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Proposed $87 million Madison Bus Rapid Transit is like light rail — without the rail

After retreating from the edge of catastrophe, Seattle’s public transit system may be en route to becoming a regional leader by combining the efficiency and prestige of light rail with the cost and flexibility of buses.

It’s called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT): essentially, a bus system that works like light rail. The City Council has coughed up $1 million to study a proposed $87 million BRT “corridor” along Madison, running from the waterfront up to 23rd Ave (by Madison Temple church and that psychic boutique shop).image02

To explain the project and get feedback from locals, the Seattle Department of Transportation will hold a community workshop about the Madison BRT corridor on Thursday from 5-7pm at the Silver Cloud Hotel on Broadway. Using “interactive design stations” inside the meeting room, SDOT will “present community-developed design ideas that focus on key intersections or a potential station location within each area. Each station will be staffed with engineers, planners, and urban designers to allow for an interactive conversation and sketching of design ideas to capture community ideas and feedback.”

Is this just a re-branded bus route?
Nope. Former mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa describes his city’s BRT, TransMilenio, like this:

TransMilenio bus system actually works much more like a subway on wheels than a traditional bus. Buses go on exclusive lanes. People pay when they enter the station. When the buses arrive, the station doors open simultaneously with the bus doors [which align with the station floor]. You can get a hundred people out and a hundred people into the bus in seconds.

In their own lanes, BRT buses bypass traffic jams; riders hop on and off in the time it takes to type a text message. See? Like light rail, but with buses.

This all assumes, of course, that Seattle’s BRT works like it’s supposed to; as this UC Berkeley paper discusses, shoddy “BRT lite” systems can get bogged down in the very traffic jams BRT is designed to escape.

Peñalosa estimates that using BRT allowed Bogotá to build 16 times as much transit as a rail alternative. A 2007 study found it delivers between 4 and 20 times as much bang-for-buck as rail.

And BRT is also green. SDOT brags that the electric trolley-buses it plans to use for BRT will be carbon neutral. It might be even greener than lightrail, since track construction is a big contributor to lightrail’s carbon emissions.

(Bloomberg criticizes City Light’s claim that our electricity is entirely carbon neutral here.)


Cost/Benefit Comparison. Image: Cervero’s “Bus Rapid Transit

By the way, drivers weary of Seattle’s “War on Cars” may become apoplectic at the thought of ceding road space to BRT, but better public transit actually tends to reduce traffic congestion rather than increase it. A study released earlier this year reports that increasing roadways for cars tends to aggravate traffic congestion in the long run by enticing more drivers onto said roads. Public transit, on the other hand, can cut congestion by moving the same number of people in fewer vehicles. As Peñalosa puts it,

Many things about cities are counter-intuitive. For example, it seems to us that making bigger roads or flyovers or elevated highways will solve traffic jams. And clearly, it has never been the case, because what creates traffic is not the number of cars but the number of trips and the length of trips. So the more road infrastructure you do, the traffic will become even worse.

SDOT’s community workshop to explain and discuss the proposed Madison St. BRT route will be held Thursday, November 20 from 5-7pm, at the Silver Cloud Hotel, 1100 Broadway. You can learn more at

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35 thoughts on “Proposed $87 million Madison Bus Rapid Transit is like light rail — without the rail

  1. We in Seattle don’t have the sisu to do anything as bold as BRT. Cars are just too cheap and too ingrained into our culture.

    A $20 annual car tab hike (that’s 5 cents a day) becomes a wedge issue in every transit election. Drivers subject themselves to I-90 traffic to avoid a few dollars’ 520 bridge toll. We whine and moan about gas costing over $3 a gallon. Contrast that with cities with usable mass transit. Bridges cost up to $10 to cross in New York. Singaporeans pay over US$65,000 for the right to own a car — plus the price of the car. A drive from Tokyo to Kyoto costs about $100 in highway tolls alone. Gas in Europe is about $8 a gallon.

    I’m tired of hearing about BRT, tolling, and other traffic-stifling measures. Seattleites living outside our urban village have ruined, can ruin, and will ruin any attempt to get traffic moving with mass transit.

    • It’s great that we don’t have those fees. Drivers accept the traffic for not having to pay for all that BS. Put up or shut up and we’ve decided to put up.

  2. Color me skeptical. I like to refer to the BRT lines rolled out by Metro as “barely real transit”. To much emphasis on branding and amenities without addressing service improvements. No dedicated lanes. Circuitous, milk-run routes (I’m looking at you D line) that are slower than the route options the BRT replaced. Different boarding protocols depending on the stop (at least on the initial roll out).

    Everyone likes to point to Bogota or Curitiba, but do we really need to look to be looking so distant for inspiration or models? What about Ottawa’s BRT system? Or the SWIFT system in our own backyard?

    And while BRT is an attractive option to light rail, it is not light rail. It does not have anywhere near the corridor capacity (even with dedicated lanes or grade separation—see Ottawa). Nor do buses operate as efficiently as trains (considering both maintenance and labor costs). BRT is a good system for medium capacity corridors—Madison seems to fit the bill. But only if it is actually BRT and not some trumped up branding exercise.

    • Well said on all counts Dang. The issue is that Madison is as high a capacity corridor as there is in Seattle. Having real BRT (which is a must here) will induce demand for transit. Its mostly a good thing. but this line could be a victim of its own success. We should be building BRT while planning (long range) for a rail replacement.

    • Madison St. Is too steep for streetcars. Trolleybuses can do the job does as well. So please don’t be skeptical. Trolleys work!

      • madison is not too steep for streetcars. that’s why it was built in the first place, to run from the montlake ferry to downtown via streetcar.

      • There may’ve been a ferry to Montlake as well, but the main ferries from Madison Park were across the lake to Bellevue and Kirkland—the latter route being almost a straight-line continuation of Madison Avenue.

      • yes it is …

        Streetcars (adhesion rail vehicles) can safely operate up to 8 or 9% grade.

        from 1st to 2nd, Marion and Madison are 3% grade
        from 2nd to 3rd, Marion and Madison are 20.3% grade
        from 3rd to 4th, Marion and Madison are 27.5% grade
        from 4th to 5th, Marion and Madison are 16% grade
        from 5th to 6th, Marion and Madison are 25.7% grade
        etc …

        Madison once had a Cable Car … like San Francisco has on Market and Powell Streets …

        That went from water to water … but it wasn’t a streetcar. (We had a cable car on James St up to 9th ave and on Yesler Way as well)

      • (From a 3rd Andy, actually an Andrew now) Madison Street WAS too steep for streetcars, which use the traction of steel wheels on steel rails (in the rain) for propulsion.

        That’s why the Madison Street one was a CABLECAR: pulled up the steep hills by clamping onto the continually moving cable running in a slot under the tracks (see San Francisco cable cars). Winding house was ~ 23rd and Madison. So, sorry, no streetcars. Recreating cablecars would be cute but pricy.

      • Madison BRT is a precursor to a Madison Subway, not a streetcar. I’m talking long range (of course) but this is the highest demand corridor in Seattle. It should be in ST4.

  3. Madison St is already very congested and backed up at times….it will be even worse if BRT takes over one of the lanes….not to mention the mess which will happen during construction of the line. And isn’t there a lot of controversy over the effectiveness of the “Rapid Ride” lines already constructed in Seattle?

    I am skeptical of the oft-repeated claim that busses/streetcars decrease congestion by taking some cars off the streets. Yes, they do that, but I think the effect is negated by the fact that they are very slow and lumbering, with delayed stops to unload/pickup passengers (especially since they don’t always have a zone to pull over, such as along Broadway)…..and all the while motorists are backed up and delayed behind them.

    • Madison is congested by cars and the fact that there is on-street parking. By changing the curb lanes to bus only 24/7 this will make the buses much more efficient and they will not have to fight traffic.

      as for “the mess which will happen during construction of the line” I am not sure I understand you … what mess? … you mean painting the traffic lane red? you mean installing bus shelters on the sidewalks?

      All your complaints in fact are solved by the bus only lanes and off board payment … won’t be any buses to get stuck behind because you won’t be allowed in that lane

      • Point taken. But I disagree that Madison is congested only because of the reasons you mention. There is on-street parking in only part of the route….the blocks between Broadway and 12th, for example, have two car lanes and that helps traffic flow. If BRT restricts car lanes to one along the entire route, and the same number of cars use the street, then congestion will inevitably be worse……unless significant numbers of people abandon their cars in favor of BRT. But the line will stop at 23rd Ave, and many of the cars on Madison are headed to Madison Valley or Madison Park…so they will not be using the bus.

        Another negative….if on-street parking is eliminated, that will be a problem, because parking on First Hill is already very tight.

        By mess, I remember that was a real problem when the Rapid Ride system was installed along Aurora. Perhaps it will be worth it if BRT truly improves traffic flow along Madison, but I am skeptical that this will happen.

  4. BRT *IS* just another rebranded bus line. All you proponents can try and feed us the BS line otherwise, but that’s all it is. I believe there would be room for a dedicated bus lane on many arterials if parking were shifted to side streets and/or city owned lots.

    You could also make the streets one-way in many neighborhoods, turn the parking from parallel on one side to angle on one side to make up for it and not really impact the people who whine about the perpetual war on cars the previous “mayor” made so public.

      • the key is DEDICATED Right of way without that nothing is truely “rapid” transit, with that Light rail or streetcar is cheaper ot operate in the long run.

  5. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is NOTHING like light rail. If BRT doesn’t have it’s own dedicated lane, it is stuck in traffic gridlock all day just like ordinary buses… and if you build a dedicated lane, you might as well put down some rails because electrified rail transit is cheaper to maintain, quieter and is the impetus for massive redevelopment projects due to increased demand and property value. Buses can be so easily moved around or canceled in bad weather, this is why ridership is so much lower on buses than rail – rail is always running, even in ice and snow, and can’t change routes on different streets next year due to budget cuts.

    I’m embarrassed that a so-called “progressive” neighborhood like Capitol Hill published this crap about

    • the plane IS to give the curb lane to buses only (maybe right turns in some cases …

      this way the buses will be out of the way of cars and vice versa. Cars (whether driving or parked) are what cause the problems on Madison … nothing more than that.

      • and giving them thier own lanes will last until the locals who park there raise up and start complaining and then the dedicated lane will never happen, except maybe in areas where it does the least good.
        reality has it’s way of derailing these plans

    • 1. Madison is way to steep for rail … other than Cable Car like in SFO and like we used to have on Madison.
      2. The plan IS to give the buses their own lanes

  6. With BRT the devil is in the details. It can work, but given Seattle process and the likely inability to have grade separated right of way, it will probably end up being an incrementally faster and more frequent version of bus 12.

    The problem with BRT is that by the time they are done listening to neighborhood concerns, making exceptions for the bus lane for right turns, etc., it will be near impossible to actually make it to BRT standards.

    Hate to be Debbie Downer on this one, but seeing how Rapid Ride turned out, might as well just increase bus 12 frequency to every 15 minutes and call it good.

    • well then help make this the exception by supporting it, theres no reason this one given its intensely urban location and urban population has to be downgraded like most BRT projects across the US

      • I just don’t think Seattle politicians have the stomach to take a full lane away from cars full time, prohibit turns that would block the bus, give signal priority, even on such a short route as this. I doubt any of these plans will work better than adding service to the 12. Sure, there can be bus only lanes, but when they allow cars to use the lanes for right turns, it becomes a pretty minor victory. If there were room to add another lane on Madison, I’d be more optimistic.

  7. there is a major error in the chart that biases the entire document in favor BRT.
    the costs to operate are based on VEHICLE revenue miles rather than the universal standard which is PASSENGER miles. a vehicle that is small costs less to operate but carries fewer people, a large vehicle has enconomies of scale and thus the cost per passenger mile decrease as the vehicle gets larger.

    also not mentioned is that a trolleybus last twice as long as a diesel bus, a light rail vehicle at least 3 times as long and a metro 4 times as long so while 40yr old subway cars are not unusual a 10-12 yr old diesel bus is worn out.

    Also noticed that they didn’t consider Trolleybuses on the BRT route’, this is common in Europe and Seattle has a large trolleybus infrastructure and knowledge bas already in place

    SO THE FINAL LINE ON THE CHART SHOULD READ based on minimum capacitieus indicated

    BRT – $2.74
    LRT – $2.42
    Metro – $0.85


    changes the whole equation and is a more honest chart.


  8. – BRT is a great idea, but fails when poorly executed
    – Seattle/KCM has already proven the ability to poorly execute this system
    – Most riders of the 11/12 lines board/deboard from 18th Ave and to the west through downtown
    – The most congested parts of this bus line are from 18th Ave and to the west through downtown
    – Reducing the number of stops will serve select riders and will generally not speed up the ridership experience through a corridor marked by congestion through Capitol Hill and downtown.
    – The two left-hand turns the 12 must complete from Madison to 1st and from 1st to Marion take FOREVER because of traffic on 1st, as well as ferry arrivals at Coleman Dock. This route suffers from the same problem.
    – The (only? primary?) beneficiaries of this improvement will be people traveling to/from Madison Valley and Madison Park. I guess they matter, too, but they don’t represent most of the riders of these routes.

    I think this is a terrible idea. Let’s prioritize our money and just aim to get the 12 to be more punctual and have better service after 6 pm. I ride this route and I don’t need these expensive “improvements.”

    • BrtBurbs,
      The plan shows the Madison BRT tuening back at 23rd and not serving Mad Park or Mad Valley.
      Ever hear of signal priority for buses? It works great, IF we’d install it.

  9. Electric BRT on Madison will cary more passengers more quickly that all those SOVs “caught in traffic” Calhoun. More passengers/hour, more passengers/day, more PEOPLE. Less pollution, fewer autos spewing their smuts.