I'm about to confess to a guilty pleasure.
For a number of years I lived in the northwest sector of Seattle. To get to my place of work, I would drive Second Avenue in downtown. At 6:45 a.m., when I reached Stewart Street where the street grid slightly turns, I was confronted with a rare urban delight. Fifty-five feet of broad pavement lay in my path, a span virtually empty from curb to curb for fifteen blocks all the way to King Street. Its downward sloping grade created a kind of foreshortened visual effect. Walter Mitty-style, I would tear down my mock La Mans course.
'Tear' is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, as the city’s traffic engineers had set the signal timing so that I could not exactly race. But if I maintained a steady speed of around 25 mph, I could meet all the signals just as they turned green. By strategically choosing a middle lane from the array of multiple lanes, I could avoid being slowed by turning vehicles and I could rip through the length of downtown in a matter of minutes.
Each morning felt a bit like the famous, breathtaking Claude Lelouch film in which he races his car across Paris in under ten minutes.
The thrill of the run was enhanced by the knowledge that sometimes the signal timing was off at a particular intersection. Would I make it? Or would there be a fiery crash and an overturned Honda Accord? Ah, guilt and pleasure. Always a potent combination.
I would be hard pressed to do this today. Last fall, Second Avenue was entirely transformed, its roadway almost completely reallocated. For much of the day, the street is now two lanes. Parking stalls on the east side were bumped over to make way for a two-way protected bicycle track with a moderate safety zone to boot.
With the exception of new signals that give bikes a brief jump on crossing intersections, much of the change was accomplished with relatively inexpensive painted lines and a plethora of plastic stanchions. The sheer power of the painted line is astonishing.
The change has fundamentally altered the experience along the street. People driving cars are aware that bicyclists have the right of way at intersections. Bicyclists have to be mindful of the stoplights and not race across the corner. Pedestrians now have to look both ways, despite the street being one-way, as bicyclists can travel both directions.
In a sense, the street has been democratized; no one method of travel dominates.
The dramatic change along Second Avenue is being echoed throughout the city's public realm. In the last few days, Mayor Murray released a new panoply of transportation programs under the banner of Move Seattle. A more surgical approach than previous initiatives, it would look at the needs of individual corridors and determine exactly what combination of objectives could be achieved with improvements. That approach still doesn't eliminate political fights, but at least it signals that everybody's favorite project isn't going to get accommodated on every street.