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King County limits bikes on Vashon/West Seattle water taxis, bans many family bikes

Photo from the deck of the water taxi showing how a long cargo bike can block the ramp.
Photo from King County showing a cargo bike that partially blocks the ramp.

In what is sure to be disappointing news to many readers, King County has announced that it will begin limiting the number and types of bikes allowed on its Vashon and West Seattle water taxis.

Bikes and water taxis go together extremely well, especially since driving to the water taxi makes very little sense and transit service is very limiting. In fact, that’s the problem. Biking to the water taxi has become too successful, and King County did not design the vessels with enough space to meet demand. So they will now be limiting each sailing to 26 bikes.

They also did not design the vessels with larger family and cargo bikes in mind, which is a pretty big problem for people who rely on those bikes since you can’t just park it at the dock and check out a Lime cargo bike when you get to Seattle (though wouldn’t that be cool?). This is a bit of a bummer for West Seattle users, but it’s potentially a huge problem for Vashon users. Family bikes don’t just carry multiple people, they also carry all the stuff that comes with them. They are larger than most one-person bikes, sure, but are they much larger than two bikes (one “bike” per person)? Three bikes? Two bikes plus a stroller? Sure, blocking the ramp like in the photo above isn’t good, but banning them entirely feels a bit extreme. I hope they exhausted all other options before arriving at this decision. We’re in the midst of a family biking boom in this region, and this rule change makes it harder for folks to use them.

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As for overflow bike parking, obviously storing bikes in ways that block access to exits or railings is not an acceptable solution. But making the bike/water tax combo less dependable is also problematic. About half of West Seattle users and 30 percent of Vashon users surveyed said they have biked to the water taxi, which is pretty remarkable. And considering the region’s goal of increasing walking, biking and transit, this problem should be considered a good problem to have.

But the solution here has the potential of rolling back progress because it only hurts the reliability and usability of this service by people who have listened to King County’s encouragement campaigns to combine biking and transit. The taxis don’t run often enough to make waiting for the next boat a practical solution. If your bike won’t fit on the last of three Vashon water taxi sailings, for example, you now have a very long and unexpected bike ride (8 miles the very hilly way or 12 miles the less hilly way) ahead of you to use the Fauntleroy Ferry instead. You could also try putting your bike on a bus, though they only fit three bikes at a time and still take much longer than the water taxi.

Not knowing the options for creating more bike storage space on these vessels (which I assume is difficult), I’m not sure what the solution is here. But I do know that if people give biking to the water taxi a second thought due to this rule, that’s a loss for our region’s transportation goals. And capping the bikes also pretty much caps the potential growth for biking taxi users going forward.

The good news for Vashon users is that King County will be providing fairly secure bike parking at the Vashon Ferry dock that will be locked behind a fence between the morning and afternoon sailings. So if bike security was the factor holding you back from locking there and either walking, taking transit or using bike share in Seattle, the new bike parking may help. And the 26th person with a bike that sailing will grateful you made space.

More details from King County:

Biking and riding the water taxi go great together – like sunshine on the water. Whether for regular commuters or just for fun, it seems that with new styles of bikes the popularity is only growing.

Safety is our No. 1 priority for customers on the water taxi, and our crews have done a great job of keeping everyone safe on every voyage. Metro transit and water taxi services – buses and boats and bikes – support a healthy community and environmental sustainability through a car-free lifestyle.

In recent years we’ve seen demand growing for storing bikes onboard sailings, especially to and from Vashon Island during peak bicycle season. At times, this has created unsafe conditions for passengers when the demand exceeds the 26-bicycle capacity – leading customers to secure their bikes to handrails, or within walkways or doorways.

Sometimes customers also secure longer bicycles that can stretch well into walkways and block the exit ramp area. Bicycles that have wider cargo platforms also can exceed the space intended for standard size bicycles, which reduces the total capacity for bike storage per sailing.

After careful consideration focused on protecting the safety of customers, starting June 24 we will be limiting the number of bicycles per sailing on the Sally Fox and Doc Maynard to 26 bikes, and bikes must fit within the marked bike storage area. Up to 14 bikes will be allowed on Spirit of Kingston sailings.

Customers, bicycle riders helped with problem-solving

In 2018, Marine Division leadership determined it was time to address safety concerns and engaged riders in problem-solving. To better understand the needs and concerns of customers, we conducted two focus groups, including six bike riders in one group, and eight non-bike riders in a second group. Information from the focus groups was used to develop a survey which was shared in December 2018 on both Water Taxi routes.

We learned that riders are supportive of safety and agreed clearer information was needed around bicycle storage and capacity issues during sailings. Approximately half of those surveyed in West Seattle reported taking their bicycle onboard the water taxi; 29 percent of Vashon riders reported taking a bicycle on a sailing. The majority of West Seattle (81 percent) said they had no problem finding onboard storage for their bike; but that number was only 56 percent for Vashon riders. Most riders didn’t want to grant priority boarding or require a fee when traveling with a bicycle.

In April 2019, Water Taxi and Metro bicycle staff shared this information and consulted with a representative from the Cascade Bicycle Club and a member of the Vashon bicycle community who served on one of the focus groups.

With their guidance, and based on the recommendation from focus groups, a safety line recently was installed on the Sally Fox and Doc Maynard that depicts the maximum allowed length of a bicycle that can be safely secured in the onboard bike racks during sailings.

To help riders confirm that their bike is within the allowable dimensions, water taxi staff worked with Metro to create measuring boxes. One box is installed at Pier 52, and boxes also will be placed at the Vashon and West Seattle docks.

Alternatives for riders

Riders will have options if their bike is too long to bring onboard, or if there is no available storage space for their bike on a particular sailing.

On Vashon Island, riders can either wait for a subsequent water taxi sailing, board a WSF ferry to Fauntleroy, or store their bike at the bike rack provided by King County on the Vashon Island float. The bike rack and dock will be secured by locking the entrance gate by WSF after the last morning sailing on weekdays and remain locked when the water taxi is not in operation. The gate will be unlocked prior to the arrival/departure of the first afternoon sailing.

The Vashon route of the Water Taxi has three eastbound morning and three westbound afternoon sailings.  The 7:10 a.m. and 8:15 a.m. sailings and the 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. sailings generally represent the peak demand service to and from the island.

These trips to and from Vashon carry a range of 100-278 passengers. The sailings from Vashon at 6:10 a.m. and from Seattle at 6:30 p.m. typically have more bicycle stowage capacity.

Rules go into effect June 24

For the next week, crew members will be available to answer questions about the new bike safety policy, and touch base with riders who have concerns. Beginning June 24, crew members will be instructed to prevent bikes that are too long and overflow storage within walkways and in front of doors on the vessel and inform customers of their options in the event that on-board bicycle storage reaches capacity.

Metro and Water Taxi staff will monitor and assess the effectiveness of the new safety rules, and are open to considering refinements that maintain or further improve safety on our vessels.

Concerns or feedback can be shared with Water Taxi staff in person or through King County Metro customer service or by emailing [email protected].


Some other notes for riders:

  • If a bicycle has a trailer equivalent in size to a standard baby stroller, it may be removed and brought inside the main deck cabin. Trailers and strollers may not impede egress or access on the vessel.
  • Any bicycle accessories that do not fit within the denoted space, must be removed from the bicycle and taken with the owner inside the cabin.
  • Complete policy will soon be posted on our water taxi website.

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23 responses to “King County limits bikes on Vashon/West Seattle water taxis, bans many family bikes”

  1. kdavid

    So now we have to focus on #shortietandems?? What the actual, heck? A tandem takes less overall space than two half-bikes… I know we are not a protected class (tandems), but why is it okay to discriminate against those that choose to bike together?? Hey #WSDOT, we pay taxes too!

    1. Vashon Biker

      The Water Taxi’s are operated by King County Metro not WSDOT. You can still bring a tandem or cargo bike on the Washington State Ferries. The Water Taxis have limited space unlike the WSF.

  2. Mark H

    The enormous ebikes for solo commuters on the west Seattle water taxi got a little out of hand….

    1. Vashon Biker

      I agree…at least one of these enormous bikes isn’t a cargo bike or has a child carrier. It’s a recumbent bike that can go 50 MPH.

  3. Kathy

    All the more reason to get busy on creating safe routes for all ages and abilities between West Seattle and other areas across the Duwamish River. Routes through SODO and Georgetown especially are woefully inadequate and represent a big gap in our bike infrastructure network. The extension of the SODO trail to Spokane Street would be good for starters. Crickets on from SDOT on the status of this project. Just do it already.

    1. Vashon Biker

      You are absolutely right.

  4. asdf2

    Tandem and cargo bikes are also precisely the bikes that are not allowed on the bus racks. Except for ferries, the only way to transport them is to either ride them or carry them in a large SUV or pickup truck.

  5. ChefJoe

    KOMO’s article about this also suggests that fat/large tires could run afoul of the new “must fit in the rack” requirement.

    “Bikes that are too long or the bikes that have the very large tires and won’t fit into the bicycle rack – they’ll have to find other alternatives,” said Ron Panzero, the operations and maintenance manager for the King County Water Taxi.

  6. Ballard Biker

    So people buy these massive cargo bikes (to commute to work nonetheless) and expect society to accommodate them? How is that any different from the people that buy Ford Excursions or Chevy Suburbans and then cry when they can’t park them anywhere?

    1. Jake the Snake

      Most owners of cargo bikes own their bikes so they can transport their kids to daycare/school, pick up groceries, carry necessary equipment for work (camera equipment, tools, ingredients. etc..). I was a mechanic for 10+ years (recently left to pursue a new career) and I had maybe a handful of customers with cargo bikes that did not fit this description.

      As a alternate to driving a car, this should be accommodated for, the analogy to SUV’s is pretty inaccurate.

      1. Ballard Biker

        Most owners of cargo bikes own their bikes so they can transport their kids to daycare/school, pick up groceries, carry necessary equipment for work (camera equipment, tools, ingredients. etc..).

        In theory, yes. However most, if not all, massive cargo bikes during commuter hours have one person and one bag on them. I’m not saying they don’t use the cargo space at some point, but commuting on a massive cargo bike during rush hour for just the rider seems excessive..

        As a alternate to driving a car, this should be accommodated for, the analogy to SUV’s is pretty inaccurate.

        Not really, the people that buy massive SUVs to then mainly commute solo back and forth to work could claim the same thing:

        Most owners of large SUVs own their cars so they can transport their kids to daycare/school, pick up groceries, carry necessary equipment for work (camera equipment, tools, ingredients. etc..).

        It’s also similar to that parent that tries to bring a double-wide stroller onto a bus during rush hour. We are a dense city with limited space and some people struggle to acknowledge that.

      2. asdf2

        It’s about being able to drop the kids of at school, then proceed onto work, without needing to make a special trip to turn around, go back home again, and switch bikes.

        Working parents do the same thing with cars all the time, and it is a common justification for how even people who live and work along the same bus route claim that they have no choice but to drive.

    2. Duncan Watson

      Funny thing, SUVs are accommodated in almost all respects by SDOT, WSDOT. Cargo bikes which weigh <80lbs are not. Note that cargo bikes are often used as car replacements and significantly smaller than even a hatchback (car).

    3. Tom Fucoloro

      “expect society to accommodate them”

      No, I want society to want to accommodate them. Because a cargo bike might be big, but it also can carry multiple people or lots of stuff, trips that often are taken by car or truck instead. So yes, a cargo bike is bigger than a typical single-person bike, but it can also do more. The analogy with giant SUVs is nonsense.

      As someone with a large cargo bike, I never expect anyone to have planned for it. I know that parking it will likely involve some improvisation because many bike racks don’t really work. I know that the bus is never going to carry it. Every person who owns a cargo bike knows full well that society has not planned with their larger bike in mind, and you know that before you buy one. But the water taxi ALMOST fits them, and they are such helpful connections for folks trying to make a family biking thing work. I guess I want King County to want to find a way to help that happen. That’s why I wrote that I hope they exhausted all other options for finding cargo bike space on board. But I’m also aware that bringing cargo bikes on the water taxi won’t scale well at all, so it’s maybe a fringe issue.

      1. Ballard Biker

        I’m trying to play devil’s advocate here, because to properly accommodate them without discriminating, for example, King County may have to start considering allowing one large cargo bike, but turning away two normal bikes. So then what problem are we solving when we start having a negative trend in storage?

  7. Former Vashon Bike Commuter

    I can confirm that fat tire bikes–even those like mine that have fit in the rack for years–are being turned away from the Water Taxi. Even when there is still room in the rack. The installed racks reflect a 7 years ago market when fat tire bikes hadn’t come on the scene.

    The point is that all biking should be incentivized and prioritized–“one less car on the road.” And all bike types should be accommodated. There is more space on the vessel to accommodate overlength bikes (front deck refitments on the Vashon route, for example). They are also not using technology (like a reservation system) to help optimize utilization of existing space and help bike commuters plan.

    As the author of the article clearly points out, if this has a chilling effect on biking, then that is absolutely counter to the transportation strategy for the region. Well, that’s exactly what has happened. I commuted 1100 miles in the past year and a half on my Rad Mini (which fit fine in between the skinny wheel slots), and now I’m driving to the Vashon ferry again because the crew has confirmed that no fat tire bikes are allowed. Meanwhile, there were at least 6 empty slots on this morning’s 7:10 commute.

    And don’t even get me started on their lack of process and input on this policy. Allegedly they involved some bike commuters, but there was no draft policy circulated, no public input, no consideration to refitting the existing boats to accommodate all regular commuters.

    1. asdf2

      Can’t you park the bike at the ferry? I thought they had the “secure” bike parking area.

  8. jdierks

    I emailed them about the possibility of bringing longer bikes when space is available.

    This was their response:


    Bicycles that take up more room than what’s designated (longer than 73 inches long and 15 inches wide) create safety concerns aboard the Water Taxi, regardless of how many other bicycles are aboard.

    In the event of an emergency, the aft deck may be utilized as an assembly station for passengers to gather prior to embarking in a life raft. If this unlikely situation presented itself, crew might need to either move bicycles to a more optimal location onboard or remove them from the vessel altogether. If a bicycle is too large to quickly move out of the way or remove from the vessel, it creates an unsafe obstacle which is why it will not be allowed onboard. We thank you for your understanding.

  9. Michael Brian Bentley

    Instead of biking from Vashon using the Water Taxi, we have to load everyone into the SUV and line up at the dock for the big ferries. The Water Taxi design did not forsee eBikes and cargo bikes that seat four (?!) and all the fantastic designs companies like RAD Power Bikes of Seattle come up with.

    The Water Taxi had to catch up, and for now set up rules for parking bikes on board.

    However, we’re all waiting for the other shoe to drop and hear how the county is going to…fix the problem. Just regulating bikes doesn’t address the growing demand for space for larger bikes on the Water Taxis, it merely keeps the boat seaworthy. I’m ok with that, but it’s still a bandaid.

    To quote a movie, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

    1. Que

      Rad power bikes are a menace. If you can drive your suv from fauntleroy nothing is stopping you from driving your moped anyway.

  10. AP

    Toll the West Seattle Bridge. Use the revenues to buy bigger Water Taxi vessels.

    1. donttreadonme

      Agree, plus some. All roads within seattle city limits should be toll roads for private motor vehicle users.

  11. Jesse D

    This was my letter to the Beachcomber about it. Generally follows along with the SBB perspective, though to be honest, I had not read this until I sent in my letter a week ago or so.
    I also exchanged several emails with the Water Taxi ops team. They did not really grasp the overarching point about incentives and societal changes that this issue touches on.

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