Together, Metro routes 3 and 4 form a critical bus corridor connecting the Central District, First Hill hospitals (including Harborview), downtown, Belltown, and Seattle Center. The segment between downtown and Cherry Hill is one of the highest-ridership parts of the Metro system, with standing-room-only buses running every 5 to 7 minutes during the day. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the less reliable segments, almost entirely because of traffic delays on the short part of James St that the routes use. That part of James includes a major interchange with I-5, and suffers from gridlock during most afternoon peak hours.
For years, Metro has studied moving routes 3 and 4 from James to much less congested Yesler Way, only between 3rd and 9th Avenues, to address the problem. (Our own Bruce Nourish suggested the move in 2011, and Metro staff were already on it then.) The move wasn’t practical, though, until SDOT completed its Yesler Bridge Rehabilitation Project, after which the bridge will accommodate trolleybus overhead. Now that SDOT’s project is nearing completion, Metro is formally proposing the move, and has provided a survey to complete.
Metro’s own analysis indicates that the move would save up to four minutes per trip during afternoon peak hours. Notably, this is average saving per trip, which masks some much longer delays (to which I, a semi-regular route 3 rider, can testify). Bruce’s chart below, based on historical Metro data, shows how much more consistent Yesler was in 2011—before recent increases in I-5 traffic. The very worst trip on Yesler was more than six minutes quicker on average than the worst trip on James, and several other trips on Yesler had a similar advantage. Today, the differences would even be greater, given higher volume on James.
Moving routes 3 and 4 to Yesler would be a huge benefit to Harborview, First Hill, and Central District afternoon commuters. It would also substantially improve transit service to Yesler Terrace, which is expected to add around 5,000 residents (including over 1,000 net new low-income residents) and several employers within the next few years, but has only a half-hourly bus to downtown. The move does have one downside, though. The stretch of James Street that would lose service includes several of the steepest arterial blocks in the city, and access to some destinations along James could get more complicated. Although only two stops would lose service, at 5th and 8th Avenues, each serves some major destinations. The stop at 5th serves core King County and Seattle government buildings, including Seattle City Hall, King County Administration, and King County Jail. The stop at 8th serves the Jefferson Terrace public housing complex, with about 350 residents, and Northwest Harvest’s Cherry Street Food Bank. We have already heard objections to the move on the basis that the walks from 3rd or 9th Avenues to these destinations are too steep for some users to manage.
These objections are overblown, and do not justify subjecting the great majority of riders to long and unpredictable afternoon delays. Most of the James Street destinations remain accessible. Between them, the King County Courthouse and King County Administration buildings allow a flat, fully accessible passage from 3rd to 5th Avenues, which in turn allows access to the other government buildings along 5th. There is also transit access to 5th and James along very frequent Sound Transit routes 512 and 545, with fully accessible connections in both the Westlake and International District areas. Jefferson Terrace has an elevated, accessible entrance along Jefferson Street that provides easy access to 9th Avenue bus stops, which will continue to be served. The only major destination of concern is the Northwest Harvest food bank. It would be worthwhile for Metro to work with Northwest Harvest to determine how many food bank customers are unable to walk from 9th Avenue bus stops, and find a solution for those users (for example, a routing change for Solid Ground’s free circulator on days when the food bank is open).
If you use routes 3 and 4, we encourage you to take Metro’s survey and help Metro implement this time- and hassle-saving change.