There has been a lot of discussion about the plans for Madison BRT, and how it might encounter congestion downtown (in BAT lanes). I propose a solution.
The Madison BRT plan at this point has center running from 13th to 9th. West of 9th, a bus would have to move from the center lane to a curbside lane. From there, it would head down Madison and up Spring (traveling with traffic). There are several problems with this. First, moving in an out of bus lanes is problematic. Second, BAT lanes can easily encounter congestion downtown. It is legal for a general purpose driver to use the BAT lane if they are turning into a garage or the next street. With lots of pedestrians, this means that a bus can be blocked by a car waiting to turn.
- Extend the center running lanes all the way to 6th.
- Add a contraflow lane on 6th, from Madison to Marion. A bus heading west on Madison would then be able to make a left on 6th to get to Marion.
- Add contraflow lanes on Marion and Madison.
- Add a BAT lane for 1st or Western (depending on where the bus turns around).
- By extending the center running lanes to the contraflow lanes, the bus doesn’t have to weave to get into or out of the curb lane. When the bus is headed westbound (down the hill) it simply makes a normal left turn. When it is headed eastbound, it is the only vehicle headed that direction, so changing lanes is easy. Regular drivers making a turn from 6th to Madison will simply be required to turn into the right most lane (as they are legally required to do most of the time).
- Contraflow lanes for downtown eliminates all of the BAT conflicts where they are likely to be an issue. A BAT lane on 1st would be very quiet, as there are no garages along here, nor can a car take a right turn onto Madison (only a bus can do that).
- The only left turn is trivial. The left turn occurs westbound from Madison to 6th. The only oncoming traffic will be another bus (in a contraflow lane). This is better than the current proposal, which would requires a left turn onto Madison from the north (to get from Spring to Madison).
Concerns over Extending the Center Running
- Adding stops is tricky and expensive for center running BRT. In this case, though, there are no plans for a stop along here (there are no stops between Terry and 6th).
- With center running BRT, left turns need to be banned or managed with special signals. In this case, there are four intersections to worry about, 6th through 9th. As mentioned, 6th is not an issue (since a car can’t take a left). Seventh is one way from the south, so you only have to worry about banning cars from making a left turn eastbound on Madison. The rest of the streets are two way. In all cases, the intersections are very similar. There are left turn cutouts, but no left turn signals. This tells me that either very few people take a left, or they are backing up into regular traffic anyway, and left turns should have been banned a while ago. It isn’t clear where the center running ends in the current proposal, midway on 9th or the end of ninth. But either way we are talking about very few left turns being eliminated. One for 7th, two for 8th and maybe another two for 9th. The effect on traffic should be minor.
- Loss of parking. I am no fan of parking, but this would eliminate a huge swath of parking. Lots of angle parking at that. This could be moved to the other side of the street, assuming that we are only going to have the buses running in contraflow mode through here. That is implied. The only bus that goes on Marion right now is the 12 and it follows pretty much the exact same route. The large amount of parking on Marion gives the city a lot more flexibility. It can eliminate parking or reduce the number of general purpose lanes (or split the difference and replace angle parking with parallel parking). They don’t even have that option with Madison (they are getting rid of a general purpose lane).
- Loss of taxicab stops. This is similar to the parking issue. The one area where this is a big deal is right where I would like to put a stop. This is right by a major hotel, where cabs pick up and drop off guests. Even without a stop, taking this lane is a bit problematic. But there is enough room there to solve the problem. The first thing you do is build a two inch curb separating the two directions of traffic. Now a cab can pull up to the curb and park as before. The guests only have to worry about a bus that turns right in front of the hotel. A bus would be turning, approaching a bus stop, with plenty of visibility, so this really isn’t an issue. You essentially move the carved out parking area for the cabs closer to the east (closer to the freeway). You would also have to remove the curb bulb on the uphill side, meaning the white truck in this picture can’t park here. That becomes a general purpose lane. You might have to take out the other curb bulb as well (for a bus to make that turn), but I think you can leave the lamppost and hydrant. I’m pretty sure all of this will work, without any real loss, other than pedestrians lose a curb bulb or two.
- Stop selection. So far as I know, the main reason Spring was chosen over Marion is because it is closer to Link. But this connection to Link is only one-way. So someone has to walk an extra couple blocks, but only when going from the BRT to Link (either way they use Madison for half the trips). It is actually less than two blocks. From Marion, the fastest way to Link is to walk south on 3rd to a little bit past Cherry to the Pioneer Square station. So compared to Spring, it is really only one extra block, and only for half the trips. Meanwhile, you save a block for Ferry riders. Speaking of which …
- Ferry traffic is an issue. This goes back to parking, though. Marion has plenty of parking on the left side of the street (where this new bus lane would go). If the city is worried about too many cars being squeezed into too narrow a pathway, then it can just get rid of the parking (which seems likely). It can also funnel folks elsewhere, such as Spring. That would essentially move the ferry traffic right around this route.
I believe these changes would lead to much greater reliability and speed through downtown, which in turn could lead to greater frequency or cheaper operation. The cost is not trivial (moving a lot of parking, removing curb bulbs and the like) but I believe it is worth it for a line as important as this one.