Durkan, SDOT Get an Earful from Advocates About Proposed Bike Plan Cuts

Dozens of bike safety advocates lined up in city council chambers this afternoon to express their frustration at a Bicycle Master Plan update from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Seattle Department of Transportation that eliminates dozens of projects, replaces planned protected bike lanes with neighborhood greenways on distant, often hilly, parallel streets, and gives especially short shrift to neighborhoods in Southeast Seattle, where two of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board’s top-priority projects, on Rainier Ave. S and Beacon Ave. S, have been cut. Just prior to the meeting, the advocates held a rally and press conference in the lobby of City Hall, where council members Teresa Mosqueda and Mike O’Brien joined them in condemning the cuts.

Last year, SDOT announced significant cuts to many of the projects included in the $930 million Move Seattle levy, to reflect reduced federal funding and higher cost estimates for some projects.Meg Wade, from the climate action group 350 Seattle, talked about the abuse she has received from drivers as a queer cyclist and pedestrian. “I have been called a cunt; I have been called a bitch taking up too much space on the road; I have stepped into a crosswalk and asked a driver to move their car and been told ‘I am sick of you people’ I have been told ‘Fucking get out of my way.’ What this says is, it is okay for the harassment to continue.” Wade continued, her voice shaking: “It is astonishing to me that the mayor, who comes out of the gay community, would not understand that saying… ‘Go hide out of the public vision; get out of our public spaces’—that she wouldn’t understand the similarities” between anti-LGBT harassment and harassment of cyclists.

“Working-class people, middle-class people, families with little children, elderly individuals, community members—all of them have spoken [against the cuts]. When the mayor says it’s about community engagement, it’s about public feedback—well, whose feedback are you actually listening to?”

Immediately after Wade spoke, two cyclists, Apu Mishra and Tamara Schmautz, stood up to dramatically “mourn the loss” of three plans previously adopted by the city—the Bicycle Master Plan, the Climate Action Plan, and the Complete Streets—by destroying copies of each document in a hand-cranked portable shredder.

Members of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board, including its current co-chair, Emily Paine, expressed dismay that the plan labeled 13 of the eliminated projects “SBAB removed,” implying that the bike board had recommended those projects for removal. Some of those projects, Paine said, were not only “not recommended by SBAB to be removed,” they “were actually given our highest endorsement,” including a protected bike lane on Beacon Hill and a PBL on Rainier Avenue South.

SDOT attempted to walk back the “SBAB removed” designation on Tuesday, calling it an inadvertent error and apologizing for the confusion. (SDOT traffic engineer Monica DeWald said, “We should have rephrased that to ‘SBAB prioritized but funding limited,’ just so we sent the message that it was still an SBAB top priority but we just didn’t have the funding.”) But agency staffers were undoubtedly aware that the list of cuts included some of the bike board’s top priorities when they came up with the list. In an email to bike board members and SDOT staff, including DeWald, from last November, SDOT senior transportation planner Serena Lehman compiled a list of the board’s top priorities, which included both the Beacon Avenue and Rainier Ave. bike lanes. SDOT has not elaborated on why these two top-priority projects have been cut other than to say that the city doesn’t have the money to build them.

Bike board members also expressed concern Tuesday that SDOT has designated about half of all the bike projects that are scheduled for completion between 2019 and 2024 projects as having high levels of “risk,” which they worried might provide cover to remove them from the plan.  “A pattern has emerged in this administration of delaying and eliminating bike lanes that prove challenging or controversial,” bike board member Patrick Taylor said. “When I look at the implementation plan, I see most of the projects listed as ‘risky,’ which in an administration that does not have the gumption to follow through with projects designated as challenging, I view as concerning.”

“Our perception on the Bike Advisory Board is that this administration does not care what we think, and that when we send letters, we might as well send them as a paper airplane.”

Council members, including O’Brien, committee chairman Rob Johnson, and Kshama Sawant, expressed frustration that the mayor had rolled the bike plan back so dramatically. Sawant, who has not historically been among the council’s most vocal bike advocates, was particularly vociferous, arguing that it was “meaningless” for SDOT staffers to tout the city’s progress on bike infrastructure “at the same time that the mayor’s office and SDOT leadership has dealt a significant blow to the whole plan. … Working-class people, middle-class people, families with little children, elderly individuals, community members—all of them have spoken [against the cuts], Sawant said. “So I don’t really understand. When the mayor … says it’s about community engagement, it’s about public feedback—well, whose feedback are you actually listening to?” Sawant’s comments were a rebuke to activists who helped defeat a long-planned protected bike lane on 35th Ave. NE, who argued that only “privileged” white people ride bikes or care about safe bike infrastructure.

Members of the Move Seattle Levy Oversight Committee hit on many of the same themes at their monthly meeting Tuesday night, and discussed issuing formal recommendations to the council in response to the scaled-back plan. Committee  member Joseph Laubach, who noted that the new plan delivers only about 60 percent of the miles of new bike lanes, trails, and greenways included in the original levy, called the new strategy “unfair” even in light of the Move Seattle “reset.” Taylor, who also sits on the Move Seattle committee, noted that the bike board prioritized projects in South Seattle neighborhoods like Beacon Hill and the Rainier Valley precisely because they connected those historically neglected neighborhoods to downtown. “All the projects that rose to the top of our list for extra emphasis are in Southeast Seattle… and those were the projects that disappeared without a trace,” he said. [Editor’s note: This paragraph initially said that the new plan eliminates 60 percent of the new bike lane-miles; in fact, it eliminates 40 percent and preserves 60 percent.]

Both O’Brien, who attended Tuesday night’s committee meeting, and Taylor, who noted that the bike board itself will discuss the new plan at its own meeting tomorrow night, urged the committee to consider making a formal recommendation to the council. “Our perception on the Bike Advisory Board is that this administration does not care what we think, and that when we send letters, we might as well send them as a paper airplane,” Taylor said. “Having this board’s letter as well might elevate [the concerns] to a higher level.”

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Durkan Names D.C.’s Sam Zimbabwe to Head Seattle Transportation Department

Sam Zimbabwe, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s pick for Seattle Department of Transportation director, will (assuming he’s confirmed by the city council) walk into his new office early next year facing an immense amount of scrutiny: From bike and pedestrian advocates, who are (understandably) skeptical about Durkan’s commitment to the Bike Master Plan; to supporters of the downtown streetcar, which remains on hold; to transportation advocates of all stripes who have criticized the mayor for appointing one interim director after another to replace former SDOT leader Scott Kubly, who stepped down shortly after Durkan was elected. Since Kubly’s departure, SDOT has been led by a series of interim directors.

Zimbabwe’s resume includes a stint as director of the Center for Transit-Oriented Development at Reconnecting America, a D.C.-based smart growth nonprofit, and seven years at the District Department of Transportation as associate director for planning, policy and sustainability. When he took that job in 2011, the urbanist transit nerds at Greater Greater Washington hailed it as  “a very exciting choice.”

Since 2017, he has been the D.C. agency’s chief delivery officer, a new position created under current D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser in 2017. Opinions vary on whether Zimbabwe ultimately delivered for multimodal advocates in D.C., where bus riders have spent years asking for bus lanes on 16th Street, a central thoroughfare.

And, regarding the latest flash point for transit advocates—scooters, which Durkan has said she considers too dangerous and risky unless the city is indemnified from crash-related lawsuits: They are allowed in D.C., but only under conditions that scooter companies have criticized as too onerous.

At a press conference today, both Durkan and Zimbabwe  avoided directly answering questions about how much autonomy Zimbabwe would have as director.  Instead, they both swerved to sound bites about “the city of the future” (Durkan) and “a safe, equitable, multimodal transportation system” (Zimbabwe.)

Observers of Zimbabwe’s time in D.C. describe him as a capable administrator, but more of a “process guy” than a “vision guy,” which raises questions about whether he’s likely to push back when Durkan calls for more process and deliberation on contentious proposals like bike lanes and transit investments that take lanes back from cars. (On the other hand, people who don’t like “vision guys” may be relieved to hear that Zimbabwe doesn’t take after his elbow-throwing predecessor Kubly, who also preceded him at DDOT).

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Durkan said she expects that “when we go to the city council and when the SDOT team members get to know Sam as I’ve been able to do, that they will think that Sam is actually from Seattle.”

But Seattle is different than D.C., in ways that have sometimes confounded outsiders who come here for high-profile jobs in the city. (Kubly, a D.C. transplant, experienced this first hand.) For one thing, the other Washington tends to be a transient place—people come for jobs, stay for a few years, then move on to another place. Seattle is more settled—the people lobbying against bike lanes or or transit-oriented development in 2018 are pretty much the same people who were arguing against those things 20 years ago, and they’ve spent decades honing their arguments against “big-city” ideas (like, say, bikesharing.) As an outsider, Zimbabwe will be subjected to a level of neighborhood processing which he may not be fully prepared for.

Zimbabwe hasn’t witnessed the Seattle Process, wherein leaders and stakeholders debate and focus-group and charrette ideas for years on end, and sometimes to death. Will  he be the kind of leader who will put his foot down when (for example), neighborhood activists delay and stall and file endless appeals to stop a bike project that has been on planning maps for nearly a decade? Or will he follow the lead of his new boss, whom urbanists and bike and transit advocates have criticized for delaying the implementation of projects that would make streets safer for all users?

Asked about his capacity for dealing with pushback from the public, Zimbabwe responded, “I come from a place—Washington, D.C.—where we’ve met a similar set of growth challenges. … It’s something that I relish and that I look forward to.”

City council member Rob Johnson, who chairs the planning and land use committee, says he “really likes” Durkan’s pick. “His pedigree and work experience and track record lead me to think he’s going to be very strong on the multimodal investments that we want to continue to make as a city,” Johnson says.  “I think about Sam as the kind of person who has a good, strong set of values but isn’t going to try to be in your face about them or spend a lot of time trying to convince you of the righteousness of those arguments—he’s going to use data and expertise to make those arguments.” That assumes, of course, Durkan lets him.

One final note on today’s SDOT announcement: The three finalists for the position, whose names were first reported by Crosscut, were all white men. (One, Sound Transit north corridor development director Kameron Gurol, apparently dropped out of the process before Durkan made her pick). SDOT has only had one female director in its history—Grace Crunican, who served under former mayor Greg Nickels between 2002 and 2009.

Morning Crank: City Falls Further Behind on Bike Lanes; 35th Ave NE “Alternative” Would Include No Bike Lanes at All

1. The latest quarterly report on the Move Seattle Levy, which The C Is for Crank obtained in advance of a Move Seattle Oversight Levy Committee meeting on Thursday, reveals that the Seattle Department of  Transportation has continued to fall behind on plans to build out the bike network laid out in the 2014 Bike Master Plan, particularly when it comes to protected bike lanes. According to the report, because of “ongoing challenges with cost estimate increases, packaged-contracting approach, and contractor delays,” SDOT will “not meet annual targets” for bike-safety improvements—an understatement, given that many of the projects that were supposed to have been completed or underway this year have been delayed multiple times, some since 2016, the first year the levy was in effect. (The report also includes updates on other levy projects, including sidewalks, street paving, and bridge projects.)

The report lists seven bike projects as being completed in 2018, including two that were “2017 target[s]” (full list above). These include 1.88 miles of protected bike lanes and 7.47 miles of neighborhood greenways—markings and traffic-calming measures on streets that parallel arterial streets. This represents a significant shortfall from the 10.43 miles of protected bike lanes and 12.47 miles of greenways that SDOT had planned to build this year.  Protected bike lanes are typically more controversial than neighborhood greenways, because they take up space on arterial roads that was previously occupied by (parked or moving) cars; witness the battle over a long-planned bike lane on 35th Avenue Northeast, which is on this year’s list of planned but uncompleted projects. (More on that below).

However, a closer look at all five of the projects the report cites as having come in on schedule in 2018 reveals that SDOT is further behind on building greenways and, especially, protected bike lanes than the report makes it appear.  Of the five projects, only one—a 0.65-mile stretch of greenway on N. 92nd Street—was originally scheduled for construction in 2018. The rest were delayed projects from previous years. “If we’re going to live up to our climate goals, our equity goals, our safety goals, we have a lot of work left to do,” Neighborhood Greenways director Gordon Padelford, who received a copy of the report, says.

For example: A 5.45-mile stretch of greenway paralleling Rainier Ave. S., which the report lists as a completed 2018 project, was originally supposed to be built back in 2016, under to the city’s adopted Bike Master Plan, but was pushed back, first to 2017, and then to this year. (SDOT’s third-quarter report for last year—the equivalent of the report that’s being released this week—lists the project as “pushed to 2018.”) Similarly, a 0.39-mile protected bike lane on 7th Avenue, in downtown Seattle, that the report counts as a 2018 project was originally supposed to be finished in 2017. Another protected bike lane on S. Dearborn Street, which has not been completed and is listed as “in progress,” was originally supposed to be built by 2016.

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Oversight committee member Brian Estes says, echoing the report, that some of the delays were unavoidable, due to issues with contractors, a concrete driver strike in September, and other factors. But, he says,  “political considerations” also contributed to delays in building out bike infrastructure in the center city (the City Center Bike Network and the One Center City plan) under both former mayor Ed Murray and current Mayor Jenny Durkan. In August, the oversight committee sent a lengthy letter to Durkan and the council outlining other factors that, in their view, contributed to problems delivering on all the projects promised in the levy, including SDOT’s “organizational structure and culture,” “lack of transparency and failure to act,” and the fact that Durkan still had not appointed a permanent director of SDOT. (The agency is currently on its second interim director since Durkan took office in 2017).

A spokeswoman for SDOT says that a new work plan, which will also be released on Thursday, will provide much more detailed information about how the city plans to complete the outstanding levy projects. The oversight committee has not yet received a copy of that work plan, which, according to an email an SDOT staffer sent to stakeholders, was held up because staffers were out of town over Thanksgiving and due to the need for “coordination with the Mayor’s Office.” In the email, the staffer characterized the third-quarter report, not the work plan, as “the main topic for Thursday’s meeting.”

2. A series of “facilitated conversations” between advocates for and against a planned bike lane along 35th Ave. NE between Wedgwood and Ravenna did lead to some consensus around a set of safety improvements in the corridor—lower speed limits, new crosswalk markings, and the like—but no agreement on whether to build the protected bike lane, which has been in the Bike Master Plan since 2014. Opponents of the bike lane have argued that it will harm businesses who need on-street parking (in fact, a parking utilization study showed that, at most, 40 percent of spaces are occupied); that it will lead to more collisions with cyclists, not fewer; that a bike lane will slow vehicle traffic to a crawl; and even that safe bike lanes are only for “the privileged.”

As a result of the facilitated conversations, SDOT reportedly presented two options for moving forward: The “contracted design” (to which the Move Seattle Levy report, above, refers), with a protected bike lane on one side of the street, an unprotected bike lane on the other, two travel lanes, and one lane of parking; and an “alternative,” which includes no bike lanes, a lane of parking, two travel lanes, and a center turn lane. The “alternative,” interestingly, would get rid of the same amount of parking as the protected bike lane option; the only difference between it and the way 35th Avenue NE is currently configured is the new center turn lane.

SDOT directed questions about the new 35th Avenue option to the mayor’s office, which has not responded substantively to requests for comment made on Monday and Tuesday.

Meanwhile, I spoke with several bike advocates who participated in the mediation. They say they remain optimistic that 35th Avenue NE will get bike lanes eventually, but were concerned about the precedent created by the mediation process, which Durkan and Northeast Seattle council member Rob Johnson initiated after getting thousands of emails opposing the project. Liam Bradshaw, a member of the pro-bike-lane group Safe 35th Avenue NE, says the bike lane project “sat and festered and we had this whole debate. There was nobody who would say outright that we were going to build it the way it was drawn.” Bradshaw says the lack of a permanent SDOT director contributed to the delay. “I don’t fault the mayor for not making a decision—I fault the mayor for not appointing an SDOT director,” he says.

Advocates for the bike lane have started a Change.org petition urging the city to “Complete the 35th Ave NE safety project now!” Durkan is supposed to announce a decision on the project by the end of the year.

More Delay for 35th Ave. NE Bike Lane as City Hires Mediator to Facilitate “Conversation” Between Pro- and Anti-Bike Lane Groups

The C is for Crank has learned that the city has hired a mediator, at an estimated cost of nearly $14,000, to facilitate a series of “conversations” to “explore areas of concern” between opponents and proponents of a bike lane on 35th Ave. Northeast, which has been a part of the city’s bike master plan for years but is at risk of being derailed by neighborhood activists who say it will harm businesses in Northeast Seattle. A spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office says that she and city council member Rob Johnson decided to add this extra step to the process because “more than 3,400 people have contacted the Mayor’s Office regarding this project.” The goal, the spokeswoman says, is to “bring people together to facilitate conversations and work toward finding common ground.”

At the mediation sessions, which began earlier this month, representatives from each side of the bike lane issue will sit down separately with representatives from the mayor’s office, the Seattle Department of Transportation, and John Howell, a facilitator from the Cedar River Group, “to discuss their interests and concerns about the project in hopes of finding areas of common agreement as the project construction proceeds,” according to a mediation outline obtained by The C Is for Crank. The outline continues: “There are different perspectives in the community about the potential impacts from the project (mostly regarding the bike lanes). The Mayor’s office has agreed to convene parties representing those different perspectives.

The debate over the proposed protected bike lane, which would run along 35th Ave NE from Ravenna to Wedgwood, has been going on, unresolved, for years. Recently, though, the rhetoric from bike lane opponents has escalated dramatically to include allegations that those advocating for the bike lane are classist, racist, ageist, and ableist. At the same time, bike lane proponents have reported being publicly and privately threatened, and vandals have repeatedly damaged equipment used to measure speed and traffic volumes along the street. Just last month, someone planted fireworks in construction equipment that was being used to repave the roadway, prompting a response from the city’s bomb and arson squad. (Save 35th Ave. NE, the group opposing the bike lane, has disavowed and denounced the attack.)

The city’s official Bike Master Plan has promised a separated bike lane on 35th since it was last updated in 2014, and the project was supposed to be completed this year. The latest progress report on the bike plan, which SDOT is presenting to the city council’s transportation committee this afternoon, notes that the project will now be delayed until 2019, so that the city can participate in “an ongoing dialogue with the communities impacted by these projects.”

According to the project outline for the mediation, the anti-bike lane community will be represented by attorney Gabe Galanda and Pacific Merchant Shipping Association VP Jordan Royer, two men who also happen to be the campaign manager and top-listed officer, respectively, for a new PAC, “Neighborhoods for Smart Streets,” that just formed last week. The purpose of the PAC, according to the Save 35th Ave. NE newsletter: To “mobilize around transportation-related causes like Save 35th and candidates for local office who are not ideologues when it comes to local transportation planning.” Galanda, readers may recall, is the lawyer who argued that bike lanes only “serve Seattle’s white privileged communities, and further displace historically marginalized communities.” I responded to some of those arguments—particularly the claim that marginalized communities don’t want safe places to bike—here.

It’s unclear what the mayor’s office, and Johnson, expect to accomplish by adding a new mediation step to the process of building a bike lane that was approved after a lengthy process several years ago. According to the mayor’s spokeswoman, the goal of the mediation process is “Finding common ground on improvements in the corridor”—presumably improvements that are unrelated to the bike lane at the heart of the conflict. But why mediation, a process usually reserved for conflicts between two people or entities with a legal stake in the outcome of a dispute? Neither side of the mediation is a formal party to the decision, and no one is suing to stop the project. Save 35th Avenue NE, however, has been explicit about what it hopes to get out of Durkan—a “unilateral” decision to kill the bike lane. In an email late last month, as mediation was getting underway, the group encouraged its members to  “Contact Mayor Jenny Durkan” and tell her to kill the bike lane, because “In the final analysis, SDOT reports to the Mayor of Seattle. Mayor Durkan halted work on the First Avenue streetcar project. She can likewise unilaterally stop the bike lanes proposed for 35th Ave. NE.”

That email, written less than two weeks before the first mediation session, hardly sounds like the work of a group that is open to “compromise” and “common ground.” And there is plenty of other evidence that the anti-bike lane activists aren’t coming to the table in the best of faith. So far this year, Save 35th NE has claimed that single mothers do not ride bikes; asserted that SDOT “did not actually view streets such as 35th” before proposing bike lanes there; accused city council member Rob Johnson of lying to constituents and denigrating elderly and disabled people in his district; and accused Johnson, based on a single out-of-context email, of organizing an opposition group called Safe 35th Ave. NE.

The project outline for the mediation process doesn’t say how long the mediation will take,

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