If you have been on Howell St in the past week or so, you may have noticed spray paint markings on the pavement between 9th Ave and Stewart. This key bicycle route from downtown to Eastlake Ave, Fairview Ave E, the University Bridge and half of north Seattle and beyond is going to be redesigned, but the changes are not likely to help people riding bicycles.
The project, which was led by King County Metro and approved by SDOT, will remove the counter-flow traffic lane currently on Howell between Stewart and Terry Ave. The project will also add a bus-only lane to improve transit times on this major express bus route. In the space vacated by the counter-flow traffic lane, Metro and SDOT are adding between 30 and 40 off-peak paid parking spaces.
“If we were going to install a lane dedicated to buses without adding any extra capacity for vehicle traffic, it would completely destroy the corridor in terms of vehicle traffic,” said Mike Boonsripisal of King County Metro. However, a study contracted out to the Transpo Group (see below) did not study an option involving bicycle lanes. In fact, the words “bike” or “bicycle” do not appear in the document.
The most comparable scenario studied looked at what would happen if they installed a bus-only lane in second from the right lane without removing the contra-flow traffic lane (the far right lane leads to a southbound I-5 on-ramp). The results showed general purpose travel time increases of about 65 percent for the eastbound traffic on the remaining single general purpose traffic through lane during PM peak hour times. The off-peak parking option the agencies prefer would decrease general purpose travel times about 15 percent.
A little more than 800 vehicles are expected to use the two general purpose through lanes. Traffic in the far left lane would likely be lighter than the second from left lane since many drivers would likely be accessing the I-5 express lanes before the road intersects Stewart. Here’s the design for Howell St just north of 9th Ave:
The design calls for painting sharrows in both the left off-peak parking lane and the adjacent lane, which will be the de facto left lane when cars are parked. This will put cyclists in the far left lane after the road curves and turns into Eastlake as it approaches Stewart. At this point, engineers are working to get cyclists into the right lane for travel on Eastlake. Current designs call for a strange loop through a median divider and into a small bike box in the right curb lane. Here is the current iteration, which is subject to some changes:
If traffic is clear enough, people riding bicycles can simply merge right to continue straight through the intersection with Stewart. If cars are queued at the light (which is almost always red, in my experience), cyclists will ride in a lane shared with cars accessing the new back-in parking spots. They will then be channeled into a short bike lane leading around a median and into a crosswalk, where they can access what appears to be a fairly small bike box sitting in the right lane only. When the light changes, cyclists will be able to advance forward (though within a few blocks, they will likely run into parked buses during a layover, in which case they will need to merge left again).
This option is far from comfortable or intuitive. It could certainly be made more so by pushing the advance stop line at Stewart further back to give cyclists easier access to a bike box spanning both lanes so that cyclists can choose which lane to take depending on whether there are buses parked ahead.
According to Boonsripisal, installing a bike lane on this corridor is off the table at this point. The project is being rushed in order to use a WSDOT transit mobility grant. The project must be finished by June to meet the requirements. They will begin removing striping in this middle of this month and hope to have the new lanes operational by May 16. The divider currently between the right-turn only lane and the other lanes will be removed, as it is too difficult to maintain (drivers keep knocking them down). The bus lane will not be labeled as buses only “except bicycles,” but bikes would be able to use the lane, said Boonsripisal. At the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board meeting, it remained undetermined whether riding in a bus lane not marked “except bicycles” is legal or not.
A press release about the project was sent to downtown business interests and businesses in the area adjacent to the project, but it was not sent to bicycle interests. Though Metro and SDOT decided to pursue a bus-only lane on the corridor in January, the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board was not informed of the plan until their meeting May 4. When I asked David Hiller of Cascade about the project last week, he said he was not aware of it. I only found out after I was copied on an email to the city by a concerned citizen who saw the plans (thanks, Jeff!).
The route is listed as a priority on the Bicycle Master Plan as such:
Make improvements to the Eastlake Avenue E corridor between Howell Street/Stewart Street and Mercer Street. Howell Street should include shared lane markings between 8th Avenue and Yale Avenue. In the long term, the section of Howell Street and Eastlake Avenue E north of Yale Street and south of Stewart Street should include bicycle lanes to allow bicyclists to travel directly from Howell Street to Eastlake Avenue E. However, this is likely to require reconstruction of the roadway and addressing I-5 access ramp conflict points. In the short- to medium-term, the intersection of Yale Avenue and Denny Way should be improved to facilitate bicycle crossings. This would allow bicyclists traveling northbound from Downtown Seattle to turn left from Howell Street onto Yale Avenue, cross Denny Way to the alley between Pontius Avenue N and Yale Avenue N, turn right onto John Street, turn left on Yale Avenue N, turn right onto either Harrison Street or Republican Street, and finally turn left onto Eastlake Avenue N.
It is not a sign of good faith for transit concerns to leave bicycle interests completely out of the conversation on this project. It smarts even worse considering the other potentially usable route for accessing Eastlake Ave and Fairview Ave E from downtown, Westlake Ave, was ruined as a bike route by the South Lake Union Streetcar tracks.
It is in the best interest of transit agencies or transit users to encourage bicycling and vice versa. I am glad the city, county and state are working together to make transit move more quickly. This is a good thing. But at the same time, more people on bicycles means fewer people in cars and fewer traffic jams. Both transit and bicycle use are essential elements of a livable city, and transit leaders must see their relationship with bicycling interests as cooperative.
A safer route to connect to the bike lane on Eastlake further north at Roy could do wonders for people who want to access the Eastlake neighborhood, the University Bridge, the Burke-Gilman Trail and half of north Seattle and beyond from downtown.
To rush a project like this in a way that does nothing to encourage cycling in a corridor that desperately needs a safe bicycle facility is shortsighted. On top of that, the project adds parking, which should be the lowest priority use of valuable street space in such a supposedly congested corridor.
The project website directs questions and concerns about the project to Ashley Deforest at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s the commissioned study: