Proposed Bell St Revisions
Proposed Bell St Revisions

The Seattle Department of Transportation continues to bring small, but valuable transit priority improvements to Belltown this autumn.

First up: through-traffic restrictions on Bell St, between 5th Ave and 2nd Ave. This part of Bell was rebuilt in the last year as a woonerf, or pedestrian-oriented street park, a conversion which included reducing that section of Bell St from two lanes to one. The choice of Bell for the woonerf (where, it is hoped, pedestrians and slow-moving cars will mingle safely) always struck me as one perhaps overly-driven by the neighborhood’s desire to improve Bell St (which was legitimately awful when I lived nearby), without much thought for its importance as a transit arterial. My anecdotal experience in the aftermath of that change was that the PM peak buses I rode on Bell became noticeably slower. But, to be fair, Bell St has become noticeably better, helped in part by the street redesign, and also by the new apartment building at 2nd Ave.

With about five months of Metro data in hand, it seems the official verdict is that, yes, transit speed and reliability has indeed suffered in this area. SDOT therefore plans to add signs at east-west intersections directing cars to turn off Bell St; the intent being to divert non-transit through-traffic away from Bell St, and thus reduce congestion. Now, on the one hand, I laud the intent to keep buses moving in the peak while improving the woonerf experience further by reducing off-peak through-traffic; but on the other, I’m concerned that unless this change comes with active, ongoing enforcement, these restrictions will be ignored by a significant fraction of drivers, undermining their effectiveness, and tending to the corrosion of respect for traffic rules in general. The effect of under-enforcement is painfully apparent nearby on Battery St, where the existing 24/7 bus lane is somewhat effective, but nevertheless violated with seeming impunity almost every minute of every weekday.

This brings me to the next update: In October, SDOT will paint four 24/7 bus lanes red. These lanes will be located on Wall and Battery Streets in Belltown, Midvale Pl (approaching Aurora) in Wallingford, and Pacific St approaching the Montlake Bridge. The expectation is that red paint will improve awareness and compliance from motorists, and there’s good evidence, including lately from San Francisco, that this treatment is effective.

Finally, Page 2 contributor Al noted on Monday, that SDOT has announced transit signalization improvements at 1st & Denny, which will allow westbound buses headed down Elliot to turn left from the queue jump in the right lane. As part of the same effort to improve the Uptown-Belltown transit interface (also which brought us trolleybus wire on Denny, and a bus lane on Broad St), SDOT continues to study the feasibility of adding a bus-only left-turn signal at 3rd & Denny. The results of the necessary traffic analysis are expected to be available in December. If such a signal turns out to be feasible, it would markedly improve outbound travel times for all Queen Anne, Ballard and Magnolia routes.

40 Replies to “SDOT Bringing More Transit Improvements to Belltown”

  1. What is needed, is to have SDOT and the City make the right EB curb lane on Denny be right turn only (except transit) from 1st ave to 3rd ave. That way cars in that lane can turn right on 1st ave, 2nd ave or 3rd ave and not block the buses trying to turn right on 3rd.

    Currently, cars squeeze into the right lane in front of busses at the Denny / 3rd bus stop and block them due to the light at the intersection of Denny and Broad. Forcing all traffic to turn right at 3rd using those bike lane posts would fix a lot of things.

    1. Problem is, with only two lanes, you would get one of two things: (1) People would use the right lane as a merge lane for the left lane, causing backup; or (2) If drivers actually obey the law, the left lane would backup quite a ways, which would likely affect both lanes going back up Western.

      The better solution is to leave it as is, for now.

  2. From what I’ve observed, the Bell Street single-lane hasn’t exactly helped fire trucks and ambulances get through Belltown traffic (during the afternoons, anyway). When the sirens go off, traffic seems to get even more cluttered and awkward than it used to. And I’m not sure that the paint changes to Battery and Wall Streets will help with that situation very much. Unless they relocate the fire station to First Avenue.

    Also, removing bus stops may be an transit improvement *through* Belltown, but it isn’t necessarily a transit improvement *to* Belltown.

  3. The thing with Belltown is that basically every street in the place is a transit arterial east of 3rd, as buses use a variety of streets to line up for the change in grid orientation. Where to focus if not Bell for a pedestrian redesign? Bell at least has more businesses facing it than a lot of the east-west streets. The problem was with the specifics of the design.

    They hardly could have failed to make the street nicer, but a lot of the design was misguided. The woonerf-like elements are more effective at encouraging drivers to park on the sidewalk (and encroach on that space when backing in, with no curb to stop them) than encouraging pedestrians to walk in the street. Everything works against it being a true woonerf: the width of the sidewalk, the width of the street (as a one-way), the many physical barriers (planters, trees, tables, parked cars) between the sidewalk and the street. Bell is too wide (from building to building) to ever be a woonerf; its redesign should have focused on making it a better local commercial street, not trying to make it a park and a street with pretend woonerf elements. Tables and chairs, sure! Trees and planters, why not? Random curves in the roadway and curb-less parking spaces… no. With the street width left over after the sidewalk features Bell could have supported contraflow biking (if Bell were a two-way bike route along its entire length it would become a centrally important street for navigation by bike, no small thing when it connects to Dexter and 9th today, and bigger in the near future with the Westlake cycletrack and 2nd Ave) and been more straightforward and comfortable for buses (without bouncing up and down at every intersection).

    1. I’d have done it on Cedar or Vine. Granted, those streets also didn’t have the problems Bell had.

      1. There was a constituency for Vine as well, who wanted to extend the “Growing Vine Street” idea as seen down by the P-Patch. Sadly, they lost out to those championing Bell Street.

      2. I think giving the “park street” treatment to Vine would still be a good idea. It might even work out better than Bell due to the lower traffic volumes.

    2. The thing with the woonerf is it doesn’t look like a place where peds and cars can mingle like Pike Place. It looks like a one-lane street with unusually wide sidewalks. They need to obliterate the sharp distinction between street and sidewalk if they want to make it feel truly pedestrian friendly and not a foreboding car street.

      1. Pike Place has a sidewalk on the east side, with a curb even! But they’re different, of course:

        – Pike Place is paved in brick; Bell Street looks like (I am not a civil engineer, so the following is pulled out of my ass) concrete that’s molded to look like diagonal paving stones or something, with what amount to driveway ramps down to each cross street. Pike’s surface actually calms traffic; Bell’s just jostles everyone around once per block.

        – Pike Place is not a bus arterial, or an arterial of any kind. If it ever was one, current street design has made it not one — even during times it’s not congested it would never be a good idea to drive on Pike Place to get anywhere that wasn’t on Pike Place. Last time I biked to Pike Place I rode the wrong way down the street… and I didn’t even notice (I would have done it anyway, but I didn’t notice). Unlike on Bell traffic isn’t thick or fast enough to stop anyone from doing this. Bell is longer and actually a logical through route, with no serious attempt to stem this.

        – Pike Place is an enormous tourist destination for some reason (the novelty of a public shopping area on a non-through street in America draws tourists from all around, which says more about every other street in America than Pike Place, but nevertheless, it’s caught on). This, combined with the lack of through traffic, is what actually allows pedestrians to control the street.

      2. Bell Street is not a woonerf from what I know. It is designed to look like one, but unlike a woonerf pedestrians do not have legal priority on it. In fact the car lane is just that – a car lane – if you walk in it you are jaywalking.

        In my opinion they should have simply closed it for vehicle traffic altogether – especially 1st through 3rd which wouldn’t affect most transit traffic either.

      3. If Pike Place has any special rules regarding walking in the middle of the street, it isn’t marked anywhere I’ve ever seen. It’s still common because of the overwhelming numeric dominance of pedestrians.

        If Bell grows a bit of commercial infill it will be a local commercial street, minor traffic arterial, and significant local transit street, sort of like The Ave. That’s fine. Better than taking the curbs off the sidewalks and playing Pretend Europe or Try To Impose Pike Place By Fiat.

      4. I actually think the Ave would make a far better pedestrian mall than anything in Belltown. It has a lot of pedestrians (poor college students w/o cars), and the adjacent streets (Brooklyn and 15th) have ample capacity to take the transit load of the Ave. If done right, it could be like State Street in Madison, WI.

      5. Anton says jaywalking is illegal in the Bell Street Park? What’s your authority for that? Street and sidewalk pavement is identical (diagonally scored gray concrete), and there are no curbs to separate cars and peds. Lots of signals that peds are welcome everywhere.

        In every other city park, vehicle lanes can be crossed anywhere and everywhere; why should Bell Street Park be any different? I’ve visited this park a number of times, and it never occurred to me to walk to a corner and wait for a walk light merely to get to the other side of the park.

      6. RDPence – Since there *are* crosswalks, bright yellow bubble markers, and walk/DONTwalk signals at the street corners, I’d sort of guess that the idea that “Jaywalking here is Okay” might sort of equal “lawsuit waiting to happen”. But I’m not a lawyer or park design expert.

      7. No official source has ever said it’s legal to walk in the entire space. I’ve asked an SPD officer and he said I can’t walk in the middle of it (could have been unaware).

        The thing is – to me, it’s not a park. It’s a road diet + nicely designed wide sidewalks with more seating and commercial dining areas. I like it, but please don’t call it a park.

        Again, close 1st-3rd for vehicle traffic and call that Bell Park. The rest looks nice for continuity.

    3. The design does a great job of encouraging me to walk in the street. It also encourages whoeever’s walking with me to sharply pull me back to keep me from being killed by traffic.

      And — not sure if levelness is a design consideration, but Bell Street Park between 2nd and 3rd is not _level_. You know how they tell you not to pitch your tent on a slope because your body will be fighting the incline all night, resulting in less restful sleep? The park is a great location for outdoor social dances (which have been happening this summer), but the slope adds another layer of difficulty to slot-based social dances.

  4. Isn’t it time for Seattle to grow up and eliminate right and left turns on red, at least in downtown?

      1. All of Brazil does, and in fact that seems to be pretty much the only traffic law that is strictly obeyed there. The São Paulo metro has almost as many people as the entire state of California, and Rio de Janeiro has almost as many as Los Angeles, so I would consider both of those to be major metropolitan areas.

        I would assume that this rule is based on some European traffic flow laws, but I don’t know having never had a need to drive in Europe.

    1. Absolutely, especially for right turns. Drivers too often consider these “free right turns” without any regard to anyone in either crosswalk, biking, or even on-coming traffic.

      1. Not to mention that many drivers don’t seem to know you are supposed to come to a complete stop prior to making a right on red.

    2. Much like prohibitions against jaywalking, banning right turns on red amounts to a woefully inefficient use of road space and traveller time. In addition, it substantially increases time spent idling by cars and buses, and is thus environmentally destructive.

      It is therefore only wise to ban the practice, with explicit signage, in specific locations where safety is substantially compromised by its allowance. Only somewhere as busy as Manhattan does this constitute “almost every corner”, which is why only New York has been justified in bucking federal regulations (and forgoing certain federal moneys) for the sake of a blanket ban.

      It also doesn’t hurt that New York has an extensive, grade-separated transit system to provide a reasonable alternative to all that extra idling. We have a whole lotta stuckbuses that would be even more stuck if we followed your advice.

      1. Fair enough. Then let’s get SPD out and doing their jobs at ticketing/arresting drivers and cyclists who harass or assault pedestrians when they blow through a crosswalk. That includes when a driver decides to sit in the middle of a crosswalk, looking to the left and forcing any pedestrian who wants to cross to risk her own life by crossing in front of the vehicle.

        As much as I love things like the 2nd Ave bike facility, Scott Kubly would do well to maintain the existing infrastructure (i.e. fix pot holes, and repaint lanes), and convince SPD to enforce existing laws (3′ passing rule, yielding to pedestrians), as well.

      2. Agreed.

        I was writing about Jaywalking on Facebook, and I said this:
        Everyone needs to take responsibility for their own safety. Period.

        That being said, I want drivers follow the damn rules before they start harping on pedestrians. Frequently I see drivers stopped over marked crosswalks sitting at a red light who do not move from their position, even though there are spots for them to safely move to.

        If I’m taking my own safety into account, I think the safest way is to walk right over their hood. Yup. Walking behind them puts me at risk of having the driver behind them not stop and being stuck between two cars. Walking in front of them often puts me closer to oncoming traffic than I’d like to be. So I should walk over their hoods. But in the interim, I usually walk around the front and give them a dirty look and some non-obscene gestures. Really they should get tickets for obstructing a crosswalk. You know, just how you’re advocating for pedestrians to get tickets for jaywalking.

    3. I always thought right-turn-on-red was kept to maintain consistency in west coast traffic laws, because so many people travel between Washington, Oregon, and California.

    4. Be sure to check out the history of Right Turn on Red on Wikipedia its was actually imposed nationally as a BS fuel saving measure.

      1. D.P., The article you linked to compares right turns versus left turns. Not right turns versus right turns on red as we’ve been discussing

        They might be similar, but that article isn’t directly supporting your argument.

      2. And what are the two reasons that right-turning routes spend so much less time idling and wasting gas?

        (Hint: they’re mentioned in the link.)
        (Further hint: one of them is the right-turn-on-red rule.)

  5. Re: Left on 3rd and Denny. The queue jump at 1st will help a little, but Denny is actually the least painful part of the zig zag through Belltown the 15/18/D have to navigate.

    A 3rd/Denny transit only left turn lane/signal would chop really significant time off of all those routes. Its a transit capital improvement MUST along with Zach’s suggested re-design of the I-5 queue on East Denny to fix the issues with the 8.

    Godspeed that study. Getting through Belltown is a total CF in the afternoon as-is.

  6. Re: Left on 3rd and Denny. The queue jump at 1st will help a little, but Denny is actually the least painful part of the zig zag through Belltown the 15/18/D have to navigate.

    A 3rd/Denny transit only left turn lane/signal would chop really significant time off of all those routes. Its a transit capital improvement MUST along with Zach’s suggested re-design of the I-5 queue on East Denny to fix the issues with the 8.

    Godspeed that study. Getting through Belltown is a total CF in the afternoon as-is.

  7. Oh, great. Now buses will be blocked by cars that didn’t see the “no going straight” signs until they were already on Bell, and that will attempt to obey the letter (but not the intent) of the law by refusing to pull forward until every last pedestrian has cleared the crosswalk, at which point the buses will have missed an entire (very long) light cycle.


  8. Awesome improvements!

    Speaking of priority downtown, does anyone know if there are any plans to address the long-standing clusterf**k at the intersection of 9th/Olive/Howell? More often than not in the afternoons, it takes buses 3-4 light signals to cross the street into the transit tunnel. A priority lane here (and a better demarcation of the intersection so cross-traffic doesn’t block it) would do wonders for many, many routes.

  9. Why do busses even need to run on Bell st? Aren’t there plenty of parallel streets they could use that are more than 1 lane?

    1. Because it’s a straight line from 9th, and as straight a line as is currently available from Dexter, and because transit always does better when running in straight lines.

      Ask anyone who had to suffer the 40/26/28 during the year-plus they spent installing this ill-conceived thing: the detour was excruciating.

      1. As one of those people, I agree entirely. Because the grid changes at Denny, and you can’t cross Aurora, any bus coming up Dexter had to make a two block detour in both directions (and there was construction going on directly where the detour was occurring, so there were lanes blocked and construction vehicles to deal with at the same time), which took forever. It added several minutes to my commute, which, when added to Metro deciding to allow the 26/28 to stop only at Pike Street instead of Pine and Union, meant it was almost ten minutes longer for me to get to work each morning.

    2. Amen, I was just watching this street function this weekend poorly and then right after this post appeared. I’m a huge woonerf and livable streets advocate but this is the worst designed livable streets project I’ve seen from selecting a street to place it on to the actual design itself. Echoing everyone else, its not even a woonerf, and you cant just make a street a woonerf if the traffic laws don’t recognize a pedestrian’s right to be in the middle of the street.

  10. The biggest impediment I see on Bell Street for busses is on-street parking for cars. Get rid of it and you’ve got another lane for traveling or even making the sidewalks wider for pedestrians. Again, like on the new Mercer Street, you’re taking lanes for cars to park and block streets instead of allowing moving traffic to travel freely.

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