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E Union Street is a chance for SDOT and the mayor to prove they care about connecting bike routes

All you have to do is disappear from existence for two blocks while biking and you’ll be fine.

Seattle is once again set to choose the convenience of car driving over the safety of people walking and biking and our city’s Vision Zero, Climate Action Plan and Bicycle Master Plan goals. This time, it’s on E Union Street in the Central District, where early designs for a planned protected bike lane on the street will fail to fully connect across the two busiest and most important intersections in the project area: 23rd Ave and MLK Way. The reason? Cars, of course.

The single clearest example of the city bailing on its goals is their plan to completely drop the bike lanes for the two blocks surrounding 23rd Avenue. And worse, SDOT spokesperson Ethan Bergerson told the Urbanist’s Ryan Packer that people could just bike on the sidewalk:

“People biking would have the option to get through the intersection by crossing in the marked shared lane or using the sidewalk. We understand that bikes using the sidewalk is not always optimal, however, developments on both sides of 23rd Ave are expanding the sidewalks providing some relief.”

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SDOT just used their official megaphone to lean out their car window and yell at people biking to “get on the damn sidewalk!”

Biking on the sidewalk in a busy business district is not a solution, and SDOT damn well knows it. But just to illustrate the point, David Seater recently took SDOT’s advice. Here’s how that went:

And this video wasn’t even at a time with heavy foot traffic.

To make matters worse, here’s one of the project’s proposed “benefits” from the official fact sheet (PDF):

SDOT’s traffic professionals know that you can’t just have the bike lane disappear for two blocks and expect it to function as a high quality, all ages and abilities bike route. They also know that bike lanes improve safety for all road users, since they practically wrote the book on that in the US. They know that intersections with shorter crosswalks (thanks to the presence of bike lanes) are much safer for people walking. They know our city needs to transition away from driving toward biking, walking and transit if we are going to keep people and goods moving as the city grows. They know all this because they also helped write our Council-approved plans and policies aimed at achieving that goal. That’s why this plan is so troubling.

The safety of our city’s residents is not some bullet point on a list to be weighed against the driving and parking convenience of people in cars. SDOT is constantly claiming that safety is its number one priority, but then they say stuff like this to the Urbanist:

“To fit a PBL through this section, we’d need to remove a vehicle travel lane in each direction. Condensing vehicles into a single lane would not only create slow downs for vehicles, it would also create a safety concern for pedestrians. Our traffic data shows a heavy amount of right turns at the 23rd Ave and Union St intersection, which means that removing a vehicle lane would increase the vehicle and pedestrian conflict.”


OK, I just needed to let that out. Deeeeeeep breaths…. deeeeeeeeeeeep breaths….

Slowing cars is a safety benefit, not a problem. SDOT knows this. And bike lanes improve safety for people on foot, and, again, SDOT knows this. They know it. I don’t get why they are saying otherwise right now because they know bike lanes, when designed well, don’t “create a safety concern for pedestrians.” They are trying to pit people walking and biking against each other so they can preserve the status quo where every inch of road space prioritizes cars. It’s despicable and, considering people’s safety is at risk, unethical. They know this is wrong.

I keep saying “they know this” because, given Mayor Jenny Durkan’s recent decisions to delay or cut bike lanes, it’s safe to say that the direction to avoid all impacts on driving is coming from her office either directly or by assumption. Through decisions like 35th Ave NE, the mayor is directing SDOT’s transportation professionals to knowingly make decisions that put people’s safety at risk for the mayor’s personal political reasons. Spokespeople like Bergerson are trying to find justifications for these decisions, but there are none.

Following the blowback from her 35th Ave NE decision and SDOT’s major cuts to the short term bike plan earlier this month, SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe and Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan were sent on something of an apology tour, trying to stress that the mayor remains committed to safe streets, the Climate Action Plan and building the Bicycle Master Plan. Both Zimbabwe and Ranganathan stressed that the mayor wanted to focus on connecting places, not just building bike lane mileage.

Well, here’s a great opportunity for the mayor to step in and prove it. Because this plan is not connected and does not meet our city’s transportation and climate goals. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The design is only at ten percent with plenty of time to improve it if the mayor directs the project team to do so.

A stronger Union Street

First off, there is a good part to this design. Between 14th and 22nd Avenues, the city will add or upgrade bike lanes to be parking-protected. Getting the design right at each intersection and driveway will be very important, but this is a great starting point.

But once the project gets to 22nd, it abandons these bike lanes entirely. E Union Street today is has two lanes (one in each direction) plus two parking and painted bike lanes at 22nd Ave, but then widens out to five lanes (two each direction and a left turn lane) plus a parking lane before reaching 23rd. There is no space constraint here. Traffic doesn’t suddenly double in that one block. I’m no traffic engineer, but I’ll go ahead and take a stab at what 23rd/Union that actually prioritizes walking, biking and transit might look like:

These images are mid-block between 23rd and 22nd, looking west. I made them using Streetmix (existing, remix), the same website SDOT staff used (measurements are my estimates). SDOT staff don’t need me to make these for them, because they know all this already. I’m sure they also have their own better ideas. But it’s important for non-professionals to imagine the ways our streets could be different if only SDOT were empowered to challenge the car-centric status quo.

Other stretches of the street could also easily include continuous and connected protected bike lanes, but only if the city prioritizes them over private car storage and excess general purpose lanes. Connecting to MLK is very important, especially since MLK is supposed to get its own protected bike lanes someday, according to the Bicycle Master Plan. And connecting to the Broadway Bikeway is just three blocks from the project’s western end point, which is tantalizingly close. From there, Broadway is due soon to connect to new Pike/Pine bike lanes into downtown.

If you look at the Bicycle Master Plan map, you can see how Union is a vital artery in the city’s connected network of protected bike lanes:

Project area circled in red. Map from the Bicycle Master Plan.

The Central District has long had one of the highest bike commute rates in the whole city, and Union is the only viable route option for many homes and destinations. Today, it can be a stressful street because bikes lanes come and go. Seattle now has a chance to make a major improvement, but only if the mayor directs SDOT to do the right thing. So far, the city seems prepared to blow this opportunity, but it doesn’t need to be this way.

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31 responses to “E Union Street is a chance for SDOT and the mayor to prove they care about connecting bike routes”

  1. donttreadonme

    Riding on the sidewalk across driveways and through intersections is inherently unsafe. Take the lane and own it, every time, it’s the safest option and your legal right.

    1. ragged-robin

      surprisingly, it’s technically not your legal right to own it until the “Safe Pass Law” is enacted..

      “Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a rate of speed less than the normal flow of traffic at the particular time and place shall ride as near to the right side of the right through lane as is safe”
      – RCW 46.61.770

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        “as is safe” is the key here. If there’s not enough space in the lane for safe passing, you don’t need to squeeze to the right because that would not be safe.

      2. donttreadonme

        Tom is correct – it is your prerogative to establish where in the road is safe. Gutter glass and the door zone are unsafe, ergo, take the lane.

      3. ragged-robin

        I completely agree that it’s safer to take the whole lane (and thereby discourage unsafe passing), however the verbiage of “as near to the right side of the right through lane..” is specifically included to justify unsafe passing (until the Safe Pass Law overrides this), otherwise the law would have just stated to use the right-most lane.

        I have personally witnessed cops over Mercer Island enforce this on more than one occasion, interpreting this as “cyclists need to hug the curb.” I will readily argue exactly what you state here–that it’s safest to me to take the lane–but that’s not going to prevent them from pulling me over in the first place or disagreeing with me (and issuing a warning/fine) outright should they choose to, and I doubt the majority of cyclists in this position are prepared to lawyer up to dispute it.

      4. donttreadonme

        Fortunately I am. I know my rights and am fully prepared to defend them against and make an example of rogue police departments using paid legal council and PTO from work.

  2. Disappointed in Seattle

    Maybe you don’t get it. Durkan gave SDOT the full on Trump treatment.

    Multiple acting directors for an absurdly long time? CHECK

    Destroying long worked on plans by career staff for personal whims? CHECK

    Installing a Director who is clear who the boss is. CHECK

  3. The post does not mention transit. Electric trolley bus Route 2 is heavily used and has 15-minute headway. The overhead is visible in David’s video. The drawings do not depict what would be provided at bus stops; would bus islands be build? or would bus traps be provided with even longer bus stops? Before the modal plans go to implementation, SDOT should work to integrate them. Each plan’s lines may change. In most cases, bike infrastructure and transit infrastructure could be on parallel arterials to reduce friction and cost.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      They can build bus islands, like on dexter and Roosevelt, which are better for bus travel times than pulling out of traffic like they do today. Buses and bikes can work together if that’s the city’s priority. And there is no parallel route to Union because nearby streets don’t go through (pike turns into a staircase, pine has steep cobblestones, spring disappears, Marion runs into Seattle U).

      1. I like the idea of bus islands, but I got the impression from the SDOT reps (during the 12th Ave PBL Open House on Tuesday) that they’re a new concept that is not standard design. It might not be on their minds as an option, but I would like to see bus islands incorporated into more designs.

      2. eddiew

        consider Cherry Street. it has signals at all major arterials. it goes through SU and under I-5.

        back to the intersection with 23rd Avenue: bus stops in four directions at needed at the intersection for transfers with short walks. there is less parking at the intersection. there is a lot to accommodate when two transit arterials meet: vehicle turns, pedestrian crossings, transit stops, and queuing. can an eight to eighty bike facility go through without interruption? SDOT faces the same issue on 12th Avenue South at South Jackson Street. the BMP has a desire line.

      3. Kristna

        My vague recall is that they didn’t put bike lines on nearby Madison during it’s upgrades because they said they will put it on Union instead due to bus conflicts. Putting a protected bike late that appears, disappears, and reappears creates new conflict areas. It is like the mess on Pine through downtown where you have it for a bit and then get spit out on the wrong side of a turn lane. Real considerations of how a bike travels through and uses an area along with the bus transportation is important.

      4. Update to my reply: I was incorrect in saying bus islands, as the idea of floating bus stops like the ones used in the new 65th Ave PBL was the one to which I was referring. Floating bus stops seemed to be a new concept to SDOT as useful but not standard design.

        I think that floating bus stops could be a viable solution, but the subsidized parking really has to go if it’s affecting the city’s ability to provide a safe and complete multi-modal route for people to use.

      5. Brendan

        I used to live on dexter, and I wasn’t a big fan of the bike lane in between the bus stop and the sidewalk.

        Every time I’d try to catch a bus, I’d almost get run over by a bike.

        The problem is that it’s at the start of a hill, and bicyclists don’t want to lose their momentum, so they are riding at like 20 mph through people’s walking path.

        There has to be some concern for the safety of pedestrians as well in these designs. Pedestrians shouldn’t have to dodge cyclists who are riding too fast to stop.

        I think putting both PBL’s on one side of the road like on 2nd might actually be safer, since bicylists tend to ride more slowly if they have to think about oncoming traffic.

      6. Eric Salathe

        I’m an experienced urban and sport cyclist; I have lived on 20th near Union since 2000. I commute most days downtown and frequently ride to Madrona. I have never ridden on Union and would become less likely with the proposed infrastructure. Union is way to much conflict (bike-ped and bike-car), particularly for downhill travel. I ride Marion to 12th to Pike downtown.

        There’s some good people I respect in SDOT bike program. But the ability to solve bike-car and bike-ped conflicts is embarrassing. The suggestion of riding your bike in front of Squirrel Chops is just malpractice. Plenty of cute paint all around on straight aways between intersections. But an sharrow directing cyclist into a death trap at Jackson and Rainier? Why does the wonderful Pike bike lane go AWOL between Melrose and 9th, the only place it’s needed? I also love the protected 2-way parking spots on Broadway in front of SCC’s Mitchell Activity Center. And what is that thing from Howe to 23rd on Boyer?

        Fix the hard stuff first, then connect it.

  4. ChuDlife

    This mayor has made her intentions clear that “alternative” modes are just a distraction from “real” transportation. I will be truly surprised if the promised crosswalk blinkers happen at 21st & Union in August like SDOT has been telling people. Time to vote for better leaders and time for some Tactical Urbanism to get the job done.

  5. Becky

    I am VERY curious, also, to see what the plan is for intersections like 19th Ave, which feels chaotic and frankly terrifying for me when I bike through (and especially turning left, as I often do, from eastbound Union to northbound 19th). The idea of coming east down the hill from 18th to 19th, shielded from view by cars, into that intersection…that sounds very very bad.

  6. Well said and well presented, Tom and David.

    Unfortunately, this is a particularly stupid example of what the current administration is doing/not doing all over the City.

  7. Matt Davies

    I remember being very proud of being a Seattleite and person on a bike when the Move Seattle ballot measure passed in Nov to 2015. We were heading in the right direction. After years of Trump and and more recently Durkan doing everything she can gut Bicycle Master Plan I feel depressed. Thank you to Tom for working on all of this. He will continue to have my modest financial support. I will continue to ride as defensively as possible but take the lane at speed at intersections. We do not have a choice.

  8. btwn

    Are they really serious? There are six lanes devoted to cars on the west side of union street at that intersection.

  9. JB

    > Seattle is once again set to choose the convenience of car driving over the safety of people walking and biking …”

    Don’t buy into the zero-sum fallacy, Tom! The truer and more persuasive argument is that No-Vision-for-the-Future-Durkan is sacrificing a balanced and comprehensive mobility strategy that benefits ALL Seattleites for the sake of propping up the outdated and failing car-dominated status quo for a few more years.

    Otherwise, good job throwing a little heat in this one!

    1. ChamoisDavisJr.


  10. Brad

    Oh too bad. Bike riders rely on the rest of us to pay for their commute. You should have to license a bike and pay your own way. Even the department of transportation has sidelined bike path construction/conversions. There are simply not enough bike riders to even slightly justify the horrendous cost of making lanes for them. Let’s all remember the story the Times ran…bike lane construction/conversion was said to cost one million dollars a block…we paid 12 million! I sat on third and fifth avenues during the morning commute a few weeks ago. At 8 am I counted sixteen bike commuters in twenty minutes. It was not raining. I am sorry but the “build it and they will come” philosophy just isn’t cutting it in Seattle.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      People who bike don’t need to pay property taxes, the primary source of city street funds? That’s great news! Is it too late to get a refund?

      3rd and 5th Avenues don’t have bike lanes and so don’t have lots of people biking… What’s your point again?

    2. JB

      > You should have to license a bike and pay your own way …”

      No problem, first let’s make sure cars are really paying their own way. Since so many city streets and so much parking is funded with property taxes, let’s make sure it ALL comes from gas taxes. Hope you’re ready for gas at $10 per gallon! Not to mention little details like the air we breathe and the planet we live on. What about people getting run down in the streets, does that bother you at all? It doesn’t sound like you care about much of anything but how fast you can drive places.

    3. Southeasterner

      “Bike riders rely on the rest of us to pay for their commute.”

      If only that were true. The reality is it’s the exact opposite.

      The federal gas tax pays for a declining share of interstate highways. It went insolvent more than 10 years ago and requires transfers of $16 billion per year from the general fund (aka income tax and loans from China that our kids will get to repay).

      The state gas tax pays for a declining share of state highways and roads which is also heavily subsidized by other user fees.

      Local roads like Union are paid for almost entirely by property and sales tax which come from all Seattle residents.

      So a Bellevue resident driving through Seattle may contribute $1 through sales tax from their lunch purchases while a Seattle resident biking through Seattle may contribute $200 through sales and property tax. Or to make it even let’s say the driver is a Seattle resident and also contributes $200.

      Now how much roadway space does each user take up? How much damage does each user do to the roadway? How much toxic emissions come from each user? How much congestion is created by each user? What are the chances that each user will critically injure another or kill another human being?

      That’s the revenue side of things.

      Now let’s talk about bike lanes. Are we spending $1 million per block to build bike lanes for bikes or are we spending $1 million per block to install utilities, repave surface streets damaged by cars, install new traffic lights to remind cars to not crash into each other and others, install barriers to keep cars from running over cyclists, install sidewalks to keep cars from running over pedestrians, install drainage to collect all the water and oil runoff from thousands of feet of concrete/asphalt surface for cars to drive on that also leaks into Puget Sound and our water supply?

      1. ChamoisDavisJr.

        Another overlooked issue that you thankfully bring up is that bicycles do not cause surface and stormwater pollution nor do they require stormwater treatment facilities for their use.
        On the other hand, all impervious surfaces used by motor vehicles around Puget Sound and the state require stormwater detention and treatment facilities that add significant costs to any street and parking improvements.
        This is the case for streets where PBLs are installed–the bike lane improvements have to carry the financial burden of mitigating motor vehicle pollution.

      2. bleugh

        *standing ovation*

      3. Q

        These points are all totally valid and accurate, however they are in response to a driveby troll who won’t read, won’t understand if they did read, and is incapable of being convinced of anything other than their own lazy and misguided opinion. Reality has a liberal bias and they’re not having it.

  11. A few years back I was biking down Union and I stopped at a red light at 23rd. As I was waiting for the light to change in the right lane when I heard a loud honk behind me and turned around to see a white Escalade and an angry driver who wanted to make the right turn on to 23rd. He didn’t think I had a right to be in the lane, but I knew it was going to change shortly so I shrugged him off. He yelled, gunned his engine and then slammed his brakes right before hitting me. Of course the light turned green immediately after this outburst and as I started riding away and he took his right turn I couldn’t help but flip him off. He flipped a u turn and came after me. He got in my face yelling about how awful I was and interlacing it with some lessons about how bikes needed to follow the law and stay off the street while I was on the phone with 911. Thankfully he decided to get back in his SUV and took off before finishing the lesson he wanted to teach me.

    Anyway, thanks for the news that they are preserving that right turn as is. Good luck to those of you riding here in finding that magic little spot in the lane where you can ride safely, but not raise the ire of motorists by acting like you belong there.

    Just as that guy told me that night and the mayor is making painfully clear, our streets are for cars.

  12. […] Union might be an opportunity for Seattle to get its bike planning back on track. Seattle Bike Blog posted one possible recipe. Here’s what SBB […]

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