SR99_NWAccess_Animation
Click for the animation

After I linked to the notification of SR99 lane closures with a fine whine about (lack of) transit priority, there was a fun twitter exchange between WSDOT, some loyal readers, and Zach on the STB Twitter account. As the animation above shows, during daytime left lane closures, WSDOT will open the bus lane to general traffic to maintain two lanes for cars. In a later phase, bus lane closures will force transit into general purpose lanes.

WSDOT said that the corridor carries about 37,000 cars and 740 buses on an average weekday. All else being equal, then, if there are 1.25 people per car then each bus would have to carry about 62 people to mean that transit was more important than cars, and by implication worthy of priority.

The E, 5, 16, 26X, and 28x carry about 31,000 people a day, or 41 people per bus, or about a third of the total volume in the corridor. Of course, that’s one-third spread out through the entire day, and the peak share of transit riders is higher, perhaps near 50%. So even if the mode shares remain constant, the idea that half the road capacity should go to transit is hardly outrageous.

Moreover, the idea that the mode shares must remain constant is unfounded. Regardless of WSDOT’s fears, there will be “huge backups” regardless of how many lanes are available. Retaining the transit lane would provide a congestion-free alternative. Not everyone will use this option, but WSDOT would provide a rapid means of travel for those who are willing. Some people will take it and improve transit’s share. Instead, WSDOT is forcing everyone to sit in traffic regardless of choice.

Furthermore, private vehicles are able to switch to alternate routes, while transit must continue to serve people that live all along the route, further increasing the likely proportion of transit riders on the roadway.

It’s common, during construction closures, for the authorities to urge people to alter their trips or take transit. With the basic time penalties associated with transit compounded by a total lack of priority, anyone who respects that request is either a fool or has little choice. Enough people are either transit riders, or willing to change given the proper incentives, that transit deserves half the road space on Aurora.

Closures begin next Monday, January 18.

40 Replies to “Aurora Under Construction, No Bus Lane”

    1. Which, without adequate enforcement (there won’t be), turns into a free-for-all. Our HOV and bus infrastructure already struggle with people breaking the law.

      Looking out the bus window this morning (from a standing-room-only Route 16), more than 90% of drivers are single-occupant commuters and I didn’t see any vehicle with more than two people in it.

  1. If the transit lanes will be kept red until the merge point that should put transit well ahead of nearly all vehicles. The 50th, 45th, 38th and Raye on-ramps should all be closed, forcing local traffic from Phinney Ridge and Upper Fremont onto Fremont, Stone Way and Eighth NW. Then the intersections at the north and south approaches to the Fremont Bridge should be set flashing yellow with police officers actually directing traffic and some street accesses right at the bridgehead closed. Right turns from 34th coming from the west onto southbound Fremont and left turns from 35th onto southbound Fremont should be banned for the duration of the closure. “Straight through” travel between Westlake and Nickerson should be banned; Nickerson should be connected only to Dexter for the duration of this emergency. Passage from the right lane only should be allowed from the bridge soutbound to Dexter but most traffic should just flow from three lanes on the bridge to the three lanes of Westlake.

    And vice versa in the afternoon; Westlake traffic would HAVE to turn north onto the Fremont Bridge.

    Essentially this would make Westlake the local access for Northwest and North Central Seattle south of 50th.

    The Fremont Bridge should be made 3/1 during the rush hours in the peak direction with the officers coordinating a couple of minutes from Leary, half a minute from Fremont and then a minute and a half from 36th followed by a minute or so of northbound operation.

    Bridge openings MUST be completely disallowed on both the Fremont and Ballard Bridges during the peaks for this two weeks.

    1. Ambitious concept, but there are some issues with certain of these proposals.

      Forcing Nickerson traffic to only connect to Dexter would cut off Nickerson traffic from the Fremont Bridge. That would prevent the 31/32 from running their normal routes.

      A 3/1 lane setup on the Fremont Bridge does nothing if the approach streets are not reconfigured for opposite-direction running. Eventually traffic will have to merge into the normal lane configurations, and those merges will become the new chokepoints.

      Also, the Coast Guard is in charge of bridge openings. I doubt it would consent to a 100% ban.

      1. Alex,

        Yes, the 31/32 would be a problem. The left turn lane from Nickerson to Fremont could be made bus only and the police officer at the south end of the bridge could stop traffic long enough for the bus to turn into the single northbound lane (in the morning).

        There are already three northbound lanes from just north of the actual opening span so the single lane would only be across that span. There are three lanes through the block between 34th and 35th including two turn lanes to Leary.

        The are likewise three lanes approaching Nickerson/Westlake from the north, though they’re much shorter than the equivalents at the north end of the bridge. Two lanes turn onto Westlake and one continues ahead onto Dexter.

        So essentially this would just be making better use of the narrow span by 3/1 usage and optimizing the already spread out portion of the roadway by making use of longer cycles.

        So far as the Coast Guard, surely they can stop pleasure boats for three hours twice a day for six weeks.

    2. >> If the transit lanes will be kept red until the merge point that should put transit well ahead of nearly all vehicles.

      That is a very good point. Putting aside your other suggestions, it is quite possible that transit will still be substantially faster than driving, and not that much worse than today. The backup will extend quite a ways, well past the point where the bus lanes end. It won’t be quite like 520, but it will be similar. Buses will still be able to pass lots of cars that are barely moving (until the point that all vehicles squish through the narrow section).

      But then drivers will adjust. Almost immediately you will see a big drop in volumes on Aurora, as people no longer consider it fast. Your other suggestions will not be necessary, as people will find other ways to get there. Of course that means that traffic on other streets will be worse (the 40 may be substantially slower, for example).

      1. Ross,

        Yes. The red lane ends just north of the 38th street wishbone. If the southbound 38th on-ramp can be closed during the project only then the buses could use the striped section between 38th and Bridge Way and sweep into an essentially empty lane on the bridge which will advance them at least to mid-bridge before the worst of the jam up.

        If the DOT won’t allow that then there should be a police officer posted right at 38th ticketing drivers who do not allow the buses to merge ahead of them.

    3. I don’t understand your Aurora plan…even if you close the 50/46/38 on-ramps, you can turn south onto Aurora from ANY cross street…would just push all the traffic onto the residential side streets, which are VERY narrow, and have traffic making the 90 degree right turn right into the bus lane instead of using the on-ramps. I don’t know that it would be practical to close every single street at Aurora all the way from 50th to the bridge.

      1. Booth,

        Yes, you’re right that some traffic would divert to the streets between the arterials. But not as much as would find another way. And really, how hard would it be to put barriers on the ends of the streets if diversion became a big problem?

        What’s going to happen is that people will enter the bus lane from the 50th and 46th and get stuck there because the back-up will reach that far north. It will ruin the bus lane. Obviously 38th is a different story because it gets its own lane, but I’m advocating closing it so that the “striped” section between 38th proper and Fremont Way can be opened to the buses so they don’t have to merge at 38th. That can’t happen if traffic is using Fremont Way, but if it’s closed to everything except the 5 and 26/28 X’s the drivers can be relied on to avoid crashes.

        That pushes the effective merge point at least a few yards into the Aurora Bridge where suddenly there will be three lanes for a mile or so.

  2. Does anyone know how much power Seattle has in this debate? Does WSDOT consult with the city, but then do whatever it feels like doing? If the mayor has any influence, he should be on the phone talking to them. Then again, maybe he doesn’t feel much pressure, which suggests that we are barking up the wrong tree.

    1. Since it’s a state highway, none. Seattle may get some input, but the DOT has the final say.

    2. WSDOT works, ultimately, for Gov. Inslee. Of course we have some influence if we talk to those who have power and have to listen to the public.

      1. Right, but that is a much bigger ship to move. I’m just saying if this was the city’s decision, it would be much easier. We should put pressure on WSDOT, but it will be harder to get them to change their mind (especially without the mayor doing much about it).

        I must say, this is yet another example of why I am disappointed by the mayor. He got elected in part on his ability to communicate and do things for the city that involve other agencies. But he has to actually do things. He hasn’t done anything here, nor has he done anything about the Husky Stadium situation (which ultimately is decided by the same guy, Inslee).

  3. While transit buses are stuck in their current routing no matter what, transit riders still have options. For instance, someone who normally takes a bus down Aurora might be able to switch to a different bus that uses Westlake, Dexter, or I-5. For instance, someone who lives near Aurora and 100th St. that might normally take the E-line into down might choose to bus or drive to Northgate Transit Center and ride the 41.

    Of course, with drivers doing the same thing, the alternate routes, themselves, will become more crowded, so it’s unclear how much this will help things.

    While transit priority certainly helps get people on bus, a mass switch to driving while transit priority disappears for 2 weeks is unlikely to happen. People that are in the habit of riding the bus will likely continue to do so, as parking downtown will not get suddenly easier, just because the bus lane is closed. Transit also gives people the opportunity to read a book instead of grip the steering wheel (well, at least those that get on the bus far enough back to get a seat).

    Transit also offers a very powerful advantage over driving in times like this, which is, if you only have a few blocks to go, the streets are gridlocked, you can always just get off the bus and walk. Driving, you are stuck in your car, no matter what, until you reach the final destination, or at least somewhere where the car can be parked.

    Of course, the best way to avoid the gridlock will be to get on a bike and ride the Dexter bike lanes.

    1. I often choose the E over other, closer lines, because of the frequency transit priority. I think (barring any sort of last-minute change) that this will be a great demonstration to show all of Seattle and WSDOT just how important lane priority is. I mean for two months, NOBODY living north of the Ship Canal has ANY reason to use the bus. There is no lane priority on any other route but Aurora. This decision will INCREASE those who choose to drive, who feel the

      Yes, some can switch to an I-5 express, if they work deep in downtown. Of course, so much of the Aurora bus destinations are off of the Denny stop, in SLU land. And even those who choose to take the 41 or 303 from Northgate – how will they get there? They will probably drive, increasing congestion, because the feeder buses either take circuitous routings or get stuck in traffic, and because there is free parking. Biking is rather dangerous there too (I’ve been in some dangerous situations with unhinged and aggressive drivers on the “bike route” of 1st ave NE), and walking isn’t even that safe (RIP Jacqueline Morrison, Sandhya Khadka, and all others killed in this area over the years – these two deaths are just in the last 9 months).

      It’s going to be awful. Keep putting pressure on all elected to represent you. Surely our city leaders, perhaps eager to absolve themselves of responsibility for this state project, have some sway over WSDOT they can weild if pushed.

    2. I agree. Plus it isn’t like they are getting rid of all the bus lanes (if I understand the plans correctly). It sure looks to me like they are only getting rid of the bus lanes in the construction area. This means that the bus lanes can get you right to the merge point, which is where things finally start moving. Drivers will also adjust. I sometimes drive to Fremont, and I know I will adjust. I won’t take Aurora anymore. I don’t agree with WSDOT’s decision, but it may not be as terrible as people assume (or if it is terrible, it will only be terrible until people figure out what is going on).

      1. Right to the merge point, Where drivers will not allow the bus in, and not be punished for violating the law

      2. This is nothing. A couple years ago, westbound 520 lost all transit priority leading up to the bridge for a full two years of construction. Every 500 feet or so, there was another Metro, Sound Transit, or Microsoft Connector bus sitting in traffic, not going anywhere. And the 545 was crowded as ever.

        The transit priority was eventually restored, but not before virtually the entire construction project in Medina was complete.

  4. Seems to me like temporary rerouting a few buses off of SR 99 would be a good idea. At a minimum, moving buses that express downtown like the 5 and the 16 to the Fremont bridge seems like a viable alternative.

    The 16 is moving in march anyway, why not start the southern transition of the route early?

    1. I’m not sure if that would be faster. Drivers adjust. If Aurora is really slower than Fremont, then people will drive on Fremont. Within a short period of time, it balances out. Plus this really only looks bad for the first month. After the first month, buses essentially have a jump ahead lane (if I understand the graphics correctly). Speaking of which, while the animated gif is impressive, it would be nice if they were more clear about which bus lanes will be closed or not. It sure looks like after the first stage, buses will be able to drive right to the merge point. But what isn’t clear is how the bus lanes work initially. Are they completely gone on Aurora? That seems ridiculous. So where is the point at which drivers can use the lane? If it is similar (at the merge point). Then this won’t be bad at all. But if not, then the buses will suffer some slowdown, but for how long is the question.

      1. Does SDOT have the power to designate temporary bus only lanes on Westlake Ave/the Fremont Brige due to the Aurora issue? They have more control over those streets than they do over SR 99….

    2. When I asked Metro about this, they said that they looked at moving some or all of the routes to Westlake or Dexter… but decided against it.

      They pointed out that there are 5 bus stops each way in that part of Aurora. They think that it’s important to serve those stops since it’s not an easy walk to Aurora from Westlake or Dexter.

      https://twitter.com/kcmetrobus/status/685621198655483904

  5. Some important habits to develop for dealing with situations like this- which can happen unscheduled as well as scheduled:

    1. SDOT and its compatriots, and commanders, need to start thinking about transit as first priority rather than last, any time lanes get constricted. Of course, transit itself needs to be ready for the changes in advance.

    2. But more important, passengers should know personal alternative routes to cover likely blockages. No matter how restricted transit lanes are, and especially if barrier is only a paint stripe, any number of things can block all traffic for hours. With or without a fish truck.

    3. It’s a good idea to have a definite arrangement with employers or clients for notification, and also pre-planned work alternatives, including changed work hours, or working at home. Especially useful for unscheduled but hundred percent likely blizzards.

    Mark Dublin

    1. It isn’t clear whether SDOT has any power at all in this case. I asked the question above, but I fear I know the answer. WSDOT can consult with SDOT, but ultimately, it is WSDOT that decides which lanes to close and which ones not to.

  6. It is rather striking that WSDOT does not recommend that people ride the bus during the lane closures. They actually recommend that bus riders avoid peak travel times during the closure the same as they do single car vehicles.

    WSDOT is reacting to the construction, rather than planning in advance to mitigate the effects. It’s rather too late now, but it is easy to imagine a strategy where they prioritized buses and arranged for a couple pop-up Park n Ride lots north of the ship canal to funnel as much traffic as possible into those buses.

  7. Compare their philosophy to SDOT, who during a complete closure of Aurora (during the Ducks crash aftermath) set up new temporary bus lanes on an adjacent corridor.

    During peak, I believe that nearly half the people in the corridor are on transit, and they’re doing so by standing on crushloaded buses in 1/3 of the roadway. Even if bus passengers take up slightly less than half during peak, they deserve transit priority for human reasons, as the marginal discomfort of each delayed minute is much higher when standing on a crowded bus than sitting in a car in traffic.

    And if they want to suggest alternate trips or corridors, they should recognize the increased flexibility of SOVs to choose other routes and times, whereas it’s transit riders who depend on fixed-route systems and should have their routes and prioritiy retained. Rerouting their buses hurts transit access just as much as sitting in unprioritized traffic.

    1. It seems to me that this new closure is a good reason to repeat the emergency bus lane re-route. Is there some reason that SDOT cannot do this now?

  8. To WSDOT’s “credit”, they’re not recommending that people switch to transit. In fact, they’re *discouraging* people from riding transit during peak times.

    In the abstract, this is terrible advice. But given the complete lack of transit priority for this period, it’s at least consistent with their other decisions. :-/

  9. It’s too bad this couldn’t be delayed by a couple of months so that ULink was operating.

    1. How would that help? The UW stop is about 2.5 miles from Aurora Ave. It’d be a frustrating, slow ride on the 31/32/44 to get from Aurora over to Link.

      1. There would at least be more capacity over the ship canal than there is now.

        As it is now, traffic will back up on Aurora, then the Fremont Bridge, some drivers will switch to the Ballard Bridge to make that worse, and there will probably be a few that switch to the Montlake and University bridges, making those worse too.

      2. Glenn,

        Yes to all that. And not to mention the folks from North Seattle and Shoreline who drive Aurora because it’s more reliable than I-5. They’ll be lookin’ at the freeway map…..

  10. What I find most amazing about all this. Is preserving capacity.

    We know Seattle is never going to increase capacity all that much. Even a tunnlel to nowhere is not going to help a lot. They are just hanging onto what they have. If this is going to be the debacle I am sure it will be. Then we seriously need to look at how we going to survive in the future.

    Remember the fish episode?

  11. All of this to install the concrete pedestal for the sign for the new tunnel, which is how many years away from opening? Considering that the most important part (the actual tunnel digging) is what? at least a year behind schedule?

    Seriously, Link might be running to Northgate by the time they need that particular sign.

  12. private vehicles are able to switch to alternate routes, while transit must continue to serve people that live all along the route

    Word!

    Drivers can adapt. A little late now but when any city has major events that are advertised as Gridagedon people plan around it and it’s never as bad as people think it will be. That said a combination with some reroutes might be in order; again a little late to the party. How big of a hit would it be to most “transit only” lanes if they were HOV 3+. Other than the punish car owner crowd if it works then why fight it? Might buy a few transit votes. If it moves people more efficiently it helps save the shell fish. Biggest think though is that it helps establish the meme that carpools are 3+ during peak.

  13. “buses will be in the same lane as the rest of us” -KING5 news reporter tonight

    typical local news showing their windshield perspective

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