At an open house last night at the TOPS School in Eastlake, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) presented updated ‘concept designs’ for the Northgate-to-Downtown High Capacity Transit Project. Like Madison BRT before it, the concept design will be refined and completed over the summer, after the which the project will seek funding. As a RapidRide+ corridor under the Move Seattle levy, the public will surely have an expectation that they have already funded most of the work, though they are likely to be disappointed in that regard.
When we last left the project, SDOT was analyzing three levels of investment, RapidRide (basically nothing), Targeted Investments (“Rapid Ride+”), and full Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Mobility outcomes between the three options varied widely. The “Targeted Investments” alternative – clearly being telegraphed as the most likely – would yield 28% faster travel times, improving from 6.5mph to 8.3mph. The Full BRT option would yield nearly nearly light rail speeds, improving to a 21.5 mph corridor average.
As expected, SDOT has chosen to advance the Targeted Investment option, largely foregoing dedicated bus lanes in favor of a patchwork of Business Access and Transit (BAT) lanes, queue jumps, and small intersection improvements. In short, though the investments in frequency and electrification are fantastic, there is very little in the plan that could plausibly be called High Capacity Transit or Bus Rapid Transit, and the project will have far less in terms of transit priority than Madison BRT.
So what did SDOT show last night? Details after the jump…
Happily, SDOT seems committed to making this a trolleybus, and the expense of hanging wire from Campus Parkway to Northgate is a huge part of the project’s cost. Given financial constraints, the design prefers electrification to transit priority, which becomes fully apparent when you learn that…
The Bus Would Run 80-90% in Mixed Traffic
Leaving Westlake, an outbound bus would travel in mixed traffic on Virginia Street to Denny, where side-running BAT lanes would provide transit priority for 4 blocks to Republican Street. From Republican to Valley, the bus would be left to contend with the mass of general traffic across the Mercer Mess, with the double-turn lane for cars being retained instead of taking one of those for transit. (When asked why the bus lane did not continue across Mercer, staff replied “because that’s where traffic is worst,” not appreciating the purpose of transit priority in the first place.) The line would then run in mixed traffic through Eastlake to Allison Street underneath I-5, where a short transit lane would allow for a station stop and queue jump to help the bus get a headstart across the University Bridge. From Eastlake to Northgate the bus would run entirely in mixed traffic except for queue jump lanes at 50th and 65th.
Southbound, the story is slightly better, with mixed traffic from Northgate to South Lake Union with queue jumps at 65th and 45th. At Yale Avenue near Fred Hutch, the streetcar tracks would be moved (at a cost of $10m) to the west side of Fairview Avenue and buses would have a dedicated lane from Yale to Mercer. From Mercer to Republican the bus would be subject to general traffic turning right from Fairview to Mercer, after which BAT lanes would provide priority to Denny Way. Finally, the bus would run in mixed-traffic on Boren Avenue and the existing BAT lanes on Stewart Street.
The Line May Not Reach Northgate for a While
SDOT no longer thinks it can reach Northgate by 2020, and is looking at a phased approach with interim terminus options at UDistrict Station and/or Roosevelt Station.
Roosevelt Keeps Its Parking, Eastlake Loses It
One of the benefits of a couplet is the doubling of right-of-way. Roosevelt and 11th combine for 80′, while Eastlake only has 50′. Yet even with 4 lanes to work with, SDOT doesn’t propose bus priority in Roosevelt. Instead, the design proposes protected bike lanes, parking, and two lanes of shared auto and bus traffic. In the narrower Eastlake corridor, on-street parking mostly disappears in favor of protected bike lanes, one lane of traffic, and a turning lane.
Bike Lanes Win in Eastlake, the UDistrict, and Roosevelt
Faced with tradeoffs between transit priority and bicycles, especially on Eastlake, bicycle advocates out-organized transit advocates and won a huge victory with the latest concept design. Two-way Protected Bike Lanes (PBLs) would be built on the east side of Stewart from 5th to Minor and from Fred Hutch to the intersection of Fairview and Eastlake. From there, the PBL would split into a pair of one-way PBLs that run continuously from Eastlake to NE 75th Street along the Roosevelt/11th couplet. Additional PBLs would also be built on Roosevelt Way north of 75th to Northgate Way, and on NE 100th St connecting 5th Ave NE to the Northgate Link Station.
However, people on bikes coming into Downtown would be mostly diverted off of Fairview via Valley, 9th, Bell, and 2nd. Regrettably, the plan does not propose separating the current Valley Street bike lane, which is rendered useless on a daily basis by drivers using it as a holding lane (see photo below).
So what are we to make of this? We’ll have more in the coming days, but one immediate reaction is that this is again illustrative of the power of “BRT Creep” in practice. Mayor McGinn – to much contention – pushed for a streetcar through the corridor before the Council rebuffed him and diverted the study funds. The 2011 Transit Master Plan selected the corridor for High Capacity Transit distinct from “Priority Bus Corridors”, with coupled streetcars as the preferred mode. Bus Rapid Transit was the middle investment level, and “Enhanced Bus” the lowest study option. The city’s analysis at the time showed that 5-minute headways on 60′ ‘enhanced buses’ would still fail to meet peak demand. Yet here we are 5 years and a $900m levy later, and “Enhanced Bus” is what we are set to get. To be sure, the route will still be a nice bus and electrification is always welcome, but it will basically be an electrified and more frequent Route “70+67” and little more.
Second, the choice to prioritize bikes over transit is an interesting one. As a bike business owner, daily cyclist, and transit blogger I have irreconcilably conflicting feelings about this choice, but here are a few thoughts. Favoring bikes, I’d note that the current Cheshiahud Loop through Eastlake is awful and not a plausible alternative pathway at present. It is riddled with poor pavement, sends you through alleys and driveways, and is 100′ and a 12% grade below places on Eastlake people actually want to visit rather than pass through. In a city in which cars and buses can drive on nearly any street, places for bikes are rare and fragmented, and in a city committed to Vision Zero their construction is a moral imperative. And of course, marquee bike facilities will help keep bikes off Link, which will be increasingly important as ridership grows.
On the other hand, the number of transit riders stuck in mixed-traffic gridlock is likely an order of magnitude greater than those cycling through, and I have no doubts that if a public vote pitted the two against one another, that transit would prevail. Failing to give transit due priority, especially with the combined 8 lanes of Roosevelt/11th, shows that SOV flow is still priority #1 at the city. In Eastlake it’s far trickier, and I don’t necessarily fault the city for choosing bike safety over transit flow, especially when Eastlake itself is not nearly as congested as its access points, especially South Lake Union.
But the optics are poor, and the history of progressive degradation of the corridor’s plans is clear. Combined with Madison BRT’s similar challenges, it’s an inauspicious start to the Rapid Ride+ program.
If you have questions for staff or ideas of how you want this corridor to work better, there is another open house tonight:
Thursday, June 16
6 – 8 PM
UW Tower, Cafeteria North
4333 Brooklyn Avenue NE
Seattle, WA 98105