Option 2 Map
Option 2 between Post and 3rd (the interesting part). Map by Metro.

About one year ago, Metro selected Columbia Street, using a two-way alignment, as the pathway that southbound Highway 99 buses would use between the new Alaskan Way interchange and Third Avenue after completion of the Highway 99 project.  Last week, Metro released a brief summary of a traffic study intended to help the agency and SDOT determine the best way to configure the new two-way Columbia.

Metro seriously considered three possibilities.  Option 1 is a three-lane configuration with one transit-only lane in each direction and one general-purpose (GP) lane westbound, which would allow room for wider sidewalks along Columbia Street.  Options 2 and 2B both use four-lane configurations with one transit-only lane in each direction and two GP lanes westbound, and sidewalks of the same width as today’s.  Options 2 and 2B would also allow for dedicated GP turn lanes in certain spots, while Option 1 would not.  The only difference between Options 2 and 2B is that Option 2 would allow general traffic to use the eastbound transit-only lane between First and Second, which would provide GP access to two parking lots without turning across the transit-only lane.

Metro determined that Option 1, with three lanes, would have an unacceptable impact on general traffic, largely because of the lack of space for dedicated turn lanes.  Given the volume of traffic turning left from Columbia onto Second, this conclusion makes sense.

Metro also determined that Option 2, allowing general traffic between First and Second eastbound, would serve general traffic better than Option 2B.  Conspicuously absent from the summary, though, is any discussion of whether buses would be delayed by cars waiting to turn right from the transit lane onto Second.  Given the high volume of pedestrian traffic in the area during peak hours, and the need for turning car traffic to wait for pedestrians, an impact on eastbound bus traffic seems quite likely.  I would have liked to see more specific discussion of Option 2’s potential effect on bus travel times, compared with Option 2B.

One other interesting note: the study assumed 40 buses per hour in each direction during peak hours, which is a bit odd, as today there are 47 outbound buses in this corridor during the busiest hour (4:30-5:30 p.m.), with demand for more.  Consistently with the brief nature of the summary, there was no explanation for the difference.

16 Replies to “Metro Releases Columbia Street Traffic Study”

  1. The diagram is misleading, as there will still only be room for 1 bus in the bus zone westbound on Columbia. The curb cuts for the alley and parking garage make a mess of things in the PM Peak. It won’t be that bad eastbound, as the alley is blocked by the Dexter Horton building and doesn’t continue through to Cherry St. so blocking that won’t be much of an issue. But it still is less than ideal, and it’s disappointing that they dismissed other options through Pioneer Square.

  2. After the viaduct comes down there will be more pathways for cars to get to West Seattle/Burien from downtown. Today, because there is only one entrance to the viaduct in downtown, all vehicles must use Columbia St. to get onto the viaduct. Once other options are available, many drivers will learn to avoid Columbia and use other streets.

    1. Not to pick nits, but it isn’t the demolition of the viaduct that will create more paths to Highway 99 from downtown. The viaduct may come down before the replacement waterfront boulevard or the tunnel is complete.

      1. Currently, the viaduct removal has been pushed to 2017. The only way it may come down before the tunnel is complete is if an earthquake brings it down. No politician, state worker or anyone, for that matter, is insane enough to OK its removal prior to a replacement being built, whether it’s the deep bore or another alternate. The waterfront highway is another story. The viaduct pretty much has to be gone to build that swatch of desolation, which is currently slated to be complete by 2019.

        Personally, I believe the viaduct will be ringing in the 2020 New Years with us.

      2. I read on Twitter that WSDOT said last night at the West Seattle Transportation Coalition meeting that the Viaduct won’t be down until 2018-2019 under their new best case scenario for Bertha. So with any further delays, it becomes possible that we’ll have trains to Northgate before the Viaduct is gone.

      3. That delay may actually be a good thing if it allows some more of the waterfront work to get done before the tunnel opens. (Not sure how much can be done with the viaduct still in place.) There is a huge open question right now at Metro about what will happen in the gap between when the viaduct closes and when the new Alaskan Way is complete. Kevin Desmond referred to that gap, coupled with the expiration of mitigation funding, as a “disaster” when Bruce and I talked to him awhile ago.

  3. I’m really glad SDOT is making Columbia 2-way and providing transit lanes. But once again we are left with a design that sacrifices pedestrians (opting against widening sidewalks) and transit (forcing buses to share lanes with turning cars) at the benefit of general purpose traffic. Newsflash: when you have an “unacceptable impact” on general purpose traffic, drivers acclimate and learn to avoid that route entirely, or if we’re lucky, they learn that driving downtown at rush hour is just impractical. So what if general purpose traffic is impacted, as long as buses have a way to bypass it.

    1. “But once again we are left with a design that sacrifices pedestrians…”

      This could be literal. In all the places I drive, this is one of the sketchiest. Pedestrians maneuvering around the RapidRide Real Time Arrival monolith seem unphased by the 30 ton vehicles crawling along in the bus lane inches from them and regularly walk right on the curb or jump out in front of the bus moving downhill. It’s impossible to monitor all mirrors/windows at the same time. The best you can do is crawl through there at <5mph and hope somebody doesn't slip or get pushed under one of the wheels.

    2. Do pedestrians need wider sidewalks on Columbia? I don’t see it getting as crowded as 5th & Pine.

  4. Given that what will replace the viaduct will be a waterfront boulevard, won’t there be more access points to that waterfront boulevard from downtown? If that is the case, why can’t one of them be a totally transit-only street, with wider sidewalks?

    1. Because downtown garage and alley access is so concentrated on east-west streets I don’t think you’ll ever see an east-west street converted to pure transit-only. The best we can hope for is bus lanes.

      The issue with the single-GP-lane alignment with wider sidewalks isn’t so much preserving Columbia for GP traffic as avoiding gridlock from left-turning cars. SDOT is very reluctant to ban turns altogether on any downtown streets, which I think would be the only way to make a Columbia with one GP lane work.

      As to other GP access points to Alaskan Way, Waterfront Seattle’s current plan really only offers one good one: Madison. Seneca will be a pedestrian corridor, and further south you have to get through the Pioneer Square mess. I don’t think SDOT or Metro would want all 99-bound GP traffic to go to Madison given that they are planning Madison BRT. I expect distributing it between Madison and Columbia, with dedicated transit lanes on each, is a better solution.

      1. It looks sort of vaguely familiar?

        Even when Portland’s transit mall was “bus only” there were local access points. For example, the parking garage in the US Bank Tower has always been accessed from the transit mall. It was really more of a “bus almost only” type of operation.

        However, as designed it was very inconvenient for auto use, and through traffic was prohibited on the one or two blocks where no driveways exited to the street. So, since it wasn’t a through route, the auto lane (where present) wound up being very local traffic only. Today with the auto lane going all the way through there is a bit more traffic there, but still not that much. It’s just inconvenient to use as a through street so what traffic there is doesn’t stay there long enough to be a problem.

        It looks like they are sort of headed this direction with Option 2.

        It looks like it might be quite difficult for certain auto users to figure out what lane they need to be in on what block, though.

        On the other hand, I really don’t see anything better that would make sense. Dedicated bus lanes on the curb lane only won’t work because of the driveways (unless you force drivers to turn into the far lane, which sort of worked on the Portland transit mall for the driveways there). You really can’t put transit in the middle lanes due to the stops. There isn’t enough space for a median platform through there. It’s only four blocks long, so you might get away with a single middle dedicated transit lane that switches from one way uphill to one way downhill, but that limits the capacity even if done over four blocks. Two dedicated bus lanes on one side, a median sidewalk, and then two auto traffic lanes doesn’t look like it would work due to the turns into and out of the driveways, and the road is too narrow for the median sidewalk to serve as a bus waiting area.

        So, anything I can think of really doesn’t work any better.

  5. I am sure the alternatives were thoroughly studied and so I’m going to trust that this the right decision. It does leave me wondering about three issues:

    1. A two-way transit street has a nice cachet, but if mixed-flow traffic remains, it would seem that one-way pairs would be better. I shudder how many riders who get on or off the bus will get hit by a car in another travel lane whose driver can’t see around the bus. At least with one-way streets, a pedestrian heading to or leaving the bus only has to look in one direction.

    2. Operationally, using different one-way loops afford transit operators turn-around capabilities that don’t exist in a two-way operation. Consider that if Marion-Madison buses were on only one two-way street, the proposed configuration would be operationally impossible. There can be other turn-around strategies because the segment here is relatively short, but it does limit both routing and real-tie relief bus options by Metro,

    3. Columbia stops are still quite steep, and that block includes alleys (as had been pointed out). While using Columbia for bus operations is reasonable, putting stops on it when there is a level street just a few hundred feet away seems to create a needless accessibility issue for some because of the slope.

    1. My understanding is that all buses will make a Z-shaped path from Alaska to Columbia to 3rd and on to the main stops at Pike & Pine. So there won’t be any turnarounds right there. The existing C line has a steep stop at 2nd & University, but it pretty much seems like an extra throwaway stop along the way; if you don’t like the steepness you can use the next stop north instead.

    2. Turning around buses from a two-way path can be dealt with.

      For instance, once all of this work is complete, it seems likely that Metro might want to extend the 12 (and/or future 2?) to the ferry terminal. They are also looking at giving Madison an eastbound contraflow transit lane similar to the one planned for Columbia. There are a number of ways you could turn buses around in that scenario. An easy one to imagine, given the currently planned location of the ferry terminal “transit hub,” is WB Madison -> L on Alaskan -> L on Columbia (into contraflow lane) -> L on Western -> R on Madison (contraflow lane).

      1. If they extended the 12, I’d hope that they find a way to have a stop nearer to a Link rail station. I don’t understand why Metro would want riders to get much closer to the ferry than they would be to Link. Rather than turn up Western, why not turn up Third or Fourth Avenue?

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