“The Mayor Does Not Care About Bikes”: Advocates United In Opposition to Bike Plan Cuts

Bike advocates Apu Mishra and Tamara Schmautz symbolically shred the city’s bike master plan in council chambers Tuesday.

The fiery debate over Mayor Durkan’s proposal to dramatically reduce the scope of the city’s planned bike network, often in ways that directly contradict the recommendations of the city’s Bicycle Advisory Board, showed no signs of abating Wednesday, as bike board members expressed their frustration directly to new Seattle Department of Transportation director Sam Zimbabwe and deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan at their monthly meeting.

SDOT released its latest Bike Master Plan update a few minutes after 5:00 last Friday evening. Besides lowering the total number of miles of bike facilities, it de-emphasizes protected bike lanes on arterial streets (the current gold standard for safety and rider usability) in favor of neighborhood greenways (typically sharrows—markings on the shared roadway— and speed bumps on slower streets that are typically several blocks away from destinations). The new plan also eliminates a number of connections between underserved neighborhoods in Southeast and Southwest Seattle and downtown, including a planned protected bike lane between 12th Ave. South between South Charles Street and Yesler, where a cyclist was hit by a car just last week. That project was one of about a dozen that seem to have simply vanished from the plan since its most recent iterationin 2017, without any explanation in the update.

“Simply adding projects back … without saying, ‘Here are the things that we’re willing to give up that are not on the funded list’—right now, it’s not going to help us get to a final list if it’s all adds and no subtracts.” — SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe

Ranganathan and Zimbabwe attempted to reframe the cuts as the mayor’s attempt to rightsize a bloated plan as part of the Move Seattle levy “reset,” which cut back on levy-funded transportation projects of all kinds in response to lower-than-anticipated grant funding and cost estimates that the mayor’s office maintains were unrealistic. “It was really important for her and the department to rebuild public trust [and] to put together what we think is SDOT’s best estimate of what we should build,” Ranganathan said. The deputy mayor, who previously led the Transportation Choices Coalition, also maintained that the Durkan administration wanted to shift the emphasis from “miles” of bike facilities to “connections” between destinations, implying that previous administrations had focused mostly on mileage and that Durkan’s would not. (Insert “hmm” emoji here.) Bike board members have pointed out that many of the projects erroneously marked “SBAB removed” in the bike plan update were actually among the board’s top priorities. “You say you want to listen to the community,” said former bike board chair Casey Gifford, whom Durkan abruptly dismissed last year. “SBAB is designed to advise… but hardly any of the recommendations that were made were incorporated into the plan.” SDOT and the mayor’s office have both apologized for the suggestion that the projects were removed by the bike board, saying it was an oversight. However, this represents a significant shifting of the goalposts—just four days ago, mayoral spokesman Mark Prentice told me that the designation referred 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.”

“I don’t think there’s a lot of confidence from this board or from the advocacy community generally that when projects are politically challenging …that we are going to keep those commitments.” —Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board co-chair Emily Paine

Zimbabwe said that the bike advocates would have more luck getting their priority projects added back into the plan if they also came up with a list of projects that could be cut.  “Simply adding projects back … without saying, ‘Here are the things that we’re willing to give up that are not on the funded list’—right now, it’s not going to help us get to a final list if it’s all adds and no subtracts,” Zimbabwe said. That comment prompted a round of responses from the board that could be summarized by board member Patrick Taylor’s comment that “we’re being thrown under the bus a bit. When we went through the process we were not told the costs” or that they should keep costs in mind when making their recommendations. “I have in my head a whole bunch of little data points that say the mayor does not care about bikes,” Taylor added, “and the only data point I have that says that she does is and Sam and other people telling me that.”

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Morning Crank: Bike Board Chair Abruptly Dismissed; Safe Seattle Sues; and More

Photo from 2015 Seattle Bike Master Plan Implementation Plan

1. Last month, about an hour before the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board’s was scheduled to hold its monthly meeting, board chair Casey Gifford got a call from Evan Philip, the boards and commissions administrator for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office. Philip told Gifford that he was calling  to let her know that the meeting she was about to chair would be her final meeting—the mayor had decided not to reappoint her for a second term.  Then, Gifford recalls, he asked her if she had any questions.

Gifford, who works as a  planner with King County Metro and serves on the Cascade Bicycle Club board, was in shock. “I said that I was surprised to be receiving that information so close to the meeting and that I would need some time to process it,” she says. A few days later, she recounts, “I called him and left several voice mails” requesting a meeting or a phone call to discuss some questions she had about Durkan’s decision. Philip responded on November 16 with a terse email, explaining that “other Seattle residents had expressed interest in serving on this Commission and in the spirit of expanding civic engagement, we offered the position to another applicant.” In a subsequent email, he elaborated—sort of. “As mentioned earlier, the Mayor is committed to bringing in new voices and appoint those that have a lived experience to our Boards. As you may be aware, reappointment to a Board or Commission is not guaranteed.”

Like every mayor, Durkan is remaking the city’s bureaucracy, including the volunteer boards and commissions, in her own image.  But several advocates told me they’re worried that Durkan is pushing bike advocates affiliated with activist groups like Cascade and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways aside as part of a transportation agenda that prioritizes transit (and driving) over cycling. The mayor’s office denies this, and points out that Durkan appointed Cascade’s executive director, Richard Smith, to serve on the committee advising the mayor’s office on the Seattle Department of Transportation director selection.

Durkan’s new appointee, Selina Urena, is a former fundraiser for BikeWorks who now works for the Transportation Choices Coalition, a group whose former executive director, Shefali Ranganathan, is now deputy mayor. Urena was nominated by Durkan directly, without going through the usual application process, which includes one-on-one interviews with members of a bike board committee established explicitly for that purpose.  In an email responding to my questions about the mayor’s decision not to appoint Gifford, Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice said, of Urena (who uses they/them pronouns), “they are a multimodal transportation user and enjoys exploring the City by bike” and referred me to Urena’s TCC bio.

 “I  don’t think that the board is being set up for success. … There a lot of institutional knowledge that has been lost.” – Casey Gifford, former Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board chair

Gifford says Philip never explained why Durkan did not reappoint her to the board, nor what he meant by “lived experience.” (Gifford is a young woman of color who uses a bike as her primary form of transportation.) She adds that in her experience, it’s unusual for the mayor’s office to take such a direct role in the appointment process, which usually involves an application and interview process with members of the board itself. “I know that the mayor’s office was more involved in the process than they ever have been in the past, and that they they knew who they wanted and pushed those people forward even without the recommendation of the board members who were reviewing apps with a set criteria and a set process,” Gifford said. “It didn’t sound like the mayor’s office was using those criteria, and it wasn’t really clear what criteria they were using.”

Gifford’s departure means that the bike board will be made up almost entirely of newcomers at a time when the fate of the city’s planned bicycle infrastructure is very much up in the air. Just one member, city council appointee Amanda Barnett, is continuing into a second term.  “I  don’t think that the board is being set up for success,” Gifford says. “There are now seven of 12 [board members] that are brand new, and it takes a while to get up to speed on how the board works and how to be effective. … There a lot of institutional knowledge that has been lost.”

Gifford may have another opportunity to serve on the board yet. City Council member Mike O’Brien, who says he considered the way Gifford was informed her term was ending “kind of unprofessional and not worthy of someone [Gifford] who’s doing really good work,” says he’ll nominate her himself if she wants to continue to serve. “It’s important to have new perspectives and new energy, but it’s also important to have some people who have been around,” O’Brien says. Gifford says she has talked to O’Brien about the possibility and that “it is something that I am considering.”

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2 .Safe Seattle, an online group that recently filed paperwork to become a 501(c)4 political nonprofit (via), is suing the city and the Low-Income Housing Institute to force the closure of a LIHI-operated “tiny house village” in South Lake Union, using many of the same arguments that a statewide anti-labor group, the Freedom Foundation, made when it filed a land use petition to to prevent the facility from opening back in June. (That case is still ongoing, although the Freedom Foundation itself is no longer a named plaintiff). The Freedom Foundation’s attorney, Richard Stephens, is representing Safe Seattle in the new lawsuit, which—like the earlier complaint—charges that LIHI does not have the correct permits to operate its encampment. Unlike the earlier, dismissed complaint, which claimed that LIHI’s encampment violated the city’s self-imposed limit of three transitional encampments at at time, this complaint claims that LIHI lacks both residential permits (on the grounds that the tiny houses are residences) and  a required encampment operations plan. The complaint also claims that the encampment constitutes an “assisted living facility” (on the grounds that LIHI provides housing and services to vulnerable people) for which it lacks a permit.

The amount of scrutiny that has landed on this one encampment—as well as the Freedom Foundation’s motivation for focusing on a single encampment in South Lake Union—is hard to explain. In addition to the lawsuits by the Freedom Foundation, Safe Seattle, and the individual plaintiffs (all represented by Stephens), a group called Unified Seattle has spent thousands of dollars on Facebook ads opposing tiny-house encampments, with an emphasis on the South Lake Union encampment.

3. A recent email from Queen Anne neighborhood activist Marty Kaplan, who has spent years locked in a legal battle to keep backyard and basement apartments out of single-family areas, included a telling line. After lavishing praise on the Seattle Times and its anti-density columnist Danny Westneat for joining him in the fight against missing-middle housing, Kaplan concluded: “Our ultimate goal: to negotiate a fair compromise that better meets the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners.” Left out of Kaplan’s (and the Times’) equation? The majority of Seattle’s population, who rent their homes and are probably less concerned with “meeting the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners” than they are with being able to stay in a city where laws designed to boost homeowners’ property values are making the city unaffordable for everyone else.