3rd Avenue, with many buses and a few cars
Photo by Zack Heistand.

On Friday, SDOT and Metro announced two rounds of transit improvements for 3rd Avenue, still the region’s busiest transit corridor.  They will coincide with the next two Metro service changes, and are as follows:

September 2018

  • Extend the hours of the current car restrictions along 3rd to 6 a.m.-7 p.m. seven days a week (with 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. exception for permitted commercial vehicles).
  • Ban left turns from 3rd Ave at all times.
  • Remove on-street parking from Prefontaine Pl at all times.

March 2019

  • Install ORCA readers and real-time arrival signs at all 3rd Ave stops, not only those served by RapidRide.
  • Move current southbound stop at James St one block north.

Metro will also be adding a new northbound bus stop between Columbia and Marion at a later date, and presumably shuffling routes between stops for greater efficiency.

We continue to think that painting 3rd completely red would be the best and clearest solution, and would be amply warranted by the volume of bus riders 3rd serves.  But these changes are welcome, and better in some respects than the rumor mill and previous statements by SDOT staff had led us to believe.

The 24/7 ban on left turns off 3rd is a particularly happy surprise.  Left-turning cars frequently block the southbound through lane at all hours, holding up through buses.  Banning left turns 24/7 will also cause TNC drivers’ navigation apps not to recommend those turns, while the apps appear to ignore peak-hour turn restrictions.

It also wasn’t clear until recently that SDOT would extend car restrictions to weekends, despite frequent car-caused traffic congestion on weekend afternoons.  The weekend restrictions should improve bus reliability, especially given Metro’s longtime tendency toward optimistic scheduling on weekends.

With cars allowed in some places and at some times, enforcement will continue to be a challenge, as it is today. Enforcement of existing restrictions by SPD and Metro Transit Police has been inconsistent, and typically absent when traffic crashes or special events create gridlock on surrounding streets—allowing the gridlock to spread to 3rd and paralyze bus service too.  SDOT and SPD should prioritize enforcement more than they have to date.  In particular, more, not less, enforcement should happen on days when car traffic elsewhere is heavier than usual, so buses can provide a resilient alternative for people trying to get home.

32 Replies to “SDOT Announces 3rd Avenue Improvements”

  1. I really hope SPD steps up enforcement of these rules. There should be traffic cops on bikes at every intersection during rush hour, it would probably pay for itself.

    1. Yep, fish in a barrel.

      A squad of SPD / MTP officers could stand at 3rd & University pretty much every afternoon and be busy writing box-blocking tickets.

      1. they actually sit at that exact spot and do that. i see folks pulled over almost daily.

    2. “SDOT and SPD should prioritize enforcement more than they have to date.”

      A good task for our new mayor.

    3. It should be pretty easy to issue tickets, even though cars are allowed there during rush hour. The street is basically a BAT lane — a car can use it, but they have to turn at the next intersection. The sign on University spells it out well: https://goo.gl/maps/vtcCKdp6D632. Since left turns are banned getting onto Third, that means that some streets should simply not have cars during the restricted time. That means between Union and University, for example, there should be no cars. Same with the area between Pike and Pine along with Seneca and Spring, Madison and Marion, Columbia and Cherry. The area between Stewart and Pike is the same way, from what I can tell (there is no sign banning right turns from the parking garage, but the arrow on the street points forward only — https://goo.gl/maps/zUdGVoTV3112).

      The point is that it is sometimes difficult for cops to see if someone is violating a BAT lane. You often have to know when the driver entered it, which can be hard to spot. But in this case, because of the various restrictions on access, you can simply ticket any car that is on that block at that time.

      1. “Install ORCA readers and real-time arrival signs at all 3rd Ave stops, not only those served by RapidRide.”

        Since new and existing ORCA readers will presumably work for all buses (not just RapidRide), I wonder if Metro will up its fare enforcement game. If not, 3rd Ave will be a spot for major fare evasion.

      2. I think the existing readers say ‘tap for RapidRide only’. So there may need to be some reconfiguring of what a tap means.

    4. Camera enforcement wouldn’t block the street, would catch pretty much every violator, would not let drivers off the hook based on the proclivities of the officer, and doesn’t fire a gun at anyone for DWB.

      Unfortunately, it requires a bill to escape the sausage grinder in Olympia.

  2. This all sounds excellent. In addition, maybe a few routes going south on 3rd could stop at Broad instead of having a huge clump of stops at 3rd and Cedar.

  3. Here’s the deal: give the police officer 10% of every ticket for trespass in a transit lane that he or she writes. People respond to incentives; it’s the conservative thing to do.

  4. These are definitely good changes. I especially like the ban on left turns. There is nothing worse than having a bus stuck behind other buses picking up passengers (or someone turning right) and being blocked by some idiot making a left turn. Left turns from a two way street in general are a bad idea — less safe and bad for traffic.

    According to the SDOT map (http://1y4yclbm79aqghpm1xoezrdw.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com//srv/htdocs/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Capture-10.jpg), the restricted area is Stewart to Yesler (technically Prefontaine). This leads to a couple questions:

    1) Why not extend it north? The logical ending is Denny. From a traffic perspective, that is a better end point. Cars just keep going on Denny, and never get on Third. Ending the restricted area at Stewart, on the other hand, encourages riders to drive south on Third, then take a right on Stewart (you can’t take a left there) and then take a left on Second. That is two turns in the middle of downtown (where there are lots of pedestrians). That can’t possibly be good from a traffic standpoint. The other direction makes a little more sense, but Third still has fewer options than Fourth. With Fourth, you can get anywhere (north towards Broad, east or west on Denny). With Third you can’t head west on Denny. Creating a restricted area from Denny to Yesler also makes it easy for people to understand. That is a reasonable definition of “downtown”. The more people think of Third as being just for buses “downtown” the more likely people are to simply avoid it.

    2) From what I can tell, there needs to be a lot more signs downtown. Maybe Google Maps is out of date, but it appears that some of the streets downtown lack the “Do Not Enter” signs. Third and Pine, for example (https://goo.gl/maps/YohaPDBdrqs). It looks OK to me to use that street. I suppose you weren’t supposed to be on there on the first place, but even the turn from Pike says nothing about the restriction (https://goo.gl/maps/XAvFVZkh97P2). That just leads drivers to use the street, go a block, wonder what the heck is up with the “Do Not Enter” sign and then take a right. University seems to have the right idea: https://goo.gl/maps/aGJWWVe4BNK2, but that seems to be the exception. Hopefully this project will involve adding a lot more signs.

      1. Agreed. Sixth and Stewart – horrible any afternoon, and streets blocked for at least parts most light cycles. Same with Second and Marion. I’ve seen it take the 12 four light cycles to cross Second headed uphill (part of that is the right turn allowed to an already packed Second, but that also blocks the intersection when cars try to fit into a space that isn’t there. Pretty sure almost all the insane delays on the 11 take place when trying to loop at the west end of the route between Pine/Pike.

        Pedestrians, transit, bikes – in that order – should be the City’s mantra. Where cars interfere with that, their routes need to be regulated, and where the regulations are not followed, they need to be enforced…and I say that as someone who does not hate my car, and who of necessity must drive downtown occasionally.

      2. “Pedestrians, transit, bikes – in that order – should be the City’s mantra”

        That’s what Paris and other cities do. Seattle isn’t quite there yet.

      3. Indeed. But it’s a worthy goal nonetheless, and should be enshrined into planning and funding mechanisms.

  5. To everyday commuters who won’t see light rail for at least another 12 years, the idea of buses moving faster downtown is sort of a “kitchen table” thing that helps make their lives a bit easier. To the transit blog horde, it is a move to take a bit of the sting (emphasis on “bit”) off of the CCC shelving.

  6. “Install ORCA readers and real-time arrival signs at all 3rd Ave stops, not only those served by RapidRide.”

    Since new and existing ORCA readers will presumably work for all buses (not just RapidRide), I wonder if Metro will up its fare enforcement game. If not, 3rd Ave will be a spot for major fare evasion.

    1. I think the existing readers say ‘tap for RapidRide only’. So there may need to be some reconfiguring of what a tap means.

    2. Metro needs to recognize the these facilities need significant maintenance to continue working.

      You don’t just install ORCA readers and TV screens on 3rd Av once, you install them and then replace them monthly/annually as needed.

      3rd & Pike, probably the RapidRide D/E stop with the highest boardings, has lacked working ORCA readers for most of its life, it seems. And only a few of the transit arrival screen still work.

      And no, “we called the supplier and made a warranty request 9 months ago, to be repaired soon” isn’t a satisfactory maintenance plan,

    3. SDOT anso needs to recognize that the real-time signs need monitoring. The two at Campus Parkway have been on the blink for over a year. The eastbound one is stuck at 10:30pm some day way in the past. The westbound one has an overheating error dialog although you can still sort of make out the rightmost digit behind it and the older entries below it. I wrote to Metro via their web form to alert them, and they said they’re not their monitors they’re SDOT’s and recommended I complain to SDOT. I haven’t taken the time to figure out where SDOT’s complaint form is. But the point is, I shouldn’t have to. They should be monitoring the signs themselves.

      1. That’s a frustrating response for Metro to make. Even if the monitors belong to SDOT, Metro assuredly has a liaison or other method of interagency communication with SDOT and could easily pass that information along as a matter of course. In fact, when a normal person’s assumption is that “it’s a transit-related issue so I should contact the transit agency,” it behooves Metro to make sure it’s fixed no matter who ends up actually responsible for doing so. If there is no easy way to communicate this between the two, there damn sure needs to be. (Believe me, this is definitely not limited to government, but they are responsible to us.)

        Metro’s response should have been “Thank you for bringing this to our attention, Mr. Orr. We’ll be contacting SDOT immediately to follow up on this. If you would also like to contact them directly, they can be reached at _______. Metro and the City of Seattle appreciate your using transit!”

        I often wonder if there is anyone actually thinking about how the user/customer actually uses the system and interfaces with transfers, schedule information, fare differences, and the like. I travel a lot and take transit everywhere, so my mantra for any system, including ours, is “can a tourist figure this out relatively easily?” If they can’t – within reason – then the system needs improvement. Perhaps there should be an ombudsperson of sorts tasked with doing this. Think as a visitor, not a local who knows that One Bus Away isn’t always accurate or that you can’t get a day pass unless it’s just for Link, and the system will improve.

  7. When visiting downtown Seattle the first time, I found the entire concept of cars on 3rd really strange after having grown up with Portland’s transit mall. 1976 (when it was built) predated the use of red paint in transit lanes, but they made it work.

    Yes, the 2009 rebuild granted more auto access, but it is still very limited.

  8. Post very large signs with flashing rail-signals “Lunar White”, meaning “Obey or Die”, saying that Third is closed to all car traffic during working hours. Law doesn’t say you can’t use skulls and crossbones, but think red lights are reserved for fires and crashes.

    Station maybe one police car at each end of the forbidden zone to answer questions with a simple “Read the Signs.” After a week, let the police go fight crime, and the courts, Paid-Up Fare Evasion. Nobody’s going in there at gunpoint if they don’t have a run-card.

    Best thing about it all: No need for pavement to run red past your sidewalk cafe. They don’t even do that in France anymore! Next election here, though…well, at least that grape shot will leave Third for transit!


  9. A big glaring omission from all this is how they will improve signage. It is radically insufficient at the moment to prevent cars from coasting all the way down Third. Many drivers are totally oblivious to the small overhead “do not enter” signs every 2 blocks.

    1. This is also true for the bus lane on Pike between 3rd and 4th. By the time that drivers see the sign, they’ve already been traveling in the bus lane for most of the block. It needs to be more obvious.

  10. I like this!

    SDOT has a great transit resource in Third Avenue — and actively managing that for a transit rider’s benefit is what’s needed in 2018-19. Given the impending traffic shifts from the AVW closure and the removal of buses from the DSTT, it’s the right and urgent thing to do.

    Transi advocates can become enamored with big ticket additions to improve things. It’s great that attention to the way something existing operates is being touted here — rather than let existing problems remain while we put our energy into expensive, more utopian, more long-term things.

    1. “Big Ticket” problem is my subject for the day, Al S. In a little different connection, though I agree with yours too. Spending my whole voting life with my country’s core political ideas mostly from the Far Right, I really have had it with “Government By Punishment.”

      This morning’s first approach to reserving a transit mall were a litany of plans for “Tickets.” Which everybody commenting also agrees don’t work. What will work really is both simple and economical. Everything East-west between Yesler and Virginia is an ungated signal-preempted grade crossing. Third Avenue is the new recently-permitted Mother-in-Law attic for the DSTT.

      Doubt Mall-ends need mechanical gates. But I think there’s a railroad signal light same color as what eye-doctors use for the Do Not Enter signs. Too bad we sold those tractors specifically designed to clear the DSTT. Same paint-scheme as Breda’s at first. But one really huge tow truck at each gate with drivers already in their “Flame Suit” is worth all the RCW’s under every TVM on LINK.

      Couple worries taken care of. Federal mandate for coal (the dirty kind- bituminous instead of anthracite) and nuclear takes care of energy costs. And ’til Utopia stops being sad, weak, and dishonest, no danger for this project.


  11. I would have like to see this ban extend to Bell street or to the end of 3rd street.

    This really shows how motorists need every single street yet other transportations only need a few streets and don’t even get that.

    1 street should not even be a blink of the eye.

  12. Scott Stidell: “Think as a visitor, not a local who knows that One Bus Away isn’t always accurate”

    Especially at 3rd & Pine northbound where buses consistently leave 2 minutes before the display says they will. Pity the poor visitor who encounters the display and sees that their bus is coming “NOW” and hopes they haven’t missed it, when in reality it’s 100% certain that they’ve just missed it. It’s actually consistent enough day after day that I can assume that 10 minutes means 8 minutes and almost always be right.

    Today was even more ironic, several buses came 3 minutes earlier instead of 2. One even said “4 minute delay”. Are we to believe that it made up four minutes in the last ten blocks?

    Part of the problem is that it only pools once a minute, so it can say “NOW” when the bus has left, and it may take another cycle before it realizes it has come. But this seems to be an even bigger problem: it doesn’t even register that the bus has been here. Or if it does, the information takes several minutes to get through.

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