My recent long-form post about restructures, which used the notorious “Bus 2” as an example, inspired renewed discussion of the Route 2 restructure itself. For those who have not followed the discussion, the restructure involves splitting Metro Route 2 and moving its First Hill routing from Seneca Street two blocks south to Madison Street. Downtown, under current proposals (including the restructure planned for February 2015 as a result of Proposition 1’s failure), the revised route would use the live-loop currently used by Route 12 along Madison and Marion. The restructure would speed up service to First Hill and consolidate two routes which run just two blocks apart, allowing buses to come more often for everyone.
Commenters who defended the current configuration raised familiar objections to the restructure. One of these objections has real merit. It is that the restructured downtown routing would not deliver riders to the part of downtown most of them want to reach, and at the same time make transfers to other service (including service to the rest of downtown) inconvenient and possibly dangerous for riders with mobility impairments.
The Center City Connector streetcar project, surprisingly enough, could provide a way for Metro to do the restructure while entirely solving this problem. Details after the jump.
Madison and Marion Streets avoid the slowness and congestion of the current Route 2 routing using Spring and Seneca because they have much less freeway traffic. They have even more potential for speed in the future, as the City of Seattle is seriously studying dedicated bus lanes there. But Madison and Marion have two notable problems. First, they are about three blocks from any entrance to the downtown transit tunnel, making transfers to Link (and, for now, tunnel buses) cumbersome for passengers with mobility impairments. Second, every single stop on Madison and Marion is on a steep hill, which can present real safety problems for passengers with mobility impairments, particularly those in wheelchairs. There is no reasonably flat stop along the downtown parts of Madison and Marion where those passengers can board and deboard safely.
Route 12, which has used Madison and Marion for many years, used to avoid these problems with a “through-route” with Route 10. (This bit of jargon means that Route 12 buses coming into downtown from First Hill continued out of downtown along Route 10 to Capitol Hill, and vice versa.) At left is a Metro route map, circa 2002, which shows how the through-route worked. Using this old routing, passengers with mobility impairments could ride without a transfer between First Hill and the downtown retail core; board or exit at any of several safe, flat bus stops; and transfer to tunnel service at Westlake Station without a long trek.
But Metro discontinued the through-route in September 2012 despite these advantages because it had become very unreliable, especially southbound. It caused serious delays along Routes 10 and 12. Congestion in the Pike Place Market area meant that buses were sometimes unable to complete the turn from Pine Street to 1st Avenue for minutes at a time. Southbound congestion through Pioneer Square on game days and weekend nights would often back up past Marion, stranding buses on 1st for up to 15 minutes. Congestion leaving the viaduct and near the Market could affect northbound buses as well, although not usually as badly. Reliability on Route 10 and especially Route 12 has markedly improved since the through-route went away; buses on both routes are now rarely more than 5 to 7 minutes late. But, ironically, discontinuing the through-route likely increased mobility-impaired riders’ reliance on slow, unreliable Route 2, as newly reliable Route 12 became harder for them to use because of the lack of safe stops or convenient transfers.
If built with dedicated lanes, the Center City Connector streetcar project could allow Metro to re-establish a version of the through-route, with its mobility benefits, but without the reliability problems that led to its demise. This would be the best of all worlds, and would resolve the most significant and convincing objection to the Route 2 restructure.
The Center City Connector (CCC) is a SDOT project intended to “connect” the two existing streetcar lines, the South Lake Union Streetcar and the First Hill Streetcar (which itself will open later this year), using a new stretch of track through downtown. After a public process, SDOT identified a First Avenue route (pictured to the right) as the preferred route for the CCC. Questions still to be answered include the precise routing at the connector’s north end, and, much more importantly, whether the connector will have its own dedicated lanes along 1st Avenue (at the cost of some on-street parking).
Based on both the open house presentation and subsequent conversations with SDOT personnel, I am confident that SDOT and the administration recognize the importance of dedicated lanes to the CCC’s own usefulness. But what is less appreciated is that the dedicated lanes also hold the key to solving the Route 2/12 conundrum. Using the dedicated lanes, buses could once again be through-routed between the Pike/Pine and Madison/Marion corridors along First Avenue, but this time with near-perfect reliability. Given the speed with which buses reliably could cover the distance between Pike/Pine and Madison/Marion in dedicated lanes, it would be possible to accomplish this at minimal extra cost compared to the live-loops used in these corridors today. The map below shows how it would work.
There are a few issues that have to be solved to make this concept work, but none of them should be a deal-breaker.
First, the buses could not use the streetcar stops on 1st Avenue, because the streetcar lanes and stops would be in the center of the roadway, with the stops on the buses’ left. But that is really not a big problem. The CCC is currently planned to have stops at Madison and Pike. Buses using the dedicated lanes could serve almost identical stops to the CCC, by stopping just off 1st Avenue. On the Pike/Pine side, a former bus stop could be re-established on Pine between 2nd and 1st, and a new bus stop could easily be established on Pike at 1st, where there is light car traffic and a wide, flat sidewalk. On the Madison/Marion side, another former bus stop could be re-established on Madison at 1st, and there is an existing stop on Marion at 1st. (Stop spacing and transfers on Marion could also be improved by moving two other stops, as pictured in the map.) Northbound buses using the dedicated lanes would miss the stop at University Street currently served by vestigial Route 99 and dropoff-only viaduct buses, but that stop is not necessary to achieve the goals of the through-route (or, for that matter, of the CCC itself). Pike Place Market would be directly accessible from the 1st/Pike and 1st/Pine stops. Westlake tunnel service, the retail core, and 3rd Avenue buses would be accessible from the stops between 3rd and 4th. All of these stops are flat and easily accessible for all users.
Second, some complex engineering would be necessary to either 1) allow separate overhead wire for streetcars and trolleybuses to coexist or 2) allow streetcars and trolleybuses to share a “hot” wire. This is not an insurmountable problem, as the FHSC installation along South Jackson and Broadway already shows (not to mention lots of European cities where trams and trolleybuses share both power sources and right-of-way), but it could increase the cost of the CCC project.
Third, some signal revisions would be necessary at the Pike/Pine end of the project, to allow buses to turn right directly from the dedicated lane of northbound 1st onto Pike Street, and also to allow buses to turn left from the right lane of Pine Street directly into the dedicated lane of southbound 1st. Queue jumps in both locations programmed to respond only to buses could accomplish this.
Finally, there is a gap on the Pike/Pine side of the through-route. Under the currently planned restructure, five to seven buses per hour (five on Route 2, zero to 2 on Route 12) would be on the Madison/Marion side of the through-route. If service were restored to today’s levels, there would be eight buses per hour. But Route 10, on the Pike/Pine side, only has four buses per hour. There are three options for the remaining buses: 1) continue live-looping from Madison to Marion (like today’s Route 12), making the through-route less valuable; 2) turn around at the currently unused 8th/Pine trolley turnback rather than continue as Capitol Hill service (which would cause additional cost and congestion); or 3) continue as other Capitol Hill routes, such as the 43 or 49. None of those routes is a great fit to be through-routed with Madison/Marion service, for varying reasons of reliability, type of bus, and frequency. Nevertheless, the problem is solvable. Without having done detailed analysis, I think Route 43 could work with minor changes to its schedule, particularly if funding were restored to current levels. (That could also free up the current 43 layover zone for use by the 49, saving a few service hours which the 49 currently wastes on its serpentine route to and from Virginia Street.) And the issue could become even easier to solve with a restructure of Capitol Hill service.
This is a good example of maximizing the political value of our transit investments. If bus passengers can see real, concrete benefits from reserving dedicated lanes for the Center City Connector, that’s one more reason to make the political lift to reserve the lanes, and one more group of possible supporters who can help counteract the inevitable gnashing of teeth about lost street parking (despite abundant off-street capacity in the area). The benefits to buses could help ensure not only an improved bus network, but success for the CCC itself.