Last summer, Seattle put Nickerson Street on a “diet.” The four-lane road was chopped down to two, with the sacrificed lanes becoming a center turn lane and a pair of bicycle lanes, one on either side. Many people were unhappy that the city Department of Transportation (DOT) eliminated auto lanes on busy N Queen Anne Street, and Seattle City Council member and regular bike commuter Mike O’Brien heard all about it from drivers and constituents. “I felt like there was a tone in the city, a backlash that [bike riders are] not welcome,” O’Brien says. “That’s not the Seattle I know.” O’Brien rides his bike from North Seattle to downtown nearly every day. He’s deeply involved in the discussion about how to accommodate competing interests—drivers, bikers and walkers—on a finite city street grid. “What we saw on Nickerson was a public reaction that cars are losing, bikes are winning, and that isn’t fair,” O’Brien says. Actually, it’s supposed to be win-win, according to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and the City Council, who have made promoting alternatives to cars a priority. They say this makes neighborhoods more livable, reduces greenhouse gases and can help shop owners’ bottom line by making business districts more attractive. Others aren’t so sure, and in this seemingly straightforward argument, battle lines are not clearly drawn.
Take the case of George Allen, who at first glance seems like he should be in the auto army. Allen is a senior vice president for the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies for the city’s business community. Obviously, a big concern for business is getting people and products from point A to point B, and the best way to do that is usually with a motor vehicle. Allen says that when auto lanes are taken away in favor of bike lanes, it actually has a negative effect on the environment, and that there should be a study done to determine the impact. “If you’re reducing throughput of lanes for vehicles, are you not also triggering environmental problems?” he asks. “Essentially, you have the potential to slow traffic and therefore increase congestion, which produces more carbon in the air and toxic runoff into Puget Sound.” But Allen is a regular cyclist himself, and he’s worked with local policymakers on bicycling issues. “From our perspective, it isn’t so much bikes versus cars, but bikes with cars,” he says.
While it may not seem like it to people stuck in traffic, congestion is actually improving in Seattle, because the number of car trips is decreasing. A city DOT report found there were about 900,000 daily auto trips within the city in 2009. That’s down from 920,000 daily trips the year before and 975,000 daily trips in 2003. Meanwhile, bicycle use is increasing. A downtown bicycle count by the city found a 15 percent increase in daily riders between 2007 and 2009. In 2010, there were 3,251 riders during a one-day count downtown. And the city figures two-thirds of people on bikes in Seattle are commuting to and from work—some 6,000 people every day. That’s good news to Chuck Ayers, the executive director of the Cascade Bicycle Club, a nonprofit bike advocacy group that is the largest of its kind in the country. “A lot of good things are happening to contribute to those numbers,” Ayers says. “The reality is that cycling has gotten safer and safer. Drivers are more aware of cyclists’ right to be on the road, and cyclists have a better sense of where they need to be.”
In 2007, the City Council adopted a “Bicycle Master Plan.” The ultimate goal is a 450-mile network of bike facilities that would put nine out of 10 city residents within walking distance of trails, bike racks and other amenities for the two-wheeled set. Between 2007 and 2009, the city spent more than $17 million to implement the bike master plan, including installing 93 miles of bike lanes and “sharrows” (shared lanes for cars and bikes), and 31 miles of signed bicycle routes and other improvements. Seattle now has 140 miles of bike lanes and sharrows, and 46 miles of multiuse trails. Ayers says these upgrades—especially bike lanes that are separated from auto traffic—are needed if more people are going to use bicycles regularly.
Seattle may borrow a bike safety idea from its southern neighbor Portland. In March, Seattle City Council members traveled to Portland to learn more about how planners there are changing the transportation system. Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw was particularly impressed with Portland’s “Neighborhood Greenways”—links between places like schools and parks, with streets set up primarily for walking and biking. The speed limit on Portland’s greenways is 25 miles per hour, enforced with lots of speed bumps. Bagshaw says greenways might work in Seattle in places like Beacon Hill, Wallingford and around Seattle Children’s Hospital. A popular Dutch approach might also serve as a model; parks department officials, developers and others are looking into creating “woonerfs”—streets where pedestrians, cars and bicycles share equal status on unmarked, high-density residential streets. A woonerf is currently planned for the Yale Campus development in South Lake Union; another is under discussion for 12th and James Streets.
Many Seattle businesses and people—especially those who work in the industrial base of South Seattle—worry about the financial effect of taking road space away from motor vehicles. The city is proposing road diets for E Marginal Way and Airport Way S, cutting six lanes to four and instituting changes to make it safer for people who want to walk, but it’s unclear when such a move would happen.
While big ideas are being debated, the city’s master plan is rolling forward—and that makes Herald Ugles of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 19 unhappy. At a forum sponsored by the Port of Seattle in late March, he said the city’s industrial base is “under attack.” Without enough auto lanes, Ugles and others say, heavy industry simply can’t get its product to market. Mike Peringer, the president of the SoDo Business Association, says Seattle politicians just don’t understand the neighborhood, which is home to Safeco and Qwest fields as well as dozens of industrial concerns. “We have literally hundreds and hundreds of trucks that go in and out of the city every day,” he says. “And we have 50,000 people who work here. It’s becoming more problematic for them to do it. I’m not suggesting we don’t promote bicycle use, but we also have to realize the primary concern down here is getting people and trucks around.” City transportation planners say business interests have too often predicted disaster about proposed changes that never materializes. Early data from the Nickerson Street changes—which included the loss of two car lanes—showed no measurable adverse impact on traffic volumes, according to the Seattle DOT.
One of the main flashpoints in the bikes/auto debate is completion of the “missing link” of the popular Burke-Gilman Trail, a 27-mile multiuse route that is a favorite of the region’s bicyclists. The city wants to spend about $10.4 million to close a 1.5-mile gap in the waterfront trail, which follows Shilshole Bay and the Ship Canal through to the northwest shore of Lake Washington. That idea has been opposed by businesses along the Ship Canal in Ballard’s industrial district. The trail, they say, would block easy access for large trucks and other vehicles heading toward waterfront businesses. But cyclists say the uncompleted trail is dangerous. As of this spring, Ballard businesses were still trying to stop the missing link from being finished by filing appeals and continuing to push the issue in the court system.
Ayers agrees that it’s important to maintain Seattle’s industrial sector. The heavy amount of commercial traffic in that area may mean that route is too dangerous for cyclists, he says, so an alternative route might be better, but so far nothing specific has been proposed. However, Ayers remains committed to making the city’s neighborhoods and business districts “more walkable, more bikable, more livable on a human scale.” He says such changes would be good for shopkeepers’ bottom line and can be done in such a way that they won’t kill heavy industry. “We’re acutely aware of the need to keep our industrial base strong,” Ayers says. “The reality is, businesses are doing better because their communities are more walkable and bikable.”
For his part, O’Brien thinks there’s much more awareness on all sides. He remembers seeing a sharrow about four years ago, taking a picture of it and emailing it to a friend, saying, “Hey, check this out.” “It was a really crazy thing,” O’Brien says. “Now they’re in a lot of places....We have really changed what it feels like to be a biker out there.”