Seattle has banned drivers from turning right at one of the city’s busiest intersections, to protect the thousands of bicyclists passing through.
The decision was an immediate reaction to a pair of car-bike collisions last Tuesday, crashes that occurred as vehicles turned from Dexter Avenue North onto westbound Mercer Street, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).
Though it’s an impromptu regulation about one crossing in a construction zone, the right-turn ban reflects an evolution of government mindset about who owns the streets.
While bike lanes have been proliferating for years, this appears to be the first instance in Seattle, and a rarity in the U.S., in which a popular bike lane has caused traditional car turns to be outlawed.
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Dexter is said to be the city’s busiest bike-commute route, passing Seattle Center, the Gates Foundation, Amazon.com and shiny biotech labs on the way to downtown. Jobs and housing are being added far beyond the automobile’s capacity to thrive in the booming South Lake Union area, which relies heavily on transit, walking and biking.
Counts aren’t available, but most of the 2,957 bikes per weekday (and nearly 5,000 per weekday in July) that pass the bike counter on the Fremont Bridge north and south also use Dexter. About 1,800 cyclists on Dexter enter or leave downtown across Denny Way.
The route has also been a symbol of Seattle’s yearning to be seen as a leading city for bicyclists. A left-turning, hit-and-run driver killed cyclist Mike Wang in 2011, leading The Economist magazine to cite Dexter as a symbol of inferior cycling infrastructure in the U.S. Later that year, Seattle rebuilt the upper part of Dexter, north of Mercer, to create a partly separated bikeway and transit stops.
The city is rebuilding the Mercer Street corridor to simplify traffic routes and to provide sidewalks and other landscaping with pedestrians and bicyclists in mind.
Ironically, when the city opened its first westbound lane from Dexter to Seattle Center in June, on the formerly eastbound-only Mercer, that inadvertently created a hazard.
So-called “right-hook” crashes, in which a car turns right and into a bike that is going straight, are among the most frequent types, said Brock Howell, policy director for Cascade Bicycle Club.
“I’m very happy SDOT is doing this,” said Howell, who rides through the crossing a couple times per week.
SDOT spokesman Rick Sheridan said the ban is temporary, during construction of the Mercer West project, scheduled to last until mid-2015. Dexter now sits 80 feet east of its normal alignment, with a curve that distracts drivers approaching Mercer, he said.
No turn bans are expected after Mercer is done, he said.
However, a right-hook threat might still exist. Howell predicts SDOT will continue to monitor the intersection, to see if a right-turn ban is warranted.
The League of American Bicyclists and Washington Bikes haven’t heard of another place that’s enacted a right-turn ban.
But cities are reducing the dangers of right turns in other ways, said Ken McLeod, the league’s legal specialist.
One common tactic is to give bicyclists their own green light a couple seconds before the green light for drivers in the traffic lane, he said. Cyclists gain a head start. They’re less likely to be in the blind spot of a turning motorist.
Seattle installed several such signals on Broadway this year, as part of the First Hill Streetcar project.
Portland and other cities have installed curbs or plantings that block cars from turning from an arterial into a neighborhood greenway, said Howell. This is mostly to isolate residential roads from cut-through traffic, but it also removes a right-hook threat to bicyclists using the right edge of the arterial.
Out on Dexter Avenue, cyclist Fiona McGuigan suggests adding a green square known as a “bike box” in front of the car-traffic line. Bicyclists position themselves there so they can enter an intersection first, on a green light.
Seattle has some of these, for instance near the Nucor Steel mill in West Seattle.
“I always try to be up front, because I know that [right-hooking] happens,” she said.
Richard Smith, an 81-year-old cyclist, said the city has generally handled things well during the complicated Mercer roadwork.
“I yield the right of way to everybody, no matter what,” he said. “I don’t watch the signs, I watch the cars. They’re bigger than I am.”
Smith and several other cyclists said they didn’t notice the large electronic message sign and “no right turns” sign. Their focus was on cars that were chronically blocking the intersection, so they had to squeeze between cars stopped on Mercer going west, and the southbound Dexter traffic inches away.
A problem with the new rule is that it imposes an even more circuitous route on some drivers, such as Dexter Avenue North resident Nate Tepp.
If he can’t turn right at Mercer, he must proceed to Denny Way and backtrack past Seattle Center — or drive north on Aurora to Canlis restaurant, then under the Aurora Bridge and switchback along Queen Anne Hill — just to reach the grocery store in Uptown.
That would be tolerable, he said, except that when SDOT created the westbound Mercer lane, it banned his old left turn from Mercer to northbound Dexter, on the return trip. So now he must detour coming and going.
“They’re really just sticking it to everyone who works on Dexter,” Tepp said.
Tepp said he supports some bike improvements, such as the upper Dexter project, which made it easier for him to walk across the street to catch a bus.
City data from 2012 show there were 406 car-bike collisions that year, of which 25 caused serious injuries. One person was killed.
Howell said the city’s effort to protect cyclists here illustrates that what matters to the public nowadays isn’t just providing easy car travel, but safety and an abundance of mobility for everyone.