On Tuesday, SDOT announced an ugly split-the-baby solution to community deadlock over the planned redesign of 35th Ave NE, the central neighborhood arterial of Wedgwood and Bryant. The solution seems custom-designed to upset everyone in the debate, sacrificing both the bike lanes recommended in the city’s own Bike Master Plan and the street parking that was the central focus of opponents’ demands. Instead, drivers get a two-way turn lane for most of the corridor and freeway-style 12-foot general purpose lanes.
The new design for 35th, with its wider lanes, additional passing opportunities, and inevitably higher speeds, is a serious threat to the safety of people outside cars. But the point of this post is not to re-litigate 35th, but to suggest a way for the city to avoid this sort of worst-case outcome in future projects. In short, to have any chance of meeting its own Vision Zero goals, the city must establish legally binding guidelines for the redesign of all arterial corridors, and then direct professional staff to follow them when it is time to design individual projects. And there is a very good local example of how to do exactly that: King County Metro. The details, along with some history, are below the jump.
SDOT’s recent record in major project planning is far from stellar. Both of the city’s last two major transportation levies, 2006’s Bridging the Gap and 2015’s Move Seattle, substantially overpromised how much major work could be accomplished with available funding. Both promised accelerated implementation of modal master plans for foot and bike travel; significant capital improvements to speed bus transit; and several major corridor redesigns. Overall, BTG accomplished something like three-quarters of what was promised, while Move Seattle appears to be on track to accomplish even less.
But the biggest problem hasn’t been underperforming bureaucracy, but political interference. As happened with 35th, projects change at the last minute for political reasons. Designed and funded projects such as the NE 70th St redesign languish on the back burner without explanation. Funding shortfalls result in major cuts to some categories of projects (such as RapidRide capital improvements for transit), while leaving other megaprojects such as the Lander Street overpass untouched. Promises are made and then broken seemingly at random, with supermajority support somehow being translated into car priority all too often. Planning starts to seem pointless. As Twitter user @garlandmcq put it, succinctly:
The consequences of this sort of political interference add up over time—as Metro learned in the decade or so immediately following its 1994 takeover by King County. During those years, the process of adding service was politically managed, subject only to a very general subarea-based formula that required the county to invest 40 percent of new hours in the south end; 40 percent on the Eastside; and 20 percent in Seattle. Decisions on routing and frequency were often made directly by members of the King County Council representing one or more affected districts, frequently in response to interest-group requests. There was nothing holding Council members to any coherent plan. By the early 2000s, Metro’s network was a spaghetti mess of infrequent and unintuitive routes, some much more successful than others at attracting riders, but not in any way forming a useful network. Professional planning staff tried to use data to inform their recommendations, but had to filter it to the point of uselessness through a sticky layer of Council demands and reactions.
Finally, in 2010, the Council and municipal authorities realized that the process was just not improving regional transit, even during times when funds for expansion were available. The county formed a Regional Transit Task Force, which quickly recommended that the County Council adopt an “objective, data-based” set of principles which Metro planners would use in evaluating the network and recommend changes. That recommendation turned into Metro’s Service Guidelines, which the Council adopted by ordinance in 2011 and then revised, again by ordinance, in 2015.
The Service Guidelines have the force of law. They require Metro to use specific criteria in making service change decisions, based on an annual data-gathering process that results in a deeply informative report (2018 version). Metro has consistently followed the Service Guidelines, with just one or two arguable exceptions, in proposing both major and minor service changes to the Council. The Council, for its part, usually has been reluctant to interfere with Metro’s conclusions—particularly with respect to major, highly used Metro routes. The process over time has produced observably good results throughout Metro’s system, especially in underserved areas where there have been substantial frequency and span improvements that would almost certainly have gone nowhere under the old Council-driven process. The Metro network is unambiguously better today than it was in 2011, with far more frequent corridors and many improved routings. Much of the credit goes to a better funding picture, but the Service Guidelines are the reason that funding was allocated effectively.
There is no such set of legally binding principles governing SDOT street improvements. SDOT planning as a whole is a largely episodic process, focused into either specific geographic areas or specific transportation modes. Each modal master plan features a separate and independent data-driven method for selecting priority projects, but actual implementation is dependent almost entirely on elected leaders’ political priorities and often has little to do with what is in the plans. As we saw with the 35th Ave NE project (among others), hyperlocal political considerations can and often do override citywide planning priorities. The result of all this for users, especially those outside cars, is not unlike Metro’s situation before the Service Guidelines. There is little coherence in SDOT’s actual transportation accomplishments. Most critically for both Vision Zero and climate goals, scattered ad hoc pieces of non-car infrastructure remain mostly unconnected from one another, and many trips remain difficult and dangerous outside a car.
The City Council has the power to change this situation, just as the County Council did in 2011 for Metro service planning. The City Council can and should enact a legally binding set of priorities for SDOT roadway improvements, governing both the prioritization and the execution of projects, to ensure that projects are consistent in advancing citywide goals rather than narrow, hyperlocal interests. These guidelines would provide clear political direction to professional planners, while making the citywide consequences of political interference in any specific project far more obvious to elected officials. Failure to execute a project consistently with the guidelines could give rise to legal rights of action, providing a potentially expensive and embarrassing counterweight to project-by-project meddling. As projects get completed in accordance with the guidelines over the years, the city’s transportation network would become more coherent and effective, just as Metro’s service network has.
Any guidelines of this sort are inherently political, and it’s entirely appropriate to have a fine old multi-stakeholder Seattle Process to help the City Council establish and maintain them. The Council, though, should pay special attention to the needs and priorities of both marginalized communities and groups that face particular danger on city streets, especially including children, seniors, and people with disabilities outside of cars. The process should not prioritize those with the time and resources to attend endless meetings and hire legal counsel in the service of never slowing down their cars.
I can’t pretend to know what the final product should look like, but I would offer up all of the following as initial suggestions:
- Projects should be selected based on objective measures of danger to users, including both actual accident data and dangerous design factors.
- Arterials must have sidewalks on both sides that are at least 6 feet wide, with ADA-compliant accessibility features.
- There must be a marked and signalized crosswalk on every side of a signalized intersection.
- There must be a marked (and signalized, for any street with more than one general purpose lane in any direction) crosswalk at least every 250 feet along an arterial.
- Signalized crosswalks must allow sufficient time for users with disabilities to cross.
- General-purpose lanes should be no more than 11 feet wide, and narrower where feasible.
- More than one general-purpose lane in any direction is strongly discouraged and should be used only where there is no other feasible option.
- No intersection or street treatment may cause surface transit to experience average speed of less than 7.5 mph over any mile-long portion of its route during afternoon peak hour. Where speeds would otherwise fall below 7.5 mph because of congestion, sufficient transit priority to achieve 7.5 mph speed (including bus lanes, queue jumps, and signal priority) is required.
- Any arterial identified in the BMP as a priority bicycle route must, if redesigned, receive either a separated bicycle facility or a parallel greenway that is direct, no more hilly than the arterial, and close in elevation to the arterial.
- Where there is a separated bicycle facility, the facility must connect to all other nearby facilities and may not disappear or lose protection at specific intersections.
- Every intersection of a greenway and an arterial must be signalized or have an all-way stop.
- Level of service for single-occupant vehicles should be taken into account only as necessary to ensure transit speed and reliability.
Even with SDOT’s current slow pace of redesign work, implementing criteria like these consistently would result in major improvements to the safety of the city’s transportation network within a single levy period. The only way to force them to be used consistently is to legislate it. City Councilmembers, the transportation safety ball is in your court.