Downtown just got a new bike lane on Spring Street.
It’s not the kind of bike route addition that’s going to start any biking revolutions, but it’s a major improvement over what was there before. And with just a few adjustments and a three-block extension, it could have a big impact on bike access to First Hill.
The new lane is not the final design for Spring Street. It is a decently wide, paint-only bike lane up a steep hill placed in the door zone of parked cars. So why, you may ask, am I excited about it?
Because it is a major improvement over what existed previously, it is coupled with an improvement for Metro’s excruciatingly slow Route 2 bus, and it wasn’t supposed to happen at all until 2019 when the Madison BRT project is constructed. It’s a quick and inexpensive way to make a signifiant improvement for biking immediately. When (if) the Madison project is constructed in a few years, that’s when the city can invest to make it a proper protected bike lane.
It’s a left-side bike lane, which makes sense in this case. It avoids conflicts with the Route 2 bus and it avoids conflicts with people turning from Spring onto the I-5 ramp. It’s also several blocks longer than the previous bike lane and more continuous.
And vitally, the new sections of bike lane cover the most important stretch for the street: 4th Avenue to the bridge over I-5. People heading to First Hill already used Spring Street previously, but they were left to their own to navigate steep climbs in mixed traffic to get to 9th Ave. 9th is a well-used street for biking that connects Virginia Mason and Harborview. It also connects to University Street, which is a planned neighborhood greenway and is already well-used as a bike route due to its relatively forgiving grade.
This brings me to the first proposal for making this bike lane better: Extend it from the abrupt end at the I-5 bridge to 9th Ave. It’s only three blocks further, two of which already have a painted bike lane.
In fact, that existing bike lane is a major reason why this change should happen sooner than later: It’s on the opposite side of the street, which makes no sense. Why force people to merge across two lanes just to get to the bike lane, then merge two lanes again to make a left towards University Street? Just move it to the left and you’ve got a significant and direct connection.
Preferably, the city could move quickly to get this segment done this summer so First Hill isn’t left with a disjointed three blocks until 2019.
The city also needs to keep a close eye on how the left turns at 3rd, 4th and 6th Avenues are working to make sure people biking are not getting cut-off (or worse) by people who don’t expect them to come up on the left.
The good news is that SDOT already has some good ideas in place to help. For example, the 6th Ave traffic light now gives the walk signal a short head start. People on bikes could also use this head start as a chance to get in front of turning cars:
Early green for walkers during bus queue jump at spring and 6th pic.twitter.com/nrPdMORcW7
— Dongho Chang (@dongho_chang) May 26, 2017
The new Spring Street lane also sets the stage for an extended and much-improved 4th Ave bike lane. Especially if the city makes the 4th Ave lane two-way (*fingers crossed*), Spring will become that much more useful as a connection to First Hill, since it would become the best way to get there from Westlake. 4th Ave improvements are supposed to be installed this year.
So no, the new Spring Street lane isn’t a protected bike lane, and it’s definitely far from perfect. But installing imperfect improvements sooner with clear plans for a full-build later is going to be an important strategy for building the connected Basic Bike Network Cascade Bicycle Club and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways have been promoting.
And let’s be serious, Spring Street is ridiculously steep, especially between 1st and 4th Avenues. Few people are going to go up this street too quickly to avoid obstacles, and it’s not the kind of street that’s going to attract lots of people new to biking (powering up the hill probably doesn’t look too fun). But it’s an important connection for many people, and the painted lane helps take a huge amount of stress out of the climb.
This is exactly the sort of incremental, quick and easy improvement the city should be doing. Let’s start with paint on the ground, which is so much better than nothing, and then keep working to make things even better from there.
Unfortunately what you see today, in the areas where the lane has been added, is what will be there when the Madison BRT project is complete. The draft plans [PDF] show a buffered lane from 1st to 4th (well, except near the intersections where the curb bulbs out), an unbuffered and unprotected lane from 4th to 6th, and then an unbuffered lane sandwiched between a travel lane and the parking lane from 4th to 9th.
The intersection at 9th is particularly problematic because Spring changes back to 2-way. People on bikes will be on the left side of the street and presumably will be forced to turn left along with the car traffic in the adjacent lane. Continuing straight or turning right would require merging out of the bike lane earlier, crossing a car lane, and merging into the lane shared with the Madison BRT buses and other right-turning traffic.
While I’m a proponent of an incremental, iterative approach that isn’t what is happening on Spring Street. Building a properly protected bike lane will probably require shaving down the curb bulbs, similar to what’s happening now on 2nd Ave, and there’s nothing in the Madison BRT plan (much less the budget) to support that happening.
If it’s not there already, a “No Left Turn on Red” for cars at the light on Spring and 6th would be a help. Before the bike lane, I’d position in the left lane with traffic, and if a car was going to turn left, I’d be queued behind it (or in front of it) rather than on the side of it and therefore in the way. Sitting in the bike lane today at the corner of Spring & 6th, waiting at the red light, I felt exposed as the car next to me in the left lane was planning on turning left (he didn’t have his signal on, but I could see he was assessing the situation and calculating what to do). Was he going to ‘gun it’ to try and beat past me to make the turn, or wait…?? (phew, he waited). I definitely felt more exposed at that corner than when I take the lane with the cars to cross that intersection.
I don’t particularly mind a door zone bike lane when riding uphill. Downhill on the other hand, they are pure insanity. I get the impression that the cycling design manuals assume that streets are always flat, and in a lot of cities they are, but of course we know that’s not the case here. A bicycle is a very different vehicle uphill at 4 mph vs downhill at 25 mph, and Seattle street designers could do a much better job of accounting for the differences.
Relevant, but off topic: On Monday, SDOT put the spray paint marks down on 9th Ave N between Westlake and Mercer for the soon to be protected bike lanes. The days of Uber drivers merging into me without signalling are numbered!
Numbered, but they might be a large number. Feels like it’s been a year since the layout markers were down on 92nd…
Wow. It is nice to remove the conflict with the I-5 onramp by having the bike lane on the left side. But then what happens on the bridge is brutal. Random painted triangle says “merge really fast into the left lane please, people need to park here”.
I think it would work if the bike lane continued to the next corner at 7th Ave where the traffic light had all-walk scramble so the bikes could get over and continue in the right side bike lane. Or they could merge over on the green light if comfortable doing so.
I want to say I like any bike lanes than no bike lanes, but these days, I feel less and less inclined to. So SDOT have created a painted, door-zone bike lane on Spring St. Is there a time frame for upgrading it to a fully protected one? Or are we just hoping for it? Someone mentioned the protected bike lane on 9th Ave. I see the marking just staying there with no actual work being done. Is it ever going to happen?