Where did the 2nd Ave bike lane go wrong? – UPDATED

Erica Barnett at Publicola says the 2nd Ave bike lane is probably the worst in the city:

Here are some of the many things that could happen to you as a cyclist on Second:A passenger in a parked car could open his or her door into your path, knocking you down;

A driver could decide to turn in to a parking space, hitting you from the left;

A driver could turn out of a parking space, hitting you from the right;

A driver could decide the bike lane is their own personal driving lane;

A driver could decide to turn left and fail to yield to you, forcing you to stop abruptly or slamming in to you from the right.

I completely agree with Erica.

If you are just headed south through downtown, I find 5th, which has practically no bike-centric aid, much safer. I don’t know if I have ever ridden in the 2nd Ave bike lane without at least one near-miss with a car (and I ride very cautiously). If you ride on 2nd, it really is better to take a general traffic lane and act like the bike lane just doesn’t exist. I would rather the 2nd Ave bike lane be torn up than remain as it is (though I would much rather have it be fixed).

So this is a good opportunity to look at this bike facility and figure out where it went wrong. Below are some of my ideas. Please offer your thoughts on why it is worse than others and what could be done differently.

  • The lane is on the left, where turning and parking motorists are simply not expecting bicycles. They are not used to us being there and it is not in their muscle memory to check there for a bike. This is not an excuse, but it is the reality.
  • The bike lane was squeezed onto the side of a busy street. Where many other bike lane projects were just one part of a larger traffic calming project, the traffic on 2nd is anything but calm. In many ways, the safety increases from bike lanes may have much less to do with the facility being separate and more to do with decreased speeding (yes, 10 miles per hour over the limit is speeding). I have spent a lot of time in this area of downtown, and I am willing to bet traffic on 2nd could be calmed and still flow smoothly. The lights are timed well enough that speeding cars just hit stoplights anyway, so slowing the top speed of traffic would likely not slow total vehicle movement (though I admit I am no traffic engineer).
  • The bike lane is downhill, so bikes are going fast. They are fast enough to be integrated with general traffic, yet the bike lane squeezes bikes into a small space that puts them in exactly the most dangerous part of the street, vulnerable to cars pulling out of/into parking and turning left.
  • Sharrows in the center of the right lane on 5th could be a big help in the meantime (sharrows in the left lane could be good, too, though few bikes are going to want to get to I-5 and the left lanes are often backed up). They may encourage many bikers to try the route. I can almost guarantee that people will find 5th less stressful and just as fast as 2nd (depending on your destination, of course). This could help get people out of the 2nd Ave bike lane now while we figure out ways to fix it.

UPDATE: I meant to note that I don’t mind the uphill portion of the lane on 2nd. It’s the downhill that I find dangerous.

UPDATE #2: Just in from BikeWise today, a crash on 2nd at University: “I had trouble with my gears, I downshifted going downhill when I meant to shift up. I was traveling not too terribly fast going downhill as I was braking trying to get my gearing figured out. When I did, then I accelerated. The car that had just passed me slowed and turned left in front of me. I hit the driver’s side of the car. She finished the turn then pulled over and got out to make sure I was okay. I was, and the bike seemed to be/seems to be.

We exchanged phone numbers, but I wished I’d gotten her license plate and seen her driver’s license.

I took what would be an ideal route for me to use to commute to work, only if drivers learn to watch for bikes. Even though I was in the bike lane, a driver who passed me did not see me.”

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18 Responses to Where did the 2nd Ave bike lane go wrong? – UPDATED

  1. rich says:

    I really don’t get your and Erica’s hate of Second Ave. Sure it has its problems, but so does Fifth, a street that I avoid whenever possible. Fifth is narrower and filled with cars and buses. I agree that there’s a definite problem with cars turning left off of Second. I’m always vigilant for this, and take the lane if I think there’s going to be an issue. On the other hand, more traditional right side of the road bike lanes are certainly not exempt from right turning cars cutting off bicyclists. I saw this happen just a few weeks ago on Dexter. Cars pulling in and out of parking places are just as big a problem whether you’re on the right or left side of the street. The directions Erica uses in her list of complaints actually correspond to a right side of the street bike lane, not a left side lane like Second. I agree that Second is far from ideal, but I don’t think it’s the abomination you describe.

  2. Jake says:

    I wrote about this same issue a while ago here:
    http://bikeseattle.blogspot.com/2010/06/case-for-sharrows-on-2nd-ave.html
    I always take the lane on 2nd, even when it would be faster to pass cars in the bike lane.

  3. rich says:

    I’m with Jake on this one. I’ve been riding Second Avenue since long before there was a bike lane. It wasn’t a bad route back then, and the bike lane added little value. While I’d usually prefer a lane to sharrows, in this particular case sharrows might be an improvement.

  4. eldan says:

    I used to commute across downtown, and I used 2nd because I could get across far faster than on 5th, by not having to climb anywhere near as much. That said, I always just rode in the right-hand lane, taking the lane and keeping up with traffic.

  5. mike archambault says:

    As I commented on the Publicola article, I seriously think 2nd and 4th would be great candidates for contraflow cycle tracks, especially since they would completely avoid the heavy bus traffic on the opposite side.
    http://www.streetfilms.org/the-capitols-colossal-contraflow-cycle-track/

    Having these cycle tracks would by no means preclude us from riding in the general purpose lanes if that’s what we choose to do now. But, despite how comfortable many of us may feel riding in general traffic lanes, it is a seriously uninviting alternative to that large section of the population to whom we should be trying to appeal.

    • eldan says:

      Yes to this. I think they’d be a lot better for mutual visibility than a left-side bike lane is, and a contraflow track is really useful infrastructure, especially in a very hilly downtown.

  6. Andreas says:

    The traffic on 5th seems to me much slower than that on 2nd. Could be the signal timing, or the numerous mid-block pedestrian crossings, or maybe the drivers actually go slower because it’s so much smaller than 2nd: three lanes versus five-and-a-half, plus all the street trees give it a smaller scale. I find that whenever I ride 5th, despite the incline and the slower speeds it imposes, I rarely feel like I’m slowing down traffic.

    On the other hand, whenever I take 2nd, from Stewart to about Yesler I always take the center lane so that I can keep out of the way of both right- and left-turning cars. But of course, this means I have to keep up with traffic, and as I speed along I always wonder, Could I really stop safely if I needed to right now? What would happen if I hit that grate the wrong way? Riding 25 mph can be tons of fun, but not when forced to do it to avoid pissing off drivers and not get hit.

    Those contraflow tracks Mike links to actually look really neat. The contraflow seems to force cyclists into drivers’ fields of view and vice versa, which seems like it would be a vast improvement over the left-side lanes that we currently have on 2nd & 4th.

  7. Algernon says:

    Fourth Avenue from Jefferson to about Union also has a left turn bike lane. It’s uphill most of that distance, so speed isn’t much of a problem, but the left turns are plus lots of cars stopped on the left side (at the Columbia Tower and the hotel where Sazerac is) in spite of no stopping signs at rush hour. Riding on the right in the bus lane is okay albeit slow since buses stop every block.

  8. Daniel Burkert says:

    I’m done bike riding. 15years of racing and another 25 for fitness and commuting. One accident too many. I’ll dirve from now on and run when I want a work out. Cya…

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  10. Alex says:

    when will this city understand that if it wants people to bike, the bike lanes need to be protected by something more than a 6″ strip of paint.

    i also do not understand the city’s insistence on putting bike lanes in between parked cars and travel lanes. what kind of self-preserving individual wants to be the main ingredient in a car sandwich?

    • mike archambault says:

      Being between parked cars and traffic is great for visibility in many cases. If bikers are behind a vail of parked cars it could spell danger when cars make turns that cross the bike lane. Obviously 2nd ave’s current layout is not working, but if you’re suggesting moving the bike lane to the other side of the parked cars, this would be even worse (unless it was a contraflow lane :)).

  11. Antony says:

    I was travelling slow on 2nd today looking for a parking space. I saw one from afar on University. I was going appx. 18 miles per hour. I slowed down further as I approached 2nd and University, check my rear view, side mirror and blind spot and all of a sudden I hear a bone-chilling scream and SMACK right into the drivers side of my car. I am so thankful the lady riding the bike was alright. She asserted she was fine and was able to walk on her own accord to the sidewalk. I have great insurance. However, it seemed as if every lawyer came down from their offices and started giving her cards and asking her to call them later. That made me sick. It was an accident. I did everything I could have done short of stopping my car and getting out to check for bicyclists before I turned. I also do not blame the bicyclist at all, because she did not put that dangerous bicycle lane there. After reading all the complaints online, I believe the city of Seattle should be held liable. This bike lane should not be there, and moved. She was simply obeying the law and riding the path. So was I. If, say, I was the bicyclist making the left turn and she was in the vehicle behind and smacked into me, it would totally be the driver of the vehicle’s fault. “Lucky” for us both, that wasn’t the scenario because if it was one of us would be seriously hurt right now. She is not blame. Nor do I feell that I am. This bike lane is stupid. The lanes should be integrated since its going downhill anyway and bikes can go just as fast as cars. I am so happy she’s alright.

    • Cyclist Mike says:

      Assuming you had signaled properly (left turn signal) and your break lights were in working order, I’d have to put more blame on the cyclist than to not blame her at all.

      1) She is behind you and should be paying attention. As a cyclist, regardless if a lane exists or not, you need to ride defensively. She clearly was not.
      2) How did she hit you on the driver’s side? This means she was trying to weave in between your car and the cars parked on the LEFT SIDE – this is after you have already stopped. If she was trying to pass safely, she would have gone around you on the RIGHT SIDE of your car. If she could not pass safely, as that would have required her to enter a traffic lane, then she should have STOPPED. Just because you’re in a bike lane doesn’t mean you don’t stop for slower traffic, regardless of mode (bicycle or car)

      While I’m glad everyone ended up OK, to me, based off of your story, she needs to take the fault for this one. This is not the fault of the bike lane or the city, even though it could be positioned better.

      Riding bicycles has its own risks and when you get on your two wheels, you take on those risks. You don’t get to pass the blame on to the city or others.

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        She was in the bike lane, which is on the left on 2nd. She wasn’t passing between parked cars and traffic, like you suggest here. It does not seem like the biker could be to blame here, and the driver specifically says she is not.

      • Cyclist Mike says:

        @Tom – I know the bike lane is on the left hand side of the street. There is no other way for the cyclist in question to hit the driver side of the car except for her to ride in between the row of parked cars and the driver who is trying to parallel park.

        What she failed to do was recognize the signs of someone who might be entering her lane. Even if the driver didn’t use his turn signals, he stated he slowed down (break lights are on), the cyclist is now probably traveling faster than the car, and she should have also recognized that the driver is now going slower than the other traffic around him. This is a clear sign that the driver is going to be doing some unplanned maneuvering.

        I can’t emphasize this enough – cyclists NEED to ride defensively. Everyone on the road is unpredictable – pedestrians, other cyclists, and drivers alike. Much like being in a car, you need to look out for signs of other motorists to try to predict their next move. This means looking for passengers in a car when traveling in a bike lane to try to predict getting doored accidentally, looking for exhaust coming out of a parked car which could signal that it will eventually merge into traffic, observing a pedestrian who might jay-walk (perhaps someone is in a rush trying to catch a bus).

        You don’t have to believe me when I say I’m a daily bicycle commuter, but you do have to take into consideration that she was not paying attention OR wrongly assumed that the driver noticed her. As the original poster claimed, if she was a driver and rear-ended her, it would clearly be her fault. Why isn’t it the same in this case? Because she was on a bike in a bike lane? That seems pretty silly to me.

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        This is hard to argue, since we don’t know enough details to have any clue where fault might lie. But I am uncomfortable with what you are saying, mike. If I am riding and turn left directly into the path of a car driving at reasonable speed and otherwise being attentive, that is not the driver’s fault. Same rules apply to bikes. If (and we don’t know enough here) she were riding in the bike lane and a car turned into her lane directly in front if her, that is not her fault. I agree that bikers should anticipate unsignalled movements as best they can and always ride defensively for their own safety. But there’s not a lot you can do if a car turns right in front of you, and I don’t see why you are so eager to blame the cyclists here, given what we know.

      • Cyclist Mike says:

        Tom – fair enough. There is a lot of missing information and there is a lot of assuming happening on both of our parts.

        I guess the reason why I jump the gun and don’t always defend my fellow cyclist is because I have witnessed one too many times – whether its actually on the road, blog posts, or from supposed cycling advocates (*cough* David Hiller *cough*)- that we are so much higher and mightier than drivers and that it’s never our fault. We always come up with excuses for our behavior and use horrible debating points such as “We’re green because we don’t pollute, so we’re right and the city should be praising our holiness!”

        Anyway, good conversation. I’m not taking anything personally, I like a good debate.

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