Cyclists prefer the unsafe parking lot on the left to the awkward trail on the right. Credit: Eric Scigliano
The new year seemed like a new dawn for Seattle bicycling. The City Council was poised to pass the updated Bicycle Master Plan – an update so long-awaited and comprehensive it’s really a new plan; one that would make safe, comfortable cycling accessible to many more types of riders in many more parts of the city. After some jitters over candidate Ed Murray’s talk of a “balanced” transportation policy, which sounded like code for swinging the pendulum back to cars, and his fumbling and flipping on various bike issues, bicycle advocates were finally reassured that Murray isn’t anti-bike and is down with the plan.
This week city councilmembers and the newly installed Mayor Murray engaged in a bit of “After you, my dear Alphonse” over who should prepare a formal resolution for adoption: They expected him to do it (and perhaps tweak the plan), but his office insisted that since departing Mayor McGinn had already sent the plan to the Council, it was in their hands and they should go ahead on their own. So they will.
Riders, on your marks, get set…..Whoops.
Now the bike plan is on hold and under attack, blocked by a legal challenge from business and boat owners along one corridor — the section of Westlake Avenue N. fronting Lake Union. The challenge is, ironically, framed as an environmental one. The ad hoc Westlake Stakeholders Group contests the determination of environmental nonsignificance (DNS) that Seattle’s Department of Transportation issued for the bike plan, contending that big bike projects should undergo the same sort of environmental review as big rail and highway projects.
“I assume a $4 million infrastructure project [the city estimates $2.3 million] will cross the threshold [for SEPA review]," says Sierra Hansen, a public relations rep retained by the Westlake Stakeholders. Hansen is referring to a protected cycle track that the plan prescribes for the corridor. “And it’s not the only one. It’s going to be the first of many. There are a half-billion dollars of investments in that plan. They’re glossing over the environmental issues.”
Hansen adds that the cycle track should even be reviewed under the Shoreline Protection Act, since it will stray into the shoreline zone at some points. But the issues that actually concern the Westlake Stakeholders are more prosaic: parking spaces, vehicular access and safety.
The site in question is an unusual one – in effect, Seattle’s longest parking lot; a mile-and-a-half of city-owned frontage up to 100 feet wide between Westlake Ave. and the waterfront businesses. The Westlake Stakeholders’ notice of appeal complains that carving out a 10-foot wide cycle track will steal many of the strip’s 1,200 parking spaces, “used 24/7 by businesses, residents and patrons,” with no analysis of parking impacts. Sending cyclists zipping down the unobstructed track will inevitably inflict dangerous “conflicts” (read “collisions”) with cars, trucks and pedestrians trying to cross. These dangers will be compounded by increased truck traffic along Westlake, a designated freight corridor, once the waterfront tunnel is completed and Ballard-bound vehicles no longer exit Highway 99 onto Western Avenue.
Ergo, SDOT should prepare a full environmental impact statement, which would presumably gauge the impacts not just of this track, but of all the other 472 miles of bicycle tracks, trails, lanes and neighborhood greenways proposed under the plan. By the time that’s done, it might be time for a new update.
To the bicycle plan’s defenders, this claim, and complaints about the Westlake Cycle Track design, seem wildly premature and overblown. “It’s a big club these guys have taken at the master plan,” says Thomas Goldstein, the recently installed policy director of the Cascade Bicycle Club, which worked with SDOT to develop the plan. “For me there’s no problem putting a separated cycle track along that corridor. It would actually improve parking. The way the parking lot is set up is perfect for 1962” but badly outdated now – even though it was reconfigured, in what the Westlakers say was a successful collaboration with the city, just six years ago.
Goldstein says the lot actually functions as a park-and-ride for Amazon employees heading to South Lake Union. Indeed, Westlake’s eateries, yacht yards, and nautical shops have enjoyed a privilege any other close-in business district can only dream of: 1,200 city-provided off-street, all-day parking spaces, most of them free. It’s no wonder they’re loth to give up any of it.
More important, says Goldstein, “60 percent of the people in the city want to bike more. It’s a matter of health, safety and mobility. The city has a commitment to separated bikeways. And it has a commitment to this route.”
But not to a particular bikeway design, insists Andrew Glass Harding, Mayor Murray’s staff liaison on transportation issues: “The plan is a piece of paper with a line on it. It hasn’t been designed yet. There’s all sorts of different ways it could be designed.” Once it is, “the project will have its own environmental review.”
Which is exactly the point of SDOT’s declaration of nonsignificance: Individual projects will undergo environmental review as necessary. That’s a much more feasible and, if it’s actually carried out, effective approach, since that review would consider actual designs rather than lines on paper.
That would be fine, says Cam Strong, a Westlake moorage tenant who speaks for the Westlake Stakeholders, if past experience hadn’t taught them not to trust the city’s assurances.
Back in 2000, Strong says, SDOT promised to retain all of the then-1,600 parking spaces when they reconfigured the parking lot. Instead, they reopened it with 1,200. In 2007 SDOT installed a pedestrian/bicycle path on the storefront side of the Westlake parking lots, part of the Lake Cheshiahud Loop around what’s now called Lake Union. According to Strong, SDOT promised to include speed-limit signs ordering cyclists to go slow. “They cut the ribbon. We said, ‘Where’s the signage?’ They said never mind.” (SDOT officials may have a different account, but they decline to discuss Westlake because it’s in litigation.)
The upshot, says Strong: Cyclists whizz through at perilous speeds. But not on the winding, bumpy Cheshiadud route, which is often blocked by pedestrian clusters and dog walkers, sometimes by overgrown foliage and protruding boats. Cyclists instead favor the wider, more open parking lot, a fine route till they collide with turning trucks and backing cars.
The Westlakers are even more dismayed at the way SDOT has handled the pending project. Strong says they didn’t know anything about it until last summer, when they saw a surveyor taking measurements along the route. SDOT subsequently held an open house on the project in October, but Strong claims the agency delayed publishing a summary of comments and then “totally distorted” them.
“Now this community has been shut out again," he complains. "We tried everything. We tried connecting with Mayor McGinn, but his office had no interest.” And so they sued to block the bike plan.
Given their history, it’s incredible that the Westlake group didn’t know about the cycle track plans, which predate the updated bike plan and are more than a “line on a map.” Tom Rasmussen, the City Council’s transportation chair, says the city has longed for decades to build a proper bikeway along Westlake, a strategic level corridor from downtown to Fremont, Ballard, Seattle Pacific University and neighborhoods beyond. But it shied away because of “strong opposition” there.
Instead, SDOT built the inadequate Cheshiadud path. Then, in 2011, it installed buffered bike lanes, with curb islands for pedestrians and bus riders and traffic-calming reduced lanes for cars, along Dexter Avenue N., one to two very steep blocks west of Westlake. Those lanes please sturdy cyclists who don’t mind pedaling halfway up and down Queen Anne to get to Fremont. But they don’t suit those who can’t huff it or don’t want to arrive at work sweaty.
Strong, who lives on Dexter, suggests those cyclists get electric “smart wheels” that would help them up hills — for just $699. But access for all is the cycle-policy mantra these days – level, protected routes for would-be riders who find Seattle’s hills and streets daunting.
And so SDOT turned back to Westlake. In 2012, Seattle secured $1.7 million in federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program funds from the Puget Sound Regional Council for precisely the sort of cycle track the Westlake marina folks don’t want next door.
So the project predates the plan. But the plan makes a handy hostage for the Westlakers to hold in exchange for changes in the project. And that logic seems to be working.
Rasmussen says the council will now hold off at least until March 5, when the city hearing examiner is slated to hear the Westlake Stakeholders’ challenge. On Wednesday, he and fellow councilmember Sally Bagshaw walked the route with some stakeholders and their attorney Josh Brower (who also reps the Ballard businesses suing to block completion of the Burke Gilman Trail’s notorious “missing link”).
Afterward Rasmussen waxed conciliatory: “I feel there is an opportunity to address their concerns and the Bicycle Master Plan. By doing that, we’ll be able to make a safer cycle route.”
And a slower one in coming. That is unless the cycle track could be located on the west side of Westlake Ave. (which would be forbiddingly expensive) or east of the lot, where the Cheshiadud trail now lies (which would eliminate vehicle conflicts, but still annoy some businesses). In the worst case, however, the speedsters will still have Dexter Ave. to work their triceps on, with no tetchy yacht owners to contend with. And west Lake Union will still have two more protected north-south bike routes than the entire Rainier Valley has.
Speaking of which, the new Bike Master Plan promises a long-overdue cycle track on MLK Way S. It’s an essential step toward correcting longstanding geographic and demographic inequities and making that part of town as bikeable as the Lake Union corridors have long been. But the plan needs to get passed first. For now, it’s held hostage.
January 11, 2014: Due to editing, this story as originally posted stated that Westlake Ave. N. will be designated a freight corridor when the waterfront tunnel is completed. It already is a freight corridor, but is expected to receive more trucks following completion, and the text has been changed back to reflect this.