In 2009 the City of Seattle commissioned a study that called Third Avenue “uninviting, unattractive and generally a dreadful place to walk, shop or wait for a bus.” In 2014 Metro commissioned a design study on ways to fix the street. That led to the Third Avenue Transit Improvements Project, and will eventually result in a much-needed transit-only signal at Third and Denny.
Yet, after all these studies, few would consider the street to be substantially transformed.
Over the same timeframe, more buses have been added. In
2010 2011, Routes 15 and 18 (now RapidRide C/D), along with all the West Seattle routes, were moved from First to Third to accommodate Viaduct construction. Then in 2016 the Seattle TBD added funding for more service on all bus routes, including many on Third. Finally, earlier this year the bus tunnel closed and a whole bunch of buses moved upstairs.
There are advantages to this consolidation. Buses can be given priority right-of-way, off-board payment systems can be installed and transfers can be streamlined in much the same way that certain hub airports get bigger and bigger over time: more destinations lure more riders, which in turn justify more destinations.
But there are downsides as well: the street can become unpleasant, overcrowded, and choked with diesel fumes. And if Third is perceived as a bad place for business, merchants on other streets will fight against a busway on their street, leaving Third even more crowded.
According to the Downtown Seattle Association, the latest group to try and “fix” Third Avenue, the sheer number of buses and lack of sidewalk space creates an uninviting environment. Their recently-released vision plan for the street imagines wider sidewalks, a much-improved pedestrian experience, and a more efficient deployment of buses through the corridor.
The report calculates that Third carries an astonishing 290 buses per hour during the PM peak. Amazingly, New York’s Fifth Avenue carries twice as many riders per day but requires only 150 buses per hour in the PM peak. Third also carries the lion’s share of buses among Seattle’s downtown avenues.
(You can hear Jonathan Hopkins, at the time a DSA staffer, make a similar case on our podcast in 2017).
The DSA suspects this is a good time for a change. As Sound Transit extensions open to Lynnwood, Federal Way, and Redmond over the next five years, more and more commuters will arrive and depart underground. Metro told me they do forecast a slight decrease in bus volumes in 2021 with the opening of Northgate, and again in 2023-4 “primarily by regional transportation partner agencies CT, PT and ST, with the opening of East, North, and South Link extensions.” In theory, First Avenue will be transit-only through downtown and could have some capacity for buses to interline with the future Center City streetcar.
DSA suggests that the city and Metro reclaim and rebalance that space, spreading buses out across all five downtown avenues so as not to overwhelm any one street. Once buses are more spread out (or eliminated entirely via Link truncations), they argue, it would be possible to reduce the number of lanes on Third and widen the sidewalks, creating a world-class transit mall. The study looks to transit malls in Denver, Minneapolis, Portland, and Vancouver for inspiration.
The four concepts considered are:
- Compact transit way – four lanes become three, alternating each block between 1-2 lanes in each direction.
- Median transit way – single lane in each direction with bus stops in the median. This would enable the median to become a fare paid zone, speeding up boarding times, but would require new 5-door buses (like Madison BRT will have)
- Transit shuttle and hub – A 2-lane concept with one bus route along the transit mall, arriving every 90 seconds, with riders transferring in Pioneer Square or Belltown
- Transit couplet – spreads the buses with 2 northbound bus lanes on 3rd and 2 southbound bus lanes on 2nd.
All of these options assume that bus volumes can be reduced. A shuttle would require transfers at the north and south ends of downtown, turning 2-seat rides into 3 seats and requiring large bus layover facilities in Belltown and Pioneer Square (which those neighborhoods are likely to reject). 2-lanes also eliminates the current “skip-stop” pattern, where buses stop at every other one.
Metro’s Jeff Switzer said in an email that the agency has looked at the concepts, but staff have not done a full review “simply because more detail about the concepts is needed.” He added that they “look forward to engaging with DSA and others as these concepts are developed further.”
It’s an open question as to whether bus volumes can be reduced or rebalanced to other streets to the extent necessary to fully realize the DSA vision. Further, Which routes should stay on Third because of trolley wire or ease of transfers, and which might be good candidates for other streets?
For example, RapidRide C/D will be going strong into the 2030s, if not beyond. RapidRide E could still be carrying 10,000 passengers per day into the 2040s. Trolley routes are expensive to move and will still be useful long after light rail is fully built out. Long story short, there’s plenty of need for buses in downtown Seattle well into the future.
That said, most would agree that Third Avenue could use some love, and now is as good at time as any to think about what the future could be. In that respect, the DSA report is a good starting point and it will be interesting to see where SDOT and Metro take it. Perhaps this time will be different.