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…
Of the two stations scheduled to open in 2016 as part of the U-Link extension, the UW Station has both the most potential and the most challenges for improved bus-rail integration. This station, which is located on the east side of the Montlake Triangle, is isolated from the UW Campus and UW Medical Center by Montlake Boulevard NE, NE Pacific Street and NE Pacific Place.
Currently, the nearest pair of bus stops to the UW Station are located on NE Pacific Street in front of the UW Medical Center. These stops are roughly 900-1,000 feet away, approximately a 4-5 minute walk. While this might be acceptable for less important transfers, it is long for such an important one, particularly if Metro proposes restructures that significantly increase transfers to Link.
Metro staff have said in the past that they were looking at moving the northbound stop by the UW Medical Center several hundred feet east of its current location, but have not yet released any solid plans. Although this would help some, the walking distance for the northbound stop would still be 800 feet, with the southbound stop still over 1,000 feet away from the station.
The State Legislature recognized this challenge as far back as 2010 and asked WSDOT to study changes to improve transfers in the Montlake Triangle area as part of the SR-520 project. While the study was informative and made several good suggestions, it does not reflect Sound Transit and Metro’s new vision of an integrated, user-friendly transit system.
Fast and reliable bus-rail transfers aren’t rocket science, but they generally require early and integrated station design efforts. Mercer Island Station is an excellent example of how early station design efforts can make bus-rail transfer seamless. Designing stations with high-quality transfers in mind allows transit planners to improve the transit system as it evolves and grows.
Much to our excitement, Metro is already working with the public on bus system restructures that will improve transit service on Capitol Hill, in the U-District and in greater Northeast Seattle. By improving connections to the fast and reliable U-Link extension and redeploying service hours, Metro will be able to bring greater coverage and frequency to the entire system. The restructured transit system could also improve local feeder service between UW Station and rest of the the U-District, providing access to Link until the U-District Station opens in 2021.
Consolidation of Sound Transit and Metro service on SR-520, with routes terminating at the UW Station, also has the potential of providing a more frequent and connected Eastside transit network, and better service to UW, while freeing up operating hours for improved frequency and coverage for Eastside passengers to destinations like SLU. The travel time competitiveness would likely depend most on the speed and reliability of the SR-520 to UW Station connection, quality of schedule integration (like timed transfers or pulse systems), and the quality of the bus-rail transfer.
Bus Routing Concept
The figure above shows a concept of how buses could be better integrated with the station. It details three bus routing alignments: one for routes heading through the Montlake Triangle area (local and SR-520), a second for local routes terminating at UW Station, and a third for SR-520 routes terminating at UW Station. Most of these routing options could take advantage of existing, repurposed, or new bus only lanes and roads to avoid congestion. The concept works with or without a second Montlake bridge and the existing bus stops by the UW Medical Center will be preserved. Below are details for each routing alignment.
- Through Routes: This routing alignment would bring buses like the 43, 48, and 271 closer to the UW Station. After crossing the Montlake Bridge (using the right lane which is less congested), northbound buses would turn right and travel through the E12 parking lot on a new bus only path, serving a new stop just south of the UW Station before continuing to the existing stop at the UW Medical Center. Southbound buses would turn left onto NE Pacific Place, first serving the UW Medical Center stop and then serving a new stop under the UW Station pedestrian bridge on Montlake Boulevard NE. Routes would continue to serve the existing bus stop by the UW Medical Center.
- Local Terminating Routes: This routing alignment would be similar to the current route 44 alignment, but buses would layover directly adjacent to the UW Station. Each route would ideally have its own layover bay, allowing for a pulse based bus system which reduces rail to bus transfer times. Read more about pulse or “timed transfer” here.
- SR-520 Terminating Routes: This routing alignment would be used for routes like the 255 and 545. Traveling from SR-520, buses would travel north along Montlake Boulevard NE and drop off passengers at a bus stop just west of the UW Station. Empty buses would then loop around, laying over with local terminating routes. Traveling back to SR-520, buses would use a new transit only westbound left turn at Montlake Boulevard NE and NE Pacific Street. This routing alignment has the most significant technical issues and would need detailed analysis.
While better bus-rail integration would have a host of benefits, there are also a variety of challenges. Consolidation and termination of SR-520 buses at UW Station could increase travel times to or from downtown during some times of day if bus-rail schedule integration is poor or there is no mitigation for congestion on Montlake Boulevard NE. Local routes would also see several minutes of additional travel time through the Montlake Triangle area. Major events like UW football games, although infrequent, would also likely require special accommodations.
In addition, routing of buses onto UW property would require a willingness on its part of the UW to facilitate and support this change. SDOT and WSDOT would need to coordinate on a variety of changes, including signal timing changes that may increase congestion. Support from the Montlake community would also be desirable. Finally, Sound Transit and Metro would need to study, plan, design, and finance a host of capital and operational changes in roughly a year.
The opening of U-Link will be a game changer. Sound Transit and Metro have the chance to build an integrated, user-friendly transit system and I hope this concept gets Metro, Sound Transit, WSDOT, SDOT, UW and the public thinking about how bus-rail integration at UW Station can be improved. I put this concept forward as a starting point for that discussion.