Last week, I got a tip about a great new minor-capital transit improvement project that Seattle DOT is undertaking in the Belltown-Uptown area, specifically at the interface between Uptown (aka Lower Queen Anne) and Belltown. This project has only just formally begun, and doesn’t yet have a page on SDOT’s website, but I spoke to SDOT’s Bill Bryant to get a preview of the details. As a regular Queen Anne/Ballard bus rider, I’m very excited at the improvement this is going to make to those routes, including (although, unfortunately, not in time for) Metro’s soon-to-be launched RapidRide D Line.
First, it’s necessary to understand the tangled mess of streets and bus routes that exist in the north end of Belltown. Denny Way, running east-west, forms an edge between two differently-aligned street grids: the Belltown grid, oriented northwest-southeast, and the Queen Anne grid, oriented north-south. Uptown has two viable arterial streets for north-south transit service, which function as a couplet, and cut through its commercial and historic core: Queen Anne Ave N, which connects to Western Ave in Belltown, carries southbound traffic; and 1st Ave N connects to 1st Ave, and carries northbound traffic. In addition, local routes to Ballard service Uptown on the way to Ballard, while routes to Magnolia (and express routes to Ballard) sidestep the heart of Uptown, and serve Western Ave north of Denny.
South of Denny Way, things start to get really confusing. After the jump, a map.
There are five separate northwest-bound transit patterns that operate in Belltown, connecting to the two patterns I outlined about for Queen Anne and points northwest:
- Queen Anne Local: These services, Routes 1, 2, 13, are exclusively trolleybuses (except for weekend dieselization) and are the only trolleybuses in use northwest of Cedar St. Both inbound and outbound services jog between 1st Ave and 3rd Ave at Broad St. Northbound buses cross Denny directly from 1st Ave to 1st Ave N; southbound buses jog one blog from Queen Anne Ave N to 1st Ave on Denny.
- Ballard Local: Northbound local buses to Ballard (15, 18) follow an identical path to northbound Queen Anne local buses, but southbound, they take a different path, continuing on Denny to 3rd Ave rather than turning at 1st; they rejoin the southbound Queen Anne locals at Broad St. In cutting off this corner, the buses typically save 1-2 minutes of travel time, and reliability is improved. Trolleybuses cannot follow this path due to lack of the requisite trolleybus wire.
- Magnolia: Magnolia routes (19, 24, 33) currently operate on 4th Ave northbound and 2nd Ave southbound in Belltown; they use Denny to get to Western. They share no stops with the Queen Anne local or express buses, one inbound stop at Denny & Warren with Ballard local and express service, and one outbound stop at Denny west of Queen Anne Ave with Ballard express service.
- Ballard Express: Inbound Ballard expresses (15X, 17X, 18X) make one stop at Denny & Warren before turning onto 3rd Ave; outbound, they follow make the same jog on Broad St as the trolleybuses (although they make no stops) before turning on Denny, where they serve one stop at Denny west of Queen Anne Ave. They suffer a similar time penalty to the trolleybuses as, while they make no stops on the jog, they don’t have the advantage of the right-hand bus lane on 1st Ave that helps Queen Anne buses get to 1st Ave N.
- Queen Anne Express: The 2X follows the path of the Ballard Local routes, but does not make any stops in this area, unlike the Ballard expresses.
I hope I’ve convinced you by now that the service pattern in this area is very complex, confusing and suboptimal for riders, with few common stops for routes that serve (in passing) the same area, and trolleybuses that are the backbone of Queen Anne’s service suffering minutes of delay for lack of a few block of trolleybus wire. (Failing that, I hope I’ve confused you enough that you’ll just take my word for it).
The first improvement is already in the bag, and requires no significant capital funds: in September, Metro is going to consolidate Magnolia routes onto 3rd Ave with all the other services mentioned above. South of Denny, this means that Magnolia routes will serve exactly the same alignment as the Ballard Expresses, although unlike the expresses, they will serve all stops, reducing the number of local service patterns to two. (See the map above.)
Here’s the first part of SDOT’s plan: add trolleybus wire eastbound on Denny from 1st Ave to 3rd Ave. This will save trolleybus riders 1-2 minutes per inbound trip, and put all Queen Anne, Magnolia and Ballard service on an identical alignment south of Denny, with all the local routes serving the same stops — a giant leap for network comprehensibility and usability. Additionally, the eastbound stop at Denny & Warren would probably be improved and expanded: currently it’s just a bus sign next to an inconvenient tree on a narrow sidewalk. SDOT staff are cautiously optimistic that this part of the project would be low risk, low complexity, and that, at a minimum, enough funds should be available to get this far.
Here’s the next potential part of the project: a bus-actuated signal at 3rd Ave & Denny, allowing northbound buses to safely turn left at that intersection, and thus altogether eliminating the need for the northbound jog on Broad St. (There would also be westbound trolleybus wire added on Denny.) This would probably save a couple of minutes per trip, a win for a huge number of riders. The existing northbound stops on 1st Ave and Broad St could be consolidated down to one improved westbound stop on Denny, ideally across the street from the improved eastbound stop mentioned above, making a very convenient and useful pair of stops for riders to get between the Seattle Center and Downtown.
There are some subtleties that need to be worked out with this part of the project. Perhaps the main one is that a traffic light at 3rd Ave & Denny would be very close to other lights at Broad St & Denny; independent traffic lights that close can confuse drivers and pose a safety hazard. SDOT will have to come up with a satisfactory way to minimize that risk.
A couple of notes in closing: the project is in its infancy and there is not yet precise any schedule or budget for this project, although SDOT seems confident the project is affordable. Thus, if you have questions beyond what I’ve laid out here, the answer is probably “I don’t know and neither does SDOT”. SDOT hopes to hire a consultant to design the project soon, and have design completed by the end of the year. The project is funded out of that portion of the Bridging the Gap levy set aside for transit improvements, and is a great example of small, cheap, low risk capital projects that improve transit for many people.
I commend SDOT for moving to fix a transit problem that has annoyed me (and, I’m sure, countless others) since I moved to Seattle, and encourage the agency to move forward as swiftly as possible on this project.