How Cars Still Dominate Downtown’s Right of Way

Last week Commute Seattle came out with its biennial Modesplit Survey, showing more incremental progress towards a culture of walking, biking, and taking transit to work. In follow up discussions both internally and in comment threads, we’ve wondered about the balance between this cultural shift and the way we allocate our right-of-way. As One Center City prepares both short-term mitigation measures and long-term structural changes to our Downtown streets, it’s important that our right-of-way allocation align with the same progress we’re celebrating.

Getting a sense of which modes get proportional allocations isn’t terribly easy. Bus and bike lanes are discontinuous, bus lanes are often peak-only, and street widths vary with curb cuts, etc. (For a citywide perspective, Brock Howell had a great guest post in the Urbanist last year). In an attempt at getting our heads around Downtown, I counted 536 blocks in Center City (bounded in my definition by 1st Avenue, Mercer, I-5, and Jackson St). I then counted the total number of lanes on each of these 536 blocks to come up with the total number of ‘lane segments’ in Center City: 2,296. For simplicity, I counted parking lanes as full lanes, no matter their width, because they are still scarce space continually occupied by cars.

Graphic by the Author

On these 2,296 lane segments, there are 150 lane segments of bike lanes (6.9%) and 160 lane segments of bus lanes (6.5%).  The remaining 1,986 lane segments (86.4%) are taken up by general purpose lanes, on-street parking, and delivery/loading zones.  Off-peak, only 40 lane segments of bus priority remain (1.7%), mostly on Battery, Wall, and Westlake Avenue.

A few caveats are in order. I counted all streets, even those on which you’d never expect transit service (Clay, Eagle, Terry, etc.). I did not count the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT) in the ROW allocation, only looking at the surface. And I treated ‘blocks’ as a consistent entity, even though their length varies, especially on the shorter blocks of south Downtown.  But the intent is just to depict visually how much raw space to which cars are entitled, and how much we’ve set aside for bikes and transit. I hope it’s helpful as One Center City discussions move forward.

ST Express 591, More Necessary Than Ever

One Center City Potential Service Interventions page 20

Sound Transit had the right idea when it proposed a new route, ST Express 591, from Tacoma to north downtown Seattle via the Seneca St exit from I-5, in its 2015 Service Implementation Plan (page 94).

The proposal included forcing riders from Tacoma currently riding ST Express 586 to transfer to Link Light Rail to get to UW. In light of the congestion downtown faces from 2018 to 2021, keeping route 586 for the time being makes sense.

Since the elimination of route 586 was ST’s reason for proposing route 591, route 586’s continuance after U-Link opened would explain why the awesome route 591 proposal vanished from the pages of the SIPs.

However, stop-level boarding and alighting data from the 2017 Service Implementation Plan (See page 221) gives strong justification not only for route 591, but also giving such a new route the majority of service on the Tacoma-Seattle bus corridor. Add two more Sounder round trips coming in September, and it should be clear that route 591 ought to be the dominant peak bus path between Tacoma and Seattle. Throw in having route 591 continue into South Lake Union to take advantage of the new transit lanes (as is proposed for route 592 — See the solid teal line in the map at the top of the post), and some organic lemonade could be made out of the One Center City restructure proposals.

The Potential Service Interventions (page 20) being discussed by the One Center City Advisory Group include the possibility of truncating route 590 at International District / Chinatown Station. Having route 590 truncated at ID/CS would have hundreds of riders transferring there daily to get across downtown, on buses and trains already packed to the gills. However, if Tacoma-Seattle service were split into routes 590 and 591, riders coming from Tacoma would be able to get relatively direct service to whichever part of downtown they are headed toward. Such a proposal would make a lot more sense than truncating all route 590 service or all route 550 service (page 17) at ID/CS.

Amidst Unprecedented Growth, Transit is Saving Downtown

SounderBruce (Flickr)

More people are driving into Downtown Seattle than ever, and car commuting is at its lowest rate in the modern era. Both of these statements are true. This morning Commute Seattle released its 4th biennial “Modesplit Survey” capturing commute trends in Seattle’s Center City  – see our coverage of the 2012 and 2014 surveys – and the results show the paradoxes of our growing city.

First, the bad news anyone stuck in traffic knows in their gut: there are nearly 2,300 more car commutes each weekday peak period than there were two years ago. In a system already strained for capacity, these tiny increases reduce the system’s resilience and tip it into gridlock far more often. In 2014, Downtown had 228,000 commuters and 31% of them drove alone, for 71,100 daily car commutes. This year the rate edged down (to 30%) while the volume went up (73,350), because Downtown grew to 275,000 commuters over the same period.

Looked at another way, our Center City added 45,000 jobs but only 2,300 more cars, meaning transit, walking, and biking absorbed a truly stunning 95% of new job growth. If new workers chose to drive Downtown in the same proportion as everyone else (30%), we would have seen 14,000 more cars instead. The result? Probably total chaos.

Continue reading “Amidst Unprecedented Growth, Transit is Saving Downtown”

News Roundup: Line-by-Line

Seattle University Streetcar Running First Hill Route

This is an open thread.

UW Bus-Rail Integration is More Important than Ever

SounderBruce (Flickr)

As the One Center City project proposes removing SR 520 buses from Downtown Seattle, minor design flaws at UW Station will become all the more prominent, and the success of truncating buses at UW depends on fixing them. There is enormous promise for the concept. Route 545, for example, spends half its running time between International District and Montlake, which is only 25% of the route by distance. Turning Route 545 buses back at UW (or turning them all into 542s) could potentially nearly double frequency in the corridor and permanently spare riders the pain of slogging along 4th, 5th, Stewart, Olive, and Howell.

But the drawbacks to UW Station transfers are numerous:

  • WSDOT will not grant priority to buses on the 2-lane Montlake offramp, fearful (possibly correctly) that the backup would start earlier, blocking access to a bus lane and canceling out any gains. And in any case, construction will mess it all up again in 2018.
  • UW refuses to let buses use any of its E-19 parking lot for bus bays, removing the simplest and most direct option for accessing UW Station. Without it, all buses serving UW Station from Montlake must wait for a signalized left turn onto Pacific, after which riders are forced to re-cross Montlake on foot or walk up and around via the pedestrian bridge.
  • Unable to turn around at UW Station, buses from Montlake must travel at least as far west at 15th/Campus Parkway, wasting service hours.

To get a feel for the transfer, yesterday I took a test trip from International District Station to Evergreen Point and back at 3pm. On the way out, I took Sound Transit 545, and on the return trip I took Sound Transit 542 and transferred to Link. The bus trip was a best-case scenario, free-flowing and on time, clocking in at 22 minutes. The return trip via 542 + Link was seven minutes slower overall, at 29 minutes.

Look at the graphic above. Under a best-case bus scenario, Link with the transfer was 7 minutes slower overall, but 1 minute faster in travel time. Under any sort of surface congestion, Bus + Link can beat bus alone. Bus + Link was only slower due to design factors that make the transfer unnecessarily difficult.

  • 1 minute waiting for the bus to turn left on Pacific Street away from the station
  • 2.5 minutes to walk to the station elevator across Montlake Boulevard
  • 3.5 minutes to wait for a crushloaded elevator (because half the escalators were down)
  • 2 minutes of Downtown Tunnel congestion (due to shared bus-rail operations)

Fixing these design or reliability issues could have shaved 9 minutes off of my trip, allowing me to catch the prior train. The 20 minute trip time would have faster than the best-case bus scenario, and nearly twice as fast as a bus in heavy traffic.

At STB, we’ve long been in favor of smart bus-rail integration, and we have a bias towards creating a convenient grid of high frequency routes and painless transfers. This is especially the case at high capacity rail stations with frequent, fast, and reliable service. At their best, bus truncations to serve rail stations free up a dividend of service that can boost frequency throughout the system, improving the experience for everyone. At their worst, truncations add needless complexity to a network and introduce additional points of possible failure for any given trip.

Micro design decisions can carry enormous weight in deciding if restructuring is a time-saving or time-wasting endeavor for riders. Fix them and One Center City can be seen not as shared sacrifice for a pending disaster, but an opportunity to make the system better for everyone.

For our previous thoughts on Bus-Rail integration at UW, we’ve reprinted our (still relevant) 2015 post after the jump… Continue reading “UW Bus-Rail Integration is More Important than Ever”

Crunching the Numbers on Downtown’s Bus Capacity

KCM 6828 on ST Express

ST Express 550 in Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel / photo by SounderBruce on flickr

The One Center City bus restructure plan rolled out on January 26 contains some painful proposals, terminating ST Express 550 at International District / Chinatown Station, turning most of the West Seattle and Burien peak express routes (37, 55, 56, 57, 113, 116, 118, 119, 121, 122, and 123) into First Hill expresses, and having route 41 do a live-loop on Pike and Union. The plan also re-routes all SR 520 routes coming into downtown (252, 255, 257, 268, 311, and 545) to UW Station.

The cause of having to divert these routes is the seven bus routes (41, 74, 101, 102, 150, 255, 550) that will be kicked out of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel in September of 2018 when Convention Place Station gets closed permanently for construction of the addition to the convention center.

PM peak-hour buses in DSTT
Route Northbound Southbound
King County Metro 41 14 4
King County Metro 74 4
King County Metro 101 3 4
King County Metro 102 4
King County Metro 150 4 4
King County Metro 255 8 5
ST Express 550 6 12
Total 39 33

There are several tactics to mitigate these 72 surfaced peak-hour runs without the pain of passengers from two major all-day routes and eleven peak express routes having to transfer at the edge of downtown. Continue reading “Crunching the Numbers on Downtown’s Bus Capacity”

Can Link Fleet Handle One Center City Ambitions?

Crowded Link train at rush hour

Crowded southbound train at University Street Station during evening rush hour
Photo by SounderBruce, flickr

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff gave us a tight range on the practical maximum number of light rail vehicles (LRVs) that can be in service at one time regularly given the current fleet, in one of his Board reports last Thursday: ST Ops was able to pull together a 17th 3-car train on Saturday, January 21, for the huge Womxn’s March, on “a moment’s notice”. So, we know 48 LRVs can be used regularly. It might even be 49 or 50. 51 is doable for special events. Neither baseball games occurring almost every other day in the summer, nor a year of the One-Center-City mashup while ST waits for its next order of LRVs to arrive in 2019 can be considered special events.

The tunnel buses are scheduled to be kicked upstairs with the September 2018 service change. As part of that service change, all SR 520 buses are proposed to cease coming downtown, and instead be diverted to UW Station. As Zach pointed out Thursday, absorbing this new ridership with the current LRV fleet may be a challenge.

A more modest version of this restructure was originally explored as part of the U-Link restructures that took effect last March. The concept has enjoyed support from this blog. Let’s take a look at how much more ridership Link will have to absorb with this restructure, and the various scenarios for how to handle it.

PM peak-of-peak hour downtown buses on SR 520
Route Eastbound Westbound
King County Metro 252 2
King County Metro 255 8 5
King County Metro 257 2
King County Metro 268 2
King County Metro 311 4
ST Express 545 9 6
Total 27 11

For purposes of this post, we are not going to talk about SR 520 exit ramp congestion, SR 520 construction, Montlake congestion, escalator breakdowns, elevator breakdowns, long transfer hikes, Husky football shuttles pushing regular buses aside, or Link Light Rail being brought to a halt for hours due to damage to the catenary. We’re just going to assume a reasonably smooth transfer between routes 252, 255, 257, 268, 311, and ST Express 545, and Link, at UW Station, and that Metro and Sound Transit will decide to go through with this restructure. Continue reading “Can Link Fleet Handle One Center City Ambitions?”

One Center City Proposes Aggressive Bus Restructures, More Transit Priority

Joe Wolf (Flickr)

At a media briefing this morning, Metro, SDOT, Sound Transit, and the Downtown Seattle Association revealed draft near term concepts for the One Center City Plan. Borne of perceived emergency due to expedited Convention Center construction and the removal of buses from the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT), the plan offers surprisingly aggressive options for transit restructures and street rechannelization, while strategically hedging on things like protected bike lanes and broader policy questions such as fare payment. Today’s release marks the kickoff of a public process that will involve an online open house (live tomorrow at, successive rounds of public feedback, and independent adoption by the respective governing boards/councils by early 2018. Changes would likely take place in September 2018.

Though the long-term future of Downtown’s surface streets is one of less intensive transit use – as Link bears a heavier burden and fewer buses go downtown – staff called out a “period of maximum constraint” of 40 months from mid-2018 through late 2021. This period represents the unfortunate pre-Northgate convergence of Convention Center construction, a rail-only transit tunnel, a shortage of Link vehicles, East Link construction, Alaskan Way Viaduct removal, Alaskan Way rebuild and rechannelization, Madison BRT construction, Center City Connector streetcar construction, and more.

Without mitigative action and simply surfacing routes 41, 74, 101, 102, 150, 255, and 550, the agencies estimate transit travel times would increase by 3.5 minutes per rider per day. Metro estimates that this would add between $6-7m in annual operating costs and require 15 new buses in order to maintain the same frequency. To put this in perspective, this is roughly the scale of resources that was needed to split Rapid C and D and extend them to Pioneer Square and South Lake Union. This is significant, but whether it’s a pending disaster is a debatable question. The DSTT is a shadow of its former self in terms of buses, carrying a much lighter load than the arterials to which they’d move. And 20 routes and 50,000 daily riders were surfaced from 2005-2007 to prepare for Link, and the sky emphatically didn’t fall.

Chart by the author. Current as of May 2016.

Though much of the draft concepts are too generic to be helpful – such as unspecified signal retiming and soft talk of improved partnerships – the nuts and bolts and transit and street operations could change radically. So what’s being proposed? Continue reading “One Center City Proposes Aggressive Bus Restructures, More Transit Priority”

Metro Sells Convention Place for $147M: What Does It Mean for Transit?

Steve Shelton Images (photo from
Steve Shelton Images (photo from

Yesterday, County Executive Dow Constantine announced the long-expected sale of Convention Place Station (CPS) to the Washington State Convention Center for a price tag of $147M. The long-expected move provides the WSCC with the largest parcel required for its vision of a $1.4B expansion (financed primarily by $1.1B in 30-year bonds) that would be the largest such development project in state history. Bounded by 9th Avenue, Pine Street, Olive Way, and Boren Avenue, the full block parcel will likely begin construction in 2017 and be completed by 2020.

The move clearly has massive implications for transit, as CPS provides the northern bus access to the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT), the only transit-only access to the I-5 express lanes, and the single largest bus layover facility in a downtown where such space is becoming ever dearer. Though bus service has long been planned for removal upon Northgate Link opening in 2021, some agency voices had called for the WSCC to find another property so that Metro and Sound Transit (ST) could retain joint rail/bus operations in perpetuity, noting that as long as Link headways don’t drop below 4 minutes, excluding buses wastes the capacity of the tunnel in an increasingly congested downtown.  With this sale, that option is now off the table. So what could losing CPS mean for transit? 

Find out after the jump… Continue reading “Metro Sells Convention Place for $147M: What Does It Mean for Transit?”