Of the two stations scheduled to open in 2016 as part of the U-Link extension, the UW Station has both the most potential and the most challenges for improved bus-rail integration. This station, which is located on the east side of the Montlake Triangle, is isolated from the UW Campus and UW Medical Center by Montlake Boulevard NE, NE Pacific Street and NE Pacific Place.
Currently, the nearest pair of bus stops to the UW Station are located on NE Pacific Street in front of the UW Medical Center. These stops are roughly 900-1,000 feet away, approximately a 4-5 minute walk. While this might be acceptable for less important transfers, it is long for such an important one, particularly if Metro proposes restructures that significantly increase transfers to Link.
Metro staff have said in the past that they were looking at moving the northbound stop by the UW Medical Center several hundred feet east of its current location, but have not yet released any solid plans. Although this would help some, the walking distance for the northbound stop would still be 800 feet, with the southbound stop still over 1,000 feet away from the station.
The State Legislature recognized this challenge as far back as 2010 and asked WSDOT to study changes to improve transfers in the Montlake Triangle area as part of the SR-520 project. While the study was informative and made several good suggestions, it does not reflect Sound Transit and Metro’s new vision of an integrated, user-friendly transit system.
Fast and reliable bus-rail transfers aren’t rocket science, but they generally require early and integrated station design efforts. Mercer Island Station is an excellent example of how early station design efforts can make bus-rail transfer seamless. Designing stations with high-quality transfers in mind allows transit planners to improve the transit system as it evolves and grows.
Much to our excitement, Metro is already working with the public on bus system restructures that will improve transit service on Capitol Hill, in the U-District and in greater Northeast Seattle. By improving connections to the fast and reliable U-Link extension and redeploying service hours, Metro will be able to bring greater coverage and frequency to the entire system. The restructured transit system could also improve local feeder service between UW Station and rest of the the U-District, providing access to Link until the U-District Station opens in 2021.
Consolidation of Sound Transit and Metro service on SR-520, with routes terminating at the UW Station, also has the potential of providing a more frequent and connected Eastside transit network, and better service to UW, while freeing up operating hours for improved frequency and coverage for Eastside passengers to destinations like SLU. The travel time competitiveness would likely depend most on the speed and reliability of the SR-520 to UW Station connection, quality of schedule integration (like timed transfers or pulse systems), and the quality of the bus-rail transfer.
Bus Routing Concept
The figure above shows a concept of how buses could be better integrated with the station. It details three bus routing alignments: one for routes heading through the Montlake Triangle area (local and SR-520), a second for local routes terminating at UW Station, and a third for SR-520 routes terminating at UW Station. Most of these routing options could take advantage of existing, repurposed, or new bus only lanes and roads to avoid congestion. The concept works with or without a second Montlake bridge and the existing bus stops by the UW Medical Center will be preserved. Below are details for each routing alignment.
- Through Routes: This routing alignment would bring buses like the 43, 48, and 271 closer to the UW Station. After crossing the Montlake Bridge (using the right lane which is less congested), northbound buses would turn right and travel through the E12 parking lot on a new bus only path, serving a new stop just south of the UW Station before continuing to the existing stop at the UW Medical Center. Southbound buses would turn left onto NE Pacific Place, first serving the UW Medical Center stop and then serving a new stop under the UW Station pedestrian bridge on Montlake Boulevard NE. Routes would continue to serve the existing bus stop by the UW Medical Center.
- Local Terminating Routes: This routing alignment would be similar to the current route 44 alignment, but buses would layover directly adjacent to the UW Station. Each route would ideally have its own layover bay, allowing for a pulse based bus system which reduces rail to bus transfer times. Read more about pulse or “timed transfer” here.
- SR-520 Terminating Routes: This routing alignment would be used for routes like the 255 and 545. Traveling from SR-520, buses would travel north along Montlake Boulevard NE and drop off passengers at a bus stop just west of the UW Station. Empty buses would then loop around, laying over with local terminating routes. Traveling back to SR-520, buses would use a new transit only westbound left turn at Montlake Boulevard NE and NE Pacific Street. This routing alignment has the most significant technical issues and would need detailed analysis.
While better bus-rail integration would have a host of benefits, there are also a variety of challenges. Consolidation and termination of SR-520 buses at UW Station could increase travel times to or from downtown during some times of day if bus-rail schedule integration is poor or there is no mitigation for congestion on Montlake Boulevard NE. Local routes would also see several minutes of additional travel time through the Montlake Triangle area. Major events like UW football games, although infrequent, would also likely require special accommodations.
In addition, routing of buses onto UW property would require a willingness on its part of the UW to facilitate and support this change. SDOT and WSDOT would need to coordinate on a variety of changes, including signal timing changes that may increase congestion. Support from the Montlake community would also be desirable. Finally, Sound Transit and Metro would need to study, plan, design, and finance a host of capital and operational changes in roughly a year.
The opening of U-Link will be a game changer. Sound Transit and Metro have the chance to build an integrated, user-friendly transit system and I hope this concept gets Metro, Sound Transit, WSDOT, SDOT, UW and the public thinking about how bus-rail integration at UW Station can be improved. I put this concept forward as a starting point for that discussion.