In Seattle we tend to like alliterative self-effacement.  Since we already have the Mercer Mess, let’s talk a little about the Denny Dilemma (disaster? debacle? despair?)  Pick your favorite ‘D’.

Guerilla Signage Spotted at Fairview/Denny in November 2011 – Photo by the Author

Route 8 provides critically important mobility.  A rare non-CBD/crosstown trunk route in central Seattle, it connects Uptown, Cascade/SLU, Capitol Hill, Madison Valley, the Central District, and the Rainier Valley.  Especially on its east-west segment, perhaps no route better exemplifies our city’s stated goal of connecting dense urban villages.

The 8 is also one of our least reliable routes, frequently subject to severe delays and bunching, a problem especially severe eastbound in the PM peak. Though Route 8 is a local route its reliability problems are almost entirely due to I-5.  I-5’s construction cut off Capitol Hill from Cascade and Uptown, funneling all traffic onto Denny, whereas in the downtown core the grid was better preserved via Madison, Seneca, Pike, Pine, and Olive.  If topography and local access problems weren’t enough, the only ramp onto I-5 southbound between Mercer St and Spring St is at Yale Ave, a two-block length section of street that serves exclusively to queue cars seeking to get from Denny to I-5 southbound.  Backups routinely stretch over a mile, all the way back to Seattle Center.  Eastbound #8s that depart their Lower Queen Anne terminus on time can be up to 30 minutes late reaching Capitol Hill, just over a mile east!

In an era of austerity, fixing Route 8 is no easy task. Denny is very narrow – limited to 2 lanes in each direction except for a turning lane at Fairview Ave – and there is very little room to widen it.  HOV/BAT lanes would reduce general-purpose vehicle capacity (slightly more than) 50%, and they would do little for transit anyway as eastbound Route 8 must stay in the I-5 access lane in order to serve its stops at Dexter, Westlake, Fairview, and Stewart.   So what can we do with a severe problem and very little money to fix it?

A simple and cheap idea after the jump…

  1. Move the eastbound #8 stop at Denny/Westlake to the near side of the intersection.
  2. Remove the eastbound #8 stop at Fairview.  Far fewer riders board at Fairview than at either Westlake or Stewart. (see Bruce’s excellent ridership chart)
  3. Close Yale Ave between Denny and Stewart and convert it to a pedestrian plaza.  This section of Yale is less than 100’ long. 
  4. Make Yale local-access only between Stewart and Howell, running one-way westbound.
  5. Move the southbound stop at Stewart/Yale back 100′ to serve the new pedestrian plaza.
  6. Restrict right turns from Stewart onto Denny during peak hours and create a right-hand BAT lane on Stewart between I-5 and 9th Ave. This frees up all buses from delays related to Yale and protects tunnel bus access to Convention Place via 9th Ave.
  7. Redirect I-5 access to Howell St via a choice of 3 alternatives: Minor, Boren, or 7th.
  8. Move the bus lane on Howell from center-right to center-left, allowing for the two right lanes to store cars waiting to get on I-5.  At the lane drop just north of Yale, merge the bus lane to the right to serve the stop at Howell/Yale and provide the same access to the I-5 express lanes.

I’ve included a map to help visualize how this might work:

Current Situation:

Current Situation on Denny Way

Proposed Change:

Proposed Changes on Denny and Howell

Drivers that currently queue in a single lane on Denny would instead distribute themselves in 3 directions to access I-5 at Howell/Yale, effectively ramp metering their access while keeping them a bit more out of the way of local Denny traffic.  An eastbound Route 8 would serve the near-side stop at Westlake/Denny, immediately move to the left-hand lane, bypass remaining I-5 traffic, and pull back into the right hand lane to serve the pedestrian mini-plaza at Denny/Stewart.

The cost?  Remove one bus stop, move two bus stops, change signal timings, add new signage for drivers, and create a (very small) pedestrian plaza.

Drawbacks?  In addition to remaining congestion betweeen Queen Anne Ave and Westlake, the absence of a fully-modeled operational analysis limits my ability to predict traffic impacts on Howell.  Some diversion to Mercer could be expected, but we must assume that I-5 demand will not diminish significantly.  Effective signalization could prevent excessive merging-related problems on Howell and keep transit moving.

I don’t pretend that these changes would fix Denny, but I do think the idea is worthy of full study.  I have little doubt that transit would benefit greatly from changes like this.

43 Replies to “The Denny Dilemma”

  1. This makes a lot of sense. It would also address the issue of when cars turning left from Denny to Stewart block the box because they’re trying to get to I-5, the light at Yale is red, and the turn lane is full.

      1. Jesus no. Thanks for that. Just think – we could have had two Embarcadero-style viaducts. Maybe what we need there is another multi-billion dollar tunnel.

  2. Another thoughtful analysis AND a proposal for improvement. I have lived just off Denny for over 30 years. I have never taken the 8 bus because walking is almost always faster. Or another route.

    Curious. Does Metro/Seattle/King County ever act or even react to your proposals, or is this an intellectual exercise? Would get rather discouraging if the latter.

  3. This is a great proposal. As you mentioned, Zach, there will need to be some modeling to see how this reconfiguration would distribute traffic. For example, you could see an increase in traffic on Pine as people leaving Capitol Hill now can’t directly connect to I-5 from Denny.

    Although I’m going to get a little into the weeds, one concern would be the dual right turn lane at the SB I-5 ramp. Right now, the ramp isn’t configured for 2 lanes and it would be a likely high cost item to modify as it spans the express lane on-/off-ramp to Pike St. Also, the dual right turn lane wouldn’t be the most pedestrian friendly option for pedestrians crossing that leg of the intersection (although it’s not great now with only one lane).

    I know you mentioned low-cost in this post, but if there was an opportunity with this design, you could install a bus pull-out at Westlake and put in a bus only signal head which would help transit get a jump to move to the left.

    Finally, one concern about moving the bus stop on Stewart back is the impact it would have on buses stopping in the intersection. If the bus stop was to remain where it is, you could likely fit 3 articulated buses instead of the current 1.5 or 2.

    1. Mike the two lanes is something that I suggested to Zach last night when I read over his post, I think I wasn’t 100% clear. I would have the two lanes merge just before the turn onto the ramp for the reasons you mention. Not only is the not wide enough for two lanes, its a fairly sharp corner turn.

      The whole queuing problem in the area is a result of the capacity limit of the single lane i-5 SB onramp at Yale and Howell, which can’t really be expanded because of I-5. However if you close Yale the right turn from Howell to I-5 SB would get all of the green time except when pedestrians cross, which I could see increasing onramp throughput somewhat.

  4. I like it a lot. Move more people for less money. There’s a bit of a hill between the 8 stops at Westlake and Fairview, but I think the tradeoff is worth it. We should be sure to put good signage at the 70 stops on Fairview so transferring riders know where to go.

    One idea in a similar vein: prohibit some of the left-turn motions on Denny that block traffic, especially eastbound turning north onto Terry. This turn is legal (although it’s sketchy at the best of times) but seldom-used. When someone decides to do use it, traffic almost invariably backs up into the Westlake intersection because the turning car blocks the center lane for ages. This could be fixed for the price of a sign.

    None of this stuff will truly fix Denny, but we can make things a little bit better for a trifling amount of money.

    1. I’m not sure what the left turn volumes at Fairview are but if they are low enough that the left turn lanes could be removed, could a transit island be installed for EB? It’s not great, for certain, but it could still provide a level of service for transit riders. Additionally, you could remove a traffic signal phase and operate slightly more efficiently.

      Again, traffic modeling of the alternative will likely show that traffic will be going in different directions than they are today.

    2. It’s flat from Fairview to Stewart. I walk that way plenty of times, and the part that daunts me is Westlake to Fairview, not Fairview to Stewart.

    3. Zach, any thought to keeping Fairview as an evening stop (after 7 PM)?

      That’s a pretty uninviting stretch of Denny to walk along at any time — the hill, the backside slab of the Pan Pacific and the 100-mph exhaust fan of whole foods, sketchy Michaels Market and parking-lot dead space, the Greyhound garage, and Denny traffic zipping inches from the sidewalk one half the time and spewing stop-and-go exhaust the other. But at least during the daytime, the frequency of cross-streets and landmarks balance out the drawbacks to make the walk feasible if less-than-fun.

      After the sun disappears and all of the SLU workers depart, walking any distance along Denny becomes infinitely less desirable. Plus, with the 70-series running local on Fairview and in-and-out options for travel to the U-District getting that much less convenient, the Fairview transfer takes on greater importance after 7.

      I know it’s never ideal to have a stop served only part-time by a full-time route. But if ever there were a reasonable exception, this is it. The sign just has to scream, loud and clear, that the 8 doesn’t stop there until the evenings!

      1. These are legitimate concerns, but the effect of a part-time stop, no matter how loud the sign, is people standing there in the middle of the day, waving helplessly at the 8, unless the driver takes pity on them and sticks himself in traffic.

  5. Funny, I was actually thinking many of the same things last Friday when I transferred from the 545 to the 8. Waited 25 minutes to get off the *off-ramp* and then a 10+ minute late 8. XD Nearly was knocked down by driver at the mini-stop and definitely thought it would be nice to close the street at Denny and Stewart. Does most of the delay on the 8 come from east-south-bound buses? Will this alleviate much delay for north-west-bound buses? Because west of Capitol Hill is just as miserable. They don’t call it the “Late-8” for no reason. I always ignore OBA aside from curiousity of how late the 8 is and making my best guess of when it might magically appear.

    1. I live near the west end of Rt 8 and always see buses stacking up in the afternoon (they had to expand the bus zone on W Mercer to handle the articulated buses). I’ve stopped using it since it’s frustrating when no bus comes and I know there is a bus around the corner with a driver on break.

      They really need to break the route in two. If they didn’t need to drive those articulated buses through the Denny corridor they could probably make it through more traffic lights. Those articulated monsters are useless in heavy traffic.

      1. I was actually on one of the articulated. The driver managed to get through light to Lower Queen Anne just fine, but basically booting people off and going as the got on and closing the door in motion. Works for me. But yeah, it’s still awfully unreliable. I would have been better going to 3rd and Pine and catching a bus to Lower Queen. Sad fact.

  6. My concerns:

    Howell already has extremely high volumes of I-5 traffic, and also backs up dramatically into the downtown core. I’m concerned about the impacts of all the left-turn merges into congestion on Howell. I fear giving Howell exclusive access to that ramp won’t be enough to mitigate the problems.

    The Minor/Howell intersection is already a disaster at the afternoon rush-hour. Even with SPD stationing a foot officer there to direct traffic daily, it’s barely controlled anarchy, with frequent intersection blocking from the volume of drivers currently using the left-turn from Minor as a queue-jump for the Yale onramp (as suggested in the guerrila sign). Currently, if traffic starts getting heavy before the traffic officer arrives, the Minor left-turn traffic will ALWAYS queue into the intersection, blocking it entirely. Then the Howell backup spills over into the downtown core and starts interfering with Olive and even some of the low number N/S streets.

    Boren has similar trouble already. I’d be afraid to pump more traffic through the Boren/Howell intersection, especially since traffic from the east side of the city is coming the other way on Boren and making a right turn to use that same onramp. That intersection barely functions at rush-hour as-is, and the left-turn lane doesn’t have enough room for existing traffic to queue.

    What if we keep Denny as right-lane freeway queue gridlock, and make the 8 use Olive to cross the freeway? If we added a single transit-only southbound lane on 8th (currently one-way northbound between Olive and Westlake with low volumes), it would work. Or we could just use 9th, but it would be slower due to the zig-zag at Westlake. I would normally complain that this suggestion removes too much E/W access in the SLU/Cascade area, but since you’re already suggesting removing those stops I don’t think there’s an issue.

    1. “Even with SPD stationing a foot officer there to direct traffic daily”

      Is that why the policeman is there? I always wondered why, when the light seems to be functioning fine and there’s no construction.

      1. That is indeed why the policeman is there. Because cars coming from 3 different directions are all vying to get the next slot onto I-5. In the hour before the officer arrives, everyone crowds their cars into the intersection before the light turns red, to avoid waiting for the next light cycle.

        And in the instances where Howell has a green, and a law-abiding driver waits for space to clear on the other side before passing through the intersection, drivers on Minor take the opportunity to make rights-on-red even if they have to stop in the intersection. So Howell drivers learn fast that unless they physically block the right-turn space, they’ll never get through.

        The mere visible presence of the traffic cop seems to shame everyone into behaving. I’ve never seen her actually ticket anyone, but as soon as she appears on the corner, traffic changes dramatically, and the intersection stays clear.

      1. I watched one of the cops last week and he kicked the person out of the bus lane, but the person just got back into the bus lane a block down and then eventually gave up when a CT bus hocked at him for blocking the bus lane.

      2. The cop is chained to the intersection. If they step away for a moment it decends into chaos.

        To enforce the bus lane, a second cop, preferably a motorcycle cop, would be needed to go actually ticket the driver.

  7. A small solution would be great. I’ll think about this one.

    Part of me thinks the issue of lines to I-5 might take a bigger solution, more like ferry lines. Give them a holding area, or a short tunnel like the Bremerton terminal’s outbound traffic tunnel, which keeps the periodic traffic tsunamis away from their improving core. More realistically, can the merge lane be lengthened or widened in the I-5 ROW, either now or after Convention Place stops serving buses, to allow it to simply hold another couple dozen cars? Likewise, can Convention Place become a second southbound entry point? I’m not familiar enough with it.

    The new Aurora connections should help quite a bit with the local east-west traffic, offset by growth in SLU, Belltown, the Triangle, etc.

    A two-way Mercer might be a doable new bus route, either in addition to Denny or instead, if Denny stays horrible.

    Connecting Capitol Hill to SLU for pedestrians and bikes is a huge issue. The Denny bridge should have a sidewalk on the north side, which should be easy with a new skybridge and could be a simpler canteliever off the existing. A skybridge and elevator at Harrison (+/- 1) should have been built a decade ago.

    1. The city’s projections seem to suggest that Mercer will still be f***ed during the weekday after the two-way conversion. I-5 is a more-or-less limitless source/drain for cars. The main effect of Mercer East will be to get rid of Broad street, reduce traffic on Valley and Fairview, improve ped/bike connections in general but particularly between Queen Anne and SLU. East of 5th Ave N, Mercer is just not a place where transit should be, and the MCP won’t change that.

      +1 on a ped crossing of I-5 at Harrison Street; that’s one of my daydreams, too. Along with the new Thomas St Bridge crossing Elliot, that would turn Harrison into a nearly-contiguous ped connection to the waterfront.

  8. I don’t think anyone would ever be forced to walk up the steep hill Westlake to Fairview as a result of this proposal. Those getting off a 70 at Fairview and transferring to the 8 would either walk flat to Stewart (eastbound) or downhill to Westlake (westbound), while those transferring from the streetcar would board at Westlake.

    1. Yes, that’s what I’m thinking. It would be unfortunate to lose a direct transfer from the 70/71/72/73 to the 8. But the walk both directions is tolerable. And I don’t think it’s a frequently-used transfer. Coming from downtown or the U-district, the 43, 49, or 30 would be more direct. That leaves only Eastlake. The only time I’ve used the northbound stop is to catch the late evening or night owl bus, and the 8 doesn’t run then.

  9. Excellent proposal! I once spent several hours trying to solve the Denny Disaster and it was actually very similar. I only thought to use Minor only to access the freeway, though, which wouldn’t work as well as your strategy of giving the cars three routes to choose from. I also like the touch of making a little plaza in what is currently a pedestrian-unfriendly spot.

    To those who complain about Howell traffic, I would argue it is much better suited to high traffic than Denny. Why? Because Denny is trying to serve 2 main functions–getting on the freeway and getting to Capitol Hill. As Zach mentioned, Denny is the only good way to get to Capitol Hill from this area. Howell serves the freeway and Eastlake, but drivers have an alternative to Eastlake, namely Fairview. Because of this it makes sense to do this and give Howell two lanes right-turn-only for queueing. One thing I was wondering is why Howell has a reverse lane? Why can’t it just be one-way, in which case it would have twice the capacity of Denny.

    Some have proposed for the long-term to reroute the 8 onto Harrison. I would much prefer Zach’s solution, because routing on Harrison would mean the 8 would have to go on Denny past Seattle Center, turn twice to get on Harrison, then turn twice again to get back on Denny to cross I-5. Bus routes should be as straight and simple as possible, so it’s better if it stays on Denny. Maybe in the future another bus route could go through the heart of SLU east-west. Anecdotally I’ve heard complaints that many ST buses get off the highway and go through SLU but don’t stop until they get downtown. This may have made sense when SLU was less of an employment center, but they should fix that. Maybe an eastside bus could go straight through SLU over to Seattle Center, then to downtown if necessary.

    1. One idea for using Harrison could be to cross the freeway on Lakeview and then take Belmont and Roy to Broadway. Harrison still won’t be a great street for buses because it runs smack-dab into the middle of Seattle Center, so you have to move to Denny or Mercer (or pull a loop around the Center like the 30 does) to serve the west side.

  10. Those changes are so thoughtful, I’m reassessing my opposition to this blog’s proposed route changes to the 16. Way to go! I’m in.

  11. Why are our city streets being used to queue vehicles for an interstate highway? WIth all of the employment and residential growth projected for that area, it won’t matter how many streetcars or buses we run. Barring a fuel shortage, Denny is doomed as an transit arterial until or unless there is some policy change that prioritizes transit or recasts Denny’s relationship with I-5.

    Denny is a critical arterial as the southernmost cross-town route before the street grid changes. It’s arguably the only feasible cross-town transit route as Mercer hits I-5 and none of the other streets cross I-5.

    What would actually happen if we just carved out a transit lane in there on the right side for a few blocks? Maybe there would be a huge jam, but then, presumably, drivers would adjust somehow. Many variations could be modeled. There’s surely a more optimal configuration of those streets than the current one. It would be fun to throw computing power at the problem and just compute and compare all the permutations with a traffic micro-simulation.

    Thomas and Harrison are supposed to be be connected all the way from Seattle Center to Eastlake after the new SR 99 north portal is built. Perhaps one of those streets could be used to take up some vehicular slack, or provide a reliable transit route.

    I must say, a crosstown gondola from Seattle Center or the Olympic Sculpture Park to Capitol Hill station with a stop somewhere in the middle (Westlake?) would be great. It would be one heck of a tourist attraction, and it would be forever free of vehicles queueing for I-5.

    1. It’s like you didn’t even click on my link.

      I agree that the best solution short of a gondola would be to just close down two lanes. Or toll the hell out of that corridor until traffic flows smoothly. And I say this as someone who used to drive on his commute from QA to Bellevue, because there is no bus connection between the two that works.

  12. If you put in the plaza, please leave room for an espresso stand or taco truck.

    That is all.

  13. It’s a great proposal, but the only issue I see with with it so far is the two left turns onto Howell from Minor and Boren. During peak periods when the queue lanes are full, there would be little or no room to merge into them without illegally waiting in the left turn lane or blocking Howell’s center traffic lane. This problem already exists today for those using these paths. I’ve seen traffic cops chastise drivers for doing this, forcing them to circle the block until there’s room in the queue lanes. The fact that there would no longer be a need to stop at Yale should keep traffic moving and help mitigate this issue, but it may not be enough considering how many more drivers will need to make the left turns.

  14. Looks good to me, but I’m wondering how we go about getting such an idea made into a reality?

  15. A problem I see is The significan traffic coming off of Capitol Hill to go south on I-5. I suppose traffic could go down Belmont to Lakeview down to Eastlake then Republican, right on Fairview, then right on to Mercer. But do we need more volume on Mercer?

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