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Rainier RapidRide remake concepts fall short + Mayor Durkan should push SDOT for a more visionary plan

Rainier Ave is the only flat and direct street between Mount Baker and the International District/downtown. If southeast Seattle is ever going to have good bike access to the jobs and other major destinations downtown, Rainier Ave will need bike lanes. It is a diagonal street through the low point in a valley. There are no other options for a direct and flat bike route.

At the same time, Rainier is so wide and dangerous that it sees far more traffic collisions than north end streets with double its daily traffic volumes:

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The street connects downtown to neighborhoods with low rates of car ownership that have been shamefully underserved ever since Seattle started building bike lanes:

While there are two high quality bike route options for people traveling the three miles from the Fremont Bridge to the downtown core, there are zero quality options for people biking the three miles from downtown to Franklin High School and Mount Baker Station.

With protected bike lanes on Rainier Ave, it could be as easy and comfortable to bike to the south end as it is to bike to Fremont. There is no other bike investment outside downtown that would have as big an impact as Rainier Ave bike lanes, especially the north section between Mount Baker and the International District.

This is the perfect time to make bold changes to this stretch of Rainier Ave because Sound Transit is currently building a light rail station where the road crosses I-90. That station will have no car parking and will head directly to job centers on the Eastside, so being able to access this station by walking, biking and transit is vital. And Rainier Ave is the only direct and flat option for making that connection.

But an SDOT RapidRide project that is planning to redesign this stretch of the street appears on the verge of blowing this opportunity. Project planners presented three options for the street recently, none of which feature quality bike lanes. This is simply not acceptable.

You can tell the project team through their online open house that you want them to go back to the drawing board and find a solution for Rainier Ave that includes safety and mobility for people biking and keeps buses running reliably. The open house ends Saturday, so don’t wait to fill it out.

There are so many examples of streets around the world that move transit efficiently, carry plenty of cars and include safe bike lanes. Rainier Ave is a very wide street. I do not accept the excuse that planners cannot find a way to fit bike lanes on it:

There is plenty of space for protected bike lanes here.

This is a good opportunity for Mayor Jenny Durkan to assert herself as a transportation leader. The mayor should direct SDOT to prioritize walking, biking and transit on Rainier Ave and to get her a design that would help the city meet its biking, traffic safety, equity and climate change goals. The current options all fail by these measures.

Some red and green paint, some flowers and planters and you’ve got pilot bike and bus lanes on Rainier Ave. Concept image made via Streetmix.

Even better, Mayor Durkan could challenge SDOT to come up with a pilot project on Rainier Ave to try out protected bike lanes and bus improvements using paint and other low-cost materials. That way people can see how it would work for themselves and project planners could observe and make improvements as needed.

Mayor Durkan has already proposed connecting downtown’s 2nd Ave bike lane to the Dearborn bike lanes in 2019. If she directed SDOT to also accelerate that plan, people would be able to bike from the Space Needle to Franklin High School entirely on a relatively flat and traffic-separated bike route by the end of this year.

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14 responses to “Rainier RapidRide remake concepts fall short + Mayor Durkan should push SDOT for a more visionary plan”

  1. Yes! A protected bike lane from Rainier Beach to Downtown on Rainier Avenue S would do more to increase bike ridership, improve safety, and address inequities in our city than any other bikeway project. Let’s get this done.

    1. NickS

      Preach! Completely and totally agree. As a Rainier Beach resident of 12 years, I’m increasingly frustrated as SE Seattle is left behind as the city adopts more livable approaches in wealthier, whiter central and north-end neighborhoods.

  2. asdf2

    This is just another example of giving lip service to bikes and transit, but at the end of the day, prioritizing SOV throughput over all else. The reason why there isn’t room for a bike lane is SDOT’s insistence on having two car lanes in each direction. Each single-direction car lane carries enough space for a 2nd-Ave.-style, bi-directional protected bike lane.

    1. RossB

      I agree. The thinking behind giving two lanes *each direction* to cars doesn’t make sense *for this corridor*. I can see it on other streets (like Aurora, or Lake City Way) but believing you need two lanes each direction is simply outdated thinking for this corridor.

      Consider northbound first. Where are the cars supposed to go? Downtown is already full. We are considering congestion pricing, for heaven’s sake. There is simply nowhere to put cars downtown. Broadway? No, it is narrow, and we certainly don’t want extra cars there. Boren? Again, the idea that cars will move quickly on Boren is simply outdated. Fifty years ago, sure. Twenty years ago, maybe. Now, there are simply too many cars in South Lake Union. The last thing we want is to send more of them towards one of the biggest bottlenecks in the state. Northbound Rainier is basically like the West Seattle Freeway. You can add all the lanes you want, but the cars won’t move any faster, because the bottleneck is simply a bit farther up the road (I-5 in the case of the West Seattle Freeway, and the greater downtown area in the case of Rainier Avenue).

      It is clear that SDOT, in a weird way, actually understands this. That is why they have northbound only bus lanes. Why northbound? Because that is where the traffic jams are. Things get backed up — despite having all those lanes.

      Southbound is a little different. You could make the argument that lots and lots of cars will be leaving downtown, and need a place to go. Fair enough. Except you can’t take lanes downtown (for streetcars and buses) and pretend that there will be more cars than ever downtown. And again, we really don’t want folks driving downtown — at all. That is what the congestion pricing proposal is all about. It is crazy to think that on one hand folks in city hall are ready to tack on yet another regressive, arguably unfair tax to alleviate downtown congestion, yet on the other hand are making sure the pipes to and from the congested area are huge.

      It doesn’t make any sense. At a minimum, we should have one general purpose lane heading north. This would be identical to Tom’s proposal, except no southbound bus lane. Have the bus share the general purpose lane southbound (which is actually what SDOT proposes for most of this). As time goes on, and we realize that we don’t really need two general purpose southbound lanes, we can then transition one of them to serve buses.

  3. SM

    Regarding your cross section: What about bus stop locations? I’m all for better bike infrastructure on Rainier, but let’s not forget about the ~11,000 people that ride the Route 7 everyday, that will still need access.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Nobody is forgetting about the bus. There are many ways to solve that issue. For a low-cost pilot, choices might be limited to either trying a fabricated bus island or having bus/bike mix zones. Not a perfect long term design, but would work for a pilot. The best options would likely need more significant construction.

      1. eddiew

        the SM question is key. both bike and bus need to be at the curb. intending bus riders need to walk between the buses stopped in-lane and the sidewalk. if there is a bus island, what is done with the lane space north and south of the island? There is no parallel parking. the key mixing is between peds and bikes.

        the issue should be broadened to include all arterials and all bus routes. could bikes and buses be focused on different arterials? brave riders could continue to use the transit arterials. suppose transit was removed from MLK Jr. Way between Madison Street and Mt. Baker. it would have bike emphasis in both directions. It would connect with the I-90 and Arboretum facilities and hence with SR-520 and South Dearborn Street PBL.

        the SDOT materials hint at other parallel bike facilities.

  4. NickS

    Before it’s too late, how do we mobilize and make SDOT and Metro reconsider bike lanes on Rainier? And no, adding a tiny section for the folks living around the north end of Mt Baker is NOT sufficient. We need Rainier Beach to downtown to happen.

    Instead of bike lanes, we’re getting a “center turn lane to nowhere” — the vast majority of this large, dedicated lane between Hillman City and Rainier Beach will be completely unused. Already, in the stretch between Columbia City and Hillman City, speeding cars use the center turn lane not to turn, but to pass buses and cars observing anything remotely approaching the 25 mph speed limit. With no enforcement from SPD, the speed limit might as well be 45.

    Secondarily, how do we encourage SDOT to lower speed limits on neighborhood streets adjoining Rainier, to discourage people from using parallel streets as a Rainier Ave S. bypass? It’s absurd to have a 25MPH speed limit on Rainier Ave S, and a 30+ mph speed limit on residential Seward Park Ave S, Wilson Ave S, and 50th between Rainier and Genessee. The wealthy and organized residents of Mt Baker have successfully gotten SDOT to add safer crossings, speed cushions, and speed limit warning signs on 31st between McClellan and Massachusetts, despite the lack of schools or adjoining parks. My neighbors pleas for the same on Seward Park Ave S. (blocks from Rainier Beach High School and Beer Sheva Park) have fallen on deaf ears.

  5. Tony

    Great article. A quick review of the Rainier Valley projects that no new projects have been built in RV in the past 5 years (they’ve merely turned existing bike lanes in to slightly improved, ‘protected’ bike lanes – Rainier Beach to Renton, Othello-Myrtle, Alaska St S, Renton Ave) All of which makes it very difficult to believe that Seattle would prioritize this project.

    But hey, hope springs eternal.

    Mayor Jenny will show her spots soon enough.

  6. RossB

    I hope this is the last vestiges of what appears to be a dysfunctional SDOT planning department. More and more information is coming out about how the department had major communication problems. Despite being contacted repeatedly by Metro, it didn’t bother to adjust its estimates for operating the streetcar, despite the fact that Metro is the one operating it. Despite the fact that one of the key goals of the Northgate pedestrian bridge is to connect to North Seattle College, they failed to address, or even discuss the college’s concerns. Now we see yet another project that just doesn’t make sense.

    To be clear, I realize we can’t have everything. We have a very limited budget, and there are conflicting interests. The Roosevelt RapidRide project (which was originally touted as a BRT project) is a great example. Transit advocates hoped for more bus lanes. But there simply wasn’t enough space to put in bus lanes and bike paths. As corridors go, it is more important as a bike path. Alternatives exist, but they are very expensive, and would involve spending a bunch of money on land that is currently private so that bikers could zig-zag their way towards downtown. Spending that kind of money to speed up transit would probably not be worth it. I get it, and understand why they made the kind of compromises they did. Bike travel will be much better, and bus travel will be a bit better. As projects go, it is disappointing, but understandable, given our limited budget.

    But the changes to 65th make no sense at all. Narrowing the sidewalk next to a light rail station? Providing nothing for transit, and actually making the buses slower? All the while, doing basically nothing for bikes. It is a nonsensical proposal — so bad that a high school student can do better (and did).

    Now you have this. The first proposal aims to improve transit, by building a northbound bus lane there. Sounds good to me, but look at the actual lanes. It switches back and forth, between the inner lane to the outer lane. That is crazy. Changing lanes takes time for a bus, especially when traffic is slow (which is the only time you really need the bus lane). It makes no sense.

    Meanwhile, you have a major disconnect between what the mayor is doing on one hand (studying congestion pricing) and this proposal. As I said up above, it makes no sense to have two lanes of traffic *into downtown*. Not when it is clear that there already too many cars there. This isn’t Aurora or Lake City Way, both of which feed into the freeways. There is simply no place to put the cars as they head north. Two lanes into downtown at best means that other cars from other parts of the city face more congestion. Rainier Avenue cars get to jump ahead of First Avenue cars (yippee). At worst it is meaningless. Cars wait to get into town, and the number of lanes is irrelevant. It is like having five lanes leading to I-5 during rush hour. Adding lanes doesn’t help (that’s not the problem). At a very minimum, I would get rid of the northbound general purpose lane.

    That is remarkably close to your proposal. The only difference is that there would be no southbound transit lane. I could live with that. From the standpoint of moving cars, it actually makes sense. We do want to make exiting downtown as easy as possible (even while we encourage alternatives). If a truck wants to sit behind a bus, so be it. That actually reduces traffic inside downtown.

    I feel like SDOT was just going through the motions here, and on 65th. They plugged in some numbers, and came out with a plan. In this case, it ignores how a bus would actually use the right of way. In both cases it ignored how the street fits into the overall transportation system. Rainier Avenue *ends* downtown. There is going to be *more* congestion downtown, and we want *fewer* cars there. Having two general purpose lanes feeding vehicles there just doesn’t make any sense, and should be obvious to anyone who is looking at the big picture. Unfortunately, no one at SDOT is looking at the big picture, and hasn’t in a while. The main person responsible for doing so — the director — left. The interim director (along with the mayor) is busy trying to figure out why the former department was so dysfunctional. Hopefully they figure it out soon — it is obvious that there are a lot of messes to clean up, including this one.

  7. Ezra Basom

    I submitted these comments to SDOT during the online Open House. This is a huge equity and fairness issue.

    Dear Seattle Department of Transportation,

    As the planning and public outreach process gets underway I would like to submit my comments regarding RapidRide Rainier. I am a King County Metro Transit Operator, former Board Member of the Seattle Transit Advisory Board, a long term Rainier Valley resident and an active bicycle rider and commuter.

    South Seattle has not benefited from the investments in bicycle infrastructure that have occurred in other areas of the city. As a daily bicycle commuter, who frequently uses Rainier Avenue the notion that a parallel route is a good option in Rainier Valley for bicycling does not acknowledge the fact that Rainier Avenue is the logical and only practical street that directly links downtown Seattle to the entire Rainier Valley. There is no parallel route. The idea that cyclists should wind their way along side streets with numerous turns, hills and crossings, uneven pavement, and other obstacles compared to a direct route connecting the neighborhoods of South Seattle defies the logical assumptions that should be grounded with good urban planning. While there has been good intentions to create a North to South bicycle greenway in Rainier Valley the route is not well designed and I don’t see how it could be designed given the lack of a consistent parallel route to Rainier Avenue. Once improvements are made on the length of Rainier, and cyclists feel less intimidated to ride there, the alternative greenway won’t be a practical alternative to riding on Rainier Avenue. Rainier is the “main street” for Rainier Valley. It connects our neighborhoods and business districts and the people who live, work or spend time in South Seattle.

    As a Metro Transit Operator I have driven multiple routes in BAT lanes on Seattle streets including Rapid Ride D. The plan for a BAT lane along significant stretches of Rainier Avenue while advantageous for transit poses significant operational issues for transit because of conflicts with bicycles and right turning vehicles. In the BAT lane on 15th Ave W. bicycles are especially problematic. When there is a bicycle using the BAT lane, given the congested all purpose lanes, the bus is unable to pass the bicycle. The volume of bicycles is low on Elliott Way and 15th Avenue West, however given the lack of reasonable bicycle infrastructure in South Seattle any BAT lanes on Rainier Avenue would likely attract a large volume of cyclists. Buses would then be reduced at frequent intervals to traveling at the speed of the bicycles, which would result in slower speeds for transit.

    What I implore you to consider in the planning process is how to create a built environment on Rainier Avenue that supports bicycles using the BAT lane but also creates a space where buses are able to safely pass the bicycles at frequent intervals. Would it be possible to create a design that has stretches of protected bicycle lanes on Rainier adjacent to the BAT lane? This design would enable to the cyclist to move from the BAT lane into the protected bicycle lane and then back into the BAT lane giving the opportunity for the bus to pass. This feature would be especially critical on stretches where there a limited stops for the Rapid Ride route and where the likelihood of the bus getting stuck behind cyclists is greater.

    I strongly encourage you during this design process to maximize any opportunities for BAT lanes on Rainier in all sections. PARKED CARS SHOULD BE THE LOWEST PRIORITY ON RAINIER. Any opportunity to restrict or eliminate right turns for general traffic that interferes with the BAT lane should also be seriously considered. Mixing right turn lanes with the BAT lane is a significant problem on all Rapid Ride routes in Seattle. If there is an intersection that is a high priority for right turns, where cars are likely to wait in a queue, a design that would be better for transit operations would be to have a separate lane for turning vehicles with a controlled light. Waiting for turning vehicles to clear the BAT lane is a significant cause of transit delays in BAT lanes in Seattle.

    A priority for transit and bicycles along with a strong investment in pedestrian safety and improved crossings should be the baseline for the restructure of Rainier. There is a significant equity and social justice issue to this project and the historic under investment of infrastructure that supports people walking, biking and using transit in South Seattle. The design can be made to work that creates a safe design and supports the community.


    Ezra Basom

  8. Tim Gatlin

    The Streetmix image at the top is unfortunately one of the widest portions of Ranier. There is truly not room for both protected bike lanes and bus lanes in both directions. However, there is room for a bus lane in one direction and bike lanes in both directions, and SDOT never seems to acknowledge this.

    SDOT continually attempts to pit transit against bicycles, claiming that they cannot fit both bus and bike lanes. This is false. Using Streetmix, I have modeled out what this conflict looks like.

    A typical Seattle arterial is about 70 feet wide, with four traffic lanes and one center turn lane: https://streetmix.net/-/673937

    This is the typical dichotomy that is presented in proposals:

    Transit: https://streetmix.net/-/675430

    Or bikes: https://streetmix.net/-/673938

    This is what should be built (I’ve used streetcars to illustrate the transit lanes): https://streetmix.net/-/675432

    Here’s an example in Amsterdam of what this looks like, although there is also parking:

    Here’s another street in Charleroi with transit lanes (although without bike lanes): https://www.google.com/maps/@50.4356698,4.4404864,3a,75y,338.77h,81.71t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s-s5v84cs4q8CCsu76q5a9w!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!5m1!1e2

    The lanes often alternate every few blocks, so that both directions get priority. This is how transit and biking should be done in the city.
    Questions and comments are greatly appreciated, and I apologize if this seems written in a mocking tone, as it comes from years of frustration with this process.

  9. Tim Gatlin

    Sorry, the “what should be built” cross-section actually looks like this: https://streetmix.net/-/675450

    1. Tim Gatlin

      It seems that Streetmix doesn’t illustrate lane colors. The center lane would be a transit lane in my proposal.

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