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Mayor Durkan is right, we do need a ‘reset’ on Move Seattle

This Move Seattle map shows the clear focus on transit, biking, walking and maintenance that voters approved in 2015. Seattle’s leaders need to get back to this vision.

As regular readers of Seattle Bike Blog know, I have been on family leave since late January following the early birth of my daughter. So unlike the daily news regimen I have reported since 2010, I have not had the bandwidth to post about some major local transportation stories as they have happened. It’s been hard to follow the news and not be a part of it.

But maybe taking a step back and looking at the big picture around Seattle transportation would be helpful right now. Mayor Jenny Durkan and Interim SDOT Director Goran Sparrman are calling for a “reset” of Move Seattle to recognize the likelihood of less Federal funding than was assumed under the levy proposal.

I agree that we need a Move Seattle reset, though not in the form of big cuts targeting walking, biking, transit and safety projects as has been the pattern so far under Mayor Durkan. Since passage of the levy, our city’s transportation actions have drifted far off course from the transit, walking, biking, safety and maintenance mission voters approved in 2015. What we’re doing now is not working. Our city needs strong leaders with a creative vision to figure out how to get the job done even if the Feds don’t come through as originally hoped.

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But a reset should not mean abandoning the extensive walking, biking and transit master plans that took years to develop, were approved by City Council, and were funded by the voters. Nor should it mean abandoning the city’s Vision Zero plan or the multi-agency One Center City plan for downtown. It may be true that the methods for accomplishing the goals in these plans needs to evolve — either due to funding or because there are better ideas — and that’s where the mayor can step in and be a strong leader.

The Move Seattle levy may be the most ambitious local transportation funding package voters have passed in any U.S. city. $930 million over nine years, and almost all the funding was earmarked for transit, walking, biking and maintenance of existing assets. To pass a levy of this scale with very little funding for new or expanded roads and highways marked a big shift in the city’s transportation vision. The voters were clear in November 2015 that they believe walking, biking and transit are the future in Seattle, and they are willing to pay hard-earned cash for it. City leaders must deliver what the people of Seattle are paying for.

The proposed annual levy budget from this Move Seattle levy PDF.

But since the levy passed, our (many) mayors and SDOT leaders have lost that vision. With the Center City Streetcar now paused, the biggest levy project funded so far is the Lander Street Overpass, a cars and freight project located just blocks from Sodo Station that prioritizes extra traffic lanes over walking and biking. This project is the closest thing to a new or expanded road in the whole levy, and it got expedited years early and was given a pass by SDOT staff and city leaders despite concerns that it is missing both a bike lane and a sidewalk on its south side. This project as designed does not resemble the goals and vision of Move Seattle, yet it has been fast-tracked while transit, biking and walking projects are delayed.

Another early major Move Seattle investment was the so-called “intelligent transportation systems program” on Mercer Street that has slowed buses and people biking on cross-street routes and caused serious harm to walking mobility and safety in South Lake Union and Uptown. By reprogramming signals to take time away from cross-streets and people walking, this project has stolen mobility from people outside of cars in a futile effort to make driving on Mercer a little less terrible. This project represents the exact opposite of the Move Seattle vision voters approved in 2015 (we need a leader who will identify this failure and dedicate funding budgeted for future ITS projects to fully redo the Mercer signals to prioritize walking).

Meanwhile, mayoral and SDOT leaders have cut or seriously delayed the bold promises about a downtown bike network and rapid bus upgrades that inspired voters. The levy was sold with images of truly multimodal streets like this one:

Image from an early Madison Bus Rapid Transit concept.

We were supposed to reprioritize streets all over the city with walking, biking and transit in mind. The map at the top of this post shows safety projects at every public school, a safe and comfortable bike network downtown and across the city, and “multimodal corridor projects” along major commercial streets in every neighborhood. This is what people voted for.

Yet so far, cars-first projects are moving forward while many walking, biking and transit projects get delayed, cut or watered down beyond recognition. SDOT staff behind many of the multimodal corridor projects in planning so far (Madison, Delridge, Rainier) have been pitting transit against bikes in a cynical ploy to cut bike lanes while still appearing to have tried. Car parking was deemed more important than bike lanes on a Rainier Ave safety project from Columbia City to Rainier Beach. Many of the city’s neighborhood greenways are uselessly windy or hilly, and two of them (Delridge and Central Seattle) even have staircases that make them literally unbikeable (that’s right, they are unbikeable bike routes). The 24th Ave so-called “Vision Zero” project has cut essentially all the safety and transit improvements despite finding a significant history of collisions on that street. The Fauntleroy Boulevard project, which would make big biking and walking improvements to the entrance to the Junction, has been effectively cancelled. And the final phase of a safety project on 35th Ave SW has been cancelled after an initial phase effectively eliminated serious injury and fatal collisions on the street. Phase 1 has quite possibly saved lives and prevented a half dozen or so serious injuries, but city leaders are apparently not in the mood to save even more people from “I-35” traffic collisions.

The sum of all of this is pretty demoralizing, especially all the cuts to safety projects. For a visual of how far behind the city is on its downtown bike lane promises, for example, the Spring 2015 update of the city’s bike facilities construction plan foresaw this for central Seattle by the end of 2018:

Blue=Protected bike lane, Green=Neighborhood Greenway, Orange=Painted bike lane. Thick lines are 2018 projects, thin lines are projects completed in previous years.

In this plan, 4th Ave already has a bike lane, Pike and Pine bike lanes already stretch from Pike Place Market to Broadway, and there are already connections to south end bike routes. But in reality, there are zero quality connections to the south end, the Pike/Pine bike lanes downtown are very short and essentially nonfunctional in places, and Mayor Durkan recently announced that she will delay the 4th Ave bike lane into the next decade.

Basically, the city is about two years behind on a downtown plan it created three years ago when it was seeking voter support for Move Seattle. After winning that support, the city bailed on those promises citing the need for yet another plan: One Center City. We argued hard against that delay, and people even protested at City Hall, but the mayor’s office was insistent that the bike network would get back on track once the One Center City process recommended them. And now that One Center City has recommended bike lanes again, Mayor Durkan has signaled that she is going to bail on those promises anyway.

The political cost of bailing is immense. There is a huge amount of positive energy in this city ready to back bold changes to the way our streets work, but further delays and cuts to major commitments are alienating these would-be supporters. Without prompt action to show that Mayor Durkan is serious about building a downtown bike network, people are going to harden into political enemies. Mayor Durkan’s term may still be young, but the work for these downtown bike lanes has been dragging on for three years.

Shortly after announcing that she would delay the 4th Ave and Pike/Pine bike lanes into the early 2020s, Mayor Durkan announced a congestion pricing plan for downtown. This is a massive proposal, the kind of idea that could revolutionize transportation and the streetscape in Seattle forever if done right and equitably. But the groundswell of community support such a proposal would need to make it through the strong and expected backlash was still reeling from the betrayal of watching years of promises broken. The result is a mayor flapping in the wind, vowing to toll everyone who drives into her city with few people to back her up and cheer her on.

Without strong and organized community support behind her touting the benefits of such a system (less congestion, more funding for better transit and safer streets, more options for car-free streets, etc), her plan is doomed, and she will lose credibility as a transportation leader.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

It is still very early in Mayor Durkan’s term, and she has plenty of time to turn things around. A Move Seattle “reset” could be a great way to frame that effort. So far that reset seems to mostly mean cancelling or delaying biking, walking and transit projects, which is troubling. Because in order to build the support she needs to make transportation or climate change progress, Mayor Durkan needs to rebuild a coalition of walking, biking and transit supporters like the one that passed the Move Seattle levy.

People need to see that Mayor Durkan is serious about taking action on the big transportation plans the people of Seattle have painstakingly developed and funded over the past half decade. People also need to know that the resources behind any projects cut or delayed are being reinvested in an equal or better way. And those reinvestments need to happen on the same timetable so we don’t fall further behind on our goals. In order to inspire transportation supporters, she needs to do something inspiring. (Here’s one idea.)

There is an enormous amount of potential for Seattle to be a national leader in the shift to more sustainable, efficient, equitable and healthy transportation during Mayor Durkan’s term. The city has the plans and the funding. The mayor should be cutting ribbons, not bike lanes.


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27 responses to “Mayor Durkan is right, we do need a ‘reset’ on Move Seattle”

  1. Andres Salomon

    It doesn’t help that SDOT has totally bungled outreach on projects like 35th Ave NE safety/repaving. Thus, the Mayor’s Office has been getting daily emails/phone calls from neighbors opposed to bike lanes ever since she took office.

    Most of the folks opposed to bike lanes on 35th want other safety improvements, such as crosswalks, traffic calming, signals, no-right-on-red, etc. SDOT has not communicated how the design will improve pedestrian safety, nor has it described how removing the extra peak-hour travel lane is a precursor to many of those additional pedestrian improvements. Instead, SDOT has managed to just piss off everyone.

    Regardless of how Durkan feels about these projects, without a major restructuring of SDOT we’re not going to see much progress. The past few years of SDOT management have been a disaster.

  2. bill

    A fabulous post, Tom! I completely agree. The numerous projects cancelled or altered into uselessness have left this voter and taxpayer cynical and untrusting. I am unlikely to vote for any additional levies and incumbent politicians until a significant number of Move Seattle’s promised projects are resumed.

    Regarding the Fauntleroy Boulevard project, it was at 100% design and fully funded by Move Seattle. The opponents, as far as I am aware, successfully used the conceptual “Representative Alignment” of the Link extension to West Seattle to argue against tearing up Fauntleroy twice in ten years. Again, as far as I am aware, this decision was made behind closed doors with no prior publicity. So a fully funded, shovel ready safety project was cancelled, premised on the hypothetical light rail extension that will not be ready for at least ten years, and almost certainly will either never be built, or will be years late, or will be entirely unlike the current proposal (there are strong arguments being made for tunneling instead of going overhead). Where can I get political influence like this? I want some!

    A slight correction about the 35th Ave SW road diet: Rather than, “effectively eliminated serious injury and fatal collisions on the street,” it eliminated those hazards on about half the street, south of SW Morgan. The second phase was going to apply to the northern portion between Morgan and Alaska, approximately. I don’t recall if any bike facilities were promised for either section. The southern part remains unbikeable. However, it is significantly safer and less stressful to drive and I very much wish the second phase had not been canceled.

    1. Alkibkr

      You are so right. How ironic is it that they are putting on indefinite hold the Fauntleroy Boulevard Project safety improvements that have been 8 years in planning and are shovel ready “because of possible conflicts the light rail station” planned for 22 years in the future, while there is still no safe bicycle route from West Seattle to the nearest already operational light rail station in SODO? And yet the bike-unfriendly Lander Street bridge was quickly designed and is breaking ground in a few months.

  3. Ben P

    It’s crazy because the mayor and the council members mostly ran on making transit and billing improvements. I’m confused how we win elections and lose projects.

    1. Ben P

      *biking improvements. But with the proposed downtown tolling, billing improvements are proposed

    2. Steven Lorenza

      Old cranky white folks are out numbered at the polls, but know how to harass city hall effectively.

  4. Les Bois

    Yes, we need a reset, but not the one you advocate. Seattle seems to be at war with cars and drivers. Let’s be clear: the roads are made for cars. City government, including the mayor, need to implement more car-friendly policies. I live in Magnolia, and the streets are in terrible shape due to long-term deferred maintenance and neglect. They are a real hazard to drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. I pay a lot in local taxes, and want to see more of that money dedicated to maintaining basic infrastructure, rather than squandered on more bike lanes and other frivolous projects.

    1. bill

      We’ve already paved as much of the city as is possible. Unless you want to double-deck the roads, there is no more space for driving cars. Be honest, when was the last time a bicycle delayed you on 99 or 15th or downtown? I am certain sure you were waiting behind other cars.

      If you want better driving conditions, there needs to be fewer cars on the roads. The cheapest way to get people out of cars is to provide attractive bicycle facilities. Every cyclist is a car off the road. If you don’t want to spend money on good cycle facilities, every cyclist discouraged from biking is another car on the road. In front of you.

      1. bill

        Correction: We could widen the streets. We just have to cut down all the trees. If you want to see what that is like, if you want to see Paradise paved to Hell, visit Honolulu.

    2. Law Abider

      If you want the streets repaired, push for more upzoning and development in your neighborhood and lobby the Council to push for half street reconstruction requirements for all developments.

    3. AW

      From reading your post, I am gathering that you believe that the only valid means to get around Seattle is by car. This is a false assumption. I and many others use a bicycle as a primary (and often only) means of transport. In fact I commute many more miles by bike than some do by car. I already pay a lot in local taxes and deserve safe and direct routes.

      I do not understand what you mean by “war on cars”. Cars already are able to travel on just about every single street and roadway in the city except the few dedicated bicycle trails such as Burke Gillman. Car drivers are the winners here, people who ride bikes, walk and take transit are the losers and this is about trying to get a few more breadcrumbs while drivers devour many loaves.

    4. Apu

      I pay a lot in taxes too, and I commute to work daily by bike. My wife commutes to her by bike as well, and we transport our kid to daycare by bike. Can you explain exactly in what way our need to get to work is more frivolous than yours?

    5. Jules James

      Retrofitting bicycle traffic onto arterials just hasn’t worked. Sorry. That is what the numbers say. A re-set in strategy is appropriate. Most of us enjoy bike riding. So why has the ridership count actually decreased between 2014 and 2017 at the Spokane Street and Fremont Bridge counters? Seattle’s population has increased 10%. I’m a bike commuter. I don’t use arterial bike lanes. Too noisy. Too many things to dodge. Too many things going faster than me. Too much Tour de Spandex. I prefer side streets where it is quiet and my 10 MPH is pretty close to the fastest thing around.

  5. Steve

    Great article! Hopefully Mayor Durkan will come around.

    What seems to be missing is a strong political voice able and willing to hold elected officials accountable. Seems like Cascade’s strong political and electoral advocacy was disempowered, and we’re seeing the natural consequences. If we want this not to happen in the future, we need people who walk and bike to be willing to hold people’s feet to the fire at the ballot box (and by canvassing and phone banking and raising funds for walk, bike, and transit-friendly candidates).

    1. I’m a long time Seattle resident and bicycling advocate that’s been away from the PacNW for a few years pursuing a masters degree in urban planning – what’s happened to CBC’s advocacy efforts? the current situation on the streets of Seattle as depicted by Tom is quite disenheartening.

      1. Steve

        My take: the board didn’t like adversarial politics, and wanted to focus on recreational side. Hence, they cleaned house of the staff who had experience in hard political/electoral advocacy, merged with soft politics WA Bikes, and you see the results.

  6. RossB

    I agree. SDOT is a mess, and the mayor needs to fix it. That will likely take time. The previous direction (Kubly) is gone. The interim direction, Sparrman, has only been in charge for a few months (as has the mayor). While Sparrman was the previous director, that was four years ago, and he hasn’t been part of the department since. There have been significant changes since then, and most of these projects started before he (or the mayor) took office. Ultimately he is responsible, but he is probably spending most of his time simply trying to get his staff in order, instead of overseeing individual projects to see if they make sense.

    It is telling that the mayor has basically said “stop everything” with regards to only this department. She seems reasonably pleased with how the other departments are doing. But the other departments are relatively stable. It isn’t clear whether Sparrman is going to be the long term head of the department. If he isn’t, then maybe they should hold off on making changes until a new head is in charge. So many of these projects seem to be designed and built in isolation. The mayor proposes tolling to reduce the number of cars going into downtown, then decides to have *two lanes* of traffic from Rainier Avenue headed downtown. The disconnect there is obvious, and yet you can see that with numerous other projects. These need to change — either Sparrman needs to start taking responsibility and actually start meeting the mayor’s goals, and they need to find a different SDOT head.

  7. NP

    I think the problem has always been how to define a successful project. Everybody has different objectives. What are the metrics that we use to define success? Less average time spent in traffic? Less cars on road? Less carbon dioxide? Less traffic accidents./injuries? More people commuting by bike? Every objective is going to have varying solutions. I think some objectives are mutually exclusive; i.e. Its hard to increase flow of traffic and reduce accidents at the same time.

    My opinion would be to shoot for the lowest possible “average commute time” . This would include biking, driving, or transit. Projects should be prioritized by their effect on “average commute time.” For example… If a bike line would get enough people through their commute faster and reduce the “average” then it would be built before a project that makes things safer. They key thing is the “average” commute time; increasing commute times for some has to be enough to compensate for the reduced commute time of others.

    1. Alkibkr

      I can’t even get my head around why you would think speeding up travel times for people who commute would be more important than everyone’s safety.

  8. DJW

    I only voted for the levy in hopes that they would actually pave our decrepit roads (wishful thinking I know). As it is they put bike lane stripes over potholes and crumbling concrete and asphalt. The lanes separated by reflective markers never see a street sweeper and become broken glass repositories. I’m a pretty skilled cyclist and find it difficult to navigate. I don’t see much hope for attracting casual cyclists onto our mad-max level infrastructure, bike lanes or no.

    Also I find the light timing on mercer to be one of the few bright spot outcomes of the move seattle levy.

  9. Conrad

    Very well written and thank you! Move Seattle was a huge levy. I voted for it. What the city has delivered is shockingly minuscule. I won’t make that mistake again. I have about as much confidence in mayor Durian as Murray.

  10. […] only been 6 months, but the early record of the Durkan administration is not at all […]

  11. Tom, thank you for all your efforts over the years on bicycling advocacy in Seattle. ( I was one of those rabble-rousing activists that helped quash the mandatory bikelane/shoulder bill the BAW supported in the state legislature almost a decade ago.) I left Seattle in 2011, and haven’t followed the Seattle bike scene much since i left, but now have a masters degree in urban planning with a transportation concentration from the University of Michigan, and intend to return. Reading your recent post about the current state- and likely future trajectory- of Seattle’s bike network is quite disheartening.

    Keep up the good work! it’s disappointing Seattle and the SDOT hasn’t done the same.

  12. Bree L

    Thanks for this post. The recent Seattle Times series shows how far behind we are falling. It’s so frustrating to see such weak action on urgent transportation and use issues, even though we have elected such “progressive” representatives. I feel like advocates need a proactive transportation + land use agenda that we can push for, with a focus on equity. Project-based input seems to always privilege constituents who don’t want anything to change.



    Also, happy to see your daughter and family have made it through the toughest months. My son was born 10 weeks early last March. I haven’t gotten back on the bike much since but hope to soon. It’s definitely scarier to ride now as a parent, with woefully inadequate infrastructure! I can’t believe some of the greenways have stairs.

  13. […] lane downtown and $850,000 a mile elsewhere, the city can’t deliver on the full menu of resources that were promised. Signal improvements are planned to be completed this year but until the city finds more affordable […]

  14. […] lane downtown and $850,000 a mile elsewhere, the city can’t deliver on the full menu of resources that were promised. Signal improvements are planned to be completed this year but until the city finds more affordable […]

  15. […] learning the project was facing a $23 million shortfall. Then last month, the Durkan and Sparrman called for a “reset” of the Move Seattle Levy in light of losing some expected grant funding—not to mention a higher-than-expected project cost […]

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