Seattle Bike Blog has not yet endorsed in the mayoral race. See our coverage of the June mayoral forum on transportation and housing here. The August 1 primary ballots are in the mail.
When I received Nikkita Oliver’s answers to a couple key follow-up questions recently, my heart broke.
Oliver and the People’s Party campaign supporting her are doing something truly amazing right now. If you can’t see that because you’re too focused on that one time months ago she sure seemed to say she’d pause all development (she took that back) or because you’re tallying how many times she has voted in the past decade, you’re missing the forest for the trees.
The Oliver campaign is forging a new path to power in Seattle, based on people power and centering the experiences of people of color and people from other marginalized communities. She is running on a message of addressing the core problems in our city, not just treating symptoms. And people are loving it. I am loving it, too.
Cary Moon has a very strong and deep understanding of biking, walking and transit issues. Jessyn Farrell has been a champion for biking, walking and transit in Olympia and has a lot of experience to bring with her to this race. And we strongly backed Mike McGinn in the primary and general elections back in 2013. But none of them have built engaged movements even comparable to Oliver.
So when I reached out to Oliver and her campaign (along with the other top mayoral candidates) to ask how they plan to handle a set of specific biking and safe streets projects that will come up during the next mayoral term, I was really hoping she would see efforts to redesign our streets to prevent serious injury and death on our streets as one of those solutions to a core public health problem (traffic danger). Or at the very least, I was hoping she would support continuing these hard-fought, long-planned and long-awaited safety projects that are set to break ground next year, like the downtown bike lane network and completing the Missing Link of the Burke-Gilman Trail.
“I have to stress that our city is currently in a state of emergency around homelessness,” she said in a written response. “I believe it is the duty of our city leaders to prioritize addressing these exigent human service needs first. This may require us to put some projects, like construction of bike lanes on hold in order to ensure that we have the financial resources to address the state of emergency around homelessness in our city.”
But the real tough line that got me came when she called the Ballard Missing Link a “beautification project” that is “not an immediate need” during Candidate Survivor this week (17:25 in this video).
These are major priorities this blog has been writing about consistently since it launched in 2010, and that neighbors and safe streets advocates have been working on for much, much longer than that. Oliver saying she may pause these projects right as they are finally about to happen is just heartbreaking. I don’t really have a choice. Seattle Bike Blog cannot endorse her if she says she may stop or pause the core projects this blog has spent the past seven years writing about and advocating for.
That said, she did have other good things to say about some of these projects. And even more, if she changes her mind as she learns more about the projects, the injuries and deaths they will prevent and all the years of hard work neighbors and city staff have put into them, project staff and advocates could learn a lot from her leadership.
So this is a bit odd, because Seattle Bike Blog wants Oliver to make it through the primary and to give her time to keep working on her stances on these safe streets projects, but we also can’t endorse her because of those stances. And since you can’t vote for multiple people, that’s puts our primary endorsement in a tough spot.
That might make this very long post among the most unhelpful things you’ll read about this primary election. But it’s my honest take on the mayoral race at this moment, and the best I can do is lay it all out for you to pick through. If you have thoughts to add, share them in the comments.
Don’t give up on Oliver, join her
I’m not shutting this door, and I hope people reading this don’t, either. This is clearly not an area where her campaign is focused or has lots of specific expertise. And that is OK. I don’t think a candidate needs to already be an “expert” in transportation planning, so long as they are willing to hire good people, seek answers and make the right calls when the time comes. And having a leader who approaches transportation leadership from outside the typically white male dominated transportation planning world could be a huge asset.
And I definitely don’t think bike lanes and safe streets need to be a candidate’s top priority, either. Councilmember Kshama Sawant has never made bike lanes a central piece of her organizing, yet she has been a consistently positive voice and vote on the Council’s Transportation Committee. She’s been killing it on her other priorities while still showing up to support biking and safe streets projects when it comes time to vote. Seattle Bike Blog endorsed Sawant in her 2015 run saying, “I am certainly not spending my energy working for safe streets that only the rich can enjoy.”
Being able to have biking be a top priority is a sign of a lot of privilege. People of all races and income levels ride bikes out on our city’s streets, but bike advocacy is still typically very white, yours truly included. I am grateful every day that my job is to write this independent news site and focus on such a positive solution to so many tough transportation, environmental and public health issues. I do think it’s very important work.
But I don’t think for a second that bike lanes are anywhere close to being as important as housing for people without homes or ending the school to prison pipeline or protecting undocumented people from a hostile Federal government.
These unfortunate project delay stances from the Oliver campaign are partly the safe streets movement’s fault for not reaching enough people engaged and active in the heart of her campaign. I know many strong supporters of Oliver who are also involved in safe streets advocacy. Perhaps it’s time to get more involved if you support both safe streets and Oliver.
This is a long post, so you are welcome to stop here. The following sections are basically footnotes backing up points I made above. They dive into some of Oliver’s responses to follow-up questions and make the case for reconsidering her stances on downtown bike lanes and the Missing Link.
Oliver supports bike lanes on Rainier Ave
If she does shift her stance on pausing these projects, SDOT staff and the safe streets movement could learn a lot from her leadership. For example, she’s very supportive of protected bike lanes on Rainier Ave, a project that could happen during the next mayoral term. She also is asking good, tough questions about that project that the neighborhood, bike lane supporters and SDOT staff are going to have to work through together. And Oliver could be a strong guiding force for that process.
Seattle Bike Blog asked specifically about bike lanes on north Rainier Ave as part of the Judkins Park Station access, tying them into the Accessible Mount Baker project and, eventually, reaching the whole length of the street:
Q: With the Judkins Park Link Station, the city, WSDOT and Sound Transit have an opportunity to make significant changes to a very busy stretch of northern Rainier Ave to prioritize biking, walking and transit access to the station and beyond. The city also has a major project in the works near Mt Baker Station called Accessible Mt Baker. The full vision is to create protected bike lanes for the full length of Rainier Ave. You can learn more here. As mayor, will you support installing protected bike lanes on Rainier Ave? Why or why not?
A: Yes, protected bike lanes are important for creating safety. They are also very expensive. We want to be evidenced-based in our approach to developing our bike lane system. Some streets/areas that we see as most strategic for this type of expansion are Madison Avenue, Delridge Way SW and Rainier Avenue. I would support prioritizing these areas and specifically the Rainier Avenue expansion project because adding bike lanes in these areas would be cost effective, efficient for cyclists and would increase safety.
As a project like this unfolds, I would also want to consider:
- Equity issues that come with bike lanes
- Displacement and “push out” in many Seattle neighborhoods have been preceded by particular types of neighborhood changes including the light rail and bike lanes. It is important to do this development with an intersectional analysis that understands who is most likely to ride bikes in Seattle, drive cars, and take public transportation.
- Since we know displacement is a possibility as these neighborhoods change we must utilize different community development strategies to preserve the culture and demographics of these neighborhoods.
- We MUST prioritize first those areas and streets where a) they are the most dangerous and b) bike lanes will actually provide the necessary safeguards to make our cyclist safer.
- Improving bus routes. It is often residents living in areas farthest from our city center that don’t have access to public transportation. We need to address this “last mile” problem in order to ensure our residents in south Seattle have equitable, cost effective access to transportation and other areas of the city.
- Effective solutions for congestion and traffic. As the Rainier Beach neighborhood becomes more dense congestion and traffic will be increasingly more of an issue. The more we can do to prevent this early on, the better for the neighborhood and the environment.
Then she again stressed:
Additionally, I have to stress that our city is currently in a state of emergency around homelessness. I believe it is the duty of our city leaders to prioritize addressing these exigent human service needs first. This may require us to put some projects, like construction of bike lanes on hold in order to ensure that we have the financial resources to address the state of emergency around homelessness in our city.
Private bike share should serve everyone
Oliver also had some great things to say about how the city can learn from the private bike share pilot to craft permanent rules that make sure such services serve everyone:
Q: Do you support SDOT’s pilot program to permit bike share companies to operate on city right of way (including being parked on city sidewalks)? As mayor, would you work to create permanent bike share permits when the pilot period ends? What role do you believe bike share can play in Seattle (if at all)?
A: City-wide bike share opportunities are an asset for cities. Private bike sharing can be cost-effective in terms of implementation and provide an economical mode of transportation for residents. They also encourage many health and environmental benefits. Given that Pronto is no longer a program in Seattle, we need new options for residents and so, I would welcome the piloting of private bike sharing programs.
When it comes to the question of permitting, it would be smart for our city to set regulations and require a permit before allowing private programs to launch. This would allow us to get in front of changes and avoid conflicts like the ones that developed as a result of UBER entering the ride-sharing market without a permitting process in place. Temporary permits would also give our city the chance collect data and think through the cost-benefit of programs before committing to them in the long-term.
I would also like to consider ways for new companies to help shape bike culture in our city. While there are many cyclist in Seattle, not all Seattleites have had access to bike culture and these private companies could invest in some city-wide cycling education. I am also committed to centering equity in how our city makes decisions and so I would want to be intentional about city-wide accessibility to these programs for our residents, making sure neighborhoods, especially those farthest from the city center have bike sharing opportunities.
Why the Missing Link is an immediate need
Two people crash on the Missing Link so badly every month that they require emergency medical attention. Some, like Jessica Dickinson, are left with serious longterm pain and injury. Many more are injured to a lesser extent.
A nearby business owner sick of the lack of action to improve safety started documenting the ridiculous number of injuries at a single bike-wheel-grabbing railroad crossing in 2014 and sent the photos to the city and Seattle Bike Blog. This is an absurdly dangerous missing section in the middle of a very popular trail that extends across the county, and people will continue to be seriously injured (or worse) every two weeks until we fix it.
This isn’t about beautification. By far the biggest concern voiced by people responding to the city’s draft environmental study was safety. No other concern is even close. Beautification didn’t even make the list:
People have been working consistently for more than two decades to get this section of trail built, and most of the strongest voices are people who got engaged after crashing themselves or helping someone else who crashed. We are so close to finally finishing this damn trail, with people finally coming together to work through the details after 20 years of arguing and legal action. We simply cannot stop now.
I hope she takes another look at this project before holding it up as a symbol of wasteful spending. She told the Candidate Survivor crowd the Missing Link will cost $33.1 million to build, but SDOT staff says the estimated cost is $12.5 million ($15 million if you count the huge environmental study just completed, $9 million of which comes from the Move Seattle levy). The $33 million figure includes the section by Fred Meyer and the section from Gold Gardens to the Locks, both of which have been completed for nearly a decade. This error suggests she has not spent a lot of time studying the ridiculously long and complicated history of this project (and maybe too much time reading Seattle Times Editorials, which also got this number wrong). I mean, it is a pretty long and frustrating story. So if that’s the case, I hope she gives it another look, and I urge people reading this to give her campaign the space to do that.
Before she called it a beautification project, Oliver told Seattle Bike Blog she “would be happy to see this project completed,” but said she sees it as her duty to prioritize homelessness first:
As an amateur boxer, running is a regular part of my daily life. As a result, I frequent many of Seattle’s incredible parks and trails. The Burke-Gilman Trail missing link is a valuable part of connecting our residents to different parts of the city and I would be happy to see this project completed. However, many in our city are currently facing insurmountable barriers to finding affordable housing and over 10,000 of our residents are currently living without shelter. I believe it is the duty of our city leaders to prioritize addressing these exigent human services needs first. This may require us to put some projects, like construction on the Burke-Gilman Trail on hold in order to ensure that we have financial resources to address the state of emergency around homelessness in our city.
She also said the trail should be delayed so SPU doesn’t have to just dig up the trail to install a pipeline for a major sewer project they have planned. It’s wise of her to be looking for these kinds of cost savings, but SDOT and SPU already figured that out and are planning to lay that section of pipeline during trail construction. So, she is right, and city staff is on it.
We need the Basic Bike Network to help treat downtown’s traffic injury and death crisis
Every year we delay making safety improvements to downtown streets, dozens of people are seriously injured, many left with lifelong health issues. Several people die. Here’s a snapshot of just three years of serious traffic injuries and deaths (2012-2015):
Seniors and people of color are disproportionately likely to be one of the symbols on this map. So are people experiencing homelessness. One of the red symbols was a loving uncle who had immigrated to Seattle from the Philippines in 1979 and was killed walking from the bus to the janitorial job he had held for 17 years. Another red symbol was a woman crossing the street with the help of a walker. Another red symbol was a woman who friends say was working to get out of the cycle of addiction and homelessness. Another red symbol was a powerful civil rights attorney and new mother who was biking to work when she was killed. Just ten days later, the city built their planned protected bike lane on the same street, designed to prevent the exact kind of collision that killed her.
Through many years of public meetings and hours of volunteer advocacy and community organizing in neighborhoods across the city, Seattle has developed the plans to start fixing this problem. We also have the means to do so through the Move Seattle Levy, which voters approved specifically for transportation projects including the downtown bike network and the Missing Link. Levy funds can’t easily be moved to address homelessness.
All we need is a mayor who will give the Department of Transportation the green light to make it happen. Mayor Ed Murray started strong with the 2nd Ave bike lane in 2014, then he slammed on the brakes and delayed so long that now the bulk of work won’t start until he is out of office. He had a golden opportunity to build a lot of the downtown bike network in 2016, and he blew it. Hopefully the next mayor doesn’t make the same mistake.
And it’s vital to remember that the downtown bike network is not just about biking or efficient mobility. It’s about reducing injuries for everyone, whether they are in a car, walking or biking. A study out of New York City found that protected bike lanes like these reduced injuries by 35 percent on one street and 58 percent on another:
Oliver says she does support the Basic Bike Network:
Yes and I would like to begin this process by supporting the “Basic Bike Network” proposed by Cascade Bicycle Club and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. The Basic Bike Network would bring quick changes for current downtown bikers and provide our city with the opportunity to collect data so we can make evidence-based decisions when we develop a more comprehensive multi-modal plan for downtown. I believe this “pilot” approach would help quell opposition. Additionally, I would want this project to develop in tandem with the expansion of our public transportation systems. This would provide a public transportation infrastructure that would reduce the need for cars downtown and hopefully present a comprehensive plan for everyone and alternatives for folks who commute downtown.
In funding this project, it is essential we also consider that our city is currently in a state of emergency around homelessness. As mayor my first priority will be to address this state of emergency. This may mean pausing certain city projects in order to fund exigent human service needs.
I fully understand that safe streets are not even close to the top priority for battling homelessness in our city. And I agree with Nikkita that homelessness needs a real emergency response. I am intrigued by her plan for a response so big that she needs to raid funding from other departments. I am not necessarily against that idea, though there are far, far bigger and more wasteful pools of general fund money to go for than the safe streets budget. Or at least I hope such cuts are fair and spread out across the department. At the moment, it feels like she’s got her target set on safe streets projects specifically, and that’s what is so worrying.
So there you have it. I hope the Oliver campaign moves a little on singling out safe streets projects for cuts, and I hope people who are hyper-focused on bike projects take a step back and recognize how impressively Oliver’s campaign is challenging our city’s traditional power structure. I believe there is a space where people’s passions about safe streets and passions about Oliver’s campaign can meet, and it would be very powerful if they do. Many individuals are already there, but the movements are not. At least not yet.