Many bus passengers are feeling disillusioned this year. They heeded Seattle leaders’ advice to choose transit during the “Seattle Squeeze” construction spree, only to be rewarded with gridlock on First Avenue South through Pioneer Square.
Bus trips that typically required 35 to 45 minutes have sometimes swelled to 60 to 80 minutes on 12 King County Metro routes serving West Seattle, White Center and Burien. These lines, which serve 26,350 daily passengers, used the Alaskan Way Viaduct but were moved onto First Avenue in February.
The viaduct is now being demolished.
“I’ve actually switched back to driving into work right now because of how long it takes,” commuter Molly Schlobohm wrote in an email. “I can’t afford to spend 55-70 minutes simply trying to commute from downtown to West Seattle, which is what I’m experiencing on the 120.”
Other transit riders are using ride-hailing services more often, which adds more vehicles to the streets. Some switched to bicycling or walk-on ferries.
“Now that my bus commute time has doubled, there is no way for me to spend eight hours on the clock at work, pick up my daughter in West Seattle on time, and avoid the $1/minute late fee the day care charges,” Lynne wrote in an email. She now works through lunch to leave earlier and still ends up doing some work in the evenings at home, she said.
Traffic Lab received more than 65 email responses from readers, in response to an inquiry last week about transit conditions in south downtown.
Metro will experiment with a new route Thursday, by running southbound buses on diagonal Second Avenue Extension South into Fourth Avenue South and Sodo. If feedback from riders and transit operators is positive, Metro might make Fourth the full-time corridor until early 2020.
Metro also tested the route last Thursday, timed with the Seahawks first preseason game in Sodo. The agency earlier diverted buses to Fourth sometimes on short notice, when crashes or sports traffic made First impassable.
Reaction from the Fourth Avenue trips was mixed. Sue Winter noticed the “fastest, most consistent Route C commutes” she’d had all year, while Tracy Mitchell said, “It was still a slog getting through to West Seattle.” Melessa Rogers said last week’s reroute plan was “poorly advertised” and caught her by surprise.
County Executive Dow Constantine, a lifelong West Seattle resident, acknowledged “Metro travel times worsened” this year throughout downtown, especially Pioneer Square. “We have taken steps to ease these impacts, but we are not satisfied and are committed to doing more,” he said in a statement last week.
The King County Water Taxi offers an option, but a service suspension last week forced Vashon Island commuter Dan Schwartz to travel home by car or bus, using the state’s vehicle ferry at Fauntleroy dock. Water taxis resumed Monday, when the new Pier 50 station at Colman Dock opened.
Besides busy Route 120 to working-class Delridge Way, and RapidRide C uphill to Alaska Junction, the slowdown wreaks special havoc on less frequent buses to the Admiral, Alki and Genesee Hill neighborhoods.
“The last four Fridays have been a nightmare,” wrote Abigail Tarpley. She said it took an hour on Aug. 2 to go the first four blocks of her trip home. “Because of where my house is, there are no other options for me to get home, unless I want to Uber.”
Spring quarter Metro boardings downtown declined by not quite 1% compared to a year earlier, the agency said Tuesday. Bus routes that became slower in the so-called Seattle Squeeze tended to lose riders, while other routes gained, Metro said.
Lane capacity might not improve until January, when viaduct demolition is complete and the city builds a two-way bus corridor on steep Columbia Street. Then buses will relocate from First Avenue onto waterfront Alaskan Way between the Highway 99 interchange and Columbia.
Alaskan Way is expected to be four lanes at peak times — twice as roomy as this summer while viaduct demolition restricts the road to two lanes near Pioneer Square. However, buses will mix there with other traffic until permanent Alaskan Way bus lanes are built in 2021.
The First Avenue routes violate Metro’s own service guidelines, which state that “no trip on a route should have a standing load for more than 20 minutes.”
In January 2019, when Highway 99 closed for three weeks, officials responded with emergency-level measures. Agencies striped a Spokane Street bus exit to Sodo, deployed extra buses, and paid police to wave transit into the uncluttered Sodo busway. West Seattle to Seneca Street averaged only 27 minutes.
Some commuters, like Ben McGhee and Anthony Avery, suggest removing street parking on portions of First Avenue during peak commute times. Richard Hyman encouraged officials to weigh the legions of people on crowded buses “against the handful who are driving or street parking.”
Seattle can’t convert the curbside lanes of First to bus-only, because at 55,000 pounds loaded, they’d damage the century-old walls that support adjacent sidewalks. Buses and large delivery trucks must use interior lanes only.
Mayor Jenny Durkan receives weekly updates, and asked the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to coordinate with Metro, her office said Tuesday.
“Depending on potential route changes by KC Metro, SDOT is also evaluating additional bus-only lane options, and more ‘red’ lanes to make it clear to car drivers that bus lanes are for buses only,” said the mayor’s spokesman, Mark Prentice.
Metro expects the Fourth Avenue trip might take longer than First, but would be more dependable, because ferry and stadium traffic won’t surge into the lanes. The question about bus-only lanes on First is a city matter, said Metro spokeswoman Torie Rynning.
“Ultimately, if we end up using the Fourth Avenue pathway, it becomes a moot point,” Rynning said.