Seattle's bike-lane bigotry: Master planned?

Seattle's Biking Master Plan has focused most of its efforts on North Seattle, leaving the just-as-needy-but-less-wealthy neighborhoods down south to fend for themselves.
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One way to claim space in the roadway (and make motorist enemies).

Seattle's Biking Master Plan has focused most of its efforts on North Seattle, leaving the just-as-needy-but-less-wealthy neighborhoods down south to fend for themselves.

In 2007, with a fanfare, the Nickels administration proposed “within 10 years, to make Seattle the best community for bicycling in the United States.” The roadmap to this goal was supposed to be a Bicycle Master Plan, self-described as “visionary.” Six years on, how’s that vision working out?

The results can at best be described as mixed. If you take the crudest measure, the number of miles of “bicycle facilities” — dedicated or designated bicycle routes — laid down, the city's doing fairly well. It proposed to expand its “bicycle network” from just 68 miles in 2007 to 450 in 2017. As of 2012, it had built or — more often — painted 158 new miles, for a total of 226.

But it’s done that via a heavy reliance on the most confusing and unsafe but — whaddaya know — cheapest facility of all, the dreaded sharrow. You may know the sharrow as bicycle icons painted on otherwise ordinary traffic lanes to remind motorists to share the lane with bicyclists, as they're supposed to do anyway. Depending on whom you talk to or how the traffic is, sharrows are (a) instructive and mildly effective, (b) irrelevant, (c) confusing, and/or (d) a diabolical hoax, giving cyclists false confidence while suggesting to motorists that they have exclusive rights to streets that aren’t painted with them. (They don't.)

Ninety-two of those new miles were sharrows; the city fulfilled a whopping 83 percent of its intended sharrow miles. But it lags much further behind at implementing most other types of bicycle facilities; the kinds that require actually building new infrastructure or taking space from motorized traffic, such as bike lanes and neighborhood greenways (streets reconfigured to slow traffic and favor pedestrians and cyclists).

The sharrow strategy "may have helped to grow bicycling in the city,” the Cascade Bicycle Club concluded in its midterm “Seattle Bicycle Report Card” last year, but it “has likely excluded a significant percentage of potential new riders.” And it hasn’t fooled anyone into thinking that Seattle has built enough real bikeways ­­­— not even the folks who assemble national lists of bike-friendly cities.

Twenty-plus years ago, when today’s so-called Mayor McSchwinn was fresh out of law school, Seattle could make a fair claim to being the bike-friendliest city in the country. The Burke-Gilman Trail was a visionary model of rail-line repurposing, on a scale advocates in other regions could only dream of. By 2007, Seattle could only aspire to becoming best, but Bicycling magazine still rated it among America’s five top bicycling cities. (These ratings, based in large part on data assembled by the League of American Bicyclists, are supposed to reflect the “5 Es”: engineering, encouragement, evaluation and planning, education and enforcement.)

Last year, Seattle dropped to tenth on Bicycling’s list, behind not only Portland, Minneapolis, Boulder and Eugene, but San Francisco, Chicago and (horrors!) New York. It’s fallen most conspicuously behind Portland, which doesn’t bother with sharrows but instead, as of last year, had installed 318 miles of greenways and dedicated bike lanes and trails. Portland offers cyclists enough safety and service amenities — from bike sharing to dedicated traffic signals and wayfinding signs — to make Seattle’s efforts seem positively 20th century. More than 6 percent of Portland’s commuters go by bike; just 3.6 percent of Seattle’s do. Memo to Seattle’s anti-bike backlashers: Stop grousing. You could be in Portland.

Adding insult, even as two-wheeled Seattle fell in the ratings, the bicyclist’s league recognized Washington as the most bike-friendly state. Worse yet, the actual achievements Bicycling lauded Seattle for were more political than practical: “growing political support,” the PAC launched by the Cascade Bicycle Club (perhaps the largest such organization in the nation), the successful candidates it’s backed, such as Mayor Mike McGinn and City Councilmember Mike O’Brien.

The substantive story is very different. The 2007 Bicycle Master Plan, as conceived and especially as implemented, hasn’t just excluded novice, slow and cautious riders who can’t or won’t use the same lanes as cars. It has perpetuated an even more grievous form of exclusion ­­­— economic, geographic and racial.

Seattle’s bicycle-route development so far has conspicuously favored prosperous, mostly white central and near-North End neighborhoods at the expense of less affluent neighborhoods with large immigrant and other minority populations in the northeast, southwest and especially southeast corners of the city. In this, as when it lays down cheap sharrows, the city has gone for the low-hanging fruit, allocating bike facilities to the communities that are already most disposed to biking (the downtown-Ballard-U-District-Capitol Hill nexus), rather than the communities that could benefit most from this healthiest and most economical form of transportation.

The good news: Transportation officials readily acknowledge these shortfalls and voice their determination to correct them. They concede that the emphasis on painted lanes and sharrows rather than separated bikeways has favored a seasoned, skilled and bold (or foolhardy) minority over the “willing but wary” masses who would try cycling if they didn’t have to ride between two-ton hunks of motorized metal. And they acknowledge the geographic and social inequities built into the 2007 master plan and its subsequent implementation — especially in Southeast Seattle, the city’s most racially, ethnically and economically diverse quadrant.

That whole quadrant has not a single safe, convenient, widely accessible north-south route. The closest thing is the Chief Sealth Trail, which runs diagonally up Beacon Hill from Myrtle Street under humming powerlines. It will get you downtown — if you don’t mind climbing up the hill and descending along fast, windy streets in mixed traffic. It’s like routing cyclists from Ballard to downtown over Queen Anne Hill.

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And the gap keeps widening. Dexter and Westlake Avenues run two steep blocks apart along the east edge of Queen Anne, converging at the Fremont Bridge. Over the past two years, Dexter has received a gorgeous traffic-calming, bike-favoring renovation, replacing two traffic lanes with a single left turn lane and bike lanes shielded by curb islands and striped buffer strips.

Many pedalers nevertheless prefer Westlake because it’s flatter, with several good sidewalk, interior-walkway and access-road options for riding. Either offers a better, easier and probably safer ride than any route in Southeast Seattle.

So how is the good City of Seattle dealing with this stark disproportionality? By spending $2.3 million to build a new, fully separated cycle track — on Westlake.

Meanwhile, Southeast Seattle gets talk, and, until recently, not even much of that. The 2007 plan includes 98 recommendations for specific “bicycle facility” ­(i.e. route and other infrastructure) improvements. Only 12 are in Southeast Seattle. Most of those are fairly minor and localized, like  ­ intersection and signal improvements. One calls for striping a bike lane along one side of one of the district’s main north-south corridors, Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. Another “recommendation” gives a nod to the idea of bike lanes along an even more important corridor, Rainier Avenue S., but then dismisses it by noting that it would require “detailed engineering study” and, probably, the removal of street parking.

So far, nothing’s been done on MLK or Rainier.

The disregard for South End bicyclists and pedestrians extends far beyond the master plan. Last February and March, student researchers from the UW School of Public Health studied signals and street-crossing conditions on three arterial stretches with similar traffic volumes: NW Market Street in Ballard and Rainier Avenue in Columbia City and Rainier Beach. They found that Columbia City, whose population is 33 percent white, had the most pedestrian fatalities and collisions, closely followed by Rainier Beach, which is 25 percent white. Rainier Beach had the most jaywalking. But in Ballard, which is 85 percent white and has a median household income about 55 percent higher than both Rainier Valley neighborhoods', “walk” signals lasted 10 to 60 percent longer relative to street width than they did in Columbia City and Rainier Beach.

“This means that in Ballard, pedestrians do not have to walk as fast to make it across the street successfully as they do in the Rainier Valley neighborhoods,” the authors concluded. More than a third of valley residents interviewed said they couldn’t get across the street in the time allowed. Given the short signals and many blocks between them there, jaywalking may be the most rational response.

Deb Salls, the executive director of the nonprofit Bike Works, which cosponsored the study, was shocked to find that SDOT officials weren’t shocked at these discrepancies. Just a glitch in the algorithm, she says they told her.

Private enterprises display the same sort of disregard. The Seattle Times posted an interactive map chronicling five years of “bicycle accidents” (very often automobile accidents with bicyclists as victims). It extended northward to Maple Leaf, around the 9000 North block ­— and southward only to Mount Baker, the 3000 South block, excluding nearly all of the Rainier Valley. (The Times’ disregard for Southeast Seattle and its minority residents shows also in the pop-up questionnaire its website poses, asking which neighborhood readers live in: “Queen Anne-Magnolia,” “Greenlake-Wallingford,” and other such micro-categories in the north end, or a single, catch-all, blank-space-on-the-map “South Seattle.”)

Safeway, like other modern supermarketers, installs spacious, solidly anchored bike racks outside its stores ­in prosperous neighborhoods. But at its MLK-Othello store, recently upgraded from 1960 to 1980 standards, a half-sized, unanchored rack is deemed good enough. Last time I tried to use it, it was jammed against the wall and hemmed in by a trash bin and loose boxes. Think that’s because no one bikes there? I’d gone on a quick milk run at 10pm. By the time I left, four other cyclists ­­— all male, but of various ethnicities — had arrived. Only one managed to lock his bike to the rack.

You might think that HomeSight and SEED, two Southeast Seattle affordable-housing developers, would want to encourage a transportation mode that helps their clients save money and get healthier. But there’s no bike rack at the imposing ex-City Light building they share in Columbia City.

To be fair, not just politics but geography and resulting development patterns complicate efforts to make the Rainier Valley bikeable. Much of Seattle has big ups and downs with wide, relatively level tables between. Once you summit Queen Anne, Capitol Hill or Phinney Ridge (assisted perhaps by a Metro bus’ bike rack), it’s easy to pedal around. The “valley,” by contrast, has lots of up and down and up and down again, and few through streets.

Just two straight, relatively central corridors shoot between the hills and dales — Rainier and MLK Way. Beacon Avenue and the Chief Sealth Trail are upland and peripheral.

Lake Washington Boulevard, my commute route, is flat and gorgeous, but peripheral and constricted.

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“We want to do a bike-car separation on the boulevard, and maybe traffic calming,” says SDOT planning and urban design manager Kevin O’Neill, who oversees the bike-plan update. Sounds great, but it’ll be a tight fit. A few inexpensive curbcuts and sidewalk improvements would improve connectivity there, and get done sooner.

Because they’re the only central through routes, Rainier and MLK tend to be heavily traveled (especially Rainier) and perilously fast (especially MLK) — shooting galleries for those who dare pedal them. Though I’m generally sanguine about traffic, I feel like a clay pigeon there.

Cyclists are almost entirely absent from MLK. Over the past year, however, they’ve become an increasingly frequent sight on Rainier, though it has not even a sharrow icon to protect them. I even saw one daredevil riding no-hands, no-helmet in the traffic.

Rainier is the natural valley route, the one bicycling advocates have clamored for; it’s the most central, and has most of the district’s retail, nightlife and public services. It was the route originally anticipated for light rail in the 1990s. “We looked at whether we could do a high-quality bicycle facility there,” says O’Neill. “But the level of traffic is so high, 35,000 vehicles a day in some parts.” Too high to eliminate traffic lanes, as on Dexter and Stone Way.

That might not present any real problems outside Columbia City, where parking along Rainier is often full. But it would doubtless be controversial; a road diet and bike lanes on Othello and Myrtle Streets roused angry complaints, even though traffic volumes are much lower there and the changes seem to work well. Making Rainier safe for cyclists would require the hard work of outreach and persuasion, and maybe some carrots for motorists. And the city hasn’t shown much motivation along those lines in Southeast Seattle.

It didn’t lift a bureaucratic finger back when it could have gotten a bikeway for cheap or free without additional disruption, when Sound Transit razed, rebuilt and expanded MLK Way to build its light-rail line, completed in 2009. “A cycle-track wasn’t part of the discussion for MLK when we were designing the alignment,” Sound Transit representative Bruce Gray said via email. “Working closely with the city, our direction was to maintain two lanes of traffic each way and provide new sidewalks the length of MLK while having as little impact on private properties as possible.”

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SDOT’s O’Neill, who wasn't involved then, sighs at the wasted opportunity. MLK is now, by default, the preferred route through the valley; SDOT’s new draft plan includes a separated cycle there. But that plan, like the 2007 original, includes many good ideas that won’t get built. For now, as Deb Salls says, “the Bicycle Master Plan is just a plan. It doesn’t set priorities, there’s no funding behind it.” The City Council will determine those, sometime after SDOT digests public comments and renders a final draft in September. (The comments window officially closed July 26, but O’Neill says his office will continue taking them as long as it can.)

Building an MLK cycle track will cost much more and be more disruptive than it would have been five years ago. But it will begin to right one of the starkest of many inequities in public services for Southeast Seattle. Will it do the whole job? Rainier and MLK are farther apart and arguably less redundant than Dexter and Westlake. Tom Fucoloro argues on the Seattle Bike Blog that a bike facility on Rainier would still confer big benefits. Equity, safety and convenience still call for it.

Those are the metrics set for weighing proposed bicycle projects, along with connectivity. The draft plan sets no priorities among them; Bill LaBorde, a City Council aide closely in involved in the process, says the public will always demand “safety first, across the board, then connectivity, then equity.” But safe, connected routes for some districts and no routes for others are a cruel joke. Councilmember Sally Bagshaw has said that she and her colleagues may want to weight equity more.

They’ll have to show that vaunted “vision,” and maybe some grit, to give the city what it needs, not just what its most vocal current bicycle riders want.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.