The idea of a new streetcar line is exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. Streetcars are cool. They encourage dense development. They encourage more people to get out of their cars and enjoy a walking and transit lifestyle. These are all allied causes for the urban cyclist. Both modes work better as the other succeeds. But streetcars include one thing that is hard for people on bikes to work around — they have tracks.
The South Lake Union Trolley is a disaster. Losing the South Lake Union stretch of Westlake as a potential safe, flat and easy bike route was not worth the money saved by putting the tracks in the curb lane. People have been hurt by the tracks and will continue to be hurt. SDOT has certainly helped people by using paint to direct bikers away from danger. But the project is flawed at its core, and that can’t be painted over.
Mia Birk, former Portland bike coordinator now with Alta Planning + Design, wrote recently about Seattle’s First Hill Streetcar and accompanying two-way cycle track on Broadway:
In the meantime, the City of Seattle was dealing with the aftermath of their first streetcar line. Without due consideration given to bicyclist safety and tracks laid in the right lane, cyclists started crashing and complaining. Alarmed, then-Seattle DOT Director Grace Crunican asked for guidance on future lines. And that’s what led to the project on Broadway Street and a commitment to ensure that from now on, bicycles and streetcars are planned together.
Seattle’s Broadway is a wonderful project from a good intentions standpoint, but a really tough one from a design standpoint. While the vision is to create an excellent bikeway akin to Vancouver BC’s Dunsmuir Street or the many two-way paths/cycle tracks in Montreal, the challenges are enormous.
Of particular concern is bicyclist/motorist interaction at intersections and driveways, steep grades, bicyclists’ turning movements, and, of course, interaction with tracks. Every decision will involve trade-offs with motorist movement, parking, or access. To be sure, like Portland’s emerging streetcar lines, debate and design-tweaking will go on long after the project is supposedly complete.
The Broadway cycle track is a very exciting chance for the city to create a world-class, modern, multimodal street. I am excited to follow and be involved in the process as it deals with each of its many challenges. But I am personally more worried about the Jackson corridor of the First Hill Streetcar line.
In July, plans for the streetcar were underwhelming. I cannot stress how important Jackson is to people in Seattle who ride bikes. No other street goes from Pioneer Square to 12th Ave, the I-90 bike path, Beacon Hill, the Central District (where I live), and onward without a giant hill or a roadway obstruction (railroad tracks, I-5, no safe crossing at Rainier, etc). Plans that do not include safe, dedicated facilities in each direction on Jackson will not do.
Traffic volumes on Jackson in 2009 were only 14,100 vehicles per day west of Rainier (9,700 east of Rainier). That’s 2,000 fewer vehicles per day than 125th NE and 3,000 fewer than Broadway. I think there is room for something more ambitious that turns Jackson into the welcoming, vital bike connector and commercial corridor it should be. I actually think an exciting, safe and inviting Jackson bike facility will do more to increase biking in Seattle than the Broadway cycle track (but perhaps that’s another post).
I am excited about this streetcar and future streetcars because they are signs that we are changing how we look at roads and transportation. We are putting down rail as a symbol of long-term transit operations. The days of unnecessary and dangerous car-centric travel lanes are over. This new era is about sharing the space we have to create roads that move people — not just motor vehicles — safely, efficiently and sustainably. This vision cannot be reached without far greater numbers of people riding bicycles, no matter how many streetcar lines we install.