Mike Lindblom’s recent front page article in the Seattle Times on Bike to Work day summarizes into an important question: when will we build seamless bicycle infrastructure? The Seattle Bicycle Master Plan sets out a plan to create “a safe, connected and attractive network of bicycle facilities” and follows this goal with a table of recommended facility construction in miles. This section is followed by a map of Seattle showing a future city covered by bicycle routes. However, what exactly do these lines convey? The executive summary of the SBMP contains a sidebar defining a bikeway:
Bikeway: A generic term for any road, street, path, or way which in some manner is specifically designated for bicycle travel, regardless of whether such facilities are designated for the exclusive use of bicycles or are to be shared with other transportation modes.
(Source: American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, 1999)
Antagonists of the progress of the SBMP will often complain that its success is primarily measured by the number of bicycle racks installed in the city. While providing additional facilities designed for bicycles is a goal of the SBMP it may sometimes feel like a least-cost effort. However, this comes as no surprise as the once touted SBMP is severely underfunded, by as much as 70%. Besides financial woes, progress in completing these goals also lacks political capital. Opponents continue to argue that building and converting lanes to bicycle facilities will increase congestion, bicycle infrastructure is actually meant to combat these quandaries and recent studies complement this belief. Opponents of building more roads cite induced demand as evidence that this route would not reduce congestion in the long run, while advocates of additional bicycling infrastructure trust that adding bicycle facilities will conversely increase the number of trips made by bicycle. As our bicycle commuting Mayor Mike McGinn builds up political support for his “Walk. Bike. Ride.” initiative, we see postponed plans for road diets come back from the dead.
While controversial projects like the Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel and other “road diets” are being argued over, we see other road construction projects move along with little discussion as to the bicycle facilities being added to them. In the SODO neighborhood, we see the West Seattle Bridge trail end East Marginal Way South. This trail connects well to West Seattle and the Alki trail which continues along the bay. To the east of SODO is the Chief Sealth Trail whose continued extension brings it closer and closer to it’s planned connection into SODO per the SBMP. Also, to the north is the SODO Busway trail, starting at South Royal Brougham Way and coming to an abrupt stop in a parking lot at South Forest Street. The obvious connection here is South Spokane Street. The SBMP recommends a multi-use path be constructed from the terminus of the West Seattle Bridge trail to Airport Way South as the connection between all of these.
When would enough construction take place to allow a multi-use trail to be built in this corridor? Right now. The Spokane Street viaduct is being rebuilt into a total of ten vehicle lanes between two levels. Diagrams show the lower levels to be a separated four lane road without shoulders. With all of the available space underneath the six lane upper level with shoulders, this seems like an opportune time for the city to step up and build a trail, or even a separated cycletrack, however the SDOT’s plan for bicycles in this corridor consists only of a ten foot wide sidewalk on the south side of the road. When asked of the plans for connecting this sidewalk to the West Seattle Bridge trail, the SDOT confirmed that bicyclists will have to stop and use two crosswalks, meaning two light cycles, to continue. There will be no bicycle facilities added to East Marginal Way South, requiring bicyclists to convert from vehicular traffic in the street to pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk. While to our south Portland is using innovative designs like bike boxes to create seamless infrastructure for bicyclists at intersections, the city of Seattle continues to consider a line drawn on a map as an adequate bicycle facility with no planning as to where these lines meet.
As to connecting Spokane Street to the SODO trail to provide a critical connection for cyclists to the southernmost Link Light Rail facility on the west side of Beacon Hill, the city has communicated that continuing the SODO trail as recommended in I-27 of the SBMP is too expensive, but they may add facilities to 6th Ave S. With heavy truck usage, this street is unlikely to get a road diet to improve safety. However every other north/south corridor through SODO is a fast four-lane road so there is little alternative. To the south at the Stacey/Argo rail yard, 6th Ave ends are cyclists are forced on to shoulder-less bridges without bicycle facilities. Here exist no plans to implement the possibilities in SBMP I-82. The Airport Way S bridge is in the design phase for rehabilitation and the SDOT has been silent about adding bicycle facilities to the approaches that are bing replaced. As major construction projects are completed and underway, the city of Seattle appears to be backing away of from all of recommendations made for this region.
Bicycling facilities need to be more than lines on a map. Care needs to be given to the design of the connection of these bikeways such that they create complete routes that give citizens confidence that they can travel from one part of the city to another.