Bike Master Plan Update: Fewer Protected Lanes, Longer Delays

South Seattle’s Bike Master Plan projects have been reduced to “a few scattered hilly segments,” according to one bike advocate,

Days after announcing that the city had decided to kill a long-planned protected bike lane on 35th Ave NE in response to “many concerns we’ve heard from the community,” there was more bad news for cyclists. Three days later, the Seattle Department of Transportation released an update to the city’s Bike Master Plan that eliminates additional protected lanes, pushes other bike projects back several years or indefinitely, and contains no reference to about a dozen projects that were in the most recent update, back in 2017.

Last year, SDOT announced significant cuts to many of the projects included in the $930 million Move Seattle levy, which voters approved in 2015, to reflect reduced federal funding and higher cost estimates for some projects. (In the implementation plan, SDOT says the original cost estimates were not “realistic.”) Although a council resolution requires the agency to provide an updated implementation plan for the bike plan every year, SDOT skipped last year, making this the first update since the reset. This also means that any comparisons are necessarily between the 2017 implementation plan and the 2019 plan that was just released—an exercise the mayor’s office has suggested does not compare apples to apples. However, even within the reduced scope of the new plan post-“reset,” it’s possible to glean the city’s priorities (protected bike lanes on arterials, the widely accepted gold standard for safe bike infrastructure, are largely out; neighborhood greenways, which typically consist of sharrows and speed humps on slower side streets parallel to main streets, are largely in.)

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Of two dozen projects that were supposed to be completed last year, only one —a 0.65-mile neighborhood greenway serving Eagle Staff Middle school in north Seattle—appears to have been completed on the original schedule. None of the 19 projects originally scheduled for completion in 2019 are on track to be done this year. Instead, they are pushed forward to 2020 or 2021—the final years included in the update. And the majority of the projects that were originally scheduled for completion in 2020 and 2021 are no longer being built, either because they have been explicitly removed from the plan or because they no longer appear on the list.

This last group of projects include planned protected bike lanes on Greenwood Ave. N, Broad Street, Fauntleroy Ave. SW, and Montlake, as well as planned neighborhood greenways on Beacon Ave. S and a protected bike lane on Rainier Ave. S., one of the deadliest street for cyclists and pedestrians in the city. The southeast corner of the city, which also happens to be one of the poorest and most racially diverse areas of Seattle, is left with what Seattle Neighborhood Greenways leader Gordon Padelford called “a few scattered hilly segments.”

In contrast, all but one of the projects that were supposed to be finished in 2017 under the original plan have been completed, and all but three of those were finished on time (the three exceptions were finished in 2018). The one project that was not completed was the Fourth Avenue protected bike lane, which Mayor Jenny Durkan announced the city was delaying last year.

The most common reason given for delays to projects that are being finished late is “weather.” The most common reason given for removing projects from the plan is “SBAB removed”—a reference to the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board.

Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice says “SBAB removed” refers to “projects that SBAB opted not to prioritize. This does not mean that SDOT and SBAB do not consider these worthy projects, but just that based on resources and preferred connections, these did not rise to the top of the list.”

However, as member Patrick Taylor noted on Twitter, the bike board actually did recommend several projects, including the Beacon Avenue greenway and the Rainier protected bike lane, that were nonetheless cut from the list. (Instead of a protected bike lane, the plan now calls for a “focus on spot transit improvements.”)

Asked about the Beacon Ave. project, which was included for study in the 2018 draft implementation that was never released, Prentice said, “The current board members thought it was an important connection but due to the limited funding to select projects (and the fact that there is an existing separated ped path) they dropped it for other projects.” The project, Prentice says, “would have looked at upgrading the pedestrian path in the median to a multi-use path and review of in-street minor sections on roadway.”

Advocates have also pointed out that at least two projects appear to be double-counted as being completed in both 2017 and 2018—a protected bike lane on Banner Way near Maple Leaf and a PBL along S. Dearborn St. Both projects are counted toward the total “miles delivered” in each year, contributing to a total of 10.81 miles of new bike facilities in 2017, and 10.26 miles in 2018. The city painted buffered bike lanes (bike lanes with painted double stripes to visually separate them from cars) on Banner Way in 2017 and converted them to (arguably) protected bike lanes (still double-striped lanes, but with flexible posts to let drivers know when they are veering into the lane) in 2018. To date, the Dearborn project has not been completed.

Prentice says counting buffered-to-protected bike lane projects twice was “the direction back in 2017,” adding, “Both projects (Banner and Dearborn) are shown as PBLs in our 2018 six-month progress report that went to Council. No one mentioned anything about double counting when that document was posted.”

And he points out that the new plan explicitly does not “double count” three neighborhood greenways that are scheduled for “upgrades” this year. He said he would have to get back to me on the Banner Way and Dearborn projects. Prentice also said he would get back to me with more details about a list of 11 projects that appear to have disappeared between the 2017 and 2019 versions of the plan. I’ll update this post when I hear back.

The city council’s transportation committee will get a briefing—and take public comment—on the new implementation plan at 2:00 this coming Tuesday afternoon in council chambers.

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.