“First and Yesler, Pioneer Square. James Street, Cherry Street, Pioneer Square Station, courthouse, Downtown Emergency Service Center.”
As my words rolled through the microphone and the rest of the slowing bus, competing as always with engine noise, I was already focused on the people waiting at the bus zone in question. On this average May afternoon, I saw about thirty of them. Half were tourists, waiting in a tentative pack close to the bus stop sign. Sprawled on nearby benches were several regulars headed up to Bell, who might or might not have interesting beverages in their black plastic bags. Standing farther back in the zone were a few early-departing commuters, focused intently on my signage, thankful to read “18 North Beach Via Ballard” at exactly the scheduled time. I threw open both doors, and they all clambered up the stairs. As usual, a couple tried intently to put bills into the farebox despite my hand in the way and the big green “Ride Free Area” sign. As I closed the doors, the last person through the front leaned over and asked “This bus goes to Pike’s Market, right?” Unable to resist a gentle correction, I said “Yes ma’am. For Pike Place Market, get off at Stewart Street.”
Pulling away just in time to make the green light at Cherry, I had about sixty people on board, which meant a few were in the aisle. More passengers got on at Marion, and more still at University. The big D60 coach started to feel a bit crowded as it climbed the steady grade of First, my right foot summoning equal parts motion and loudness. I knew the crowding would be brief.
“Stewart Street. Pine Street. Pike Place Market. Westlake. Westlake Station. Retail core.”
While making the announcement, I arrived at the zone, a bit less than a minute ahead of schedule. But I wasn’t worried about the technical violation of Metro rules. The departing stampede of both tourists and locals would use that minute and more, so I was in no danger of leaving early. Although the shelter was crowded with commuters waiting to get on, there would be plenty of seats for them once the “Pike’s Market” group had left. As usual, those few First Avenue blocks would be the busiest part of my entire trip, even though it covered the length of the city from Arbor Heights to Loyal Heights.
Until 2011, routes 15, 18, 21, 22, and 56 together repeated this scene every ten to fifteen minutes, all day long. Frequent transit had run along First Avenue for decades, and the service directly connecting Pioneer Square with Pike Place Market was well-used by locals and tourists alike. The buses worked well most of the time, but there were specific reliability problems. Service got very slow at the peak of afternoon rush hour, especially southbound. It failed entirely whenever there was a Mariners or Seahawks game, and during nightlife hours in Pioneer Square. On a Friday night with a Mariners game, it was perfectly normal for a southbound trip to take one hour between Seneca and Jackson, and for local service within West Seattle to break down entirely as a result.
Seeking to improve reliability, Metro consolidated all city routes onto Third Avenue in February 2011. Since then, First has had very little transit. Bus service “to Pioneer Square” means a few places peripheral to Pioneer Square, ranging from the challenging block of Third between Yesler and James (and the Link stop under it), to various windswept, poorly marked layover spaces near Second and Main, to stops that are actually in the International District. For tourists exploring the historic center of Pioneer Square on First, transit is often isolated, hard to find, and intimidating to reach. Meanwhile, to “go to Pike’s Market,” riders actually must go to Westlake, and then walk through two to three of the city’s busiest and most chaotic blocks, themselves not always safe after dark. Another major destination along First, Colman Dock, is separated from most transit service by nearly 100 feet of very steep elevation. This is not how transit should serve Seattle’s best-known and most popular destinations. While transit cannot provide front-door service everywhere, it needs to serve major regional destinations in a convenient way, or people will reach them using private or rideshare cars instead.
And that is exactly what the Center City Connector would do—without the major reliability issues that plagued the bus service I drove. With its dedicated lanes downtown and in South Lake Union, the CCC would provide frequent and mostly reliable front-door service to Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square from much of central Seattle, and give users coming from other places an easy, legible connection to those destinations. It would seamlessly serve all the passengers who used to stand at First and Yesler, together with a new group headed to the International District, Westlake, and South Lake Union.
Current bus service doesn’t do that, which is why commentary that the CCC is “duplicative” or would hurt current service is wrong and misses the point, and also why the CCC’s ridership estimates are so high. No bus service could accomplish it at all hours without the same dedicated lanes along First that are planned for the CCC. And those lanes are in the plan only because the CCC is a streetcar. Seattle has not once installed a dedicated bus lane the length of the CCC’s First Avenue segment without a major compromise: those few parking spots, or the cars allowed in at one intersection—of course, inevitably in the most delay-prone spot. Rail bias may irritate transit wonks, but it’s clearly responsible for the CCC’s dedicated lanes, and therefore for the CCC’s value and likelihood of success.
If the Mayor really wants “a more vibrant downtown with fewer cars, more transit, and less pollution,” it’s hard to imagine a better way to get there than to provide safe, convenient, and reliable access to downtown’s major attractions. And that’s what the CCC would bring—or, for the First Avenue segment, bring back. The Mayor should commit to the CCC and allow work on it to resume.