'Walk Bike Ride': Where the rubber hits the (oof!) road

While Mayor McGinn enjoys fairly smooth bike rides from his Greenwood home to City Hall, our intrepid reporter braves the washboard streets near her neighborhood, and brings you along for the ride.

SDOT held a forum at Seattle Center to discuss improvements to Dexter Avenue.

SDOT held a forum at Seattle Center to discuss improvements to Dexter Avenue. Judy Lightfoot


The subtitle of Mayor Mike McGinn’s "Walk Bike Ride" initiative — "Making walking, biking, and riding transit the easiest ways to get around in Seattle" — may reveal more than the mayor wanted to admit. Is an unstated corollary of his plan to make driving the hardest way to get around?

The melodious themes of his initiative are a bigger, smoother bus system, more and better bikeways, and pedestrian safety and comfort. Only once does the initiative mention "maintaining local streets." Yet local streets are so pocked with holes and so gnarly with patches gone bad that plans for repaving them can’t be separated from plans for implementing "Walk Bike Ride."

Right now Seattle streets make a jolting misery of riding the bus. And it's worse for cyclists: Fractured asphalt can throw them into the path of moving traffic, and they can’t lift a hand to signal without risking loss of control. It’s too dangerous for families to bike to fun places in town — another fresh-air option crossed off the "Mom! Dad! What’ll we do today?" list of summer possibilities.

By way of illustration I videotaped a couple of my rides on a well-traveled southbound route from my home in the Roosevelt neighborhood. I rode my bike, then Metro transit:

For contrast, check out this video of McGinn bicycling from his neighborhood to City Hall. No wonder he’s so keen on getting us out of our cars. He’s happy and comfortable!

The Mayor’s southbound ride from Greenwood will be even more comfortable next year, after Dexter Avenue North is repaved from Fremont to Roy Street (separated bike lanes will also be constructed). Never mind that Dexter’s surface isn’t nearly as wrecked and treacherous as, say, Eastlake Avenue East between Fairview Avenue East and the University Bridge. According to Brian Dougherty, associate transportation planner for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), Dexter is the route cyclists most frequently ride to and from the city. So McGinn does not in this case appear (as did Mayor Nickels during his 2008 snowplow moment) to be deploying city resources to suit his personal convenience.

The rationale for new bike lanes northbound from Hizzoner’s home neighborhood sounds logical and disinterested, too. Sam Woods, SDOT bicycle program and projects manager, explained that the city was responding in part to Greenwood residents who had earlier applied for an arterial traffic-calming project to make crossing Greenwood Avenue North safer for pedestrians. New bike lanes there will mean more bang for the buck: slowing traffic, protecting people on foot, and furthering the 3-year-old Seattle Bicycle Master Plan all at once. (Memo to self: squeaky Seattle neighborhoods get the grease.)

SDOT recently held a forum about proposed improvements to Dexter Avenue. Staff members at the June 29 event also took time to chat with citizens about related topics. Project manager Jessica Murphy showed me a map of SDOT’s 2007-2015 street paving schedule and pointed out that 15th Avenue Northeast will be repaired in 2011. (You can find links to the map and to a schedule in list form here.)

Scheduled street improvements will be covered by the Bridging the Gap (BTG) funds that voters approved in 2006. However, Murphy warned, "It will take more than nine years [of BTG] to eliminate the backlog" of deferred maintenance.

Transportation planner Dougherty, also eager to catch up with longtime street deterioration, noted that I’m the first Seattleite he has heard complain about teeth-rattling transit rides and the frustrations of trying to read aboard Metro. "Doesn’t reading on a bumpy bus make you sick?" he asked.

Yes. So do the bleak prospects for smoothing out the bumps. SDOT communications manager Richard Sheridan recently sent Crosscut some depressing documentation of these prospects. Partly due to the "overall rise in paving costs we have seen in the last five years (related to oil prices and other factors)," he wrote, inadequate funding means that current rates of SDOT pavement repairs can’t keep up with the rate of pavement decay.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Tue, Jul 6, 8:32 a.m. Inappropriate

Murphy warned, "It will take more than nine years [of BTG] to eliminate the backlog" of deferred maintenance.

Sheridan wrote, inadequate funding means that current rates of SDOT pavement repairs can’t keep up with the rate of pavement decay.

Taken together, these two statements should give Seattle taxpayers pause. They say that unless serious immediate action is taken, the road, bridge, and sidewalk infrastructure of the city will continue to deteriorate. And maintenance deferred means higher future costs for repair and replacement.

The responsibility lies with both the Mayor (and the Council) to level with citizens. How much will it cost to fix the transportation infrastructure and get us back to a maintenance schedule that minimizes life-cycle costs? The former Mayor spent eight years patching over the problem -- the 450,000 potholes he took credit for filling – while the real problem got progressively bigger. What will Mayor McGinn do?

Posted Tue, Jul 6, 8:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Amen to all this. I bike-commute from Belltown to Redmond (Microsoft) via Alaska Way, Jackson, MLK Way, I-90. The Seattle portion is a nightmare of broken pavement, bad expansion joints, metal plates over the roadway, potholes, and more. Anybody who advocates more cycling in Seattle, and is a member of the city government, needs to have her/his fat backside parked on a bike seat and rolled westbound down Jackson -- at night. I wish them well.

ptdoug

Posted Tue, Jul 6, 10:10 a.m. Inappropriate

I ride Dexter sometimes and I agree it's nowhere near the worst. I like the project (assuming it's done right, with clear sightlines at intersections) but there are many other roads with greater need.

California Avenue from Fauntleroy to Admiral (a busy route including ferry riders) is a nightmare of shifted concrete sections and potholes. Eastlake isn't the worst, though it's scarier than Dexter due to being narrow and full of traffic and parked cars (potential "door prizes").

Downtown to I-90 isn't horrible. Nice minimal incline on Dearborn, south a couple blocks on Hiawatha, then it's all trail to the Eastside, via the nice flat I-90 tunnel path. But a trail away from traffic along the I-90 right of way would be much better.

mhays

Posted Tue, Jul 6, 10:14 a.m. Inappropriate

15th Avenue N.E. is a nightmare to drive and a quite unpleasant stretch of any bus route that uses it. I can only imagine what it's like these days for bicyclists. (Haven't ridden it since I graduated from the UW last millennium.)

With the N.E. 45th Street Viaduct being closed and traffic being diverted onto 15th, my guess is it's even worse this summer, though I suppose if you're traveling at a snail's pace the jolts are less annoying.

Posted Tue, Jul 6, 10:15 a.m. Inappropriate

To clarify that thought: a flat, grade-separated trail along the I-90 right of way from around Rainier to the stadiums would be nice. This is important for crossing various railroads and major roads, and would speed things for anyone traveling between I-90 and either West Seattle or Downtown. Alternatively, I'd guess that a series of smaller upgrades could have some percentage of the benefit at much lower cost...but something needs to be done.

mhays

Posted Tue, Jul 6, 3:50 p.m. Inappropriate

I am a runner and a transit rider, not a bicycleist. The mayor seems to be determined to get light rail in no matter its relevance. I wish that I could have ridden the Interurban, but it is gone. Bus rapid transit and neighborhood targeted small busses for commutes make sense. The only use for rail is to force a specific type of neighborhood development. Consider the cost of working against the canalization of this area resulting from the ice age. Long live the emporor with a helmet.

Posted Tue, Jul 6, 4:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Email from SDOT director Peter Hahn:

Judy,

Good article today and excellent video.

First, 15th Ave. (assuming we are talking about the same stretch of road; you mentioned 45th) is scheduled for a major repaving in 2011.

I have included below Web links to our Paving Program, to 15th, and a map of our paving progress the last few years as well as future segments. See below.

I have just completed 6 months with Seattle. Street condition is of paramount importance to me, the mayor, and the council.

While the answer has to be the allocation of major resources to re-paving (the BTG program, as your article describes), we still have to contend with the potholes for all the reasons you cite. Also, keep in mind that our paving is only for arterials (about 1500 miles); local streets are another 3000 miles and we do not have funds for re-paving those.

We are seriously examining our pothole program in terms of its overall effectiveness and cost. We are trying to strike a balance between very quick response to reporting by citizens and pothole patch durability. Ultimately this may improve further upon the program’s effectiveness. We are also seriously considering equipment which is alleged to improve patch durability and significantly lower unit costs of each patch and are talking to cities that have used this equipment. We demonstrated such a piece of equipment last week and basically held a “patch off” among three contenders: the current fast method; a slightly slower but potentially more durable approach; and the injection patcher (the equipment). We’ll be monitoring these patches for the next two years to determine performance and durability.

Mayor McGinn and Council Transportation Committee Chair Rasmussen are both keenly interested in maintenance issues and the condition of the transportation infrastructure.

Peter

Peter Hahn
Director, Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT)
206.684.5000 peter.hahn@seattle.gov

Attached you will find a paving map showing 2010-2012 planned/on-going paving, as well as completed paving projects. I have added an oval around the 15th Ave NE paving project that is planned from NE 55th St to NE Pacific St in 2011.

Here is the link to SDOT’s paving website which includes links to the paving map PDFs that are widely available to the public. (near the bottom of the page)

http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/paving.htm

A direct link to the 15th Ave NE paving project website:
http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/pave_15thavene.htm

Posted Tue, Jul 6, 4:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Too Funny. It makes me want to drag out my 1942 Schwinn with the really big tires and shock absorbers. I am sure that a high level mountain bike will help but never expect a smooth ride on the frost stresed Seattle roads. You must pay attention at all times which certainly is a virtue so maybe the mayors bumpy roads are something to be desired.
All joking aside I tend to be for anything that will revoce auto traffic from the roads and put people on rapid transit or on bikes and on foot. The fact that it takes 15 minutes longer to get downtown is no big deal. Heres to the 358 bus on Aurora. My magic chariot.

Morro

Posted Tue, Jul 6, 9:40 p.m. Inappropriate

Great article. It made me realize my bike commute in Boston really isn't so bad. Also made me think it's very important when new lanes/paths are added to make a big fuss over them and get people using them before they lose their new-pavement velvety ride, so that the same bicyclists are in the habit and will agitate to have them repaved when it's time.

cbrewster

Posted Wed, Jul 7, 2:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Local streets are chock full of potholes and there's a nine year backlog to fix them. In contrast, the $300,000,000 project to do over 6 blocks of Mercer Street is right on track. This is just one of the many reasons Seattle is The City That Doesn't Work.

Mud Baby

Posted Wed, Jul 7, 8:42 p.m. Inappropriate

To all who have contributed thoughtful remarks- indulge me this question, one that has been nagging at me for some: does the County, as the operator of Metro transit, pay a share of the costs to Seattle ( and other municipalities within the county ) to repair the extensive damage to city streets caused, in large part, by Metro buses? Please do not read into my question any anti-transit or anti-cycle animus.

nordicelt

Posted Thu, Jul 8, 8:11 a.m. Inappropriate

nordicelt, I don't believe King County pays for any Seattle roads, but they may pay for the concrete bus stop pads that are in some places. I know that at a recent electric trolley bus system evaluation a Metro Transit representative said they will include the long-term effects on roads of the lighter weight of electric buses. However, also keep in mind that poor roads also cause buses to wear out faster too (take a 43 down 15th Ave NE and enjoy the rattles) and that while the diesel and hybrid buses are very heavy they are also a low percentage of traffic.
Asking various road users to pay gets complicated, too; for example, are the poor conditions on Fairview Ave N due to Seattle Times' truck fleet, or downtown commuters using the road to access the freeway?

I also have to disagree with many of the premises in this article. It's quite safe in many areas for families to ride together to a local park, library, community center, or business district; you might check out the NE Seattle family biking blog Car Free Days:
http://carfreedays.com/2010/07/05/transitions-from-kids-as-cargo-to-kids-as-riders-a-new-series/

The city departments and budget absolutely can and does separate out related projects like street paving, utility work, and pedestrian and bike improvements. They try to coordinate of course, like with the work on Dexter Ave N (the repaving was planned before McGinn was mayor, by the way), but if anything the problem is low priority for the Pedestrian and Bike Master Plans funding:
http://www.publicola.net/2010/02/09/pedbike-reality-check/
Bridging the Gap reserves "No less than 67%" of revenue for road maintenance, but "No less than 18%" for pedestrian and bike improvements, and transit gets the short end with "No more than 15%" (actual spending to date on transit has been 8% according to the BTG 2009 Annual Report). If two thirds of the funding isn't enough to cover the road maintenance backlog, it sounds like SDOT needs additional revenue sources.

joshuadf

Posted Thu, Jul 8, 8:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Nice article. I dodge big holes and many cracks every day. It's still fun to ride...

When we bring cases against the city, we focus on unsafe actions (such as the SLUT track that meanders in and out of the right lane and sewer grates with wide openings that run parallel to traffic) rather than inaction and decay.

Posted Thu, Jul 8, 8:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Aaron Goss at Aaron's Bicycle Repair asked me to post this question:

Why are the unused RR tracks on Valley near Fairview still there? I personally know of many cyclists that have crashed on them. It is a major bike route.

Posted Fri, Jul 9, 9:01 a.m. Inappropriate

As a bit of background, SDOT uses the Pavement Condition Index (PCI) system that was developed originally by the US Army Corps of Engineers to provide an objective measure of street condition. It is a procedure that is standardized internationally by ASTM and is used widely by federal, state and local government agencies. The PCI procedure provides decision makers a numerical value indicating overall pavement condition, which reflects both pavement structural integrity and operational surface condition. The procedure was designed to be repeatable and has been found to be well-correlated with the judgment of experienced pavement engineers.

The PCI rating method measures the occurrence of several pavement distress types (cracking, rutting, weathering, et al.) and assigns a pavement condition index based upon the area affected and severity of the observed distress. The PCI is a number between 100 and 0. A PCI of 100 represents a pavement completely free of distress; a PCI of 0 corresponds to a pavement that has failed completely and can no longer be driven safely at the designed speed. The overall PCI for the project section of Dexter is 39, placing it, on the basis of condition, in the bottom 13 percent of arterials citywide. We agree with you that Eastlake also needs work. The last PCI rating for the stretch mentioned in the article is 57, indicating an imminent paving need (for comparison the PCI on the project section of 15th Ave NE is 29). Based on the PCI analysis, we respectfully disagree with your personal assessment that Dexter Avenue is a perfectly good Seattle street. SDOT typically prioritizes arterial streets that have a low PCI for repaving, although financially the city is unable to complete work on both arterial and residential streets.

The repaving work on Dexter Avenue N was planned as part of the Bridging the Gap (BTG) levy that was approved by Seattle voters in late 2006. The bicycle improvements along Dexter Avenue N are funded by Bicycle Master Plan implementation dollars and the paving is paid for by the city’s Arterial Asphalt and Concrete Paving Program (funded through BTG). While BTG is a great step, it is not enough to immediately reverse decades of deferred street maintenance. Combining the improvements into a single “Complete Streets” package creates economy of scale and assures the most favorable contract bid prices.

Our counts show Dexter Avenue N is the most heavily used route by cyclists to access downtown, as you mention in your article, and hence critical to meeting the needs of cyclists. Here is a link to a graph that shows the current counts for downtown access routes: http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/docs/bikes_dbc_countsgraphs09.pdf . The bike lanes along Dexter Avenue N were some of the first installed in Seattle nearly 20 years ago, in 1991, and do not meet current standards that require a minimum 5-ft wide bicycle lane adjacent to parking. By upgrading this facility we fully expect to better serve a large number of cyclists and increase bicycle ridership - one of the goals of the Bicycle Master Plan.

I hope this information better explains the structural need for Dexter Avenue N to be repaved as well as the financial benefit of combining the repaving and bike lane improvements.

Rick Sheridan
SDOT

Posted Sat, Jul 10, 1:21 p.m. Inappropriate

What I don't understand is why so many bikers choose to duke it out with the cars on arterials when there are usually (though not always,) multiple parallel side streets to ride on? And, why does the city designate as bike routes many of these same arterials that are manifestly unsafe? I just cringe when I see people out there riding in such terrifying places, especially when there are far safer alternatives often just a block away.

Do these riders just hop on their bike and try to go someplace the same way they would drive their car? Big mistake. Maybe they need to be introduced to maps.

Has the City decided that the uncontrolled intersections on side streets are too dangerous? Is that why they persist in designating these arterial death routes? To me, the side streets seem far less dangerous to a halfway alert rider than impatient drivers roaring by inches away on arterials. Maybe it's good to prove a point and all, but no way will you ever see me risking my hide out there on those arterial "bike routes," sharrows or no - not when there are far less scary ways to go if one just exercises a bit of creativity.

Posted Sat, Jul 10, 2:02 p.m. Inappropriate

I live on Dexter Avenue. I have a direct view of the daily bicycle traffic, and of the flow during busy and slow times. I drive on Dexter 20 or more days a month.
Most of the bicycle traffic is commercial, not commuters getting out of their cars. Most bicyclists are messengers, by my count. So, the advantage or stimulation of bicycle traffic mostly benefits the commercial world.

Next, those who drive Dexter regularly are aware that it has been ripped up and repaved many times in the past five years to connect new buildings, add new utilities, and upgrade other city-related activities.This makes the street a patchwork of asphalt sink holes, sewer covers, and miscellaneous road contusions which make travel uncomfortable if not hazardous.
Also, Dexter has enough business activity in the form of deliveries, moves in and out of rentals and condos and planned building additions in the next few years to call into question the assumptions that are going into this proposed "fix".
A major assumption seems to be that removing the"suicide" lanes which permit turns at corners, and is frequently used to load and unload trucks will have little or no effect on traffic. I find this to be a most optimistic assumption, and a source of future safety and traffic flow problems. Dexter Avenue is a "spine", with steep streets entering on both the East and West side for most of the way between mercer and the Fremont Bridge. Entering and turning left or right can be difficult.

Putting bike lanes near the curb, with two vehicle traffic lanes in the ceter and the elimination of the "suicide" lanes probably decreases the safety margin for bicyclists.

First, drivers may take more chances to make turns from the East and West along Dexter. Second, there will be obscured views caused by the steep entrances along Dexter at half of the intersections. Third, people catching buses will have to cross the bicycle lanes in some instances, increasing the chances of incidents and accidents. Third, views will be blocked in some cases where bus shelters which block views will be constructed (i.e, at the corner of Dexter and Dexter Way) which will block both pedestrian and driver views as it is currently planned.

The worst safety situation will exist at the 5-way intersection of Dexter Avenue North, Dexter Way as it exits from Hiway 99, and Crockett Street.

The plan, as currently proposed, calls for a stop sign for traffic exiting hiway 99 on Dexter Way. This is an extremely busy road from about 7-9:30 AM on weekdays. Near accidents involving cars and bicyclists are a regular occurrence with the YIELD sign currently in place. A STOP sing will aggravate driver impatience, and create additional pollution as cars back up to permit bicycles and Dexter automobiles to pass. I would not consider this an improvement, either from a traffic safety or environmental perspective.

To sum up, what is being presented as an "improvement" has several bogus assumptions, and has not considered the actual future of Dexter Avennue. It is tilted too far in support of commercial biking, not regular cyclists. It will add to traffic congestion and pollution, not reduce them. And I still looking to hear what actual problem(s) this proposed change is solving.

The last word is that these "improvements" were presented as pretty much done, with comments by citizens to make adjustments to a near final plan.
I think the plan needs to be completely recondidered to get comments from people who live here on the street, not just from those passing through.

rlhplus

Posted Sat, Jul 10, 11:03 p.m. Inappropriate

As a bicyclist on Dexter, I can say with certainty that your guess that most Dexter bicyclists are "messengers" is wildly incorrect. There's a large flow of commuters, as well as recreational riders.

mhays

Posted Sat, Jul 10, 11:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Regarding whether arterials make good routes: Yes, they often do, for experienced riders. Some arterials don't have safe edges, but others do. As for side streets, that's a fine idea, but many arterials don't have parallel side streets that are equally flat and direct, and have easy crossings of perpendicular arterials.

Dexter and Eastlake are great examples. Another is 45th from the U District to Wallingford. Or Green Lake Way. Or California.

mhays

Posted Sun, Jul 11, 8:27 a.m. Inappropriate

rlhplus,

Sounds like you've done some thinking on this and I hope you submitted feedback to SDOT, especially about adding more load/unload zones. However, I have to disagree with your preference for a simple yield sign at the Dexter Way exit. Aurora Ave is one of the most dangerous roads in Seattle--it was designed in the 1930s and still has the same basic configuration. Unfortunately in the meantime we have learned that the key to road safety is either to remove non-motorized traffic and create long exit ramps (as I-5 and I-90), or to lower speeds. WSDOT and SDOT have chosen to lower speeds instead of the huge expense it would take to make Aurora a fully grade-separated highway. Personally I would rather see several signaled intersections (Roy St, Bridge Way, etc) installed instead of a simple stop sign. Many surface state highways like Lake City Way (SR-522) or even Aurora north of Green Lake have increased safety by adding stoplights.

Also, your quip about "additional pollution as cars back up" seems like a non sequitur since we're talking about an intersection! Obviously someone is going to have to stop somewhere... and anyone with that much of an environmental conscience is already driving an electric car. Maybe we should make Aurora electric-only. (By the way, my latest pet peeve is people idling in the load zone in front of my building to talk on a cell phone. I'm glad they are not driving and talking, but please just turn the car off instead of blowing exhaust in my kids' faces!)

joshuadf

Posted Tue, Jul 13, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

To Snoqualman - as others have said, it's not always possible to ride on parallel streets. Picture Denny Way. Yes, it's a scary street to ride on, but there is no parallel street. It goes at an angle and is the only way up to Cascade neighborhood. On one side is 99, which can't be crossed for a mile north. On the other side there are no parallel streets. Even when there are parallel streets, when they are next to residential streets they usually have a stop sign every block and often traffic-slowing devices that you have to drive around. Bikers don't drive there for the same reason cars don't!

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »