I don’t write much about biking here, as Tom over at Seattle Bike Blog does such a great job of it, but I actually put more miles on around the city by bike than transit in most months; and I think bikes could have, particularly for short- to medium-length trips in the flat-ish areas of the city, at least as much potential to give people freedom from their cars as a good transit network, among other benefits. Cycling as a means of daily transport in those areas, however, will remain the pursuit of a small minority unless and until the city builds the infrastructure to make it safe.
In theory, the city’s Bike Master Plan is the vehicle to achieve this, and the BMP is currently undergoing a five-yearly update, with a public comment period ongoing until the end of January. Frankly, though, I’m unimpressed with what’s come out of the process so far, in particular the only item of real substance to be published, a draft map of the proposed Citywide Bicycle Network, excerpted in the image above. I think the best general critique is the colorful one given by Bob Hall, which you should read in its entirety, but in particular his remarks about the Mineta report, the Level of Traffic Stress metric, and the fundamental structure and purpose of such network:
There isn’t a single section that attempts to answer questions like this: “How will a cyclist to get from the University District to Capitol Hill in a safe, continuous, easy to follow path with the least steep hills possible?” We have been talking about biking in Seattle for decades now and still nobody can answer this. […] During presentations, planners asked us: “Which street do you think needs to be added to or removed from our map, or which intersections?”. WRONG QUESTION. Any given street or intersection does not matter as long as you can still get from Point A to Point B [where A and B are major destinations] in a safe, continuous route.
While I’m sure lots of well-meaning people have spent lots of time thinking about what lines to put where on this map, it reads to me more like a wish list than a coherent plan to get us to a bike network that would (along with improved transit, car-share, and other tools) induce anyone to sell their car.
Above and beyond Bob’s general comments, I have a few more specific concerns with the proposals on the map, after the jump.
- Insufficient attention to major connection points. I realize the BMP isn’t the place to figure out the micro-level detail of how to reconfigure each street or intersection to accomodate bicyclists, but there are some places in the network which are so crucial to its overall success that there’s not much point proceeding until we’ve sketched out some preliminary designs for how they could be reconfigured as safe and stress-free interchanges. As an example, for a Capitol Hill resident, the University Bridge is the connection point for most trips which involve the Burke-Gilman trail, but currently it’s miserable, requiring a rider to merge in with accelerating or decelerating cars on tightly-curving ramps which pass through poorly lit underpasses; the BMP draft proposes nothing to address this. Similar attention is needed for the crucial four-block connection between the forthcoming Westlake and Mercer underpass cycletracks, which will be the bike gateway to Uptown and the Seattle Center for the whole of north Seattle. Other such places include the Ballard, Fremont, Montlake and Spokane Street bridges.
- Major facilities on ridiculously steep hills. Primarily, the proposed cycletracks on Denny, between Olive and Stewart, and on Madison west of I-5. Riding down these hills is like riding off the face of a cliff, and riding up them is physically impossible for the 99% of the population that’s not in excellent physical condition and riding a bike with very tall gears. I understand that Denny would be a really valuable bike connection, if it weren’t an incredibly steep hill, but I don’t see how such a facility could possibly attract enough riders to justify the road space. In a hilly city, we may just have to accept that there are some origin-destination pairs for which a direct bike route may not be possible, and thus such trips may not attract a lot of bike traffic (absent major infrastructure, like a new bike/ped overpass, which I would love, but isn’t coming in the foreseeable future).
- Extensive parallel facilities on adjacent streets. For example, 10th Ave E and Federal Ave, north of Aloha; 23rd Ave and 22nd Ave, between Jackson and Olive; MLK and 27th Ave. Closely-spaced facilities might make sense in destination-rich areas, but those streets are not destinations. I’d rather spend money and political capital making one really good connection than two half-baked connections.
- Madison facility conflicts with major transit corridor. Figure 3-7 of the Transit Master Plan summary clearly shows there’s not enough room in the cross-section of Madison St (east of I-5) to fit in both a cycle track and bus lanes, yet the BMP proposes one anyway, even though the city is moving ahead with a rapid bus project on Madison.
For what it’s worth, my ideal BMP update would be one in which SDOT identified a major-destination-oriented network along the lines Bob described, figured out a couple of possible pathways for each connection in the network, assembled a team of engineers with a broad exposure to bike facilities in other cities, and sent them out to ride those pathways with a bunch of people of all ages and abilities who don’t regularly ride bikes, but might be interested in doing so. The engineers woud ask them to point out obstacles — everything from potholes to lack of a traffic signal — and discuss potential solutions right there on the spot, come back to the office, and write that all down. That would be a game-changing document, one which, if its proposals were enacted, would radically extend the viability of utility cycling in Seattle. I suspect, however, it’s not the one we’ll end up with.