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:
JUST IN: District 4 councilmember Rob Johnson's statement on Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan's decision to cancel planned bike lanes on 35th Ave NE: pic.twitter.com/a2zlxJvXGi
— The Urbanist 🚴🏿♀️🚶🏾♀️🥑 🌇 (@UrbanistOrg) March 26, 2019
Here’s Teresa Mosqueda, who has been a strong supporter of walking, biking and transit so far during her time in office:
I am committed to continuing to work with our @SeattleCouncil colleagues, @MayorJenny and @seattledot to construct safe bike lanes along preferred and tested routes that protect people walking and biking, and drivers from injuring others.
— Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda (@CMTMosqueda) March 27, 2019