In transportation, even more than in other public services, it’s easy to mistake means for ends: to confuse building things — highways, runways, rail lines, bike paths — with doing the job. And so inexpensive improvements that might improve not only bicycle but car and train travel, but which won’t boost the city’s tally of “bicycle facilities,” pass below official radars. Here are two such fixes.
1. Seattle has thousands of “curb ramps,” streetcorner cuts that let wheelchairs, shopping carts, wheeled suitcases and bicycles roll rather than thump between sidewalk and crosswalk. For cyclists, who appear to be their most frequent users, curb ramps and midblock curb cuts can be lifesavers, enabling us to transition between street and sidewalk according to congestion and pothole, corrugated tree root, sandwich board, “Sidewalk closed” sign obstruction. In a word, according to which is safer.
They help us get out of the way of speeding cars and pedestrians walking three abreast. And they let us maintain momentum, rather than stopping and exposing ourselves to turning cars as we clamber up and down curbs.
But these cuts are emphatically not for bicycles, as I learned when I called the Seattle Department of Transportation a few years ago to suggest relocating a strategically misplaced ramp. That cruelest cut lies just north of the Olympic Sculpture Park, at the junction of Elliott Ave. and Bay Street. That stretch of Elliott is a four-lane urban speedway used by many trucks. It was also an essential link between Queen Anne and the waterfront and Pioneer Square. It’s less essential now, since the city completed the splendid West Thomas Street Pedestrian and Bicycle Overpass to Myrtle Edwards Park last year, but it's still often pedaled.
The Bay crossing does have curb ramps, but one is mysteriously placed behind a utility pole, obliging cyclists to stop and wind around the pole, bounce over the curb or mix it up with the cars and trucks. A proper ramp would boost connectivity and safety at less than a thousandth the cost of a soaring overpass.