the Greater UW communities to warrant a subway investment. Since ST3’s Interbay alignment will provide downtown service, the Ballard-to-UW subway would need new to stand on other merits than providing the first downtown to Ballard connection. If Ballard, Fremont, Wallingford, and the U District continue to grow steadily, then a fixed crosstown route connected them may prove necessary.

End of the Line?

Route 75 is in the frequent network. (Metro Transit)

The map shows the route terminating at Seattle Children’s like Route 32 does today. However, often Route 32 turns into the 75 and continues on to Sand Point, Lake City, and finally Northgate–at the site of soon-to-be Link station. The 75 is in the frequent network with 15 minute service or better all day. The even more frequent Route 65, which serves Wedgwood and Lake City, also could be a route pairing. As an urban village, Wedgwood would be a strong enough destination to draw RapidRide service, but Wedgwood is not yet an urban village and has only grandfathered multifamily zoning. That could change, at least if anybody listened to The Urbanist; we endorsed adding it as an urban village back in 2015.

The Route 65 was one of the bright spots of the Bus-to-Link restructure last year. (Metro Transit)

Timing: Northgate Link Restructure

So when could this bus line happen? Actually a few looming planning actions could feed momentum into a bus upgrade like the “Cut” Rapidride. The University of Washington recently released a Campus Master Plan update and drew criticism for not doing more to decrease the campus’ drive-alone rate. The plan does recommend UW pay some of the costs of making Route 44 a RapidRide bus line. The 31 and 32 don’t feature as prominently. The Seattle City Council could demand that the UW meet more of the demands for transit contributions and chip in for upgrades to Routes 32 and 65.

A Route 31 bus stops at Stone Way before continuing on N 35th St. (Photo by author)

The other big opportunity to reimagine the bus network on the near-term horizon is when Northgate Link opens in 2021. Officially joining the 65 (or 75) with the 32 could make more sense at that point since it’d feed the station. Likewise, the Cut Line could help feed Ballard Link, which is scheduled to open by 2035.

Or maybe this isn’t a convincing case and I’m just a guy who wants his commute to the UW in the morning to be more dependable.

https://www.theurbanist.org/2018/01/30/hearing-examiner-recommends-uw-campus-master-plan-amid-community-concerns/

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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mike eliason

this would require some upzones of land that was previously multifamily.

1. prior to 1923, there was no single family zoning in seattle.
2. even in the 1923 comp plan, most of the wallingford segment of this line would have been zoned multifamily.

here’s the wallingford MFH land comment image that was downzoned to single family keep out students and working class. now million dollar homes w/ NIMBYs trying to make it a ‘historic district’

mike eliason

around ross park – downzoned from multifamily (diagonal hatch) to single family today.

prior to 1923 – this was all multifamily.

progressive!comment image

asdf

Fortunately, bike share makes travel along the Burke-Gilman corridor easy and spontaneous, without the need to worry about your personal bike getting stolen. Turns out that even plodding along at 10 mph down the Burke Gilman is still every bit as fast as riding the #32 bus – faster, if you consider that the bike option is available 24/7, with no wait time.

As to faster travel for UW commuters from Ballard…how about an express version of route 44 (route 44X) that follows the regular route 44, but stops only at transfer points?

RealityCheck

This is the best corridor for biking in the state (Burke Gilman Trail between Fremont and UW). Seems like transit investments could be better used elsewhere…

Skylar Thompson

There’s a need for both transit and biking improvements along that route. The proposed route doesn’t really overlap with the Burke, though.

orbitly

Not everyone can or will bike.

Preston Sahabu

While I like this idea, the alignment breaks down when crossing Eastlake, since 40th doesn’t connect to Campus Parkway from the west. The route would either have to run on Pacific (disappointing for ridership), or it would require totally fixing that highway-like intersection for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit (ideal, but expensive).

Al Dimond

This is just one more reason to fix all of Campus Parkway. For most of its length the north half could be a two-way bus mall and the south half used for almost anything else, really (even just freeing the open space from a highway median and shrinking the intersections would be an improvement). I think it could be done without many structural changes at all.

SylMar

We should have a Bellevue to Seattle dedicated rapid transit line and scrap the risky and expensive railline on a floating bridge. Then we could use that money to make the downtown to ballard subway.