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Rashomon in Wedgwood: SDOT Director and Deputy Mayor grilled during Bike Board meeting

SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe and Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan sat down for a long talk with the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board Wednesday to have a difficult and at times uncomfortable conversation about Mayor Jenny Durkan’s commitment to building the city’s Bicycle Master Plan.

But even if the talk ended with gulfs still between the Board and the Mayor’s Office, both sides offered some valuable insights that I hope will prove fruitful once the temperature in Room 370 cools back down to 72 degrees. And, importantly, the talk generated a path for regaining trust if the Mayor chooses to make the effort.

You can follow that play-by-play via Twitter from these folks:

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Ranganathan said she asked to be added to the agenda late because she wanted to “share a little bit of the mayor’s vision” for biking and transportation projects.

She cited escalating construction costs, due in significant part to a competitive construction contract environment, saying “there was  a misalignment with what was promised to voters in terms of mileage .. across the board.”

This led to the Mayor’s Move Seattle “reset,” in which she said the mayor then gave these policy directions:

  • How can we prioritize the projects that connect to the most hubs?
  • How can we complete networks? Instead of focusing on mileage, what are the most impactful projects?

“I will sort of own the fact that this plan should have been here sooner than it was,” she said. “SDOT won’t say it so I will: They have been dealing with the Seattle Squeeze and the snow…what ended up resulting was SDOT was really squeezed for capacity.”

And while this plan is based on what they see as realistic, “that doesn’t preclude us from looking for more resources to build more projects.”

But Ranganathan said that Mayor Durkan “is committed to a safe and connected bike network” and that they are “going to be as transparent as we can” about their process going forward.

But Board members generally weren’t convinced about that commitment, noting that judging by her actions she has mostly delayed or canceled bike lanes so far.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of confidence on this board and the advocacy community generally that when these projects are politically difficult that these projects will get built,” said Board Member Emily Paine.

Ranganathan said multiple times that the mayor didn’t want to just grandstand, but that she wanted to actually build a connected network. Then the Board said repeatedly that they have yet to see that action. This odd agreement/disagreement went around in a circle a few times and was never settled.

“At the end of the day, [the mayor’s] report card is the projects that actually got completed, not the promises that got made,” said Ranganathan. But according to that rubric, the mayor is definitely flunking due to the majority of her work still marked incomplete. It may take some extra credit if she wants to catch up. (OK, this analogy is getting too stretched.)

But this is the opening where the Mayor’s Office can do something. People need to see a significant action, something bold that demonstrates the mayor’s commitment. Board members (and myself) have highlighted Rainier Ave S (between downtown and Mount Baker Station, at least), 12th Ave between Yesler and Beacon Hill, or Beacon Ave as high-impact projects that were recently cut. Whether she grandstands or not when breaking ground is up to her. I personally enjoy a good grandstanding when it is coupled with bold action.

SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe started by introducing himself (this was his first Bike Board meeting since joining the department in January), and then apologized to the Board for listing them as the reason so many projects were listed as removed from the plan.

“We know you guys didn’t remove projects from the plan, and we apologize for that,” he said. The Board had helped prioritize projects, and some of the lower priority ones did inform SDOT’s removal decisions. But the Board was not knowingly cutting projects, and several of the Board’s top priorities were also removed.

The latest plan is really just a draft, and they are collecting feedback, Zimbabwe said. But he warned against “simply adding projects back in that are on the contingency list without saying, ‘Here’s what we are willing to give up.’”

He also added that projects cut were not removed from the Bicycle Master Plan, they were just from this implementation plan and things could be added back in the future “as conditions change and as we are able to secure funding.”

Rashomon in Wedgwood

When the conversation moved squarely to 35th Ave NE, Zimbabwe made a solid Akira Kurosawa reference by saying that, as someone who came into this fight at the very end, it has felt like the classic 1950 film Rashomon.

“Everyone who has ever been involved with that project has their own narrative” of how the project and surrounding debate got this point, he said. (If you haven’t seen Rashomon, it’s really great. You can watch it free online via Kanopy using your Seattle or King County Public Library card.)

He also questioned whether the designed and contracted bike lane design was really an all ages and abilities facility since only one direction was going to be protected, then questioned why bike advocates were fighting so hard for it.

“It became the best bike lane in the city,” he said of the tone he heard from advocates, and people were acting as though “not building it right now, it would be a critical failure.” It sounds like Zimbabwe may be giving a little too much credence to Tajōmaru’s testimony.

Bike advocates had fought for full protection for the 35th Ave NE project during the proper design phase, but the city returned with a half-protected design as an early compromise to accommodate car parking. So once SDOT’s design was final, advocates fought to defend the city’s compromise plan. But then that compromise was challenged by angry neighbors, who ultimately prevailed in winning a turn lane that few people ever asked for. So what is the lesson here? That bike advocates should never have compromised in the first place? That advocates were foolish to try to support SDOT’s decision?

Ranganathan said part of the problem was that SDOT had originally called the project a paving project. “No reasonable community member would assume a paving project would include a complete redesign of the whole corridor,” she said, ignoring that the city’s complete streets ordinance, on file since 2007, requires exactly that. So now people in Wedgwood won’t be able to safely bike to the library because SDOT staff used too few descriptors in their project title a few years ago? How does that makes sense?

No, Zimbabwe’s too smart to trust Tajōmaru at his word. Maybe he’s trusting the woodcutter Kikori, forgetting the twist at the end (spoiler!) that Kikori, too, was a compromised witness all along. Though Kikori ultimately feels shame and decides to care for the orphaned baby he, the priest and the commoner found while seeking shelter from a rainstorm, a display of penance on behalf of humanity’s inherently selfish nature. (OK, this analogy is also falling apart.)

But Zimbabwe told the Board that the 35th Ave NE decision does not endanger other projects.

“I don’t think it sets a precedent for building out the network,” he said.

Honestly, I don’t think there’s much point to getting angry at Zimbabwe since Ranganathan made it clear that Mayor Durkan made this decision.

“The mayor agonized over it,” she said.

If there was any doubt that this decision was political and not based on traffic engineering best practices, then this clears that up. The mayor is Zimbabwe’s boss, so he’s got to defend her decision, which puts him in an impossible position because the best practices of his profession are not on her side. SDOT’s professionals came up with the bike lane design, so Zimbabwe somehow needs to explain why his professional staff was wrong and the mayor was right. And he can’t because she is wrong.

Former Board Chair Casey Gifford shared similar feelings toward SDOT staff during public comment, who she said are trying to do the right thing but are being hindered by the mayor.

“The city keeps using money excuses, but 35th and 40th, those are political will,” she said, pointing out that because those bike lanes share costs as part of paving projects, they are extremely cost-effective.

“I feel really sorry for [SDOT staff] to have to work for such an uninspiring mayor,” she said. The Mayor’s Office ousted Gifford from SBAB in December with only a few hours of notice before her last meeting, giving essentially no time for the Board to plan a Chair transition. Since Board members are limited to two terms anyway, assuring lots of turnover and new voices, members are rarely (if ever) denied a second term if they want to continue serving.

I think everyone is ready to stop fighting about 35th Ave NE. Oh, lordy, I know I am, though I doubt this is truly the end of it. And maybe there will never be agreement on how it got so royally messed up. But it will be impossible to move past it without a replacement project of equal or greater scale that demonstrates the mayor’s stated commitment to building a connected bike network. She can move heaven and earth in this town when it is a priority for her (look at the NHL arena). And folks aren’t even asking for that much heavenly movement. Maybe just a heavenly nudge. (OK, I really need to work on my analogies…)

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29 responses to “Rashomon in Wedgwood: SDOT Director and Deputy Mayor grilled during Bike Board meeting”

  1. Andres Salomon

    Is the baby letting you get enough sleep, Tom? :)

    1. Andres Salomon

      Seriously though, good post. Thanks for writing it!

      1. JB

        Yes, good journalism Tom! Don’t give up on the film analogies!

    2. Tom Fucoloro

      “Akira Kurosawa” was her first word.

  2. Southeasterner

    “She can move heaven and earth in this town when it is a priority for her (look at the NHL arena).”

    Ironically it was the council members against the NHL/NBA Arena that ended up getting the best deal for the city, not supporters like Durkan who were ready to dump hundreds of millions in public funds to subsidize billionaires while people are literally dying on our streets.

    Just like every other issue “leaders” like Durkan and Trump are striving to divide communities to push through their agendas.

    What other city would force citizens to go up against each other to fight for transit or bike facilities while preserving on-street parking in the name of safety, economic impact, and sustainability? It’s ridiculous. Just like 35th, other critical corridors including Eastlake, Rainier, and everywhere else the city is thinking about transit improvements is going through the same process of the city proactively dividing us.

    I would love to see the transit advisory board and bike advisory board come together to unite us in the face of the deep division Durkan is driving into our communities. Our leaders are failing us and our volunteer boards may be the only thing we have left.

  3. (Another) Tom

    Ranganathan said part of the problem was that SDOT had originally called the project a paving project. “No reasonable community member would assume a paving project would include a complete redesign of the whole corridor,” she said, ignoring that the city’s complete streets ordinance, on file since 2007, requires exactly that.

    Also it’s hardly a “complete redesign of the whole corridor.” Before: two-way street with parking. After: two-way street with parking and a striped bike lanes. I mean how are reasonable community members (aka motorists) supposed to manage such a profound transfiguration?!? What next? Expecting them to put down the phone and drive the speed limit? And during truck month no less! Despicable.

  4. I’m not ready to stop fighting about 35th. Or 40th.

  5. «But Zimbabwe told the Board that the 35th Ave NE decision does not endanger other projects. “I don’t think it sets a precedent for building out the network,” he said.»

    So Zimbabwe made this claim last night at one meeting about the bicycle network, while this was reported from another meeting last night, the ECC meeting with SDOT about the redesign of Eastlake RapidRide:

    «Guys says if 35th can get away with no bike lanes why does Eastlake have to have them?»
    Via Philip Weiss on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kingrat/status/1113643084246446081?s=21

    Zimbabwe may not think the resolution of 35th sets a precedent, but everyone else in the city who opposes bike lanes sure as hell are going to take it that way.

  6. William

    I long past time to give up on Mayor Durkan. She came into the job with next to no administrative experience and every day she demonstrates that she had no aptitude for running the city. If it takes her a year to make a cowardly and ill-informed decision about 2 miles of proteced bike lanes, is there really any possibility that she can do something significant as mayor?

    1. Sven

      I’m very, very sorry I voted for her. She botched things during the head-tax debacle, she was ineffectual during the arena discussions, and the 35th Ave. issue sealed her reputation as a political coward. I don’t expect anything good from her in the future. She clearly isn’t even remotely interested in promoting a viable bicycle network, and I fear what might be in store for public transit, which is, let’s face it, much more important than bicycles. Rather than trying to work with her, we should be working to replace her; she’s clearly much worse than useless.

  7. ChamoisDavisJr.

    It is disappointing to see the issue of bicycle facilities as part of the overall transportation network being framed as a zero sum game by the Seattle Department of Transportation and the mayor when bicycle facilities have been defined as part of an overall transportation network as an inherent policy element through Move Seattle and the Complete Streets policy.
    Yes, the mayor and her administration are implementing a ‘reset’ due to the gulf between the budget and the scope of Move Seattle but as long as the Complete Streets policy is part of SDOTs mandate there should not be ‘either or’ choices.
    @Phillip LaRose has it right that 35th sets a very bad precedent and a giant step backward that can be used city wide.
    While there definitely are communities in seattle more deserving of bike infrastructure, being willing to swallow the politics behind the 35th av Ne flop with the hope of something better plays into the zero sum framework.

  8. Marko

    Actually it was likely a mistake to compromise by accerpting just one-way protected bike lane instead of two-way. Doing so is like accepting a broken drinking glass with a dangerous shard on one edge.

  9. Bill N

    They got a long way to go to get my trust back. At the meeting I was remembering several other cases where SDOT have engineered the safest way but the Mayor ended up listening to the Nimbys. The Columbian Way 15th intersection is the most blatant example. We know what is the safe way but the mayor gave in to people who don’t want their drive time to be longer.
    I think the Dearborn Rainier intersection is another example but that may have been during Murray’s time. The plan was to not allow Westbound cars on Dearborn but they gave that up after listening to the local whiners. Bikes will still get a diverter at the intersection but it will be much more dangerous than taking all Westbound traffic off that section of Dearborn.

    I would like to hear Shefali and Sam defend those decisions…

    1. Aaron

      Agree. When SDOT finally gets around to building the long delayed diverter, traffic coming westward downhill on Dearborn (continuing to cut through Jackson Place non-arterial streets) will come to the intersection of Hiawatha & Dearborn, and need to turn left to go south on Hiawatha, right into the face of northbound bicycle traffic from the I-90 trail needing to turn left to the diverter. Not going to be good…

      1. Aaron P

        Here’s the current view of the “completed“ bit of bike route between Hiawatha and Rainier where the diverter is supposed to be installed “this spring”: https://1drv.ms/u/s!ArmUoF4tlOpz0X_Pwmliq3cuCBqj

  10. […] Erica Barnett, and Seattle Bike Blog continue the discussion over SDOT’s update to the Bicycle Master […]

  11. NoSpin

    If the city is sincere in “looking for more resources to build more projects” they can start by cancelling the Center City Connector streetcar! That thing will do nothing to enhance mobility, and actually hinders cycling.

    Of course, that won’t happen because – yet again – Durkan is more interested in kowtowing to politically well-connected moneied interests than adopting and implimenting good transportation policy.

    1. Third time is not a charm? Imagine what could have been done with the money wasted on the two current streetcar lines. And we’re doing it again.

  12. eddiew

    amen to canceling the CCC streetcar; the local capital ($100m?), 1st Avenue right of way, and needed service subsidy could all be much better used. And, the tracks would not endanger cyclists.

    1. I wonder how the current ridership of the two streetcar lines compares to the cycling ridership of the Westlake and 2nd avenue protected bike lanes. The implementation cost per rider mile must be orders of magnitude greater for the streetcar lines compared to cycle tracks.

      Are the people opposed to cycling infrastructure also opposed to the underused streetcar lines?

  13. Kirk

    I guess I’ll have to go out of my way to ride 35th Ave. NE. I’ll ride it like I ride the Missing Link. In the center of the lane, holding up traffic. I mean, I would ride on the bike facility if there was one…

    1. donttreadonme

      Exactly. I think a lot of the anti bike people are missing this point – bike lanes aren’t quite new infrastructure, they’re to get people riding bikes out of the way of the Important People In Cars. There’s already infrastructure in place to ride your bike anywhere you want: Take the lane and own it. If people driving cars don’t like it, they can vote for bike lanes next time.

    2. Skylar

      That’s how I’ve been doing it – 4′ to the left of the parked cars to stay out of the door zone. The way I look at it is that I’m not holding up traffic, the parking is. Sadly, though, this is hardly a tactic appropriate for “all ages and abilities”.

      1. (Another) Tom

        “The way I look at it is that I’m not holding up traffic, the parking is.”


        Infuriating how many drivers have zero patience for a slower-moving bicycle when there would be plenty of room for all of us on this stretch of thoroughfare if a bunch of motorists hadn’t littered the right-of-way with long term storage for their personal property.

        Same with the game of chicken played when an oncoming car approaches on a neighborhood street with parking on both sides. There is still plenty of room for opposing cyclists to pass each other. If not for all this car clutter cyclists could ride four abreast in both directions without issue. The road is like 25′ wide but somehow the 3′ I need to get through safely is the problem rather than the 15′ wasted on parked cars and the 8′ wide SUV (single occupancy, driver currently texting) taking more than it’s share out of the middle.

      2. JB

        Bicycles could take 1% of the road space using 1% of the transportation budget to create 90% of the Gross Urban Mobility, and because of the way this issue gets framed as a tribal zero-sum competition between cars and bicycles, visionless politicians like Ditzy Durkan will continue to judge – perhaps correctly – that they can “stick it to the cyclists” all day long and still win 60% of the vote.

        I don’t know how that attitude gets changed, but it’s clear that nobody around here is doing a very good job at it.

      3. JB

        Instead of Critical Mass, maybe we should have a protest where we all drive cars for the day – let’s see how everyone in the anti-bike crowd likes that.

  14. Larry P

    Mayors come and go. But Durkan’s deconstruction of SDOT is going to take a while to undo. Hard to understand what is motivating Shefali.

  15. 35th NE does not set a precedent for canceling or delaying bike and paving projects. The precedents have already been already set, all over town. Rainier Ave S. Fauntleroy Way SW. SW Roxbury. Ballard Bridge. The cost of the projects is a red herring. City of Seattle just spent $110M in extra costs for just one City Light substation. Change orders on the Seawall project are orders of magnitude greater. But it’s not possible to find ~$24M over 6 years (~$4M/year) to fully fund the BMP projects promised in the Move Seattle Levy? The bike projects are the least expensive, most cost effective transportation projects possible. They are needed now for Seattle to give more than lip service towards its Climate Action Plan and goals for equitable transportation options and congestion relief. The only reason for canceling and delay is a misguided view of the will of the voters.

  16. […] Rashomon in Wedgwood – a great piece of writing […]

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