Buses are Sexy: Lessons Learned from Seattle

by Jessica Vargas on June 9, 2017

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WalkDenver’s Gosia Kung traveled to Seattle to see how a car city becomes a transit city in just 10 years (and a walking city and a biking city….)

“This bus lane was not here last week,” said Dongho Chang, Seattle’s Director of Public Right of Way, pointing to the new red paint on a busy downtown Seattle street. He was addressing a group of 18 national advocates during a walking tour of the Belltown neighborhood. The group convened as a part of a workshop sponsored and facilitated by TransitCenter to learn about how to quickly and inexpensively transform a city from a car city to a transit city. Our Executive Director Gosia Kung was one of the lucky participants of the workshop.

Seattle has a population of 668,000 (about the same as Denver) squeezed in an area of 84 square miles (about half of Denver). We are in close competition among the fastest growing cities in the U.S., with about 1,000 people moving into each city every month. This rapid growth puts a huge pressure on the existing street system in either case but Denver has a lot to learn from the Emerald City. Seattle added 45,000 jobs to its Downtown since 2010 and 95% of the new commuter trips were absorbed by transit, walking, biking, telecommuting, and shared car trips. During the same time Denver’s SOV (Single Occupancy Vehicle) trips increased while transit ridership has decreased. So what is it that makes Seattle America’s Next Top Transit City?

The Bus is King

Seattle opted for bold improvements to the bus system. As compared to rail, buses are far less expensive, more flexible, and can provide the same level of service if done right. What makes Seattle buses fast, frequent, and reliable are dedicated bus lanes and priority timing at intersection signals. Dedicated bus lanes can be implemented quickly and inexpensively with just paint, and can also be easily modified if the design can be improved or the needs change. Timing of traffic signals can be easily adjusted to accommodate complex traffic patterns on a multi-modal street. Today, Seattle’s rapid bus system provides rides at least every 15 minutes and sometimes as frequently as every four minutes. One single street – 3rd Avenue – carries more than 200 buses per hour during peak hours. Seattle streets are changing and evolving every day as new service is being added, new lanes are striped and more people choose to use transit over driving.

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Prioritize Pedestrians

No matter how reliable and efficient the transit system is people are not going to use it if they cannot get to it. The City of Seattle prioritizes pedestrians by providing wide sidewalks – the standard in the downtown area is 18 feet. Along streets where sidewalks did not meet this standard, an entire drive lane was eliminated to expand the width of sidewalk.

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Traffic signals are timed to prioritize safety and reduce the wait time for pedestrians. And Seattle developed unique design standards for striped crossings that discourage vehicles from stopping in the crosswalks and blocking pedestrian movement.

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Add Protected Bike Lanes

Seattle has a challenging topography. Coming east from Elliott Bay, one has to climb 125 feet over the course of two blocks to reach 3rd Avenue (the main transit street in Downtown). But this does not prevent Seattle from embracing safe bike infrastructure to bring people to and from transit and support shorter trips. Similar to the Broadway bike lane in Denver, many of Seattle’s “bike highways” are two-way protected facilities on one-way streets. Worth noting are the “speed tables” installed at the intersections of bike lanes and driveways to help negotiate the conflict between bike riders and vehicles entering the street.

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So how long did this transformation take?

Seattle was faced with the challenges of a car-dependent transportation system and the lack of options a little over 10 years ago. In 2006, Seattle voters passed a nine-year $365 million levy for transportation maintenance and improvements known as Bridging the Gap. In 2015, the new nine-year $930 million Levy to Move Seattle provided additional funding “to improve safety for all travelers, maintain [the] streets and bridges, and invest in reliable, affordable travel options for a growing city.” The on-the-ground transformation of the city streets took a little over 5 years – a blink of an eye in a life of the city.

What can the Mile High City learn from Seattle?

  • People will use transit if it’s frequent, fast, and dependable.
  • Buses can deliver a similar level of service to the light rail if we make room for them on our streets.
  • Strong leadership and vision can empower talented engineering staff to implement changes, sometimes overnight.
  • Change is possible and it does not have to take a long time.

Every transit rider is a pedestrian and transit is a natural extension of every pedestrian trip

We left Seattle inspired and armed with new ideas to expand WalkDenver’s work into transit advocacy. As the City and County of Denver is developing the package for the GO Bond that will be voted on in November, we are excited about the opportunities that increased investments in pedestrian, transit, and bike infrastructure can bring to Denver. We are encouraged about the Denver Moves: Transit Plan and the upcoming pilot implementation of a dedicated bus lane on Broadway in August. Look for our our transit “red carpet events” this fall. Hoping to see you there!

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