About two weeks ago, in the wake of her controversial decision to “pause” the Center City Connector streetcar project, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced the latest in the ever-evolving series of One Center City concepts. The unwelcome headline was a two- to three-year delay for the Fourth Avenue protected bike lane and other bike infrastructure. Mayor Durkan’s announcement was also paired with an interesting congestion pricing trial balloon. All of that may have distracted us briefly from taking a fine-tooth comb to the OCC materials, but it’s impossible to keep transit wonks away from poring over documents for very long. Seattle Subway gets credit for noticing a subtle change to the Third Avenue plans: “All Day Transit-Only Operation” on Third, one of the most exciting bullet points in the previous plan, became “extended transit priority hours” in the latest materials.
Metro’s Jeff Switzer told me by email that the wording change did not actually represent a change in planned policy. He wrote, explaining the previous “transit only” language: “The term ‘transit only’ is sometimes used to describe this type of operation. Non[-]transit vehicles are not allowed to travel the corridor, but may drive on certain blocks, adhering to a series of turn restrictions.” In other words, the current plan is to extend today’s peak-hour treatment to include midday on weekdays, without implementing any additional car restrictions. Jeff’s answer came as a bit of a surprise (okay, a crushing blow), given SDOT’s comments when the previous slides were issued. (
We’ve asked SDOT for comment as well, but have not yet received it. UPDATE: I spoke by phone with SDOT’s Andrew Glass Hastings this morning. He confirmed Jeff’s answers, but also shared that SDOT is studying a variety of strategies to speed transit on Third, beyond the OCC plan. We may have more to say about those later.)
It’s no surprise that we aren’t fans of the current approach. Describing the current situation as “transit only” doesn’t remotely reflect reality, as any rider of Third Avenue buses knows. Heavy car volume and turning cars frequently impede buses, particularly in the northern portion of downtown. Compliance by car drivers with the turn restrictions is low, probably because of a combination of driver confusion and willful flouting. And all of this is for the sake of a tiny percentage of users. Bus routes using Third Avenue carry well over 100,000 daily passengers, with Metro estimating that 47,500 of them board at Third Avenue stops. By contrast, when you subtract the 3,000 daily bus trips from overall vehicle traffic numbers, SDOT estimates that only 6,100 cars use the most congested portion of Third Avenue daily. Given the turn restrictions, many of those are using the street only to reach or exit nearby parking facilities.
It’s time for Mayor Durkan to intervene in this process. She can and should turn Third Avenue over entirely to buses, at least during the day. That decision would be good policy, and also good politics. Read why after the jump.
The Mayor badly needs to show the majority of central city commuters, who do not use private cars, that she is looking out for their interests. Both the Mayor and SDOT have made a series of decisions in recent weeks that, all taken together, have painted a brutally dismaying picture for people outside cars:
- The Center City Connector, and most importantly its dedicated north/south lanes on First Avenue, were thrown into limbo, with their funding endangered.
- The 4th Avenue bike lanes, together with major missing parts of the Pike/Pine bike lanes, were postponed ($).
- The planned rechannelization of much of 35th Ave SW in West Seattle was canceled, despite stellar safety and performance results from the first phase of the project.
- Planned safety improvements to Rainier Ave S—the city’s most dangerous street—were watered down over cars accessing I-90 ramps, again despite impressive results from changes in Columbia City.
- SDOT’s insistence on allowing cars to pass stopped buses on NE 65th St has given rise to successive designs with serious safety issues, despite a long series of
accidentscollisions in the corridor, one fatal.
- SDOT allowed Montlake residents to veto a bus lane on 24th Ave E in favor of an unneeded general traffic lane that will continue to delay buses approaching Montlake.
- A redesign of the terrifying northernmost portion of Fauntleroy Way was put on indefinite hold.
- SDOT ignored extensive feedback requesting pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly changes to its Lander Street overpass, and is proceeding on schedule with the flawed original design.
It’s hard to imagine a decision that would positively affect more people outside cars, at lower political cost, than making Third bus-only. Given bus ridership and private car numbers, red paint on Third would overwhelmingly benefit, not hurt, the users of Third. And almost all of the users who would benefit are Mayor Durkan’s constituents. Much of the OCC work has focused on corridors that primarily host regional service, but Third Avenue bus routes overwhelmingly serve Seattle and its residents. Furthermore, a true dedicated bus corridor on Third would be the best way to mitigate any loss of the CCC project’s dedicated lanes on First.
Combined with other improvements planned for Third—notably all-door boarding at all stops—a dedicated bus corridor with well-executed signal timing could significantly improve travel times. Center City Connector streetcars were expected to travel between Jackson and Pike in as little as six minutes, which is not far off the time taken by buses in the transit tunnel. If Third Avenue travel times could be in the same range, Third would become one of the nation’s most effective bus corridors. Given the wide variety of Seattle destinations they serve, making Third Avenue routes faster would enhance mobility both in the city and throughout the region. It would make a real difference to everyone who gets around without a car.
Mayor Durkan, take your opportunity to make that difference, and break 2018’s pattern of car-centric decisions in style. Make Third a dedicated bus street.