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Must Watch: Seattle’s bike movement finds its footing again, fights mayor’s bike plan cuts

Seattle’s bicycle movement emerged from chrysalis Tuesday transformed into its newest state, and it put on a powerful display inside City Hall.

I highly recommend watching the testimony and the very interesting Committee conversation, during which Councilmembers Mike O’Brien, Rob Johnson and Kshama Sawant all had powerful things to say in support of the bike plan and safe streets. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda is not a member of the Transportation Committee, but she was active during the rally before the meeting.

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I’ve been covering the bike movement in this town long enough to observe how the popular, grassroots energy behind the idea of a safer and more bikeable city is always evolving to meet the needs of the day. New people get engaged and emerge as leaders, people who have been engaged for a while level up and become stronger advocates, and some people grow cynical, burn out or move away, leaving voids that are not always filled. But despite setbacks here and there, the movement continues to grow stronger and more intersectional, connecting safe streets, bike lanes and transit with housing, public health, environmental justice and social justice.

The bike movement in this town, like so many other movements, has been a very uneasy place in recent years. A lot of the volunteer energy behind it shifted after Donald Trump got elected, as it should have. In my experience, people who believe everyone has a right to safely move around on our streets also tend to believe that everyone has a right to safely live in our nation.

But that doesn’t mean people stopped caring about safe streets, as was clear Tuesday at City Hall.

And it feels like the movement finally found its footing after a few years of being unsure how best to advocate under Mayor Jenny Durkan, whose 35th Ave NE decision finally showed people her true intentions as executor of Seattle’s bike plan.

People who hate bike lanes like to say that there’s a shadowy and nefarious bicycle lobby running City Hall because that imaginary villain is easier to fight than a popular movement of their neighbors who will never accept the status quo on our streets where nearly every inch of space is given to cars and people’s loved ones are seriously injured or killed as a direct result. In reality, the bike movement’s power comes from the grassroots. And if the mayor thought cancelling bike lanes was going to be the “safe” political choice, I hope she’s changing her mind now.

Because I would much rather spend the rest of her time in office building the bike network and celebrating successes rather than constantly fighting and rallying to save scraps she hasn’t yet cut.

Rather than just delivering words, Tamara Schmautz and Apu Mishra brought a hand-cranked paper shredder to the podium and proceeded to shred the cover sheets to the Bicycle Master Plan, Vision Zero Plan and Climate Action Plan (39:10 in the video above). The people of Seattle believe in the goals established in these plans, which were developed after an enormous amount of public outreach and input. The work to complete them will be difficult. There will be people fighting against them just about every step of the way. Hopefully the mayor can also see that there will also be a lot of people who have her back when she makes these tough decisions. Because the goals in these plans are urgent, and we don’t have time to waste waiting for the next mayoral election.

Restoring the 35th Ave NE bike lanes could be a good start. But even if she never wants to open that hellmouth again, she could announce a strong proposal of equal or better scale and impact, and that she will work to fill any funding gaps because it’s important the 35th Ave NE decision (which shared costs with the paving project) doesn’t set back progress on the Bike Master Plan. I’m not talking about some enhancements to the existing 39th Ave NE neighborhood greenway. I’m talking about 2 miles of protected bike lane that fills an important bike network gap. Something like Beacon Ave S or Rainier Ave S or 12th Ave between Yesler Way and Beacon Hill, all projects recently removed from the implementation plan that were high priorities for Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board.

It would also be helpful to hear her restate the city’s intention to build bike facilities when the costs can be shared with paving projects, such as on NE/N 40th Street, where bike lanes were recently removed from paving plans. If costs are a major limiter to building the bike plan, as SDOT has stated in this implementation plan update, then surely cutting the lowest-cost bike lanes makes no sense. Certainly, there will be people who don’t like these bike lane plans. But if she doesn’t stand behind the city’s policies, then she will flounder. Does she really want every single decision she has to make become a competition for who can yell at her the loudest? That sure doesn’t sound like fun to me, and it definitely sounds like a terrible way to lead a city. But that’s the precedent she is setting with the 35th Ave NE decision.

Note that former Councilmember Tom Rasmussen was the Transportation Committee Chair during the creation of the Bicycle Master Plan.


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12 responses to “Must Watch: Seattle’s bike movement finds its footing again, fights mayor’s bike plan cuts”

  1. It never ceases to surprise and sadden me how many people are so quick to trade others’ lives for imaginary personal convenience, or how far they’ll go to mislead others to gain support for their misguided desires.

    1. Richard

      To be clear, that’s meant to reference (for example) the “save 35th” movement…. My personal thanks to all the volunteers and others fighting to save lives from traffic violence.

  2. Sirmarksalot

    Comic relief: Alex Zimmerman at 16:27. Also, watch the transcription of his trailing remark.

  3. RossB

    What I fear is that all these issues get conflated. There are some very reasonable reasons why some parts of the Bike Master Plan may not get implemented:

    1) We simply don’t have the money.
    2) It would screw up transit.
    3) There are shallower, safer (albeit slower) alternatives available.

    In the case of 35th Avenue Northeast, none of these applied. It would literally cost nothing. The changes they are making (following the repaving) will cost just as much as new bike lanes would. Transit will run the same, if not a little bit worse than if they added the bike lanes. There are no better alternatives, given the topography of the area. There is simply no good reason to cancel the project.

    The Bike Master Plan is really a side issue. Yes, it is what we all said we wanted to build, but life is full of unpleasant compromises. In the case of 35th Ave., there is no compromise. There is simply incompetence. It would be like narrowing down your candidates for police chief, only to realize that the best candidate is right under your nose. Obviously, the thing to do is admit you made a mistake, and correct it. She did so in that instance, and Seattle is clearly better off. Whether she will in this instance remains to be seen.

    What I really wonder about is what the new guy thinks about it. I have yet to hear an official announcement from Mr. Zimbabwe. This is your job, dude. I understand that you don’t have the last word. But if your new boss wants to override your decision — and do something that is really stupid — than maybe it is time to have a talk. Otherwise, you are nothing more than a kiss-ass, and you have no future anywhere.

    1. Richard

      There’s a key, critical factual points you may not (based on your post) be aware of, that your entire post seems to leverage for several of its points.

      The bike master plan is NOT “what we said we wanted”. It was a committed plan, with assurance of funding, approved by the council, based on literally years of work and millions of dollars analysis and design.

      The “save 35th” frequently misrepresents it as a wish list (and that’s no surprise; that group is ridiculously reliant on blatant misrepresentation), so I have to wonder if that’s where you got your misinformation.

      With that in mind, in the case of your list item (1), why is the Mayor’s office refusing to honor the commitment of the council to fund it? And what is it doing with the money it committed to the BMP from the recently passed (with no shortage of **HEAVY** lobbying from bike community) levy?

      In the case of your list item (2) and (3), where is the planned, considered, and ***COMMITTED*** alternative, then?

      I don’t disagree with the need to allow compromise. But I’ve yet to see this Mayor’s office compromise, all they do is cut.

      1. RossB

        I understand what the BMP is. My point is that it is ridiculous to assume it was going to be built just like that. There is nothing inherently wrong from deviating from it. Blind adherence to the plan would be bad for both bikes and transportation in general. Things change. Issues come up that did not exist during the planning stages.

        If you want an example, look at NE 125th/130th. This is a corridor that currently does not have bus service. There were no plans to add bus service there when the BMP was created. But things changed. Now there will be a light rail station at NE 130th. The only reason this station will be added is to provide service to the massive numbers of people who live in Lake City and Bitter Lake. The main way they will get to the station is via bus. The buses will not only connect riders to light rail, but to other buses, such as the most popular one in our system — the E (which runs on Aurora). Thus we will go from a corridor with no bus service, to one with huge numbers of buses, running day and night. As a result, transit is suddenly a much higher priority, while we also need to improve bike infrastructure serving the station area. Blind adherence to the plan would be a terrible idea for all. You would end up with buses stuck in traffic, while those who want to bike to the station (from, say, 140th and Aurora) are stuck with dangerous options, and no plan to make things better.

        Funding has similar issues. We simply don’t have it. The previous administration lied to us. They said that Move Seattle would fund these projects, but they knew they wouldn’t (and they knew before the vote). There simply isn’t the money to fund most of what they promised. That goes for bike improvements, sidewalks as well as transit.

        The point is, NONE OF THIS APPLIES TO 35th NE. None of it. There is simply no good reason for that project to be canceled. It was essentially free. There is no conflict with transit — in fact, this will be slightly worse for transit. There are no alternatives that can be built which will make biking in the area safe, or provide for a better network. Side streets don’t go through, and require big ups and downs that simply won’t be followed. There is also no great need to provide something on the edges — they simply don’t have that many people.

        Focusing on the BMP misses the greater point. Yes, this was part of the BMP. But it was also part of the BMP that should be done now, at no cost (either financially or to the transit network). More to the point, even if it wasn’t part of the BMP, it should be built.

      2. RossB

        By the way, it cuts both ways. Do we really want someone, at some point, to say “Oh yes, that does sound like a great bike project. It would cost next to nothing. It would also help transit and mobility in general. But as it turns out, that route is not part of the BMP, so we won’t do it”.

  4. The 2019-2024 draft implementation plan goes backwards, deleting almost all projects that were added to the rolling work plan in 2017 and 2018, with the lame excuse that the City cannot fill a modest ~$21M funding gap over seven years. This from a city that just finished the Denny Substation at $110M over budget, twice the planned cost.
    It was great to be in Council chambers with a hugely diverse group of people giving heartfelt testimony about how important these decisions are for their lives. It was great to see even Kshama Sawant speak in favor of how the Bicycle Master Plan serves working class and middle class people for transportation. It was powerful to see not just bike advocates show up, but also transportation and climate action groups come support bike transportation and safety as essential elements in meeting the city’s goals for equity, climate action and transportation. The Mayor may not change. But we can change Mayors, and long before 2024.

  5. JB

    “Does she really want every single decision she has to make become a competition for who can yell at her the loudest? That sure doesn’t sound like fun to me, and it definitely sounds like a terrible way to lead a city. ”

    Oh Tom. You’re something of a babe-in-the-woods when it comes to politics. Stop focusing on what the mayor *should* be wanting and doing, and start focusing on what it takes to WIN. The people with the shredder are on the right track.

  6. Eli

    Every aspect of Seattle bicycling is doomed to stay just mediocre enough to placate activists. You can almost flow chart the process: empathetic words from City Council, followed by either the Mayor nixing things, or SDOT incompetently bungling the execution so badly that it becomes a parody of the original idea.

    I think they captured the wrong part of Dutch culture, namely, the famous idiom “Wie voor een dubbeltje geboren is, wordt nooit een kwartje”. (translated: he who is born a dime will never be a quarter.)

    Ironically, I’m grateful to the city of Seattle. Knowing the 1000+ hours I spent helping the city was being thrown into a bottomless and impactless pit, I repurposed that time into my career. In another year or two, I can afford a 2nd home in a city that actually values bike infrastructure to execute it well, and just go there on weekends.

  7. asdf2

    As far as bike lanes go, I feel like the low-hanging fruit (bike lanes that can be striped in with zero impact on parking or cars, at minimal financial cost) has already been picked. And, everything that’s left is going to involve tradeoffs, which will, by necessity, require a block by block, intersection by intersection, fight to get built.

    Such fights are always difficult because, as we’ve seen with 35th, to win such fights, playing the safety card is not enough since, at the end of the day, opponents will argue that people who bike on a given street choose to do so, and if they just switch to driving, the safety of streets for people on bikes won’t matter anymore, and the problem will be “solved”, without impacts on everybody else’s driving and parking experience.

    Such arguments are usually based on the implicit premise that a bicycle is a toy, and that serious transportation always happens in cars, which, of course, every single person must already own. The people making such arguments honestly cannot fathom why the cycling community is not satisfied with a world where you take your car to go half a mile to your local coffee shop and, if you want to ride a bike, you can just go back and forth on the Burke-Gilman trail.

    Ultimately, this comes down to advocacy, making it clear to the city council that bicycles need and deserve to be treated as serious transportation, which means it must be safe to ride them to serious destinations.

    1. RossB

      Any sensible administration would consider 35th Avenue NE low hanging fruit. It is nothing like the projects that will require either big bucks or a huge hit to our transit system to achieve. It isn’t like Eastlake or Rainier Avenue. Nor is it like MLK, where a bike lane would likely require turning a busy four lane road into a two lane road. 35th Avenue Northeast is one of those simple fixes, similar to the bus lanes on Pinehurst Avenue (https://goo.gl/maps/4x99V28L8F22).

      Furthermore, 35th was all set to go. Advocates were assured that unlike lots of projects, this one was fully funded, and about to be built. Lots of advocates were essentially told that the fight was over, and the thing was going to be built. Now, as with Carmen Best being considered for police chief, people are busy lobbying the administration to do the sensible thing, and correct their obvious mistake.

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