First Hill Streetcar: A look at bike plans + open house tonight

Construction on the First Hill Streetcar is set to begin in April, putting it on track to begin operation in early 2014. Planners behind the streetcar are holding two open houses to discuss construction of the project. The first is 5 – 8 p.m. today at Union Station’s Ruth Fisher Boardroom (401 S Jackson Street). The second open house will be 4 – 7 p.m. March 7 in the Broadway Room of the Silver Cloud Hotel (1100 Broadway).

The design of the streetcar contains a lot of exciting aspects for people biking, but there are some points of concern, especially on Jackson. First, let’s look at the exciting stuff: The Broadway Bikeway.

Basically, the Broadway Bikeway is a two-way separated cycle track on the east side of Broadway. It is ten feet wide and will run from Denny to Yesler. It comes with all sorts of modern design elements to help people on bikes safely make turns and prevent collisions with people walking and driving.

Here’s a concept flyover video from August (so some details may have changed):

New streetcar plazas along Broadway change the street layouts a bit, and plans will add safe crosswalks where they are sorely lacking today along the southern half of Broadway. Today, Broadway turns into a dangerous four-lane roadway between Pine and James Streets. But after the streetcar goes in, traffic will be calmed and the number of safe crossings for people biking and walking will increase significantly. Here’s a look at the redesigned Marion/Broadway intersection (note that Marion is an excellent First Hill bike route):

When Broadway meets Yesler, the cycle track needs to get people biking to the bike lanes on either side of Yesler. To do that, planners invented what I’m calling the bicycle flux capacitor. People walking and biking will mix for a small section at the end of the cycle track. Since this is at the end of a downhill, it will be important that people biking are going slow. This is one of the most unique bikeway challenges planners had to solve.

From there, the streetcar turns on Yesler, then on 14th to Jackson. At Yesler and 14th, the bike lane makes a job to the right in order to cross the turning tracks at a safer angle (planners dubbed this move a “bike sneak”)

At Jackson, plans get whole lot less exciting from a biking perspective. As we have argued all along, Jackson is a vital bicycle corridor and is one of the only east-west routes with a reasonable grade (due to extensive regrading projects). It is the only road that connects Pioneer Square with 12th Ave, the Jose Rizal Bridge and the Central District. A safe bicycle facility would change the viability of bicycling between some of the city’s most densely populated neighborhoods. On top of it all, Jackson actually sees fewer cars per day than Broadway, so a similar treatment should be expected to work.

However, Seattle Streetcar’s Ethan Melone said traffic volumes were not the only consideration for the Jackson corridor. From an email a few months ago:

Corridor-level average daily traffic volumes only tell part of the story of how the traffic operations of a corridor work and what the options might be for successfully changing those operations.  Intersection operations are an important factor.  Intersections like Rainier/Jackson, 12th/Jackson, 4th/Jackson have high volumes on all of the intersection approaches.  Additionally, the Jackson corridor has more bus routes with more service than Broadway–the Route 49 on Broadway turns at Pine/Pike, most of the corridor is served primarily by the 9 and the 60, which have less frequent service and lower passenger volumes at stops than the routes 7, 14, and 36 operating in the Jackson corridor, all with frequent service.  So, the traffic operations in the Jackson corridor are more demanding, particularly with respect to transit service.  The Jackson corridor also has some transit improvements, such as peak-hour transit only lanes and in-lane transit stops, that limit the flexibility to modify traffic operations in the corridor.  All of these elements were considerations in the design for the Jackson corridor.

So what we are left with is four or five lanes roadway with trolley tracks in the center lanes. This is better than the setup on Westlake, but it contains practically no improvements for walking or bicycling (though repaving the surface will do wonders). In fact, it will make left turns more difficult for people biking due to the tracks in the center lanes. Here’s a flyover of the Jackson plans (again, from August):

Another big worry is for people headed west on Jackson as they cross the Boren/Rainier/14th Ave intersection. The tracks turn, creating a potentially dangerous situation as people biking downhill cross the tracks at a potentially dangerous shallow angle. It’s also unclear how people biking east on Jackson are supposed to get to the northbound 14th Ave bike lane, since the turn lane has streetcar tracks.

In the end, the project is a mix of extremely exciting and disappointing. My hope is that, in practice, the Jackson corridor won’t be any worse than it is today (which is not great). But I can’t help feeling like it is a huge missed opportunity to dramatically improve the biking and walking environment on one of the city’s most eclectic streets.

More details on the bike plans, from an autumn presentation to the Bicycle Advisory Board:
2011 0803 Seattle StreetcarV5

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26 Responses to First Hill Streetcar: A look at bike plans + open house tonight

  1. Pingback: First Hill Streetcar: A look at bike plans + open house tonight … | Bicycle News

  2. Garth says:

    I would like to buy Old Man In Bike Lane a drink. Maybe a drink for whoever made him up. He is pretty much the boss.

  3. Gordon says:

    Personally I find South King Street to be a more enjoyable street to bike on with the low traffic volumes. On the other hand the comparatively narrow width may make it impracticable for significant bike upgrades (sharrows already exist).

    • mike archambault says:

      Agreed, King St is worlds better than Jackson for biking, so maybe it could get some greenway-like treatment as an alternative route to Jackson. It’s worth suggesting it to SDOT since they did something similar to 9th Ave parallel to Westlake.
      I was really hoping this project would have re-imagined the huge, intimidating 4th and Jackson intersection, but it doesn’t look like it will be changing much from the scary cluster that it is today…

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        King would also need a crossing at Rainier. And, of course, this adds an extra, decently-steep (but not that terrible) hill compared to Jackson. There’s promise, though.

        Weller does have a ped crossing signal at Rainier, but being 2 blocks south of Jackson, it is four blocks out of the way, and the blocks just east of Rainier are crazy steep.

  4. Kevin Carrabine says:

    Tom,
    Once again, fabulous reporting! Thanks for the tremendous and useful information and analysis.

  5. eldan says:

    Another big thank you for the reporting!

    I’ve been in London for the past few weeks, and one of the things that’s really noticeable here is just how much mileage the central London bike network gets out of individually small tweaks that improve the cycling experience dramatically – things like bike-only cut throughs, and little sections of bike-specific routing that look absurd until you ride through them and realise how much easier that made that junction. I’m trying to think about Jackson Street in that light, and one thing that comes to mind is if we could use green paint and bike boxes on the cross streets to clearly sanction and encourage the Copenhagen Left, which would resolve the issue with crossing the tracks at a bad angle. The left turn box shown for 12th Ave is a start, but why not use that for every cross-street, and add more paint & signs to encourage cyclists to use them for turns (I think I’d see that as it is and assume it’s for cross traffic only), and warn motorists that we’ll be doing that?

    14th to/from Jackson is definitely a problem as is, but it seems like a prime candidate for green bike lanes and rounding off the acute corner of 14th & Boren to give us space. I reckon those could mostly fix the problem without “costing” much road or sidewalk space.

  6. eldan says:

    I should add: I’m really pleased to see the turn box design with the cycletrack. There’s a very useful two-way cycletrack through the UCL area in central London, except that its solution to the problem of turn hazards is to ban most bike turns across the car lane and most car turns across the bike lane. It feels… suboptimal, and I think the Broadway design is better.

  7. Gary says:

    The best way to make the “Jackson to the Boren/Rainier/14th Ave” intersection work is to have all auto and street car traffic stop in ALL directions and let pedestrians and bicycles cross the street however they need to. That way they can ride around the tracks etc and not fall.

    • eldan says:

      I’m not sure about that. Another thing I’ve noticed in London is that they’ve gone all-way-walk crazy, and there are a lot of places where that has led to such a long wait between walk signal phases that everybody jaywalks. All way walks also don’t seem to lead to very tidy mixing between cyclists and pedestrians, because they make pedestrian paths less predictable.

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        I disagree about people walking and biking not mixing well in all-way signals. People have a great ability to not run into each other when they are on bikes or walking. Check out this video: http://www.streetfilms.org/groningens-green-phase-for-cyclists/

        What I really want all over this city are leading pedestrian intervals (esp if they also apply to bikes): http://www.streetfilms.org/lpi-leading-pedestrian-interval/

        We have a couple of these in Seattle. The intersection of Madison/17th Ave is a great example. It’s so comfortable and safe to cross there just because of a couple seconds of lead. That is a stupidly-low “cost” for such a significant increase in safety. And all it takes is some reprogramming. No education or physical changes needed.

  8. wave says:

    I worry about the Jackson/Boren/14th Ave intersection. I bike that route a lot, especially getting to Seahawks/Sounders/Mariners games. I could imagine SDOT just saying that the safest way to go west through that intersection to avoid going across the tracks at a bad angle will be to take the crosswalk across 14th and then across Boren, and then get back into the bike lane/sharrow. But I’m not really excited about that solution.

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  11. John F. says:

    RE: Jackson Street…

    “(though repaving the surface will do wonders)”

    AMEN!

    Instead of offering a $100+ million library bond, the city council should be focused on finding the dough to upgrade, rebuild, re-pave and re-surface the city’s street arterials. That’s the kind of capital program we need and it would make the most difference in improving the “bikeability” of Seattle. Better pavement does it — not painted lines. There are already rules on the books about how vehicles and bikes interact.

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