We have reached a turning point in Seattle bicycle safety

Sometimes, waiting for the city to fix something ends in tragedy.

What started as a couple deaths after a long stretch with very few has turned into a devastating couple weeks on our city’s streets. After the third death on Seattle streets since July, one question has been on the minds of city residents and various media outlets this week:

What the hell is going on?

Nobody can really answer that question, and it is probably a combination of a lot of things: Bad luck, more people biking, holes in the bicycle facility network (and sub-par facilities), traffic errors, and on and on.

But we know for sure that something must change.

Tuesday morning, I was standing with friends of Brian Fairbrother at the spot where he crashed down a staircase at the end of a city-designed “bike trail” that had no warning signs. Brian’s friends held a beautiful memorial for him, creating art, telling stories and supporting each other through the loss of a friend who had touched so many people’s lives.

Meanwhile, car traffic trickled by on the five-lane Fairview Ave N above at a rate of a couple vehicles per minute.

At some point, sadness and mourning turns to anger. First, you might ask, “Why was there no sign in place warning of a staircase at the end of this bike trail?” But the more important question is, “Why is our city encouraging people to bike on the sidewalk when the street is full of unutilized space?” Why does a road that has three general traffic lanes as it crosses the bridge where Brian crashed need five lanes just a block further south?

It doesn’t. There’s no reason why this street does not have a safe bike facility.

The chances of avoiding Mike Wang’s death could have been higher if he were not squeezed into a tiny bike lane at the far edge of an extremely wide Dexter Ave with four underutilized general traffic lanes. The city told the Times they are now considering adding some buffer area to the bike lanes.

For a neighborhood with such high density and high numbers of people biking, the University District has almost no good bicycle facilities for people traveling north and south. The intersection of University Way and Campus Parkway, where Robert Townsend died, does have an uphill bike lane. But he was traveling downhill. Nobody, regardless of their chosen transportation mode, likes that intersection, which is big and confusing. Can’t we do better?

We can and we must. The Stranger wrote a stirring piece in this week’s issue that suggests the city go ahead and wage that “war on cars” that some people around town like to accuse the city of waging. I appreciate the Stranger’s excitement and energy, but we don’t even need a war. All we need vision and courage from our leaders.

448 people died in traffic collisions in the state of Washington in 2010. Many of those people were in cars when they died. That’s more than one person for every day of the year. That’s 448 networks of friends and family members whose lives are changed forever, who have to deal with the fact that someone they loved has died for ostensibly no real reason.

Making our streets safer is not an “us vs them” situation. All road users are in this together. Even Joni Balter at the Times, who the Stranger points to as one of the promoters of the “war on cars” idea, wrote a piece this week calling the recent deaths “preventable” and urging the city to find a solution, saying, “we really have to find ways to do better.”

We have a complete streets ordinance on the books mandating that the city design our streets to meet the needs of all road users. Complete streets save the lives of people in cars, on foot and on wheels (whether its a bicycle, wheelchair, walker, etc).

We have bicycle and pedestrian master plans that list vital changes that need to be made.

We have a Department of Transportation that is knowledgeable about traffic flow, modern road design and our city’s unique transportation needs with regards to its challenging geography. Seattle is also a member of NACTO, which has worked hard in recent years to create updated road design standards with tried and true designs for modern streets.

The pieces are all in place, and we have done the hard work of finding a better way. All we need now is for our city’s leaders (I’m looking at you, members of the City Council Transportation Committee) to give SDOT the go-ahead to make our streets safe for everyone. In several off-the-record talks with various people in and around SDOT, people have said they do not feel like the council has given them the signal they need to carry out projects they know are needed. Leaving the department out to dry on projects like NE 125th St did not leave them with the confidence that the council would have their backs on future projects.

No more public meetings for projects based on SDOT’s sound traffic analysis and experience. Every dangerous four lane road in the city that SDOT deems a viable candidate for a rechannelization based on experience and analysis should be given the go-ahead. 30 years of experience and study is sufficient. Waiting for more people to die has proven to be a devastating strategy.

We need to set a deadline for protected bicycle facilities downtown. Both Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Sally Bagshaw have mentioned this need recently. Who is going to make it happen? My suggestion for a deadline is next summer, an extremely easy goal to meet.

We could be at turning point in our city’s transportation history. After a series of bicycle deaths in 2007, Portland rallied, demanded changes and made the choice to invest in a bicycle network that has reduced deaths and increased ridership dramatically. Is Seattle going to take these tragedies as a wake-up call and invest in public health and transportation diversity, or are we going to shrug it off, say we can’t do anything and allow it to happen again?

Seattle is a safer city for biking than it has been for decades. Unreleased data from the 2010 bike count shows that the number of people commuting downtown by bicycle increased 21 percent compared to 2009, which was 17 percent higher than 2007.

And, from what I can tell (official reports are not yet out), nobody died in Seattle while cycling in 2010. Even with the recent rash of deaths on our streets, the collision rate is still likely falling (we won’t see 2011 data until 2013 at the city and state’s current rate of reporting).

We know that, as the number of people biking a city rises, the rate of collisions with motor vehicles plummets. This has been tested around the world and vetted locally by our own numbers. Our bicycle master plan has the goal of reducing the total number of collisions by one third by 2017 while dramatically increasing the number of people biking.

The residents of Seattle are leading the way by choosing to bike even with huge gaps in our bicycle facility network, and the sporadic investments we have made in safe infrastructure are more than paying off.

Our city’s safe streets plans are working. It’s time to give it full funding so we can transform our streets into enjoyable, efficient and healthy places for everyone to get from one place to another.

Approving TBD Proposition 1 is a good way to add a little funding to complete streets projects, investing over $4 million annually in projects to make biking and walking safer. But we are going to need more. Come budget season, the council and the mayor will have a chance to decide where our transportation priorities lie.

Cascade Bicycle Club is holding a press conference Thursday morning to call for safer roads. Transportation Committee Chair Tom Rasmussen will be one of the speakers. This is a chance for him to explain how his committee is going to increase funding for road safety and reaffirm his trust in SDOT’s ability to do good work.

You also have two opportunities in the next week or so to get involved with the city’s exciting neighborhood greenways movement, where you can help make a difference near your own home.

Press conference details:

More and more people are walking, biking and using transit to navigate the streets of Seattle. In our dense, urban environment, the public right-of-way is shared by all of us — drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists. It is our shared responsibility to create a safe environment and to look out for each other. No traffic fatality is acceptable. We can do better.

Our call to action to you is to tackle these problems in two ways: through better behavior and through better infrastructure. Please join us.


Date: Thursday, Sept. 15

Time: 9:30 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. Speakers 9:45

Location:  The public space located on the median of NE Campus Parkway, located between 15th Ave NE and University Way N

About Tom Fucoloro

Founder and Editor of Seattle Bike Blog.
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36 Responses to We have reached a turning point in Seattle bicycle safety

  1. Melinda says:

    Oh my god yes. Thank you for this.

  2. Tyanne says:

    Thanks Tom for this really level headed and well written reaction to the recent events in the Seattle bike community. Rather than feeding the hate and fear we need to work together to provide a safe environment for our citizens to get around this city no matter what mode of transportation they chose.

    • Harrison Davignon says:

      I agree with your statement. I think the problem is a lot of are fighting over witch mode of transpiration should be funded the most, instead trying to fund all methods of transportation. If walking, bicycle riding and transit were safer and more reliable, more people would use those methods of transportation and make a more worthwhile investment This would reduce the infrastructure cars need, making more room for alternative transportation infrastructure. Enough alternative infrastructure and clean fuel transit, reduces pollution, increases health and give people more transportation options. Also if pedestrians and walkers, understood there are ways to avoid the steep hills around the Puget Sound area, and to keep warm in the cold wet weather, that would help.

  3. Forrest says:

    Making our streets safer is not an “us vs them” situation

    — YES!

  4. Jess says:

    THANK YOU Tom. This is most excellent.

  5. john pepys says:

    spot on, Tom! you’re so right: we are all (bikes, cars, and pedestrians) in this together–we all are trying to get from A to B, and not get killed in the process.

  6. Benjamin says:

    Mr. Fairbrother seved me my first (and many more) espresso when i moved to seattle and was always kind to me when i would see him around town. my heart goes out to his friends and family.

    I ride past this site daily on my commute. but i always ride in the road. in my opinion, the road IS a safe bikeway. also in my opinion and 12 years experience cycling in seattle, bike lanes can often lead to problems. I only use them when going uphill at a slow speed. what i did not realize until today was that if you are coming from westlake and want to go north on eastlake it would seem easier/safer to use that sidewalk/path, as going into the road would meaning making 3 left turns in traffic and dealing with the multiple rails in the road. I am comming and going from downtown so the path would not save me any time. not sure what the ultimate solution is, but i found the information here to be very helpfull. http://www.bicyclesafe.com

    • john pepys says:

      thanks for that link, Benjamin. most of that stuff is pretty basic, but could be very instructive for a beginner or inexperienced cyclist. i particularly like the “riding as if invisible” part. that’s exactly how i approach cycling on the streets. NEVER assume that the cars can or do see you.

  7. merlin says:

    Thanks Tom. It really is about making transportation work for everyone.

  8. Doug Bostrom says:

    Chock-a-block with useful facts informing suggestions based on data, as usual. Great stuff.

    As Tom suggests, modernizing our streets ought to be a routine affair, not an invitation for poorly informed cranks to vent their general hostility against change on public servants. The city should ideally be able to make these decisions on a data-driven basis, with numerical thresholds triggering public comment in cases where serious tradeoffs emerge, or where statistics predict truly marginal benefits against dollar costs.

  9. Shane Phillips says:

    Outstanding article, Tom. I hope a lot of people get to read this.

  10. ODB says:

    This is a great piece. It needed to be said. I only take a slight issue with your read of Joni Balter’s editorial. Unlike your piece, it is pretty much fact-free. I read it as basically hand-wringing, attributing the recent tragedies not to remediable deficiencies in infrastructure, but to poor “relations” between bikes and cars. (Gee, I wonder which newspaper contributed to that?)
    I am not opposed to “relations” between cyclists and drivers, however.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Well, I was just super excited that she acknowledged that there is a problem, than that problem is preventable and that we should do something to fix it. That’s a big step.

      • ODB says:

        I agree. It’s nice that the Times has recently expressed concern about bike safety–see also Mike Lindblom’s recent take on the Economist article:


        Maybe this is a sign that that the Times is stepping back from its antagonistic war-on-cars coverage of bike issues.

        But, to the extent this is even true, I fear that the new editorial position will consist of (1) high-minded calls for civility and good behavior from “both sides” (which is fiscally cost-free) and (2) a sober “realistic” position that bike amenities are too expensive in a down economy, etc.

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        Well, Mike L rides a bike and typically writes very good stuff. He keeps things level-headed and open-minded. Often, when he writes stuff I wish he didn’t, it’s because he’s giving fair time to someone else’s arguments. That’s not a bad thing.

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        Oh, and as for what a change in tune from the times in general would mean, I don’t expect them to be putting out an editorial calling for the immediate funding of the bike master plan. But if they are willing to embrace the idea that bike safety and their political issues with mayor mcginn are two different things, then that would do a lot of good.

      • ODB says:

        No doubt that would be good. The Times might need a 12-step program to free itself of the habit of alluding to bike issues every time it feels like attacking the mayor.

        I see the larger problem with Joni’s column as follows: By framing the issue as one of “relations” rather than “infrastructure,” I think the Times positions itself to make the following statement: “Bicyclists have asked for too much, thus poisoning ‘relations.’ If they would back off of their infrastructure demands, relations would improve and safety would improve.” Now, of course, I think this is completely misguided. There is no evidence that any of the recent tragedies were the result of bad “relations,” in the sense that they were specific manifestations of a general anti-bike animus on the part of the drivers (as opposed to the results of terrible mistakes that may possibly have been avoided through better road design). To make a generalization like Joni’s “relations” theory, with absolutely no supporting evidence is poor logic and poor journalism. But you can see how this little bit of sophistry could place the blame back on bicyclists/McGinn for their own problems while absolving the Times of its own role in poisoning the atmosphere.

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        I dare the Times to run that argument in an editorial. They’d get national backlash for saying that the bad relations that lead to danger on our streets is due to people asking for too many bike safety improvements. I think the times is smarter than that, though. I bet they just lay low and try to say as little as possible about it for a while (which would be welcome). But who knows?

        I dream they will join the call for safer streets, recognizing the clear science and need behind the calls, which come not from politics but from fellow citizens on the streets. They can still call the mayor names while they do it if that makes it easier…

      • ODB says:

        Yes, that would be a rather bold editorial. But I’m ready to bet they could run it tomorrow in a softer version–the classic above-the-fray “both sides”/”plague on both their houses”/”everyone is to blame” posture. I think that is what the “relations” meme basically amounts to.

  11. biliruben says:


    When I moved to this city 16 years ago with just a bike, I came across that path and that stairs.

    All I could think was “Wow, is that an accident waiting to happen.”

    It hasn’t changed at all in that time, and guess what.

    There are so many spots in this city that are dangerous for absolutely no reason other than the city’s ambivalence. That’s gotta change.

  12. Travis Hartnett says:

    A ‘war’ is when you have two sides killing each other, not one side picking the other off one by one.

  13. Shelly Rae Clift says:

    I passed Mike’s broken bike still lying in the road the day he was killed. Everyday as I ride past the white ghost bike and memorial in his honor I shudder.

    Today as I pedaled south on 4th ave my tire caught up against the ridge in the road. I was able to correct without tumbling into the path of the semi passing me so yay. But why am I forced to share a lane with a semi? Or why is a semi forced to share a lane with cyclists?

    Two years ago I crashed on e Burke Gilman. I broke my neck in three places, had a brain hemorrhage and swelling, tore arteries in my neck, had face lacerations, lost a tooth and other damage. I was at Harborview for a week I had to learn to walk again, to talk. My brother flew down from Alaska and took care of me for two months. But my accident didn’t have to happen. With just a little care for trail marking I would not have lost 9 months of work and now deal with TBI. A can of paint, thats all it would take. And that can of paint could save lives.

  14. Allegra says:

    Nicely written piece, Tom.

  15. Benjamin Leis says:

    I go past or very near the site of all 3 recent accidents on my daily bike commute. While there are definitely general network improvements that could be made Mike Wang’s death is the one that bothers me the most. He basically was doing everything correctly/safely and was hit out in the intersection. That could have just as easily been me. Adding buffering elsewhere still doesn’t protect against a bad driver in the intersection. I’ve seen suggestions elsewhere that less heavily used streets be used as bikeways rather than arterials but in large sections of downtown and elsewhere there are really no other alternatives bikes and cars will need to share the road. My only thought is that with more bike commuters its less likely a driver would miss a group rather than a single rider.


  16. Chandler says:

    As a visitor to Seattle I have had the pleasure of cycling from downtown. Even with a map and a little knowledge I was surprised at how incomplete the cycling infrastructure was along Westlake. Much of this I relate to signage such as the sign pointing to crossing the Fremont bridge on the sidewalk. But worse still is the bike lane that seemed to just evaporate putting me in the traffic lane. It wasn’t bad but it sure wasn’t safe for me.

  17. cycler says:

    I think in Boston we had a great cathartic moment a year and a half ago after the death of a biker under the wheels of a bus. The Mayor called a safety summit, and forced all the heads of the departments (PD, EMS, Health, Trasnportation) to show up on short notice and hear the concerns of the bicycle community. More importantly, they had a folllowup meeting 6 months later, and had actually made some of the changes that were asked for, including a bicycle liason to the PD, collection of bike injury data separate from peds, and most importantly a pledge to retrain 100% of bus drivers in bicycle awareness within a year or so.

    I hope that Seattle can use this crisis for a real improvement in coordination and infrastructure, and hope that there’s political will to make it happen.

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  19. Meghan says:

    Great piece, Tom. I especially like your call to let SDOT get to work and for the city council transportation committee to give them the support they need. Thanks, also, for supporting all street users rather than furthering this silly war on cars debate.

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  25. Paul says:

    Let me folks tell you one thing:



    You can install a shit load of bike line, enforce all kind of safety rules, IT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN

    You want bicycle friendliness ? Move to Europe…this is the country of Ford and…Toyota (?)

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