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Is the I-5 Express Trail one step closer to reality?

A Seattle Bike Blog concept image, using Google Street View images
A Seattle Bike Blog concept image, using Google Street View images

With the Washington State Supreme Court smacking down a lawsuit by Bellevue developer and light rail hater Kemper Freeman to stop light rail on the I-90 Bridge, the question on everyone’s mind is: Does this mean the I-5 Express Trail is closer to reality?

… OK, fine, maybe Seattle Bike Blog is the ONLY place talking about an I-5 Express Trail. But I can dream, right?

To recap, the battle over I-90 light rail was ultimately about Washington’s absolutely awful, ridiculous, unsustainable and car-culture-protecting Amendment 18. Essentially, the constitutional amendment, passed during World War II, requires state gas taxes to go exclusively to “highway purposes.” The term “highway purposes” is often understood to mean “cars only,” but that understanding is shifting.

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So basically, since Sound Transit is paying to lease the express lane space their trains will use and is thus reimbursing the gas tax fund for its investment, the state’s high court doesn’t see a problem with it constitutionally.

Kemper Freeman has spent millions of dollars and well over a decade of his life fighting light rail to Bellevue, so this decision is a huge loss for him (and a huge win for essentially everyone, including Freeman himself whose retail properties will now have a train from Seattle to their storefronts).

So this decision is great news for the region and our ability to put our existing massive infrastructure investments to the best use possible. After all, the region is always changing, and our transportation needs change with it.

Which brings us back to the I-5 Express Trail. There are two huge and completely wasted opportunities for more efficient use of the I-5 Express Lanes: Two-way express transit/HOV and extremely fast, safe and direct walking and biking.

There are existing hopes to turn the I-5 Express Lanes into a two-way space. This would dramatically help high occupancy vehicles and transit move through the constant congestion on the freeway.

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 12.56.04 PMBut why prevent access by the people who could benefit most from bypassing large hills and decreasing conflicts with cross traffic? A bicycle trip from 65th and Ravenna Boulevard to Seattle City Hall today would likely take an average person about an hour at a comfortable pace (obviously, people can make the trip faster by hustling and taking major arterial streets that are not comfortable or appealing to most people). There are also several steep hills and tons of stop lights involved.

On the I-5 Express Lanes, someone could pedal at a comfortable, non-sweaty rate and get there in 30 minutes (assuming a comfortable 10 mph pace). Someone a little more fit putting a little more gusto (but not THAT much) into their pedals could make the trip in 20 minutes without too much huffing and puffing.

Oh, and did I mention that it would be mostly protected from the rain?

To put this in perspective, it takes me about 20 minutes to get from my Central District home to City Hall, and I’m pretty tuckered out by the hills when I get there. So it would be as easy to bike from Ravenna to City Hall (and downtown jobs) as it is to bike there from the CD. In a neighborhood where nine percent of residents already bike to work, the trail would be a huge increase in the potential for people-powered transportation just by leveraging infrastructure investments we have already made.

The I-5 Express Trail isn’t sounding so crazy anymore, is it?

Below is a super quick little outline of how the express lane design could possibly work (designed using Streetmix). Basically, you could have at least one lane in each direction for buses and other high occupancy vehicles with space for one or two extra lanes to use as needed (exit lanes, peak direction capacity, etc). The exits would definitely be the hardest part to design (signals and exit-only lanes required?), and only west-side exits would likely be accessible by the trail (though there are also opportunities for new trail-only exits, like at NE 42nd Street in Wallingford and E Shelby St in Eastlake).

i-5-express-lanes-streetmixWhat do you think? Would the I-5 Express Trail be a smart regional transportation investment? Do you think we could convince Kemper Freeman to give it a try at the ribbon-cutting ceremony?

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48 responses to “Is the I-5 Express Trail one step closer to reality?”

  1. Ellie P.

    That would be amazing, but a couple of supporting surface street changes come to mind. First, the 42nd Ave express lane exit seems like it would be the obvious junction to connect with our beloved east-west bike highway, the Burke-Gilman. But that gajillion-way stop intersection or two at 7th/40th/Campus Parkway/Pacific is a huge mess right now as-is. Ideally for this to work, there would be a signal and a protected bike lane.

    The other would be, how would one get there from the south or from downtown? I don’t have a good picture of where the express lanes start, but the usual thoroughfare to get to I-5 from South Seattle is Rainier which is obviously a hot mess for bikes.

  2. X

    Isn’t biking next to an interstate insane from an air-quality standpoint? Particulates, nitroxides and carbon monoxide? You want to be at least a few dozen meters away to let those disperse.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I wonder how the air on the express lanes compares to the full access lanes or nearby roadways. Worthy of study, for sure.

      1. David May

        Also worth mentioning is subjecting yourself to the high decibel level of the adjacent freeway noise that could potentially damage a persons hearing if you were exposed to it on a regular basis. This would need to be mitigated to make this proposal viable.

      2. Andres Salomon

        There are several studies out there that show what a huge difference in both noise and air pollution a simple wall makes. Put a tall wall between the HOV lane and the bikers/pedestrians, and that would improve the quality of the route significantly.


      3. Tom Fucoloro

        The noise problem from the express lanes is due mostly to the sound of vehicles bouncing off the deck above and down onto homes and streets nearby. This is one reason why the express lanes are closed at night: Neighbors (like essentially everyone in Eastlake) would not be able to sleep. The state has a legal obligation to mitigate the noise. A few years ago they spent gobs of money installing sound barriers that did measurably nothing: http://www.kirotv.com/news/news/23m-project-to-reduce-ship-canal-bridge-noise-hasn/nK59n/

        So, installing a bike trail could have measurable impact on sound levels, since people biking and walking make almost no sound. But as for the sound hitting people on the trail, yeah, I wonder if something like a wall could help. But it will likely be fairly loud.

    2. Becky

      I-90 seems to be a fairly popular bike route…

      1. Yeah, speaking of that, have y’all heard they’re going to reduce the shoulder between WB I-90 traffic and the bike path by 80% (from 10 feet to 2) in order to squeeze another lane onto I-90 during the upcoming bi-directional HOV project?

      2. Gary

        Yep, that is going to suck big time on rainy days. It’s already bad riding into the traffic going East, but moving the traffic 8 ft closer to the barrier is really going to be bad. On the other hand, i9f I spit, or blow my nose, it’s morely to carry over…..

    3. D

      520 on the eastside already has a bike lane next to it for most of its length. I have no idea if anyone has done a study on the pollution effects vs just riding in regular traffic.

  3. Matt

    Sounds great, but man, if you thought the NE 65th Ave cycle track was controversial…

    1. Tom Fucoloro


  4. Doug Bostrom

    The express lanes do need a complete rethink. Look at the entry arrangement for northbound vehicles, essentially a mechanism that automatically produces a traffic jam in any but the lightest traffic when northbound express is closed; we’ll –always– have folks racing up the left lane, depending on brakes and the kindness or at least caution of strangers to jam their way in at the last possible moment. Result: brake lights and a traffic jam, one that’s nearly perpetual.

    So yeah, make the express lanes static and while we’re at it we can dedicate a lane to bike traffic. Eliminating the idiotic engineered-in traffic jams due to the vanishing lanes will make whatever “loss” of lane space is the result a non-issue.

    1. Leif Espelund

      Actually, it would be best for traffic if all lanes were used up until the last moment and then everyone followed the zipper principle to merge the closing lane into the rest. It is a total waste of infrastructure and creates more congestion to have everyone merge over early, leaving hundreds of feet of lane open, just because you are worried about people “getting ahead” or whatever.

      1. Whether early or late merging is most efficient depends somewhat on the speed of traffic, right? When traffic is moving slowly enough for real human drivers to actually perform a “zipper merge” that works great. When it’s moving quickly people will naturally want to get over sooner than that but that’s OK.

        Of course any time lanes disappear there’s potential for a bottleneck… but it’s hardly possible to eliminate all traffic bottlenecks or congestion. The big-picture important thing is for all freeways to have bi-directional HOV lanes so there’s always an incentive to travel more efficiently in congested areas.

    2. Doug Bostrom

      Regarding intelligent merging, not to sound all cynical but rather just acknowledging human nature: expecting people to drive with forethought and like adults is expecting too much. Look at the reality of I-5 northbound entering downtown on any day 8a-7p. The stop-and-go is the result of thoughtless driving.

      But let’s not unfairly put all the blame on our own nature. Why would traffic engineers create a freeway with many lanes pinching down to few, at the very place where congestion can be expected to be worst? Six or more lanes squeezing into two lanes in complete disregard to both human nature and expected traffic loads is blatantly, head-scratchingly stupid, but that’s what happens as I-5 approaches Seattle from the south. The “now they’re here, now they’re not” expressway entrances and the bottleneck they ensure are the icing on the idiocy cake, perhaps thick enough to make the express lanes effectively worthless in terms of net total hours wasted.

      For my own part I’m not worried about people getting ahead, I’m instead disappointed with the failure of drivers who use these routes every single day to remember what’s going to happen next, creating needless drama and contributing to massive backups. When I bother with the freeway I find it easier to leave plenty of room for merging traffic, even (perhaps especially) the inappropriately alpha type.

      For people living in town the freeway is largely useless in any case, particularly if one is trying to keep to a schedule or avoid planning in large time buffers that may or may not be used up. Too much uncertainty in arrival times, too few ways to escape when the thing turns into a giant metal and concrete metaphor for crappy public policy.

      1. Doug Bostrom

        Replying to myself lest I create misunderstanding: please let’s -not- try adding lanes through the downtown bottleneck. As a former exile to Atlanta I can assure everybody here that more concrete is not a solution. One little fender-bender can and routinely does bring Atlanta’s 16 lane “downtown connector” to a virtual halt, same as if it were two lanes.

  5. Karl Johnson

    There would have to be some sort effective of sound mitigation done for this to work. It is very unpleasant to ride next to highway traffic mostly due to the noise. If the noise issue isn’t addressed, many people won’t end up using this facility.

    “The noise problem from the express lanes is due mostly to the sound of vehicles bouncing off the deck above and down onto homes and streets nearby. ”

    I disagree. What you stated is what makes the noise particularly bad at this location, but I’ve often ridden next to two lane highways and even with a wide shoulder and only one lane of traffic each direction the noise is a serious detraction and gets highly aggravating after a short period of time. Freeway noise is even worse, and should be mitigated along the entire route of I-5 that would end up with a bike lane beside it.

  6. merlin

    Why don’t we start with a Fun on the Freeway walk/bike only event on the Express Lanes? Liven it up by having food trucks set up before the road closes, live music on the bridge, games and dances etc. Just close the whole thing down for a day and party. It would be so glorious nobody would want to put cars back on it!

    1. I love this idea. The best part is, it could happen, and soon! It would take a lot of work, but I think you’re on to something.

    2. RossB

      They did that (and I participated) a long time ago. It was the original route for “Bicycle Sunday”. It was fun, but as a kid, I don’t remember too much, other than it was really weird to ride a bike on a freeway. As an adult, I would enjoy the weirdness even more.

    3. Karl Johnson

      I too, think this is a great idea! We should make this happen! It’d be really neat to be able to cycle on this one day a year. Maybe have a little festival with booths and food trucks set up in some areas.

  7. Takin’ er easy

    Although I have easy access to the express lanes at 65th, I doubt that I’d ever ride an express-lane bike trail. One of the advantages of riding a bike is being IN the world I’m riding through, enjoying the sights, sounds and interactions with the city. Riding an expressway trail would be boring and sterile, about as interesting as driving on the freeway. I’ve experienced the traffic din riding on the I-90 trail. It truly sucks, but it does have the advantage of keeping me from falling asleep at the wheel from boredom. For those who value speed over beauty, I say go for it. For me, taking longer on local streets is a much better deal.

    1. Doug Bostrom

      Good point about being in the world!

      On the other hand, think of the view from the bridge.

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        It’s all about options. Sometimes you need the local, sometimes you need the express.

    2. RTK

      The national time trial championships in 1994 were held on the I-5 express lanes on an out and back course. Not a real friendly place to be even with all traffic shut down. The road surface if very rough . It was very noisy off the bridge at the locations where you are between north bound and south bound regular lanes at similar grade. You are surrounded by concrete and lots of fast moving vehicles in the regular lanes. Tom points out there is a need sometime to get between places quickly on a bike, but in this case you’d be giving up a lot to do it.

  8. Jeffrey J. Early

    Sounds great, where do I sign? And, seriously, what would it take to get to the next step on an idea like this?

  9. Doug Bostrom

    Thinking about this further, perhaps before tackling the expressways it would be good to add some bike/pedestrians crossings of I-5 itself? The freeway is a serious impediment as it stands now.

    Subject for another discussion, I suppose.

    1. JohnS

      There are several proposals floating around already, Doug. The one that seems most likely to happen anytime soon is a crossing at the future Northgate light rail station (across to North Seattle Community College); that one has a joint City/Sound Transit agreement and some (though not enough) funding committed.

  10. Alex

    This would be great from 65th/45th to Roanoke, to mitigate the hill. Biking, however, should divert from the noisy main road as much as possible. I would not want to ride into downtown under the freeway. A good lane/trail by lake union, taking advantage of a smooth hill descent (or climb for returning North), would be preferable.

    Rejigging the lane configurations all throughout I-5 to accommodate two way transit and HOV (3+) would be great. To reflect the comments above, removing the “exit-only” lanes, collector-distributor nightmare, and left-hand merges would do wonders, but to fix that disaster would cost more than the deep-bore tunnel.

  11. […] Seattle Bike Blog envisions an I-5 Express Trail. […]

  12. Tim

    That’s pretty funny that the directions avoid “major arterial streets that are not comfortable or appealing to most people” and yet routes you down Roosevelt through the U-District. Meanwhile, it skips past Eastlake in SLU, which comparatively is much much calmer.

    I can do the ride from Northgate to Pioneer square (Roosevelt, Eastlake, Stewart, 2nd Ave Suicide Lane) in about a half hour. And I would recommend riding with traffic on 2nd.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      The map route was just a quick estimation of street routes using google for the point of illustration. That’s not actually the route I’d recommend exactly.

    2. Karl Johnson

      “I can do the ride from Northgate to Pioneer square (Roosevelt, Eastlake, Stewart, 2nd Ave Suicide Lane) in about a half hour.”

      That seems exceptionally fast to me. I ride everyday from Greenwood (~86th & Phinney) to either SCCC or a hospital on 1st Hill and it takes me nearly an hour to get to 1st Hill. I know I’m not particularly fast, but I’m also not terribly slow.

      You may be able to get from Northgate to Pioneer Square in half an hour, but that shouldn’t be the benchmark for an average speed.

      BTW, I ride in traffic most of the time (I use bike lanes part of the time when they are present) and run some stop signs. Technique wouldn’t make me any faster.

      1. Tim

        Alright, I’ll admit, that time is via electric. But still, there’s no reason to detour along the water in Eastlake.

      2. Karl Johnson

        “Eastlake to Stewart. The map in the post suggests Eastlake to Roanoake to Fairview to Mercer to 9th to Bell to 5th to Stewart. It’s an artificially inflated estimate with too many turns.”

        Well that was confusing! The above doesn’t really jibe with “there’s no reason to detour along the water in Eastlake.” Sounds like you ride along the water along Eastlake until you get to Stewart, no?

      3. Tim

        You’re confusing Eastlake with Fairview. Fairview runs along the water; Eastlake doesn’t. See this map–there are only two turns on this shorter, faster, more direct route.

    3. Karl Johnson

      “Alright, I’ll admit, that time is via electric.”

      Uh huh.

      “But still, there’s no reason to detour along the water in Eastlake.”

      As opposed to what? You’re going from Northgate to Pioneer Square, you have to go around Lake Union, what is the more direct route?

      1. Tim

        “But still, there’s no reason to detour along the water in Eastlake.”

        As opposed to what? You’re going from Northgate to Pioneer Square, you have to go around Lake Union, what is the more direct route?

        Eastlake to Stewart. The map in the post suggests Eastlake to Roanoake to Fairview to Mercer to 9th to Bell to 5th to Stewart. It’s an artificially inflated estimate with too many turns.

        From the south end of the U Bridge to 2nd & Yesler, Google Maps suggests Boyleston (30 min, 4.0mi). The wonky turn map is 31 min, 4.5mi. Eastlake to Stewart is 27 min, 3.9mi.

      2. RossB

        That still sounds icky and time consuming. This means you pretty much eliminate the half-ass biker (like me) who prefers a smooth, less tiring ride. The freeway route would provide that. It would be magnificent. Whether it is worth the money, or could be done given the competing interests is a different story. I’m not sure if you could move more people along that lane if it was dedicated to bikes or not. But my guess is that you would get a lot more people to ride to a downtown destination with that road than just about any current road combination.

  13. Alex Broner

    For what it’s worth, “highway purposes” doesn’t even mean just highways. This counter-intuitive conclusion was reached through the radical act of actually reading the 18th Amendment to the Washington State Constitution.

    More here:

  14. Andres Salomon

    I know we’re talking about I-5 here, but just out of curiosity… Has anyone imagined what a bike trail that followed the Link Light Rail line would be like? We have that in SODO for a mile; I sure to wish it went further, including into tunnels. I have no idea if Sound Transit made their tunnels wide enough for something like that (I have my doubts), but I can dream. :)

    1. Tim

      That would be terrible, because much like the line itself it has an unnecessary detour through South Seattle instead of being a straight shot to where it needs to go.

    2. RossB

      I think the expectation is that folks will walk their bikes onto the train (which is much easier than dealing with the bike rack on a bus). This might not be ideal, but it will work. I don’t think there will be any accommodation for any bikes on the underground part of the line. The above ground line is a different matter. Unfortunately the Link Light Rail seems to be underground on the most interesting part of the trip (for me).

  15. I just came across this post again. Shame the politicians aren’t interested.

  16. Temblor

    We can not close down more car lanes, that is insane. people paid taxs for cars for those roads. We need to create bike paths along the side & under I-5.
    8th NE and use the green area along East side of I-5 between 50th and Burke Gilman trail. Best bet. We need to build alternative path ways instead of pissing on the tax payers who built roads for cars for the last 100 years. We need new Paths!

  17. […] (legally) is a rare opportunity. Hey, maybe once people get a taste they’ll want to support my I-5 Express Trail idea. A blogger can […]

  18. […] the I-5 Express Trail is not real (yet), the only options for people on foot or bike trying to cross the Ship Canal Trail are the Montlake […]

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