Anatomy of a stairway runnel that actually kinda works

S Hinds St/York Rd S stairway. Before and after photos from SDOT.

S Hinds St/York Rd S stairway. Before and after photos from SDOT.

I can hardly believe it. It kinda works!

I can hardly believe it. It kinda works!

Seattle has finally done it. They figured out how to build a functional stairway “runnel” that also includes railings required to meet accessibility guidelines.

What’s a runnel, you ask? It’s a somewhat weird name for a straight and usually grooved guide next to a stairway so people can go up and down without having to lift and carry their bikes. You just guide your bike wheels into the groove and push it up or squeezed the brakes and walk it down.

It’s pretty simple, and not all that new as a concept. But the city has tried several times to include runnels that simply do not work. Accessibility rules requiring handrails often conflicted with runnel design, which is perhaps most apparent on the N 41st Street walkway over Aurora. The handrail gets in the way of handlebars, wide bikes, baskets or even simple bags. If really just doesn’t work:

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IMG_3672It still takes an amount of ability to use the new runnels, which you find on S Hinds St and where the Burke-Gilman Trail meets 36th Ave NE. It’s especially tricky going down, since you have to carefully control your brakes to make sure your bike doesn’t get ahead of you (you’re probably better off just biking the long way down if possible).

And though I have never tried a big cargo bike on a runnel, I don’t imagine it would be smooth and easy. I also don’t know how easy it is for kids to use (if you have experience, please let us know in the comments below).

Because of these limitations, runnels should never be considered part of a major bike route.

But Seattle owns and maintains more than 500 stairways in the public right of way, many of which offer great views and car-free neighborhood connections. Functional runnels would make these stairways more usable and convenient for many people biking, so it’s great news that the city now has these quality templates to work from.

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15 Responses to Anatomy of a stairway runnel that actually kinda works

  1. ZeGerman says:

    Hey, that’s pretty neat! I don’t think I ever would have known what that groove and offset railing placement was for had I not read this blog post. Makes me think that it should be labeled with a bike symbol to let others know what it is. Otherwise, it seems like a lifehack that could easily be overlooked by the vast majority of bikers who want to go up or down the stairs with their bike. Or maybe I’m just not observant enough…

  2. Rob Norheim says:

    That location is at *36th Ave NE* and the Burke-Gilman Trail, not “NE 36th St”.

  3. ronp says:

    I think the same design just got installed next to Ron Sher’s new restaurant building adjacent to the BG trail on Sand Point Way. I will check on the way home.

    http://thelaurelhurstblog.blogspot.com/2015/04/two-new-restaurants-coming-to-old-bill.html

  4. JohnS says:

    Well, the City also historically has only had money to maintain/update a few of those stairways a year. Assuming that remains true, it will be decades before the majority of stairways are updated to this design. That said, I’m glad this is now a thing, and hope that cyclists all around Seattle will get to enjoy Seattle’s magnificent legacy of public stairs!

  5. Clark in Vancouver says:

    Yeah, runnels are great! Simple and cheap and make a difference.

    I found these two around Amsterdam.
    This one has to channels so baby carriages can go up them.
    https://flic.kr/p/dtpRmg
    This one was added to an existing staircase.
    https://flic.kr/p/dtvcy5
    (It probably would be considered a trip hazard in this continent though.

  6. Josh says:

    Just one majoritarian nitpick…. most people walking their bikes prefer to stand on the left side of the bike, away from the chainrings, so for climbing a staircase it’s much better to have the runnel on the right.

    I’ve never found a runnel that would actually keep the wheel straight lugging a loaded touring bike one-handed, so I’d be just as happy with a simple flat ramp on each side of the stairs, they work just fine with two hands on the bars, up or down, like the stairs from Lake Washington up to the I-90 Trail.

  7. jay says:

    Tom wrote:
    “And though I have never tried a big cargo bike on a runnel, I don’t imagine it would be smooth and easy. I also don’t know how easy it is for kids to use (if you have experience, please let us know in the comments below).”

    check out the “Related” post about the 41st runnel, and then the ping back from FamilyRide. (tl;dr: ” I won’t be back to the runnel.”)

    Even though I have the utmost respect for Madie’s opinion, I still had to try it for myself with the Bullitt, got the front wheel in the runnel, and then…No. I too have not been back to that runnel.
    Same with the Amgen bridge, but they have an elevator there, and again, FamilyRide wrote about that too, she took the Dummy up the elevator, so once, just for kicks, I took the Bullitt up (a tight fit) normally I just ride around.

    “It kinda works” (with a conventional road bike) is not really a ringing endorsement. I did once push a conventional bike up the Amgen runnel and that “kinda worked” (though not very well)

    I’ll have to try the 36th Ave NE runnel, there used to be a “desire path”/erosion channel there that was part of the 2013 DRT, I did push a loaded cargo bike up that (not easy). Normally I’d avoid using erosion channels, but hey, it was on the cue sheet!

  8. Jonathan says:

    No runnelbombing!

  9. merlin says:

    I tried the runnel in Laurelhurst yesterday and the one in Mount Baker today. The Laurelhurst setup with runnels on each side works reasonably well. The Mount Baker one has only one runnel, is quite a bit longer, and seems also a bit steeper – although it may just SEEM steeper because there’s only one runnel and it’s set up so you have to push your bike from the left going uphill. If I’d had a couple grapefruits or a half gallon of milk in my pannier, I don’t think I could have made it all the way up!

  10. asdf2 says:

    One potential benefit of bike-share systems is that they avoid the need to have to carry a bike up and down stairs in the first place. Ideally, the stations would be located so you just go down the stairs without a bike, then check out a bike at the bottom of the hill and ride along the Burke-Gilman trail. At the other end, again, the station would be at the same elevation as the trail, and whatever steep climb is necessary to reach the final destination, you do it without the weight of a bike to carry. Unfortunately, the station locations of Pronto, at present, don’t really accomplish this.

    While Pronto is obviously not a replacement for stairway runnels, it is an interesting solution to help reduce the need for them, somewhat.

  11. Marypat says:

    I wish there were runnels on the staircase of the overpass between Myrtle Edwards Park and lower Queen Anne. http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/thomasoverpass.htm

    I climb the stairs with my heavy commute bike daily, because I work on the west side of Elliott Ave. Although it’s nice to have the upper body workout hefting my bike, runnels would be great. Especially since there are grooves in the stairs (presumably for rain?), it looks like it was a design near-miss to not incorporate actual runnels.

    hmmm, I wonder how to get that sort of staircase consideration into city design guidelines?

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