520 Bridge Trail on for autumn opening + WSDOT will not fix jarring expansion plates

A trail over the 520 Bridge will revolutionize biking in the region. Bicycle travel times between many parts of Seattle and major Eastside communities will be slashed. Biking from UW to downtown Kirkland, for example, will be cut in half. Instead of an hour and a half (including some serious hills), the 520 Bridge Trail will allow people to casually make the trip in just 45 relatively flat minutes.

Not everyone has three hours a day to spend commuting. But an hour and a half? That’s comparable to taking the bus or driving on a bad traffic day. But it will be more reliable, much cheaper and a hell of a lot more fun to bike.

But you’ll have to keep being patient, since WSDOT has not yet announced an opening date for the trail.

“We’re still anticipating a bike path opening date sometime in the fall,” said project spokesperson Emily Durante. “We should have a better understanding of that timeline as we get closer to switching westbound vehicles onto the new structure later this summer.”

For a while after it first opens, the trail will dump people onto Montlake neighborhood streets. The grand plan to connect the trail to the Arboretum, UW, Portage Bay, the Montlake business district and, eventually, Roanoke Park on Capitol Hill still needs some work. It could be a decade before those plans are all constructed, since the Portage Bay Bridge is not scheduled to start its six years of work until 2020 at the earliest, and a second Montlake Bridge isn’t scheduled to open until 2027 or later (PDF factsheet).

WSDOT won’t fix jarring expansion gaps before the trail opens

The trail attached to this $4.56 billion highway project does have one potentially serious problem: The plates covering every expansion gap are just jarring enough that I (and several readers who have contacted me) are worried some people will crash.

I’m aware this is going to seem nitpicky. If you look at the photo above, the plate covering the expansion gap doesn’t seem like much of an issue. And that’s part of the problem.

The expansion gap covers are a bit too jarring, especially since the rest of the trail is so smooth.

When I took my first test ride of the dead-end trail almost a year ago, I almost crashed when I hit the first plate. The trail is so new and smooth, I was sitting back with a comfortable grip on my handlebars looking out over the lake. When I hit the first plate, it packed a bigger punch than I was expecting, and I was barely able to keep my grip on the bars to keep from crashing. It feels like hitting a pothole.

Here’s what I wrote in July 2016:

But since WSDOT has a whole year before this trail opens for real, we do have one nitpick suggestion: The expansion joint covers are a bit too jarring. I can imagine people crashing when they hit the first bump, largely because the rest of the trail is just so smooth that they may not expect such a big bump. It surprised me when I hit the first one. Making the ramp up for each bump more gradual would go a long way.

I’m not the only person who has this concern. Carl, a reader who had not previously read my post about the bridge, wrote me an email recently saying the same thing: “Each time you ride across one of these joints you encounter a bump so harsh that you might be in danger of falling if you are not paying close attention and are not perfectly aligned.”

Carl also contacted WSDOT about the problem several times, but was rebuffed.

WSDOT confirmed that the agency has no plans to do anything about the plates other than to post a warning sign about them, saying “they are compliant with ADA and contract standards.” Carl noted that the plates appear to be designed basically to the ADA maximum allowed for bumps.

The trail plates appear to be engineered to the maximum level of bumpiness allowed under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

So while they may be technically compliant, they are as abruptly bumpy as legally possible. Here’s the full statement from Durante:

We’ve worked with our engineering team to evaluate options that ensure functionality and the safety of those enjoying the new path. To help ensure safety and alert bicyclists of the raised plates, we’re in the process of installing signage and warning paint to alert all users of the raised plates along the path.

The path design is based on structural requirements for the floating bridge and has to balance these requirements with the needs of the many different users who use the bridge. The need for the raised plates is to provide coverage over the open expansion joint. The plates are also designed to support the load of our large under-bridge inspection trucks. The engineering team has evaluated the joints to ensure that they are compliant with ADA and contract standards.

When the West Approach Bridge North opens to bicycles/pedestrians this fall and completes the path into/out of Seattle, riders will see similar, but lower profile expansion joint covers on the 1.2-mile stretch from the floating bridge to Montlake.

I just find it hard to believe that this major project can’t find some way to minimize this hazard in the months before it opens. If the rise of the plate edges were just barely more gradual, there would be no problem at all. I bet they could even attach a simple fix to the existing plates (a cover that has a more gradual profile, for example). For a $4.56 billion project, WSDOT should be aiming higher than the absolute bare minimum allowed by ADA code.

I want to make sure that when this trail opens, all of the talk is about all the amazing new walking and biking connections it enables. I don’t want the story to be about people crashing on our brand new bridge. This would be such a silly and avoidable reason for someone to be injured (or worse).

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31 Responses to 520 Bridge Trail on for autumn opening + WSDOT will not fix jarring expansion plates

  1. Gary Anderson says:

    Really, they aren’t going to fix the expansion joints? They’ve known since the trail opened that they are a problem. Much, much worse than those on the I-90 bridge. Rather that spend the money on signs and paint why don’t they just fix the damn joints! At this point only the curious have probably ridden the path and provided feedback. Just wait until the heavier traffic starts. What percentage of the $4.56B would it take to fix the problem? Argh….

    Maybe it’s time to call the governor.

    • Gary Anderson says:
      • Noah says:

        I believe this is a significant issue and agree with the suggestion of contacting the governors office. I sent this message today:

        Good day,

        The new 520 bicycle bridge is dangerously and uncomfortably designed. There are much higher cover plates on the bicycle roadway than on the vehicle roadway. These cover plates significant reduce safety while using the path and significantly reduce comfort and enjoyment.

        The issue is made much more significant by the fact that the largest bump is one of the first bumps to encounter on the downhill portion, when users are likely going at high speed.

        On my first trip across the bridge I hit that bump so hard that it damaged my recumbant tricycle to the point it was no longer ridable, with pieces falling off from the extreme jolt. While I managed to maintain control, I ended up with a bloody lip from hitting my teeth together so hard and had to carry my bicycle all the way back.

        I am a 39 year old male in reasonably good shape. I can only imagine how dangerous these bumps can be for someone less capable than myself.

        Yes, I understand these bumps are supposedly designed to “ADA specifications”, but these are not wheelchairs moving at slow speed – these are bicycles that the ADA specifications were never designed to address.

        Let’s not allow the great opportunity provided by this excellent bike route to be ruined through injury caused by poor design.

        If they can design the cover plates correctly for the cars, they could certainly take the same approach with the bike path.

        Please address this safety and comfort issue for the health and benefit of all who are looking forward to using the new bike path.

        Thanks!

      • Daniel says:

        Well said.

      • Anton says:

        This is a reply to the gentleman with tricycle crash.
        A suggestion might be to find a tricycle that can safely navigate some bumps. Recumbent bikes are inherently disadvantaged due to poor forward visibility.
        Really? His equipment fell apart from the expansion joint encounter?
        High speed anticipated on the first section? Once again personal responsibility.
        Speed kills.
        The view is distracting?
        It’s a great view on a nice day.
        Slow down or stop at the wonderful informative pullouts.
        Riding requires focused attention.
        Good Read: “Everyday Survival ”
        “Why smart people make stupid mistakes “

      • Daniel says:

        What is the point of your contribution? Concerned citizens have identified a real issue that 1) was avoidable if joint covers for the pedestrian path were similar to the ones used for the roadway, and 2) can be fixed before the path is fully opened. The comments suggesting people should suck it up and slow down or take personal responsibility are missing the point, and just trolling.

      • Duncan Watson says:

        @Anton

        Recumbent trikes and recumbent bikes in general have significantly better forward visibility than regular bikes where the rider is looking down at his front wheel. They are disadvantaged only in that there is a potential blind spot a couple feet forward blocked by the users feet.

        Obviously bikes will be moving faster than a push wheelchair. I think that is a completely reasonable point to make. Additionally SDOT has already noted that they are going to mark the joints. A smooth path will encourage speedy riding especially when it is out and back and not used as a transportation corridor in the current configuration.

        You are being a bit of a troll.

    • Dan says:

      Maybe we should outfit a team with orange vests and an angle grinder and go make the plates a little more accessible outselves.

    • Alkibkr says:

      Great idea, I sent him a message, too. Let’s all do it.

      I think some grooved mats could be engineered to lay over these joints to alleviate the problem (which sounds like it may also a potential tripping hazard for pedestrians). Installing warning signs just indicates that WSDOT is aware there is a safety problem which they never should have created in the first place.

      • R says:

        When the government is aware of problems in infrastructure, has the opportunity to fix them, and does not then they are liable for consequences. Perhaps WSDOT needs to be reminded of the implications of O’Neill v. City of Port Orchard as it implies to infrastructue that is known to be bad.

      • Josh says:

        Unfortunately, they can point to a standard that says they’re in compliance, which makes it much harder to stick them with liability for knowingly maintaining a hazardous facility.

        Does the height of the lip vary with movement of the bridge? Temperature? Wind?

        If so, perhaps someone with a bit of time on their hands could sit on the bridge on a windy day and document the moment the lip is higher than 1/4″, so WSDOT can’t use the “it meets standards” defense?

  2. Maarten says:

    Agreed, those joints are harsh bumps. I found it baffling that our newest bridge is going to be the least comfortable to ride a bike on.

    • Kirk says:

      No, the Ballard Bridge is by far the least comfortable bridge to ride a bike on. The expansion joints are much more harsh, there are huge potholes and heaved sidewalks. Not to mention the death balusters, the merge of death and the three foot wide sidewalks.
      And I see in this plan that a new Montlake Bridge is in the planning?

  3. Carl W says:

    My thought is that for the entire life of the bridge, every bike rider and every wheelchair user who crosses the bridge on that path will curse the people responsible for those bumps, unless they change all of them to have a lower profile. According to one of the quotes from WSDOT, they will do lower profile bumps on the not-yet-open part of the bridge, so they should be able to retrofit the part that is open now.

  4. Skylar says:

    Is this something that’s beyond a little asphalt or rubber ramp around each joint?

    • Gary Anderson says:

      I rode the “bumps” again yesterday. It seems like a simple solution would be to glue or torch down some 1/4″ mats adjacent to the expansion joint covers. If they were a foot on each side of the joint the transitions wouldn’t be as abrupt. I also rode the much much older I-90 bridge — expansion joints are not a problem. Wonder what they are doing on the west end of the bridge to fix the problem that can’t (or just won’t) be done to the existing joint covers.

  5. Jay says:

    How about every WSDOT exec+manager be required to bike/wheel the entire length of the trail? Just like every Metro exec+manager might be required to use transit for at least 8 trips and 60-minutes and 4 routes every month, hmmm?

  6. Daniel says:

    Having ridden over these recently I agree that they are annoyingly bumpy.

    That impression is exacerbated by the fact the cars on the roadway next to the path don’t have the same bumps. In fact, several thousand bike riders got a chance to experience riding over the 520 bridge last month during the Emerald Bike Ride, myself included, and the roadway was nice and smooth to ride on.

    Why the bicycle path can’t be the same is a mystery to me.

    If they can do it for the cars, they can surely do it for the 520 path as well.

  7. Andrew P Sapuntzakis says:

    Reminiscent of the signs that are used to mark an irregularity in the road. Apparently that’s cheaper than fixing the road, as long as we ignore any vehicle damage.

    With over a year’s warning about this defect, and zero bike/ped traffic to work around, is WSDOT waiting until said traffic gets established and someone goes down hard enough to sue?

    Has anyone verified with a tape measure or a gauge block that the joint covers really do stand less than 1/4″ proud of the surface?

  8. Ben P says:

    This is why I like to be clipped in. The city is full of things I’d really rather bunny hop. But it’s one thing for dated and decaying infrastructure to require special skills and equipment to ride. It is a completely different story to build something from the start that only the hardcore will feel comfortable using. Another example of highway engineers ignorance of and disregard for bicycles.

  9. Al Dimond says:

    LOL at citing ADA. ADA is not a bike path design manual. Many ADA paths are terrible bike paths; in fact, bike paths are sometimes made worse by ADA, usually in small ways (e.g. the flat sections on bike-and-ADA ramps) and occasionally in big ways (e.g
    Kirkland’s NE 100th St. overpass of 405, where the path is sent on an unrideable series of switchbacks in order to meet ADA grade requirements within the available space). That doesn’t mean ADA shouldn’t be followed, but ADA compliance never means that an adequate bike path has been built.

    • asdf2 says:

      I was thinking the same thing. The problem is – the law cares a great deal about wheelchair user, but really doesn’t give a damn about bike users – hence the switchbacky trails that force you to walk a bike. Never mind that most wheelchairs, these days, are motorized, so the stringent ADA grade limits may not even be necessary for wheelchairs.

  10. Gary says:

    Well until something is done to fix the lip, I suggest a quick spray with bright orange paint on the lip to at least visually warn riders of the hazard.

  11. Rob says:

    How many of these things are we talking about? How far apart are they?

  12. david allen says:

    Another point is that even relatively small bumps are dangerous on a downhill slope. what is a minor inconvenience on an even grade becomes a major safety issue when you are cruising down the bridge deck at 20+ mph. And as mentioned previously, the distraction of the views from the bridge is a real issue. People who don’t bicycle simply don’t get it and if we don’t advocate loudly, they won’t get it even when people start to crash and end up in the hospital.

  13. Anton says:

    I rode my mountain bike to the terminal end in July. I was visiting from Portland.
    Riding a bike requires focused attention. I did not note this problem with the joints.
    I do pay for the bridge thru tolls. Why not take a little personal responsibility for your safety and quit whining.

    • Charles Guy says:

      Exactly. I saw all the warning, expecting a huge thing. It was not bad at all. Its surprising so many are whining about this. Have they not encountered bumps on any of the trails?

      • Daniel says:

        Sure, there are bumps on trails, although we go about creating them all the wrong way, waiting for a tree root to grow big enough for example. Such a long process. And aren’t the bumps just wonderful? So much so, why not design bumps into brand new trails to make them better. That makes more sense than boring smooth surfaces. No excitement to be had riding on those. Much better to create them upfront. Bloody whiners always whining about things just not being perfect.

  14. Brad Niemeyer says:

    I’ve seen the joints first hand. They are formidable for a road bike. Larger mountain bike tires should handle them no problem. Since this is designed to be a bike trail/crossing path, the expansion joints are currently unacceptable. This is clearly a case where the designers did not ask bike riders what they need. Now “they” don’t want to change anything to add time and cost to the project.

    A low cost solution would be to add some sort of filler to the edge of the joint to create a small ramp. It might be as simple a caulking the edge, but I get the impression no one is looking into a solution.

    This is disappointing, I was looking forward to riding over the 520 bridge for a nice north Lake Washington loop. I think commuters on road bikes will immediately notice and complain.

    How can we make the local news stations aware of this? Press coverage might get things rolling so to speak….

  15. asdf2 says:

    For regular commuters, I’m not too worried. You go slow first, quickly learn where the bad bumps are, and soon, it become second nature. I’ve been doing this on the Burke-Gilman for years to the point where, even in the dark, I was slowing down for bumps I knew to expect that I couldn’t see.

    That said, it’s still much better to have the problem fixed. Is this something that can vigilante style with a few strips of strategically placed duct tape?

  16. Gandalf says:

    Any update on the opening of the 520 bike trail to Montlake?

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