In late February, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) unveiled the latest addition to its evolving bike infrastructure network: two “leaning rails.” The rails feature a bar to grab, a platform on which to rest your foot and a traffic signal trigger button, allowing riders to queue at an intersection without having to get off their bike.
Leaning rails are already common in biketopian European cities such as Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmo, Sweden. Last summer, Chicago became the first U.S. city to install one. They are an urban flourish meant to make biking that much more convenient.
Seattle’s two rails were installed on the extremely popular Burke Gilman Trail at the busy intersection of 25th Ave. and Blakeley Street. It is next to a senior center, just north of the University of Washington Campus, near a large mall and surrounded by retail and restaurants. At peak hours, there can be dozens of bicyclists and pedestrians intermingling on the trail and sidewalk. According to SDOT Public Relations Specialist Norm Mah, the rails are more than just convenient. They will help mitigate conflicts between people on foot and bike.
“The rails help align bike riders to one side of the trail so the sidewalk is kept clear for pedestrians, making it safer for all to cross the street,” says Mah.
The rails were installed as part of a larger safety-improvement project at the intersection that included ADA-compliant curb ramps and new signal phasing intended to reduce conflicts between cars, bikes and walkers. Mah says that construction, materials and labor for the two rails cost about $4,000.
Jeff Aken, advocacy director for Seattle’s Cascade Bicycle Club, says the rails are worth it.
“It’s bigger than the cost of this one piece of infrastructure,” says Aken. “It’s about how Seattle treats cyclists and communicates that biking is an everyday activity. We have benches for pedestrians’ and transit users’ convenience; this is the same thing.”
Convenience is, of course, nice. But for all its new greenways and protected bike lanes, Seattle still lacks good bike infrastructure in many areas. There are sections of the city, especially between neighborhood urban centers, that at best have unprotected bike lanes or sharrows, which limits the viability of biking for lots of people. Is the minor convenience of not putting a foot on the ground more important than building better bike lanes?
Aken points out that relative to bigger projects such as protected bike lanes these railings are a drop in the bucket. Seattle’s new .7-mile protected bike lane on 2nd Avenue cost about $1.5 million. (Compared to the cost of new road building, the rails don’t even constitute a drop.) In other words, the city likely isn’t choosing between leaning rails and other bike projects.
“We definitely need more investments across the network, but it’s exciting that the city is continuing to push the envelope with modern bike infrastructure. They’re more nimble and experimenting to see what works,” says Aken.
He doesn’t expect citywide implementation of the rails, but says they could be good at specific, high-volume intersections. SDOT’s Mah says that they “will be evaluating potential future sites” after they’ve had some time to see how riders take to the new leaning rails.
One week in, the reception from Seattle commuters is lukewarm. I spent 20 minutes observing one of the leaning rails during the Thursday evening commute. In that time, at least 40 bicyclists passed through and stopped at the intersection and only three used the leaning rail.
Jessica Lisiewski was one of the bike commuters giving the rail leaning a try.
“I like that it’s here and I like the easy access to the signal button, but I’m not sure I’d rather have this than other things,” says Lisiewski. “Maybe over time people will get more familiar with it and use it.”
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.