Connecting the 2nd Ave bike lane to the International District and the Southeast Seattle bike routes beyond is proving to be very difficult.
This connection is the single most important missing piece of the downtown bike network, and the City Council this week included it in the resolution listing projects they want SDOT to complete by the end of 2019. A connection to the International District not only brings that neighborhood into the downtown bike network, it also unlocks Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley and large swaths of the Central District and First Hill. It is also connects to the Mountains to Sound Trail leading to the Eastside and beyond.
“The reality is that this route needs to exist if we want to connect to the southern half of the city,” said Clara Cantor of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.
But the extreme steepness of First Hill, missing street connections over the railroad lines near King Street Station and streetcar tracks in the middle of S Jackson Street create a pinch point where the bikeable route options overlap with bus routes that are about to get a hell of a lot busier when buses get kicked out of the tunnel.
After exploring a lot of options, SDOT has picked a route that bike network advocates including Seattle Neighborhood Greenways have not supported. But SDOT staff says it is the only route feasible in the near term.
The city’s plan includes bike lanes on Main Street from 2nd to 6th Avenues, then on 6th Avenue to Dearborn. SDOT staff presented the concept, which is still in draft form, during Wednesday’s Bicycle Advisory Board meeting.
The benefits of the route are that it is legible (other options included more twists and turns), it mostly avoids the First Hill Streetcar tracks and it avoids conflicts with major bus stops on Jackson and 5th Ave.
The downside is that the block of 6th Ave between Jackson and Main is a very steep 11 percent grade, climbing about 30 feet in just one block. It may be so steep that many people will avoid using it, which would defeat the purpose.
SDOT staff noted that once the 4th Ave bike lane is constructed — now planned for 2021, after the so-called “period of maximum constraint” when buses are kicked out of the tunnel but before Northgate Link opens — the bike route options may change. But to complete a connection by the end of 2019, this Main and 6th Ave route is what they say they can do.
Several Bike Board members expressed frustration at the route, seeing it as yet another case of the south end getting sub par bike infrastructure. Cantor at Seattle Neighborhood Greenways shared similar concerns.
“It’s not going to be age-friendly or kid-friendly,” Cantor said.
What were the other options?
Washington St -> 6th Ave (Purple line)
This route is a joke. The hill up to 6th and Washington is beyond extreme. It’s weird that it was even considered enough to make it onto the map. Perhaps it is there to make the city’s preferred route seem less extreme?
Main St -> 5th Ave -> King St -> 6th Ave (Red line)
This is the option Seattle Neighborhood Greenways prefers. It has a slight hill climb up to 5th, but it would be worth the climb to avoid the streetcar tracks and busy bus stops on Jackson St.
And even if the city goes ahead with their preferred option, this is the route I expect a large portion of riders will take even without a bike lane. The extra climb up to 6th just won’t be worth it to a lot of people. But if there is no bike lane on 5th Ave, that means people will either need to mix with car and bus traffic or ride on busy sidewalks.
As a bonus, this route would also give the bike route a proper entrance into the International District by traveling through the gate at 5th and King.
But 5th Ave is about to get a huge influx of buses when they are kicked out of the tunnel. The city’s bus route plans create a northbound bus route through downtown on 5th and 6th Avenues. Though it’s not clear that a bike route and buses can’t both operate efficiently on 5th Ave in this short stretch between Main and King, SDOT does not want to build a bike lanes there at this time.
2nd Ave Ext -> 4th Ave S -> Seattle Blvd -> 6th Ave S (Teal line)
This route, marked in teal on the map, had some promise. It is probably the flattest option, and possibly the fastest, too (depending on signal timing). But it also does not serve the International District very well, bypassing the neighborhood rather than becoming part of it.
It works decently well southbound. The connection to Dearborn is a bit odd, routing people a block beyond the street before turning back up to connect to it. But it could be great for folks headed to Sodo via Airport Way or 6th Ave S/the Sodo Trail.
Northbound is a bit more difficult, however. The route noted in SDOT’s map would route people from Dearborn north on 6th Ave S to S Weller St. From there, the bike route would go through a plaza and along a rather skinny and busy sidewalk next to the Union Station Garage entrance before crossing 4th into a two-way bike lane up to 2nd. This northbound route looks better on a map than it does in real life. If the parking garage entrance had been designed to allow more walkway space, this could be a real option. But it seems likely that there isn’t enough space on the existing walkway to squeeze in a bike lane:
Another option for making the connection from Dearborn to 4th Ave would be to somehow squeeze bike lanes onto Seattle Blvd (possibly a two-way bike lane on the south side of the street?), then get creative with the signal at the busy and confusing intersection with Dearborn, 5th Ave and the I-90 bus lanes to allow people biking to get to and from the Dearborn bike lanes and the bike lanes on Seattle Blvd.
Perhaps an ambitious redesign of the whole Seattle Blvd area with buses and bikes at the center could improve operations for both modes at the same time. It’s a worthy idea to keep around at least, but SDOT has deemed it implausible by the end of 2019.
Weller St Bridge (Brown line)
This option is a bit out there, but it’s cool that SDOT was creative enough to look into it. I actually use this route sometimes, at least outside peak commute hours and game days. It’s a nice little “secret” bike route between Pioneer Square and the International District. But it cannot work as a major bike route because it relies on an elevator to access the pedestrian walkway across the train tracks from the CenturyLink Field parking lot. Even if they somehow built a ramp up to the walkway (a likely very expensive endeavor), the bridge walkway can be absolutely packed with people walking during commute hours, game days or when a Sounder train arrives.
And even if the bridge issue is solved, the sidewalk next to the Union Station Garage is likely too skinny for all the biking and walking volumes, as discussed above.
On top of these issues, hardly any of the right-of-way belongs to SDOT, so it would require a lot of partnerships to get this route done. Again, it is worthy to look into ways to make this Weller St connection better, but it all seems implausible by the end of 2019.
The core issue: Streetcar tracks on Jackson (Blue line)
All of the issues discussed above dance around the real problem complicating this connection: The First Hill Streetcar tracks on Jackson St. We have argued since before the streetcar was constructed that Jackson needs bike lanes. It is the only street that connects from Pioneer Square and the waterfront to the International District, 12th Ave/Jose Rizal Bridge, Rainier Ave and the Central District. No matter how many improvements are made to nearby streets, Jackson will remain a well-used bike route simply because it is the only direct option.
But the city chose not to include bike lanes when it fully reconstructed the street five years ago as part of the First Hill Streetcar, a choice that has resulted in many injuries already (not to mention one tragic death on a different segment of the same streetcar line) and will continue to injure people until bike lanes are installed or the tracks are removed.
The tracks not only pose a hazard for people biking today, they also make it very difficult to redesign the street to make it both safe for biking and efficient for buses. It is much more expensive to move the tracks and the center median stations than it would have been to repaint the lines on the street. And because standard bus doors open on the right, buses need the curb lanes while the streetcar needs the center lanes. This leaves little room for bike lanes, especially bike lanes that don’t have conflicts at every bus stop.
If there were bike lanes on Jackson from Alaskan Way to Leschi like there should be, this whole south downtown problem would be simple to solve: Just take Jackson between 2nd and 6th. But this option is very difficult to build now (though perhaps not impossible). Imagine if Jackson had been designed with protected bike lanes and new transit stops that both buses and streetcars could use. If buses and streetcars used the same lanes and stops, it would have been obvious to make those lanes transit-only. Instead, we have transit mixed with general traffic in every lane and bikes without any lanes.
The redesign of Jackson was a huge mistake, and we will be feeling its negative impacts on bikeability for a long time to come. This struggle to connect huge swaths of our city south of downtown into the downtown bike network is ultimately due to poor planning decisions made not so long ago. If this were an old legacy streetcar, that would be one thing. But city planners designed this thing just seven years ago or so. They should have seen this coming and taken the bike route needs on the street seriously. Instead they were myopic about one transit vehicle type at the expense of other street users and missed out on an opportunity to create a more effective multimodal street.
After all, it’s not hard to imagine more people using Jackson Street bike lanes than riding the meandering First Hill Streetcar.
So the best option (Jackson) is basically not on the table. And the second-best option (5th Ave) has been denied for now. So the city is moving forward with the third or fourth best option, which is likely to be disappointing both to users hoping for a quality bike connection and in terms of the ridership numbers it generates. The plan includes some worthy segments, like 6th Ave, Main St and an extension of 2nd Ave. But it’s missing its core.
Much of the fault for the disappointing route may lie with current transportation leadership in Seattle, but the bulk of the fault, in my opinion, dates back to the design of the First Hill Streetcar. But it is what it is now, and we have to figure out how to make this connection work.
Despite its shortcomings, the city’s plan would be better than building nothing if that really is the choice. At least it would include some significant improvements and could set up better route options in the future after we see how buses are operating. The plans for the two steep blocks (Main from 5th to 6th and 6th from Main to Jackson) don’t involve significant investment, so the city would not be wasting lots of funding if those two blocks end up being scrapped later.
But if this option moves forward, SDOT should give assurances that they will study transit operations and revisit this bike connection sooner than later to see if bike lanes could work along side transit on 5th Ave or Jackson. I understand the nervousness around making changes to streets before we see how huge increases in bus volumes will function in real time. Setting a timeline for review (build in 2018 or 2019, review in 2020?) seems appropriate for this unique and vital connection where the city is knowingly building a subpar route.