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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.


  1. Extend the center running lanes all the way to 6th.
  2. 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.
  3. Add contraflow lanes on Marion and Madison.
  4. Add a BAT lane for 1st or Western (depending on where the bus turns around).


  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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

  1. 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).
  2. 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.

Other Negatives

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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 …
  4. 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.

17 Replies to “Faster Madison BRT through Downtown”

  1. I’m not sold on going back to Marion. We worked hard to get SDOT to consider Madison-Spring. Marion is both further from University Street Station and a block from the library, which are the two biggest destinations in the area. Pioneer Square Station is not much of a consolation.

    1. If it wasn’t for the clear advantages to operations, I would agree with you. If the buses run with the flow, then I support Spring over Marion. But contraflow using Marion has enormous advantages (as listed).

      It is a trade-off, but being an extra block away from Link for half the trips is a small price to pay. Meanwhile, folks on the ferry save a block of walking each direction.

      The library is a nice destination, but the skyscrapers hold a lot more people. So do the hospitals and the university. All of them would be effected by a slowdown caused by congestion.

  2. This is a great idea, but hard to figure out from text alone. A simple diagram, with street names, directions, and proposed center running, contraflow, or BAT lanes, would be hugely helpful in marketing this idea.

    1. I have prepared a simple map of RossB’s proposal.

      Notice that the “contraflow bus lanes” are on the right side of the street from the point of view of the bus. But from the point of view of the cars, who are all going the other way, they’re on the left side of the street.

      It requires banning left turns by cars driving along Madison or Marion from blocks with the contraflow lanes. (Or providing special left-turn cycles.)

      1. RossB makes the points that:
        — the buses only have a single left turn, from Madison onto 6th, which should get its own light cycle; all others are straight ahead or right turns
        — there are very few conflicts with local access
        — the switch from curbside running to center running is a zero-conflict move

      2. Thanks Nathanael. I agree with EHS this is much easier to understand with a map. As good as your map is, some parts of it (like the turn from Madison to Marion on 6th) needs a detailed diagram. You can kind of see how it works from looking at the map, but it does take some effort.

        The term “Contraflow” is a bit misleading, in my opinion. When I first heard it, I thought it meant something else. But this is a good image of it, and this is a good discussion of it.

        As far as banning left turns on Madison or Marion, I disagree. A bus will be coming by every five minutes at most. I think you can just treat that like a regular left turn. You are required to yield to oncoming traffic, but in this case the oncoming traffic doesn’t come that often.

        The same is true for the only left turn the bus makes, from Madison onto 6th. The only vehicle that could force it to stop would be another bus (heading up Madison) so as long as the cycle is long enough to enable a single bus to go by it is fine. I think pedestrian traffic is a bigger issue, but that is true for every turn. But that can be managed quite easily.

      3. Why are contraflow lanes so desirable? It seems to me that it’s better to go same-direction rather than opposite-direction unless there’s a compelling need, and to keep one-way streets fully one-way. The contraflow on 5th is to get to the express-lanes entrance and avoid the Olive-Stewart congestion that a regular northbound bus gets caught in.

      4. Contraflow is like center running — you avoid any possible conflict. Cars aren’t allowed on it at all (unlike BAT lanes). Center running won’t work for one way streets, but contraflow does. This has the added advantage of avoiding a lengthy left turn and making the transition from center running to contraflow (and back) really easy.

      5. It also increases the risk of head-on collisions. I’m not sure that’s worth it just to give a symbolic message that cars are not allowed. Also, cars will still have to cross it to reach building driveways.

      6. It’s not a symbolic message that cars aren’t allowed, it’s creating a bus lane that isn’t blocked by cars waiting to turn. It’s worth considering at least. I don’t see the increased risk of head-on collisions… it hasn’t been a big enough problem to prohibit contraflow bus lanes elsewhere, or two-way streets generally.

        One other thing: maybe if there are (eastbound) contraflow transit lanes on Madison the bus can use the inside lane westbound with shared island stops. That takes a lot of space on Madison, but when we’re currently wasting space with f’ing angle parking, in a downtown with more parking than the roads can fill, maybe we have the space for it.

  3. Angle parking would have to be moved to the far side of the street.
    Stop suggestions (in order coming off of the bridge over I-5)
    — 6th just east of Madison
    — Marion just south of 3rd
    — Marion just north of Western
    — Madison just north of 1st
    — Madison just north of 3rd
    — Madison just south of 6th

  4. OK, I came up with a schematic drawing of the area:

    Obviously this isn’t to scale, nor does it show other cross streets (2nd through 5th). But it shows (more or less) all of the lanes, which is the key here. The red lanes are the bus lanes. So, there are a few key things:

    1) The left turn is easy. The only vehicle that can delay it is another bus.
    2) Although 1st avenue is technically a BAT lane, there is no reason for a car to be there. There are no garages on that part of 1st, nor can a regular car take a right on Madison.

    All of this means that for all intents and purposes, the lanes east of 13th will be 100% bus lanes.

    1. How will this work with the Central City Connector taking the center lane on First as a transit-only lane, though? That means the bus will either need to take a wide right turn into the center lane, or go in mixed traffic for that block.

      1. Are you sure the CCC will go in the center lane? I thought the current plan was to have the streetcar and BRT share the same curbside stop on 1st between Madison and Spring (see “Outbound Alignment” here:

        At worst it is the same thing. I don’t see the turns as being any worse than the one for the current plan (with the flow). The first turn is easy (from Marion to First). Once the light turns green for Marion, make the turn and the bus can easily get to the middle lane (since it is the only vehicle heading that way). The second turn would require a jump ahead light (which could also be synchronized with a don’t walk signal for that side of the street.

      2. The CCC is center lane? Sounds like a lot of work for a symbolic gesture. :)

        Seriously, though, it isn’t a problem. It is pretty much identical to the turns required for a bus under the current plan. The turn to 1st is easy (just make a wide turn — it has the right of way since it is taking a right). The turn from 1st up the hill requires a special signal stopping those in the curb lane.

        The worst part about that is that I would have to make a new diagram.

      3. The CCC is center lane in the same direction, not contraflow.

        I guess what I’m concerned about is not contraflow per se but narrowness between opposing lanes. The 5th Avenue implementation looks narrower than a regular center divide. But the 5th Avenue lane is either (A) empty, (B) so full of buses they only move at 10mph, and (C) they stop every block for traffic lights. That means if a car strays into the lane it’s not that big a deal. But on Madison buses would be running at full speed for several blocks at a time, so if a car strays into the lane it would be a bigger deal.

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