Cheap fix guide to smoother Seattle cycling

Neglected cheap fixes could make Seattle's transportation systems a better fit for bicyclists and other travelers.
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A solitary Sound Transit bike hook: room for more.

Neglected cheap fixes could make Seattle's transportation systems a better fit for bicyclists and other travelers.

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.

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The misplaced curb ramp at Elliott and Bay: Tough luck, pedal pusher.

But when I explained that to the designated bicycle flak-catcher at SDOT, she said that didn’t matter: The ramps weren’t there to help bicyclists. They were there for the disabled, to satisfy ADA requirements — as if infrastructure can’t serve two populations at once. Often they were installed by developers, and the city didn’t trouble with niceties of placement.

There are other places (you may know some) where curb ramps could fill missing links in vital bike routes. Lake Washington Blvd. through the arboretum is a rush-hour gauntlet for both motorists and cyclists, who must cram into a single narrow lane. Sidewalks, little used by pedestrians, line much of the southbound side. They offer a handy alternative to the street scrum, a chance to get out of drivers’ hair (and crosshairs).

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An inconvenient curb on Lake Washington Boulevard: Just get over it.

They’d be handier, though, if they went through and if ramps were cut in the wide curbs at the Japanese Garden’s entrance. Handier still if cuts were made in the long stretches between crossings, making it easier to shift from street to sidewalk. Likewise on the long lakeside stretch of Lake Washington Blvd. down to Seward Park: In many places, sidewalks would be a good alternative to the narrow roadway. They could serve as pullover lanes so cars could pass, if only cyclists could get safely on and off them.

But curb ramps and curb cuts have scarcely come up in the city’s bike-policy planning. One member of SDOT’s Bicycle Advisory Board recalls them being discussed only when new bus-bulb bump-outs were planned on routes like Dexter Ave. — and only with regard to accommodating wheelchairs. They’ve “probably not” been considered as cycling aids, says Kevin O’Neill, SDOT’s planning and urban design manager, because, while cyclists are allowed to use the sidewalks, they’re “not really encouraged to.”

But when Seattle’s streets aren’t in shape to accommodate the cyclists the city wants to see use them, and adjacent sidewalks have excess capacity, why not? O’Neill concedes that curb ramps could indeed boost connectivity. “You’re right — it’s something we should think about.” And that’s something to look forward to.

2. “Bikes and transit make a great team” is the watchword at Sound Transit, and the agency provides several amenities for the team effort. It has installed bike lockers at outlying train and express-bus stations for riders who want to leave their bikes behind. Its buses (like those of Metro and many other transit agencies) have cow-catcher-style racks for those who need to take their bikes along. And its Link light-rail trains have small alcoves near every other door with hooks for hanging bikes — but not enough hooks.

Crosscut archive image.Each alcove could accommodate two bikes, but has only one hook. That's because the agency wants to keep half the space clear for luggage. It sounds fair in principle, but it fails in practice. Most Sea-Tac-bound passengers prefer to hold their suitcases close — in the aisle or on adjacent seats — rather than deposit them where they may not be able to see them or, if the train is crowded, reach them in time to stop a grab-and-dasher.

Meanwhile, as train and bike ridership both increase, the number of cyclists boarding frequently exceeds the hooks provided. Overflow cyclists take much more room than a suitcase, blocking doorways and displacing several standing passengers. I’ve seen them stuck standing at both ends of a crowded car, with all bike hooks occupied, the adjacent luggage spaces empty and passengers — as usual — clutching their suitcases.

Additional bike hooks would help relieve crowding and let need determine — first come, first served — whether bikes or luggage fill the alcoves. Perhaps Sound Transit’s planners should ride their trains more and see how their arrangements are, and aren’t, working. And, together with their city counterparts, consider cheap fixes, not just expensive new infrastructure.


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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.