Following outrage from cyclists, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will make some small changes to its near-term plan for building bike lanes and slow streets known as greenways.
But those hoping to see a dramatic increase in construction of safe biking infrastructure are likely to be disappointed.
In the latest version of its six-year bike work plan released Thursday, city officials added back several bike lanes and greenways they previously cut. But nearly all of the projects being resurrected are identified for early planning work, indicating their construction is still unfunded and could be years away.
The earlier cuts sparked frustration among advocates for people who bike and walk. They saw the cuts as a failure by Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration to follow through on safety promises in the face of climate change and traffic congestion. The SDOT said the cuts were necessary because of constrained funding.
The projects now slated for early planning work include protected bike lanes on Beacon Avenue South and 12th Avenue between King Street and Yesler Way. The planning list also includes connections between Georgetown and downtown, and along the waterfront on Alaskan Way from Virginia Street to the Elliott Bay Trail, but SDOT has not said whether those will be protected lanes.
SDOT intends to design and build those projects if new money becomes available, Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan said. The planning will include coming up with cost estimates.
A bike lane on Martin Luther King Jr. Way between the Interstate 90 trail and Rainier Avenue South near the Mount Baker light-rail station will now be built using levy funding earmarked for Vision Zero, the city’s goal to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2030. The department has not determined how much of that lane will be protected from car traffic.
A protected bike lane on Fourth Avenue downtown, initially contemplated as a two-way lane, now will be built as a one-way bike lane going northbound, according to SDOT. That project was delayed last year.
Other projects remain cut from the plan.
The list is an “accountability document,” Ranganathan said. “This is what we think we can build and you should hold us accountable to it.”
The list also signals places where “we’re going to have good, important conversations with communities” about how street space is used, Ranganathan said. “All the sort of low-hanging fruit has been picked in terms of the [bike] network.”
Amanda Barnett, co-chair of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board, called the changes “a potentially good first step” if the city stays committed to building the projects tagged for planning. SDOT recently abandoned planned bike lanes on 35th Avenue Northeast.
“We also want to see these projects actually built, and we don’t want it to become a graveyard for projects that are ready for [planning] but, should funding become available but political will stammer, they don’t actually get built,” Barnett said.
Cascade Bicycle Club and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways expressed support for the plan in an SDOT blog post.
“We’re glad to see the city has responded to community feedback to add bike connections to, and within, South East Seattle,” said Cascade’s policy director Vicky Clarke in the post. “Now we must act with urgency to find the funding for those overdue connections so that these neighborhoods can finally have equitable access to safe and affordable transportation options.”
SDOT released the scaled-back work plan earlier this year as part of its “reset” of the voter-approved $930 million Move Seattle levy, which over-promised transportation projects including bike lanes.
The levy, crafted by former Mayor Ed Murray’s administration, promised 50 miles of new protected bike lanes and 60 miles of greenways. As part of the reset, SDOT has said it will build about 50 total miles of protected bike lanes and greenways over the next six years, in addition to the 9 miles of protected bike lanes and 12 miles of greenways built under the levy by the end of last year.
Progress has been slow. SDOT built only about 2.3 miles of protected bike lanes under the levy last year despite plans to build 10.4 miles. The city also missed its targets for greenways under the levy in 2018, building only about 7.9 miles compared with the 12.5 planned.
The city plans to build about 6 miles of protected bike lanes and 6 miles of greenways this year under the levy, although most of that work is left over from last year.
Restructuring the levy has been a political test for Durkan. City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, criticized the mayor as lacking vision to fulfill the city’s bike and climate promises.
Durkan officials defend the administration as balancing fiscal restraint with transportation needs. “We are not planning for a city for drivers,” Ranganathan said. “We are planning for a city where people have plentiful options to get around, and the truth is they’re only real options if they’re reliable and frequent and safe.”
O’Brien will host a discussion about the bike plan in his transportation committee Tuesday.
The popularity of cycling in Seattle has fluctuated, as measured by five SDOT bike counters. Ridership increased 12% from 2017 to 2018, after a 1% decrease the year before and a 6% increase the year before that. In a December Seattle Times poll, only 40% of Seattle respondents supported building more bike lanes, although the Move Seattle levy passed with 59% of the vote.
Building safe bike lanes doesn’t just benefit people who bike to work every day, but also those who want to replace short car trips to meet friends or go out for dinner, said Rachael Ludwick, who bikes with her husband and 5-year-old daughter throughout Southeast Seattle.
Failing to prioritize projects that can help people avoid driving ignores “our long-term risks as a city, as a civilization,” Ludwick said.
In a letter to city officials expressing “extreme disappointment” about the earlier version of the plan, the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board wrote that “Southeast Seattle lacks direct, all ages and abilities, north-south routes that connect Beacon Hill and Rainier Valley to the citywide network.”
The Duwamish Valley similarly lacks safe connections, including for people experiencing homelessness. “The people living throughout the valley in encampments — some of the most vulnerable people in Seattle — use bicycle transportation as their connection to opportunity and must risk their lives to do so,” the group wrote.
“I wouldn’t say Seattle is intentionally trying to hurt South Seattle, but South Seattle has very little bike infrastructure to begin with,” said Apu Mishra, a member of Beacon Hill Safe Streets who regularly bikes from his home in Beacon Hill with his wife and 2-year-old son. “To have the few [planned for that area] removed hurt.”
With levy money limited, some have called for funding for bike lanes.
Ranganathan would not comment on Durkan’s position on impact fees. She said the mayor is considering multiple possible uses for a tax on Uber and Lyft trips, including “multimodal investments.”