Capitol Hill, Central Seattle lose in updated bike master plan

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The Seattle Department of Transportation has released the updated, $64.1 million Seattle Bike Master Plan Implementation Plan (PDF) — the agency’s most recent annual blueprint for rolling out bike infrastructure projects over the following five years. But to the frustration of local bike advocates, many infrastructure projects (like protected bike lanes and greenways) have been delayed or dropped altogether from SDOT’s game plan. And Capitol Hill wasn’t spared.

In Capitol Hill and broader Central Seattle, key protected bike lane projects and a number of greenways were either slashed entirely or postponed in the updated BMP implementation. To name a few, the protected bike lanes linking downtown to Capitol Hill on either Pike or Pine has disappeared from the updated BMP entirely (this project was slated to be completed by the end of 2016), along with the protected bike lane on South Jackson street (scheduled for 2019), the East Pine street greenway and the East Denny Way greenway linking the new Capitol Hill light rail station to the eastern residential heart of the neighborhood (both projects were supposed to be completed in 2019). Then there’s the protected bike lane extension on Broadway, which got bumped to 2017 after originally planned to be finished in 2016.

Capitol Hill did, however, gain a planned greenway on E Republican, linking the north end of Broadway to the Central Area Neighborhood Greenway that runs the length of 23rd avenue on parallel streets. But the win isn’t enough to offset the losses for local bike advocates.

“Like everyone else we’re frustrated,” said Brie Gyncild, co-leader of Central Seattle Greenways. “These sorts of [changes] make you wonder, how accurate is any of this?” said Gyncild. “We’re always just about get our next project.”

The updated BMP implementation plan — with a new timeframe of 2016 to 2020 — slashes the total miles of protected bike lanes slated to be finished by 2019 from 36 miles to 24 by 2020, along with the total miles of neighborhood greenways from 52 by 2019 to 31 by 2020, projects that were primarily located in downtown and southeast Seattle. The reason for the missing downtown projects is SDOT’s decision to set aside implementing the Center City Bike Network while the city completes its recently launched Center City Mobility Plan, another downtown-centric plan that is supposed to identify how best to integrate the various modes of transit that serve the city’s urban core.

“Cascade is disappointed with the current bike master plan implementation plan,” said Kelli Refer of the Cascade Bicycle Club. “A lot of the projects that were previously identified in the 2015 plan that were supposed to be built in 2016 have either been delayed or dropped off entirely.”

Gyncild of Central Seattle Greenways says the loss of the E Denny Greenway particularly stung. “We were incredibly frustrated that Denny was left off. The Denny Greenway is very important to us because it leads to the light rail station.”

Refer said the lack of a plan for a Pike/Pine to downtown bike lane connection is a major setback. “[We need] safe connections from Capitol Hill to downtown. It is such a growing neighborhood and it’s very close to downtown. It’s something that should be built in the next five years, especially because of the growing density.”

The missing downtown core projects also irk Refer and Cascade. “That delay is really dangerous,” Refer said of postponed downtown projects. “We don’t want to have to have anyone injured or killed biking downtown and the way to do that is to build safe infrastructure sooner rather than later.”

While fatalities and serious injuries resulting from traffic collisions have been going down citywide over the years, downtown is still a hub for such incidents. Bike advocates point to the lack of a comprehensive bike network throughout downtown and connecting to nearby neighborhoods.

Adding insult to injury, Seattle voters enthusiastically passed Mayor Ed Murray’s pro-bike, pro-transit Move Seattle levy last year, which many local bike advocates saw as a public mandate for SDOT to go all-in on developing a comprehensive bike infrastructure network in the city. Move Seattle also set aside money specifically for bike infrastructure, to the tune of $110 million for greenways and bike lanes. With this most recent BMP implementation plan update scaling back, advocates see the city as walking back on their commitment to the Bicycle Master Plan and the Move Seattle voter mandate.

“They talk a good game, they got us excited, and then they dropped the ball, and we need them to pick it back up,” said Gyncild.

These sentiments were visible last week at a meeting of the Bicycle Advisory Board—a body of bike advocates that advises the city council, the mayor, and city departments and agencies on all bike-related policy— with bike-friendly City Council member Mike O’Brien and representatives from SDOT. City reps got an earful about the updated plan from board members and other attending bike advocates.

“It’s just not clear to me how these decisions are being made. It feels very opaque to me,” said Merlin Rainwater, bike advisory council board member, and co-leader of Central Seattle Greenways with Gyncild. “We’d like to see the Greenway on Denny that connects to the light rail station prioritized and that has just disappeared from the plan. That leads us to the question of how we’re defining ‘connectivity’?”

SDOT says the reason for the changes is their new assessment of both available funding and realistically achievable projects within the five year timeline.

“These are the deliverables,” said Kyle Rowe, associate transportation planner at SDOT. “There are capital projects that when you get into the flow of it, there’s changes in the schedule that are beyond our control,” Rowe added.

Rowe also noted that the 2015 BMP implementation plan operated on a cost overrun of over $41 million due to the expiration of the former Bridging The Gap transportation levy and the uncertain future of Move Seattle. Now with Move Seattle passed and a tangible funding source locked in, SDOT says they want to make sure the current BMP implementation plan is “in the black.”_DSC5463

As for the missing downtown projects in updated BMP plan, they’re not in the trash bin yet, said Dawn Schellenberg, SDOT Community Engagement Liaison of Project Development. Schellenberg said the Center City Bike Network will be incorporated into the new plan. “I don’t know that the Center City Mobility Plan would cause anything to be dropped, but rather what to prioritize.”

The Center City Mobility Plan is slated to be finished and made public in June, after which public input will solicited in the fall.

SDOT’s justifications are unlikely to placate bike advocates who see the rollout in terms in life and death for cyclists on Seattle’s streets.

At last week’s Bicycle Advisory Board meeting, the atmosphere got particularly tense when public commenter Antoine McNamara, a member of Beacon Hill Safe Streets, recalled the death of cyclist Sher Kung, who was killed downtown on 2nd Ave ten days before protected bike lane upgrades were made on the street.

“In 2015 we heard that we were going to have this bold plan for a Center City Bike Network and implement it in 2016. And [the city needed money, so we all advocated for the levy and despite opposition it passed overwhelmingly. And now it’s ‘oh, we need to do more planning’,” McNamara said. “Ten days made the difference, and that was life or death for her. And now we’re talking about pushing it off?”

Nicole Friedman, one of the SDOT representatives at the meeting, defended her agency by saying everyone should keep in mind the progress that has already been made on Seattle bike infrastructure.

“No one would build half a mile of a highway and say ‘oh in five years we’re going to come back to it.'”

“I think we need to recognize some of the good things that are happening,” said Freedman. “We have an entire transit division that is completely on board with bikes, from the director down to staff.”

“This is one of the best cities in the country for bikes and yes we have a lot of work to do and a way to go and maybe we made some bad decisions but we’re doing a great thing,” she said.

Both Central Seattle Greenways and Cascade Bicycle Club say they are working with SDOT and city council members to address the grievances of the bike community, especially to ensure that the mobility plan includes the protected bike lane projects from the center city plan.

“No one would build half a mile of a highway and say ‘oh in five years we’re going to come back to it.’ We’re basically asking the City to not do that to bike infrastructure,” said Refer with Cascade.

Next Tuesday, on May 17th, the City Council’s transportation committee — chaired by Council member O’Brien — will take a look at the updated BMP implementation plan, and could direct SDOT to make changes and restore cuts.

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30 thoughts on “Capitol Hill, Central Seattle lose in updated bike master plan

  1. Separated bike paths are expensive, long-term projects, so there could be some justification for delaying the work in the downtown core. But greenways? They’re fast, inexpensive upgrades that help all users of the street. What’s the worst-case scenario? A greenway gets built, needs to be rerouted for transit, and the neighborhood is stuck with a safe, pleasant, walkable street that boosts property values?

    • I didn’t see a definition of a greenway. Is it simply painting the sidewalk with a bike symbol and adding signs? Or, is parking removed to make room for bikes?

    • Thanks for asking —
      seattle.gov:

      Neighborhood greenways start with a good foundation and make small improvements that add up to a big difference. Every neighborhood is unique, however, there are a few common greenway elements we can use everywhere.

      • Change the speed limit to 20 mph
      • Add about one speed hump per block
      • Add signs and pavement markings to help people find their way
      • Add a some combination of curb extensions, rapid flashing beacons, crosswalks, medians, or traffic signals at busy intersections
      • Add stop signs at streets crossing the greenway
      • Smooth sidewalks and streets and add curb ramps
  2. Josh, this is a fantastic article.

    As a Capitol Hill resident who lives 20 feet from E Denny, I bought my house under the premise that the city was going to follow through with their own plans to make my neighborhood safe for getting around by bike.

    For anyone interested, the full bike advisory board meeting with Mike O’Brien can be found here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2Q5JgFnk3w

  3. Also, I feel Nicole has been a great disappointment, and her quote sadly reinforces that perception.

    “This is one of the best cities in the country for bikes and yes we have a lot of work to do and a way to go and maybe we made some bad decisions but we’re doing a great thing,” she said.”

    This myth of greatness — and the willingness of our own city staff to openly rationalize inaction on the basis of it — is the greatest danger to being a city where it’s comfortable to walk and bike.

    Compared to other north American cities I frequently visit – Davis, Palo Alto, Portland, Vancouver BC, etc – Seattle is in fact quite lousy for biking.

  4. The recently completed greenways project on North Capitol Hill is seeing little to no use at all. I am all for the concept of bikers using less traveled residential streets to get around- seems like a no-brainer- but I know it cost a lot of money and would like to see it utilized. Sadly, the circuitous route make that less likely. Is the theory that proliferating linked greenways will encourage ridership? I hope so, but so far I the results leave me skeptical. And do bikers really want speed bumps on the routes?

    • I’d love speed bumps on my street. When we had them nearby though (on a windy road next to the arboretum) they didn’t last long and were removed after someone spray painted “these kill bikers!” or something like that on them.

      It would be nice if on the greenways the City put up 20mph signs vs. the neighborhood greenway committee signs that look like they’re a suggestion vs. a traffic rule.

    • From what I have seen the greenway between Cherry and Galer gets a good amount of us. The Montlake end likely has low use because of the dead end at Interlaken park. Where the greenway crosses Madison there is a steady stream of bikes despite all of the construction mess. The changes to the Madison crossing are so much better than the old crossing. The crossing that needs help right now is 21st & John.

    • Many kids use it to get to/from school. And as a biker I want the speed bumps…the current style is pretty easy to ride over and anything that slows cars is appreciated.

    • The northern end is currently blocked by a staircase, the middle has been blocked by construction on 23rd, and the southern end does not yet connect to the Rainier Valley (see http://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2016/05/11/guest-post-seattles-stranded-biking-families/). The city is aware that some of the speed humps are too harsh for people biking and looking into fixing them. So I’d say it’s really too early to judge – let these things be fixed first.

    • Are you talking about the one that ignores the nearby 6-8% grade options, and instead elects to climb up a 15%+ grade? Yeah, surprise it sees relatively little use.

    • Hi Richard, which specific streets are you referring to? I’m involved with Central Seattle Greenways and this is the sort of local knowledge and input we are looking for… the goal is for Greenways to always follow the most gradual slopes. Let me know on here or feel free to come to our next meeting: Monday, May 16, 6:00 p.m., at Cortona Cafe (25th & Union)

    • I’m referencing the section coming out of Montlake. First, the 23rd & Boyer crossing is atrocious – and honestly, I don’t know why. It’s very visible, it’s clearly marked, but I have yet to EVER cross that where at least 1-2 cars didn’t barrel through it, completely ignoring me trying to cross in the crosswalk. Then I get to ride on a way-too-narrow sidewalk, or walk my bike up really steep stairs (8-80 – so you think an 80-year-old can walk the bike up those stairs???) – then instead of sticking to the plan to make the 8-ish-percent grade of 24th accessible to bikes, the city capitulated to the whiners (no fault of SNG, but we’re talking about the outcome, not whose fault it is) – and push to use the ridiculous grades on 20th-21st-crescent. That section is part of my daily commute, since before it was a greenway, and I don’t mind it at all – but there is no way in heck that meets the definition of a greenway.

      Sure, you could take the alternative and ride up Interlaken – it really is much calmer – but the motor traffic there is still pretty constant, and the combined factors of limited sight lines, no shoulders, and narrow lanes means even though it’s a calmer route, it still doesn’t come close to meeting the 8-80 criteria.

      Plus, we’re talking about moving just from Boyer to Galer. Along 24th, that’s 0.2 miles. Using the Interlaken workaround, you’re going over a mile.

      So in the end, the closest we can get to a “greenway” through that part is:
      -Assume you’re adding 0.8 miles to cover that 0.2 miles.
      -ride on a very narrow, no-shoulder, uphill road, with tight corners. Low, calm traffic, sure – but what traffic there is has to pass with unsafe visibility.

      SNG, you guys do great work with what you’re given – but this is a prime example of the city hamstringing your efforts.

  5. A greenway on E Republican? I’m trying to contain my bafflement. Republican is one of the steepest streets up from 12th Ave. I’d never choose it myself in either direction. Why not Denny or Thomas? (Yes, a Thomas route would zigzag on Malden to Republican to avoid dead-ending into Group Health, but it’s a much better hill.)

  6. A narrow channel through the speed-bump would allow bikes to pass unhindered, but still impede car traffic. It might also allow better drainage: the speedbump on 21st Ave E between Denny and John creates quite a little lake during downpours.

  7. Denny is the least steep hill climb from Broadway up to 15th, and would make a good greenway connection all the way over 21st Ave. It is already designated a bike route so it could be improved to a greenway with hardly any effort. Improved crossings at 19th and 12th would be the only real infrastructure changes.
    One safety improvement I would love to see is a 4-way stop at 19th & Highland by the school. Drivers come flying down 19th into the school zone and there are a ton of little kids crossing right there. I have seen too many close calls as drivers try to go around people in the crosswalk.

  8. Perhaps Seattle could adopt bike licenses – we get hit for cars and boats every year. A $50 tab would pay for all the greenways..

    • No it wouldn’t. Every bike tab system ever tried has cost more in admin costs than it brought in revenue, and adding $50 per user to a mode of transportation that is the fallback for those without the ability to afford cars is an inherently flawed idea anyway. I’d gladly pay $50 to stop the nonsense repeated call for tabs, but the people that tend to complain about the lack of bike tabs are – in my experience – going to just find some other anti-bike complaint anyway.

    • To add to the above, also keep in mind that local infrastructure is almost completely paid for by vehicle-agnostic sources, so a cyclist already pays as much as a motorist for city infrastructure – and generally gets a much smaller per capita share of spend.

      Tabs generally go toward state infrastructure, and state spends a MUCH smaller share of its funds on bike projects.

      The perception of cyclists not paying their share is an severely misguided myth.

  9. Kyle Rowe’s remark is a classic example of the cornered bureaucrat’s ploy of throwing a cloud of “unexplainables” into the faces of those protesting. “Because of x, y, and z factors, none of which you understand (nor will we explain) well enough to contradict, what you are asking for is not possible.” Explain to us clearly why “available funding” is such a difficult issue when voters just handed SDOT almost a billion dollars, largely accomplished through the very hard lobbying and phone-banking work of Cascade, Seattle Greenways, and other bicycle and ped groups, who now understandably feel betrayed. In the meantime, stop using that other bullshit cloud, the one where you congratulate yourselves on Seattle being such a great place to ride a bike.

    • I expect these decisions are being made way higher up the chain than Kyle. In my communications with him, he’s never issued an explanation or apology; instead, has said things like “I understand your concern” and “we’ve been advised.” I think he gets it. His superiors do not.

      Nicole patting herself and SDOT on the back in the face of this ridiculous plan, though.. that’s something else. Between fudging the Pronto membership numbers, this latest little self-congratulatory speech, and some other prior things she’s said in council chambers, I don’t see a very bright future for her here.

    • Of course you are right, Andres, and I should have included a proviso for Kyle’s sake. Point remains, SDOT needs to splain and the Mayor needs to make an appearance about this issue. He certainly made a lot of appearances back when he was flacking Vision Zero and the billion-dollar levy.

  10. It seems that Ed Murray’s style is to make silly conservative proposals (like this bike plan scaleback, or closing all the hookah lounges, etc.), provoke a massive public thrashing, and then reverse his position. I don’t know why this would be a good idea but it does keep his name in the papers which maybe is his rationale.

    So let the public thrashing continue!

  11. As Richard mentioned, the north Cap Hill /Montlake greenway follows an idiotic route which discourages ridership. I don’t see many kids using it to ride to school (they are all on my street paralleling 19th Ave East), though I would like to. It’s crazy zig zag route and steep grade near East Crescent makes it almost unrideable for the majority of cyclists. It is also over-infrastructered and way more expensive than it should be on a per mile basis. So, good idea poorly implemented.

    • “Good idea poorly implemented” could describe a lot of bike and transit projects in the Seattle area. It’s like their heart is in the right place but they try to please everybody and end up with something crappy. (See First Hill Streetcar, Broadway in general, 2nd Ave bike lane)