King County Metro 24 on Denny Way
Eastbound stop at Denny & Warren

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.

Uptown-Belltown: Current Transit Flow
Uptown-Belltown: Current Transit Flow 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).

Uptown-Belltown: Post-Fall 2012
Uptown-Belltown: Post-Fall 2012

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.)

Uptown-Belltown: SDOT Improvement "Part A"
Uptown-Belltown: SDOT Improvement "Part A"

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.

Uptown-Belltown: SDOT Improvement "Part B"
Uptown-Belltown: SDOT Improvement "Part B"

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.

55 Replies to “The Uptown-Belltown Transit Improvement Project”

  1. It’s currently even more confusing than Bruce describes. Magnolia #33 is inbound on 3rd (like Ballard locals), not on 2nd (like all the other Magnolia service), but outbound on 4th (like the rest of Magnolia service).

  2. Close Broad North(East)of 3rd and synchronize traffic signals so they all work together like one intersection… no confusion.

    1. I’ve sometimes wondered whether SDOT should close Broad between Denny and 5th Ave N once the Mercer West project is done, and Broad is closed east of 5th Ave N — it’ll be a huge, wide, road to nowhere. I don’t actually think they would need to close Broad though: there are a number of examples of complex intersections with similar geometry on Westlake where SDOT is using synchronized signals.

      1. The problem really is when operations at these complex intersections starts to fail.

      2. Between Denny and Olive, Westlake has a raft of gnarly intersections that work fine, even on days when Westlake has bad traffic. I think this intersection will have to be studied carefully, but I’m sure the problem isn’t insurmountable.

    2. This is a pretty good idea. Broad’s role as an arterial will be greatly diminished when the Aurora underpass goes away in a few years. There won’t be a ton of reason for the grid to align there.

  3. YES. This solution is obvious to anyone that’s a regular rider on most any of those routes. As I’ve frequently mentioned, my “one seat ride” bus trip from the top of QA to downtown of only 2 miles takes over half an hour each way.

    Every time we speed up service, we not only get faster rides, but there are more bus hours available to add frequency and capacity. Win. Win. Win.

  4. Wow, this is great news. It makes so much sense that it’s actually surprising that it may happen.
    I live near 1st and Cedar, and that jog down 1st really doesn’t help anyone. The stop at 1st and Bay is so far back from Broad in order for buses to make it to the left lane that it’s really not that much farther south than the Denny and Warren stop.
    Improvements to the Denny and Warren stop would be greatly appreciated. I use that stop a lot waiting for the 8, and it’s a wasteland.
    The best part is there may not be some tiny citizen group that organizes and stops this in its tracks. I know, I’m being optimistic.

  5. There have been evenings on the 15X where it’s taken 15 minutes to make the turn left onto Broad and a right onto 1st. This is due to the traffic on 1st that backs up from the Denny light, which doesn’t allow any cars or buses to turn right, which causes Broad to back up. The light at 3rd will be a godsend and help the RapidRide D ever towards it’s goal of becoming a true BRT.

  6. Good point bringing this up…the few times a year when I visit the city, it strikes me as odd that the two biggest population centers…downtown and the Seattle Center, are extraordinarily disconnected…except for using the monorail (which is not integrated into the transit fare system).

    I often want to go to Bambino’s Pizza and just end up walking (which is a good way to do it as well, except some of the walk is on empty-ish streets that aren’t the most pleasant…and the distance is maybe 25% more than a reasonable walk should be).

    1. Bambino’s is on Cedar and 4th. The 1,2,3,4,14,15,16, and 18 all stop at 3rd and Vine, 1 block away. The 3,4 and 16 turn right onto Cedar and stop right in front of it.
      How much more “connected” do you need?

      1. I’m nitpicking, but the 3/4/16 don’t stop in front of Bambino’s – the stop is at the other end of the block at Denny NB. The corresponding SB stop is across Denny, although from Bambino’s, you’d want to walk back to 3rd.

        John – I’m hopeful that the neighborhood will be a bit more lively now that the 100+ apartments at Alto (3rd and Cedar) are leasing up.

      2. Um, it’s on the same block. To me that’s “right in front of”. Sorry.

        I will say I hate that crosswalk at 5th and Denny. I’ve stood there a bunch of times forgetting that I have to hit the walk button…

      3. Or you can ignore the walk button as I do, and just walk. I live near Second & Denny and typically just cross between cars or when the cars have a green light, then hit the walk button on the other side as a courtesy for any pedestrians behind me.

  7. Badly needed! I wonder if the turn from 3rd to Denny will be bus-only. I certainly hope so.

  8. Moving the 19/24/33 to 3rd means that 4th loses all service North of Lenora, right?

    1. Yes, regrettably. It is nice to have an alternative for those 3-5 days/year when everything gets messed up on 3rd Avenue (police action, fire, power outage, wires down, car crash, traffic signal failure, etc.).

      Not enough of a reason to keep it, I guess, but I use the 19/24/33 all the time right now. I wonder how much slack the 3rd/Pine and 3rd/Pike bus stops have to absorb more routes. Pretty much everything will be on 3rd now.

    2. Given that there is that much bus consolidation going on along third, it’d make lots of sense to make 3rd a bus only street during peak hours. This would simplify things greatly as all of 3rd on this street grid would be bus only at peak.

      The traffic on 3rd can get pretty narly, and if RR D is going to utilize this stretch its reliability at peak will go out the window.

  9. May I suggest a Part C? Bus lane on QA Ave for at least 2 or 3 blocks before Denny, and from QA Ave to 3rd W on Denny. This is a major hub for buses, and it’s inefficient to make them wait in line to get on to Denny. Cars would still be able to get into this bus lane to make a right on 1st or 2nd, but that should greatly reduce the morning wait behind cars that are going straight on Denny.

    Yes, this will feel like more traffic for cars, but the bottleneck is Denny and it’s a bad idea to use this bus route as a holding tank for Denny-bound cars.

  10. I used to live at the corner of 1st and Broad St and then for 8 years at the corner of Western and Broad St.

    Transit was excellent … the third ave buses (trolleys) and first ave buses all stopped at First and Broad NB and first & Denny/Eagle SB … we had the waterfront streetcar down on Alaskan Way.

    Hundreds of apartments and Condos were all built on Elliot, Western and First aves … and it was easy to get to transit.

    Now everything is going to run on third ave … there is no more streetcar serving the hotels, homes and businesses on the waterfront … except for the probably doomed one-way pathetic 99

    Glad I don’t live there anymore …

    one more thing … you left off the 8 which uses the 1st ave/Queen Anne Ave couplet before continuing up Denny to Capital Hill et al.

    1. Yep, I left off the 8, 30 and 99. As someone who lives there, I’d personally rather have all that service at one nearest stop, even if I had to walk a little further.

      1. Me too!
        It’s especially confusing when one Magnolia bus uses 3rd/4th and one uses 2nd/4th. The 2nd/4th couplet is faster, but in 5 months of living in Belltown, I’ve only caught the 24 a handful of times in the morning. Unless I can see it, I walk to 3rd.

    2. Waterfront transit won’t be finalized for several years, so it’s too soon to say it will be bad. Metro can do more than what the waterfront commission envisions, and in five years it may be in a better financial situation than it is now. I’ve advocated for a route on Alaskan Way to Broad Street (Sculpture Park) and Seattle Center. That would give tourists a northern connection from Seattle Center to the cruise ship terminal and waterfront, and make the Sculpture Park more accessible to the disabled. It could conceivably go further east to SLU, providing a full crosstown connection that doesn’t exist now.

  11. one more thing … I wouldn’t say that Queen Anne Ave N. connects to Western … the two streets may be across from one another at Denny … but Western traffic is NB only (and at that just a turn lane to head East on Denny) whereas Queen Anne Ave N is only SB

  12. This is welcome news. I’ve been screwed twice trying to go northbound to Ballard due to the local and express being at different stops around the corner.

    1. Do you mean at 1st Ave N & Denny for locals vs. Denny and 1st Ave N for expresses to Ballard? I don’ think that’s going to change.

      1. In “Part A” that wouldn’t change, but in “Part B” I hope it would. Today, the stops have to be in different places because the outbound locals and expresses don’t share any alignment on Denny, the way they do inbound. There’s no reason not to move that stop a block or so east and have all those buses share a westbound stop at Warren & Denny. The current local stop on 1st Ave N immediately north of Denny could then be closed.

      2. Oh, I see what you mean now, moving that stop around the corner. That would be fantastic. I missed that part in your text.

  13. Excellent news. I’m looking forward to the speed improvements and simplicity of the stop designs here.

    “There are some subtleties that need to be worked out with this part of the project”

    One to consider: Make sure the stops are visible from each other and provide a reasonable route for pedestrians between them if at all possible. I see tons of jaywalking between RapidRide stops since Bellevue and Redmond have done little to accomodate the pedestrian patterns resulting from the new stop patterns. If you expect pedestrians to walk a half a block to a crosswalk, cross, and then walk a half block back to their intended stop, don’t be surprised if a bunch just dash across the street – no matter how dangerous it is. (The RapidRide/245 stops in front of Crossroads shopping center on 156th are a good place to watch this chaos in action).

  14. The biggest problem with RapidRide D is the bottleneck in Uptown. I wish the Ballard expresses ran all day because of this bottleneck. If SDOT could speed up the buses both through Denny, on 1st/QA, and on west Mercer, there would be less need for an all-day express or a subway.

  15. It looks like an excellent idea for transit riders, but I think putting a new signal at 3rd & Denny will have a huge impact on traffic. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the traffic studies show that the additional light’s impact might be detrimental to all vehicles. If the impact is detrimental, my suggestion would be to study having the inbound trolleys turn left at the existing Thomas Street switch and continue to 2nd Ave (install light at Queen Anne Ave, please!), turn right onto 2nd, left at Denny and right on 3rd. Clunky, but possibly a time saver if the trolleys only have to travel on Denny for one block. Outbound trolleys would have to keep their current routing.

    1. Sorry, that light would have to be installed at 1st Ave. N. and Thomas, not QA & Thomas.

      1. Inbound buses already lose so much time making the turn from QA onto Denny and then inching up to 1st Avenue. Adding more time on Denny and another traffic light (at 3rd for outbound buses) isn’t going to speed up progress. Even if the curb lane is transit only it will have to allow cars to turn onto 1st, 2nd and 3rd.

      2. Cars turn fairly smoothly onto 1st and 2nd – there are curved lanes and rarely any blocking traffic. It’s Denny itself that’s the major bottleneck, and that won’t change no matter what you do between QA Ave and 3rd. Add a bus lane, and there goes your bottleneck (for buses, anyway).

    2. I’d strongly expect the short 1-block leg of denny to become transit-only, and the signal to, likewise, only trigger from transit.

      It would also most likely be interconnected with the nearby signals on Denny to ensure there’s actually a gap in traffic on Denny big enough for the bus. In this day and age, there’s no way SDOT would install any signal on Denny without it being electronically coordinated with the surrounding signals.

      1. Yeah, this is a tricky one. That block of 3rd is only long enough for one 60-foot coach. In order to get more than one bus per signal phase, you would have to have the lights at 3rd & Denny and 3rd & Broad green at the same time for buses, but that would require a phase where traffic on both Denny and Broad had a red light.

      2. Stopping both streets for a short period to clear the buses from 3rd is doable, I think.

        Or we could just resign ourselves to one bus per light cycle, and the bus that has to wait STILL has a faster trip than the current situation. At 37 buses per hour during peak, though, that would mean stopping Denny more than once every 2 minutes. It might be worth stopping both streets to get the number of cycles down.

    3. So instead of 2 turns, (left onto Denny, right onto 3rd), you’d like 4 turns (left onto Thomas, right onto 2nd, left onto Denny, right onto 3rd) plus an extra traffic light.
      Traffic is bad on Denny for a few hours each day, remember. The rest of the time these routes would be going this way for no good reason.

      1. I’m suggesting that the proposed transit light at 3rd and Denny might prove to be unworkable because the outbound buses will cause huge delays for inbound buses. During rush hours that signal would have to activate at least 20x/hour which would slow traffic eastbound on Denny and likely would create a queue of buses northbound on 3rd, waiting for their turn to make the turn onto Denny. If that proves to be true, then it would be best to move as many buses as possible off of Denny, instead of trying to put as many buses as possible onto Denny. My left/right/left proposal isn’t hoisted as a “preferred alternative”, just something that could be looked at.

  16. Quick question (not really relating to your post though), why are trolleybuses replaced on the weekend, mainly Saturday? I’ve always wondered this and never really knew who to ask.

    1. Indeed, we generally delete off-topic comments, but the answer is that they dieselize trolleybus routes on weekends to perform maintenance on the trolleybus infrastructure (wires, poles, switches, etc.). Less commonly, it’s done when SDOT or a neighboring property owner is performing heavy construction work that impacts a roadway. The 70 has been dieselized for a couple of years due to the Mercer East project hacking up Fairview.

  17. I am impressed by the existence of any proposal which actually involves stringing trolleybus wire. There has been an allergy to that in transit systems for too long.

  18. My only wish is that Metro moves the 15/18 back onto first. That was an easy system and gave the length of first avenue good service. Now If I want to transit from First and Seneca to Queen anne ave couplet, I need to deal with the walk and the less timely service on Third with the milk route back to First. Its a pain.

    1. There are three major problems with 1st:

      – It’s just plain slow. Bruce has numbers that show that buses on 1st are delayed by something like 3-4 minutes more, on average, than buses on 3rd. That’s a major time cost for riders, and a major financial cost for Metro. This will become even more true if 3rd becomes transit-only all day, instead of just during peak like it is now.

      – 3rd’s walkshed is much better, especially if you consider hills. From 1st, you can reach the waterfront… and elsewhere on 1st… and that’s about it. From 3rd, you can reach virtually anywhere in downtown.

      – Many riders to downtown, if not most, are transferring to another bus. If all the routes run on 3rd, then you can transfer to anywhere. If the 15/18 run on 1st, then everyone from Ballard or West Seattle who wants to go anywhere else needs to walk up the hill (and then back down).

      The number of riders who were hurt by moving service off 1st is a tiny fraction of the number of riders who were helped by consolidating service on 3rd. Every change has winners and losers; I firmly believe this is one for which there were way more winners.

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