Connecting Ballard-UW Light Rail with North Link

In a previous post about Ballard to UW light rail, I wrote a section called “Mixing Lines”. After reading that section again, I realized it is misleading. New information has also been revealed, which has lead me to write this piece, which can replace that section:

Connecting with North Link

There are several ways that the Ballard-UW line could connect with North Link. One of the easiest would be to interline before the U-District station. The only drawback to that approach is that it could interfere with the frequency of North Link, where frequency will peak at four minutes (at least initially).

It would also be fairly simple to require a transfer. Similar systems exist throughout the world, and ask people to spend only a few seconds getting from one platform to the next. We could do the same. The Ballard-UW line could easily be timed to minimize the time spent waiting for a transfer. This would be most valuable later in the day, when frequency on North Link is reduced.

An ideal, but more expensive solution would be to build a spur junction, which provides the most flexibility. The Ballard-UW line would not interfere with North Link during peak hours, but mix the rest of the day. This means that when North Link is running at six minute frequency (or more) a train coming from Ballard would just keep going to downtown. This would enable greater frequency in our core (UW to downtown) while removing the need for a transfer for part of the day. Three minute frequency is well within the headway limits of our system. Building such a junction gives Sound Transit the most flexibility when it comes to determining which trains go where (and how often). I would prefer this option, but it is the most involved and the most expensive.

North Link Capacity

There is the remote possibility that things could get crowded on North Link. Given the latest information from Sound Transit, it is extremely unlikely that we would reach capacity. But if we wanted to reduce the number of people traveling from the UW to downtown via UW Link, we could always build something like the WSTT. I think the WSTT adds value to the entire network so I don’t want to imply that fears about crowding justify its construction. But the WSTT, which compliments this quite well, is just one of the many ways that we can deal with an overcrowding scenario that is unlikely.

Pinehurst Bus Suggestions for Alternative One

Metro recently announced a couple of proposals for improving the bus routes in various parts of the city, once light rail serves Husky Stadium. The issue has been covered in a series of articles, including this one, covering the north end. Amongst the more controversial changes was one that would effect the Pinehurst area of Seattle.

Pinehurst is a somewhat obscure area between Lake City and Northgate. It doesn’t have a huge number of people, but has a fair number of apartments and is only a little less densely populated than Northgate (which you can see by zooming in on this census map). One of the nicer things about the area is that there are fairly regular buses from there to the U-District. Specifically, the 73 and 373 both connect Pinehurst with the UW.

This would change under alternative one. Service would be consolidated to a new route, the 67, which serves Roosevelt, then loops around to the Northgate Transit Center. While I see the need to serve Northgate from the south, I think there are several flaws with this suggestion:

  1. Except for the 373 (which runs infrequently and only during peak hours) bus riders in the area will no longer have direct service to the U-District.
  2. The transfer required to get from the 347/348 will be awkward.
  3. Metro will spend service hours sending a bus in a somewhat convoluted and congested route to Northgate.
  4. Riders trying to get to Northgate from the south will endure this somewhat convoluted route.

Most of these points deserve a little explanation. First of all, to get to the UW, a rider coming from Pinehurst or anywhere in the service area of the 347/348 would change buses at Roosevelt and Northgate Way. This is awkward mainly because the buses will be turning. For example, if you are headed north, you would stay on the 67 until it makes the left turn towards Northgate. Then you have to cross Roosevelt, to get to the bus stop (on Roosevelt heading north, north of Northgate Way). If the other bus (coming from Northgate) arrives before the light changes, you will miss it. First the bus will turn left, then you will be able to cross the street and get to the bus. Unless the bus driver is patient, and willing to delay everyone on the bus, you will have a fifteen minute wait for the next bus. At best you have to wait almost two complete light cycles to make this transfer.* At worst you miss the bus. This is a degradation not only for Pinehurst riders (who never had to make the transfer) but those who used to make a transfer from the 347 or 348 to the 73. Previously, those routes shared service on 15th Avenue NE, which meant that a rider simply had to get off the bus and get on a different bus at any of the bus stops. That will no longer be available.

Second, based on my calculations, the 67 route that loops around on Roosevelt is roughly 5.5 miles, versus a route that goes more directly, which is 4.4 miles. My guess is that the cost in time is even bigger, as the route will spend a significant amount of time making turns in heavy traffic. This means that service hours are being spent taking a less direct route, which not only effects those who will be delayed in connecting to Northgate, but the system in general.

There have been numerous suggestions and ideas for improving the situation. I suggest three here, to perhaps make it a bit easier for people to reference them if they want to contact Metro about these changes. I am calling the new bus route that replaces much of the old 73 the 63, to avoid confusion. Hopefully this will be clear by looking at the maps.

Suggestion One:

This map shows the route. As you can see, both buses would share service from the UW to the Roosevelt neighborhood. This is by far the most popular section, so sharing service would provide greater frequency for this important corridor. As with all of the suggestions I make, riders headed to Northgate will have a faster, more direct ride. This direct ride will save a significant amount of service hours, which means that, if my calculations are correct**, you could have the following:

New 67 (red on the map) — Every 12 minutes
New 63 (blue on the map) — Every 30 minutes

This is a very slight reduction in service for the 67 (10 minutes to 12 minutes) but a more direct route.

Suggestion two:

This is the same map, but with different scheduling. Essentially, the buses will simply trade-off, the way that the 347/348 trade-off. So, you have:

New 67 (red on the map) — Every 20 minutes
New 63 (blue on the map) — Every 20 minutes

This serves the core of the route (from the UW to the Roosevelt neighborhood) every ten minutes. Since both routes are likely to be shorter, this saves service hours over the routes designed by Metro in their Alternative One, which can then be used to bolster frequency anywhere in the system or makes these routes more reliable.

Suggestion Three:

This route is more like what currently exists. The biggest advantage to this routing is that the new 63 is faster. It also has additional coverage, because it goes on 15th, not Roosevelt. Since the split occurs earlier than the other suggestions, it don’t think it makes sense to try and give each run equal time. The timing on this is identical to suggestion one:

New 67 (red on the map) — Every 12 minutes
New 63 (blue on the map) — Every 30 minutes

My Pick

I prefer suggestion two. I think there will be enough ridership to justify splitting the run, especially as Link is added to the UW. That is greater frequency (for both sections) than exists now, while still maintaining excellent frequency on the most popular section (UW to Roosevelt). It also provides for a very nice connection between Pinehurst and Maple Leaf.

In general I like the changes proposed with alternative one. I think it represents a better overall network. With any one of these changes I think it would be even better.

Continue reading “Pinehurst Bus Suggestions for Alternative One”

North Seattle Bus Routes After Lynnwood Link

I thought it might be interesting to see what bus routes in the north end would look like, if a station was added at NE 130th. So, I decided to sketch out a proposal.

Map Notes

I used Google Maps to create a route map for parts of the north end. This was a bit of a challenge. There are several advantages of using Google Maps (you can zoom in and out easily, hide various features, choose between different background maps, etc.) but this did require me to manually draw the bus routes. Since I have trouble coloring between the lines, I took a few short cuts. First off, I ignored one-way streets. So, for example, a bus route that follows Roosevelt is drawn only on Roosevelt, even though the bus will have to go on 12th heading north.

I based my routes off of the maps that David Lawson designed. I don’t think I would have attempted this, if not for his excellent work. If I list a route as being the same as one that he designed, and there is a difference, the difference is accidental. I got lazy, and left many bus routes off. I focused on the north end routes,  so routes that didn’t go north of the new 71 are left out. The only bus routes that do go north of the new 71 that I didn’t draw are the Rapid Ride D, the 15 and the 28. I would use David’s maps as a guide to see how this fits into the bigger picture.

There are three layers to the map that can be shown or hidden independently. The one titled “Bus Routes” is essential. You may find “Labels” helpful, depending on the zoom level. I find it helpful to show the light rail stops (I only list the ones north of the canal and south of Snohomish County). If anyone has any tips for displaying the information better, or know of tools that they think might be easier to use, please mention it in the comments.

Bus Route Notes

I think you will find a heavy dependence on Link. Almost every bus in the area goes close to a station. Even with the heavy dependence on Link, and the occasional detour, it still provides a much needed grid to the north end. There are individual buses going directly east and west on 125th/130th and 145th. On Northgate, the bus makes a bit of detour, as do the buses on 155th and 175th.

I didn’t attempt to estimate frequency levels, but with the exception of the 71 and the new 41, I think fifteen minutes for just about every line is reasonable. David has that for most of the north end as well. Some of these will likely have twenty or thirty minute frequency, but very few. The new 41 (as I am calling it) will hopefully be at least as frequent as the new 71 (ten minutes).

As should be obvious, the new 41 is a key bus route in this system. I feel it is very important to have fast, frequent service from Lake City Way to Greenwood Avenue along 125th/130th, but by no means is this the only way to achieve this. Sound Transit and Metro run lots of buses along highway 522. Much of that is on bus lanes, which make it a prime candidate for BRT. If BRT could be built along here, and the buses deliver fast, reliable and frequent service, then the 522 (or something similar) could replace the 41. But I drew the 41 assuming that wouldn’t be the case, and that Sound Transit’s 522, for example, would end before Bitter Lake.

So, with all that in mind, here are the bus routes:

Bus Routes

5, 16, 65, 71, 88 — The same routes that David Lawson designed.

40 — This is the same route as David Lawson designed it, but with a small change. I extended it to 145th, instead of the old turnaround for the 41 (more about that below).

41 — This is the key bus route in the area, and why I started this project. Not only does it connect Lake City and Bitter Lake with Link better than the alternatives, but it connects the east and west side of north Seattle extremely well. 125th/130th is simply the best way to cross the freeway, between 85th and 145th. It is straight, fast, goes right by a station and is not as congested as alternatives. The fast connections enabled by this bus are substantial, connecting neighborhoods via buses that travel fast and (sometimes) frequent corridors such as Greenwood, Aurora, Ravenna Avenue NE (not to be confused with Ravenna Boulevard), 35th NE and Sand Point Way. For example, the following connections are fastest using this bus:

  • Lake City to 105th and Aurora
  • Jackson Park to 115th and Greenwood
  • Lake City to Woodland Park Zoo
  • Shoreline to Wedgewood
  • Mountlake Terrace to Matthews Beach
  • Lynnwood to 95th and Aurora

If RapidRide improves, this might even be the best way to get to the north end of Fremont (45th and Aurora) from Snohomish County and Lake City. This is because the new 41 could provide the best connection from Link to Aurora. North of there (145th) means more time spent on Aurora (and less on Link). South of there means time spent backtracking or dealing with bad traffic. Providing the first good connection between the east and west side of Seattle north of 85th means that it will provide the type of transit network that this city has never had. Many of these trips will obviously be in high demand (Lake City or Bitter Lake to the UW or downtown) while others might seem rare (Lynnwood to 95th and Aurora). But these are the types of trips that force people into their cars. Or, to put it another way, service like this can get people out of their cars.

Deciding where to end this new 41 on Lake City Way is not easy. I decided to extend it past the old 41. I have trouble leaving out the very densely populated area between there and 145th.. Folks there could walk (of course) but the logical end of this run is 145th (after which, the population decreases rapidly). Turning around is problematic, but I figured one left turn (at 145th) and a series of right turns would be fairly easy. If this doesn’t work, then this (along with the 40) could end where the old 41 ends.

67 — This is very similar to the 67 that David Lawson designed. It travels up University Way and 15th (instead of Roosevelt) before cutting over to 5th. The interplay between the 67 and 73 is interesting, and can be done any number of ways. In this case they compliment each other in coverage, and only overlap south of 45th. Even that could be eliminated, by making one of them stop there (or at Roosevelt, although that would lose some coverage).

69 — This is similar to the 69 David Lawson designed. South of NE 125th (the Lake City neighborhood) it is exactly the same. But this heads west at NE 145, then north up to Aurora Village via Meridian.

73 — This is a new 73 that follows Roosevelt for much of its route. With the old 41 route gone, there will no longer be service on 5th Ave NE, north of Northgate Way. This will follow Roosevelt, and thus replace it. There will be just as much coverage, and a shorter walk for the majority of riders (since there are more apartments on Roosevelt).

75 — This is the new 75, which follows the old 75 route, south of 125th NE (the Lake City neighborhood). North of there it makes its way over to 130th, then heads over to Shoreline College.

78 — This is very similar to the 78 David Lawson designed. The only difference is that it connects with the station at 145th.

81 — This is similar to the 81 that David Lawson designed. The only difference is that it makes a detour to the Mountlake Terrace Transit Center. I’m not thrilled with the way it does this, but I think it is important that a bus like this directly connect with Link (one way or another).

87 — This is similar to the 87 that David Lawson designed. North of 145, it is the same. At 145th, it crosses the freeway, and serves Meridian.

89 — This serves Kenmore, the 522 corridor, and 145th. This creates a one stop connection from Greenwood Avenue to Lake City Way (including Link) to compliment the 41, which provides the same on 125th.

Doubling Up

There are several areas where bus routes merge. It may be difficult to see from the map. So here is a list of some of the more important ones:

Northgate Transit Center to Northgate Way and Roosevelt — 40 and 88.

Lake City Way, between 125th and 145th — 40, 41 and 69

NE 125th and Lake City Way to Meridian and 130th — 41 and 75

NE 145th, between 30th Ave. NE and Meridian — 69, 78, 89

Conclusion

There are a lot of different ways these routes can be designed. By no means do I think I have the best solution. I’ve done some hand waving as far as where to send buses on highway 522, but I am convinced that fast, frequent service between Lake City Way and Bitter Lake is essential and possible, while still providing excellent service for 145th.

Please Write the City Council about the Monorail

The Seattle Monorail is an important and underutilized transportation system. It connects downtown with Uptown. Specifically, it connects Westlake Center (right next to the most popular Link light rail station) with a stop inside the Seattle Center. While the Seattle Center is a popular destination in its own right, the station is only a few blocks from a very populous and very popular neighborhood. It travels this distance in two minutes. Since it travels above traffic and intersections, this is must faster than any other form of public transportation along this route, and much faster than a car in typical traffic.

The monorail is owned by the city, but for the last ten years has been operated by a private contractor, Seattle Monorail Services (SMS). The contract is up for renewal, and the city is poised to go with SMS again. I have no problem with SMS, and assume they do a fine job. However, there are two big flaws with the way they are operating right now, and I don’t believe we should renew the contract until those flaws are corrected.

The first problem is lack of ORCA card support. Monorail fares are cash only. The fare itself is reasonable, and in line with other transit systems (Metro bus, Sound Transit train, etc.). But the lack of ORCA support severely reduces the number of people who use the system. Monthly pass users receive no discount; full fare is charged for transfers; and even those who want to take the monorail and only the monorail are inconvenienced. Given the lack of ORCA support, my guess is the vast majority of riders are tourists (or their companions) out for a ride, as opposed to people simply trying to get from one very popular spot to another. Riders who avoid the monorail for this reason are likely to take the bus, and put even more pressure on a crowded bus system.

The second problem is frequency. The monorail runs every ten minutes. This is not terrible, but there is no reason why it can’t do better. Given the first problem, I’m not surprised that it runs every ten minutes. It is viewed like an amusement ride, not a serious form of transportation. Delays for an amusement ride are not costly. If you really want to ride the monorail, then you’ll wait (just as someone will wait to get up the Space Needle). But from a transportation standpoint, it is detrimental. Typically, the monorail is still faster (and in many cases more frequent) than taking a bus, but the advantage is reduced because of the ten minute frequency. We can do better. Three minute frequency is possible, but would probably require better (and possibly more expensive) crowd management. Five minute frequency, on the other hand, should be simple and easy.

The next step in the renewal process occurs Tuesday, December 2, 2014. The Seattle City Council Parks, Seattle Center, Libraries and Gender Pay Equity Committee meets to discuss and vote on several topics. But the most relevant topic is the renewal of the SMS contract, or item 4 on the agenda. The contract is for ten years, and is summarized by this memo. I am asking Seattle residents to write the council and ask that they delay renewing the contract until these issues are addressed.

The long term goal is fairly simple, and has two parts. The first is that the monorail accept ORCA cards, the same way that other transportation agencies do. Compensation for the agency should work the same way as it does with the other agencies. It is quite likely that this will increase the money that SMS earns. Many of the current users are tourists that don’t have ORCA cards, while ORCA users shun the monorail. The second goal is that frequency on the monorail be increased from ten minutes to five minutes.

It is too late in the process to add an amendment to the operating agreement. That is why I will ask the council members on the committee to simply extend the current contract for a year, while details of the new contract are addressed. I don’t think the city should enter into a ten year agreement with SMS without ORCA support. There may be technical reasons why five minute frequency can’t occur, but at a minimum, I think the issue should be discussed. I see no technical reason, or any reason at all, why ORCA should not be accepted on the monorail.

Ten years is a long time, and a lot can happen (and will happen) in those ten years. Link will reach the U-District, Northgate and Bellevue. With the appropriate improvements, the fastest way from various parts of the city to the Seattle Center (or Uptown) will be on the monorail. During the next several years, we will also be considering improvements to light rail, which include service to Ballard via Uptown. The monorail and a light rail line would compliment each other quite well. It makes sense for the new light rail line to serve the neighborhood directly, and integrate well with buses, while the monorail serves the Seattle Center. It is important, then, that we better use this public asset, and to do so we need to work out a new contract with SMS.

There are three members on the committee, and one alternate:

Jean Godden, Chair (jean.godden@seattle.gov)
Bruce A. Harrell, Vice-Chair (bruce.harrell@seattle.gov)
Tom Rasmussen, Member (tom.rasmussen@seattle.gov)
Kshama Sawant, Alternate (kshama.sawant@seattle.gov)

I am going to write all four. Given the short notice, I will email the council members. I ask that you do the same. As always, please be courteous when writing your representative. I wish I knew about the situation sooner, as I hate to suddenly throw this issue at them. But transportation in this city is very important, and we need to make sure we take advantage of all of our assets, and this includes the monorail.

Let’s Build Another Transit Tunnel

History

The Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel has improved transit in Seattle more than any other project. Long before it served trains, it served buses (and still does). Thousands of buses have gone through it, saving passengers thousands of hours in travel time. Now it is an essential part of light rail — by far the most important part. It wasn’t cheap to build, but compared to the rest of the system (such as the Beacon Hill tunnel, the surface rail on Rainier Valley or the elevated rail to the airport) it is a tremendous value.

Future

At a point in the not too distant future, the tunnel formerly known as a “bus tunnel” will only serve light rail. This is a good thing, but it means that some buses, especially those from the south, will be forced to the surface through downtown or rerouted elsewhere. At the same time, we are in the midst of planning for high speed transit from Ballard to downtown and West Seattle to downtown. We should build a new tunnel to address all of these issues.

Proposal

I propose a new transit tunnel through downtown that will support both buses and light rail. From the southern end, it would start (and connect seamlessly) with the SoDo busway. In the middle, it would parallel the existing tunnel at least in part, allowing for easy transfers along the route. The northern route is trickier. The big question is whether to pay the extra money to include Queen Anne, and if so, which parts of Queen Anne. Corridor A includes stops on upper and lower Queen Anne. This wouldn’t be cheap, but it would certainly be popular. Corridor B only include a lower Queen Anne stop, and saves money in the process. Arguably the best value would be a modified Corridor C. This would be significantly cheaper, especially if much of the tunneling work could be done as cut-and-cover (just as the original tunnel was built as a mix of cut-and-cover and boring). I really don’t have a strong opinion on which northern route is best, as the costs are so sketchy. In general I would say that each proposal has merit, and that each route would be a good value. It is simply a case of how much extra we want to spend for the extra ridership. This decision (the exact northern route) does not alter the basic proposal — a second, mixed use tunnel would be a great value for the city.

The Southern End

Bus riders who live or travel south of downtown Seattle would benefit greatly by this tunnel. The SoDo busway is a great asset for buses. It connects freeways in the area with downtown (through the existing tunnel). With relatively inexpensive changes, the buses could connect from the south to downtown in a fast, exclusive way. WSDOT is currently improving the HOV lanes and has plans for more. Fairly soon, there will be HOV lanes continuously from Tacoma to Seattle. The state has also proposed adding a ramp to better connect I-5 to the SoDo busway (they don’t have a project website, but it is the second proposal listed here). This would enable a rider to go from Tacoma to downtown Seattle in an exclusive lane the entire way. Similar changes could be done for West Seattle. Parts of the West Seattle freeway are already HOV only, but more could be done on the freeway itself, as well as to connect the freeway to the busway. This isn’t cheap, but it is a lot less expensive than new light rail because much of the work has been done, and buses can travel a more steep grade than trains. For a lot less than the cost of the cheapest light rail line to West Seattle  (serving only one station) you could add miles of exclusive lanes and  ramps. With the money left over, you could fund countless improvements to the buses in the neighborhoods (exclusive lanes, traffic light priority, offsite boarding, etc.).

Speed Now and More Capacity Later

Unlike the existing tunnel, this new tunnel could be designed for off board payment from the very beginning. It would also be designed to handle buses and trains the day it opened. Like the transit tunnel, it could accommodate future rail expansion. If West Seattle ever gets populated enough to justify the extra capacity and cost of light rail, then the tunnel could handle it.

Alternatives

One alternative is to build light rail from West Seattle to this tunnel immediately. I could spend a lot of time explaining why I think this is a bad value, but consider, just for a second, how exactly that would be better for folks in West Seattle. The population in West Seattle, as in much of Seattle, is spread out. This means that you wouldn’t get very high ridership unless you funnel people (via buses) to the station. There is nothing wrong with that — it plays a large part in why I think this route makes so much sense. But in the case of West Seattle, it makes a lot less sense. Buses in the area can, in many cases, get to the freeway faster than they can get to a subway station in West Seattle (assuming there is only one subway line). This means that there would not only be a transfer penalty for most riders, but little to no time savings while riding. The transfer penalty could be substantial — Sound Transit expects headways on the West Seattle line of ten minutes (and that is during rush hour). It is important to remember that buses and light rail travel at about the same speed. The time savings come from grade separation, not vehicle capability. For this corridor, it is a lot cheaper to build that grade separation for buses, not rail. Rail is still better from a capacity standpoint, but at this point, it simply isn’t needed for this area.

Buses from Tacoma could simply use one of the other stations (such as the one in Tukwila). But that would cost riders a lot of time. Unfortunately, unlike the rest of the system, the train moves very slowly, and very infrequently between Tukwila and Seattle. Even transferring riders from Renton to a station at Rainier Beach would cost riders a substantial amount of time.

Another alternative is to use the SoDo station as the endpoint for buses. To do that, you would need to build a bus station there to allow buses to turn around. For this type of system to work, you would need very frequent rail service (think Toronto, not Washington D. C.). Unfortunately, I don’t think this will ever happen. Trains from the south will never be able to travel very frequently through the Rainier Valley. Sound Transit could add a turnback station in the SoDo area and send additional trains there, but there are significant limitations with that approach. Headways are limited in our central core, and some of those trains will branch off to the east side. Simply put, I don’t think we will be able to have the kind of frequency from SoDo to make such a transfer painless. The transfer would not be as bad as the one in West Seattle, but it wouldn’t be good, either.

Another approach would be to build a short tunnel from the southern entrance of the existing tunnel to the International District station. That would allow someone to make one transfer to any other part of the system. Furthermore, this puts it much closer to the heart of downtown. Even if SoDo becomes more popular, I doubt it will never be as popular as the area surrounding the International District. If not for the work being considered for Ballard, this would make a lot of sense.

Conclusion

As Bruce Nourish mentioned, the most important part of the Ballard to downtown line is from Mercer to downtown. The rest of the route can be done on the surface, with little time penalty (less than a minute). But through downtown, you need a tunnel. It makes sense to run this tunnel as far south as the SoDo busway, and have the southern end serve buses not only from West Seattle, but from Tacoma, Renton and other areas.