City extends 9th Ave protected bike lanes + How can the city fix the Mercer crossing?

Phase II of the 9th Ave bike lane extends the connection two blocks further to Harrison.

We are two blocks closer to a complete connection between downtown and the Westlake Bikeway.

SDOT installed Phase II of their three-phase rollout of protected bike lanes on 9th Ave N in South Lake Union this week. The bike lanes now extend as far south as Harrison Street, where they transition into the existing painted bike lanes that continue (mostly) to Denny Way and up Bell Street to 8th Ave.

Eventually, the lane will connect to a planned bike lane on 7th Ave that will connect to a planned Pine Street bike lane that will connect to 2nd Ave. But the three blocks between Harrison and Denny will continue seeing a ton of construction detours in the next year, so the connection will remain incomplete until the scheduled completion in 2018. The Basic Bike Network is coming together.

9th Ave N used to be a rather sleepy street, making it a decent bike route alternative to Westlake Ave N, which was ruined for cycling when the South Lake Union Streetcar was constructed a decade ago. But as construction has boomed in recent years, the street has become busier and busier. Cars picking up and dropping off are constantly blocking the feeble paint-only bikes lanes. And the crossing at Mercer Street has ceased to function effectively or safely due to a crush load of cars.

The new bike lanes dramatically help with the blocked bike lane problem by placing the bike lane against the curb and creating space for parking and loading between the bike lane and the general travel lanes. And with each new block, the connection to the incredibly popular Westlake Bikeway reaches more homes and workplaces.

Timothy Fliss shot this quick video on day one showing that people immediately adapted to the new lanes:

The lanes aren’t perfect, though. As soon as they were opened, people started asking why one block still had people parking cars cross the bike lane. @jawshv on Twitter illustrated the issue well:

But in an awesome show of public response by SDOT, staff took another look at the design and decided that block should be changed. So they are going to do that “this season,” SDOT Director of Project Development Darby Watson told Seattle Bike Blog:

Staff completed the review yesterday and concluded that the design that was implemented is based on an older concept from early last year, and our standards have evolved since then. We are planning to convert this block to a floating parking protected bike lane, similar to the rest of the corridor, this season.

Some folks on social media are ragging on SDOT for not getting this right on the first try, but I think that criticism is a bit misplaced. I mean, obviously it would be better if they did it perfectly on the first try. But they responded quickly by reassessing and making plans to change it. That’s a good thing. It’s also a good example of why using paint and posts to create bike lanes is a good way to trial designs. They can learn from the real world application of a design and make changes as needed.

Major fix needed for the Mercer Street crossing

The newest extension did not, however, do anything to fix the biggest challenge of the entire 9th Ave bike lane: Crossing Mercer Street.

For many hours of the day (and essentially guaranteed during rush hour), people turning left from southbound 9th Ave to eastbound Mercer Street block the bike lanes, travel lanes and crosswalks at 9th Ave. It’s a serious problem for accessibility in the crosswalk, for bike safety and for traffic flow. SDOT’s multi-million-dollar adaptive signal timing program did nothing to solve the issue. SDOT needs to look at more solutions. The status quo is just too dangerous to continue.

Ultimately, the problem is that there are just too many cars. People trying to drive to I-5 fill the recently-widened Mercer Street’s three lanes and back up to the intersection. So when people try to turn left from 9th to Mercer, they get stuck out in the intersection because their cars and trucks don’t fit. Traffic usually stays at a standstill for the whole signal cycle, so when the light turns green for people headed north on 9th, the path is still blocked.

One possible option could be to give people heading north and south a green light before allowing the left turns. That way people queued in the bike lane or in the crosswalk could get across before left-turning cars block the way. This still wouldn’t solve blockages that happen when cars headed eastbound on Mercer block the way. But as you can see in the tweets below, the left-turning cars are the biggest problem.

The city could also ban right turns from northbound 9th Ave to eastbound Mercer Street. This would both protect people biking from turning conflicts and would prevent right turns from filling space that could otherwise be filled by the left-turning cars. Of course, this change could just lead to more right-turning traffic on other crunched streets, like Westlake.

Without reducing the number of cars, there’s just no easy answer. That’s why the city needs to do everything it can to keep biking, walking and transit pathways open. Constant blockages of the bike lane and crosswalks on 9th Ave are working against the comfort of people trying to choose a non-driving way to get around. If walking and biking routes were open and free-flowing, more people would choose to get around that way.

An entire bike route is only as comfortable to use as its least-comfortable spot. So at least north of Harrison, crossing Mercer is the weakest link holding back the rest of the route.

If you have ideas for fixing this intersection, let us know in the comments below. We need both big ideas and quick-and-easy fixes.

Twitter user @envy_screams started posting photos of this intersection early in the summer, and pulling the photos together gives you an idea of how persistent and serious this issue is for the usability of this bike lane:

 

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31 Responses to City extends 9th Ave protected bike lanes + How can the city fix the Mercer crossing?

  1. ragged-robin says:

    and suddenly I feel the urge to bring a can of silly string the next time I cross Mercer

  2. Andrew says:

    Not only is traffic terrible there, but the light’s timing is pretty atrocious as well. I imagine the incredibly long waits leads to additional frustration, and the feeling of drivers that they just _have_ to get in the intersection to go through this signal.

    I’d think that quicker signals might actually help this problem. As would traffic cams and rules about blocking intersections.

    A pedestrian overpass would be an interesting approach.

    • mjd says:

      From my perspective, light timing is a huge part of it. The SB lights on 9th in the couple of blocks before Mercer are so badly timed that by the time people get to Mercer they don’t want to wait at one more light in such a short stretch of time.

      I like the idea of starting the Mercer EB green lights sooner on the intersections east of 9th to clear out the road before those left turns start.

      Another issue – that unfortunately I don’t think is solvable – is that Mercer is so huge that left turners can’t often tell if there will be room for them on Mercer until it’s too late.

      • daihard says:

        Why does the size of the street matter? You don’t turn left until you have room right there. You shouldn’t predict there will be room by the time you turn or the signal changes.

      • Joel S. says:

        The intersection is so huge that waiting until it is clear means guaranteed honking behind you as people start to just go around you. People have also sat through 5-10 minutes of barely moving before getting to this somewhat clear area and can’t help but just move forward on a geeen light.

      • Lynne says:

        What daihard said. I’m so sick of this. Seattle targeted pedestrians for years and succeeded in creating a culture where people wait for lights at 2:00am on a carless street. But faced with THIS MUCH evidence of consistent, daily complete blockage of the crosswalks those pedestrians are expected to use, Seattle does nothing.

      • daihard says:

        @Joel

        One thing SDOT can do immediately is to ban right turns on red from northbound 9th onto eastbound Mercer. It would help “clear” the part of Mercer to the east of the intersection.

        That said, I don’t understand why avoiding “guaranteed honking” is a legitimate reason to break the law and block the crosswalks and bike lanes.

      • Lynne says:

        As I said elsewhere, my sister uses a wheelchair. She waves her arms and yells. Not one jerk in a car seems to care. I guess it’s cool because they already waited 5 or 10 minutes and might get honked at? The city might as well remove the crosswalks altogether, since they clearly do not plan to enforce the rules for cars in the intersections.

  3. Dave says:

    “Do not block intersection – selective enforcement zone”

  4. Al Dimond says:

    Of course it’s the same stuff crossing Mercer on Dexter, in case anyone still cares about Dexter.

    I love the idea of swapping the left-turn and straight-ahead phases — a minor adjustment that could plausibly work! It might also let a little space clear out for those left-turners before giving them the signal, which might help a little with the nightmare congestion the 62 and 40 face every day. Of course, which cars get to I-5 is a zero-sum game, so it would push eastbound congestion on Mercer itself farther into LQA. Personally I care less about that, but SDOT reports on it as an important metric for the Mercer project (and isn’t reporting on delays to the 62 and 40 even though such delays are often caused by backups extending from I-5 through Mercer).

    • Breadbaker says:

      As someone who still cares about Dexter (certainly at least until there is a direct connection from Westlake to 7th since my office is on 7th) I entirely agree. Left turns from Dexter southbound to eastbound Mercer can back up well past Aloha, but that is no excuse for letting those cars consistently block both the bike lane northbound and the pedestrian crosswalk. SDOT seems to think lengthening the cycle eastbound on Mercer (it is minutes long yet the crosswalk across Dexter cycles down more than a minute before the light turns yellow) accomplishes something when all those cars are stopped by lights at Ninth and/or Westlake and back up forever. Shorter cycles and running the left turn lights after the bike light (thus forbidding any turning from Dexter until the Mercer traffic clears) seems a logical improvement for everyone.

      • Al Dimond says:

        I used to live near Dexter and Aloha, and I often saw it backed up past the construction sites, so when riding home from the north I’d either have to wait behind the cars or try to squeeze between them and the temp barriers. Worst on Friday nights (as I-5 is).

        I had reason to drive out towards Mercer (to I-5 and eventually 520) one day, and I sat on the block of Dexter between Aloha and Valley for literally 30 minutes. By the time I finally got to Valley I abandoned the idea of Mercer, turned off, and went to 520 by the U District. That was just some random weekday during rush hour. There is too much office parking in downtown and SLU, it makes the whole transportation network useless for everyone. In these areas we ought to set a cap on the number of spaces for day use, at a number significantly less than usage today. Cap spaces, auction the right to operate them, then take the proceeds and fix bike routes into downtown from Capitol Hill, Dearborn, and the SODO Trail.

  5. Lynne says:

    My sister uses a wheelchair. She can’t get across Mercer. Obviously, SDOT and SPD don’t give a damn.

  6. Marko says:

    You’re right that paint and plastic posts are a good way to learn what works. However, over the long term strategically placed concrete curbs and islands are much safer.

    A protected intersection at Mercer is also an idea: https://youtu.be/yXJIZ5xLzaM However, I like the bike underpass or overpass better–and not just to cross Mercer but to get from the Westlake cycle track to 9th Ave southbound.

  7. Dave F says:

    SDOT should install a red light camera here and at all other commonly blocked intersections downtown. This is a really easy solution from a technological perespective, and it would pay for itself. All we need is political will and we could fix this clear problem.

  8. Peri Hartman says:

    The best solution to Mercer street is to eliminate all left turns. With no left turns, the signal cycle is substantially shortened, reducing wait times for all and reducing turning conflicts for peds and bikes. At present, that’s a non starter.

    However, when the hwy 99 tunnel is completed, there will be three new east-west crossings over Aurora. That will allow drivers who currently turn left to choose one of those streets instead of Mercer. In other words, if you are driving east-west, take Mercer. If you are driving north-south but need to cross Aurora, take one of the new overpasses. Win-win for everyone.

    I hope SDOT will be considering this.

    • daihard says:

      I like that idea. They should also ban right turns on red on all those problematic intersections. They’ve done that on Dexter at Mercer, and it’s helping reduce the crosswalk/bike lane blockage.

      • Lynne says:

        I’m complaining all over the comments in this section, but this really hits a nerve. I cross Mercer at Denny every day. Yes, right turns are banned on red. Every day, I see people turn anyway. There is just NO enforcement for the car traffic.

        We can add all the rules we want on these streets, but until the city actually enforces them they are simply polite suggestions. And there are very few polite drivers anymore.

      • Breadbaker says:

        Totally agree on enforcement.

        They lowered the speed limit on streets without speed limit signs and filed a huge congratulation for themselves. Has anyone noticed a drop in actual speeds? Or seen someone being ticketed?

      • daihard says:

        It may depend on the intersection, but at Dexter and Mercer (northbound), I haven’t seen a single violator of the no-turn-on-red rule that has been in place for a while. I pass there 3 times a week.

        I agree, though, that enforcement is important here.

  9. Alkibkr says:

    We also need bike improvements on Fairview where it crosses Mercer. Green painted lane? Otherwise, cyclists on NB Fairview can easily find themselves in the 2 right turn only lanes onto the I-5 ramp.

  10. Bob Hall says:

    For Mercer Street, my proposals are:

    Short-term fix: Hire traffic officers to direct the southbound left-turners. Cars would not be allowed to turn until there is room for them. Hire additional officers to direct northbound right-turners.

    Long-term expensive fix: Underpass or overpass.

    I’m not in favor of ticketing and enforcement measures. Nobody is more frustrated with this intersection than me (I deal with the blockage daily) but ticketing drivers affects the poor disproportionately. Lots of poor people drive because they have no viable alternatives. Cheaper housing is only available far away. Yes, there are buses but many people need to pick up children from daycare and our buses often aren’t feasible. Don’t hand out tickets just because SDOT made a bad design.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      I agree with your point on tickets. If it were just a few bad apples doing this, then tickets might be the way to get it under control. But when everybody is doing it, ticketing won’t fix anything. Design changes are needed.

      That said, I don’t think we need an underpass. Those can be scary places (especially an extremely long underpass needed for a street this wide). And by putting people underground, you sort of give the street level to vehicles. That’s the wrong message, especially for a rapidly-growing area like South Lake Union. This is essentially an extension of downtown, or will be soon. It needs to be a people-focused place.

    • daihard says:

      I agree with Tom on the principle of not giving the street level to cars. OTOH, the Netherlands has such ped/bike underpasses under major arterials. I’ve seen them around Leiden and Utrecht. Practically speaking, they can be an efficient measure to ensure safe walking/biking without interference from cars.

    • Lynne says:

      I don’t understand the logic behind enforcement being evil. It’s pretty easy to avoid tickets. Guess how many I have ever been issued? None. Why? Well, I obey the speed limit, I use turn signals, I don’t pull into intersections until there is room for me to get across. The poor can choose to not break the law. I’ve been poor, with a kid to get to daycare. I did not use it as an excuse to speed and block crosswalks.

  11. Mia says:

    It would be awesome if bikes and peds were given the respect they deserve and the cars that block the intersection block the vehicle lanes instead of inching forward to block the bike lanes and crosswalks. Everyone is so afraid of blocking other cars but no one seems to care about other modes.

  12. Evan D says:

    At least issuing official warnings (followed by tickets on second offense) to drivers who block the intersection might help in a cascading sort of way. I think a lot of drivers go before they have room because if they don’t, someone else will take that space and they won’t get anywhere. If the rules were enforced, drivers might not feel like they have to break them just to get through the intersection.

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