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Can Seattle finally make good on downtown bike lanes?

The Seattle City Council passed a new resolution that sets deadlines for designing and building the center city bike network. 

A screenshot of the Seattle City Center Bike Network Map. (Courtesy of City of Seattle)

Seattle has broken a lot of bike lane promises. Despite the city already being years behind on construction of its downtown protected bike lane network, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in April that the Fourth Avenue bike lane wouldn’t be built until 2021, three years behind schedule.

Frustrated, bike advocates rallied at the steps of city hall with calls of “we can’t wait.” And city councilmembers responded.

Today, the Seattle City Council adopted a resolution that sets a timeline for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to design and begin building the downtown bike network by the end of 2019. Once complete, supporters say, the network will improve safety and, in turn, greatly increase the number of bicyclists in Seattle.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien, the resolution’s primary sponsor, said the Fourth Avenue postponement led to the measure, adopted on a 8-to-0 vote. 

“I was frustrated that once again another safety improvement for bikes was being postponed or deferred because other priorities were overriding a previous commitment,” he said. “I understand there’s a lot going on downtown and understand the rationale for postponing it. Yet this keeps happening and we’re losing credibility as a city that we’re committed to making these investments in bicycling.”

Seattle’s status as a leading bike city seems to have slipped, in large part because of the sluggish pace of bike infrastructure improvements. Seattle has long ranked among the best bike cities in the United States. In a new ranking of bike cities, however, national advocacy group PeopleForBikes factored in how quickly cities are implementing their bike plans. Seattle scored just .7 out of 5 on that front and came in 50th on the list. This is the first year PeopleForBikes produced its rankings, so it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison to Seattle’s previous rank, but the low rating is telling. Some studies that don’t factor in speed of implementation still rank Seattle high for bikeability.

O’Brien’s resolution creates a timeline to build protected bike lanes on Eighth and Ninth Avenues on the north side of downtown; extend the Pike and Pine Street bike lanes to connect downtown with Capitol Hill; extend the Second Avenue bike lane south to Airport Way; and build lanes in the Chinatown International District on Sixth Avenue, King Street, and 12th Avenue.

It requires that SDOT have the Fourth Avenue bike lane fully designed by the end of 2019 and ready to build in 2021 to avoid further delay. It also requires SDOT to report back quarterly on progress on all of the bike-lane work.

The goal is to give people an easy way to get to and through the center city without having to ride in mixed traffic on streets without bike lanes, as is currently the case. Protected bike lanes give bicyclists a space to ride on the street that’s physically separated from car traffic by bollards or planters.

“Right now we have a lot of great bike infrastructure, but the fact is it doesn’t connect to anything,” said Clara Cantor, a community organizer with nonprofit Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. “You’re often biking in this safe, comfortable bike lane and it will just end and dump you into a dangerous intersection. For a vast majority of people, that’s not safe.”

O’Brien’s resolution is far from the first set of bike lane deadlines the city has seen. In 2015, SDOT rolled out the Center City Bike Network plan, which set a goal of building out the downtown bike-lane network between 2016 and 2020. In 2016, the Center City bike plan got shelved in preparation for the “period of maximum constraint” — the time between now and 2021 when the city is facing heavy construction, removal of buses from the downtown transit tunnel and other issues that will make downtown gridlock even worse. Instead, the city set about creating the One Center City plan, which combined transit, bike, pedestrian, freight and vehicle planning downtown. Durkan’s delay of One Center City’s Fourth Avenue bike lane plan was also in deference to the period of maximum constraint.

There’s also Seattle’s 2013 Climate Action Plan’s missed goal of tripling the number of bicyclists by 2017. The city’s also a long way from achieving the 2014 revised Bicycle Master Plan goal of quadrupling bike ridership by 2030 and 2015 Vision Zero goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries, also by 2030.

So what makes these new deadlines different?

“That’s a fair question,” said O’Brien. “My expectation as chair of the transportation committee is we will deliver on this. We have the quarterly report back so we can make sure things are still on track. Putting specific dates on projects as opposed to ‘in the next five years,’ creates a level of specificity and short timeframe that will help.”

O’Brien said he brought bike advocates and SDOT leadership to the table to help craft a resolution that finds a balance between building the bike network advocates want and setting benchmarks SDOT can actually meet. Despite that, SDOT’s acting chief of staff was noncommittal at a July 18 city council committee meeting discussion of the resolution.

“It’s a significant challenge building anything in the right of way downtown in this period with private growth, our own projects and WSDOT and the tunnel,” said SDOT’s Darby Watson. “We might be seeing [new bike lanes] one or two blocks at a time. We will be doing it piece by piece as sections become available from private contractors and other works in the right of way. We won’t see a big corridor put together in one push.”

Council resolutions don’t actually have legal teeth — they are essentially declarations of intent. But O’Brien made it clear there would be consequences if his resolution joins the long list of bike lane promises come and gone.

“We won’t be shy about making this painful if they don’t deliver on something that’s a city priority,” said O’Brien. “We talked about provisoing other aspects of the budget, where SDOT cannot spend money on project X until they deliver on project Y. We decided not to do that for now, but we can do it anytime we want.”

Seattle Neighborhood Greenway’s Cantor was buoyed by council’s leadership and the collaborative process between her organization, Cascade Bicycle Club, SDOT and council staff to create the resolution.

“We’re going to be working to keep the momentum going,” she said. “Having a connected, intuitive [bike lane] network is the only way to get all of those existing lanes [to] be used to their full potential.”

Even though the Second Avenue protected bike lane is an island of infrastructure, its construction and expansion has bolstered ridership numbers. In April, SDOT extended the Second Avenue lane north from Pike in the heart of downtown to Denny Way near the Seattle Center Campus. In June, Second Avenue bike lane ridership was 21 percent higher than June 2017.

Cities with connected bike lane networks have seen far greater increases in ridership. Though other U.S. cities such as Chicago, New York and Fort Collins, Colorado have surpassed Seattle on bike lane implementation, all U.S. cities are still lagging behind Canadian standouts such as Calgary and Vancouver.

In 2015, Calgary launched an 18-month pilot project to build a temporary, but well-connected, network of protected bike lanes on several north-south and east-west corridors downtown. At the end of the pilot, ridership had tripled on streets with protected bike lanes. In 2016, overall ridership in downtown Calgary had increased 40 percent; surveys showed perceptions of safety had improved; women accounted for an additional 8 percent of the people riding in the protected bike lanes; and the number of collisions involving bicyclists had dropped, despite the increase in number of bicyclists on the road. In December 2016, the city made the network permanent.

Vancouver has made similar strides with its connected bike network. After its implementation of a number of interconnected bike lanes downtown, the number of bicycle commuters increased 60 percent, according to a Seattle Times report

O’Brien said if SDOT completes the bike lanes outlined in the resolution it will be a good start for Seattle. “In 18 months we will not have the complete, robust network that we want. But we’ll have a foundation that will allow us to build on investments we’ve already made that connect us to downtown.”

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, whose district includes downtown, said at the July 18 committee meeting that the network can’t come soon enough. “Let’s use every tool at our discretion [to get the work done]. … I would love in my lifetime to see this actually happen.”

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Can Seattle finally make good on downtown bike lanes?