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Rethinking Seattle’s Freeways: Mr. Inslee, tear down this Aurora wall

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 4.29.59 PMWhat if Bertha never finishes the SR 99 highway tunnel?

What if SR 99 doesn’t need to be a freeway-style highway through downtown at all?

And what if that’s true for the whole city, too?

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In other words, what if we tear down that awful Aurora Ave median wall once and for all?

I’m talking about the freedom for Fremont and Wallingford to be together once again, the freedom for Phinney Ridge residents to once again have easy access to Green Lake, the freedom for businesses on Aurora to flourish now that their walk zones have doubled, and, yes, the freedom for people driving on Aurora to finally, at long last, make a left turn.

Mr. Inslee, tear down this Aurora wall!

Forget all about the sunk costs of the tunnel. Step back, take a deep breath, and reassess the situation. Because without a freeway downtown, we could bring those benefits all the way up the highway. Aurora could become what it should have been all along: A busy boulevard. A center of regional commerce and movement. An attraction, not a barrier.

Aurora is not a freeway. It is a commercial highway through dense neighborhoods with a 1930s-vintage freeway (then called a “speedway”) sloppily pasted on top of it. The basic design of the highway is so outdated it comes from an era when state leaders also thought it wise to name it the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway. Yes, really. So, you know, those dudes made several questionable decisions that could use some revising.

Confederacy-worship aside, the design of Aurora has not evolved with the times and with the city around it. It’s not just outdated, confusing and ugly, it’s also dangerous. A 2008 safety project managed to get collisions down to about one a day and deaths down to one a month. That’s not even close to acceptable.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

And unlike with I-5, it won’t take a multi-billion-dollar project to fix Aurora. Instead, all we have to do is peel away the old false freeway and add some more modern boulevard design elements instead.

Let’s imagine an Aurora Ave without the wall, where people can cross the street at any intersection and where people can finally turn left at select locations. To begin, below is a typical section of Aurora today. (You can try out your own designs for Aurora using Streetmix. Dimensions are estimated and vary along the street):

aurora-todayToday, Aurora is basically six lanes with a concrete barrier down the middle. North of Green Lake, it changes to a design with a center turn lane. Some sections also allow off-peak parking in the bus lanes.

If you are a person on foot or bike, the street might as well be a pit of fire-breathing crocodiles. People do sometimes make a run for it and hop the center wall rather than walking many blocks out of the way to find an overpass or underpass. But more often, people just don’t cross it at all on foot. Maybe this design seemed like a good idea back when the state was still naming things after Confederate leaders, but it’s all backwards by modern standards.

So let’s start by tearing down the center wall and, instead, using greenery to create a more calm, attractive and boulevard-style feel. Accordingly, the current speed limit of 40 mph should come down to 30 like most other major busy streets in the city. We could also significantly widen the sidewalks to reach standards more fitting for a major commercial street:

aurora-median--sidewalksNote that we did lose one lane in each direction. This is a busy street, how can that possibly work?

If the tunnel is not completed, then a lot of the current Aurora trips would disappear or move to I-5 since Aurora no longer provides a stoplight-free through-Seattle connection (the surface boulevard on the waterfront will still make the connection, though there will be stop lights). And though the new design would only be one general traffic lane in each direction, this lane will be able to carry a lot of traffic because the bus lanes can handle right turns and new turn lanes can handle left turns. This way, the single through lane can keep flowing:

aurora-turn-bay--sidewalksPlus, now that people can actually cross the street safely, the already-popular bus service will be even more appealing to more people, further reducing the traffic load.

But the traffic benefits go far beyond just this one street. With the new ability to turn left, for example, the few existing super-congested underpasses (like N 46th Street) will likely get a big break, which could help east-west travel immensely. Even if there is a little extra congestion on Aurora itself, this could be offset by improving east-west flow elsewhere. We have to think of Aurora as part of a traffic system, not a car tube floating in a vacuum.

But hey, isn’t this Seattle Bike Blog? Where are the bike lanes? Don’t worry, we can add them, too:


The new boulevard design also sets up the state and city to make desperately-needed safety improvements to the Aurora Bridge. Essentially nobody finds the bridge comfortable to use today, and the Ride the Ducks tragedy brought the need for a safety redesign back into the forefront of people’s minds.

aurora-bridge-before-afterNot only does a redesigned Aurora set up safety improvements on the bridge, but it does so without significantly modifying the bridge (a likely costly endeavor). The biggest change: Say goodbye to those super skinny travel lanes and depressing squished sidewalks.

And because the street is already down to one through lane in each direction, there would be no need for bottleneck merges at the bridge. We can also continue the bus lanes and give buses enough space to occupy just one lane rather than splitting two lanes like they often do today.

In addition to the normal-sized traffic and bus lanes, there’s also space for the center median people have wanted to add for a long time (though with calmer traffic it may no longer be needed).

Better yet, there is also space for much wider sidewalks. At 12 feet, the sidewalks would each be wide enough to handle two-way biking, walking and people stopping to take photos or simply enjoy the view. Because it is a truly amazing view, but it’s a very unappealing space to go today thanks to the heavy traffic whizzing by just feet away.

So not only is the bridge safer and more comfortable for people driving, it is also more efficient for transit and creates an opportunity for new bike route connections. But on top of it all, the bridge can become the iconic destination it should be with sweeping views across Lake Union and down the ship canal.

All these benefits come just by rethinking our need for a single freeway downtown, which traffic studies show will have limited utility anyway since it will not have exits in the downtown core. Aurora has been its awful self since the 1930s, far too long for most people to remember it any other way. The biggest challenge isn’t finding another way to move people and goods around our city, it’s allowing ourselves to imagine such a big change to the way things have seemingly always been.

So I say it again: Tear down the Aurora wall. Reunite the city. Save lives.

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39 responses to “Rethinking Seattle’s Freeways: Mr. Inslee, tear down this Aurora wall”

  1. How about the freedom for Fremont to be whole again? According to the city, the eastern border of Fremont is Stone Way, not Aurora, even north of 38th where the Aurora wall cuts off the grid. I seem to recall reading that when they checked people living between Stone and Aurora still thought of themselves as being in Fremont even years after Aurora was built.

  2. Katie Lewis

    +1. I’d love to see this happen.

  3. Fremont Greenways

    Yes! Access across/under/over Aurora is one of the main issues brought up for safe bike/ped travel in Fremont.

  4. Mary Ann Schroeder

    The paragraph starting with, “Well, since the downtown tunnel has been abandoned..”
    doesn’t make sense to me. What are you saying?

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      That could have been worded better. For some reason I switched to present tense for that hypothetical. I’ll clean it up. Thanks.

      Basically: If the tunnel were not completed, then a lot of the current Aurora trips would disappear or move to I-5 since Aurora no longer gives easy through-Seattle connection (though the surface boulevard on the waterfront will still make the connection, though there will be stop lights). And though there would only be one general traffic lane in each direction, this lane will be able to carry a lot of traffic because the bus lanes can handle right turns and new turn lanes can handle left turns. This way, the single through lane can keep flowing.

  5. Jonathan

    The article starts with “What if Bertha never finishes” so the paragraph you mention is subject to that hypothetical.

    I don’t see Inslee going for this though. He seems to have never met a freeway he didn’t like, a factor that really calls his environmental credentials into question.

    As long as we are discussing hypotheticals, I think more likely the Gates-funded Discovery Institute will produce a revolutionary plan for the world’s only Skyway which will spiral 1000 feet into the air and then bypass Seattle without blocking any views from fancy downtown real estate.

    (Apologies if they hadn’t already thought of that and I just gave them the idea.)

    1. jay

      I don’t see Inslee being in any position to do this if he wanted to. While Washington does not have term limits on the governors office, I doubt he is likely to serve much more than two or three terms, if Boston’s Big Dig is any example , even if Bertha fails, it will be some time before the tunnel is completely abandoned. Actually, it might be just as well if the tunnel succeeds, with tolls and no downtown access it may significantly reduce traffic on 99. Of course people who did pay the toll won’t want to stop at any intersections, nor drive at 30, but then a 30 limit means more like 40 anyway.

      Speaking of 30, one should be careful about one’s units. From the Wikipedia page on Vision Zero: “Locations with possible conflicts between pedestrians and cars 30 km/h (19 mph) “

  6. Shana McCann

    Ah, BRILLIANT. I love this, Tom.

    I was walking home from Phinney Ridge to Wallingford on Sunday and got quite confused when all roads ran into Aurora and walked likely an extra half mile just to get back home. This would be huge to make our neighborhoods more walkable!

  7. Peri Hartman

    If done, and traffic is reduced to 30mph, Aurora could become a good bike route. It makes a less hilly connection between greenwood, greenlake, south phinney and queen anne. There’s a lot of stuff along that section that would – all of a sudden – become much more accessible.

  8. Rob A.

    Ugh, yes, when I first started biking around Seattle, and didn’t know any routes, I was constantly running into this wall.

  9. Cities all over the world have leaders who are starting to think like this Tom: updating our streets that were put in decades ago to meet the needs of the lives we live now and the futures we want to see soon.

    Glad you are one of those thought leaders! Now we just need get the people with money on board.

  10. Southeasterner

    Where do I sign the petition? As it’s a state route lets get it on the ballot and convince the folks in Eastern WA that un-designating it a state route will save them millions of tax dollars.

    1. Molly

      ooh, clever, yes, set that petition up and get it circulating! Save the Eastern WA tax payers!

  11. S

    I support this blog, but this post embodies every stereotype of bikes taking actual, utilized car lanes and eliminating them. It serves no purpose except as fodder unless Bertha really is abandoned

    1. Nathan Todd

      Yeah this is a good talking point for those “war on cars” commenters on Seattle Times website

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        I don’t write for the Seattle Times commenters. They’re gonna be mad about something no matter what.

        This story is all about the positives, what we’d gain if Aurora were a boulevard. That includes the long-desired ability to actually make a left to and from Aurora. I think there are a ton of people who drive Aurora who would absolutely love that.

      2. Nathan Todd

        Mr. Fuculoto, there are a great many Seattleites who never ride their bike. Even counting those that favor a multimodal transportation system, a wide majority ride almost never, at best. Of these, I suspect a huge proportion drive.

        If those moderate, liberal citizens were to come to see the “bike lobby” as inflexible, out to ruin everyone’s commute so that each of them is forced onto bikes, then we may see backlash from the bicyclely challenged.

  12. Law Abider

    Before I get into my opinion, let me state that this will never, in a trillion years, happen, until we have at least two (preferably three) grade separated, northsouth, mass transit routes. Too many people use this route, be it SOV, HOV or bus, to reduce capacity by 50%+.

    If anything, what could happen is:

    Aurora between the bridge and Winona could become like Aurora north of Winona. Center turn lane, two general purpose lanes and a BAT line (or 24/7 bus lane if the City doesn’t chicken out). Rechannel 65th and create a full, signalized intersection. Other than that, there’s a few pedestrian bridges and overpasses at 50th, 46th and 38th, which would be expensive and silly to turn into at-grade intersections (I could see abandoning 38th and turning 39th and Aurora into a full signal though). Inserting any intermediate signals between those overpasses would only encourage cut-throughs of the surrounding neighborhoods.

    The Aurora Bridge, I don’t want to touch with a 39 1/2 ft pole. The only options I see are (1) expanding the bridge deck to allow two GP/one BAT each direction, with a median, pushing the sidewalk out, (2) putting ped and bike access under the bridge deck (I like this one the most) and utilize the existing deck for two GP/one BAT each direction, with a median or (3) building a new bridge.

    South of the Aurora Bridge to Comstock, there’s not much point in doing anything, other than for the sake of doing something. Aurora is in the middle of a steep hill. There’s limited access to apartments on the East and a steep greenbelt to the West, with a couple derelict houses, a transitional housing complex and a sketchy hotel built into the hillside. There’s a few over and underpasses for people to cross over and you do see an occasional person walking the sidewalks, but there’s not much pedestrian opportunities to be realized here.

    South of Comstock to Mercer, you could put a full signal at Aloha to better connect LQA to SLU, but that would likely turn Aloha into a much busier street than it was designed to handle.

    South of Mercer, you’re in tunnel territory, baby!

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I doubt capacity would actually be reduced anywhere close to 50%. And with the tunnel still struggling, it’s worth thinking about a very different option. While I have never liked the tunnel, we may not have the choice to finish it. And the viaduct is coming down whether we do it or an earthquake does.

      1. asdf2

        The capacity of three lanes per direction over the Aurora bridge exists only on paper. When every couple minutes a bus or large truck is forced to straddle the lanes, the effective capacity is two lanes, not three. Reducing the bridge from 3 to 2 lanes simply aligns the paper description of the road to match reality.

      2. Law Abider

        More and more, it’s seeming like the cut and cover tunnel, which we were originally told was impossible, due to a seawall that needs to be replaced, which was too expensive and would likely not happen for a long time.

        Now that the seawall is being replaced and the deep bore tunnel waaaaay behind schedule and waaaaay over budget, that cut and cover is looking more and more possible. Granted, the viaduct would need to come down, which isn’t a small thing.

    2. Peri Hartman

      I also would support simply converting the southern portion of Aurora to be like the northern. Does the southern half handle any more traffic than the northern half?

      The real point of traffic influx is in the Mercer vicinity, where people will come from east or west to go through the tunnel – if it is completed.

      Removing the barriers on the rest would be so helpful to cross traffic, peds, bikes.

      I want to add that the area along Queen Anne would benefit much more than Law Abider claims. There are no places to cross between the south terminus of the bridge and Galer street – a long stretch if you are on foot and even longer by car. Queen Anne is extremely cut off from Westlake. True, there aren’t very many places along that stretch where cars could get through but there are plenty for bikes and peds. And isn’t that what this blog is about?

      1. stevesliva

        Between Galer and the bridge– I assume you mean the ship canal and not Mercer because you say south terminus– you can use the underpass that southbound cars use to access Dexter. From the top of the hill, there is a footpath (perhaps mountain bikeable if you don’t mind a 2′ stair step) on a public right-of-way down from the corner of Taylor and Crockett to exactly that spot. On the greenbelt side of Aurora, there’s basically nothing between that area and the Galer pedestrian bridge.

        If you mean the Mercer bridge, yeah, it’s a long haul from Galer to Mercer and Aurora’s an impassible wall. Highland or Prospect could use another crossing. I used to walk dogs in that area, using the Galer overpass all the time. Hard to believe even the Galer overpass is a relatively new addition. Imagine it before then…

      2. Peri Hartman

        “Bridge” – yes, I mean the Aurora bridge. I’m very well aware of the places to cross Aurora and they few there are are far between.

        There are several streets in the southern portion which could benefit from a pedestrian and bike crossing. As well, there are several paths through the wooded areas and two parks which connect between Aurora and the upper areas which could also accommodate ped and bike crossing. The improvement would be huge.

        The improvements would become even more important in the future as the population density between Aurora and Westlake increases. Access to the top of QA would bring them into the community.

        I suppose the existing tunnel on Dexter Way N (look it up) could count as an existing crossing but it makes such a long lateral traversal is marginally useful at best.

      3. stevesliva

        Lateral traverse? There are stairs on either side of the underpass to the sidewalks on Aurora.

        I suppose Crockett or Howe could use a crossing but there’s really vanishingly little on the greenbelt side of things. I know where the trail through the greenbelt encampment pops out on Aurora. The only other trial of note is the one that leads directly to/from the Dexter underpass. Sure, perfect world connect it all, just don’t kid yourself that there’s really *that* much more demand than there are crossings north of Galer.

      4. Don’t try to mountain-bike the trail from Crockett/Taylor down to the Dexter underpass unless you seriously know what you’re doing. I run that trail every now and then; it’s very narrow and a long fall if you screw it up.

        There’s really not much in the way of destinations, either in Westlake or eastern Queen Anne, that would make an east-west pedestrian connection between Galer and the Ship Canal a big priority. One thing I’d like to see is sidewalks on the 6th Ave N/Raye Street underpass. The existing pedestrian route nearby is non-obvious and has stairs on both sides of Aurora; adding sidewalks on the road underpass would make it more accessible.

      5. Peri Hartman

        I’ll totally “second” adding sidewalks to the N Raye underpass. During rush hour it’s clogged with cars and there are branches and gravel in the gutter. Besides, the cars tend to cling to the curb. It’s hard to get through.

      6. stevesliva

        I would third the suggestion for a sidewalk on the Raye underpass. Unless you are trying to access the bridge itself or a bus stop on Aurora, walking Raye is the shorter route between the 7-way and Dexter Ave. But you’re walking in traffic now if you take it.

  13. Wells

    Plan B for Bertha:
    Redirect the bore tunnel along the seawall to a Pike/Pine portal. Bingo!
    Retain and extend the Battery Street Tunnel to a new portal north of Harrison, achieving the same grid reconnection as proposed with Bertha. Remove overhead through Lower Belltown and rebuild with either a 2-stoplight intersection (that Wsdot did not apply to surface street studies) or rebuild SR99 beneath Western/Elliott with exit/entrance ramps. Note the viability of exit/entrance lanes between Lower Belltown and Alaskan Way without the pretentiously overbuilt walkway-thing yet retain more room for parkspace.

    Wsdot leaders don’t want the public to believe this Plan B for Bertha is viable for one reason: They do not give a damn about public safety; just the opposite. Ridding the world of people whom conservative business interests consider liberal is their means of maintaining control. Bertha as proposed is intended to be a catastrophic failure. Giant sinkholes will form the entire length of the tunnel.

    1. asdf2

      Or plan C. Convert the car tunnel into a transit tunnel, allowing the remaining portion of the tunnel to be much narrow. The already-dug portion of the tunnel could be made a station. It’s certainly wide enough.

      1. Wells

        This Plan C idea does not address the fact that a bore tunnel under Seattle buildings is a catastrophic disaster in the making, whether designed for cars or for transit. The Plan B bore tunnel route remains on the waterfront thus poses little danger to buildings above. Moreover, Plan B safely displaces the least number of vehicles onto surface streets and makes a stronger seawall.

  14. Other stuff about Aurora:

    – There are still lots of sidewalk gaps north of Northgate Way, and still significant resistance to fixing them.
    – I believe that an E Line stop in lower Fremont would be transformative. Lower Fremont has completely lacked transit access to the direct north for years. A stop around 38th would be OK, since the E Line really does different stuff well than the 5. An elevator-accessed stop above 34th or 35th would really be amazing. It would be grossly unsafe to put a bus stop just south of the interchange at 38th, but if the interchange was made into a more typical intersection and bus lanes were continuous across it, it might work. That would be a pretty big project, with at least one elevator tower that would have to line up with the bridge. It would also have a lot of impact in a corridor that isn’t getting much out of Sound Transit.

  15. scott t

    i dont live in or am from seattle. why was such a long wall placed on aurora anyway? couldnt ‘noleft turn between such an such hours’ have been put on the road to prevent backups??

    1. Peri Hartman

      I’ll give a stab at this. Currently, the speed limit through the section with jersey barriers is 40mph (and people often go 50). At those speeds, unsignaled left turns would be dangerous thus none are allowed. As well, it is extremely dangerous for peds to cross. Even with a center island for peds, you would be subject to crossing about 30′ without getting hit by 50mph traffic.

      So how did this happen in the first place? I don’t have all the requisite knowledge to properly answer this but I can state a few facts. First, back in 1950 this was the major highway into Seattle (now we have I5, which is a whole different story). It handled a lot of traffic in that day and, for a while, there were reversible lanes to try to accommodate the peak loads.

      I don’t know when the jersey barriers where added but I’m sure that was a decision based on the accident rate. Also keep in mind that, until the last decade or so, the mentality of roads was to support automobile traffic to the exclusion of everything else. If you could speed up traffic and increase capacity, that was a good thing.

      1. The Aurora Bridge and the highway through Woodland Park were built, IIRC, in the ’20s. Before that Aurora didn’t go through the park at all, it wasn’t a particularly big street south of there, and there wasn’t a continuous street all the way through between Dexter and Taylor south of the Ship Canal. The 1912 Baist Map, as always, is a fun resource.

        Broadly speaking, south of Woodland Park, established neighborhood centers stayed where they were. I imagine there wasn’t effective business opposition to limiting access to the highway there, so it was done in a pretty brutal way, with no cross traffic and weird interchanges focused only on moving cars to and from downtown (even moving cars other places suffered, as you know if you’ve ever tried to drive north on Aurora from Fremont). I hadn’t heard of reversible lanes on 99, but that’s completely in keeping with the rest of its features: all about peak movement with no concern for general access.

        North of Woodland Park, where business districts grew up around the road, business owners would have thrown a fit over that sort of arrangement. This tension between highway and business interests (without much concern for non-car access) is exactly the condition for a “stroad”, and it’s exactly what we got.

  16. […] Tear down this wall: Seattle Bike Blog argues that Aurora Avenue should morph back from pseudo-highway to regular city street. […]

  17. ron

    Great idea, our future self driving cars will help make this viable. http://www.wired.com/2015/03/the-economic-impact-of-autonomous-vehicles/

    Other cities are tearing out poorly designed roads, doing road diets, etc. http://gizmodo.com/6-freeway-demolitions-that-changed-their-cities-forever-1548314937

    Dedicated transit lanes can haul tons of people quickly https://www.minnpost.com/minnesota-blog-cabin/2015/10/want-make-our-transportation-network-more-efficient-create-bustruck-onl

    The most livable future cities will be dominated by bikeable, walkable and transit infrastructure and the minimizing of space for self driving vehicles.

  18. Andres Salomon

    Tom, did you consider having center-running transit lanes? Given the number of people turning right into businesses, I’d hate to see the transit lane turn into just another general-purpose lane. On the other hand, by continuing to restrict left turns and adding only a few places for people to turn left (phase-separated from buses?), that would allow us to keep cars out of the bus lanes.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Streetmix it up!

      This is by no means a comprehensive look at the options. My intention was to get people to look at this street differently.

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