Puget Sound Bike Share (PSBS) has been in the news a lot lately. They are searching for an Executive Director, and they have published a 5-year business plan which hopes to have bikeshare up and running in Seattle by summer or fall next year. Seattle Bike Blog has posted a thorough summary of the business plan along with an excellent comment thread, both of which are worth reading in their entirety.
In short, PSBS plans to rollout bikeshare in 4 phases (see map):
I have a great enthusiasm for bikeshare, and I think it could be very successful in Seattle — if done right. I am, however, deeply unsettled by some parts of this plan, in particular its phasing, and the prospect of putting bikeshare users — who, if the project is to succeed, must be drawn from the full spectrum of ages and abilities — on the streets of downtown Seattle with the current bicycle facilities. More after the jump.
Simply put, cycling throughout downtown Seattle is unwelcoming for all but the boldest, most athletic cyclists, and arguably unsafe for all. Very high traffic volumes and minimally-protective facilities (sharrows and bike lanes) combine with moderate-to-severe grades and a complex one-way system to make riding in the roadway daunting even for those of us (like myself) who do it daily; and high pedestrian traffic makes riding on the sidewalk awkward, slow, and rude.
There are really no good options for a bicyclist to travel north-south through the CBD (running roughly from Olive to Yesler, where the lion’s share of bikes will be stationed):
- 1st Ave: Always clogged with cars; poor pavement quality.
- 2nd Ave: Southbound only; very high door/left hook risk on the left side, transit conflicts on the right; often very fast.
- 3rd Ave: Saturated with buses, treacherous ventilation grating for the DSTT.
- 4th Ave: Northbound only. North of Spring the bike lane disappears, requiring a dangerous merge
- 5th Ave: Narrow and fast-running, no bike facilities.
Turning loose hundreds of assorted riders per day, most of them new to the vagaries of downtown Seattle’s traffic and terrain, all on heavy 7-speed upright bikes, is a recipe, at best, for lots of rotten rider experiences, and at worst for crashes, near-misses or even a fatality that could threaten the success of the entire enterprise. If bikeshare is to succeed in Seattle, we must do better.
First and foremost, we must enable safe downtown bicycling by adding a minimum of two dedicated two-way cycle tracks. While there are no perfect east-west streets for bicycling, Pine St, due to its relatively consistent and modest grade, centrality to the downtown retail and tourist centers, and utility as a longer-distance connecting route to Capitol Hill, is the clear choice. A cycle track on the south side of Pine between Bellevue or Melrose and 1st Ave would shield bicyclists from the intense traffic in the CBD and near Boren, and without conflicting with transit (buses run westbound only, west of Bellevue); once on Capitol Hill, the streets are friendlier.
For north-south travel, both 1st Ave and 2nd Ave seem viable candidates. 1st Ave is preferable on a number of counts, including a much higher concentration of residential, retail, and cultural activities, two-way operation for all vehicles (so bicyclists can follow vehicle signage), and gentle topography. Its expensive flaw, however, is its terrible pavement quality, which would require, at a minimum, resurfacing the new cycletrack, adding dramatically to the cost; 2nd does not share this problem. A two-way 2nd Avenue cycle track could be done cheaply by removing all east side street parking and installing highly visible barriers to alert drivers turning left.
A second option, if we are unable to secure adequate infrastructure downtown in time for the planned phase 1B, is to reverse the phasing. Instead of a downtown-centric rollout, why not an urban village based rollout? Beginning instead with Phases 1B/2 (plus the U-District, Uptown, and maybe the Waterfront) would leverage the good bicycle facilities we already have and put bikes in bikeable places, namely 12th Avenue, Pike-Pine, the Broadway cycle track (under construction), the Westlake trail and Dexter, the Burke-Gilman, the Central District, Wallingford, and the (almost complete) West Thomas St Overpass which will connect Uptown to the Waterfront Trail.
All of this reminds me of Adam Parast’s excellent thesis on the relative bikeability of Seattle and Portland. Consulting his map of current Seattle bikeability confirms my hunch: urban villages score much more highly and that, in the absence of a strong effort for new facilities, they should be prioritized for bikeshare. Adam’s map of potential bikeability is similarly instructive: downtown simply doesn’t have to be as terrible as it is today.
The initial rollout needs to be a strong success to secure the political goodwill for the planned expansions. If we do this wrong, if our infrastructural neglect contributes to a serious crash or fatality, or if putting bikes in the wrong places contributes to mediocre usage, we might not get another chance for years. Make no mistake, I want bikeshare in 2013, and I want it to be an incredible success. But we need either new infrastructure, or different phasing. Without them, the current plan is unacceptable.