Third Avenue is the most important street in Seattle moving tens of thousands people per day. On an average day, 52,400 bus riders board and alight on the 1.6-mile corridor with up to 215 buses operating at peak hours. The street is an unglorified transit mall that rivals other peer cities in ridership but punches well below its potential for operations and rider experience. However, the corridor is on the cusp of some subtle but important changes by public agencies to improve it.

Over the next eight months, transit riders on Third Avenue should expect a change in operations that hopefully improve speed and reliability for buses on streets in the city center. Operational improvements will be rolled out in two phases, the first taking place in September and a second phase in March. Under the banner of One Center City (now Imagine Seattle), King County Metro Transit and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) have been coordinating to plan and deploy the improvements, in large part precipitated by the “period of maximum constraint” in Downtown Seattle. Several large-scale development and transportation projects in the pipeline for the city center have put pressure on agencies and policymakers to develop strategies to keep the city center moving through 2021.

September 2018 Operational Improvements

In September, the first round of operational improvements should be deployed just in time for the fall service change. SDOT and Metro will make several transit service priority investments on Third Avenue.

Perhaps the most transformational change will be further restrictions to non-transit motorized vehicles on Third Avenue. SDOT has had long-standing restrictions between Prefontaine Pl S/4th Ave S and Stewart Street that prohibit general through traffic from 6am to 9am and 3pm to 6.30pm on weekdays. General traffic during these hours is only allowed to enter Third Avenue if vehicles make a right turn onto the street and then make the next available right turn off the street.

The new transit service priority restrictions will expand the hours of transit service priority on Third Avenue to include all hours from 6am to 7pm seven days per week. Non-transit motorized vehicles will continue to be permitted in limited circumstances. Commercial vehicles (e.g., delivery vans and trucks) will be permitted to travel more than one block from 9am to 3pm provided that they use designated loading areas. General traffic will also be allowed during transit service priority hours so long as vehicles enter Third Avenue by making a right turn onto the street and then making the next available right turn off the street like today.

Outside of the transit service priority hours, non-transit motorized vehicles will continue to have free access to the street. SDOT will install new signage to make the restrictions clear to people driving. The signage will be digital and static. On the pavement, bus-only striping is also a possibility, according to Paul Roybal, a Metro transit planner.

March 2019 Operational Improvements

The second round of operational improvements will come in March and include off-board fare payment and all-door boarding.

Metro will introduce off-board fare payment at all remaining remaining stops along Third Avenue that don’t have kiosks to tap on the bus. There are 19 stops between Denny Way and Yesler Way, but 11 of these do not yet have off-board fare payment kiosks. Metro will have these stops upgraded. For passengers boarding any bus on Third Avenue, they will have the option to tap on at the kiosks or pay the operator as they board. Passengers will also be able to board at any door.

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As a result of the expanded off-board fare payment system, all buses operating out of Downtown Seattle and through Downtown Seattle will be proof-of-payment. This mean that passengers will need to retain valid fare media (e.g., tapped ORCA pass, activated e-pass, or transfer stub) proving that they paid. Fare enforcement officers will be commissioned to patrol proof-of-payment buses and verify at will that riders have paid their fare. Metro thinks that this added security presence should also improve overall safety of passengers and activity at bus stops.

According to Roybal, the off-board fare payment system should greatly improve speed and reliability by reducing dwelling times at Third Avenue stops. Metro analysis suggests that implementation of the new operational strategy should allow up to 15 more buses per hour per direction to operate along Third Avenue.

Improvements Still Fall Short of Need

The promise of better speed and reliability of off-board fare payment should bear out given that every off-board fare payment could shave of seconds from the boarding process and permit all-door boarding. Taken together, this could amount to significant dwell time savings for buses at certain stops during peak times (perhaps as much as a minute per stop per bus on Third Avenue).

However, the planned restrictions on Third Avenue fall far short of the demands for full transit service priority that transit advocates have long pushed for. Congestion isn’t just nine to five. The operational changes are fairly modest and will continue to permit non-transit vehicles–particularly non-commercial vehicles–to impede and delay transit service, increase service hour requirements, and increase safety risks to operators, passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists.

With more buses moving to Third Avenue, this policy will need another look at once again during the period of maximum constraint. The planned off-board fare payment, all-door boarding, and minor changes to Third Avenue restrictions alone will not be sufficient to maintain reliable and speedy transit service. SDOT has acknowledged that another phase of changes are the horizon. SDOT and Metro need to do more, likely meaning more bus-only lanes and Third Avenue restrictions.

Update 7/11/18: A correction to the article was made to clarify that new restrictions on Third Avenue will apply seven days a week and that SDOT will eventually look into additional restrictions in a future phase.

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Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.