The Greenwood corridor, extending from Fremont to Shoreline Community College via Fremont Ave, Phinney Ave and Greenwood Ave, is one of Metro’s core North Seattle routes, but it has a raft of problems. Stops on the local Route 5 are spaced too close — far too close on the section south of 80th St; almost all the stops are out-of-lane stops, which, along with the busy traffic, often causes delays pulling back out; there are too many different service patterns; and the bus spends about a mile in the area between Fremont and the Zoo threading its way along slow, narrow, twisty streets. In this post, I want to talk about the last problem, but I’ll have more to say on those others in future.
As far as I can tell, from looking back at old maps like this one from 1914, public transit heading north out of Fremont has always followed the alignment of the current Route 5: north on Fremont Ave; west on 43rd; north on Phinney, through the wiggles of the 19th-century street grid at 46th and 50th. Generally, neighborhoods in Seattle grew up around streetcars, so absent natural or political obstacles, the rails were generally laid out in pretty straight lines. Guy Phinney’s enormous personal estate, which is now Woodland Park Zoo, would have presented an insurmountable obstacle at 50th St, but the curious question of why the men who laid out this line chose to jog over on 43rd rather than stay as straight as possible may be lost to time.
Regardless, time has not been kind to the 43rd/Phinney alignment. One of the terrible legacies of the 1940’s streetcar removal was the way the roads were paved when the tracks were abandoned: the rail ballast and ties were buried in place, poured over with concrete. This turns out to make a terrible road foundation, and the thin, poorly-supported layer of concrete on top is brittle, cracking when subjected to heavy loads like modern buses. Many streetcar roads went on to become heavily-trafficked arterial streets, and have been repaved properly and given traffic signals at intersections, but Phinney is not one of them, presumably because the vast majority of car drivers recognize that Fremont Ave, 50th St and 46th St are more direct ways to get anywhere than Phinney and 43rd. Finally, Phinney and 43rd are unusually narrow for streetcar streets, being only a little wider than the adjacent neighborhood streets.
More after the jump.
The upshot of all this is that this section of Route 5 suffers a number of vexing operational problems:
- Northbound buses on Fremont Ave must turn left across oncoming traffic without the benefit of a signal or stop sign. This single turns can cause delays of a minute or more, and totally screw up northbound car traffic, when the road is busy. Southbound buses must wait at a stop sign, sometimes for quite a while, to make the turn from 43rd to Fremont.
- The 43rd & Phinney intersection, in addition to being another delay-inducing stop, is so narrow that buses (or any other large vehicle) cannot turn simultaneously at the intersection; also, northbound articulated buses also often drive over the sidewalk outside Lighthouse Coffee. The current 5 schedule has buses meeting there almost every time, which means more delay.
- Both streets, being narrow and windy, aren’t places where buses can travel very fast, and the pavement quality on both is quite poor, giving a bumpy ride.
There’s a potential solution, of course, it’s on the map at the top: send the 5 straight up Fremont and then left on 50th (the 5X would be similarly revised). This solves all the operational problems I’ve laid out above. It wouldn’t be free, because bus stops would have to be replaced, and there would have to be a public outreach process by Metro, but the cost would probably not be great. According to SDOT staff, the depth of concrete on 50th, and on Fremont Ave north of 43rd is not currently known, and core samples would have to be taken to ensure the concrete roadbed could survive the punishment buses dish out over the long term. Nonetheless, I suspect it would turn out to be feasible, if Metro is willing to try, and the potential benefits to riders further north on Phinney and Greenwood would make trying very worthwhile.
I do see one critique of the idea: the change would slightly reduce total transit coverage of this area. Some of the riders around 46th St, who would now be directly on Route 5, are already within walking distance of the Route 358/E Line stop at Aurora & 46th, whereas people on the west slope of Phinney ridge have no alternative downtown service and would have to walk another few minutes (albeit on nearly-flat, pedestrian-friendly streets) to Route 5. If neighborhood outrage ensues from this proposal, it might make sense to have the 28X serve the stops on 46th & Phinney, to maintain some front-door express service to downtown. Overall though, I doubt anyone would truly lose access to the transit system as a result of this change, and the pros to riders seem to outweigh the cons.
I’ve emailed extensively with SDOT and Metro staff about this idea. I’m told the idea has “been around forever”, although the oldest official mention of the idea I can find is in the Urban Village Transit Network map from the 2005 Transit Master Plan. Metro’s chief planner David Hull remarked, “We have looked at the routing you suggest and it is possible that we could discuss this and other service change concepts with North Seattle riders sometime in the future. However, at this time, we have no plans to do so.” It’s good that Metro is open to the idea, but a shame that there are no plans to take take it to the public. Metro is making a more-than-minor change in North Seattle with the introduction of RapidRide E, and so it seems opportune and germane to discuss a promising potential improvement to a neighboring route.