Afternoon Crank: Bike Lanes and Backyard Cottages

A backyard cottage in Ballard
Image via City of Seattle.

1. City council member Abel Pacheco, who is filling out former District 4 representative Rob Johnson’s term,  did some political calculus before deciding to seek the temporary appointment rather than staying in the crowded race for a four-year term, but urbanists are probably wishing they could have him longer.

Yesterday, Pacheco was instrumental in shooting down two amendments from council member Lisa Herbold that would have, respectively, barred homeowners who build accessory dwelling units (such as a basement apartment) from renting them out on a short-term basis through a platform like Airbnb, and required a homeowner to live on the property for at least a year before building a second accessory unit (such as a backyard cottage.)

Herbold said banning Airbnbs in ADUs would prevent the construction of ADUs for the purpose of providing short-term rentals rather than as “rental housing” for Seattle residents. Pacheco countered that in his district (which includes the University of Washington and Children’s Hospital) a high percentage of renters only need housing during the school year or a short-term residency, and that Herbold’s amendment would make it impossible for them to rent their units during off seasons. (City law limits Airbnb operators to two units—one inside their primary residence and one offsite).

“Having lived in two ADUs, I know how great an opportunity it is to provide for folks not just in my district but around the city,” Pacheco said. Mike O’Brien, who sponsored the legislation and has shepherded it through the council through years of legal challenges, added that if Herbold’s amendment passed, it would put ADUs in a separate category from all other types of rentals, so that someone who owned two houses side by side could rent out the second house as a short-term rental, but someone who owned a house and built a garage apartment on the same lot could not. “I don’t think that’s necessarily fair,” O’Brien said.

The legislation, which passed out of committee 5-0 (council member Kshama Sawant, who might have voted with Herbold on her amendments, was excused to go to a labor rally), will move forward to the full council on Monday, July 1.

“We don’t have constructable plans [for a two-way Fourth Ave. bike lane] right now.” — SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe

2. Pacheco also asked some blunt questions of Seattle Department of Transportation director Sam Zimbabwe during a committee discussion about the diminished Bicycle Master Plan, which SDOT is now describing as an “accountability document” that only promises what the city can actually pay for. (The bike plan was scaled back in response to higher cost estimates on a number of projects that were supposed to be funded by the Move Seattle Levy. After bike advocates protested that the bulk of the projects that got cut were top-priority projects in Southeast Seattle and downtown, SDOT updated the plan by putting some of those projects back in as areas for “study,” while also scaling back a long-planned, and already delayed, protected bike lane on Fourth Ave. downtown). Pacheco asked Zimbabwe why the latest version of the Fourth Avenue bike lane is only northbound, rather than the two-way bike lane that has been in every previous version of the plan.

Zimbabwe said that SDOT has every intention of “designing a two-way facility, but the traffic impacts of that, and frankly the costs of that, have never been fully studied,” including the cost of signal infrastructure to allow left-hand turns across the bike lanes from Fourth Avenue. “That wasn’t part of the planning process previously,” he said. “We are committed to designing [it] to better understand what the cost implications are.”

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After the meeting, I asked Zimbabwe how it was possible that there was no design yet for Fourth Ave., given that it was originally supposed to open at the beginning of 2018. He said that his understanding was that the two-way bike lane was “designed to about 30 percent [without] a full budget development. … We don’t have constructable plans right now.” SDOT’s previous reasons for delaying the two-way bike lane have included costs, impacts on transit during the “period of maximum constraint” downtown, traffic impacts during major traffic incidents such as when a fish truck overturned on SR 99 in 2015, and (most recently) “parking impacts.”

I also asked Zimbabwe about whether SDOT planned to revisit its decision to eliminate another long-planned bike lane on 35th Ave. NE in light of two recent collisions between drivers and vulnerable users (a cyclist and a motorcyclist, who was killed by a driver in a pickup truck turning left into his path). On Monday, as I first reported on Twitter, council member Sally Bagshaw said she was horrified by videos showing drivers zooming past cyclists at close range, using a newly added turn lane as a passing lane.

Zimbabwe said there were no plans to revive the protected bike lane—which was included in earlier versions of the Bike Master Plan but killed by Mayor Jenny Durkan after “concerns … from the community” —but that SDOT was “making some tweaks to make sure pedestrian crossings are safe” and adding flexible barriers to create “turn pockets at the intersections to keep [drivers] from overtaking” cyclists. In a statement to KING 5, SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergserson said that the upcoming changes, “as well as any others, should not be viewed as an indication of shortcomings but as part of SDOT’s ongoing data-driven approach to roadway improvements.”

One thought on “Afternoon Crank: Bike Lanes and Backyard Cottages”

  1. Sawant is absent during an important vote? It’s her job that we pay her for to be there for such votes, but she feels it’s more important to attend a labor rally? Really shows where her priorities are, which are NOT with the people she’s supposed to represent in the job that she was elected to do.

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