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Transportation planner’s first impressions of the Burke-Gilman

It’s always interesting to hear someone’s first impressions of something that has become an everyday part of your life. Brandon Dalton, a transportation planner and advocate from Salt Lake City, wrote about his recent experience biking on Seattle’s Burke-Gilman Trail, and some of his favorite aspects of the trail were ones I often overlook.

Like the wayfinding on the trail and around the city, which Dalton said allowed him to get around without needing a map:

I was surprised at how many pictures I took of marking signs and wayfinders. It seemed to me that the Burke-Gilman Trail was extremely navigable by theses signs, perhaps even easier than using a map in some cases. I also noticed this in the greater parts of Seattle where I bicycled to.

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In fact, Dalton found the bicycle wayfinding in the city better than signage for people on foot:

As a pedestrian in most parts of Seattle I felt easily disoriented and lost, without having to check the map app on my phone, but this is in some part due to me being a visitor and unfamiliar with most of the places I went to.

This is a great review of SDOT’s ongoing signage work and a sign that the many miles of new signs each year is paying off. A big impediment to more people biking is the fear of getting lost. If people could hop on a bike and trust that the city’s signs will lead them where they need to go, we would see a whole lot more people biking (and more people choosing safer routes, too).

Portland’s neighborhood greenway planners Greg Raisman and Mark Lear described wayfinding signage as part of the city’s 1/1 scale map. I like that way of looking at it.

Beyond signage, Dalton noted the trail-side businesses and commented on the way the trail crosses intersections with streets and driveways (hey, we just wrote about that!). Unfortunately, it sounds like he actually witnessed a collision at Fred Meyer when a person driving out of the parking lot stopped right in the middle of the trail crossing, causing someone on a bike to crash into the side of the car. Luckily, nobody was hurt. But this reinforces the idea that the trail’s crossings remain the biggest shortfall of an otherwise world-class facility.

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11 responses to “Transportation planner’s first impressions of the Burke-Gilman”

  1. LWC

    Trail crossings are a pain, and can be dangerous… what we need are grade-separated, raised bikeways! Sounds crazy, but it was done in LA a long time ago…

    1. Intersections are nothing to fear — if they’re designed properly for moving traffic, so that users have a clear idea what to do. The Burke’s intersections were originally designed as train crossings, then turned into non-intersections where cross traffic could go straight through, then stupidly turned into something vaguely like crosswalks. They’re hardly fit to bike through. In many areas I ride in the road, parallel to the Burke, instead of on it, because I

      If there are areas where grade-separated bikeways would have a great transportation impact without much construction impact or cost, maybe they’d be useful. But, for the most part, the places we need to go are connected to the road network, so we’re best off traveling on that. Think how many miles of on-street routes we can improve (think Wallingford Greenway, or the Lake Washington Loop) for the cost and political capital of a mile of elevated bikeway!

      1. (Argh, first paragraph edit fail, due to fat-fingering the tab key)… what I was saying there is that I ride in the road parallel to the Burke because I feel a lot safer in the intersections, which is where the actual danger is.

  2. Pedals Don’t Peddle

    I think that it’s quite possible to have a better time visiting Seattle for the first time on a bike than on foot. As a pedestrian, one would have to figure out the bus situation to visit stuff that’s worth seeing and while riding the bus is a good way to see the sights in itself, many routes don’t run often enough to make hopping on the bus whenever convenient, or would require transferring. For the most part, Seattle is not dense enough to feel pedestrian-friendly. I remember walking long, long distances in dense cities on the other side of the Atlantic without this feeling of being out of place that I get walking between centers of lively density in Seattle. On a bike, though, distances matter a lot less and we have a decent enough network–routes and signage included–to make it accessible to a visiting cyclist. Provided that they are comfortable riding a bike up hills and, of course, sharing the road with cars… Can’t get away from that one at this point.

  3. AiliL

    Let’s get some of that good, logical, useful signage over in the South West area as well…

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Good suggestion. Maybe a North Delridge neighborhood greenway could be a good starting point for some better biking and walking wayfinding in WS…

  4. Brandon Dalton is right: the signage on the BG, and most of the other trails I’ve used in Seattle, is pretty darn good. And the traffic control signage is no small part of it–and this addresses the complaints of some of the other commenters.

    While I agree that some of the crossings, particularly the large concentration of them in Frelard, can be hazardous, the danger is mitigated if one actually takes the abundance of traffic control signage on the trail seriously. While nerve-racking, these crossings aren’t that bad if you treat each one according to its particular visibility/traffic conditions.

    I, like most cyclists, would rather keep a steady pace if possible–and on a trail, it feels natural to just keep rolling steady. However, Mr. Dalton is correct: SDOT has provided very good signage. At all the most dangerous crossings, there are warning signs–“yield” signs at crossings with short sight-lines, and stop signs when the sight-lines are critically short.

    SDOT puts these kinds of signs on bike trails only if there are serious visibility/sight-line shortcomings. Most cyclists I see, (and read,) thoroughly ignore these signs most of the time. Many times I’ve been overtaken on the left by a speed-demon just as I was slowing at the most dangerous of the “yield”-crossings in Frelard. As I watch them blaze straight through the yield-sign, I shake my head, thinking, “Lucky there was no car coming through at that moment.” Perhaps if SDOT used different verbiage on the signs, riders would more readily take heed…

    “Yield” on a bike trail could say something like: “Watch yourself, sketchiness afoot.” And a red octagon on a bike trail should read: “It’s your ASS!” Since these signs aren’t placed at every crossing as a matter of routine, and they certainly aren’t placed randomly, SDOT obviously places them when and where they do to serve as true warnings.

    And this is no joke. At least one crash victim has admitted to not paying heed to the signs, yet remains unwilling to take responsibility for her tumble, instead blaming SDOT’s signage. The unfortunate woman in question broke her pelvis in a crash on the old “rubber mat” rail/trail crossing in Frelard. In her subsequent op-ed piece in the Seattle Times, she blamed SDOT–not for having inadequate signage to warn of the danger, rather, that since the sign wasn’t equipped with blinking lights, she couldn’t be expected to actually pay heed. She went on to claim that had the RR-crossing sign had the blinking lights, she would have taken the warning more seriously. A giant yellow and black warning sign that reads “RR Crossing–Slippery When Wet,” she ignores, but the same sign equipped with blinky-LEDs and she wouldn’t ignore it? I’m sorry, but that doesn’t wash. If SDOT started putting flashing lights at every little bump in the road, we’d all be ignoring the blinking lights before long–just like we ignore the yield and stop signs now! That’s why they only resort to lighted signage at *the* most dangerous crossings–e.g., at the very-short-sight-line one in the U-district. (Brooklyn Ave, I think?)

    When these warnings *are* taken seriously, and the rider is patient enough to slow to a speed that’s safe for each particular crossing, I think the trail is much less dangerous than riding on Leary, (until Leary goes on a road-diet, that is.) However, riding Leary does allow you to go much faster because the intersections are wider, with better sight-lines, and better traffic control, as Al D rightly pointed out above. The trail crossings are dangerous only to the degree that a rider is unwilling to slow down to accommodate each crossing’s unique conditions.

    And I’m not just speaking extemporaneously here: besides numerous rides to the U-district to hit up Recycled Cycles, for two years I commuted daily across the Ballard bridge, thence to the BG at Fred Meyer, and on to Fremont, so I am intimately familiar with this stretch. In fact, a couple years back, I had an encounter exactly like the one Mr. Dalton witnessed. I was heading toward Ballard on a nice sunny day, when an old man in a gargantuan Cadillac pulled out of the Fred Meyer right in front of me. After he was already in the intersection, he looked to his right and saw me. Rather than getting the hell out of the way, he panicked and stopped completely, his whale-car blocking the entire crosswalk. I had nowhere to go: fence to my right, and trees/bushes to my left. All I could do was clamp down hard on the brakes. My rear wheel lifted, enough to throw me forward out of the saddle, but not enough to launch me over the handlebars. His window was all the way down, and as I came out of the saddle and my face came right up to his passenger-side window, it felt for a brief moment that we were face-to-face, eye-to-eye–at which point I yelled, “What the HELL are you DOING?” Thankfully, I was able to land on my feet without ramming his door, but only by a whisker. But this only reinforced my tendency to treat all trail crossings with an amount of caution proper to sight-line conditions–i.e., I slow down whenever the situation demands it.

    1. Todd

      Of course it’s no joke. and I totally agree with you. Most bikers are self-centered and think the rules don’t apply with them. As much as I love this bike blog, it’s clear the aim is to promote legislation to give bikers safer options. I’m totally fine with that but I can assure you that even if you built the safest environment in the world, it still wouldn’t be enough. There would be those that complained it still isn’t enough and many, many bikers who are going to do their own thing anyway. I once slowed down as I approached an intersection on the BG at the same time a car did and decided to do the courteous thing and waited to let the car pass first. Some asshole flew right by me and crossed the car as it was moving forward and shouted over his shoulder “Never stop for those guys.”. Not only does is comment say it all, it has sadly been my experience to totally be the norm by far. It doesn’t matter what you build, how you build it, or what kind of signage you put up, or what’s posted in this blog or others, it’s not going to change the majority of the biking communities attitude.

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        Todd, come on.

        “Most bikers are self-centered and think the rules don’t apply with them.”

        I have never suggested all bikers follow all rules and are responsible and kind. However, it is completely ridiculous to suggest people who bike are somehow more self-centered or rule-breaking than other modes. There are jerks who do all kinds of things. I could point out that drivers break speed limits all day long, but you’ve heard that before and for some reason continue this silly broad-generalizing about people who bike as though it is relevant.

        I like a lot of your comments, Todd, but I don’t get this line you’ve picked up. Anecdotes about someone being a jerk does not make your generalization any more accurate. Do you think people can’t come up with a situation in which a driver or someone walking (or someone on a bus!) ever said anything to the effect that rules don’t apply to them?

        People are people, and our species has an ages-old habit of disregarding rules they don’t think apply to them (rightly or wrongly). And the bicycle has only been around for 150 or so of those years.

        The goal of our city should be to provide a space where people can get what they need to get done safety and efficiently. If something isn’t working, we need to be willing to change, not sit around and blame the clear majority of people who break a law.

        Speeding is a perfect example. I do not blame people for driving with the average flow of traffic. That is, indeed, safer in many situations. The problem is that many streets are designed to encourage traffic flow speeds far higher than the established speed limits. So we need to change the street’s design so that the normal behavior is to drive the desired, safer speed.

        And with these bike trail stop signs, the confusing nature of the intersections has clearly led the majority of people to largely disregard them. Therefore, I would consider that a failure of design. I don’t know the solution, and I encourage people to ride with absolute caution and care.

        Maybe the best solution is to leave it the way it is and hope people get the memo that they should be careful. Or maybe a better design exists that the city could try. But to suggest that many people breaking this rule is a sign that “most” people who bike are self-centered while not saying the same about people who speed or jaywalk (for example) just doesn’t make sense.

  5. Peter

    I am from Vancouver, a city with established biking culture and have to say that having bike lanes across the whole city really helps me on a daily basis. I often commute by bike because it saves me a lot of time but it is also beneficial for the city. I noticed that many cyclists I meet along the ride are tourists who want to visit the most famous sights. It makes their trips easier when there is enough signage and thus puts our city in better light and attracts more people into the area.

  6. […] signage has been used with much success both downtown and north of downtown, 200 signs alone were added to the Burke Gilman Trail recently, it should easily be added for those […]

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