Bike Plans: Aspirations & Actuality

The latest Bike Master Plan was adopted in 2014. There's even a map. But plans require implementation and that's where I sometimes feel we've lost our way. I've historically just accepted bike infrastructure as what it is, even being happy someone painted sharrows on a road to maybe warn folks in cars that people on bikes might be present. But since having a kid and really trying to bike regularly again – and experiencing how awesome the 2nd Ave bike lane is – I've realized that being happy to "share" the streets with cars isn't enough to get people biking. And if we can't change the default in cities away from half ton plus carbon polluting vehicles, then we're killing people in the short term and the long-term. So this blog is a bit about me looking at some bike infrastructure and realizing that we aren't doing a very good job of building it.

The other week I tried to use a little stub of a bike lane on 7th Ave S. It turns out that little bike lane isn't on the Bike Master Plan (BMP) at all! But I'm pretty sure it's new in the last couple years because I remember seeing it show up feeding into the Dearborn bike lane a few years ago. Strangely Airport Way is a recommended protected cycle track in the BMP!

Small section of bike master plan map centered around Airport and Royal Brougham

For reference, here's the legend from the BMP map:

Image of the legend from BMP

As you'll note, the thick blue lines with darker boxes is the recommended protected bike lane – similar to what we have on 2nd Ave, though presumably not a two-directions-next-to-each-other kind given that Airport Way is huge and can easily have the bike lanes be on either side of the street. The more typical "paint on the road" kind of bike lane are labeled as "In street, minor separation" here. That's still what Dearborn is despite the BMP here and the fact that we're doing an upgrade on it right now. You might wonder what that little circle with a number is. It's a "catalyst" project and is described in the BMP as: "These projects are located at significant choke points in the network and are critical to providing network connectivity for people of all ages and abilities."

So I want to talk about one of those catalyst projects which is #3 on Holgate going over I-90. A cursory glance at a regular map (not the BMP map) will tell you there aren't many connections over I-5 in this area. If you work in SODO and live in (North) Beacon Hill, your choices to get home on surface roads are:

In other words, not many choices. Holgate is the most direct if you're on a bike. This is what that infrastructure looks like today, approaching from the west to go uphill:

Picture of Holgate bridge looking east from bottom

If you look carefully, you can see the split to go to Airport Way to the right – that's the route I took the other day. To the left you can see a little white fence. That's the beginning of the sidewalk to climb up Holgate. Until the recent path, that was actually a staircase, but now it's thankfully a smooth ramp. On a bike you're faced with an immediate choice: climb up in the traffic lane at likely very slow speeds (if you can climb the hill at all) or go over the sidewalk and climb there. I climb on the sidewalk as far as I can and then walk (and sometimes bike again further up). But the connection to get to it is scary during rush hour as people zoom past in their cars, either booking up the hill or going to Airport Way.

Even if there's no traffic, the connection is awkward:

Picture of the pedestrian entrance to the Holgate sidewalk

You have to swerve around to go up the ramp as there's no entrance from the other side. In case you wonder, there's basically no usable sidewalk on the north side of the street directly to the left of where I'm standing to take this picture. In other words, even if you chose to bike on the sidewalk, there really isn't one for a couple blocks to the west on the north side of the street.

Once you're on the sidewalk, you discover it's kind of narrow. Another person would have a hard time squeezing past you as you huff and puff up the hill:

Picture of sidewalk on holgate

You'll note how similar the sidewalk looks to the road. They aren't actually on the same level and in fact that curb is a foot or more drop.

At some point you'll get to where the MTS trail meets Holgate. This is a real path that exists and is quite lovely. This is the view looking uphill where they meet:

Picture looking up Holgate showing sidewalk adn road

And here's the view down onto the Mountains to Sound trail which loops around the north end of the hill and joins the main trail at the 12th Ave Bridge (Jose Rizal):

Picture of MTS trail

But many of my destinations are in North Beacon Hill, near the light rail station, so I'll be continuing to climb up the hill. At the above point, unless you feel like tangling in traffic while you slowly go 5 mph, you'll want to stay on the sidewalk because there's still no bike climbing lane until a little further up. This is about where it starts:

Picture of beginning of bike lane on upper part of Holgate

The BMP recommends a "minor separation" path the entire way up Holgate, but it only exists right now at this point. Downhill it's not such a big deal to have a separated path, at least if you're willing to bike in the street. Typically you can go as fast as a car going downhill (I routinely go the speed limit downhill) so people driving cars don't usually get impatient and either follow too close or pass. That would not be the case uphill, without a climbing lane.

It's not surprising this Holgate connnection is so mishmash and hard to use right now. It's one of these "catalyst projects". Elsewhere in the BMP, they are described:

While large-scale or challenging projects are a part of both the citywide and local connectors bicycling networks and may be prioritized within this framework, it is likely that alternative funding sources (e.g., grant funding) will be necessary to successfully complete many of the catalyst projects.

And also:

Catalyst projects (see Map 4-9): While these projects are an integral part of the future system, their implementation will likely be either part of a larger regional infrastructure project or will require other agency partners to implement.

In other words, it is really hard, really expensive and we'll have to convince WSDOT to help. But the reason why this is frustrating is that even within these constraints, we could have made it better in the short term. The approach to the sidewalk on the bottom of the hill could have guided people on bikes to it (instead, you approach the bottom of Holgate mystified about how to climb the hill while cars are trying to zoom past you onto Airport). We also built the MTS connection a few years ago and while it's lovely, being dumped onto Holgate with no obvious way to proceed is jarring (do I bike downhill or uphill in traffic? do I bike on the sidewalk?). The planned trail along the mid-ridge line of the hill on the BMP would continue to a connection down Forest into SODO (amazing!) and then eventually hook up at Lucille & 12th Ave in South Beacon Hill. This would give people on bikes something of parity with cars with a bike "freeway" next to the car freeway:

Section of BMP map parallel to I-5

Wouldn't that be amazing!?

But that continuation is not planned anytime soon. I can't find anything in the implementation plan suggesting Seattle was planning to do work in this area or on Holgate, even before the recent noise about a "reset" of projects. There are lots of these bike routes in the city: you'll be biking along, enjoying not feeling like you're at danger of mixing with 30+ mph traffic, only to have a bike lane suddenly dump you into it, often without even the courtesy of some merge paint (looking at you, Broadway cycle track). Part of the problem is we've focused on building out the Greenways – but the Greenways were only ever intended to be local connections to the citywide network which rightly puts cycle tracks on arterials. The BMP has protected bike lanes on a number of arterials on my side of the city: Airport Way, Rainier Ave, MLK, and even Columbian Way. The Columbian Way project is proceeding (watered down in places), but the others aren't even on the likely inaccurate 2017 implementation plan, aside from the Rainier project which is listed as a "paving" project for 2020-2021 (from Dearborn to 23rd) and as a big giant TBD for the rest of the RapidRide corridor.

Meanwhile, we're going full steam ahead on big projects like the Lander St Bridge, while leaving lots of these stub bike routes to nowhere all over the city. This is demoralizing and undermines both trust in the city and interest in not driving. Imagine if we built a new arterial road in the city and it just ended in gravel or worse. No one would accept that for driving infrastructure, but we accept it routinely for infrastructure intended for people choosing to not use a car, often for years at a time. I wasn't as frustrated with it before because I saw the city as a "vehicular cyclist" and just dealt with it. But getting back into it as a parent and already having had several near misses, it no longer seems acceptable to tolerate the status quo.