Protected bike lanes coming to Pike/Pine a big improvement, but fall just short

From a recent project mailer (PDF)

Pike and Pine Streets downtown are among the biggest missing bike connections downtown, and the city wants to take action to make them safer and more comfortable by the end of the year.

Like with 2nd Ave in 2014, SDOT staff have been moving quickly to get the Pike/Pine bike lanes planned, designed and ready for construction. And even though the planned lanes are far from perfect, they should be a big improvement over the status quo.

For the first time since it was constructed in 2014, the 2nd Ave bike lane will actually connect to another protected bike lane.

Pike and Pine are already heavily used by people biking despite having no bike lanes downtown. The geography of downtown all but requires these streets to be major bike streets because they are the first east-west streets in the northern end of the downtown core that are both relatively flat and do not dead-end into I-5. No street between Pike and Jackson fits this description.

But Pike and Pine don’t just provide a vital east-west role downtown, they are also the best connections between downtown and the city’s densest residential areas on Capitol Hill and First Hill. It’s hard to over-stress how vital safe and connected bike lanes on Pike and Pine are to Seattle’s bikeability. Few bike lane projects in the city could have as big an impact as this.

The 2017 project bites off the most difficult chunks of the Pike/Pine connection, including links to the 2nd Ave bike lane (and Pike Place Market) and through the heart of the downtown retail core. The bike lanes will be on the left-hand side of each one-way street (Pike eastbound, Pine westbound) to keep the right-hand side for bus lanes. Turning conflicts should be eliminated either by new restrictions on motor vehicle left turns or through new bike signals to separate the biking and turning phases.

Work on the new connections is set to begin in September and should come online around the same time as the under-construction 2nd Ave bike lane extension through Belltown to Seattle Center, which should open in the autumn. Some key pieces of the Basic Bike Network are coming together.

The Pike/Pine bike lanes do have some issues. Mostly, they just don’t go far enough. The near-term goal should be to connect at least to Broadway, if not to 12th Ave or even Madison. But at the very least, the bike lanes need to connect to 8th Ave, which is where an existing painted bike lane on Pine Street heads up to Capitol Hill. The city also has near-term plans for bike connections on 7th and 8th Avenues that will connect through the Denny Triangle to major bike routes headed north.

So it is certainly disappointing to see the Pike Street bike lane end at 6th Ave, turning into a short painted bike lane and then sharrows. When the project was presented to the August meeting of the Bicycle Advisory Board, the lane was supposed to connect to 8th, and sharrows were not discussed. The two blocks between 6th and 8th are uphill and busy, and 6th Ave is not a good bike connection as it is today. So ending the lane at 6th means these two blocks will form a nasty missing link until the city finishes the job.

But SDOT staff say major work outside the scope of this project would be needed to complete the connection to 8th and beyond, including work to change curb bulbs and maybe even push back the curb line near the convention center. Displacing a general traffic lane would have a big impact on car traffic, they said. And left turns to 7th Ave need to be preserved, staff said. This means the bike lane will end into a de facto left turn lane, so people biking will often need to merge right to get around the back-up of turning cars.

Almost connecting isn’t good enough. Compromising the bike lane like this means it won’t get the use it could, and forcing people biking to mix with car traffic at a fairly busy and potentially scary uphill stretch is not going to be inviting to many more people than those already biking. A bike network is only as good as its weakest link. And these two blocks of Pike will be pretty uncomfortable.

Pine Street has different issues. The primary problem is that people biking downhill on Pine will have to somehow make it from the right side of the street, where a painted bike lane exists east of Melrose, to the new left side bike lane west of 8th Ave. Merging left across multiple lanes of mixed traffic is not comfortable or welcoming to new users. So like the Pike Street plans, the Pine Street lane will not have a complete and comfortable connection on its west end.

The solution likely needs to start further east, perhaps at Boren or Melrose. Maybe this is an opportunity to also fix the awful situation at the Boren stoplight where people biking westbound have to squeeze between lanes to get around the back-up of right-turning traffic:

Maybe SDOT could speed up a fix here by creating a two-way bike lane on the south side of Pine between Melrose and 8th Ave. That would create a good connection for people connecting from Melrose (where bike lanes are planned as part of the Melrose Promenade project), and it would set up people biking westbound to be on the correct side of the street. In fact, if the two-way bike lane extended to 7th Ave, that would create a better connection to the planned bike lane there and could provide people biking uphill from downtown with a better option compared to the planned sharrows on Pike Street between 7th and 8th that we discussed above (biking from 2nd Ave, you could turn left on 7th for a block, then right on Pine).

The trick would be designing a high-quality transition at Melrose, which is itself a problem intersection for people biking westbound as it is today. Perhaps this is a good chance to pilot a modified protected intersection using paint and posts. Below is a very rough sketch I just mocked up. The other lanes would shift around, of course, and the existing downhill bike lane west of Melrose would likely go away. I’m just sketching the new bike lane part so you get a rough idea of what I’m suggesting. I’m sure there are other good options, too.

None if these are as good as compete bike lanes to Broadway, of course, but it could be a good interim option.

The other potential issue with the Pine Street lane is that the section with brick pavers between 4th and 5th Avenues (through Westlake) will not have a bike lane. People biking and turning left at 5th Ave will have new separate signals. So people biking will have an open path to enter the brick-paved area when the bike signal turns green. But people biking won’t have a separated lane until crossing 4th Ave. The brick area is supposed to be a slow-moving mixed traffic area, anyway. But the city will need to monitor how this solution works in practice to make sure it is comfortable for people biking.

In the end, the fact that SDOT is moving to build the downtown blocks of Pike/Pine bike lanes in 2017 is very exciting. The shortcomings are disappointing, sure, but the downtown bike network is getting closer and closer.

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22 Responses to Protected bike lanes coming to Pike/Pine a big improvement, but fall just short

  1. Nick v says:

    Is it safe to say this is an interim solution until we get PBLs to Broadway in 2019?

    • Richard says:

      It’s never safe to assume the city will follow any bike-related plan… In fact, from what I’ve seen, the implementation of a crappy half-solution seems to reduce the chances of the permanent proper solution….

      Having bike lanes on the left side of pike ending in a left turn lane sounds horrible. Potentially worse than what’s in that segment now.

  2. Eli NYC says:

    I think your Tom’s most underappreciated skill is the ability to take every instance of SDOT and the City of Seattle taking a gigantic dump on the people who want to bicycle, and still find a way to frame it in a positive light.

    • Southeasterner says:

      He is amazing.

      I read this plan and all I see is wasted money and more dangerous conditions for cyclists, Tom sees rainbows and butterflies.

      I wish I had 10% of his optimism. If I wrote this article it would need to be heavily censored and it still wouldn’t be appropriate for work.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      I mean, I did use phrases like “nasty missing link” and then went on to call for a significant addition to the project. Not exactly rainbows and butterflies.

      But this project was not scheduled for this year at all. The city saw the immediate need and took action. That’s absolutely worth praising. I want them to go one step further and finish the west connection, at least in an interim fashion.

      • JB says:

        I think a more accurate headline would be, “Protected bike lanes coming to Pike/Pine a slight improvement, but fall well short”

      • Al Dimond says:

        In the 2015 BMP Implementation Plan a Pike/Union couplet was provisionally (i.e. pending downtown bike-network planning due mid-late 2015) listed as a 2016 project. All that was swept away by One Center City, but a lot of the thought that went into those rough plans remains valid. The stuff that has happened and will happen soon downtown is all stuff that was promised in that plan by 2016. It’s nice that we’re getting some of it back. It looks more like the bike plans were put on the back burner during One Center City planning, and they’re bringing back parts that they don’t think will mess up cars and buses too much.

      • JB says:

        Yes exactly – not mess up cars too much. Heaven forbid that anyone in the Mayor’s office would exercise real leadership and make a few hard choices that would actually lead to genuine progress on bike infrastructure. I’m sure the status-quo transportation system is just fine from the perspective of our prosperous mayor riding around on his well-cushioned limousine, but those of us risking our lives on bike saddles know better. Still, the impotent Seattle bike lobby goes starry-eyed and applauds wildly every time they toss us a scrap. Two more blocks of bike lane, yippee. time to pop the champagne corks.

  3. Joseph Singer says:

    I don’t know if I am in the minority but I think “sharrows” are absolutely useless.

    • Robert says:

      Oh, they do serve a purpose. They’re for politicians to point at and say, “See! We put in some biking infrastructure here. Vote for me!”

      • Southeasterner says:

        As an added plus they usually fade out shortly after elections…or at least after a few rainy November days.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Sharrows provided this blog with a free logo. That’s something! :-)

  4. Clark in Vancouver says:

    Since Pike and Pine are the least slopey East-West streets up the hill, that is a good justification why they need to be there and not another street.
    Too bad about the lack of continuation. Everybody needs to push for it to go further. It’s a start though.
    Probably a better approach would be to having it connect all the way to Broadway. Then people would freak out and all that but then they’d get over it and it’ll just be one battle instead of several battles.

  5. asdf2 says:

    This patchwork of protected bike lanes on the left side of the street for two blocks is a mess.

    Now, when you ride through the area, you have two choices. You can keep crossing back and forth every two blocks, waiting for multiple stoplights each time. Or, you can just ignore the bike lanes altogether and ride with the cars.

    If you’re going do the former, riding a bike feels almost pointless – just walk. The latter is much faster, but more likely to get honked at.

  6. Ruth Berge says:

    Dang I can’t upload my photo of pike between 1st and 2nd. ( you have ignored that block which is the last flat block). The city removed half the bike lane for car parking that requires a car/ truck to cross the protected bike lane. In classic fashion (seen in many places in the USA) half the bike lane just disappears. I have taken to swearing constantly as a cyclist and this is no exception. Obvious that parking takes precedence over bikes. Hate SDOT. The only thing parked there that I’ve seen is a construction related truck. HATE SDOT!

  7. poncho says:

    the crappy car-dealer funded local news is all over this… KOMO was real negative and then asked drivers what they thought about it and interviewed a driver who didnt like it.

  8. d reeves says:

    This relates to a big political dynamics I see surrounding bike infrastructure in seattle: momentum is created when bike infrastructure is added and gets used, and significantly lost when it’s created and doesn’t get used very much.

    And the problem is when the city *does* add bike infrastructure, it makes compromises –
    the “missing links” – that stop just short of a solution that will actually attract significant usage.

    In other words, they do 80% of the work for 20% of the usage, when getting to 100% would unlock way more usage. And then opponents of bike infrastructure can point at the under-utilization of the bits they do add to support arguments against the whole notion.

    I’m not arguing against making compromises at all. I just think it’s important to try to do a few common routes well, vs bits and pieces all over the places that don’t make anything cohesive.

    • Clark in Vancouver says:

      I agree. I sometimes speculate that maybe the reason that things are done improperly is that it’s intentional. Deep down they really don’t get why anyone would not want to drive everywhere and don’t want to encourage it. They know they can have a big PR disaster by doing a bit but doing it wrong. A layperson won’t know about street design but they can certainly be manipulated to believe their taxes are being wasted.

  9. Clark in Vancouver says:

    Just thinking about this I think of Hornby and Dunsmuir streets in Vancouver. Both are one-way streets. Both have a two-way protected cycle track on one side. There are right turn signals with a different timing than the cycle path signal. It works very well.
    Since both Pike and Pine are one-way streets it might be better to have a single two-way protected cycle track on only one of those streets but have it for the complete length connecting to 2nd and to Broadway.
    A concrete barrier would provide enough separation that nobody should be confused by a two-way track being on a one-way street.
    With elements of protected intersections at the intersections and turn signal light timing, it could work out well.

    • Al Dimond says:

      Pike and Pine both turn two-way shortly west of I-5, about half of the way up to Broadway.

      I know some people disagree, but I think the two-way path on 2nd Ave (one-way for cars with few driveways and all intersections signalized) works pretty well. The two-way path next to Broadway, a two-way street with several non-signalized intersections and driveways, works less well. That design, AFAIK, was chosen because it allowed streetcar rails to be placed such that they wouldn’t conflict with some existing underground utilities. The two-way part of Pine probably has fewer driveways but more non-signalized intersections than Broadway. It crosses some of those intersections at fairly steep grades, which spells danger for downhill riders.

  10. Steve M says:

    Just as I did with the 2nd Ave bike lane and Broadway, I’ll take a wait and see attitude toward this development. Sometimes these ideas work better than they sound, sometimes not so much. But I’ve got to say, as someone who has bike commuted in Seattle for almost 40 years now it seems to me things are getting worse, not better. I have never felt as unsafe riding as I have on the newer bike infrastructure (Westlake Trail being the notable exception!). Given drivers’ cluelessness wrt controlled left turn signals across a bike lane (2nd Ave) I refuse to be a sacrificial lamb in this city’s bicycling infrastructure re-engineering “education” program. I’ll take my chances with the Metro drivers on 3rd Ave, thank you very much. And whenever possible I’ll opt for truly protected trails like BGT, Elliott Bike Trail, Alki, etc and Seattle Greenways where the traffic is calmer and the interactions with motor vehicles is less frequent.
    I know that there are some places where car-bike interactions are unavoidable but it seems SDOT is putting bicyclists at great risks in many of those places by putting bike lanes in the *least* expected spot – on the left side of the road!
    I will continue to defiantly ride my bike because I love to ride and find it to be the most convenient, inexpensive and fun way to get around Seattle. But my goodness, what a hash we’ve made of the “facilities”. I have ridden in Paris, NYC, Vancouver and other big metropolises and felt much safer than I do in my hometown. And while I welcome the new bikeshare companies to town and have already started using them as well I fear for the less experienced riders joining the fray on these super convenient and inexpensive steeds given the current unsafe and confusing state of our transportation infrastructure to accommodate them.
    Sorry if this comment is a bit scattered. I’m just so frustrated.

  11. qwerty says:

    I agree: this article takes scraps of poorly executed half-assed infrastructure and gets excessively excited at the “progress” being made.

    Bike lanes that switch sides of the road, and don’t connect, are ridiculous. I can’t tell if SDOT really are this incompetent, or if there is deliberate malice, but these bits and pieces that they come up with are worse than doing nothing at all.

    Just do it right, for goodness’ sake. Put in a darned bike lane that actually goes all the way from downtown to Broadway on the same side of the street all the way. What’s so hard about that? Oh, sacrificing parking and lane width. Sorry, I forgot we care only about bike theater, not about having real people ride to get places.

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