The Westlake Bikeway is officially open, and it was worth the compromises

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SDOT Director Scott Kubly speaks to the big crowd gathered to celebrate the bikeway opening

The Westlake Bikeway officially opened Thursday, finally creating a flat and separated bike route from the Ship Canal to the city center.

“This project is really going to make this corridor safer and more predictable for everyone,” SDOT Director Scott Kubly told the crow gathered in Lake Union Park at the south end of the new bikeway.

“The very first time I was in City Hall was about eleven years ago when I was a new bike commuter,” Councilmember Mike O’Brien said. The reason for his visit? The city was doing heavy work on the Westlake parking area, and O’Brien was pushing to get bike lanes included.

He was not successful eleven years ago, but the new bikeway is “much better than the bike lane I envisioned,” he said.

Much like O’Brien, the movement to build political support for the new bikeway found a lot of supporters, many of whom had never been involved in a city campaign like this one.

“Thousands of people had input over time because this is Seattle,” Mayor Ed Murray said, poking fun at the often arduous Seattle Process. But it’s true.

When something that has been in the works so long finally becomes reality, it’s important to think about everything that went into it. This project spans mayors, City Councils and SDOT leaders (former Councilmember Tom Rasmussen was one of the biggest proponents of this project back when the city won the grants needed to fund it while he was Chair of the Transportation Committee).

But beyond the political leaders (and their aides), it took a lot of work by people like yourself packing open house events, hosting protests and forging relationships with local businesses. Cascade Bicycle Club deserves a lot of credit for organizing this work over the years (disclosure: My spouse Kelli works at Cascade).

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Mayor Ed Murray got a lot of praise during the opening celebration for working around the legal threats and working out compromises that ultimately prevented a full-on legal showdown.

A lot of time and money was spent trying to squeeze as many parking spaces alongside the bikeway as possible. Compromises were made that resulted in a skinnier bikeway than originally planned. But now that’s it’s open, it’s so much better than before.

“I’m so glad we compromised,” Cascade Bicycle Club Executive Director Elizabeth Kiker said at the opening. “I’m so glad we got it.”

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SDOT Director Kubly kicks off the opening ride with Cascade ED Kiker behind him.

What used to be a bike ride through a parking lot of landmines, where any car could pull out into your path at any time, is now a very low-stress and rare flat bike ride past businesses and floating homes on the west side of Lake Union. Here’s a video by Shirley Savel to give you a taste:

Work isn’t totally complete, though. While the bikeway itself is a huge improvement, the connections on both ends need some work. Pavement fixes and better wayfinding leading north to the Ship Canal shouldn’t be too hard to complete. The sidewalk/trail leading to the Fremont Bridge is the same as its been in recent years, which is a bit too skinny for the volume of people biking to the new bikeway. The Fremont Bridge sidewalks remain a serious pinch point for biking and walking, but this project puts some extra pressure on the east sidewalk. There is also no clear, direct way to bike from the west Fremont Bridge sidewalk to the new bikeway due to the awful Dexter/Westlake/Fremont Ave/Nickerson intersection.

But those are mostly longstanding, familiar problems. My biggest concern is with the south end of the bikeway. People are dumped onto a sidewalk near the intersection with 9th Ave, a very wide intersection with long signal wait times and no clear way to get to the paint-only bike lanes on 9th Ave leading through South Lake Union and into downtown.

If people take one look at 9th Ave and rightfully think, “Hell no I’m not biking on that car-clogged street,” they could find themselves biking on the skinny paths winding through Lake Union Park looking in vain for a good bike route through South Lake Union that doesn’t exist. Terry is one-way the wrong way (and has streetcar tracks), Boren does not have a quality crossing at Valley Street for some reason, Westlake has notoriously dangerous streetcar tracks and Fairview Ave N is way too busy.

As recently as April, the city had planned on building protected bike lanes on 9th Ave this year, but that plan has been cut back and delayed. The good news is that the city recently announced their phased rollout of the bike lane, which includes improvements to the segments closest to the new bikeway in 2016:

9th-phasesThe city is also installing a signal at the start of 8th Ave N, which could be a good way to get from the new bikeway to Dexter. Though, of course, Dexter has its own challenges with constant construction closing sections here and there.

Westlake exposed flaws in environmental review laws

While the Westlake Saga has ended seemingly well, it is also a potential case study for how our environmental review process can privilege wealth above the environment and public good. After all the work to gather political support for an idea, then win Federal funding for it, then conduct huge outreach events with thousands of participants, a “superyacht” marina can still sue to stop or delay the whole thing because they would rather have some extra public parking spaces. In this case, the city let them keep the couple parking spaces they were whining about (by allowing a small section of the bikeway to be skinnier than it should be) and the lawsuit was dropped. The harsh response from the scorned public may have helped, too.

But as we’ve seen with the Missing Link in Ballard or the East Lake Sammamish Trail, lawsuits like these can delay progress on obviously-environmentally-beneficial projects like bike trails. Often, it’s not about the environment, it’s about whether the party or parties suing have the money to fund the legal fight. In fact, sometimes the threat of a legal fight by someone with the cash to back it up can be enough to discourage a city from making needed improvements.

Environmental review was created to watchdog giant projects with huge potential impacts like freeways. But when such a rule can be used by bike trail opponents to save some car parking spots at the expense of people’s health, it’s clear the law is broken.

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42 Responses to The Westlake Bikeway is officially open, and it was worth the compromises

  1. Gary Yngve says:

    I think there are two minor things the city can do to make it better: 1) something to promote more caution at the sharp turn on north end where sidewalk starts (I had fast southbound cyclists cut the turn into my inside northbound line) and signage at the south to guide to downtown, cap hill, mercer underpass, etc. or at least away from SLUT on Westlake

  2. Davepar says:

    “But when [environmental review] can be used by bike trail opponents to save some car parking spots at the expense of people’s health, it’s clear the law is broken.”

    Perfectly stated.

    • Law Abider says:

      The question I’ve had all along is, once (now that) the trail is finished, could the City now try to redesign the trail in front of the billionaire yacht repair as a standalone project? The EIS would in theory be small (relatively) and the yacht company can waste their money over the two parking spots if they so choose.

      • Peri Hartman says:

        I wish. But I think it’s better to allow some time to gather statistics. We’ll have a stronger argument if we can show that the narrow stretch is causing a bottleneck and a higher risk of collisions. Hopefully this can be demonstrated without any actual collisions.

        Perhaps, if somehow, bottlenecks start blocking access to their marina, they will even decide to support a wider path.

      • Josh says:

        This could be an excellent location to collect usage counts.

        A 10-foot width is unsuitable for peak 2-way traffic of more than 150 bicycles per hour according to CROW.

        Now that the facility is officially open, how long will it take to exceed its design capacity and need widening?

  3. Dr Awesome says:

    I wonder how many folks will continue to do the Dexter climbs now that they can be bypassed on the new path. Perhaps we cyclists can “give” the motorists back their second lanes on Dexter, by suggesting, or, at least, not opposing, that the “road diet” on that street be lifted? First, it might engender some much-needed goodwill. Second, Dexter has been, and will continue for the foreseeable future to be, a construction site anyway, so I’m not even sure how much we’d be giving up. I can’t recall a single time over the past few years that it was possible to ride the bike path on Dexter continuously without being abruptly shunted into a hazardous for-cars lane because a real estate developer needed the bike lane to stage its construction equipment.

    • Peri Hartman says:

      I’ve been trying out Westlake lately but will continue to use Dexter in part because the south end interface of Westlake is so horrible. Last time, Saturday, I gave up waiting for the light and jaywalked my bike.

    • (Another) Tom says:

      “First, it might engender some much-needed goodwill. ”

      HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! I needed a laugh, thanks.

    • Skylar says:

      The road diets were for more than just cyclists. Speeding was rampant along Dexter before the diet, endangering pedestrians (along with cyclists), and having buses stop out of traffic made the delays for the 26/28 (now 62) even worse than they are now. The right-of-way is simply far too wide for the amount of traffic Dexter carries; the legend on SDOT’s traffic map suggests it carries fewer than 5000 vehicles/day.

    • Al Dimond says:

      There are enough residences and businesses along Dexter, at a significant enough elevation difference from Westlake, that it certainly needs its bike lanes.

      • Gary Yngve says:

        Elevation aside, if I’m going to Mercer underpass, I skip multiple traffic lights by taking Dexter as opposed to Westlake.
        Dexter also has several marked crosswalks without signals. These would be unviable in a 4-lane configuration.

      • Al Dimond says:

        Heh, now that I don’t live right there I forget how much time I wasted waiting for lights at Westlake/Valley and 9th/Roy. The Highland/8th route from Westlake bypasses those signals but there’s a lot it doesn’t do…

    • Bb says:

      I would disagree, we don’t give motorist only way to roll.

      This corridor is well balanced. Auroua and westlake street have more car to bike ratio.
      Westlake path and Dexter are designed to be used by cyclists.

    • Gary Yngve says:

      “I can’t recall a single time over the past few years that it was possible to ride the bike path on Dexter continuously without being abruptly shunted into a hazardous for-cars lane because a real estate developer needed the bike lane to stage its construction equipment.”
      Bike lane, not bike path. The through lane is for-vehicles, not for-cars. The through lane is my preferred place to be at 20+ mph. The separated bike lane is more hazardous at than the through lane at that speed.

    • R says:

      The elevation gain on Dexter is almost inconsequential for experienced and fit cyclists who will use the route to make better connections to Downtown and Lower Queen Anne .

    • Chokai says:

      Sort of. The most serious side effect of the work on Dexter was that the bike lanes necessitated removal of the center turn lane. Having lived on the street for 15 years and cycled on it multiple times per week as well as driving on it, it’s my distinct impression that the street has become more hazardous for all modes over the last decade. The bike lanes I think only slowed the velocity of the decline. And honestly, I’ve seen more bike accidents since they went in than I had in the previous 10, every single one of them except one which was a ped/bike accident was a harried driver trying to make a left turn, most on the descent going to downtown.

      I always thought the right solution was to keep the center turn lane and lose the parking on the west side of the street south of Crockett and on the eastside of the street north of it. That way cyclists descending at high speed would have a clear line of sight not obstructed by any parked cars and drivers turning left from northbound Dexter into the now significant developments going in can easily see them coming and not be pressured by backed up traffic to take risky turns.

      Overall though it really is a shame that so much of our limited money was spent on Dexter only to do this in a far better way on Westlake now.

      • Peri Hartman says:

        With risk that this is getting off topic, I will say I agree with you that the Dexter downhill bike lane does not work at high speed. However, if you are going fast, just ride in the vehicle lane. It’s much safer at high speeds.

        I’m not sure what the best solution would be. I see the bike lanes as a way for riders who won’t ride in traffic to have a safer route. Does the downhill Dexter lane achieve that?

  4. Neel Blair says:

    I rode the length – It’s a massive, massive improvement.

    As a family cyclist with kids on the back, this is a huge improvement. Less smog inhalation, safer, quieter, better all around.

    Good signage on the route and the ride to Fremont felt way faster. Not sure if it was. It felt that way though.

    The south terminus is lame. The north terminus is clunky, but serviceable. SLU is a tangle of half-protected, mostly ignored, hostile intersections populated by aggro new Amazon arrivals who expect that the world works basically like whatever 8-lane, paved business-park suburb they just moved here from. Be good if the route through that could be more direct and concentrated on a single southbound route. The route north is merely slow and awkward. The family bike navigation through the snaking turn up onto the sidewalk was awkward.

  5. Skylar says:

    I agree that this is a huge improvement over what we had before, which I don’t even think deserved to be called bike infrastructure. I hadn’t ridden Westlake in a few years (preferring Dexter), and back then I actually felt safer riding in 35mph traffic than dodging drivers and pedestrians in the parking lot. I rode the new trail yesterday, and even with lots of folks out for the Komen Walk for the Cure, it was fast, relaxing, and safe, except for the flaws others have mentioned at the north and south termini.

  6. Ballard Resident says:

    Glad it’s completed. Now it’s time to put some pressure on Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel and Ballard Oil to be a better neighbors and drop their litigious actions.

    • Kirk says:

      That ain’t gonna happen. Now it’s time for SDOT to finish off the EIS and get ‘er done. SBS&G, Ballard Oil and the Ballard C of C will never cave in. They’ll even challenge the EIS. I hope SDOT has finally gotten their ducks in a row. It’s been way too long.

      • Gary Anderson says:

        +1 South Shilshole route!

      • Kirk says:

        South Shilshole AKA the Green Route is the only option. All of the other routes were only developed to be included in the EIS. If one of the other routes is chosen, it will be a major fail.

  7. Dave says:

    I rode it on Friday. It was crowded but moving, partly because I was with a bolus of bikes after the Fremont bridge was open. I took advantage of the open bridge to get to the East sidewalk since its way better than the multiple delays from the west. I did feel bad about missing the bike counter on the West side. Wonder if the counts will go down – seemed like at least half the bikes were crossing the bridge on the East.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      The counter gets both sides of the bridge. It only dispays on one side, though.

    • Tim F says:

      I rode it opening day to UW, but the real eye-opener was this morning, when I was able to take the 39th Avenue Greenway (crews were adding more speed bumps), the re-opened Burke-Gilman Trail, loop around the new 34th Street Greenway to Westlake.

      That’s my entire commute except for a few blocks on either end. It’s not my most direct route, but the safety factor is huge. I would like to see a sign at 34th and Burke-Gilman indicating the turn off to the Fremont bridge. The slip lane at the South West corner of the bridge should probably get removed at a minimum. I’m also looking forward to connections to the Mercer/5th bike lane for a full family-safe route to Seattle Center in addition to the direct downtown routes.

  8. R says:

    I’m really hoping that SDOT is just waiting to repave the North end route to the Ship Canal Trail until WSDOT is done painting the Aurora Bridge and the contractor’s eqipment is removed.

  9. Al Dimond says:

    Next sites for nearly the same conversion (where, to the best of my understanding, extremely wide and continuous SDOT street ROWs are serving as super-long parking lot aisles): Fairview south of the Fairview bridge, and… Beacon Ave through Jefferson Park!

    (Whether a two-way bike facility like Westlake is best in either of those places is questionable, though in both cases it would probably be less disruptive than shifting the general-purpose lanes to accommodate bike lanes on both sides.)

    • (Another) Tom says:

      +1 for Beacon Ave conversion.

      I would really prefer them to eliminate all parking from this important thoroughfare. From there it would be (relatively) cheap and easy to finish striping bike lanes going both ways from the Jose Rizal bridge to the south end of Jefferson Park.

      • Al Dimond says:

        It seems like parking in the Beacon Ave ROW is fairly well-utilized. I’d guess there’s a pretty wide variety of uses and time spans, as in the Westlake parking areas. And I’d guess the city considers at least some of the uses important and doesn’t want to eliminate them. I think it’s the bulk of parking for Jefferson Park, a very large park with facilities that draw users from all over the city.

        There are some parts of the city where there’s simply too much parking for certain kinds of uses. For example, there is too much office parking in places like downtown, SLU, and downtown Bellevue, resulting in seemingly impossible congestion during rush hour and giant empty roads the rest of the time. In these places eliminating parking would be a good thing to do (even if much of the space is in private lots and can’t be used for much else but storage). To my understanding Jefferson Park isn’t one of these places. Fortunately we don’t need to remove all that much parking to build decent bike routes, and, as on Westlake, we can probably increase parking availability for local access through slightly tighter management of the remaining spaces.

      • Kirk says:

        Jefferson Park actually has a lot of space adjacent to the road that could be reconfigured for parking. A reconfiguration of the nine-hole golf course would provide all of the parking needed for the facility, leaving the roadway to move people.
        That reminds me, I’ve got to figure out some way to get my golf bag on my bicycle…

  10. Al Dimond says:

    OK, one more super-random Westlake thing: the (north) Interurban Route currently follows Dexter, though the train ran along Westlake. It should probably be moved down to Westlake, if not now, then after a better connection at the south end has been established.

    The point, unfortunately, may be moot — the route from 83rd to the Fremont Bridge isn’t worthy of having wayfinding signs posted along it.

  11. Andy Bartlett says:

    I ride Westlake out in the evening (Dexter in the morning) … today got a flat at the north end, past Lake Union Crew. Headed to Recycled in Fremont. They pulled a short, tart nail (just bigger than a rack). Said they had seen 5 or so flats today from that direction and up to 25 or 30 in the last week. Most punctures have been the little nails. Is this retaliation from unhappy folks in the lot?

  12. Aj says:

    As someone who cycles and who has moorage on the North end of the track. I ask cyclist to please use this new facility and not to ride through the parking lot. I only ask due to the lot being more narrow and if you are parked between two large vehicles, you have little to no visibility when backing out from a parking space. Yes this still occurs though now more like three times a week instead of twice a day.

  13. Merlin Rainwater says:

    On your way home from work, stop at McCormick and Schmick’s for their happy hour, 4-6 pm every day. Tuesdays are Taco Tuesday with $2 tacos. Sit out on the patio by the water. Be sure to tell them you arrived by bike! Or stop at the little Deli for a sandwich or a cookie. Or if you happen to be a developer – buy the closed Rock Salt building and turn it into an awesome bike-friendly destination!

  14. skeets says:

    Warp Speed video rider blows through stop signs – nice…

  15. LDog says:

    Nice to have another option. Personally, I ride Dexter daily, and will never use this. My issue is with the Freemont Bridge. All of the cyclists who ride the wrong way – and this connection is going to increase that behavior. The bridge should really be signed for NB cyclists only on the east side and SB only on the west side. Even to get to Westlake, the drop down to the south canal trail and under the bridge is not bad, adds 30 seconds. I greatly appreciate Seattle’s new infrastructure, but a lot of it does not take a complete view towards safety and efficiency.

    • Gary Yngve says:

      Regarding Fremont bridge having wrong way for cyclists (likewise there is no wrong way for cyclists on Ballard bridge), given the cyclists’ starts and destinations, it can be pretty unreasonable to expect them to cross at 34th or nickerson unless we have a reasonably timed all-way walks there. If I see sidewalks clogged and roadways not, I ride the grates. Not a big deal, just watch your acceleration.

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