The newest stretch of downtown Seattle bike lane is now open. 

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) finished a new section of bike lane last month on Fourth Avenue between Pine and Madison Streets. 

The project is part of the city’s slow expansion of bike lanes — it was once aimed to open in 2018. Advocates were disappointed when, ahead of an expected traffic squeeze downtown, the city delayed the Fourth Avenue project, saying the busy street needed to stay flexible for bus and vehicle traffic. 

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Most of the six-block bike lane is two-way for cyclists with a section between Seneca and Madison allowing only one-way northbound travel. On its southern end, the protected section connects to an existing unprotected bike lane on Fourth. 

Separated from traffic by white plastic posts, the new bike lane is stripped-down compared to the Second Avenue path, where the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) installed heavy planters and other amenities to try to draw more riders to the route

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SDOT plans to eventually extend a two-way lane on Fourth Avenue north to Vine Street and south to connect to Second Avenue, once the city has the funding. In the meantime, the department is promising what it calls an “interim” step this fall to stretch a one-way lane north to Bell Street this fall. The extension to the south may be built next year, SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergerson said.

In total, SDOT expects the project to cost $3.3 million, including planning, design and direct costs like paint and signal changes, Bergerson said. The recently opened segment from Pine to Madison cost about $800,000, according to SDOT. 

Among the most expensive factors, Bergerson said, are safety upgrades to signals that give people walking and biking a separate green light from turning drivers. 

Before COVID-19, about 3% of people commuting to downtown for work got there by bike, according to a Commute Seattle survey. City bike counters tallied about 560,000 rides on the Second Avenue bike lane downtown last year, or roughly 10,800 a week. 

To make room for the bike lane on Fourth, SDOT removed some parking and loading areas. In some areas, the leftmost travel lane is open for travel during the busiest morning and afternoon hours, then converted to a loading zone for the rest of the day. In other places, the street does not have a loading zone because of turn lanes.

Drivers, construction workers and delivery drivers navigated around the new layout as the fog faded during a recent Friday lunch hour.

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“I support it,” said Rut Poladitmontri, owner of the Harbor Cafe, where he sometimes moves supplies into the restaurant from Fourth Avenue and will now cross the bike lane. “We’ll learn to deal with it.”

For Poladitmontri and Judy Lew, who was working at the front of the cafe, the lack of downtown foot traffic because of the pandemic is the front-of-mind concern.

“We want more people back,” Lew said.

Down the street at Caffe Migliore, co-owner Jess Hilton said some confused drivers don’t realize one of the travel lanes is now a parking lane during certain hours. “It’s going to take people a long time to figure out how it works,” Hilton said.

Hilton questioned the cost of the bike lane and worried his shop could lose morning customers without the loading zone from 6 to 9 a.m. 

“People will travel about four blocks for a coffee,” Hilton said. 

An Amazon delivery driver making his rounds said he welcomed the new bike lane. 

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“There is more than just one place to park,” said the driver, who declined to give his name. “If you use your imagination, you can find another place.”

At the Potbelly sandwich shop near Fourth and Pike, employee Zak Buczinskysaid the shop delivers sandwiches on foot or sometimes by bike. “The entire West Coast was on fire recently,” Buczinsky said. “Anything that lessens our carbon emissions is a good thing.”

Bob Santucci, who owns West Coast Diamond and Gem on the 12th floor of a building on Fourth Avenue, questioned how many cyclists will use the bike lane. 

Santucci said he is frustrated to lose a loading zone his customers have come to expect. A turn lane now prevents loading on most of his block, with a few spaces at the southern end.

“The load zone in the last two years became a regular part of my business,” Santucci said. Customers regularly ask to quickly pick up an order or drop something off to be repaired, he said.

Santucci said the disruption for downtown businesses compounds an already hard year in which many were closed for long stretches because of the pandemic. 

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The new bike lane offers cyclist Margaret McCauley a faster way to reach errands downtown, like the library or pharmacy, with her three young sons, she said. Without more safe lanes downtown, the family sometimes trekked from their neighborhood near Judkins Park over First Hill to reach downtown because that route felt more protected.

More protected lanes downtown offer a more direct connection, McCauley said: “It’s a big help.”

Connor Davidge, who commuted from the Ballard area to work downtown before the pandemic, tried out the new lane when it opened. Though the route is a key connection, it would be more useful with a longer stretch that runs two ways instead of one-way, he said.

While downtown has a parallel bike lane on Second Avenue, steep hills can make for a tough ride from that lane to destinations on Fourth, Fifth or Sixth avenues. “The availability of multiple routes makes a huge difference,” Davidge said.

The route would feel safer with better separation from drivers, like cement planters or barriers instead of flimsier plastic posts, he said. 

Bergerson, from SDOT, said the city is “currently looking into funding options for concrete barriers.”