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Chicago’s separated bike lanes work — It’s time to install one in downtown Seattle

Kinzie Street: Chicago’s First Protected Bike lane from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Separated bike lanes work. Really well.

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People bike out of their way to ride on them. The Kinzie bike lane saw the number of bikes more than double almost immediately. Now, bikes outnumber motor vehicles on Kinzie during rush hour. (Also, check out the bike-safe surface they installed on at least one of their steel grate bridges).

And Rahm Emanuel has plans to install hundreds of miles of them (and, don’t worry, a curmudgeon columnist already cried “War on cars!”).

The time for waiting in Seattle is over. Our downtown is unnecessarily hostile to people walking and biking (and driving!), and it is clear that street redesigns like New York City and, now, Chicago have been installing are the way to make our streets safer and more enjoyable for everyone.

We have the space, too. Second Ave is a very wide street that does not carry many more vehicles per day than Fifth (landlocked at three general lanes, compared to Second’s three general lanes plus a bus lane, a bike lane and a parking lane). Today, Second Ave is one of the worst streets to walk across on foot. The distance from curb-to-curb so big that even able-bodied people are hurried to get across once the hand starts blinking. For people with mobility issues, it’s even worse.

And, of course, Second is also home to what is widely considered to by Seattle’s worst bike lane. Between opening car doors and oblivious left turns, the lane is simply too dangerous to recommend.

Below is a video of a (relatively calm) rush hour trip down the Second Ave bike lane from earlier this autumn (notice a very young Occupy Seattle protesting at the Federal building).

Note that at just about every single red light, there is someone still stuck in the middle of the roadway when the light turns green. Sure, this happens on most downtown streets and is part of downtown walking culture, but it is more pronounced on Second because the road is so wide. A longer countdown might help some (Walking in Seattle discovered that many downtown signals are at the minimum recommended or worse), but shortening the crossing distance should be a safety priority.

Some Seattle bikers still do not trust the idea of a protected bikeway (can be one-way or two). But we have countless examples across the country and especially around the world to learn from. The new NACTO Guide even lays out proven design standards to follow. Existing facilities are evidence that they work extraordinarily well.

Protected bikeways solve several of our downtown’s safety problems and would encourage more activity and downtown life. The city has been working to improve bike routes outside downtown in the past couple years. Now it’s time to open up downtown and see what can really happen.

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28 responses to “Chicago’s separated bike lanes work — It’s time to install one in downtown Seattle”

  1. LWC

    I rode down Second yesterday evening, having just watched this Streetfilms video. You just voiced all my thoughts. Adding room for a separated bike lane (even just a 1-way lane) would require removing something: either parking, a general purpose lane, or a bus lane.
    One thought – would it not make sense to have the bike lane on the right side of the street, buffered by a transit lane, with Dexter-style bus stop islands? I think that configuration may be safer than mixing with parked cars, and leads to more sight-lines when turning cars cross the bike lane. Plus, cars turning right may be more likely to check for bikes behind them, as it’s a more common configuration than what we have at present. What do you think?

  2. Doug Bostrom

    Nice how the Chicago arrangement provides door space on the passenger side of parked cars, also allowing motor vehicle users room to wait or generally get comported before crossing to the sidewalk. Double-buffered, so to speak.

    I also like the idea of parked cars forming a gratis “Jersey Barrier” between motor traffic and the bike lane.

    Does look as though there was previously more wasted space on Kinzie as opposed to 2nd, though.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Well, New York has been putting them everywhere. And if they work in Manhattan, there’s no way downtown Seattle’s too crunched for them…

      I believe they chose Kinzie as somewhat low-hanging fruit as a first try. In the video, they indicate that they intend to get some in the Loop, which is probably the real challenge.

  3. Gary

    I’ve ridden 2nd ave maybe 3 times, and every time I’ve regretted that decision. While it’s downhill and you can almost keep up with traffic, no cars seem to expect you to be on the far left lane. But if you try to hold the right lane you play, “jump a bus” as they cycle through their stops.

    But to put in a cycle track is going to require removing a traffic lane. I’m with the poster above and taking a right hand side lane.

    Meantime, I’d rather go down Western and back up Yesler to 2nd to get around the downtown mess.

  4. Todd

    Yeah it is Tom. I’m a big advocator of this. And I totally agree with Gary. I once rode down 2nd Ave and some dumbass turned right in front of my totally oblivious to my ditch and swerve into the side walk.

    1. Doug Bostrom

      Not to swerve this thread completely off topic, but Todd’s anecdote is example N+1 of a dismally familiar scene. We’re fallible even with the best of intentions.

      In Europe it’s becoming more common for automobiles to have active systems for protecting pedestrians, such as hoods that elevate slightly on impact with humans to help deflect bodies from the lethal junction of roof and windshield.

      Another pragmatic adaptation to circumstances of shared use, tight proximity and human failings would be radar equipped off-side mirrors, with a back facing beam, to warn of other vehicles (of whatever number of wheels and motive power source) unnoticed during a poorly planned turn. Sounds like science fiction, but no more; cars are increasingly studded with such sensory apparatus.

      Unfortunately it seems our present automotive design priorities are swerving to increasing the acreage of expensive chrome and total LED count more than accelerating driver assistance (replacement?) tech.

      1. Doug Bostrom

        On second thoughts, it would be far cheaper and likely statistically more effective simply to have the vehicle deliver a mild electric shock to the driver if a turn is completed without use of signals; crappy driving tends to have a -set- of behaviors associated with it.

      2. Gary

        I have such a device, it’s a helmet mounted 400L flashing light. It’s blinding, and it goes wherever I look, which means I can like a laser focus on a driver about to cut me off and blind him. Only momentarily, because I then want them to have enough vision left to see the controls in their car without too many spots before their eyes.

        It totally works as I see drivers with their hands up trying to shield themselves. But it’s expensive on my end.

      3. Allan

        You absolutely need bright flashing lights to be noticed in traffic but I never gave much though to putting an extra one on my helmet. One thing would be if I can manipulate the button smoothly. I don’t actually run those lights all the time, just when I feel that I need them. I always have one mounted on the handlebars. You only need these lights if you want to stay alive. Otherwise you can do without them.

      4. Allan

        I am just remembering the time I had a brighter than usual light on 2nd Ave and I took a car lane. That lights drains batteries kind of fast running 5 T6 Led’s. It is like 5 of those 750 lumen bike shop lights rolled into one. I usually just have a single T6 on my bike but on that day with the 5xT6 no one bothered me at all. No one even changed into my lane. It was a thing of beauty really. It was daytime too.

    2. Todd

      WTF? That was almost English.

      1. Todd

        I meant my initial response. I needed coffee I guess.

      2. Doug Bostrom

        Gary’s remark about flashing other drivers w/bright lights comes off sounding a bit trollish, in the sense of “how can I enrage drivers of other vehicles and make ’em dislike drivers of bicycles.”

        On a more general note, nobody’s judgement is good enough to reliably deliver punishment of that kind without eventually making an error, nailing somebody else for one’s own lapse in cognition. Additionally it’s arguably dangerous and hence stupid to intentionally impair the faculties of another driver.

        But then, I was the one musing about gently electrocuting drivers, so a fine example I’ve set…

      3. Gary

        Sorry if that came off “trollish” but I’m sick an tired of being run down, having cars stick their front end out into the bike path without looking first. Cutting me off, right hook, left hook. With my evil lights of doom there is no way to get too close to my bicycle without blinding yourself and you know what? It works. I mostly hear “thumpa thumpa” as cars go way around me hitting the center rumble bumps. I have cars back up to get out of the bike lane. When they are done passing, they give me lots of room before pulling back into my lane.

      4. MondoMan

        Re Gary’s device, I’ve got an el cheapo ($35 shipped from Hong Kong) 250L flashlight mounted on my handlebars. It’s not helmet mounted, but like Gary’s it’s bright enough to really attract attention. IMHO the targeting might not be needed — it seems to be pretty effective as is, and I’ve gotten a lot of compliments about the light from peds and some cyclists.

  5. Shortening the crossing distance is about narrowing the roadway, not adding protected bike facilities on the side. If we have wider bike facilities this just means straggling pedestrians are blocking bikes, not cars.

    Other than that… let’s not fool ourselves that drivers are superhuman here. Any place where there’s cross traffic that’s not controlled by a traffic signal, the more distance you put between cross-traffic and the lane they’re trying to turn into the more likely it is that they’ll need to nose out into that space to get out. Downtown this mostly happens at mid-block driveways (and with right-on-red, but that would be banned across a cycletrack obviously), and we already see this problem where driveways cross the sidewalk. When cyclists ride too close to the side of the road it becomes a problem for them as well; cyclists are going faster and are less maneuverable, so the problem turns from a nuisance to a danger. It’s particularly bad if there are parked cars between the bikes and the moving cars, because crossing drivers have a hard time seeing over parked cars. So the key question for a 2nd Ave. cycletrack is: how many driveways are there on the side of 2nd we want to use? Can we signalize their entrances?

    The uphill direction of a 2-way track would be useful for climbing, in the same way bike lanes on arterials are useful for climbing, because the speed differential of passing cars is greater and of cross-traffic and parked cars is smaller. On the way downhill… well… if you’re riding in the cycletrack you’ll see lots of cyclists going by in the general traffic lanes, taking the lane, riding the speed of traffic, having fun. Don’t look too long, though — you might forget to dodge all the people and cars trying to get across.

    1. Kinzie, for those not aware, is sort of an odd street. It’s connected better to major bike routes than major driving routes. It’s not an intense urban street with lots of pedestrian traffic; it’s actually in a bit of a dead zone. It’s maybe a bit like parts of pre-redevelopment SLU. If there’s a street where a bike-centered redesign makes sense, Kinzie is it.

      2nd isn’t much like Kinzie… enough other groups care about 2nd that a project designed around bikes at their expense would have a hard time in today’s political climate.

  6. Bryan Willman

    I have a bunch of ill-articulated concerns largely along the lines of Al Dimond.

    For example, if cars are turning right across parking, and then across the bike lane, and then across the sidewalk, to enter a parking garage say.

    We might say “well, we’ll restrict parking near the garage entrance so there’s a space there a driver can see through” – but people park in illegal spaces all the time, and the temptation for delivery vehicles, etc. to duck into those spaces will be huge.

    A related problem is that in such a space pedestrians will be going slowly, but cyclists may be going quite fast, and so the chance for a driver to be surprized is large.

    Of course, the current arrangement has a bunch of obvious problems too, maybe this sort of thing would be better, but it does require careful thought.

    It’s also very important that any improvements not take 10 years nor cost zillions of dollars. Some resonably timely cost efficient process is required.

    1. Jeremy

      Bar off vehicle parking spots; a line of reverse U steel bars set in the pavement would suffice. Doubles as chain point for a locked bicycle, and creates extra space for pedestrians. Make the entry for the vehicle a hard turn, or install a speed bump, such that the vehicle will be damaged or rendered inoperable if the navigation is done at an inappropriate speed for mixing with humans.

      But in a culture where alcohol-serving establishments have mandated parking minimums? Probably not.

  7. RTK

    I’ve never ridden on one of these but feel skeptical. If a bike is really moving along I see problems with cars crossing, and peds getting out of cars and crossing the bike path. There is no escape direction, you’ve got a curb on one side and a wall of parked cars on the other. No place to swerve if someone comes out of a garage and gets stuck. You can go screaming down 2nd on a bike.
    My attitude about 2nd is very different than those expressed above. I’m sure that is because I go down it daily before 5:30AM, it is great at that time. Just get in the light sequence and go all the way from the top to the ID without stopping. I do agree that it feels strange having the left hand side bike lane. I’m more likely to be out in one of the car lanes drafting. On 4th where you are grinding uphill in a left side bike lane it doesn’t feel so strange. Maybe that’s just me.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      That’s a good point, RTK. I think what’s important to keep in mind is that this style of facility is not necessarily created for people to “scream” down hills, as you suggest. In fact, a reasonable, comfortable speed is important. Basically, facilities do not need to be created for the top-tier speedy bike riders. If you feel comfortable riding in the general traffic lanes, that’s great, and they will remain available to you.

      But when we design a facility like this, we should have families and less-than-fit or more timid riders in the forefront of our minds. I have noticed that many beginners are more afraid of going down hills than anything else, and we should be providing a safe space for people to go whatever speed they feel comfortable going.

      1. RTK

        Fair enough. I strongly believe we need cycling facilities for all users. I look at the video and could picture myself riding along with my kids, something I don’t do yet with a striped bike lane. We are currently only using a few quiet streets to get to dedicated bike trails. This set-up would probably get some people out on a bike that would not consider it with our typical bike lanes. The statistics in the video make it sound like a success.
        I still worry for people who have the ability to get moving along, but not the awareness or skills if the path gets blocked ahead of them for some reason. You can’t swing out around the nose of a car like you can with the bike lane adjacent to the general vehicle lane. In the video those cross streets just seem narrow and the sight lines much better that what exists on 2nd. You also have people make free RH and LH turns onto 2nd because of all the one ways. I can see this working in a lot of place, just not sure if a street like 2nd would be a good place to start. How about Greenlake? We’d have the inner running/walking path and an outer separated bike lane around the lake. Very little cross traffic, seems like a winner. Thanks for posting this one, lot’s of good comments.

  8. I love this way of creating safer bikeways. It seems like it would be inexpensive and feels more logical to drivers and people who bike than lanes squeezed into the door zone after road diets.

  9. Clint

    Interesting post and discussion. I usually take the center lane on 2nd, as the bike lane is about the worst in Seattle. But a couple of weeks ago, I was pulled over for “impeding traffic.” So I guess the SPD doesn’t want the travel lanes to be a viable option either. (Of course they’re wrong, as the center lane is perfectly legal. Plus there was no traffic — it was mid-morning the week of Thanksgiving. I’ve decided to file a complaint with the SPD and mayor’s office. Just seeing this post after sending you an email on this earlier today, Tom.) Okay, back to the topic of your post… I agree, 2nd really needs better cycling infrastructure. If Seattle wants to move into a sustainable transportation future, that needs to include safe and efficient routes through the downtown core. Reducing three travel lanes to two seems like a good tradeoff for creating some real space on that road for cycling. Something similar is needed on 4th.

    1. Clint,

      There is no law under which a bicycle driven at normal bicycling speeds can “impede” traffic.
      Washington state law RCW 46.61.425 Reads “No person shall drive a MOTOR vehicle at such a slow speed as to impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic……

      Check this interesting article about case law regarding “impeding”:

      Contact a bike attorney immediately. This stuff is complicated and absolutely must be handled properly. I am acquainted with and have followed numerous discussions as the history and case law developed but I’m not an attorney and do not know how to apply it.

      Let me know what happens. I repeat, its important for all bicyclists that you get this done right as setting bad precedent is really hard to reverse.

      1. Clint

        David — thanks for the confirmation on the impeding traffic rules. I’ve looked around and found similar language and interpretations as you. At this point, I do not anticipate involving an attorney. I was only issued a warning, so I am not really fighting anything, more just want to be on record as stating that it is unacceptable for police to pull cyclists over just because they can. Seems like a good opportunity for letting the city’s electeds know that this kind of stuff goes on and potentially can compromise their efforts to increase biking and walking in Seattle.

      2. Allan

        Please do send in your complaint. It is insane to push cyclists into a lane where they could get killed. Cyclists must be allowed to choose the safest route.

  10. […] bike lanes, cycle tracks and bike boxes that have been proven to work in places like New York, Chicago and Portland, but are currently considered experimental under Caltrans’ antiquated […]

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