How did Mayor Durkan get the 35th Ave NE decision so wrong? + Councilmembers respond

Supporters donned green scarves to show their support for the Bicycle Master Plan during a 2013 public hearing.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision this week to scrap planned, designed and contracted bike lanes on 35th Ave NE has drawn a major backlash as people are dismayed to hear that Seattle’s mayor is abandoning the Bicycle Master Plan in order to serve cars.

The Mayor’s Office and SDOT leadership dramatically misread Seattle’s true feelings about bike lanes, street safety and the need to take bold action to fight climate change. If they thought this was going to be the easier or “safer” move politically, then they don’t know Seattle at all.

It’s true that the anti-bike lane organizers around 35th Ave NE have been louder in the past year than those arguing in favor of the bike lanes (though the pro-bike lane side had some great actions, like last year’s moms ride in response to a sexist tweet from the anti-bike lane camp). But the critical error the mayor made here was to forget or ignore the larger picture of how we got here, which included years of organizing and thousands of hours of engaged public participation to create the plans and pass the levy to build these bike lanes. The Bicycle Master Plan was an enormous, multi-year project, and the Move Seattle Levy was an incredibly bold funding package that put biking, walking and transit first. Both sailed into law on a popular wave.

Perhaps the Mayor and her office made the mistake of conflating a localized opposition with citywide opinion, so they decided to serve a small group of neighbors at the expense of a citywide bike network vision. And perhaps because the mayor was not around for the years of Bicycle Master Plan development and missed the big public displays of support for it, she has made a big mistake by underestimating how many people in Seattle expect SDOT to actually build what the bike lanes the plan promises.

So why didn’t the pro-bike lane voices rise up to overpower the anti-bike lane organizers until now? Honestly, I don’t yet have a complete understanding myself. One theory is that people have had some other causes on their plates in recent years, like our Federal government being racist and horrible or our city failing to help people experiencing homelessness. There are only so many people who are going to dedicate tons of personal time watchdogging safe streets plans that the Council and the voters have already approved. Most people have many causes they care about, and they probably assumed that by passing these plans and funding measures the hard part was over, and the city was going to do its job.

So when word came down that the Mayor decided to kill this bike lane, it may have been a bit of a wake-up call that the whole Bicycle Master Plan is under threat. The city’s wasn’t just doing a poor job at building what it promised, the Mayor was actively dismantling progress that took years to earn.

Voters handed the city a mandate in 2015 when they voted for the Move Seattle Levy, but it seems the memo about that mandate was lost in the disgraceful and messy mayoral shuffle. Whoever has Mayor Durkan’s ear on transportation issues is not giving her an accurate picture of what the people really want. Either that, or she doesn’t care.

Seattle has not suddenly become super conservative and anti-bike, and it makes me want to pull out my hair that our city’s leaders keep acting like we have. Why? Because a poll of homeowners with landline telephones showed conservative leanings on these issues? I mean, good lord, who has a landline anymore? That’s not Seattle. Luckily, people don’t need to own a house with a landline telephone to vote.

Mayor Durkan was not elected on a mandate to cancel bike lanes. When asked about them on the campaign trail, she either said she supported them or (more often) was wishy washy, giving lawyerly non-answers. On the contrary, just about every City Councilmember was clear in their support for bike lanes while campaigning, and the people elected them knowing that.

So Seattle finds itself in an uneasy place, with a Mayor who refuses to enact policies the elected City Council unanimously passed and the voters endorsed. The Council typically prefers to defer to SDOT and the mayor for execution of transportation policy, rarely stepping in to reverse decisions or direct the details of department work. But maybe that needs to change. The City Council has somehow allowed themselves to be bullied out of power by Mayor Durkan, and it’s time for them to step up for the people they represent and the policies they have passed.

So whether we’re talking about N 40th Street or Wilson Ave S or the downtown Basic Bike Network, people expect the city to fulfill its promises and plans. The best case would be for the mayor to change her mind and allow SDOT to do its work. But if she won’t, we need the Council to step in.

Because the risks of inaction extend far beyond just this handful of streets. Inaction erodes public trust in SDOT and the transportation levy system, which will be up for renewal in 2024. And Mayor Durkan has put the city on a transportation crash course by abandoning core levy goals rather than rising to the challenge to at least try to deliver what we voted for. Who do they think volunteered their time to staff phone banks and knock on doors? It was people who believed in the levy’s vision. It’s going to take a lot of work to turn the department around, and the mayor’s poor performance so far (like letting the department languish without a Director for more than a year or taking a year to decide what to do about 35th even after contractors had poured the cement) suggests she is not up to the task.

Let’s not forget that her biggest transportation success so far, keeping people moving during the Viaduct shutdown early this year, happened in large part because many people chose to bike despite the mayor’s purposeful lack of effort to help them do so. So she might try to claim credit for that, but she didn’t earn it. After a year of indecision that delayed planned transit, biking and walking improvements, the people bailed her out. Seattle can’t afford to continue running SDOT like this.

Below are a few responses from Councilmembers following the mayor’s 35th Ave NE decision, starting with Transportation Committee Chair Mike O’Brien:

I’m disappointed – but not surprised. After years of conversation and study, Mayor Durkan should know better. As I told Executive’s staff, based on everything I know about this project, today’s announcement feels more like a political decision, rather than one made with the safety considerations of both riders and drivers in mind. We’ve seen over and over again this year that when people have safe, reliable options for bike commuting they’ll use them. In today’s political environment, fear-mongering, threats of violence, and other loud voices in any given room seem to have the last word. But as long as I’m an elected, I will make decisions based on my values – prioritizing sustainability and safety for everyone.

Here’s outgoing Transportation Committee member Rob Johnson, who represents District 4 where this project is located:

Here’s Teresa Mosqueda, who has been a strong supporter of walking, biking and transit so far during her time in office:

 

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46 Responses to How did Mayor Durkan get the 35th Ave NE decision so wrong? + Councilmembers respond

  1. Alyson G says:

    I’m an avid cyclist and very long time Cascade member. I am glad they dropped the bike lines from the planned changes to 35th Ave. I am NOT in favor off adding bike lanes to already busy thoroughfares. I much prefer taking parallel and quieter routes heading the same direction. For instance, I don’t enjoy the bike lanes down Stoneway or Roosevelt, nor the new ones on 65th. Cramming them in where there is already plenty of transportation pressure does not make it safer for cyclists. We do not need to be on the very same roadway – nearby and quieter is safer and much more pleasant.

    • Sal Ponce says:

      I agree with you about preferring the quieter side streets to having a bike lane added to a busy street. This can cause some comical bike lands like the one on Lucile going to Beacon Hill from Georgetown. I bet someone uses it but not me. When a Greenway is done well it can be great but the meandering greenway south of Rainier is just odd with all it’s zig zag. I still use it but man alive a straight shot would be better.

      • What are you talking about? I use the bike lanes on Lucile multiple times per week. It is one of the best, and only, feasible routes from Georgetown back up to Beacon Hill. What are your alternative suggestions?

        More importantly, that’s great that you prefer side streets. Not all cyclists do and the businesses are not on the side streets. Motorists need to get it through their thick skulls that many of us are not out riding for fun – it’s how I get around the city. How I get to work and the grocery store and everywhere else. I’m going to take the most direct route and I’m not going to go up and down a bunch of extra hills to placate some selfish, entitled motorists.

      • Nate T says:

        Yes there is like literally no other way to get up to Beacon hill besides Lucille which doesn’t require a cyclist to add 5 miles to their travel. Hmm…

    • Andres Salomon says:

      As someone who bikes with my kids on the Roosevelt PBL and on the new 65th PBL, I’d say you’re very very wrong. It feels much safer (though far from perfect) for me on the arterial PBLs. I advocated for greenways throughout this city, but the way that SDOT has built them has left me feeling unsafe. I don’t take the 12th Ave NE Greenway, for example, after repeated close calls of punishment passes, getting honked at and tailgated, and other awful behavior. Instead, I use Roosevelt heading south, where I only have to deal with potential right hooks (so I go slow at intersections). I wanted more for Roosevelt, like protected intersections, and I DEFINITELY wanted more for NE 65th, but Seattle’s greenway implementations are crap.

    • Dave R says:

      But there are plenty of people who want and use the protected bike lanes because they are going to places on Stone Way, 65th or would have on 35th. Just because you personally don’t like them is not a reason to cancel the project.

      I’ve also heard people complain about the Greenways as meandering and too indirect and they never use them. They don’t have to. But it’s not a reason to not build them – others prefer them. The Bike Master Plan accommodates both.

    • Conrad says:

      This makes me want to pull my hair out. I get it- the quieter side roads are more pleasant. I use them too, if they get me where I want to go. I hate to be the all caps guy BUT THE GROCERY STORE LIBRARY CAFE POST OFFICE AND A BUNCH OF OTHER THINGS ARE ON 35TH AND I WANT TO BE ABLE TO RIDE THERE WITHOUT BEING HIT BY A CAR, OK?

    • Stephen says:

      Entitlement much?

    • I’m an avid motorist and I am glad they dropped the parking from the planned changes to 35th Ave. I am NOT in favor off [sic] adding parking to already busy thoroughfares. I much prefer parking on parallel and quieter routes heading the same direction.

      I bet you believe me as much as I believe you.

    • RossB says:

      >> I much prefer taking parallel and quieter routes heading the same direction.

      But there aren’t any! That is the point. There literally is no feasible way to get from this part of the hill to the other (this isn’t Maple Leaf). Seriously, look at a topo map: https://caltopo.com/map.html#ll=47.68486,-122.27922&z=15&b=t. Play around with Google Maps. If you try going on a side street, you spend all your time zigzagging back and forth, while actually going up and down! Seriously, just look at this little section: https://goo.gl/maps/DX9QwWbKXro versus this: https://goo.gl/maps/iPBNHgMqVt72. To avoid 35th, you have to go an extra half mile, and climb almost 100 feet! This is only for one small trip. Sorry, but no one will do that. People will simply do what they have done for years, which is risk their life on 35th, or avoid biking altogether.

      It really isn’t a matter of accessing the shops and businesses (although that is an issue as well). It is a matter of making the only appropriate way to get around the hill safer.

    • Andres Salomon says:

      For the “Greenways are better, we don’t need dedicate bicycle lanes” folks, I give you this video:

      https://twitter.com/StumpToEmerald/status/1111702224114081792

  2. Joseph Singer says:

    I will probably vote for whoever runs against Durkin. She does not care about alternative modes of transportation or bicycles.

  3. MB says:

    I sent an email yesterday to the mayor saying how disappointed I have been regarding all things biking under her leadership and that I hoped she does better in the 2nd half of her term.

  4. too much already says:

    Avid biker here, ride from W Seattle to Fremont daily.

    I use and enjoy the bike lanes. At the same time, I’m frustrated by the all-or-none take on bike lanes. My honest view on the 35th Ave NE lanes, it seems like they’re very necessary and would be appreciated by a lot of people. The problem, and why I didn’t join the movement to counter the anti-lane car people? The all-or-none strategy has a new useless set of lanes planned for 35th Ave N in Fremont. I was confused, and because I think that Cascade and Bike Blog blind advocates are wrong to request, much less demand, the ill-conceived lanes planned for Fremont, I was glad when I heard people opposing the lanes.

    My advice, petition the city to put lanes where there are now none. Adding lanes to roads like 1st Ave downtown or 35th N in Fremont, where there is easy access to a bike lane a simple block or 2 away, deprive 35th NW, Rainier Valley, West Seattle, and other bike-unfriendly neighborhoods from the bare minimum.

    Yes I’d like roads to go away and bike/pedestrian traffic to dominate, but the yahoos calling for everything at once are unrealistic and counterproductive.

    • Southeasterner says:

      ” everything at once ”

      Everything at once? We are asking for about 1/80 of what they are installing in Atlanta, or 1/30 of what they are installing in Dallas.

      How did we get to the point where a couple miles of bike lanes every 2-3 years is “Everything at once?”

    • (Another) Tom says:

      “but the yahoos calling for everything at once are unrealistic and counterproductive.”

      Luckily it’s only your strawman that is calling for “everything at once.” Those of us in the real world would be happy to see half of what was promised in Move Seattle but we’re still waiting…

    • Dave R says:

      I ride that stretch of 35th every day as do a lot of others. It needs work as at the moment bikes mix with traffic and it’s only for the experienced rider – yet the Fremont Bridge is a key bike connector that the proposed path will feed into.

      Should it be the next project? No, probably not when Rainier Valley is in a desperate situation. But it needs to be fixed, and there’s no reason why it should not be done sometime. There is a well-thought out plan for bike routes in Seattle that should be implemented over time.

  5. Stephen Brandeis says:

    Why did we spend 5 years planning bike lanes when we have not yet figured out how to care for our Homeless Population. People are starving in front of our eyes and you are worrying about reaching the Post Office from 35th Avenue NE rather than from 36th Avenue NE?

    • Mark H says:

      You’re right. We should also stop building Link, stop the ballard CSO project, and stop holding any City meetings that don’t work on providing unlimited free housing.

    • Why did we spend 5 years fighting against bike lanes when we have not yet figured out how to care for our Homeless Population. People are starving in front of our eyes and you are worrying about parking near the Post Office on 35th Avenue NE rather than on 36th Avenue NE?

    • Southeasterner says:

      We built a $2 billion tunnel for cars yet you think a couple million for bike lanes is diverting all the funding from the homeless?

  6. biliruben says:

    Durkin dithers. She can’t make a decision without her finger in the air. And then, she still can’t make one.

    Worse, the staff which does make the decisions have made the calculus that there aren’t enough bicycle riders to influence elections, and shouldn’t be pandered to. Really.

    It’s up to us to prove them wrong.

  7. Krystal says:

    I called the mayor’s office and expressed my disappointment. I don’t bike much outside of my neighborhood as I am still learning city riding. I seems that we need both greenways and bike lanes as part of a comprehensive bike network. Places I’m going to are on arterials, where I live is near a greenway. Some of the greenways in my neighborhood are cut throughs for cars to avoid arterial traffic. Some of the greenways have such poor implementation that cars are not discouraged from using them. The parallel greenway to northern Delridge is a great example of poor implementation/limited driver discouragement of use. It’s wide to encourage speeding, the speed humps are spaced pretty far apart. I’m sick of drivers playing chicken with me when meeting me head on and passing too close well over 20mph on greenways and side streets.

  8. Ints says:

    SDOT is walking back Complete Street improvements along Sand Point Way near Magnuson Park as well.
    https://www.seattle.gov/transportation/projects-and-programs/safety-first/vision-zero/projects/sand-point-way-ne-vision-zero-project

    A consultant they hired recommended reducing speed limits and channelization for the stretch of roadway from NE 65TH Street to NE74TH Street to improve traffic and safety for all users.
    Instead, they got pushback from car owners and those who don’t live along Sand Point Way near the park and use it as an arterial. Now their “improvements” are limited to installing some sidewalks, changes to a few intersections, and some turn lanes.

    Between this and the flop on 35th AV NE, it is clear Seattle Move really applies to car owners and those who have to get out of their way unless they want to get run over!

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  10. Dan says:

    I’m still confused why Seattle should spend more than 40% of it’s transportation budget on less than 7% of the populace. The REALITY is that more people require their vehicles for transportation. It’s nice to have protected bike lanes, my children and I use them frequently. But let’s get realistic, why should the city restrict more lanes of traffic on a very busy thoroughfare when there are alternatives? The cars and delivery trucks will simply use the *now* quiet side streets to get thru the busier areas. The places where families live and play will suddenly become much louder and less safe.

    Really, where else do you see <7% of a populace taking up 40% of a budget? You don't.

    • Q says:

      My property taxes pay for your cheap gas and free roads. I’m confused as to why I’m subsidizing your infirmity and addition to foreign oil.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Dan, where did you get this 40% figure?

      • RossB says:

        Yeah, no kidding. We don’t spend anywhere near 40%. That is because bike infrastructure, generally speaking, is really cheap. Some paint here, a few stop signs, that is it. Jeesh, if we spent 40% on bike infrastructure there would be a bike only bridge across the ship canal and a bike tunnel under Queen Anne and First Hill (with elevators, naturally) .

    • Dave R says:

      The recent analysis in the Seattle Times showed that it was 0.3% of the transit budget.

      https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/where-is-your-king-county-transportation-money-going-and-what-is-it-costing-you-these-are-the-numbers/

      I’d be happy if bikes got 7% of the budget.

    • Erik says:

      Great point Dan. People on this thread act like they are the majority and cycling will somehow dominate the future of movement. I am pro-bike lane but the true believer attitude shows how special interests should have a voice but also be tempered by that singular focus.

      • Dave R says:

        No, claims that bike projects are 40% of the budget are ridiculous. Erik, look at the link to the Seattle Times to see what the budget numbers are. If you have another source please provide a link.

        Cyclists are only asking for their fair share of what they were promised and voted for.

  11. RossB says:

    In some ways, I feel like a lot of people have cried wolf about Durkan. Sure, she should have gotten another SDOT chief a lot sooner, but the department was a mess. The previous administration knew that Move Seattle wouldn’t pay for half the projects they promised — making the Seattle Times editorial staff seem prescient, which is an amazing feat. Yet despite this knowledge — which occurred before the election — they said nothing. The previous mayor and the previous head of the department did things that were inexcusable, in my opinion. Thus it was very difficult to promote from within, and besides, she did have bigger fish to fry (like getting a new police chief).

    In comparison, the mayor’s first major transportation change was to question the legitimacy of the streetcar project. Good for her. The streetcar project is horrible. It is a bad use of transit money, and bad for biking. So if someone can put a stake through the heart of that debacle, and replace it with something better, I will applaud them.

    She has dithered around in various ways, especially downtown. But in many cases, adding bike lanes would have hurt transit at a time when the buses are needlessly being kicked out of the tunnel (because Dow felt like we needed a huge convention center expansion in the middle of an employment boom). So, basically, I’ve felt like much of the outrage sent her way was unjustified.

    Until now. This is simply inexcusable. It wasn’t just the decision — which is bad enough — but the way it was done. First of all, unlike a lot of other projects, there simply is no good way to go north-south in the area other than to use 35th. In other words, people will continue to bike 35th, but without bike lanes. Secondly, there is no good reason to cancel this project. The mayor, while running for office, said she prioritized bikes over cars and buses over bikes. Yet she didn’t. This make bike travel worse, and it will make transit worse. This is not like choosing buses over bikes in Rainier Valley (or the south end of downtown) or choosing bikes over buses on Eastlake. This is simply a mayor making a horrible decision for no good reason other than a handful of angry neighbors complained.

    But it is the process that is most troublesome. This was a done deal. People who supported this did not organize. They did not write letters. They didn’t, because they understood that the city had already decided. This sets a terrible precedent, in that it means that anything the city says it will do comes into question. Will the bike lanes on Eastlake be added? How about the missing link? Should be pester the mayor’s office constantly until the paint is dry?

    I can no longer trust the mayor to do anything. I hope that someone competent and experienced runs against her. With all due respect to McGinn (who was neither competent or experienced) this is how we end up with mayors like him. At least you knew where he stood. With the current mayor, I have no idea.

    • Amy Stephson says:

      Ross B: Regarding the process: In fact, supporters of the 35th Ave bike lanes did organize, get petition signatures, and write numerous letters to the Council and SDOT. They had signs in the neighborhood and passed out information. The Cascade Bicycle Club was involved and Councilmember Rob Johnson (in whose district the project is) was on their side. As for the Bike Master Plan being a done deal, that is not accurate. It is a 1% design document that is explicitly subject to being changed. This is not to say it has no weight, only that it is not forever set in stone.

      • RossB says:

        You are conflating the history. First of all, nowhere in very long comment did I mention the Bike Master Plan. You are making a straw man argument. This has nothing to do with the Bike Master Plan. If you had actually read my comment, you would understand that I don’t believe we should follow the plan verbatim. That would be a mistake, and in many cases, impossible. You are implying a different set of circumstances than what actually happened.

        People did push for bike lanes. They organized, got the support of public officials, and were told they were going to happen. I repeat, the city said they were approved, the money was there, and they were going to start paving (and painting) very soon. At that point, folks just assumed it was going to be done (as is the case on say, Eastlake).

        But then the city suddenly stopped. They reversed course, in the face of opposition from a relatively small group of people (some of whom committed illegal, low level terrorist acts). This reversal was not justified based on the needs of transit, public safety, or anything other than the convenience of drivers.

      • Amy Stephson says:

        Rossb: (1) There were NO low level terrorist acts. That was anti-Save 35th propaganda. There was a tool incident, but that had nothing to do with Save. (2) The “relatively small” group of people numbered over 5,000 plus 55 small businesses. (3) The “sudden stop” by SDOT occurred after about 15 months of organizing and work — on both sides. (4) The changes had everything to do with safety, transit, equity and business survival — not simply the “convenience” of drivers.

      • Andres Salomon says:

        Ah yes, “propaganda”

        https://www.kiro7.com/news/local/spd-investigating-four-fireworks-left-at-bike-lane-construction-site/810624139

        If I had a nickel for every time fireworks ended up in the gas tanks of SDOT construction equipment, bike counters were cut, and SDOT employees were verbally abused, I’d be rich! Oh wait, no – that seems to only happen on this project. Even folks opposed to Westlake didn’t go that far; they just threw tacks and glass down.

  12. Keven Ruf says:

    Bike lane or not, cyclists will continue to use 35th NE because it is a throughway, with retail and services, and places to go and to be. It makes no sense to shunt bikes off onto residential streets that do not make longer distance connections and have only homes as destinations.

    Opportunity missed.

  13. RossB, You stated, “People did push for bike lanes. They organized, got the support of public officials, and were told they were going to happen. I repeat, the city said they were approved, the money was there, and they were going to start paving (and painting) very soon. At that point, folks just assumed it was going to be done…”

    This is a lesson. Organizing does not stop. One cannot make assumptions. There were many very upset people in NE Seattle (many of whom were not simply anti-bike or pro-car folks) who organized and ultimately stopped this project. It is unwise to gloss over and ignore the main points of neighbors concerns. I recommend the bike community continue to organize and directly interface with communities, separate from the city if need be, in order to understand the neighbor’s concerns and get real about the resistance to specific projects. Yes, even while they are in construction. Ultimately (in my opinion) Mayor Durkan did not lose this project. The biking community did.

    • JB says:

      > Yes, even while they are in construction.

      Perhaps even after construction? Who is to say their next move won’t be to start ripping out bike lanes on Westlake and 2nd Avenue to create more parking. A lot of the Seattle Times types would be ecstatic, and I certainly wouldn’t put it past the likes of Jenny Durkan and Amy Stephson.

  14. JB says:

    The thing that still galls me the most about all this is Move Seattle. Many of us voted for it on the explicit promise that it would create significant funding for bike lanes, and when it comes time to actually pour the concrete we see that all they did was grab our votes and tax dollars and use them to keep reinforcing the car-dominated status quo.

  15. Chris Burke says:

    A lot of rhetoric here. In my opinion, 35th Ave NE is simply too narrow to accommodate all the uses SDOT tried to fit in there. I mean the section between 55th and 75th, especially south of of 65th. That part is so narrow, with two lanes of parking, that a bus and a car could not safely pass each other. The solution of eliminating one side of parking and adding a left turn lane seems pretty good to me.

    Oh yes, I’m a biker. It sure is easy to get around that hill by taking the Burke Gilman–I do it every day. If I need to get to something on 35th, I take the 39th greenway and then one of the cross streets. Is that so hard?

    I think this blog might be underestimating the widespread anger at *certain* bike lane projects. Quoting Mike O’Brien and Rob Johnson might make sense if they both hadn’t just been run out of town on a rail for, among other things, supporting bike projects that don’t make sense.

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  17. ronp says:

    jesus christ, I lived in the Jasper apartments for several months and I used the greenway and 35th and now I am back in my house near Magnuson, but there should be protected lanes on 35th. Businesses benefit from protected lanes. The mayor is a cow and an ignorant one. She thinks she will be elected by the conservative homeowners, but no, she will be defeated by young people who rent and use transit, bikes, and sidewalks. Good riddance @mayorjenny. You suck and are killing us and the planet.

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