The downtown bicycle revival circus

By Mark Hinshaw
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Pronto! bikes at Occidental Park

By Mark Hinshaw

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.

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The referenced parklet. Credit: Alyssa Campbell

For example, the city has been encouraging parklets – little pockets of public space occupying what previously were parking stalls. Objectives can clash, as seen on the block of Second between Pike and Pine. There, a long parklet was built which has precluded a two-directional bike route. The northbound protected bike lane abruptly ends at Pike, thus preventing a logical connection with Belltown. However, according to Dongho Chang, the City's Traffic Engineer, there is a plan to narrow vehicular lanes at some point to accommodate a northbound bike lane.

The original idea of parklets was that they would be lightweight, simple pieces of construction that could be easily removed if the space were needed for something else. Others that have recently been built are comprised of readily removable wood planks, planters and railings.

But Second Avenue's parklet on steroids involves huge blocks of concrete, custom handrails, enormous steel posts with lights and other elements of complexity and cost. The folks who built it will not be keen on removing it.

These kind of conflicts are avoidable. The city should determine which streets are appropriate for parklets and create regulations, as they already do with certain streets that do not allow driveways (otherwise known as curb cuts). And perhaps a few design guidelines would be in order to keep parklets from becoming outsized structures in the publicly-owned right-of-way.

There are other low-hanging fruits as well. For now, the Second Avenue bicycle improvements stop at Yesler Way, turning up the hill and down towards the ferry terminal. But there is a great opportunity waiting in the wings for the odd stretch of street known as Second Avenue South.

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Metro's current urban parking lot. Credit: Alyssa Campbell

Three blocks in length, starting at Washington and ending at King Street, there is ample width to re-purpose. Converting parking stalls from angled to parallel would allow for protected bicycle lanes on both sides of the street. This would create a safe and continuous passage for people using bikes all the way through downtown to King Street Station and the stadiums. Imagine Sounders fans biking to watch a game instead of trying to jam too many cars into too few streets.

One impediment: These blocks are currently the holding zone for Metro buses during their layovers. Before Pioneer Square took off with a slew of new restaurants and shops, using this street for bus parking was not a big deal. Now, lines of long buses block the views of active establishments. Metro needs to look for another location as this on-street parking lot for buses is no longer serving that district well.

Meanwhile, the city is pursuing other streets for similar conversions — an approach that dovetails with recent findings that fewer and fewer people drive downtown for work. This trend is occurring all over the country, as people rediscover the merits of living close to the city center.

This “inward and upward” movement is driving the economies of cities all across the heartland of America — not just in its coastal regions. Minneapolis recently beat out progressive Portland in a ranking of bicycle-friendly cities, proving this is more than merely a granola-eating city phenomenon.

Say, I hear that Kansas City is going for the gold next.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999).