North Capitol Hill Topography via CSG Blog

Central Seattle Greenways (CSG), in coordination with other greenways, ped-bike and neighborhood groups have been pushing over the last few months for a ped-bike trail on the SR-520 Portage Bay crossing from Montlake to North Capitol Hill. They have built up a lot of momentum for the idea and this post clearly lays out the argument for the connection and addresses some common questions and concerns.

It would not be hyperbole to think of north Capitol Hill as a topographic fortress. It is surrounded to the east, north, and west by very steep slopes. To the best of our knowledge, there is no ADA accessible route for walking or biking off of north Capitol Hill (check out the map below – compiled from city data and actual measurements). Complicating the situation, the streets that were slightly less steep were cherry picked to be arterials for car traffic. As a result, creating an all-ages-and-abilities friendly route between the “urban centers” of Capitol Hill and the University District, and further to neighborhoods in N.E. Seattle and to the Central District, is quite a challenge.

A Portage Bay Bridge Trail would bridge this topographic fortress. According to WSDOT, the Portage Bay Bridge Trail (PBBT) would have less than a 5% grade, be well lit, and be considerably more direct in getting to the “Montlake Hub” of regional trails and to Husky Stadium side of the UW campus. It would be the most direct and family-friendly route from the Montlake Hub to Capitol Hill by far.

Even in terms of getting between Capitol Hill and the East Campus of the UW, taking the PBBT would only be slightly longer than a Harvard Ave E route (1.89 to 1.63), but would be significantly less steep (4.5% to 8.7%), and more separated from traffic. Even amongst experienced cyclists, research has found that article “cyclists are willing to go considerably out of their way to use a bike boulevard or bike path rather than an arterial bike lane,” and that people will go over three times more out of their way to avoid routes with slopes of over 6% grade compared to those with 4-6% grade (click here to purchase full article). This affect would likely be more pronounced in people who are willing-but-wary. In other words, since the PBBT will be better separated and less steep than other options, people will choose to use it over routes that currently exist even if they are shorter. Let’s look at a few of the existing alternatives.

Whole post here.

19 Replies to “CSG: Bridging the Topographic Fortress with a Trail”

  1. The post includes this sentence: “Complicating the situation, the streets that were slightly less steep were cherry picked to be arterials for car traffic”. Historically, 23rd Avenue East and Harvard/Roanoake/10th Avenue East were cherry-picked for streetcar lines that had grade limitations; in 1940, they were converted to electric trolleybus lines; in the early 1960s, the addition of I-5 and SR-520 led to huge increase in auto traffic. The car traffic came second or third. Was Interlaken built for cyclists? Between 1940 and 1963, on Eastlake Avenue East, there were two frequent electric trolleybus lines; that mode was restored in 1997. All land-based modes are limited to bridges across the ship canal and Montlake Cut.

    1. Thanks for the insight eddiew! I’m always curious about how our built environment got to be how it is today. Best

  2. Could be ridiculous but I was watching a documentary about the Autobahn. They said they have it graded so no climb is greater than 4% meaning sometimes elevations and descents start miles or tens of miles in advance! Ideally, cycletracks would also follow this design.

    1. They’re also much more serious about repairs…there’s very little patching, instead entire sections of roadway are removed and new ones put in.

      The German transit systems are even better, any city there over 500k has a system that is far and away better than Seattle’s.

  3. A local improvement district (LID) would be a great way to pay for all this. I’m sure the UW would love to chip in after spending a bazzilion on a new stadium.

    1. Technically UW didn’t spend it, athletics did….which is a separate isolated budget. This does preclude UW from helping…but very different pots of money

    2. I disagree completely, unless “local” is defined very widely.

      Who uses 520? People from all over the region. In particular, people that live and work in the northern part of the eastside. Kirkland, Woodinville, Redmond, and Bothell would need to chip in for all sections of the road — the freeway is much more important to those places than to nearby Seattle neighborhoods, many of which would rather see it go away.

      The same applies to the bike path to some degree. This isn’t a path that has lots of local exits for people living along its route. Like the freeway itself, it’s a bypass (and one that cuts considerable distance and grade for through-traffic). The users’ homes and destinations will be spread all over Cap Hill, eastern Seattle (the Burke-Gilman Trail north/east of UW and Lake Washington Loop are to the trail what I-5 is to 520), and the eastside.

      But in addition to that is the following (which is only my opinion, but a pretty good principle): it’s wrong for to build a road and leave out pedestrian and bike access along and across the corridor. Build a freeway over land, make sure that routes both across and along the corridor are preserved for walking and biking (I-5 was a massive failure in this regard; 405 nearly as bad, and 520 is only now repairing much of its damage). Build a bridge for cars, include an adequate route for biking and walking. Build a bypass for cars, include a bypass for bikes.

      1. I was referring to just the additional cost of adding the bike lanes to the 520 bridge to include in the LID. It’s size can be modeled just like any other catchment shed, so there’s you boundary. The rest is just math. Assessed valuation in the LID x rate X = cost Y.
        Now we can quit bitching the cyclists don’t ever pay for anything.

      2. @mic: But who really benefits from this project? I maintain that, as with the roadway of 520, people and businesses on the eastside care more than people and businesses in Montlake or the U District.

        I furthermore maintain that it’s always the responsibility of any road-building project to provide access for biking and walking, both along and across the corridor. That the lack of a biking and walking route in the 520 corridor has always been a mistake, and that WSDOT owes it to Seattle’s pedestrians and cyclists with interest.

  4. I support building the Portage Bay Trail. However, I am concerned that Montlake will oppose it. They are already opposing the two bus lanes through Portage Bay which are essential to bus service or eventual light rail on this corridor. Making the footprint even larger for a bike trail and the bus lanes is likely to freak them out. The bus lanes can’t be sacrificed for this trail. Buses are the likely mode on the 520 corridor for quite some time and can’t operate here in GP traffic.

    As to the UW contributing, I think that is highly unlikely. They have just embarked on a on a long term $30 million project to enlarge and modernize the Burke Gilman trail through campus. Pedestrian and bike traffic is extremely heavy there and will be even more so with light rail. They will likely be building this in segments with grant funding for a long time.

    1. I’m not entirely sure how useful those bus lanes will actually be in practice. Westbound, buses will have to merge with cars just a short distance later anyway to get onto I-5. During very heavy traffic, the bus lane for such a short distance would save a minute or two. Most of the time, it would save nothing. Eastbound, buses that use the lid won’t be able to use the bus lane anyway because it’s on the inside lane, while the exit ramp is on the outside lane. Only buses that bypass Montlake completely would be able to use this. Which means the only bus that will ever be able to use this lane will be a bus that is providing redundant service to Link.

      Also, I travel across 520 every day to work and, ever since they started tolling, eastbound traffic in the general-purpose lanes has not been all that bad. At this point, I say reduce the footprint of the Portage Bay bridge to 2 lanes plus shoulders, plus a bike path. If congestion becomes worse in the future and we decide we really need a dedicated transit lane though this section, we can always restripe the roadway to get rid of the shoulders to create such a lane. Again, we would only do this if and when we decide we actually need it.

      1. I disagree. With the loss of the flyer stop, Metro must split UW and Downtown bus service. UW buses eastbound will use the lid, but downtown buses will not. East Link and 520 will always serve different transit markets and the need for robust bus service there will remain for some time from Kirkland and Redmond which won’t be served by East Link.

        As for traffic, I would say two things. First, traffic may not always be that bad, but often it is. Transit needs reliability to attract market share. Second, we are building for the future, not today. Tolling will come to I-90 soon and traffic will increase on 520. We need a reliable transit corridor on 520 for many years.

      2. Actually, the proposals I read indicated that downtown buses would only skip Montlake for peak-period-peak-connection trips – off-peak, downtown-bound buses would stop on top of the lid.

        Not doing this way would screw over way too many people. I would absolutely attend meetings and scream if there were a proposal to force me to backtrack downtown in order to get to Redmond or Kirkland outside of rush hour and many others would too.

        And even during the peak, having buses take 520 into downtown is really just a cop-out for not providing an acceptable transfer story at the UW Link Station. Just waiting for the light to cross Denny Way, alone, often takes more time than waiting for the train would take. Especially during the peak where the train is running every 6 minutes and traffic at the Stewart St. exit ramp is at its worst.

        As it is, many eastside buses spend close to half their service hours in Seattle, most of which within downtown. A decent transfer facility would allow buses to cut the service-hour-cost-per-trip in half, which would allow the frequency of many routes to double at no additional cost. If you value a bus coming every 10 minutes vs. every 20 or every 15 minutes vs. every 30, this is huge.

        And the worst of it is the land for a transit center and bus layover area next to the station is already torn up as part of the construction site and ST could easily build a transit center there when the station construction is done. But ST has already decided instead that this would make too much sense and that the land next to the station would be better spent on parking for football games. This parking is not needed on ordinary weekdays – witness the E-1 lot on the other side of the stadium half empty when there’s not a football game. So we’re essentially sacrificing a transit center that would benefit people all day every day for a parking lot that will only get used a few times a year, which our massive transit investments in the region should make less important those few times a year.

      3. To elaborate further, there are several peak-only commuter routes, such as the 265 and 311 that go to downtown, but don’t serve the U-district except for Montlake freeway station. Make these buses skip Montlake and you have a fair number of people that have to either backtrack downtown, take an alternate slower route with additional transfers, or just say screw it and go back to driving. Truncation on these routes at Montlake would solve these problems and lead to an increase, not a decrease in level of service.

        Then, there’s connections between the 520 corridor and other parts of north Seattle beyond the U-district. Today, the only routes that go beyond the U-district that serve Montlake are the sluggish 48, select 44 that are thru-routed with the 43, and 542 trips that extend to 65th St. P&R. To maintain reliability, peak-period 43/44 trips are generally not thru-routed, so eastside to Ballard means you have to either walk half a mile at Montlake or make yet another bus connection to traverse that stretch, wait longer for an eastside bus that serves the U-district, or go way out of the way and backtrack through downtown. Build a decent transfer facility at the UW station and not only the eastside buses would serve it, but all the North Seattle/U-district buses would as well. Done right, trips like Kirkland->Ballard, Redmond->Sand Point, or Bellevue->Wedgewood would be an easy two-seat ride with a quick connection between two all-day, high-frequency routes. Done wrong, the trips become much more arduous than this.

        And for those that are worried about traffic congestion at Montlake, done right, the proposed second Bascule bridge would bypass this congestion. If I were designing it, it would be a bus-only roadway that would go straight from Montlake/520 into the hypothetical Husky Stadium Transit Center. Needless to say, again, this is not in the proposal. If the second bridge get built, it will be to increase car capacity, not to provide bus access to a transit center that is also in the category of something no one has any plans to build.

      4. “Today, the only routes that go beyond the U-district that serve Montlake are the sluggish 48, select 44 that are thru-routed with the 43, and 542 trips that extend to 65th St. P&R.”

        There are also he 555 and 556.

        Also, for folks that are using a downtown-bound bus that want to get to the U-District or Northgate, there is the option of transferring at Evergreen Point.

    2. The idea that Montlake is opposed to the trail is a notion that is about 3-4 months out of date. Unfortunately, in order to create a sense of controversy some news outlets have decided quote a few residents who live directly underneath the bridge and oppose everything about the new bridge to.

      In actuality, the community has realized that the new 520 will be built, and are now trying to positively shape the outcome, including building a trail along the bridge. The Montlake Community Club, Montlake PTA, Montlake Small Business Owners, etc have all been calling for enhanced pedestrian and bicycle improvements in the design.

      1. Yet they still oppose the transit lanes. A cynical person might suggest that they favor the smaller bike lanes as a way to defeat the transit lanes.

  5. Since there’s already going to be a bike lane running along the north edge of the new 520 bridge, would there be any way to incorporate that into the Portage Bay segment? Or would that be cost prohibitive with bridges, overpasses etc.?

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