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Despite more than a decade of bicycle activism, Ballard Bridge remains a danger

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is by Taylor McAvoy through our partnership with UW’s Community News Lab journalism course.

Haley Keller has adopted the Ballard Bridge sidewalks. She holds cleaning parties for the bridge every two to three months. Photo: Taylor McAvoy

Riding home at night a few years ago, Haley Keller had to cross the Ballard Bridge with its notoriously skinny three-foot-wide sidewalks. She usually carries only one bag on the left side of her bike rack to avoid the occasional concrete pillars that protrude into the sidewalk on that section of the bridge. That night she carried two, one on each side.

“I don’t know exactly what it was,” she said. “Whether it was a gust of a wind or a car had come by that had pushed me a little bit but I went over and my bike bag hit the side wall.”

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Catching on the wall, Keller’s bag threw her off balance and over a ten-inch-high curb, into the oncoming traffic lane.

“I was able to pick myself up and get off the bridge quickly,” She said. “But if it had been in the middle of traffic on a busy day, I don’t know what would have happened.”

Terry McMacken was biking on the bridge in July 2007 when something similar happened. He fell over the curb, too, but someone driving struck him. He died in November 2008 from complications from the injuries he sustained.

McMacken and his wife filed a lawsuit against the City of Seattle in July 2008. His estate settled with the City a year after his death.

“The fixes are very simple,” attorney Jack Connelly told the Seattle P.I. in 2008. “The concern that we have is that there were people telling the city about this problem well before this incident.”

But the city of Seattle has noticed and is taking steps to improve bicycle safety.

Seattle launched Vision Zero in 2015 as a goal to end serious injuries and deaths in Seattle’s streets by 2030. As a 2016 campaign for the project, volunteers for Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and Cascade Bicycle Club placed white silhouettes around the city representing the people who died in traffic over the previous ten years.

“You hear about an accident or a collision and you have to realize there are real people affected by that,” Connect Ballard activist Sean Cryan said. “And the number of those things that were around the city just from ten years was really startling, that that many people have died on the roadways. I think that is something to keep in mind as all of this moves forward. Really the goal is to not have any more white silhouettes out on the streets.”

The Bicycle community has been battling the City of Seattle since 2006 when voters passed the nine-year Bridging the Gap Levy with $365 million for transportation projects. It promised maintenance and improvements to city bridges including the Ballard Bridge. A seismic retrofit was completed in 2014 using the funds from the Bridging the Gap Levy, but nothing has been done to widen the bridge’s sidewalks, install a railing or design the merges on and off the bridge to be safer for people biking.

The Move Seattle Levy passed in November 2015 promising $930 million for transportation projects over a span of nine years, almost triple the size of the 2006 levy it replaced.

But the issue with funding the Ballard Bridge, Kubly said, was more about making sure other projects in the city have enough funding.

He said widening the sidewalks on the bridge would cost about $40 million from the $930 million Move Seattle Levy. He also said about $10 million from the Move Seattle Levy has been allocated for the Ballard Bridge. He wants to use the levy funds for other projects like fixing the missing link on the Burke Gilman trail. That costs about $15 million.

“It’s all about balancing and prioritizing,” Kubly said. “It wouldn’t be an effective use of resources for us to take the lion’s share of our money and put it in a single project. We need to make safety improvements across the city.”

SDOT Senior Civil Engineer Jason Fialkoff said there is a study planned to evaluate funding strategies for the more expensive improvements to the bridge, but he doesn’t know if it’s started yet. There’s no word on whether that study will consider widening the bridge sidewalks.

“While the Ballard Bridge is constrained it doesn’t have the same crash history as some other areas,” Kubly said.

But Cryan said that’s because of the danger of the bridge itself.

“On the Ballard Bridge it is somewhat self-selecting because it is so dangerous,” Cryan said. “There are fewer people on it than there might be because people only go across because they’re feeling really secure about it.”

Keller became a Board Member at Cascade in 2015. She participated in a ten-week advocacy leadership program, and part of her advocacy training required her to focus on a specific project. She chose the Ballard Bridge.

In February 2015 Keller drafted an open letter to Mayor Ed Murray, Seattle City Council and SDOT in a video about the Ballard Bridge’s importance as a crossing point and its danger to people on bikes.

She also created a video in May 2015 outlining multiple ways to widen the sidewalk, install higher railings and make the on- and off-ramps safer with crosswalks and bike lanes. In it she cited a 2014 Berger ABAM study of options for widening the Ballard Bridge’s sidewalks SDOT had commissioned.

She even explained how the city can pay for the changes by removing an unnecessary overpass on the south end of the bridge and selling a parcel of land the overpass now inhabits. That funding would be in addition to the $930 million from the Move Seattle Levy.

Keller, along with other bicycle advocates, held a meeting with SDOT director Scott Kubly in March 2015 to share concerns and suggest improvements. Keller said the main issue was that SDOT thought widening the bridge was not feasible for the city at the time.

The conversation continued when Cryan put together a presentation for a meeting with SDOT and presented it the Seattle Bike Advisory Board and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.

Haley and her husband Dave Keller worked with Cryan and members of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board (“Bike Board”) and Cascade to create a document of suggested improvements for the Ballard Bridge.

“We felt like the ball had started rolling about what improvements could be done,” Haley said. “We were optimistic to some regard that something would actually be done in the short term afterward.”

But nothing happened.

“There are definitely things that could be done sooner, and I was expecting them to be done sooner,” she said.

Co-chair of the Bike Board Steve Kennedy said nothing significant has been done on the Ballard Bridge for a few years.

“It’s kind of the way things have gone,” he said, “which is there’s a lot of talk and little or no action.”

In April last year SDOT asked freight, walking, and biking representatives about how they could improve the bridge and came up with a list of recommendations. It lists “improve sidewalk pavement condition” as “in progress,” but says nothing specifically about widening the bridge sidewalks. Installing a railing is in the “early planning” stage, and adding bike lanes to exits is in the “evaluating feasibility” stage.

The city finished fixing pavement breaks, provided better access to the bridge from alleyways, and removed vegetation last year, said Fialkoff.

SDOT plans to add crosswalks and median islands on the north side of the bridge to make crossing easier and provide improvements to the Rapid Ride transit system this year. The city also plans to connect the nearby Ship Canal Trail to the Elliott Bay Trail.

The railing planned for the bridge in 2015 was deferred from a short term project to a medium term project, Fialkoff said. He didn’t offer a completion timeline.

The railing would also make the already narrow sidewalks seem even tighter, Kubly said.

The city might be hesitant to put money into the Ballard Bridge because it only has ten to 20 years of life left, according to Kennedy.

Kennedy is now working with Fialkoff and Councilmember Mike O’Brien to plan a meeting about the bridge in late May. No specific date or agenda is set.

In the meantime, Peddler Brewing has officially adopted the Ballard Bridge sidewalk and holds cleaning parties every two or three months. They have already completed three sidewalk cleanings this year.

“I thought about what’s the best thing I can really do, and it’s just to keep it as safe as I can for people right now,” she said. “Nobody else is going to clean the sidewalk, so we’ll keep doing that to keep it safe. It takes patience to get anything done in Seattle, but we’re hopeful.”

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35 responses to “Despite more than a decade of bicycle activism, Ballard Bridge remains a danger”

  1. Tom Fucoloro

    Thanks for a great story, Taylor!

  2. ronp

    Great post! No reason not to take a lane from that bridge and make better sidewalks and bike lanes.

    1. Law Abider

      Except that the amount of cars, in one hour, in one lane equals the amount of bike and ped traffic, both directions in one day. I want this bridge made safer, but taking a lane is a dead end and trying to push it would only detract from more realistic solutions.

      1. Mark Smith

        The most excellent expensive options that prioritize cars over people ? Seattle has zero leadership.

      2. Peri Hartman

        As much as I’d like to see fewer cars, it’s not realistic until we have better transit. Better transit is slowly coming. Until then, I think there would be almost universal negative reaction to removing an auto lane on the bridge.

  3. eric

    You have two options when you unexpectedly snag your bike on the Ballard Bridge: into traffic or into the drink. Neither good. Yet it is still the best and most direct way to get from Ballard downtown.

    (And anyone who says the Ballard Locks is a “bicycle route” is kidding themselves. A bicycle route including walking your bike half a mile is no bicycle route…)

    Glad we continue to shine a light on this very unsafe and much needed infrastructure improvement.

    1. Kirk

      I’ve seen three people hit the balusters that stick out on the Ballard Bridge, all three ended up over the curb into the traffic. Luckily none were hurt, Terry McMacken wasn’t so lucky. Shaving off these balusters would be the one of the best fixes SDOT could do on the bridge.

    2. “Best” route downtown is just subjective enough that I won’t touch it, but “most direct”? If you take 15th and Elliott all the way it’s only a little shorter, by distance, than the Fremont Bridge (my downtown destination for the comparison was Pike Place, which is pretty generous to a waterfront approach). If you take Emerson over to the South Ship Canal Trail, that’s longer than going through Fremont, and I guess if you jog over on Dravus it’s about the same.

      I understand that the Fremont route is significantly slower (almost every part of it is slow), and that it doesn’t work very well for going to Magnolia or Interbay. I think the Ballard Bridge deserves improvements. But the fact that the Fremont Bridge works pretty well for most downtown trips is one of the reasons SDOT can de-prioritize it time after time. Even if the bridge itself was improved and there was an excellent connection to the South Ship Canal Trail (instead of today’s sketchy sidewalk or Merge of Death), this would result in a route downtown that’s about as safe and comfortable as the Fremont route, allowing more speed but adding a little distance. It’s good to have both choices, like drivers do, but it’s going to be hard to argue against prioritizing improvements to the Fremont route, like BGT completion.

      1. Andy

        This is spot on. Unless you’re going to Interbay, Magnolia, or parts of upper QA, going across the Fremont Bridge is both more comfortable and faster than the Ballard Bridge.
        Given how many other neighborhoods have real gaps in their safe routes to our employment centers, and how much it would cost to actually make the Ballard Bridge safe, I’m glad that SDOT isn’t prioritizing it. Now, if only they would actually start spending those dollars improving all those other routes, instead of updating studies…

  4. Andres Salomon

    I fixed Kubly’s quote for you, with my additions in []s.

    “It’s all about balancing and prioritizing,” Kubly said[, without a hint of irony]. “It wouldn’t be an effective use of resources for us to take the lion’s share of our money and put it in a single project[, unless that project is the $160mil S Lander project]. We need to make safety improvements across the [parts of the] city[ that benefit us politically].”

    1. Andres Salomon

      Sorry, $140mil for Lander.

    2. Ben P

      Thanks for the laugh. I needed it

  5. Peri Hartman

    For starts, it would be good to know what the absolute cheapest railing option is. Anything to protect cyclists from falling into traffic would help. As for making the sidewalk narrower, yes it would. But in a practical sense it wouldn’t, since you don’t want to ride anywhere near the outer 12″ anyway.

    If the bridge only has about 10 years left, it makes sense to do a cheap solution. 10 years is long enough to be worthwhile. It might save a life. Saving funds for other projects is good, too, so I support minimal.

    I’m encouraged to hear the bridge has only 10 years left. Maybe Sound Transit and Seattle can work together to build a new multi modal bridge for freight, cars, peds, bikes, and rail.

    1. Ben P

      Right!? Would chain link with the slats in it on both sides cost 40 mil? Sure it would be ugly, and probably not the safest choice of fencing for bikes, but at least it doesn’t catch bags, sweep wheels, then drop you on your face in traffic

  6. Matthew Snyder

    This topic came up during the Q&A with the Mayor at last week’s SBAB meeting. I don’t think I’m unfairly paraphrasing when I say that his response was, in brief, we’ll wait and hope that the city can piggyback on a hypothetical Sound Transit bridge instead. He mentioned the Tilikum Crossing in Portland as the sort of bridge he had in mind: transit, bicycles, pedestrians. Nothing about short-term fixes to the existing bridge to improve conditions.

    Unfortunately, the board didn’t push back against this at all. Doesn’t sound like there are fixes on the way any time soon.

    1. Ben P

      Possible fix by 2035. That sounds like quite the ambitious timeline. I’m sure only a handful of people will die in 18 years.

      1. Kirk

        Oh, someone is going to die soon. Then SDOT and the Mayor will all of a sudden realize that the bridge is now suddenly unsafe because somebody died there and something should be done. I just hope I’m not the martyr.

      2. Andres Salomon

        I thought the same thing about 65th. Then someone died there, and SDOT/the Mayor did nothing. Then another person died, and still they did nothing. :(

  7. Ben Thompson

    What about enforcing the speed limit on the bridge? It is posted at 30 MPH, yet it seems to be rarely followed or enforced. The condition of the sidewalk make riding difficult and dangerous, but the cars speeding next to you at 40 and 50 MPH are the reason that I almost never ride across.

  8. Haley Keller

    Thanks for posting this and to Taylor for writing it! Noting the picture caption, technically Peddler Brewing Co adopted the bridge sidewalk through the Adopt-A-Street program. But as the instigator and coordinator of the clean-ups, I’ll take credit for it too :)

  9. Mark Smith

    The bridge has two lanes each direction. It only needs one. Not a 40 million problem. More like 1.

    1. Law Abider

      The Ballard Bridge carries 55,000 vehicles per day. It needs two lanes in each direction.

      A realistic solution would be to eliminate one ped/bike lane and combine it with the other side, shifting traffic lanes and add a railing on the traffic side of the new ped lane. Throw a few million on either side for safe and grade separated ped/bike connections. Six feet isn’t great, but it’s better than 3 ft and no solution in sight. Not sure if the current ped lanes are capable of supporting traffic weight though.

      1. Peri Hartman

        In concept, I like your idea. But I think the sidewalks are cantilever and, anyway, the drawspan area has trusses that align with the edge of the existing lanes, thus the lanes can’t be shifted.

        The simplest would be to add a railing to the existing sidewalks. The center portion already has a railing. How hard and expensive would it be to extend that to the ends of the bridge?

      2. Law Abider

        Haha, duh! I completely glossed over the actual drawspan.

        Your point about the railing approaching the bridge is a good one. While it does kind of make the path feel slightly more constrained, I definitely feel WAY safer in that short space. I’d rather feel a little more constrained, but feel (and be) much safer than the current option.

        Another thought would be to widen only the uphill and downhill portions of the ped path on the north side of the bridge approaching Leary (in addition to a railing on the barrier the whole way). It’s a pretty short section and it’s the section where I really feel constrained and unsafe.

  10. Josh

    There’s a very simple solution that could probably be close to revenue neutral, given the general level of compliance by Seattle drivers.

    Recognize that the sidewalks are far below the legal minimum width for a bicycle facility. (AASHTO says 4-foot minimum operating width for a single bicycle, and sidewalks are 2-way facilities.)

    Recognize that the only lanes wide enough for bicycle traffic are the travel lanes of the bridge.

    For the length that the sidewalks are illegally narrow for cyclist facilities, lower the bridge speed limit to a greenway-safe 20 mph, and enforce it heavily.

    The total length of the bridge is 2,800 feet. 20 mph is 29 feet per second, so for easy math, it would take 100 seconds to cross the full length of the bridge at 20 mph. The current legal speed is 30 mph, 44 fps, so 2800 feet takes 64 seconds.

    Lowering the speed limit to a greenway-safe 20 mph costs law-abiding drivers less than 40 seconds per crossing, at the cost of signs, enforcement, and some surface upgrades to the right-lane grating.

  11. Southeasterner

    There is absolutely no reason why the Ballard Bridge needs to be replaced other than failed/continual deferred basic maintenance. Same story on all of our bridges.

    We fail to invest in maintenance and instead just let our infrastructure crumble to the point where the asset fails and/or replacement is the only option, and an extremely expensive one at that.

    Privatize and toll the ship canal crossings. This will generate badly needed revenue and decrease overall vehicle traffic into the center of Seattle. Use toll revenue to (1) maintain the existing bridges and (2) help build a new bridge dedicated for heavy vehicles including buses and light rail, and pull them off the other bridges Fremont/Ballard/University. This will greatly reduce the wear and tear on the other bridges, reducing maintenance costs, and transfer the priority heavy freight and buses out of congestion. Upgrade the Fremont and Ballard bridges to one lane in each direction with a reversible center peak period lane and convert the fourth lane on each bridge to a protected bike facility.

  12. Mark Smith

    The whole “this bridge NEEDS 4 lanes is induced hogwash. It’s not a freeway. So that assertion it needs two lanes each way is hogwash. The bridge is being killed by weight and bouncing. Make it one lane each direction with protected lanes each way and watch life thrive.

    1. Law Abider

      By all means, please show me your data and calculations that prove your statement. I’ll even give you a head start: there are more than 55,000 cars (based on 2014 SDOT traffic counts) that use the bridge, versus a little more than 500 bikes (best guess based on confusing 2011/2012 SDOT bike counts) per day.

      Reducing to one lane will cause massive congestion and gridlock well north of 65th and well south of Dravus, at all times of day. This will result in vastly increased pollution for people near 15th in these areas. The Ballard Bridge is not a freeway, but it’s a major arterial that is the regional connector for a vastly growing dense urban hub.

      We need to fix the bridge, but taking a lane is a classic armchair traffic engineering mistake that a few people on this blog keep trumpeting. This isn’t Nickerson, where reducing to one lane each direction makes sense. By pushing such a dead end solution, we are detracting from real solutions, which will only serves further delay these real solutions, at the cost of lives.

  13. Fish

    I think a lot less people would drive across the bridge if the rapid ride bus had its own lane. I feel like the temporary solution for bikes is somehow baked into prioritizing the bus at the same time. It’s not an all ages solution, but I’d certainly prefer sharing a lane with a bus versus that sidewalk. The bus moving 10mph behind a cyclist for a mile is still faster than sitting behind cars during rush hour. Another half-baked idea…if they removed the railings on the sidewalk for more room and created a bike lane next to a bus-only lane, could that help? There’s clearly not going to be a perfect solution and waiting until 2030-40 for a new bridge is not acceptable.

  14. Kirk

    I get it that replacing the bridge is expensive and would take a long time and would be pretty painful for many while it is getting replaced. But FFS SDOT has done NOTHING to improve the Ballard Bridge for biking. It was identified in their own 2012 phone survey as the worst place in Seattle for biking. What have they done to the Ballard Bridge since they learned that in 2012? NOTHING.
    My favorite blunder that could easily be fixed is the sign at the Merge of Death. “Turning cars stop for bicyclists”. Why just the turning cars? Why not the cars going straight, they speed by at 50MPH. This sign needs to be fixed and a stop line needs to be put in the road with a “stop here for bicyclists entering the roadway sign.”
    The conditions on the sidewalks are horrible, especially when approaching the Merge of Death on the southwest end. Right at the point where a person riding a bike should be signaling to enter the roadway, the sidewalk is heaved and heavily potholed. SDOT FIX IT!
    The third lanes south of the bridge should both be made into BAT lanes, just like the rest of 15th south of the bridge.
    The northwest entrance to the bridge needs the intersection of NW Ballard Way fixed. People driving cars routinely run this stop sign, I’m nearly hit every day. They need to close the redundant little roadway down to NW 46th Street and make that bridge access from the Burke Gilman missing link section.

    1. Kirk

      LOL that the next story on the Bike Blog details SDOT’s plans to replace a staircase on South Holgate with a ramp. This is exactly all it would take for SDOT to fix the Merge of Death on the Ballard Bridge – replace the stairs for the underpass of Emerson with a ramp.

      1. On Holgate there’s obviously room to build a simple ramp down to street level. Not so much to get down to the underpass of Emerson. That underpass has stairs at every access point — ramps would be needed north and south of Emerson; additionally the underpass continues under 15th, and on the east side it’s only connected up or down by stairs, too. Once you’re past Emerson you’re not much closer to a good bike route, just another sidewalk that’s very narrow in some very bad places (like next to the pillar for the overpass), and then on to crossing an on-ramp right where it’s about to merge into 15th.

        That’s an accessibility nightmare, similar to many Aurora underpasses. For bikes, though, actually connecting to any part of the bike network north or south of the bridge defies “simple” fixes.

      2. Kirk

        SDOT included the underpass trail in the recent feasibility study of widening the Ballard Bridge. That was one of the most feasible projects of the study. Only one ramp would be needed to avoid the Merge of Death, and there’s plenty of room to make it ADA compliant. The trail would connect to 15th, the sidewalk and to the Ship Canal Trail. I see many people riding bicycles cut over to the sidewalk at the first opportunity after the Merge of Death.

  15. tn

    The bridge is only used at full capacity in the morning when going south and in the afternoon when going north. Therefore, the best solution is to make one lane bike only, and another one only south in the morning and only north in the afternoon. Plus it would be cheaper.

  16. JB

    Calling it “Activism” seems to be drastically overstating the case. In ten years we have what, one lawsuit, a few letters and meetings and wonkish reports, and some people picking up trash. Not exactly the Montgomery bus boycott. Our prosperous mayor really couldn’t care less about people who risk their lives on bikes, and the impotent Seattle bike lobby keep patting ourselves on the back for activism but in reality just rolling over and accepting the status quo.

    Well, maybe in 2035.

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