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The case for a 23rd Avenue protected bikeway

23rdAveCorridor_OpenHousePresentation_MARCH2013cycleWith transit speeds and safety improvements as their guiding principles, the city recently presented early ideas for design changes to 23rd Ave as part of the upcoming repaving and complete streets project stretching from E John to Rainier Ave (see my coverage over at Central District News).

One potential design option includes a two-way cycle track, rehabbed (but not widened) sidewalks, transit priority improvements and lots of repaving. However, inclusion of the cycle track is not a shoe-in. Project planners are getting pressure from Metro and some transit advocates who fear that a three-lane design at Madison/John and Cherry could delay buses, as suggested by early results from an in-process study (see more from a transit-centered point of view at Seattle Transit Blog).

Concept image of completed Broadway at Pine St
Concept image of completed Broadway at Pine St

Much like the under-construction design for Broadway, a 23rd Avenue with a protected bike lane would be on the forefront of urban street innovation in the U.S. and would create a bicycle facility safe enough for people of all ages and abilities to feel comfortable using it (that’s the goal, anyway). In fact, this stretch of 23rd Avenue south of Madison has less daily traffic than Broadway (13,000–16,500 vehicles per day compared to Broadway’s 17,000).  The Central District has one of the highest rates of bicycle commuting in the city, and 23rd Avenue is the neighborhood’s most dangerous street and one of the biggest barriers to cycling within the neighborhood.

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Further, I am convinced that transit reliability concerns can be met with a design that includes a protected bike facility. It might take some inventive design work and a combination of design strategies, but this project has the funds (about $20 million) to figure it out. 23rd Avenue could be the street that rewrites the rules for Seattle repaving and complete streets projects, leading the way with a design that meets our city’s core transportation goals of safety for everybody and speedy, reliable transit.

It is the first major project on a street that the in-process Bicycle Master Plan update identifies as a tricky “multimodal corridor.” This is our chance to set a standard with what could be one of the city’s only truly complete neighborhood commercial streets (and yes, in case you’ve picked up on my excitement, I live near this stretch of 23rd).

Today, 23rd Avenue acts like a barrier that splits the neighborhood in half. What should be a corridor that showcases the neighborhood’s character is, instead, a dangerous divide people often avoid. Once a year, thousands of people meet at Garfield High School (one of the city’s bikiest high schools) to march down 23rd Ave together in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy. It is one of the largest MLK Day marches in the nation.

The event, which draws people from all over the region, drips with Central District pride and is certainly the biggest annual cultural event that happens on the street (Umojafest also holds a parade down 23rd during SeaFair). But for the other 363 days of the year, the street belongs to speeding cars, and people trudge along the cracked sidewalks to wait at the street’s squished bus stops just feet from the fast-moving traffic (and, I should add, well within the splash zone on a rainy day). While I’m not saying the project should aim to make every day a parade, the street should be more welcoming to activity than it is today.

I am pushing for a protected bike lane on 23rd (along with many people who attended the open house), but it is clear that there is pressure to instead work toward a so-called “parallel route,” likely a neighborhood greenway. However, whether such a route exists and would be sufficient for access to 23rd (I don’t believe so), there are currently no funds for such a project.

But all that is beside the point because, as residents pointed out at the meeting, neighborhood greenways are not substitutes for safe bike lanes on the commercial streets that house most our neighborhoods’ cultural and business destinations. A neighborhood greenway that connects the Lake Washington Loop (and, ultimately, the Montlake Bridge) to the heart of the CD and the I-90 Trail would be great, but it is not a replacement for safe biking and walking access to 23rd Avenue destinations.

In explaining Vancouver BC’s transportation strategy, former planner for that city Brent Toderian said their decisions are based on a framework that prioritizes people on foot first, people biking second, transit third, freight fourth and people in personal cars last. The city of Seattle has said that safety is its top transportation priority. I would encourage project planners to see the 23rd Avenue complete streets project through this lens.

Metro and anyone concerned about transit speeds must understand that anything that makes it less safe or appealing for people to access their stops is bad for transit. While I am definitely in support of faster and more reliable transit, road designs that also encourage speeding and discourage biking or walking (like lanes that are too wide or too plentiful) are not worth the time gained.

A mother holding her child tries to cross 23rd Ave
A mother holding her child tries to cross 23rd Ave, a dangerous and unappealing experience today

Presenters said initial transit flow studies suggested a three-lane design would work well for almost the entire length of the project area, but there could be issues at Madison/John and Cherry. Citing early results of an in-process transit reliability study, those intersections might drop to a “failing level of service” under a three-lane design. Several residents at the meeting pointed out that such level of service studies only look at vehicle travel and do not look at the service level for people on foot and bike.

If you were unable to attend, you can still comment on the project by emailing Maribel Cruz at SDOT by March 31.

Here are the meeting materials:

23rdAveCorridor_OpenHousePresentation_MARCH2013 by tfooq

Funding Summary by tfooq

23 Rd Cross Section Possibilities by tfooq

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29 responses to “The case for a 23rd Avenue protected bikeway”

  1. Biliruben

    Completely agree. It would be a travesty to miss any opportunity to improve hostile conditions for peds and bikes with any large scale repaving project

    We are about to go through a similar repaving project up here in lake city, with the repaving of the high traffic corridors of 125th and Sandpoint way. Unfortunately, SDOT made no such heroic efforts to obtain money for a concurrent redesign, so it looks like we will be stuck with the same hazardous and dysfunctional design for the next 20 years.
    And not even any sidewalks up here. What a massive wasted opportunity.

    I’d love to hear how pressure was applied to get SDOT to work for he design grants, if anyone has some suggestions as to how to modify this to a less car-centric car acceleration project, to something that improves conditions for everyone.

  2. Bruce Nourish

    It’s important to remember what a “failing” intersection looks like. It’s not just an intersection where cars are slowing down, it’s an intersection where it takes multiple light cycles to get through, and cars are backed up for several blocks waiting. Dexter & Denny on a bad traffic day (e.g. when the Mercer ramps are closed) is an example of a failing intersection with a major bike facility.

    Fundamentally, you have two options to get surface transit through congestion at an intersection: go around it with a queue jump, or use transit signal priority (TSP) to hold or advance the green. These options are dictated by the geometry of the street; you can innovate all you want, but you can’t magically make more road, or drive a bus over the roofs of all the stopped cars in front of it.

    TSP is unlikely to maintain speed and reliability when intersections are failing. Typically, TSP can hold a green for not much more than 30 extra seconds before the intersection starts to have problems from the other direction; and Cherry, John and Madison all have major crosstown bus routes on them, full of riders from the CD, whose needs to travel in a timely fashion are also important. A queue jump could, but then we need an extra lane… which takes us to a four-lane intersection profile.

    Fundamentally, everything I’ve written at the transit blog (some of it about biking) is about getting people to sell their cars — voluntarily, because they don’t need them, they have better options, a combination of bike and bus and car share. With 6,900 riders per weekday on this segment, transit is likely to be the dominant non-car mode on 23rd for the foreseeable future. We may not like it, but we may be forced to choose between prioritizing bikes and prioritizing transit at some places on 23rd.

    I love all the outcomes described above, of making 23rd a complete street, a street that unites the neighborhood, not divides it, that prioritizes people over cars, and keeps everyone safe. I’m absolutely in favor of a three-lane profile on the parts of 23rd where it works well with transit. But in the places where intersections are projected to fail at a three-lane profile (and assuming the more detailed modeling SDOT is doing now bears that initial projection out), I think the “greatest good for the greatest number (of non-car travelers)” means a four-lane profile, which, unfortunately, probably means a cycle track won’t fit at those places.

    If you can sell Metro and the freight people on 10.5′ lanes, I could totally go for a cycle track on the remainder of 23rd, but my concern is then: what is the value of a non-continuous bike facility? If you have to ride on the sidewalk, or jog over to a parallel facility to cross these three streets, is it worth building? Maybe — it would definitely improve access to businesses on one side of 23rd — but its utility for longer-haul travel would be decimated.

    I wish we didn’t have to choose between frequent and reliable transit and a cycle track on 23rd, but it appears, thus far, that we do; it’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Bruce, 23rd and Cherry is not anything like Dexter and Denny. Cherry carries less than 8,000 vehicles per day, while 23rd carries about 16,000. Denny carries 34,000.

      I am sure the city can figure out a way to keep the Cherry intersection moving. If they can do it at Union (which actually carries more vehicles per day) then they can do it at Cherry. A four-lane configuration there is simply not good enough. Garfield Community Center is right there, along with Coyote Central (youth education program) and the start of the CD Art Walk. It is also how many people access Garfield High School and playfields.

      I’m absolutely sure they can come up with something to make this intersection work for everybody.

      As for 23rd/Madison, the intersection desperately needs a complete redesign. Could we find money to completely redo it so that it meets ADA and is easier to walk across? I doubt that is included as part of the existing funding, but it is a huge need and could be a way to address transit at the same time. Should we be focused on funding that? So far, nobody is talking about it.

      If no money is found for that redesign, it may be that one compromise in the project would have to be that the cycle track doesn’t go through the intersection with Madison. Since there will not be such a facility to the north of Madison, it would make sense to find a good space to let it end for now, maybe at the stoplight at Olive St. I, of course, would prefer we address the intersection now, but I have yet to hear any talk about it (so, readers, if you want this, start talking!)

      1. Gary

        23rd & Madison used to be the site of multiple shootings, drug deals and regular police actions. Hardly a place to bicycle by. Fortunately it’s getting better.

        However as a rider going N/S on Capital Hill I favor 20th or 19th over 23rd by a wide margin. No traffic what so ever, no lights at most of the cross streets so you can just jump when the traffic breaks.

        While a 3 lane road would be my preference, making the intersections fail while standing on a bus is pretty miserable experience on a regular basis. Thing is in order to make auto driving reduced you have to make it terrible to drive. That means failed intersections with bike lanes to zip by them. It adds to the general hate of bicycles but it also shows that it’s the only viable alternative. Unfortunately the backlash is no more cycle tracks/lanes/sharrows.

      2. JohnS

        Ride the 2 at rush hour, Tom. Or walk down from 23rd…past 24th…and down to 25th. That’s about how far traffic backs up now. Frankly I don’t mind the burden for motorists – but it’s not uncommon to watch the 2 take 5 minutes to get from MLK to 23rd due to missed light cycles at 23rd.

        I know nothing I say is going to persuade you that a cycletrack on 23rd isn’t the answer – but as a daily transit rider, not only do I not see a good path toward making 48/cycletrack work on a narrow 23rd Avenue corridor, I share Bruce’s concerns toward further slowing down east/west transit access as well.

      3. Tom Fucoloro

        John, I live at 20th and Union, so I’m well aware of the issues.

        I have no interest in slowing the 2, but I don’t think the primary issue is the raw number of lanes.

        For example, if you have ever tried to cross cattycorner at 23rd, you will certainly have noticed that the signal cycles take forever because one direction gets to go straight and turn left, then the next direction, then the next direction, then the last one. This is inefficient. A turning lane 0n 23rd plus the planned signal priority work could actually help.

  3. Jeff Dubrule

    Anything that would slow that street down would be a welcome change. I was at the Montlake bike shop, last weekend, and test-rode 3 bikes. The test-course was on the far side of 23rd, which meant crossing it 6 times. A couple of times, there were big gaps, but in all other cases, I felt if I had not exhibited a “I’m about to walk in front of your car now, please stop, thanks” attitude, I would’ve been buzzed by, and the driver would not have given me a second (or even a first?) thought. On one crossing, I had a driver beep at me as I waited for drivers going the other way to stop, and on another crossing, I had one driver stop, the driver behind her swung around then screeched to a halt having finally seen me and the bright orange bike I had just tested.

    This everyday disregard for the law is why we need to either actually enforce the laws meant to ensure pedestrian and cyclist safety, or build infrastructure to make it safe.

    For example, let me solve this problem for you… 23rd becomes a 2 lane road, with cycletracks on both sides, and wider sidewalks. Both lanes are bus-only. If drivers are really nice, they can use them in off-peak hours.

  4. sally

    I have not figured out how cycletracks are supposed to be designed on hilly streets. The north end of 23rd is flat and a two way cycletrack seems reasonable. The southern portion is very hilly. I wouldn’t feel to comfortable on a cycletrack when opposing bikes are coming downhill at 20+ miles per hour unless it were very wide. What are the best design practices for a cycletrack on a hilly street?

    1. Gary

      Best design practice is two cycle tracks on hills. It avoids the cars don’t expect whizzing bikes coming from the opposite direction as well as cyclists not hitting each other.

  5. Chuck

    Can we use mass ticketing to help fund some road improvements? I would love to see officers set up at problem intersections handing out warnings and tickets to help educate and create additional funds. There are plenty of citizens that could be educated regardless of mode of travel.

    1. Gary

      Welcome to traffic cameras, Red Light and school zone…

  6. pqbuffington

    A cycle-tracked 23rd from the I-90 multi-use path to Aloha (a little far north for this argument I suppose) would be great. At Aloha, bike/ped traffic could be routed to 19th/Interlaken and then to the University and Montlake bridges via Boyer/Furhman and a couple of small greenway sections; the greenways mainly to connect to the path that goes under the 520 bridge by the Montlake play field.

    As for overall width restrictions, I would ditch the planting strips…they take up too much valuable space and actually are a serious issue in terms of sidewalk and cycle track damage from roots (the hate part of my love/hate of the BG trail).

    Or, if it did not have to be 23rd that was civilized..

    …we could build the protected cycle-tracks from I-90 to Jackson on MLK and then a short cycle-track on Jackson west to 22nd. Or, just build a connector from the I-90 trail through Judkins Park and that area just east of Washington Middle School to 22nd.

    Then, make 22nd a one-way street with a split cycle-track on one side of the street. Of course, parking would be the issue, but I bet it could be solved, e.g. back in angled parking as opposed to the current parallel method.

    The crossing of the major streets (going north/south on 22nd) could be facilitated with pedestrian/cycle specific traffic controls. This would also tie-in better with 19th/Interlaken route.

    This would keep the north/south flow proximate to 23rd (as opposed to modifying 19th) and keep it flat, for the most part, the entire distance from I-90 to Aloha.

    1. JohnS

      The City isn’t going to tear out all those mature trees, and even if they did current policy is to plant two new ones for every replacement. No doubt they were the wrong species – but if you’ve been following Madrona at all, neighbors will fight tearing them out like crazy…and replacements are pretty much mandated.

  7. Josh

    That rendering doesn’t show separate signals for bicycles… Without separate signal phases, a cycletrack on 23rd would be expected to at least double the risk of right-hook car/bike accidents at intersections, as they have in Copenhagen. Overall, Copenhagen shows cycletracks increase injury accidents at intersections by 18%.

    I’m all in favor of creating facilities that feel safer and invite more people to ride, but not if they’re actually luring novice riders onto streets that are more dangerous than they were before.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      That rendering doesn’t even show an intersection, so obviously there is no signal.

      And please provide a citation for your Copenhagen factoid. Because last I checked, Denmark and Holland had some of the safest streets on earth.

      1. Kirk from Ballard

        Wikipedia: A large study undertaken by S.U. Jensen et al into the safety of Copenhagen cycle tracks before and after they were constructed concludes “The construction of cycle tracks in Copenhagen has resulted in an increase in cycle traffic of 18–20% and a decline in car traffic of 9–10%. The cycle tracks constructed have resulted in increases in accidents and injuries of 9–10% on the reconstructed roads.”
        Cycle traffic increased by 20%, accidents increased by only 10%, therefore the cycle tracks increased safety.

      2. pqbuffington

        here is a link that may shed some more light…


        key takeaway:

        “One of the most commonly cherry-picked research article is “Road safety and the perceived risks of cycle facilities in Copenhagen.” However, the methodology employed by this study compares real intersection crash figures to predicted crash figures for a road with the same traffic composition as one which had been modified with cycle infrastructure, a traffic composition which would not be achieved had the infrastructure not been implemented. The actual raw figures show that crashes reduced despite the significant increases in cycling seen on roads where infrastructure was built”

      3. Josh

        From the study itself, rather than a Wikipedia analysis of it, the study authors’ own conclusion was that cycletracks decreased road safety.

        A decline in road safety at junctions has undoubtedly taken place after the construction of cycle tracks. If the figures for the road sections are combined with those for the junctions, an increase of 9-10% in accidents and injuries has taken place. [….]

        The increase in injuries due to the construction of cycle tracks arises because there are more injuries to pedestrians, cyclists, and moped riders at junctions. There has been an increase of 28%, 22% and 37% respectively for these three road user groups. [….]

        From table 1, it can be deduced that the construction of cycle tracks has resulted in three important gains in road safety…. These gains were more than outweighed by new safety problems: more accidents in which cyclists rode into other cyclists often when overtaking, more accidents with cars turning right, more accidents in which cars turning left drove into cyclists as well as more accidents between cyclists and pedestrians and exiting or entering bus passengers. [….]

        Taken in combination, the cycle tracks and lanes which have been constructed have had positive results as far as traffic volumes and feelings of security go. They have however, had negative effects on road safety.”

        The table 1 referenced in the text shows a 201% increase in bike-on-bike injury accidents, 161% increase in car vs. bike right-hook injuries, 84% increase in car vs. pedestrian right-hook accidents, 61% increase in left-turning car vs. bike injuries, and 1,762% increase in injuries from cyclists hitting passengers entering and exiting buses.


      4. Josh

        Sorry, I was referring to the rendering, not the section. The rendering clearly shows traffic signals over the general purpose lanes, but not over the cycletrack, and it appears to show auto, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic moving through the intersection on the same phase.

        If the white car in the rendering were turning right, the cyclist moving the same direction as the car would have been blocked from the driver’s view and awareness by the streetcar platform and median. This design channels through traffic to the right of right-turning traffic.

        In addition, again if the white car in the rendering were turning right, the two-directional cycletrack puts the turning motorist in conflict with what would otherwise be “wrong way” cyclists.

      5. Tom Fucoloro

        Oh, you mean the Broadway one? That’s an old conceptual drawing. From what I understand, there will be bike-specific signals.

      6. David Amiton

        Gals. Fellas.

        This is a typical section from an early open house and a rendering from an entirely different project; no need to get all in a huff (although I did think it was hilarious that one of the typical sections at the open house included a red Porsche. Seriously, who decides which vehicles to put on these things?).

      7. Tom Fucoloro

        I really like the gray-bearded guy on the bike in the Broadway drawing. I dream of growing up to be that cool.

      8. Tom Fucoloro

        For one, I wouldn’t necessarily go to “vehicularcyclist.com” for unbiased information about bike facilities.

        Here’s a story I saw published just two days ago: http://www.calgaryherald.com/business/energy-resources/study+supports+call+separated+bike+lanes/8048119/story.html

  8. Joseph Singer

    What Gary says about 19th or 20th is a really good idea. For one thing 20th is a lot more level with less of a grade than is 23rd.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      It doesn’t have to be either/or. I ride 20th all the time, but it’s not an alternative to access on 23rd.

      There’s no time like the present to take bold action on 23rd. The street has more in common with Broadway than a highway. We should use this $20 million to make it a true neighborhood commercial street.

  9. pqbuffington

    Josh, thanks for the full-study link…the increase in accidents and injuries presented in this study does not make cycle-tracks a simple solution.

    The one thing the study does not seem to address is the time frame from installation to what might be called a general understanding of the new infrastructure, i.e. are the increased rates still happening? And if not, how were they mitigated…traffic signals, or did people “figure them out”, so to speak, or do they remain unchanged?

    Not just to take pot shots at this study, but I have ridden in Copenhagen, and a bit of the rest of Denmark, and never witnessed anything that would make me question the overall superiority of cycle-tracks (admittedly, only an anecdotal account) to bike-lanes or just using the street.

  10. BobH

    Tom, I think you bring up a good point about Greenways: By adopting the one-street-over strategy, they end up bypassing all the great destinations that are typically found on busy arterials. How to create bike infrastructure that is on one hand separated yet also gets you to desirable destinations is a tough problem.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      And don’t get me wrong, I love neighborhood greenways. They just can’t be used as an excuse not to make our neighborhood commercial drags safe.

      I wrote more on this topic here: http://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2012/11/13/bike-master-plan-neighborhood-greenways-are-much-more-than-alternatives-to-bike-lanes/

  11. […] widen and rebuild the sidewalks and convert the street to a safer three-lane configuration. While I pushed for a protected bike lane on 23rd, the planned design will increase safety and make it much more comfortable to cross this […]

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