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Think the UW trail detour is bad? City Light work could detour Burke-Gilman into traffic

Recently-received UW trail detour map
Recently-received UW trail detour map looks more like a maze than a biking and walking route

During peak commute hours, the Burke-Gilman Trail through UW campus carries 1,200 or so people every hour. So it is more than a little bit crazy that the ever-changing detours are so confusing even regular trail users and people familiar with UW campus are getting lost along the way.

People have been frustrated by the confusing detours, but it’s not really the detour team’s fault. The problem stems from the core decision to avoid the obvious best detour option: A temporary trail on Montlake and Pacific.

Both major streets (Montlake is actually a state route) are very wide and follow the trail’s general path. And since biking and walking is vital to keep people moving through the congested area during construction work (we don’t want people ditching their bike and joining the congestion, right?), it only makes sense. Here’s the Seattle Bike Blog proposed detour trail:

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But that’s not the only big problem facing trail users this summer. In order to take advantage of UW trail work, Seattle City Light is burying extra power lines along the trail right-of-way between the substation near I-5 and UW campus. Much of the work will coincide with already-planned trail closures on campus, which is smart. But they also need to work on the section of trail between campus and I-5, and that means more trail detours. The work will be done in phases starting soon on UW campus and continuing until the end of 2014.

City Light Spokesperson Scott Thomsen said the plans, already approved, would detour people on bikes onto Pacific and NE 40th Street without a temporary trail:

The next phases will start after about eight weeks and will last for about two to three weeks each. The detour will be along NE 40th St. City Light will install ADA ramps at the intersection of 6th Avenue NE and an asphalt pathway west of the 6th Ave NE for pedestrians. Bicycles will be on the street. The detour plans are already approved by SDOT.

Here’s a map of the planned detour (see all phases in this PDF):

citylightdetourI don’t know how this got approved, but this is not acceptable. You simply cannot send people — many of them children and people brand new to biking — from a major separated trail into mixed traffic on streets like Pacific and NE 40th without creating a temporary safe facility:

Image from Google Street View
Pacific just west of NE 40th. The trail at right will be closed this summer. Image from Google Street View

I can only assume this was an oversight that will be corrected before the work begins this summer. I asked City Light and SDOT if they were totally sure they did not have plans for a temporary trail, but it appears they do not. It’s frustrating that I even need to write this post to point out that it is not OK to detour an extremely popular all-ages-and-abilities biking and walking trail into mixed traffic.

Perhaps this is the city’s chance to not only fix this detour plan, but also fix their processes so that such obviously inadequate and potentially dangerous detours are not approved in the future.

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40 responses to “Think the UW trail detour is bad? City Light work could detour Burke-Gilman into traffic”

  1. kommish

    Wow, that is a not-very-smart detour. I like your proposed detour creating a trail along Pacific and Montlake, but my guess is that the hospital is flexing some muscle to keep people out of ambulance paths and the like (not saying it’s justified, just that it’s my best guess why the more intuitive detour isn’t the one they picked).

    I’ve been taking Latona down to Northlake, then Boat, then along the back side of the hospital. There’s a little woodchip path up a hill that dumps you out on the northwest corner of the Montlake bridge, and it’s made everything much more pleasant for my commute between Fremont and Madrona. There’s one sticky spot where I have to ride through a bus bay, but there’s never anybody there. From what I can see on the maps, a Northlake detour leaves behind all the coming City Light mess as well. The road quality isn’t awesome, but the traffic is lighter.

    1. Madeleine Carlson

      I love that route! I discovered it while route planning for last year’s DRT and show it to people all the time, either in person or with a Google map link. And if you swerve around a bit you don’t even need to ride over any wood chips–there’s a paved option all the way up, though maybe your wood chippy route is less steep–some people have to walk the paved hill.

    2. CD2UW

      I used to be an EMT and brought patients to UWMC regularly if you simply dedicated a lane on the North side of the street to bikes it would not interfere with ambulance traffic.

      I agree with Tom’s proposal being better than the current reroute. In my experience as a bike commuter and EMT predictability and sightlines are the most important ways to keep things safe for everyone when transport modes mix.

  2. daihard

    The SDOT may take it seriously once we all start to take Pacific Ave and cause major traffic congestion.

    1. Josh

      As shown in the photo above, the travel lanes of Pacific are clearly not wide enough for a bicycle to share side-by-side with a motorist providing adequate passing clearance. There is, therefore, no requirement for cyclists to stay to the right on Pacific.

      If the trail is detoured onto Pacific, with no other accommodation, the volume of bicycles will control the prevailing speed of traffic on the street.

      Are SDOT and UW prepared for a de facto 15 mph speed limit on Pacific?

      Could they get ahead of the ball with, if nothing else, a posted, enforceable, temporary construction speed limit of 15 mph during the detour?

  3. Zach Shaner

    I could be wrong, but I wonder if it’s the ‘state highway’ issue, with SDOT not having the power on its own to repurpose lanes on Montlake (“SR 513”). The jurisdictional issues that arise where city roads interface with state roads prevent lots of good things from happening (think Boren/Pine bike infrastructure or an Olive/Melrose freeway bus station).

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I’m sure there is a great bureaucratic excuse why the safe biking and walking route simply can’t be done. There always is.

      1. And that bureaucratic excuse is, this is the Washington State Department of Moving Automobiles we’re talking about. You expect anything different after another Burke-Gilman closure assiduously avoided another state route?

  4. Isn’t 40th where the new cycle track is? Now that I know about this upcoming detour, it seems like SDOT put the cycle track in for this detour. Am I missing something? Routing onto such a high volume road like Pacific, though, is absurd and dangerous.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Some of 40th east of 7th Ave or so has bike lanes. But the detour I am mostly writing about it the section west of 7th, essentially between the U Bridge and a few blocks west of I-5.

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        The point is that there are plenty of options, and it shouldn’t be up to us to come up with it! Safety of trail users trumps every other concern in this detour.

  5. bill

    Do I think the UW detour is bad? Absolutely. My wife and I tried to go for a little spin on the Burke, starting at Gasworks. She is a weak and timid cyclist, and was totally freaked out by the detour. We walked both ways and she won’t be back. Down south, the Green River trail is messed up. So we have to drive ever farther to find a comfortable place for her to ride. Someday I hope she is stronger and gains the confidence to ride in less controlled environments. But with these ill-considered detours I do not see that day coming soon.

    I’ve ridden kommish’s path behind the hospital. The wood chip/mud section is a no-go for many bicycles. If it were graded better and paved it could be a nice way to go.

    Some of my favorite moments on the Burke is cruising along high above all the parked traffic on Montlake. The Burke carries 1200 people per hour. How many people in cars does Montlake carry? Perhaps the “highest and best use” of Montlake is bicycles.

    1. kommish

      I usually walk it, bill – since it’s only about 20 feet long, then you’re back on flat pavement. And there is the paved trail that curves along parallel to the 20 feet of woodchips, but that’s where the walkers usually go, so I take the other way.

    2. Breadbaker

      With the Green River Trail in its current condition, I commend your wife to the Cedar River Trail. There’s pretty much clear right of way (which the Green River Trail lacks just south of 212th) and it’s a pretty ride.

    3. Law Abider


      Not sure if your last three sentences are serious or not. Montlake is designed to probably carry about 1500 cars per hour per lane. And I’m sure during peak, it’s pretty darn close to that, although a quick search didn’t turn up any traffic counts.

      I don’t doubt that during the summer, during a peak hour, the Burke gets close to 1200 people per hour (emphasis on people), but that rate is not sustained throughout the day (same with Montlake). ST, SDOT and WSDOT clearly need to determine a better detour than the above quagmire, but believe me, the “highest and best use” of Montlake is not bicycles.

      1. Andy

        I’m sure there’s more recent data available somewhere, but in the most recent SDOT traffic report that I have handy (2011) the AWDT (daily average weekday traffic) for Montlake north of Pacific is 46,000. There’s no mention of a significant directional bias (over the course of the whole day), so each lane is serving on average ~11,500 vehicles.

        From a traffic impact analysis standpoint, you need to consider the extent of impact (partially a function of the viability of alternate routes and the extent to which capacity is reduced) to parties in both cases. I’m not suggesting that an analysis would show that taking a lane would have a lower impact, but I am pretty comfortable saying that the analysis should have been conducted before it was ruled out, and that it would go a long way to keeping cyclists and pedestrians from feeling like second class citizens to know that an effort was made to consider the impact to them.

  6. Jez

    I wish cyclist would get some help during construction areas!

    Why send us (heading east) a block downhill for a block east, then make us climb, in traffic, 2 blocks uphill instead of cleaning the path up and allow us to go straight to 40th (marked as pedestrian/cyclist please walk bikes — and I’ll walk my bike when I see drivers walk their cars!)? I’m not out for a morning pedal, I’m commuting to work/home.

    I could SLOW TRAFFIC on 45th to a crawl and use 7th/8th (one way streets). oh wait, traffic is already at a crawl on 45th during commute hours ;)

  7. Matthew Snyder

    Of all of the crappy options, I like the alternative of detouring south on Latona to Northlake, where the right of way is really wide. Get rid of the parking along Northlake, which is mostly used by UW commuters trying to park for free or oversized RVs. You could build a temporary greenway without giving up a traffic lane. Then, as others have suggested, you can continue on Boat St behind the hospital to the Montlake bridge.

    This seems like an opportunity for some crowd-sourced detour maps and unofficial detour signage.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I was waiting for a table at Voula’s a couple weeks ago and was marveling at how insanely wide Northlake Way is there. While I was watching, someone pulling out of a parking spot nearly crashed into the only other car on that giant street. It would be comical if it weren’t so dangerous.

      Seems like a great opportunity for a permanent road safety project, and this detour is a good excuse to do it now.

      1. Matthew Snyder

        They’d also need to do some repaving, because the pavement along much of that route is pretty awful. Some of Northlake was repaved recently, but only stretches of it, and the section near Ivar’s is still pretty darn sketchy. But this way can’t be any worse than the current plans you outline above.

        There are few residences down along that stretch of Northlake, but as with Westlake, there’s a bunch of marine industry stuff along the water (although we’re not talking about a particularly long stretch of Northlake). SDOT would likely face pushback from people with boat trailers on their cars who feel ownership over the enormous parking strip, and maybe it’s a question of not wanting to open up another front in the war on cars-stashed-for-free-while-doing-boat-stuff.

      2. kommish

        I agree about the need to repave Northlake. And I think if it were to be an official detour, Latona probably isn’t the best drop from the trail to Northlake because Dunn Lumber is on Latona and there’s usually some big vehicles moving around in that block. I’d start the detour a little farther back, at one of the cross streets that only crosses the BGT with no adjacent businesses.

  8. Andy

    Is westbound NE Pacific Place closed already for construction activity?

    1. Dan

      Yes, it is closed, and will be until some time next year. There is a (car) detour by continuing south on Montlake Blvd NE and making a right on NE Pacific St.

      1. Andy


        Was thinking about the actual lane-choice logistics of a Pacific->Montlake detour. I’m not sure how you can do it without taking a lane on NE Pacific Place, and I really don’t see taking the eastbound lane being a viable option.

        Any other configuration of the trail detour is going to be a really ugly transition from Pacific to Montlake, which would probably be (hard to imagine) even less comfortable than the current detour.

  9. Andy

    The clear solution is to close Eastbound Pacific Street from Latona to NE 40th, and eastbound NE 40th from Pacific to 7th. Detour the cars – they have a multitude of viable routes. Give the whole eastbound lane to the normal Burke-Gilman traffic. This wouldn’t impact any access to homes or businesses (they’re all on the westbound side of the street).

    1. Andy

      According to SDOT’s Traffic Control Manual:

      “Proposals to close a bike lane shall demonstrate that impacts cannot
      be reasonably avoided through alternative construction methods, that the facility
      cannot be reasonably relocated through reassignment of vehicle lanes or other
      existing facilities, that the duration and extent of impacts has been minimized,
      and that an adequate detour has been provided.” (page 41, Bicycle Access)

      Sounds like reassignment of vehicle lanes is a recommended solution.

      “Determination to close a bicycle facility and to provide a well-signed detour route
      will include consideration of the needs of all bicyclists who use the bicycle facility
      under normal conditions, including daily commuters as well as recreational and
      novice bicyclists.” (page 42)

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        Thanks for the citation! Wonder where in the city process this was dropped. I hope adequate process changes are made so it doesn’t happen again.

    2. Tom Fucoloro

      I agree. In fact, eastbound traffic on Pacific could detour down to Northlake Way for a couple blocks, then connect back to 40th underneath I-5 (6th Ave NE). 40th easily has space for two travel lanes and a safe bikeway/trail on the south side between Pacific and 7th Ave NE.

      So it would look something like this: https://www.google.com/maps/ms?msid=209027894998262833969.0004fa7f4aa0324160cb8&msa=0

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        To illustrate, 40th between Pacific and that crazy multi-way intersection at 7th Ave NE could look like this (measurements approximate): http://streetmix.net/seabikeblog/25/ne-40th-btwn-pacific-and-7th-ave-ne

      2. Skylar

        I’ve been emailing SDOT and UW Commuter Services about that part of 40th for a while now. UW agrees it’s an awful road for everyone (bikes, pedestrians, and drivers) but SDOT has been silent.

        I tend to take the 40th St stub on Lincoln Way, then get back on 40th, avoiding the entire trail. When that’s not an option, Northlake to 40th isn’t so bad but it does require assertive and vigilent riding.

  10. Josh

    Meanwhile, today’s update from SDOT – trail traffic detoured onto 40th starting today….

    A portion of the trail at the Mercer Court Apartments will close for this week

    The University of Washington will close a portion of the Burke-Gilman Trail near the Mercer Court Apartments to upgrade IT infrastructure running adjacent to the trail. Luckily, this closure is only anticipated to last one week! Closures begin today, Tuesday, May 27 and last through Friday, May 30. During this closure, detour signs will take trail users onto NE 40th Street and Cowlitz Road NE.

  11. Gordon

    N 40th has a proposed bike lanes in the new BMP map. http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/docs/bmp/apr14/NE_Sector.pdf
    Perhaps City Light should pay to install this small segment of it before they start construction.

    NE Pacific St could temporarily become a one way eastbound street, with a two way protected bike lane delineated by rentable water filled jersey barriers (http://www.plasticjersey.com/products/water_filled_barriers.html).

    My quick 2 cents.

    1. Andy

      What’s the benefit of making it one way eastbound as opposed to one way westbound? Wouldn’t it be better to have the two-way track in the eastbound lane so that nobody has to cross a lane of traffic to access the detour route, and to avoid blocking access to homes along Pacific?

      I love the idea of using jersey barriers to make it a really comfortable facility – particularly important for the broad range of users who will be impacted by the detour.

      1. Gordon

        Yes you’re right, a one way Westbound would be better for people biking so that the protected bike lane would be on the south side. That would also preserve access to the gravel parking along the side of the street.

  12. Todd

    Yeah, I pretty much just say ‘screw it’ and ride my bike to the Montlake bus station now and throw it on the bus.

  13. Jessica

    I also pretty much say “screw it” and bike 45th St from Wallingford through the U District and down 22nd Ave to catch the Burke Gilman just south of Ravenna Park rather than dealing with the ever-changing detour.
    Coming back up the 22nd Ave hill is not as bad as I expected. 45th St seems fine in good weather- I would be less inclined to ride it after dark or in the rain when I would be less visible to drivers.

  14. […] ongoing Seattle City Light project has moved to its next phase, closing a section of the Burke-Gilman Trail passing underneath the […]

  15. Sean P.

    Tom–I realize I’m posting a question in an old story, but I’m wondering if there has been any update from City Light or UW about this project. The article above and the links I found from City Light state the project should be done around 12/31/14, which is, obviously, in the past.

  16. […] has changed its mind and will create a temporary trail detour on NE Pacific and NE 40th Streets. As we reported previously, the original plan was to just detour trail users into the general traffic lanes on these sometimes […]

  17. […] this is just the latest case of such an oversight (remember the Wallingford fiasco?). There is no standard practice at the city for making sure a comparably-safe detour is provided […]

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