As we reported yesterday, the Great Bike Route Wall of Uptown/Lower Queen Anne has finally cracked with the opening of the new protected bikeway on Mercer Street under Aurora.
But the bike lanes are just a small part of a $237 million car-focused remake of the Mercer corridor. It’s got lots of wide lanes and long traffic signal cycles. It is uncomfortable to be around if you not in a car, and it is choked with car traffic. It fails as a people-focused, economy-pumping street, and it fails as a fast-moving, highway-style road. It’s a stroad. A really big and really expensive one.
Though having the ability to cross Aurora is amazing and game-changing for bikeability in the area, the execution of the bike route connections range from OK to terrible. And as we will outline below, the failures were nearly all brought up by the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board back in the planning phase then promptly ignored.
The first thing most people will notice is that the lanes are extremely green. In a way, it’s kind of exciting to see so much green. It screams out, “Look! You can bike here now!”
But the city usually uses green to highlight conflict points and driveways, and the exact opposite is true with this lane. The green disappears at every intersection, where people biking, walking and driving mix together. This sign highlights the confusion (it also only shows a one-way bike lane):
Essentially every intersection is rather strange. The wide corner radii seem to be designed to encourage high-speed turns for cars at the expense of space and protection for people walking or biking (even 18-wheelers have enough curb room to make easy turns with feet of space to spare). There are big poles at most corners right in the middle of the path to the bike lanes. At best, the poles make the bike lanes feel like an afterthought, at worst they could prove to be hazards.
But the worst problems lie on the ends of the short bike lanes: Well, they end.
On the South Lake Union side east of Dexter (pictured at top), there are eight lanes for general or turning traffic, space for car parking and a new planted median, but no bike lanes (the north sidewalk is wide, at least in places, and will likely see some bike traffic once construction is finally finished).
The end of the bike lanes at 5th Ave is also very frustrating because there is space on Mercer to simply continue the bike lanes west. This would connect directly to the Uptown business district and the Mercer-facing destinations in Seattle Center, such as the performing arts centers. Crews recently rebuilt many of the sidewalks and curb cuts, which would have been a great time to build a simple, direct, complete and consistent bike connection.
This was a huge missed opportunity, and one brought up by the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board during the planning phase.
People on bikes are instead supposed to move over one block via 5th Ave (or Taylor) to use the paint-only bike lanes on Roy. Not only is this less direct and obvious, but the connection to and from Roy is not comfortable or complete. People heading west have to merge across several lanes on northbound 5th Ave to turn left onto Roy from 5th without even the relative safety of a left turn lane. Yeah right.
People heading east don’t have a clear place to wait at 5th and Mercer for the signal to cross over to the new bike lanes. If you have a small bike, you can try to maneuver onto the sidewalk, hoping there aren’t a bunch of people already there waiting. If you have a big bike or a bunch of kids in tow, well, I don’t really know what you should do.
The signal timing is also awful, clearly designed to move cars at the expense of everyone else. Once you make it to 5th on the Mercer bikeway, you have to wait for the signal to cross to the northwest corner, then wait again for a pretty long time before crossing to the (not-yet-open) bike lanes on 5th Ave leading to Seattle Center. I timed it, and it can take over three minutes just to get from the northeast corner of the intersection to the southwest corner.
That’s longer than it takes to bike the whole rest of the bike lane, and I observed one person on foot give up waiting and just run for it. It’s well documented that people will stop obeying the walk signal if the wait times are too long. NACTO, an organization of city traffic engineers working on safe urban street design, suggest wait times between 1 and 1.5 minutes for this reason. This intersection is at least double that.
Once you cross Mercer onto southbound 5th Ave, you have to navigate into the crosswalk because there is no direct curb cut to access the bike lanes. Continue a block south and you reach yet another frustrating point: The city and Seattle Public Schools failed to reach a deal to extend the bike lane to the EMP and the Republican St driveway with access into Seattle Center. So for now you are dumped into the middle of a very poorly paved parking lot for Memorial Stadium (SPS property).
The one-block of bike lanes on 5th Ave remains closed for now, but even when it opens it will be sorely incomplete. Yet another bike route dead end.
If I seem to be exceptionally critical of this project, it’s because none of these problems were accidents, and none are surprises. I was at a meeting of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board way back in November 2011 when the volunteer Board raised essentially all of these issues to project planners and were ignored. Here’s a list of some issues SBAB brought up (via the meeting minutes):
- Wide corner radii
- Excessive travel lane width (12-foot lanes are for freeways, not neighborhood streets)
- Lack of east-west bike routes in South Lake Union
- Need to make a deal with Seattle Public Schools to extend the 5th Ave lane in front of Memorial Stadium
- Inadequate space for bike queuing at 5th/Mercer
- Poles in the bikeway path
- Need for bike boxes for queuing and turning
- Need for access to the Gates Foundation campus
- Concerns about people biking, walking and turning right at Mercer and Taylor at the same time (including a reasonable and simple suggestion to tighten up the curbs to help slow turning cars)
- Signal wait times for people crossing Mercer
- Suggested restricting right turns on red, including at Dexter
- Suggested protected bike lane connection on 5th Ave between Mercer and Roy
- Concerns the bike connection between Mercer and Roy will be confusing as planned
The citizen advisory boards only work if planners listen to them. SBAB made a general note that it felt like the planners were “shoehorning multi-modal concerns into a $90M project” rather than treating people walking and biking as a central goal of the project (“$90M” refers to the Mercer West budget covering everything west of Dexter).
Basically, planners were willing to put in bike lanes so long as they didn’t in any way get in the way of the road widening and car-throughput goals. This is the single-modal mindset we need to eradicate from our urban transportation thinking if Seattle is ever going to be a safe, multi-modal city.
The Mercer remake was an incredible and rare chance to make a clear and continuous biking connection from South Lake Union to Seattle Center and Midtown/Lower Queen Anne. As welcome as the new crossing under Aurora is, the project as a whole was a huge missed opportunity.