EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is a follow-up to yesterday’s report about Vehicular Homicide charges against Lucas McQuinn in the alleged DUI collision that killed Andy Hulslander. I suggest reading that story first.
The dangers on NE 65th Street are not news.
Even without a DUI, the street is dangerous and uncomfortable, especially for people on foot or bike. In less than seven years (2007 through August 2014), there were 28 reports of collisions involving people on bikes and 27 involving people walking, according to a map by the Seattle Times. And those are just the collisions that were reported, and the numbers do not include all the car-on-car crashes.
Collisions occur at nearly all points along the road, meaning it’s a core design problem rather than one or two tricky spots. And if you go out on a walk or bike ride on NE 65th Street, the problem becomes clear very quickly.
As you can see in the community walk photo above — taken during rush hour — the road is extremely wide. Most reasonable people driving treat it as a two-lane street (one lane in each direction), though aggressive drivers use the big open spaces to pass. And we know from traffic engineering studies that wide lanes encourage speeding, which increases both the number of collisions and the severity of those collisions.
As the Ravenna neighborhood grows — and especially with a new light rail station on the horizon — the need for modern, safe, multimodal streets grows with it. Ravenna/North University District has the highest bike commute rate in the city, with nine percent of residents biking as their primary mode for getting to work. NE 65th Street was engineered long ago when we knew less about safe streets and far fewer people lived and worked in the area.
Therefore, you would think that NE 65th — the main east-west connector and commercial street in the neighborhood — would be one of the best places in Seattle for protected bike lanes. It is slated in the city’s Bike Master Plan for a protected bike lane from Ravenna Boulevard to 20th Ave NE, including the intersection at 15th Ave NE where Andy Hulslander was struck from behind and killed June 28.
Protected bike lanes can’t prevent people from making the choice to drive drunk. Work to prevent DUIs is vital, and we have to stay committed and try new ideas for how to stop it before someone is hurt or killed.
But protected bike lanes do create a space for people on bikes out of the path of people driving, reducing the chances that a drunk or someone making a simple driving mistake will hit them. If there were a quality protected bike lane on NE 65th Street, Andy would most likely have been waiting for the green light in that bike lane and not in the path of McQuinn’s allegedly speeding Subaru. It’s far better for a drunk to run into some curbs or a line of parked cars than a human being.
While hits from behind are relatively rare, they result in a surprising percentage of the deaths of people biking in America, according to a study by the League of American Bicyclists. There’s a perfectly rational reason people don’t feel comfortable biking in mixed traffic: You sadly can’t trust 100 percent of people driving to see you and avoid a collision. To a person killed, it doesn’t really matter if the person was drunk or just not paying attention. This type of collision is one big reason the League is urging communities across the country to build more protected bike lanes like the one slated for NE 65th Street.
But even the idea of including a NE 65th Street protected bike lane in the city’s 20-year Bicycle Master Plan drew intense opposition from some residents in the area, who in 2013 got the city to delay the entire master plan process to study the options further. In the end, the city removed bike lanes from a section east of 20th Ave NE, but kept the bike lane in the wider and busier section between Ravenna Boulevard and 20th.
Tony Provine (current candidate for City Council’s District 4) was one of the people who lead the surprisingly organized opposition as President of the Ravanna-Bryant Community Association. He authored a letter (PDF) opposing protected bike lanes anywhere on NE 65th, citing “a high volume of vehicle traffic” (65th is not exceptionally busy compared to other east-west arterials like NE 75th Street, which is working better after safety changes there) and possible loss of car parking (though no specific street redesign plan yet exists) as reasons:
NE 65th Street is the wrong site for a cycle track because: it has a heavy volume of vehicle traffic; incorporates numerous bus routes with frequent stops and strong ridership; serves as an established and busy commercial transit route; and has over 100 businesses that are located along that street. In addition to being too narrow to accommodate both cycle tracks and more than one lane of traffic in each direction for most of its length, NE 65th would be required to eliminate parking, negatively impacting businesses and the community.
None of these doomsday scenarios — whether real or imaginary — are as terrible as a friend, neighbor or father dying in an avoidable traffic collision.
I asked Provine if Andy’s death has changed his opinion about bike lanes on NE 65th Street. It hasn’t:
Mass transit, whether bus or light rail, should receive priority because of the ability to move more people. At the same time we need to ensure that our commercial vehicles and automobiles can move efficiently. While an interconnected bicycle network is necessary and desirable, it would be safer for all bicyclists if bike lanes were located on a parallel corridor rather than on a very busy and crowded arterial. We would also avoid restricting other modes of travel and/or removing critical parking spaces that residents and businesses along a corridor rely on.
People’s lives are more important than car parking (if car parking is even removed). Though obviously Provine isn’t responsible for Andy’s death, his attitude is perfectly illustrative of the type of resistance city leaders need to break through if Seattle is ever going to take the bold action on safe streets required to achieve Vision Zero.
There’s always some other place those bicyclists can be put, just not here. If Andy had been riding on some other street, this wouldn’t have happened, right? These are convenient excuses to continue ignoring the problem and keep our streets unnecessarily dangerous.
The entire philosophy behind Vision Zero is that traffic deaths and serious injuries are preventable. But they won’t be prevented by sticking our heads in the ground. We need to take action and make changes.
NE 65th Street is not a special case. People bike there for the same reasons people drive there: It’s a direct and complete route that is lined with destinations.
And we know how to make it safer: Install bike lanes, calm speeds and improve crosswalks. Just like other dangerous streets.
We might just create a more vibrant place in the process. Study after study across the nation and the globe finds that protected bike lanes actually increase business activity, while experience with transit islands right here in Seattle shows that transit and bikes can coexist just fine. Safe, comfortable multimodal streets attract customers like crazy. That doesn’t sound so scary to me.
So no more excuses. Seattle needs to take action on NE 65th Street to make it safe and comfortable for everyone. Nothing is more important. Fears of change are imaginary. But fears of a father getting smashed to death and thrown 30 yards across the Ravenna neighborhood are extremely, heartbreakingly real.