A few weeks ago, the Seattle Department of Transportation finished its work to make the 2nd Avenue protected bike lane (PBL) permanent. Originally a pilot project with plastic bollards and paint, the finalized lane has curbs and flower planters separating bikes from cars, raised driveway crossings and a bike-traffic counter. It’s a nice improvement, which is good, because it’s one of the only things SDOT plans to do with new bike infrastructure downtown for the next few years.
In April, SDOT released its annual short-term implementation plan, which outlines five years of Bicycle Master Plan project construction. Coming on the heels of November’s $930 million, voter-approved transportation levy, bike advocates expected to see big things. Instead, they found a notably scaled back plan compared to last year’s update.
The five-year plan now calls for 25 miles of new PBLs instead of 36 miles and reduces neighborhood greenway mileage from 52 to 32. In addition, the plan puts on hold most of the Center City Bike Network — an envisioned downtown network of PBLs — pending creation of another transportation plan called the Center City Mobility Plan. That latter delay might have the unintended consequence of delaying the expansion of Pronto bike-share.
Norm Mah, SDOT spokesman, says that though construction of the Center City Bike Network was originally slated to begin in 2016 and wrap up by 2020, there was always an asterisk.
“The 2015 plan reflects unstudied but [Bicycle Master Plan] prioritized corridors in CC from 2015 to 2019,” Mah writes in an email. “Based on evolving nature of the center city, SDOT did not make a commitment to having all the CCBN construction complete by 2020.”
The new short-term plan does show a few small improvements downtown over the next five years: a short extension of the 2nd Ave. PBL, a few blocks of PBL on 7th Ave., and a stretch of bike lane along the waterfront, but it pales in comparison to the fully connected north-south, east-west network SDOT had previously discussed.
The robust network will come with the Center City Mobility Plan, a 20-year outline for downtown that considers biking, walking, freight, transit and parking. There are significant changes afoot downtown including buses moving from the downtown transit tunnel to surface streets, a growing population of workers and residents in the center city, and a major expansion of the convention center, all of which Mah says will inform where SDOT builds the downtown PBL network.
In the meantime, downtown remains a difficult place to ride. The 2nd Ave. PBL is one of the only pieces of protected infrastructure in the city center. To reach it, bicyclists must ride through a disjointed network of painted bike lanes, sharrows and roads with no bike infrastructure at all.
Cascade Bicycle Club released this statement urging faster action by the city: “Currently, biking downtown requires advanced skill and bravery, and there are no low-stress routes to access the 2nd Avenue protected bike lane; even if these routes did exist, this bike lane alone would not result in safer streets in our city, nor would it lead to increased ridership.”
The statement continues, “If the city of Seattle is serious about making our city a place where people of all ages and abilities are comfortable riding — and ultimately reaching Vision Zero — it will choose to prioritize the Center City Bike Network and definitively add the entire Network into its five-year implementation plan.”
Further complicating the issue, SDOT released an updated version of the implementation plan that puts the 9th Avenue PBL on hold until at least 2018 due to complications from a major construction project. This could complicate expanding Pronto bike-share. When City Council voted to purchase Pronto in March, Council Member Mike O’Brien included an amendment tying expansion funding to completion of five bike infrastructure projects including the 9th Ave. PBL.
Cascade Bicycle Club Policy Director Blake Trask says O’Brien is pushing SDOT for a stopgap fix for 9th that would allow bike-share expansion to move forward. (Disclosure: In 2014 and 2015 I did periodic contract writing work for Washington Bikes, a nonprofit Trask worked for which has since merged with Cascade.)
Mah confirmed that SDOT is “in the process of developing an interim design for 9th Ave N in order to coordinate with ongoing construction in and adjacent to the street.”
He says as such, “all projects in the [city council] proviso are currently on track to be completed,” meaning Pronto’s expansion should move forward as planned.
Ultimately, Trask says, “the Pronto amendment requiring an initial expansion of PBLs has fostered a really important element of accountability to ensure SDOT implements the nascent spine of a protected downtown network.”
The timing of downtown network implementation may not yet be finalized. O’Brien plans to discuss SDOT’s short-term plans at the May 17 Council Sustainability and Transportation Committee meeting.
Mah says SDOT plans to complete the Center City Bike Network by 2020, “pending funding availability.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.