A rider's review of Seattle's new 2nd Avenue bike lane

Second Avenue has widely been considered one of Seattle's deadliest streets for cyclists. Will the city's new bike lane fix that?
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Riders on 2nd Avenue's new bike lane.

Second Avenue has widely been considered one of Seattle's deadliest streets for cyclists. Will the city's new bike lane fix that?

This morning, Seattle bike commuters got their first taste of the Department of Transportation’s overhauled section of the 2nd Avenue bike lane. The new protected bike lane comes just 10 days after Sher Kung was killed riding in the lane at 2nd and University.

The revamped section of 2nd runs from Pike Street to Yesler Way with an extension to 1st on Pike and an extension to Occidental on Yesler. The 10-foot wide lane is split into north and southbound lanes; a 3-foot painted divider with raised plastic bollards separates them from cars.

From 6 a.m. - 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. - 7 p.m. parking is banned. Off-peak, drivers can park next to the bike lane. Left turning drivers were once 2nd Ave’s biggest threat — a box-truck driver turning left killed Kung on Aug. 29. Now left turns off 2nd are controlled by arrow signals and bicycles are controlled by bike-specific signals.

SDOT considers this a demonstration project. They will be able to tweak the design as needed before making it more permanent with better barriers like the ones along the Broadway protected bike lane on Capitol Hill.

Riding in the 2nd Ave bike lane used to be, at best, a harrowing experience. The one-way lane was on the left side of the street, sandwiched between parked cars and moving traffic. Riders were at risk of being hit by cars pulling into and out of parking spots and driveways. Left hooks were a serious threat. At peak hours, drivers waiting to turn left would often queue in the bike lane, forcing riders to merge out of the lane and into fast-moving traffic.

The general consensus among Seattle bicyclists was riding the city’s main southbound downtown thoroughfare just wasn’t worth the risk.

The overhauled design is a game changer. Riding it this morning was comfortable and stress free. Cruising southbound at about 14 mph, I rode three or four blocks at a time before getting caught by red bike signals. There were plenty of other curious riders testing out the lane heading both north and southbound. I didn’t experience any conflict with riders heading the opposite direction. But, given that 2nd is downhill southbound, the different speeds are a potential source of conflict.

I found myself approaching intersections with the same apprehension I’d had in the old lane. Riding past a car waiting to cross your path feels like riding across the barrel of a gun, frankly. But my fears didn’t come to bear this morning as drivers waited patiently for their green arrow. SDOT had ambassadors posted at each intersection with left turns and at driveway crossings to help mitigate issues.

Not all drivers had figured out the left-turn arrow yet. Cascade Bicycle Club Communications Director Anne-Marije Rook was volunteering at one corner and said they had to hop into the intersection to block a few drivers turning left against the red.

Speaking at a press conference this morning celebrating the new lane, SDOT Director Scott Kubly acknowledged that new infrastructure requires an adjustment period, but said he’s confident the signals and lanes will work well moving forward.

Mayor Ed Murray, Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw and Tom Rasmussen, Elysian Brewing Company President Dick Cantwell and bike advocate Madi Carlson joined Kubly at the press conference.

Mayor Murray cited Pronto! bikeshare as the lynchpin for getting the protected lane built. Murray announced plans for the 2nd Ave renovation at a Pronto! press conference in May. He also focused on bicycles’ role in a complete transportation network.

“We are moving forward on bicycles, but we need to fund pedestrians and transit too. We’re not going to be a single issue city,” said Murray.

Councilmember Bagshaw said the cycle track is for riders like her.

“I’m one of those cautious but concerned bike riders, but I rode down 2nd Ave this morning,” said Councilmember Bagshaw. “We have a great transportation network happening.”

Councilmember Rasmussen said he’s excited about the safety improvement and that a complete transportation network helps attract businesses like Weyerhaeuser. The company recently announced they’re moving their headquarters to Seattle and cited transportation as one of the attractions. He also took a swipe at the previous administration for not getting protected lanes built.

“Former Mayor McGinn didn’t put much in the budget for downtown cycle tracks,” said Rasmussen. “You can make all the pledges in the world, but ultimately it’s what’s in the budget that matters.”

To be fair, downtown cycle tracks were only added to the Seattle Bike Master Plan (BMP) in April of this year when the Council voted unanimously to adopt the 2014 update. Previous iterations of the BMP didn’t call for downtown protected lanes.

Bike advocates are, of course, excited about the improvement.

Cascade Bike Club Policy & Government Affairs Manager Brock Howell said, “having a protected bike lane on Second Avenue is a huge safety improvement that will provide more order to the chaotic street. It will also help demonstrate how a network of protected bike lanes can work throughout downtown.”

SDOT is in the early stages of making that downtown protected network a reality.

“As much as we'd like to see a complete network of downtown protected bike lanes built tomorrow so everybody would feel safe to ride anywhere downtown, we still need to wait for the design work to wrap up next year,” said Howell.

Though the new section of 2nd is unquestionably an improvement over the previous design, 2nd south of Yesler and north of Pike remain as dangerous as ever. Kubly said the Pike to Yesler section was prioritized because it had the highest number of incidents on 2nd in years past. SDOT plans to extend the protected bike lane, but there is no concrete timeline for its completion.


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