When it comes to major infrastructure barriers to cycling in Seattle, there are a select few that really stand out from the rest, such as the north section of Rainier Ave, the 520 Bridge and the Ballard Bridge. There are plenty of other big barriers, but these are the egregiously-awful ones holding back a flood of potential bicycle trips.
The Ballard Bridge is awful both for people walking and people biking. The sidewalks are barely wide enough for just one person to use, and if you have a walker or a wheelchair, well, the city owes you an apology. A low barrier separating the sidewalks from moving traffic feels more like a tripping hazard than a protective barrier, and it’s not hard to imagine yourself tumbling over it and landing in front of a fast-moving freight truck. If a second person uses the sidewalk while you are there, things can get uncomfortable and potentially dangerous fast (see photo above).
Fixing the Ballard Bridge is noted as a high priority in both the Bike and Pedestrian Master Plans. In a survey leading up to the 2007 Bike Master Plan, respondents listed the Ballard Bridge as the most requested bike facility upgrade.
For people who have been pushing to get city action on improving the Ballard Bridge for years (decades?), it is easy to feel like the city is no closer to a solution than it was in 2007 when the first Bike Master Plan recommended building a new bike/walk bridge next to the historic and people-hostile 15th Ave bridge. The city’s newest study looks at options for widening the existing sidewalks to make them more comfortable for people walking and biking, but the result does not provide a clear path forward.
The Ballard Bridge Sidewalk Widening Concept Study looks at three potential ways the existing sidewalks could be improved and tries to make a quality cost estimate for each. The good news is that most of the sidewalk segments can feasibly be widened. The bad news is that it will not come cheap, and no option would include widening of the bascule draw bridge section.
The study also looks at a high-quality trail connection at the south end of the Ballard Bridge to link to the Ship Canal Trail, which we will cover in a follow-up post (so stay tuned). That project also comes at a price. It turns out, if you build a major structure with only the movement of cars in mind, retrofitting it later to work for people is not cheap.
- Alternative 1 would essentially involve altering the concrete pillars that jut out into the sidewalk to effectively add another foot of usable width. This option would also include a railing between traffic and the sidewalk. This would cost somewhere between $21.8 – $35.8 million.
- Alternative 2 has two different options: Widening the sidewalks to six feet each and widening them to ten feet each. Because of structural work needed to make each option work and the need to redesign roadways adjacent to each approach, the six-foot option could cost between $25.6 – $39-6 million. The ten-foot option would be $33.9 – $47.9 million. The city could also do a ten-foot sidewalk on just one side for $20.2 – $34.2 million.
- Alternative 3 would just add a railing between motor vehicle traffic and the sidewalks for $3.2 million, but would not add any width to the sidewalks.
And again, no option would change the skinny sidewalks on the bascule section of the bridge. Here’s a more specific cost breakdown for each alternative:
Alternative 1 analysis suggests that it’s not really worth trying to modify the existing sidewalk. Something like $30 million just to get dramatically sub-standard sidewalks less than four and a half feet wide? That does not seem worth the investment, as the study itself notes by saying, “It was determined that this nominal increase in width was relatively ineffective.”
Likewise, the six-foot option in Alternative 2 seems like a poor investment. Six feet is simply not wide enough for two-way multi-use travel (accessible walking and biking). Sure, it would feel a mile wide to people who use the bridge today, but it’s not good enough to justify more than $30 million.
Ten feet is still below the 12-foot standard for multi-use trails, but it is on par with some other trails around town. This should be viewed as the only viable widening option studied, since the others would be essentially failing facilities the day they open.
One challenge for the ten-foot sidewalk options is that the now-wider sidewalks would hang over the edge of the roadway, interfering with truck clearance heights on the roads adjacent to the approaches. Those roads would need to be redesigned and in some cases right of way may need to be purchased.
A lower-cost option would include a ten-foot sidewalk on only one side of the bridge (probably the west side), cutting the project total down as low as $20.2 million. When combined with a potential trail connection at the south end of the bridge, this option could make sense, but it would hardly be an investment in future growth in bicycle traffic.
There are still two key options for addressing the Ballard Bridge issue that were not studied: Building an all-new bike/walk bridge nearby (what I’ll call Alternative 4) and an on-street redesign option (what I’ll call Alternative 5).
There is no doubt that building an all-new biking and walking bridge would be very expensive. But now that we know it would cost somewhere between $20 – $48 million just to get the bridge to more usable but still substandard sidewalk widths, the cost of an all-new bridge might not seem so expensive.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a good cost estimate for a new bridge option. The Northgate bike/walk bridge crossing I-5 is estimated to cost $25 million, but that bridge does not cross water and does not have to provide adequate clearance for maritime travel (which means it either needs to be super tall or have a draw bridge section of some kind). I am not an engineer, but it’s a safe bet that those elements would add quite a bit to the price tag. But would it cost much more than $48 million, the high-end estimate for the ten-foot sidewalk option?
Some in the city have also been trying to fund a Ship Canal Crossing study for a future high-capacity transit option to Ballard. It is possible that a transit crossing could include a biking and walking element, but it’s also possible that the most viable crossing would be a subway tunnel under the Ship Canal or that the best crossing ends up too far from the Ballard Bridge to really solve the problem.
On the far opposite end of the project spectrum is a very low-cost bridge redesign option: Add a bike path to the bridge deck.
Vancouver did this to the fairly similar Burrard Street Bridge in 2009. That bridge did not have a safe space for cycling, and the sidewalks were much too skinny for both biking and walking. As plans to widen that bridge’s sidewalks saw cost estimates escalate beyond $60 million (Canadian), the city opted instead to repurpose one travel lane to create space for a two-way bike path. The project only cost $1.8 million (Canadian), which included evaluation studies. Those studies showed that vehicle travel times were not significantly impacted, but the number of people biking across the bridge skyrocketed.
So, with such a great example to draw from up north, would this work in Ballard?
Unfortunately, the recent study does not analyze this option, so there are no good traffic analyses to work from to know whether and how much such a project would impact traffic flow across the Ballard Bridge. Vehicle volumes are high (54,500 per day according to SDOT data), and both southbound and northbound directions can get packed in their respective peak travel hours (southbound in mornings, northbound in evenings). Today, the bridge deck is essentially 40 feet wide divided into four ten-foot lanes. It is a major freight corridor and carries a lot of buses.
In Alternative 5, we would follow Vancouver’s experience and create a bike path in one of the existing travel lanes. This would free up the sidewalks for people walking and create a much improved and much safer space for people biking, which would be protected from motor vehicles by a barrier of some kind (the Burrard Bridge project used a jersey barrier).
Traffic analysis would be needed to determine the best design option for the other three lanes. The two obvious options are two lanes southbound with one northbound or two lanes northbound with one southbound.
But a third option could possibly include a center lane that is reversible depending on the time of day (thanks to commenter Rodney Dwyer who suggested this in a previous post). So in the morning commute it would allow southbound travel, but would switch to northbound for the evening rush. I have no idea how plausible this concept would be since I cannot think of a non-freeway example in the Seattle area. But this design is used around the world, including in, you guessed it, Vancouver. The Lion’s Gate Bridge carries 60,000 – 70,000 vehicles per day, which is 5,000 – 15,000 more than the Ballard Bridge.
So Vancouver has two examples of bridges similar enough to the Ballard Bridge that we can learn from them. I say, let’s give it a try. The Burrard Bridge change was originally a pilot project so the city could see if it would work. It did work, so they kept it.
Let’s try it in Ballard. If it fails, we can go back to the drawing board and start preliminary design work for a new bike/walk bridge. But if it works, we could save tens of millions of dollars and improve safety and access for people walking across the Ballard Bridge in a much shorter timeframe.