Second Avenue: Just the beginning for protected bike lanes

Seattle did one project in a hurry. Others will follow but mostly at a much slower pace.
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Riders on 2nd Avenue's new bike lane.

Seattle did one project in a hurry. Others will follow but mostly at a much slower pace.

Long considered one of Seattle’s most dangerous bike lanes, Second Avenue between Pike Street and Yesler Way is now being lauded for its shiny new bike infrastructure --  a two-way protected bike lane, separated from cars by a 3 foot buffer and plastic bollards. Ridership in the first two weeks tripled over the old design.

For now, though, the Second Avenue cycle track is a .6-mile island of good infrastructure largely surrounded by bad.

City officials know they have a lot more to do in downtown as well in other neighborhoods. The Second Avenue improvements fit into a network of bike improvements planned for the heart of the city. With a largely unfunded array of projects envisioned by the city’s bike master plan around Seattle, officials are scheduled to make choices on priorities in the weeks ahead.

The need for better bike infrastructure on Second was underscored by Sher Kung’s death. A turning truck killed the new mother and attorney while she was riding in the old bike lane just 10 days before the new design was scheduled to be implemented. From 2007 to August 2014, Second had 60 bike-car collisions and one fatality. But the city has many other problem spots. In that same period, Pine Street from 12th to First Avenue had 94 bike and car collisions. Roosevelt Way between 70th Street and the University Bridge had at least 63. There were 50 collisions on Jackson Street between 23rd Avenue in the Central District and First Avenue in Pioneer Square.

There are other problem spots, too: Rainier Avenue S.; the Ballard Bridge and the nearby “missing link” section of the Burke-Gilman Trail; the vexing five-way intersection under the West Seattle Bridge; Pike and Boren, among others.

According to Jeff Aken, Cascade Bicycle Club’s advocacy director, there are common elements to some of Seattle’s worst streets. “Downhill streets with on-street parking and turning movements at intersections: Those are problems that Second Ave had,” Aken explains. “Cyclists get moving pretty good on those streets and without separation and visibility, it can be sketchy. You pay a heavy price for mistakes.”

For safety issues on small-scale projects, SDOT has a program that can move quickly to make low-cost fixes, said SDOT Traffic Engineer Dongho Chang. “We routinely do revisions if we see collision patterns and need to address it.”

The Second Avenue cycle track was one of the largest and highest profile safety program fixes. The department had a mandate from Murray and the Council to move quickly there. But Chang pointed to other more typical examples like Fifth and Union downtown, where pedestrians were getting hit by cars turning left from two turn lanes. With little fanfare, SDOT removed the second turn lane, which Chang said helped.

Another example is Furhman Avenue south of the University Bridge. Drivers turning left from the bridge to Furhman have hit bicyclists riding north onto the bridge (there’ve been 13 collisions there since 2007 and one fatality). SDOT plans to change that to a signal-controlled turn for cars coming off the bridge to reduce the conflict.

If there are other opportunities for low-cost fixes that fit within the safety programs budget, Chang says, his team has the go ahead from SDOT Director Scott Kubly and Mayor Ed Murray to take them.

Funding is a driving factor. Chang says the department often tries to take advantage of other scheduled projects to implement safety improvements for as little money as possible. For example, Washington Department of Transportation  is currently doing heavy utility work on the north end of the deep bore tunnel at Dexter and Mercer. Car and bike lanes are currently shifted around the construction. When the project is done in October, SDOT is having WSDOT change that section of Dexter to match the configuration of north Dexter, where there is a buffered, parking-protected bike lane. The painting needed to be done anyway, so the bike improvement comes at no cost to the city.

For most major bike projects such as the proposed Westlake Avenue N. protected bike project and the Broadway protected lane, the process is a lot slower. SDOT goes through design, stakeholder feedback, redesign and additional impact studies before implementation, Chang said. “We make sure stakeholder concerns are looked at and addressed. With a lot of projects that tend to take a little bit of time it's because we want to look at each detail and find the right solution.”

Prioritization for these projects is supposed to come in October, when SDOT, the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board and other stakeholders are scheduled to make choices about which improvements from the Bicycle Master Plan should take place over the next several years. A recently adopted plan update outlines a prioritization matrix that factors in such matters as a project’s safety effects, equity and the amount of ridership there.

“With all projects we need to have our [City] Council provide the funding and resources and priority for SDOT,” Chang said. He added that the Transportation Committee Chair Tom Rasmussen has been clear about priority in downtown and the bicycle facilities necessary for safe operations.

The Second Avenue cycle track is the first step for SDOT’s Center City Bicycle Network. The long-term plan is to build a connected network of bike infrastructure as high quality as on Second.

There will be a protected bike lane on Seventh Avenue, which Amazon is partially funding as part of its new South Lake Union construction program, and on Fourth Avenue from Cedar Street in Belltown to Seattle Boulevard S. at the south edge of the International District.

The Puget Sound Regional Council has allocated $800,000 and $5 million for design and implementation of the Seventh and Fourth cycle tracks, respectively. The money is programed for 2016 construction so, at least in theory, the next downtown cycle tracks are coming in the next two years.

Chang says the city is in the process of hiring a planning firm to lead the design of the Center City Network. What exactly the Center City network entails is yet to be determined, but Chang says planners have an eye towards east-west corridors that better connect downtown to the waterfront and Capitol Hill.

Bike advocates are pleased with the interim safety improvements, but look forward to a Seattle with a robust network that can get bike riders wherever they need to go.

“Mayor Murray and city leadership are moving forward. We’ve progressed beyond ‘if we can build it’ to ‘how we can make it work best,’” said Cascade Bicycle Club’s Aken. “We really want to see those complete connections eventually. We need good north-south, east-west corridors and routes into and out of downtown. That will really start to make it more convenient for people to ride.”


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