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Neighborhood-Powered Streets Part 3: Controversially less controversial

This story is part of a series about Seattle’s young neighborhood greenway movement. In part three, we look into hopes that greenway projects will be less controversial than arterial bike lanes and how that could impact the city’s bicycle infrastructure conversation for better and worse.

A bike lane on Nickerson

For Councilmember Sally Bagshaw and some other neighborhood greenway supporters, one of the biggest appeals of the projects is that they should be less controversial than some of the arterial striping projects in recent memory, such as the extended political battles over changes to Stone Way, Nickerson and NE 125th St.

In order to get the Wallingford greenway realized, the project had to be approved by the Lake Union District Council. This means Tuttle had to convince Fremont land owner Suzie Burke, who has fought against several road diet projects in the area. So how did Tuttle do that?

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“The way she got sold on this was to tell her it was a way to get bikes off her arterials that freight is going on and still allow people to go shopping in her stores,” said Tuttle.

The idea of greenways being an alternative to much-needed arterial safety projects has some, including the Cascade Bicycle Club, a little uneasy. At the end of a post on the Cascade blog that was very supportive of greenway projects, John Mauro added this caveat:

One caveat: these facilities are great additions to our network, but really can’t replace urgently needed infrastructure on arterials that serve to get the vast range of those who ride to where they are going directly, efficiently and safely. They sure are, however, great complements to other needed bike infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Bagshaw declined to state a position on arterial projects, such as the NE 125th St project the mayor approved April 22.

“I know there is a big debate about that,” said Bagshaw. “I don’t think [bicyclists] should be in a fight with cars and trucks.” Freight interests are supportive of the greenways approach, she said, and she wants to focus her efforts on greenways.

In this editor’s opinion, given that arterial road diets on roads with excess capacity have proven to slow traffic to speeds closer to the speed limit and reduce the total number of all road collisions, particularly incidents resulting in injuries, it is irrelevant to compare an arterial road diet to a neighborhood greenway. The city has declared that dangerous streets must be calmed and made safe for all road users. We have a complete streets ordinance mandating such safety considerations.

A neighborhood greenway will help these arterial safety efforts by providing an enhanced arterial crossing for people walking and biking that did not exist before. The two types of road projects, neither of which are entirely about bicycles, can compliment each other. However, it would be problematic for one to be seen as a replacement for the other.

To put it another way, an arterial road diet is the most cost-effective way to fix dangerous road design mistakes that were made decades ago. A neighborhood greenway is a way to create a transportation corridor that is new and exciting. Both are important if Seattle wants to take active transportation to the next level.

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4 responses to “Neighborhood-Powered Streets Part 3: Controversially less controversial”

  1. David Amiton


    Couldn’t agree more with you and John that neighborhood greenways are not substitutes for bikeways on arterials or commercial streets. Both will be attractive for different people and different types of trips.

    I think an important consideration is where a neighborhood greenway approach/strategy fits in with SDOT’s long-term strategy for expanding bikeway facilities of ALL types. I’ve yet to see this articulated (it’s definitely not in the BMP) but I think it’s safe to say that one thing that makes greenways attractive is that they are far less controversial than arterial projects. They are the low-hanging fruits of safety and transportation improvement projects because the benefits – increased safety for all users (not to mention property value increases) – make them easier to implement. But if I were to make a case for the strategic importance of a greenway approach as a component of a long-term comprehensive strategy, it would be the following:
    – Greenways are noncontroversial. They benefit all users all the time by making residential streets safer, calmer, and more comfortable. They make residential streets more attractive and in doing so increase property values;
    – Because of these benefits, greenways get more people on bikes;
    – The challenge of allocating space on arterials to bikes is that there often simply aren’t enough people who ride (or there’s a perception that there aren’t) to justify the reallocation. Moreover, there typically aren’t enough people who ride advocating in support of the reallocation project (at least compared to other interests);
    – Because bike boulevards get more people on bikes, they help to create the critical mass of bicyclists necessary to justify arterial projects (on a quantitative, numbers level) and simultaneously generate the level of advocacy required to push a project through because now more people are bicyclists.

    That’s a simplified “timeline,” but certainly it’s the approach that Portland has taken in their bike boulevard/neighborhood greenway strategy. Some of the projects they’re considering or have recently completed on major arterials (cycletrack on N Williams, bikeways on the 12th Ave Overpass, bike lanes on E Burnside, cycletrack on SW Broadway) – there’s simply no way PBOT goes through with those projects if the city didn’t already have a network of bike boulevards in place for 10+ years demonstrating the benefits of bike facilities to the general public and helping to create the advocates for these future projects.

    I’m hopeful that SDOT takes that approach, as well. I’d love to see a greenway network so successful at attracting people to biking that we don’t even need to have a debate about whether to put bike facilities on our arterials; all users – not just the brave few who bike today – simply demand the safety and livability benefits that those facilities bring.

  2. Kristen L.

    Thanks for this series Tom!

    @ David – I think your last bullet point is the most significant.

    I see neighborhood greenways as the very best strategy to get that “interested but concerned” group of people – an estimated 60% of the population, many of whom are likely women – out on their bikes, even if only for short hops to the store, park, school, farmer’s market, library, pub, etc. In my own case, I ride lots of places by myself, but chose other modes when I’m traveling with my kids, who at 5 and 9, are too big to trailered and too young to be on busy streets on their bikes. I would ride much more if there were routes I felt comfortable bringing my kids on.

    I strongly believe doing all we can to encourage people to choose a bike for short hops is a wise strategy given our city’s hilly terrain, which I think discourages a lot of people from seeing longer bike trips as a comfortable and doable choice.

    Finally, there’s really something to the cultural phenomenon of a critical mass. I recently rode around Portland for an afternoon and immediately noticed that there were many, many more women on bikes in that city. I think seeing other women cycling increases the perceived safety (and therefore appeal) of cycling, which is an issue for many women. It was nice to feel like one of the many, not one of the few.

  3. bikefish

    Kristen, you are so right. As one of those odd females who doesn’t mind riding in traffic, I welcomed the sharrows because they gave the message that I was supposed to be there on the road. But watching me ride the sharrows or even the bike lanes on the arterials doesn’t make my women friends think, “Hey, I could do that!” It just reinforces the impression that I’m some sort of semi-human freak.

    And I also agree that the “short hops” are critically important in conveying the message that bikes are just a handy way to get around town. You don’t have to be an athlete to ride a bike half a mile to the grocery store – and you don’t have to ASPIRE to be an athlete either.

  4. Leif

    Seriously, the cycling and transit advocacy community should stop using the term “road diet.” Just as a term it is creating controversy. Nobody who loves driving and would never even consider an alternative wants to be told to go on a diet. Diet has negative connotations and puts people on the defense. Let’s come up with a better term that is less controversial and better conveys the main benefit of the project: safer travel for all road users. I think “safety reconfiguration” or “safety rechannelization” are both reasonable alternatives.

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