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Metro and SDOT keep bicycle groups in the dark about rushed Howell St plans

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.

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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 [email protected].

Here’s the commissioned study:

Howell Street Bus Lane Analysis

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14 responses to “Metro and SDOT keep bicycle groups in the dark about rushed Howell St plans”

  1. biliruben

    I worked right along this route, and it was so stress-inducing dealing with angry drivers stuck in traffic on Howell, that I actually climbed up and over Capital Hill to avoid the area entirely. And I’m an experienced rider who rides in traffic all the time.

    It sounds like, if anything, they are making it worse.

    This was a complete fail on SDOTs part. Safe routes into and out of the city are desperately needed if we have any hope of getting new, less experienced riders to try biking downtown. We are going backwards here.

    1. Brian

      I’m with you. I gave up on Eastlake a couple of years ago. I found the noise of the freeway really stress inducing. I don’t mind riding in traffic, but I switched over to the Westlake parking lot and have been pleased by that. It’s not quite as fast but I get to my destinations in a much better mood, so for me it’s a no brainer.

  2. I just emailed Ashley Deforest and [email protected] about this, and immediately afterwards realised a good alternative that they could implement: a contraflow bike lane on Stewart St., that could feed bikes into the right-hand lane of Eastlake. They’d have to be willing to give the northbound cyclists a dedicated signal phase at Stewart & Eastlake to make this work, but then we’d be time-separated from the other northbound traffic so the merge to get around parked busses would also be easier.

    It’s bolder than I’m used to SDOT being, so I’m not optimistic, but I’ve seen this kind of thing done to good effect in London.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      A contraflow lane on Stewart is a very interesting idea. I would love to see that studied. Maybe the Terry Ave green street ( http://seattlebikeblog.com/2010/07/20/one-block-of-terry-ave-to-become-green-street/ ) could extend all the way to Howell (or Boren) to make the connection. With a safe crossing at Denny, Terry could be a good bicycle route through South Lake Union all the way to the park (assuming a safe design could be made to direct cyclists around the trolley tracks).

      Or 9th Ave/Ave N could be made a two-way bicycle-prioritized street all the way from Broad to Pine, but that would require a clear, safe connection across Westlake and Denny between 9th Ave N and 9th Ave.

      1. mike archambault

        Great idea. I always take 9th from SLU all the way to Pine on my way to Capitol Hill, as it provides the calmest traffic, most gradual incline, and most direct route to the hill. The connection across Denny and Westlake isnt too bad since you can cut the corner of Denny and Westlake by riding through that new passenger drop off area and then crossing Westlake to make a left at 9th. It works well but it could definitely use some treatment to make it more inviting. My plan is to submit this as a sanctioned route for the upcoming update to the Bicycle Master Plan. Do the same if you agree!

  3. Kevin

    “At the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board meeting, it remained undetermined whether riding in a bus lane not marked “except bicycles” is legal or not.”

    Stupid SBAB, why don’t you ADVISE that it’s okay for bikes to ride in the bus lane?

    Anyway, the situation on Howell/Eastlake isn’t amazing right now, and this doesn’t seem to make it worse. When riding in the right hand lane, cyclists are sure to encounter the wrath of motorists speeding into the Express Lanes entrance ramp right now.

    I’ll be glad to see a sharrowed left hand lane. The merge at Stewart is very awkward, but between the expresslanes onramp and the light is where I merge over from the left to right lane anyway. Glad to see there’s some kind of a facility being added.

    The big issue here, IMHO, is the continuing problem with the design process for bicycle facilities. It’s as if no one actually attempts riding the planned new route. 2nd Ave bike lane is my favorite example of this. From Pine -> Yesler it’s basically a death trap with all of the left turning vehicles. SDOT needs to get their “traffic models” updated.

  4. I think the planning fail is much larger than this project — it’s that the route is called out as important on the Bicycle Master Plan, yet when it comes time to “improve it” bicycles are ignored. That says a lot for the future viability of the master plan.

    1. Agreed. I did point this out in my email to them (to which I’ve had no reply as yet).

  5. Joseph Singer

    Why is it that SDOT thinks that the best solution for bikers is to add “sharrows?” As far as I’m concerned sharrows are useless.

  6. mike archambault

    I feel like most of the problems with this project would be quickly ameliorated if they just made the bus lane effective 24 hours a day and explicitly allowed bicycles to use it. And then some sort of bike lane could be incorporated northwards to the Eastlake intersection?

  7. Tim Cosgrove

    I travelled this route yesterday as a commuter. There are many cars ignoring the Bus only lanes and speeding so they can force their way into the non bus lanes at intersections. There was even a SPD officer at the Howell/Minor intersection hired by METRO? whom did noting to alleviate the speeding or unauthorized use of the bus lane. It’s made this area an even more hostile city street so bikers be even more aware!

  8. At last! Something clear I can unrdsetnad. Thanks!

  9. Ron

    I just emailed the walkandbike email address and cc:’ed the council regarding all of Eastlake and Howell. I recall the trucking industry slowed the improvements to Eastlake a couple years ago. Very annoying.

  10. […] the details of the collision are not yet known, it is worth noting that this stretch of Howell St was redesigned in 2011 as part of a project led by King County Metro. Controversially, neither Metro nor SDOT went to the […]

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