The news on One Center City has not been very uplifting. The effort to keep Seattle moving during coming transit logjams got a re-brand to “Imagine Seattle,” but it appears to still be lacking for bold imagination and timeliness.

The problem, dubbed the “Period of Maximum Constraint,” stems from convergence of several major construction projects, a shortage of bus base capacity, and buses coming out of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (which will decrease their efficiency and further crowd surface streets). This will leave a gap in transit capacity for a few years before more light rail extensions come online–starting with Northgate Link in 2021 and followed by East Link in 2023 and Lynnwood Link and Federal Way Link in 2024–which should free up bus platform hours. It might take opening all those light rail extensions to truly release the pressure valve on our transit network, meaning the constrained period could drag on until 2024.

Though billed as a bold visioning process, One Center City has yet to lead to anything revolutionary being adopted thus far. The major addition to the transit network will be a new downtown transit pathway using Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue and providing transit lanes in some stretches but not in others. This should provide a workable alternative for buses kicked out of the transit tunnel next year. But Seattle’s transit ridership is growing steadily every year bucking national trends. Plenty of doubt remains if we’ve done enough to meet demand and prevent rampant overcrowding and delays.

We should not let this crisis go to waste. This is an opportunity to improve our transit network rather than do the bare minimum to scrape by. That’s why I propose that Seattle should roll out as many dedicated transit lanes as possible across the city within one year’s time. There’s no reason to settle for mediocrity. Our bus bases being at capacity means King Count Metro Transit doesn’t currently have room to add new buses even if it wanted to, which is pushing the Seattle City Council to look at using private operators to add bus service. This creates an imperative to use our platform hours more efficiently rather than letting buses languish in traffic.

Even without RapidRide improvements, a handful of Metro buses carry in the ballpark of 10,000 daily riders–Routes 5, 7, 8, 36, 40, 41, 44–and they should be our first priority when adding new transit lanes. We should also look at the next tier of high ridership routes as we look to make the transit network run more smoothly as we face the prospect of transit gridlock and overcrowding.

Early Rollout of RapidRide Lanes

Incidentally, some of these highest ridership bus routes also are slated for RapidRide upgrades as part of the Move Seattle levy that voters approved in 2015. Unfortunately, most of those RapidRide upgrades are now backloaded to 2021 or later, meaning they wouldn’t be around to help the bulk of the most constrained period from spring 2019 to when Northgate Link opens in 2021. A relatively easy solution would be to roll out the bus access and transit (BAT) lanes expected with new RapidRide lines early. Broader changes, such as getting the shiny new buses, stop consolidation, and off-board payment, can work their way through the process and deal with the realities of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Move Seattle “reset”– a rumored scaling back of projects blamed on federal money drying up (which hasn’t happened to date) or taking longer to arrive.

Revised RapidRide Rollout Schedule

RapidRide CorridorOpen DateExisting RouteFall 2015 Weekday RidershipFall 2016 Weekday RidershipPlatform Hours
Madison "G"2021123,5003,30084
Delridge "H"20201208,7008,600226
Rainier2021711,50010,800255
Roosevelt2021705,3007,500182
N 45th St2022447,5008,400167
Westlake20234010,60011,400284
E 23rd Ave20244811,2005,500183
West Seattle2012RapidRide C8,80011,100289
15th Ave NW2012RapidRide D11,80014,300256
Aurora Ave2014RapidRide E15,80017,000299

For example, the Seattle Department of Transportation has settled on a design with a northbound BAT lane for the Rainier RapidRide line upgrading Route 7. Why should we wait until 2021 to paint the red bus lane on Rainier Avenue? Let’s do it now to realize some of the transit time savings.

Route 44 has sections with just one lane in each direction, but segments in Ballard and the University District are wide enough to add transit lanes. That such a slow route has managed 8,400 daily riders suggests ridership potential is huge once the route is faster and more reliable, and we shouldn’t wait for RapidRide to take big strides.

The Madison RapidRide G Line isn’t a good fit for early rollout since it’d create a new route (significantly different than Route 11) and relying on a rebuilding Madison Avenue to allow for a center-running transit design. Because of Madison delays, the RapidRide H Line will be the first new RapidRide out of the gates in 2020, improving Route 120 which serves Seattle’s Delridge corridor, White Center, and Burien. The plan adds transit lanes only sparingly, with most transit lane additions coming in Burien and White Center.

Route 40 jumps out for its high ridership–its 11,400 daily riders in fall 2016 was slightly more than the RapidRide C Line–and imagine how high ridership would be if that bus wasn’t so painfully slow at rush hour. The 40 accomplishes its high ridership with a whopping 284 platform hours–significantly more than the RapidRide D Line. With more transit priority, those 284 platform hours could carry many more riders. Paint on the pavement would suffice to improve flow in the interim before the 40 gets full RapidRide upgrades in 2023. The 40 benefits from transit lanes on Westlake Avenue in South Lake Union, but lacks them on Leary Way despite a four lane design with room to add them. Queue jumps at the Fremont Bridge could also work wonders. Another issue is enforcing transit lanes better since motorists frequently ignore them and block buses packed to the gills with upwards of 100 riders.

Camera Enforcement of Transit Lanes

Transit lane enforcement would help deal with the period of maximum constraint, getting more efficient use of our existing transit lanes. Too often Third Avenue bus lanes are blocked with motorists, clogging our city’s key transit artery. Our transit agencies boast of Third Avenue being the busiest bus mall in the country, but unfortunately, SDOT has been slow to make Third Avenue bus-only 24 hours a day and extend restrictions to Bell Street. Apparently, extending the hours is being planned for September, although just how much longer the bus-only restrictions will be is hazy.

To make matters worse, the Seattle Police Department has not been able to sufficiently crack down on rampant scofflaws violating the bus-only hours we do have, and the Washington State Legislature has not been willing to allow Seattle to use camera enforcement of transit lanes.

Representative Gael Tarleton proposed a bill allowing transit camera enforcement on three pilot corridors. Strikingly, that common-sense bill was buried as some Democratic legislators joined ranks with Republicans siding with motorist rights to ignore Seattle laws and block transit lanes because they are impatient or conveniently confused. If they care a lick about the transit riders and the Seattle economy, state legislators should support this crucial bill. In fact, we should expand the pilot to 10 corridors (as there will be 10 RapidRide corridors within Seattle by 2024) or scrap the limit altogether. Seattle’s economic boom has been built on transit, as our city’s population has grown by more than 100,000 in eight years even as average daily traffic on city streets has remained relatively flat.

Not RapidRide Rollout

Some high ridership routes weren’t selected for RapidRide treatment under Move Seattle, but they could still benefit from more transit priority. Route 5 got an important queue jump at the Aurora Ave and Bridge Way N interchange and piggybacks on RapidRide E Line BAT lanes on Aurora Avenue. Finding space for further Route 5 bus lanes would not be easy. However, more queue jumps could ease other bottlenecks, like the congested (and confusingly named) Fremont Way N and Fremont Ave N intersection. And there does appear to be room for a BAT lane on Greenwood Avenue.

We’ve been writing about ways to improve the much maligned Route 8 for years. The city’s settled-upon fixes still haven’t arrived, but they should to be on their way this summer. We could expand on them with painted bus lanes, particularly at key sections like Olive Way and John Street near Broadway.

Route 36 carried 10,000 daily riders in fall 2015, but that dropped to 9,300 in 2016, even as the neighborhood grew. What I take from that is the reliability of the route isn’t what it should be. A painted bus lane on 12th Avenue would help speed the route through this busy thoroughfare in Little Saigon. There are also stretches of Beacon Avenue that may be wide enough for transit lanes or queue jumps.

Where’s the Streetcar?

Another solution that faded from One Center City is the Center City Connector streetcar. Unfortunately, the pause of the project means another tool was taken off the table. The streetcar came with new transit-only lanes on First Avenue, boosting transit throughput through Downtown. With the connector, the streetcar was projected to move 20,000 daily riders in 2020. The delay pushed the streetcar to 2021 (or later) and may represent hospice care if the Durkan administration moves to kill the Center City Connector altogether. Getting the streetcar built will help the city deal with rising transit demand–and the sooner the better with bus capacity stretched until 2024. The results of the City Budget Office’s independent review of streetcar finances were due yesterday and an announcement is expected within a few weeks on next steps.

Why All This Matters

The period of maximum constraint would seem to be the time for heavy political lifts. It’s not clear that’s happening though. Rather than turning to private operators to scrape together service on clogged streets, the city should take initiative to help unclog our roads for transit. We can use our platform hours much more efficiently, and we don’t have to wait under the transit Armageddon is already upon us to do it. Certainly a massive breakdown of our transit system would provide some political cover to roll out long-kicked around and dreamed-of bus lanes, but letting transit breakdown before acting would also punish riders and risk all the progress our city is making as a national leader in transit ridership growth. Let’s instead enact a bold plan ahead of time.

Are One Center City Multimodal Improvements on the Way?

7 COMMENTS

  1. These are good ideas, and is definitely something we should be doing. However, I have one concern about Rainier in particular. There’s such pent-up demand there for biking there (and the parallel greenway is hilly), that I’m betting a bus-only lane would enable lots of people on bikes to feel comfortable enough to ride on Rainier. I’m not sure what that would do to transit performance.

  2. “Where’s the Streetcar?”

    Where’s the accountability?
    Where’s the transparency?
    Where’s the honesty?

  3. I agree — paint is cheap, and would help things a lot. It also doesn’t have to be the final action. With the corridor of the 7, for example, we can make the change, and then see what happens. If it turns out that the buses run reasonably well in the other direction, then it is fine, and we eventually we can do the other work (such as adding ORCA stations for off board payment). If not, then we should add a lane the other direction.

    The same is especially true of the streetcar. Rather than spend a bunch of money on rail, just add a transit lane. Put it on the outside, even though the ideal is running it on the inside. Just extend one of the buses to use First (in a BAT lane) and see what happens. If it still fairly slow, then go ahead and do the extra work to run the bus in the middle lane (doing so requires building bus stops in the middle of the street, which is expensive). That means buying a few buses with doors on both sides, but we are going to do that anyway with the Madison project (and future improvements).

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