Blinded by mayoral vendetta, the Weekly wildly misses the point of the NE 125th project

So, in case you haven’t been paying attention, the Seattle Weekly is a little upset with the mayor. Ever since Mayor McGinn put his sights on the Weekly and the Village Voice’s backpage.com for doing a piss-poor job of preventing their online service from enabling child prostitution, the Weekly has been pushing every little fragment of anything they can construe into an anti-McGinn story (see here, here, here, here, here and here, all just this month). And they’re not doing a very good job at it.

It’s a silly fight, and the Weekly is losing a lot of credibility by continuing it the way they are. Most recently, Weekly Editor Mike Seely penned an ill-informed and wildly off-base story titled “Bikes Don’t Like Mike’s Lake City Road Diet.” sigh…

Right off the bat, Seely launches with a line that is ripped straight from Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur’s August 2010 boondoggle of a column by falsely claiming the road diet is McGinn’s project. As Brodeur noted in a follow-up column taking back many of her column’s mistakes (which I commend her for doing), the NE 125th rechannelization planning began the summer before McGinn even took office.

Brodeur, when realizing her mistake, wrote, “I failed to mention that in the column, and I apologize.” Will Seely do the same?

Next, in order to make the case that rechannelizations (or “road diets”) are about bikes (as the headline so boldly states), Seely goes through these remarkable mental gymnastics:

Road diets, says SDOT spokesperson Rick Sheridan, are “about safety, not bikes.” But more often than not, road diets (or “rechannelizations”)—at their simplest, a reduction of the number of lanes open to motor vehicles on a given arterial—include new bike lanes. So they’re at least sort of about bikes.

Indeed! They are sort of about bikes. They are also sort of about dramatically reducing the rates of speeding, traffic collisions and pedestrian injuries and fatalities. They are sort of about reconnecting communities and installing more safe crosswalks. In other words, they’re about safer streets for everyone. Seely somehow acknowledges that the projects are not just about bikes, then makes the decision that he’s going to say they are anyway — all in the same sentence. You can almost feel the cognitive dissonance as Seely, a seasoned journalist, wrestles with the fact that his research does not fit into the story he wants to write.

In fact, if you read Mayor McGinn’s April letter explaining his decision to approve SDOT’s planned redesign of NE 125th, you will see just about every argument brought forth in Seely’s article addressed and explained. Here’s a taste:

Here’s how this issue came up in the first place: The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) started looking at rechannelizing 125th street during the Nickels administration. This was pursuant to the Bicycle Master Plan that had been approved by the City Council. After looking at accident data, SDOT concluded that the road had serious safety issues that required attention, regardless of bicycling.

SDOT’s data showed that a high percentage of collisions (51%) on this section of Northeast 125th Street resulted in injury, compared to only 33% on similar roads in Seattle. These are accidents between automobiles, as well as accidents involving pedestrians.

SDOT believed that high speeds, as well as roadway design, were key contributing factors to the accident and injury rates.

Now, onto the Weekly’s highly-scientific study of bicycle traffic on NE 125th. Seely sent a Weekly intern (paid, I hope) on a mission to count the number of people riding bikes on the newly-redesigned roadway. During a couple hours of the evening rush, Kate Barker counted 18 people riding bikes on NE 125th, an east-west neighborhood arterial in north Seattle. Seely then notes:

Needless to say, more than 18 cars traversed the same terrain over the course of those three hours.

Indeed, it’s true. More people drive cars than ride bikes. Better stop trying to make street safer, then (so the logic goes). But 18 people riding bikes (most of them headed westbound, which I must point out is that long uphill people claimed nobody would ride up) compared to what? How many people were riding before the changes? Seely does not present any data, so 18 is just a number floating in space with no context.

So here’s some context: Last year, before the changes, SDOT’s bicycle traffic count noted seven people bicycling on NE 125th during two and a half-hours of the morning rush hour. This is not a perfect comparison, since it’s a different time of day, but at least it’s something. Using these numbers, the Weekly’s count actually shows a 150 percent increase in cycling in just one year. That’s pretty good!

Would Seely rather have seen a 400 percent increase? 600? If Kate had counted 40 people bicycling on the street, would that have changed the angle of the article? I have my doubts.

Kate then went to Dexter, one of the busiest bicycle routes in the city, part of the Interurban multi-county bicycle route and the main trunk into downtown from the north, and counted 457 people riding bikes in a similar period of time. What this count proves, exactly, eludes me.

She also counted bicycle use on S Columbian Way between MLK and Beacon Ave (the site of an upcoming redesign project) and counted 19 people riding bikes over three hours. Again, what this is supposed to prove remains unclear. In fact, that project has met very little resistance in large part because it fixes a confusing issue for drivers where the left lane headed east suddenly becomes a turn-only lane at the bottom of the hill before MLK, requiring a last-minute merge right in order to continue straight. The project is a win for all and a great example of the city fixing clear road engineering mistakes that nobody likes. If the Weekly has a beef with the project, I would sure like to hear their arguments (or were they saying it is needed? I can’t really tell).

So, after nine hours of hard work counting bicycle riders, Seely makes no meaningful use of the data intern Kate collected. He then wraps up by saying:

Does three bikes per lane per hour during prime drive time amount to wise public policy? Voters will have their say in November, when they’re asked to approve a $60 car tab fee that will direct a significant amount of funding toward—what else?—accommodating cyclists.

Assumptions in this paragraph:

  • Complete Streets road redesigns are about bikes. False (See above)
  • Current lack of bicycle use is a reason not to make streets safer. False. If the main reason people do not ride bikes is because the streets are dangerous, refusing to make streets safer because of the lack of riders is a faulty, self-fulfilling bicycle use prevention philosophy (and one the city’s Complete Streets Ordinance officially denounced years before McGinn took office).
  • The $60 car tab fee will provide a “significant amount of funding” for “accommodating cyclists.” Sort of. Bicycle projects are FAR from the focus of the VLF proposal, and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise. About 5 percent of the funds would go to bicycle-specific projects. That’s a useful chunk of money, but it’s clearly not the focus of the fee. 50 percent would go to transit projects.

More worryingly, is the Weekly going to stake their stance in opposition to the Vehicle License Fee vote solely because McGinn wants it (and some of the money goes to bicycle projects)? Is Seely against the transit investments, which are clearly the focus of the VLF proposal? It was passed unanimously by the City Council and does not go as far as the mayor requested, so it could hardly be considered solely the mayor’s project. If Seely opposes the ballot measure, I would at least hope for an argument against it that addresses the bulk of the proposed funding.

So, Mr. Seely and the Weekly, please don’t go trashing road safety projects, spreading half-truths and drawing odd conclusions from incomplete data just because you have a personal vendetta against the mayor. That’s irresponsible, and your readers deserve better. These projects are needed in our communities and are rooted in decades of sound research and experience, not short-term politics.

But you know all this. The writers for the Weekly can and do write good journalism. You were completely aware that your bicycle count numbers, without any context, were meaningless. If someone else had used such shoddy evidence in a piece you disagreed with, you would have called them on it, too. Yet, it seems to me, you so badly wanted to blast the mayor, you allowed yourself to lower your journalistic standards to draw preformed conclusions from nonexistent evidence. In doing so, you lose credibility.

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