Metro Transit's "bus bulbs" help transit save precious seconds, but at one West Seattle intersection they've led to potentially hazardous driving conditions.
Seattle’s new RapidRide bus stops, which protrude toward the street, are designed to help buses load riders and get on their way quickly.
Bus drivers don’t have to pull over to the roadside, and don’t need to merge after picking up passengers. This saves time for transit users, but irritates drivers who are waiting behind the bus.
These stops, known as “bus bulbs,” are mostly uncontroversial — but Seattle and King County Metro are pushing the limits with a pair of RapidRide bulbs where California Avenue Southwest meets Fauntleroy Way Southwest.
The buses stop so close to the corner, occupying the only lane of through traffic, that drivers trailing the bus often block the intersection, or can’t pass through on a green light.
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Worse, some motorists feel provoked into passing the bus by using the oncoming left-turn lane.
Seattle and Metro have installed bus bulbs for years. Each costs about $100,000, the city says. More are likely as the city carries out a new transit master plan that favors in-lane bus and streetcar stops.
And as the growing city of 615,000 becomes more congested, government officials have chosen to tip the time scales toward transit, at the expense of individual drivers.
“Instead of viewing a bus as a single vehicle, you view it as an average of 30 people on a major corridor like that,” said Victor Obeso, service development director for Metro. If 30 cars were delayed, he argues, transportation agencies would cater to them. “Today, the emphasis is on moving people, moving goods.”
Metro “planted” more bulbs — their term — this year to assist new RapidRide C Line in West Seattle and the D Line in Ballard.
“Everywhere you go, they’re all over the place,” said Adrian Mouser, who owns a building maintenance company in West Seattle, and says he’s often delayed driving behind the buses. “If you’re just going to the store, that’s one thing. I have to go all over the place, and you have all these lines. It was a waste of money, I think.”
Metro says bus bulbs save five to 10 seconds per stop, and more than 20 seconds in peak traffic. Seconds add up on a bus route, and affect the overall schedule. Next year, a few bulbs will be added on Greenwood Avenue North, but Metro doesn’t plan them on Aurora Avenue North, for the new E Line. Instead, buses will stop in the far right lane, as the Swift buses do on Highway 99 in Snohomish County.
State law requires drivers to yield to a merging bus.
If everybody did so, there would be less need for bus bulbs, said Rick Sheridan, spokesman for Seattle Department of Transportation.
Obeso said Metro considers bulbs on routes where bus drivers commonly stop in the travel lane, so they won’t have to merge. Other criteria are if buses take 25 seconds or more to re-enter traffic, or if sidewalks are too narrow to serve crowds of pedestrians. An example of the latter is a new D Line bulb on northbound Third Avenue at Virginia Street.
Bus bulbs, along with bus lanes and electronic arrival-time displays, are special treatments expected by the Federal Transit Administration, which funded two-thirds of the $69 million RapidRide capital budget for Ballard and West Seattle.
Before the RapidRide opening in Ballard, Metro predicted morning-peak drivers would be delayed 50 seconds while buses would save 90 to 120 seconds, by the new D Line stations on southbound 15th Avenue Northwest. But that road has two through lanes each way, whereas on California Avenue Southwest the bus takes the only lane.
Agencies haven’t measured the Ballard bulbs’ actual performance this fall, or ever conducted a comprehensive study of how bus bulbs affect bus and car travel times elsewhere. There is no citywide inventory of them.
On a good trip, RapidRide can load people in six seconds, because riders already tapped their ORCA fare cards on sidewalk-mounted readers, and enter all three doors. Loading takes longer if a rider asks questions or has limited personal mobility. Access vans at the bulbs have blocked traffic several minutes; Metro has told Access drivers to park elsewhere.
As an example of successful bus bulbs, Metro points to crosstown Route 44 in Wallingford, where 6,000 riders share North 45th Street with 22,000 vehicles a day.
Buses enjoy a head start with special traffic lights at two spots, and several bulbs. Two additional westbound bulbs were added on 45th at Corliss and Woodlawn Avenues North this year.
Then to prevent cars from passing the bus, a maneuver that would endanger pedestrians, the city built concrete islands in the two-way left turn lane.
Danny Swanson, third-generation owner of Swanson Shoe Repair at 45th and Corliss, said the corridor has been congested for decades, but buses move faster using the bulb stops — and one-fourth of his customers reach his shop by bus.
New bulbs along Rainier Avenue South don’t add much congestion, as Route 7 buses have traditionally stopped in the right travel lanes of the four-lane boulevard, as opposed to pulling out of traffic.
A busy bulb at Sixth Avenue and Olive Way routinely overflows with people waiting for 19 bus routes that leave downtown.
Dexter Avenue North was outfitted last year with a new kind of bulb, which provides cutouts for bicycles to pass behind the bus stop.
“Dexter is one of the best treatments in the city, showing how bicycles and transit can work well in the same corridor,” says M.J. Kelly, spokeswoman for the Cascade Bicycle Club.
Meanwhile, drivers vent in meetings and blogs about the Fauntleroy-California crossing, also called Morgan Junction. The city reports no crashes there since RapidRide opened Sept. 29, and Metro is not considering moving the crossing’s two bulb stops.
They were built close to the corner to better serve pedestrians — Metro avoids mid-block bulbs because it doesn’t want to encourage jaywalking, Obeso said.
However, Metro is responding to the mess by adding another stop for Routes 116, 118 and 119 headed to the Fauntleroy ferry terminal, so they don’t use the RapidRide bulb.
Seattle’s history of traffic-calming devices suggests it might try median curbs to deter drivers from passing the bus at Morgan Junction. But officials say no such plan is on the drawing board. Obeso suggests that based on his experience in Wallingford, “It takes drivers time to adapt to the expectations they may have to stop behind a bus.”
Gary Boman, waiting for the morning C Line bus at Morgan Junction, said he appreciates the effort to keep transit moving.
“You just have to allow more time, whether you’re driving or busing or whatever,” he said. “They’re just putting more people into this area.”
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @mikelindblom.