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Downtown streetcar plans don’t include safe bikeway

first-ave-streetcar-ROW-650x373Plans for the City Center Connector streetcar do not currently include a safe bike facility.

Analysis of the options for a streetcar through downtown to connect the South Lake Union and First Hill lines has settled on First Avenue as the best option both for speed and ridership.

As advertised on this site, streetcar planners are holding an open house Tuesday from 5–7 at Pike Place Market in the Elliott Bay Room (3rd floor, enter near La Vaca and take elevator). Remarks by planners and Mayor Mike McGinn at 5:30.

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If the streetcar operated in its own exclusive lanes, it could make this trip from Jackson to Westlake in just over 6 minutes. If it operates in shared lanes, the trip would take about 12 minutes, studies suggest.

It appears that the 1st Avenue option is the best for the streetcar and for usability. But what about all the people trying to bike on the destination-packed street? Current plans do not include a bike facility.

In fact, the lack of existing or planned bike facilities on 1st was seen as a positive for selecting the street for the streetcar route instead of a couplet on 4th and 5th Avenues, according to the Tier 1 report. Indeed, the draft Bike Master Plan includes bikeways on 2nd, 4th and 5th Avenues downtown.

But this is looking at things all wrong. Once we put a streetcar on 1st, the street will immediately become a high priority for a safe bikeway because of the danger posed by the tracks. Lots of people bike on 1st Avenue, and the relative lack of driveways and through-streets make the west side of 1st an ideal place for a two-way bikeway.

The issue becomes even more complicated when you consider a streetcar in exclusive lanes. So let’s look at each option.

Mixed Traffic Streetcar

If a mixed traffic option is chosen, the city could definitely include a safe bikeway in the plans. It could maybe look something like this (made using StreetMix):

1st-ave-streetcar-3Between stops, the design could add a center turn lane, right turn lane, lane of parking or whatever is most desired:

1st-ave-streetcar-between-stops-11st-ave-streetcar-between-stops-right-turnIn a mixed traffic design, including a bikeway could dramatically increase bike safety, improve access to businesses and destinations along 1st Ave and make it safer to cross the street on foot.

Exclusive Streetcar

If the much faster “exclusive streetcar” option is chosen, however, finding space for a bikeway becomes a whole lot more difficult. At stops, there is only room for a platform, two streetcar-only lanes and two travel lanes. Bike lanes could fit between stops, but it’s difficult to imagine how such lanes would work and be truly safe.

SEATTLE CC Tier 1 Report-excl

Keep in mind that I’m a journalist, not a traffic engineer, but the only way I could see a truly safe bikeway and an exclusive streetcar both fitting on 1st Ave would be for the street to become a one-way. I have yet to hear this mentioned as an option but maybe it could look something like this:

1st-ave-streetcar-between-stops-right-turn-remThis is a difficult decision. Seattle desperately needs better and faster transit, and the appeal of cutting the cross-downtown travel time down to six minutes is huge.

But Seattle also needs better and safer bike routes, and safety for people on bikes and on foot should be our top transportation priority. Though all plans shown so far avoid placing the tracks in the curb lane (a dangerous mistake made in the design of the South Lake Union Streetcar), building a streetcar on First Avenue without a bikeway could make the street more dangerous for people on bikes than it is today.

What do you think? Should the city be considering another downtown streetcar that does not include a safe bikeway?

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39 responses to “Downtown streetcar plans don’t include safe bikeway”

  1. Peri Hartman

    Ok, I hate going first but.

    Currently, even at the best of times, traffic moves pretty slowly on 1st Ave, at least between Jackson and Virginia. Is there any reason to believe that’s going to change much in the future? I support a design with dedicated trolley lines, one mixed use traffic lane in each direction, with parking and turn lanes taking the remaining width.

    2nd and 4th both have more room for vehicle traffic and cycle traffic. Let’s encourage through (and faster) traffic to go there. I would much rather put the political and physical effort into getting really good cycle tracks (or whatever) on 2nd and 4th than get a compromise solution on 1st and maybe nothing good on 2nd and 4th. On paper, compromises look good but in reality they don’t serve anyone very well.

    In addition, there’s 3rd which is also an excellent option for cycling – it is mostly busses and it’s the flattest route through downtown.

    In short, let 1st be mixed vehicles and cycles.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Well, the state is planning to build two highways along the waterfront. But unfortunately, they are likely to increase traffic downtown.

      I’m not sure a 1st Ave cycle track is really a compromise. 1st has more high demand destinations than 2nd. And really, my perfect world includes bikeways on both (though I understand we don’t like in my perfect world).

      Truth is, if they choose to go with the exclusive streetcar option, I wont be crushed if a bikeway is not included (the one-way street option is awesome, but I understand how big the pushback would be). But if they go with a mixed option, I’d say the bikeway is worth fighting for.

      This might actually be a good argument for them to choose the exclusive streetcar option: Get more bike folks to support it.

      1. Charles B

        If the 1st ave streetcar is not dedicated, its not worth building at all. 1st ave is much much more crowded than Broadway is on game days and the streetcars will not move at all if its not dedicated. Unlike on Broadway we have a lot of good options nearby (2nd and 4th as suggested above). I personally want to see those made correctly and made to connect easily to the existing bike lanes planned (imagine running down westlake and switching to a clean connection to 4th or 2nd.. so many more people would feel empowered to come downtown on bicycles if that were to come into being).

      2. Ints

        From my commute experience, most of the downtown riding I did and saw was mainly commute riders. I understand that there are more “destinations” along 1st AV but it would be enlightening to me at least how exactly bike use functions downtown, both now and in the future with PSBS up and running. How much use will downtown improvements get from resident commuters, how much from resident bike share, and how much from tourist or visitor bikes share? Are weekday commute times the high traffic times for cycling or is it local riding outside of the commute windows, and how is that going to change with PSBS online? It seems that sometimes infrastructure gets built that doesn’t really reflect how cyclists are using the road that gets the improvements and any improvements that do go in need to work well from the get to.

      3. mike archambault

        At least one councilmember is talking about a one-way 1st Ave (see question 3):
        I usually frown at one-way streets because they tend to encourage high speeds and hurt business accessibility. But when the tradeoff is getting a bikeway, I could probably be convinced. :)

      4. Tom Fucoloro

        Wow! I didn’t see that Sally and I are already on the same page. Thanks for the link.

        And yeah, one-way streets that have two or more lanes are dangerous/encourage speeding. But with only one lane with turn lanes here and there, they aren’t so bad.

      5. Charles B

        Yeah, Sally also suggested a single lane streetcar for this section. That’s really a nonstarter for what they are planning for this corridor. They are talking about combined 5 minute frequency down that corridor in both directions which I can’t imagine working with a single line of rail, even with bypass segments.

        That idea only works if you think of this as a substitute waterfront car, and that’s not what they are trying to build here.

        Don’t get me wrong, I would like to see bicycles on this street eventually, but I think we need to do the rail first and convert the vehicle lanes later, after the city becomes more accustomed to using transit.

        In the mean time we need to focus a lot of attention on what gets built on 2nd and 4th to make sure it connects to westlake and other existing bicycle infrastructure cleanly so we can actually get around on these bicycle lanes.

        Disconnected random segments of bicycle tracks/lane are not going to help the users these are suppose to be supporting (i.e. users who are not comfortable taking the lane).

      6. Peri Hartman

        Whoa, hold on! The waterfront is a high priority cycle route. Many riders going to Ballard or Magnolia currently use the waterfront. We could try to make them climb the Broad Street hill to 1st Ave but that’s likely to be unpopular. Relegating them to a sidewalk full of strolling tourists isn’t an option either.

        Currently the vehicle lanes work pretty well. Not sure how that will pan out once the tunnel is finished and traffic volumes increase on the waterfront.

      7. Charles B

        @Peri Hartman

        Don’t worry, nearly all versions of the waterfront plans I have seen have a cycle track. There will be one down there for sure. We can’t expect everyone to go down to the waterfront to get through downtown though, and that is also not a route that connects well with westlake, so we will need multiple routes.

  2. Anon

    Keep in mind that, unlike with the SLU Streetcar alignment on Westlake, the 1st Ave tracks will be in the center of the roadway. So bikes traveling in the outside lanes won’t have to worry about getting caught in tracks (see the First Hill Streetcar track alignment on Jackson). Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see a cycle track on 1st Ave. But, with the streetcar alignment and elimination of SR99 ramps likely calming traffic compared with existing conditions , it’s going to be hard to justify a cycle track on 1st Ave, in addition to the two that are planned for 2nd Ave and surface Alaskan Way.

    1. Charles B


      Yep, try riding down Jackson sometime. Its not a big deal to ride on the edges of the road, even in the construction.

      We need to focus on 2nd ave option (and make sure it has good connections to other cycle tracks!), its going to be the one we really need for solid bicycle infrastructure.

  3. […] The issue becomes even more complicated when you consider a streetcar in exclusive lanes. – by Tom Fucoloro via Seattle Bike Blog […]

  4. daihard

    I agree with those who say a cycle track on 1st Ave. would not be of utmost importance. I would personally be happier if we had a dedicated bike lane on 5th as that’s my commute route. Ideally, I would like a bike lane like the one on Dexter, equipped with bus stop islands. Buses that cut me off and stop right in front of me are a major annoying factor for me on my morning commute.

    1. Gary

      I use 5th Ave to get out of town some days as well. From about Stewart Street to Columbia it’s a terrible place to ride. I often cycle the sidewalks just to stay alive.

      A cycle track/lane would be great but as it’s currently laned there is no room, unless we remove a lane for cars. And what makes it terrible for bicycles is that the traffic is so backed up you can’t ride in traffic, as there is no shoulder to pass the parked and waiting traffic and if you wait in traffic you might as well walk on the sidewalk…

      Once past the King County Admin building it opens right up. it’s those cars waiting to get on the freeway that jigger the road.

  5. Brian

    For what it’s worth, I think it’s very shortsighted to build infrastructure like this without thinking about how cyclists will use the right of way. Mixing bike share with city traffic on First is a nonstarter. We owe it to our kids to do this right.

  6. William C Bonner

    I currently live at Harbor Steps, between First and Western. I’m used to walking down first from Pike and pine and often during rush hour being able to walk several blocks faster than the vehicles are moving. I just can’t see first as being a good option for putting a street car.

    What I really want to know is why the street car plan doesn’t have a solution that runs along the waterfront as part of the viaduct removal project. Having a street car running up to lower Queen Ann on the west side of Seattle Center would be nice, and considering the transit tunnel on 3rd as linking the lines together instead of trying to have lines cross at street level.

    1. Breadbaker

      The idea here is to link the First Hill streetcar with the South Lake Union one. This makes sense for maintenance and schedule purposes. Heading off in another direction is a different project. The waterfront is a dead end.

      1. Gary

        “The waterfront is dead” …. seriously? Those condos down by Bell Street are some of the best view rentals around.

        Also we regularlly get a ton of tourists via those cruise ships, plus riders from the Ferries. The old waterfront street car had it’s problems being single tracked but the route was right.

      2. William C Bonner

        I think he meant that pushing for a waterfront trolley was a dead end, and not that the waterfront itself was dead.

    2. Gary

      The powers that be have nixed the waterfront street car because it’s too close to 1st Ave to have both collect Federal money. Even though they would serve different areas and there is a 300 ft cliff between them, somehow in Federal planning world, they are too close.

      It makes me mad to even write about it, because we had a functioning waterfront street car, we are gaining yards more space with the desctruction of the viaduct and yet we are told “there isn’t room” when in actuallity, it’s this 1st Ave route which is crowding out the waterfront.

      1. William C Bonner

        I’ve always thought that first avenue traffic would move better if all of the pedestrian signals between Pike Place and Pioneer Square were set to scramble walk, or all way cross. Then if the majority of the pedestrians didn’t cross against the signals, the vehicles trying to turn right or left would have a much better chance of getting out of the way of the vehicles going straight.

        I know that there would still be problems turning left, but the number of times I’ve seen traffic stalled because pedestrians are stopping cars from turning left and right at the same time is huge.

        I biked more in the years I lived in downtown Bellevue than I have since I moved to downtown Seattle. I think that was just because I could get out of downtown onto the trail system much quicker there. It’s probably also because so much more is within walking distance for me here. In Bellevue I biked for recreation and exercise while here, the initial street crossings are more intimidating.

  7. Allan

    I don’t know a lot about all this bike planning, I just know what I want which is safe routes to get across Seattle without mixing with cars. I suppose that is just a dream and won’t ever happen. We need long distance safe routes, not just travel from one patch to another.

  8. Slower is Safer

    I would suggest removing cars from 1st entirely, since there isn’t space for all. If it were dedicated to streetcars exclusively in the center lanes, the curb lanes could be used for expanded sidewalks and safe bikeways. It has been demonstrated in other cities that making safe places for people to walk, bike and stay (in this case, outdoor seating areas) are of a great economic benefit to a street. See Danish architect Jan Gehl’s books and blog.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I would bet 2nd Ave could absorb a lot of the southbound traffic, but there probably is a need for at least one northbound lane on 1st :-)

      1. Slower is Safer

        My concern with adding a single traffic lane is the idling from the presumed slow line of traffic there and the resultant pollution – peds and bicyclists would be directly exposed to it, not to mention the adjacent residents and business owners. Wouldn’t air free of these toxins be the best thing for livability along this street?

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        I would love to see a car-free 1st Ave. Didn’t mean to shoot your idea down! Think big! I love it.

        I’m guessing most people would see even the one-lane option as pie-in-the-sky, and to be clear, I totally made that up as an option (from what I can tell, planners haven’t been considering it).

      3. Slower is Safer

        We have a crisis of light here in Seattle during the wintertime and cloudy days. If 27% of our land is being used as roads, then it seems to me that we need more of this land for people to be out walking/biking and getting light. First Avenue runs north-south and still has many lower buildings on either side, which means exposure to light in the winter. We could be taking advantage of it, rather than dodging street trees and walking in the shadows of buildings. Here are some before and after photos from conversions elsewhere: http://assemblepapers.com.au/2013/06/13/cities-for-people-jan-gehl/

    2. daihard

      I’m not sure I like the idea of 2nd Ave. getting more vehicular traffic. I’d much rather be able to use the current bike lane on 2nd Ave. safely than go one block down to 1st Ave for a better bike lane. Same for 4th Ave.

  9. Eric

    This is another example of why Ed Murray has been pushing for integrated transportation planning. You think bikes get short changed in planning, just try and advocate for freight movement, carpools, or vanpools. Planning transportation through mode-specific planning activities like the city now does produces terrible results and needless fights.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      The master plans all talk to each other and refer to each other. Freight groups have had input on the bike plan, and bike folks will have input on the freight plan. Same goes for the transit and pedestrian plans.

      I don’t buy that we need another plan. Seattle has spent too many years making plans already. We need to actually build the stuff!

  10. Gordon

    The real problem is that only 34% of people commuting downtown drive alone, and yet at least 80% of the public ROW downtown is prioritized for driving alone. Let’s get carpools, vanpools, buses, streetcars, bikes, and even freight out of this traffic with more dedicated lanes for transit/freight and a network of safe facilities for people biking. Pedestrian improvements would also be welcome. 34% of commuters are taking up 80%+ of our public space downtown – let’s not fight for table scraps, let’s rebalance this situation equitably.

    Reference for mode split: http://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2013/02/19/only-one-third-of-downtown-commuters-drive-alone-to-work/

  11. AiliL

    Good topic! I ride from SLU to West Seattle pretty much every weekday all year and am very familiar with the streets from the Waterfront to 5th Ave.

    I agree with what was said above, that unless the streetcar has dedicated tracks, traffic in the evenings, and lord knows during any event, will stop the streetcar dead (like it did this afternoon at Westlake as school bus traffic was blocking the tracks and SPD had to be called out to make sure the buses didn’t stop on the tracks any longer). It won’t work otherwise but I have no hope SDOT will even contemplate dedicated tracks.

    That said, 1st Ave is a great bike route – there’s less high-speed traffic (like on second) and it’s a nice downhill with less cross streets on the west side. It’s already pedestrian friendly and there’s lots of places to go. I rarely use 2nd Ave now due to motorized traffic movements and the horrible bike lane. I may use it if there’s a cycle track and an easy transition to the west, to the waterfront and the E. Marginal bike route. This is an essential connection point for cyclists who travel to/from the south. SDOT has not been successful so far (as was also pointed out above) in making bike route *connections* which would be so, so important here.

    The waterfront is an ok route, but due to WADOT planning, it’s not bike friendly at all, and sometimes dangerous. I take it often (mixing it up between 1st and waterfront) but ride very defensively and take the lane frequently. This area will be even worse coming up in January as it’s when (if I remember right) the viaduct is due to close (at least for a while?). The giant freeway that will be in it’s place will have a planned cycle track, not unlike that found at Alki now, and may not serve as a good commuting route due to the pedestrian interference and required stops – I am hoping that there will be a way to use the street via bike but that’s dealing with a great unknown – again, a major connecting point for the cycle network seems to be missing here (there’s no good E/W routes to/from the waterfront in the new waterfront plan and Western is converted to a heavily motorized route with ‘maybe’ some sort of bike facility on the west side from what I last saw).

    Making sure cyclists have a good north/south and east/west connection south of the Pike/Pine corridor is essential and should not be left out of ANY street planning. If there is no bike route then the plan should at least identify where the nearest connection will be and how it will cross/connect to 1st and the waterfront. It seems that has been done for the streetcar, pedestrian and motorized vehicle traffic…

  12. Jeik

    What if the traffic lanes were local access only? No through traffic would be allowed, you would have to turn at each block. Then bikes could share the lane but not really be in much traffic. Just an idea, but I don’t actually think it’s the right focus for bike advocates.

    Exclusive right of way for the street car is the priority here, because it’s not worth making the investment if it doesn’t have exclusive right of way. For bikes, the priorities downtown are a 2nd ave cycle track, then better facilities on 4th, and then all other streets. It doesn’t make sense to put forth the effort for a 1st ave cycletrack.

    The plans should definitely include safe track crossing (left turns) and clear direction for where bikes should ride for now. The good news is that after these other high-priority facilities go in downtown, a cycletrack is still possible on 1st and will not be prohibited by a streetcar.

  13. I agree with Tom and AiliL. First Ave is my route of choice going southbound through downtown outside of morning rush hour. I’ve ridden it midday and tonight this week going from U District and Eastlake to West Seattle. During morning rush, 3rd Ave is great with only bus and bike and usually light timing in your favor, and ability to ride the inside lane with no turning traffic. Outside of 6-9 AM, 3rd is slower, bikes generally need to be in curb lane and there are lots of turning vehicles, so First becomes easier. 1st southbound is downhill, has few right turns, and using the curb land and riding between it and stopped up car traffic is fast and safer than 2nd or 3rd or 5th. Will be lost if a street cars have dedicated lanes as planned. We don’t need fast streetcars. We need transit that has frequent service for long hours and close-together stops in the CBD.

    1. Charles B

      The ability to ride your bike on 1st will most certainly not be lost with dedicated lanes. There will still be outer lanes for vehicles and bicycles (with sharrows). This will be little different from what we have now except the parking will go away.

      We need cycle tracks downtown, but not on every street, at least not right now. This is not a rail vs bicycle issue. We can have both!

      Some places we will have sharrows and the same situation we essentially have now and other places will have full cycle tracks (just on different, parallel streets).

  14. TTM

    There is a reason for 3rd Avenue and First Avenue to have two way traffic. The reason is for emergency equipment to get through. I think 2nd and 4th Avenue should be through streets for bicycle lanes. They are one way streets that have space for bike lanes. As for 3rd Avenue can share with buses so you can go to your downtown destination. First Avenue is also same as 3 rd Avenue. So there is not much reason for bikes to use First Avenue when you have 3rd Avenue for that purpose except riding within a couple of blocks of your destination. All streets can not be all bike routes. Also fast cars and slow bikes do not mix. Those places bikes should use bike roads and void these dangerous roads. This also true with big trucks and bikes. Freight and bikes also do not mix.

    1. AiliL

      TTM, I wish that it were that simple to put the bike routes only on 2nd and 4th. However, there need to be significant upgrades to both routes if 1st it taken out as a good bike route. Those cyclists who travel south of the city will be essentially losing good routes on both the waterfront and on 1st the way it’s looking. That’s a broad swath of no good cycle infrastructure (a casual bikeway for tourists along the waterfront is not a good option for regular commuters) for us to get N/S with looming giant increases in motorized traffic due to the viaduct closure. Those E/W connections, if cyclists are limited to getting to/from 2nd and 4th, are also problematic and would need to be addressed.

      There is really no such thing as “bike roads.” Every cyclist can use any road. Some are designated as “official” bike routes – those routes that are supposedly useful for all cyclist skill levels but unfortunately are not. Until the city improves cycling routes (as has been outlined many times on this blog) overall you will still see cyclists choosing the routes they feel more comfortable with no matter where they “route” is.

      Fast cars and bikes…are you referring to downtown? Because downtown, motorized traffic is slow. Slow speeed limits, lots of lights, traffic jams. Most often, cyclists move faster than the automobiles. And how fast is fast traffic out of downtown? The speed limits are generally max. 35 mph on roads that are bike routes. If traffic is exceeding that limit (often) then the onus is on the drivers to slow down and stop creating a safety issue for other road users, cyclists and pedestrians alike.

      Freight and bikes do and can mix. E. Marginal Way is a good example. But the infrastructure must support the mix and not create a free-for-all. Crashes do happen, mostly when one or both parties are not paying attention to road laws (not just cyclists run red lights or fail to yield by far). Bikes and freight must mix in this city. There’s no dedicated freight routes and the flattest, straightest roads (few and far between) happen to also be the best cycling routs for the same reason the freight industry likes them.

  15. Scott

    I’m all for multimodal facilities, but in this case there is already a two-way protected bike lane one block away on 2nd Avenue. Let’s not duplicate our efforts.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      People still bike on 1st because there are tons of destinations on 1st. A bike lane a block away doesn’t make it OK to make 1st Ave more dangerous. People will continue biking on 1st and will get hurt if tracks go in without a bike lane.

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