SDOT quietly deletes key section from southend bike lane at the last minute, misleads the public about the change

Design document showing complete protected bike lanes on Columbian Way. Design document showing sharrows instead of a bike lane heading west on Columbian Way before Beacon Ave S.

Photo looking east from the newly-constructed bike lane on Columbian Way. The lane disappears for half a block before the intersection.

Photo taken May 31 shows that the bike lane ends before the intersection.

In yet another hit to the already sorely lacking southend bike network, SDOT quietly made a last-minute change to the Columbian Way paving project to remove an uphill section of protected bike lane as the road approaches Beacon Ave S. Neighbors didn’t know about the change until crews painting the planned bike lanes on the repaved street ended them half a block east of Beacon Ave S.

Just how quiet was this change? Even the project’s own communications and outreach staff didn’t seem to know about it as recently as June 6, according to emails sent to reader Matthew Snyder. Snyder had contacted the team May 29 as soon as he and other neighbors noticed the gap in the bike lane. A week later, SDOT staff sent this reply:

“We understand your concerns since striping is not yet completed. Crews are planning to complete striping on S Columbian Way / S Alaska St soon. Please see the attached PDF of the PBL plan where it shows that the PBL on S Columbian Way will continue through the intersection with Beacon Ave S. The plan also follows the City of Seattle’s protected bike lane intersection design standards. We hope that helps answer your questions.”

The document they sent was the 95% construction plan, which includes the complete bike lane neighbors thought was being constructed (the top image on this post). But the project engineers made a last-minute change to replace a block of the bike lane with sharrows, and they did so without any kind of public outreach or even public notice. They didn’t even bother to tell their own outreach staff or make sure information on the project website was updated to reflect the change.

Snyder, being a tenacious and engaged neighbor, was able to track down the 100% plans from the city’s contractor bidding website (the second image above). The team finally acknowledged in an email dated June 12 that the bike lane would “become a sharrow to make room for a right turn lane and traffic lane.”

This bike lane is among the only significant stretches of protected bike lanes SDOT currently plans in all of Southeast Seattle for the entirety of the Move Seattle Levy, despite consistent advocacy from all major advocacy organizations and the city’s own Bicycle Advisory Board urging the city to correct past injustices and invest heavily in the southend. And this gap greatly diminishes the effectiveness of this vital bike route. A bike route is only as comfortable as its least comfortable section. A missing gap like this is likely the difference between whether a family will use the lane with their kids or not, for example. This is the route from Columbia City to Jefferson Park and Mercer Middle School, for example. So eleven-year-olds are now supposed to just merge with car traffic every day while biking up a major hill to school?

Not only is the sabotaging of this bike lane extremely concerning, but the complete lack of public notice raises a lot of troubling questions. Compare the years of public outreach neighbors in wealthier, whiter Wedgwood received for planned bike lanes on 35th Ave NE as part of that repaving project to the complete disregard Columbia City and Beacon Hill neighbors received when SDOT decided to delete a key section of bike lane from this paving project. If there were arguments for removing this section of bike lane, people never had the opportunity to discuss them or advocate for a complete bike connection.

Mayor Jenny Durkan had contractors change the paving plan for 35th Ave NE after construction had already started to completely remove the planned bike lanes there. So we know she can add the bike lane back here. These sharrows are not good enough, and they do not meet the goals of the Bicycle Master Plan.

But this scandal also raises serious questions about SDOT’s trustworthiness. The public was clearly misled. The question is whether SDOT was lying or inept, neither of which is good. The department is investing public money into these projects, and the public has a right to know what they are building and when they make major changes to the core functionality of planned projects. And people in southeast Seattle have just as much right to know as people in northeast Seattle.

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34 Responses to SDOT quietly deletes key section from southend bike lane at the last minute, misleads the public about the change

  1. Buckets says:

    This is it in a nutshell. We can’t trust the engineers on the ground to not implement what they’ve been building their entire careers, car oriented right-of-way.

  2. Don says:

    Also, this Mayor. She cannot be trusted on transportation and safety issues. This is a top down environment.

  3. S says:

    I either bike or drive up this hill on a daily basis. This entire project has been poorly handled, and SDOT have created a deathtrap with the sharrow. Drivers don’t pay attention to bikes along this stretch of road, and they particularly won’t pay attention if they’re focused on turning right. There is also often traffic backed up that makes it difficult for bikes to merge seamlessly with traffic. Someone is going to get hit here: it’s not a matter of if, but when.

    I’m an adult with several years of biking experience, and I don’t feel comfortable along this portion of Columbian. I can’t imagine trying to ride through this intersection with a family.

    • sleeknub says:

      Sorry, if you are an adult with several years of biking experience you should have been perfectly comfortable biking that section of road even before there was any bike lane at all. We all see bikers around Seattle biking on roads without bike lanes…I do it myself and feel just fine.

      I also drive or bike on this section of road on a very regular basis. The intersection was already pretty bad before anything was done (it should have been treated like a single intersection, rather than two…blows my mind that it wasn’t), but now it’s even worse. Traffic is going to be horrible for very little benefit to bikers (by the way, I almost never see any bikers here).

      People in Seattle that don’t bike don’t do it because of the weather and the hills, no amount of protected bike lanes on hills is going to change that.

    • Mike says:

      This issue is attracting a wider variety of people to biking. In Amsterdam a third of the population bikes regularly — including gradmothers and children and others who would only ride a “really safe” corridor — because Amsterdam has fully-protected bike lanes throughout the city. Other cities have added off-road lanes or full cycletracks throughout the city and seen a similar uptake in bicycle use. That’s what the proponents are trying to achieve, in the incremental way that’s practical for Seattle. Move Seattle was supposed to be a significant step toward this and transit access, but it keeps getting watered down to almost nothing, and cars and parking keep getting overrrides.

      • J-Lon says:

        I’m in favor of this new bike lane. It’s a mile from my house, and I’ve biked more on Columbian over the last month than I ever did before. Makes my new ebike much more useful, because it’s now much easier to ride to and from Columbia City. So even with it’s flaws, I think it’s an improvement, especially from MLK to Beacon.

        That said, I was just in Amsterdam in May, and while they do have a lot of bike lanes, there’s a lot more to the volume of cyclists in Amsterdam than just protected bike lanes. It’s flat there. People grow up biking everywhere, etc.

        Honestly, the mix of pedestrians, cars, bikes, and transit in Amsterdam is crazy. You don’t just seamlessly parachute into it. You have to learn how it works and learn a different awareness, because so many more transportation modalities are sharing space. I was almost hit by cyclists a number of times while walking. It wasn’t their fault. It was my fault, because I was not yet habituated to paying attention to both the car lane and the bike lane, while crossing the street.

        We’re at a much earlier stage in the process of becoming re-habituated to sharing space on the road in a different way than we have over the last 70-80 years. Seeing how it works in Amsterdam helped me to understand what they’re slowly heading towards in Seattle. But it’s definitely not a straight line and the current administration seems more half-hearted about bike infrastructure than the last couple, which is too bad. It’s also going to be much harder to get drivers to re-habituate, because they are much more used to owning the road than drivers in a place like Amsterdam, where they have never owned the road like most American drivers.

        But I still believe that change is possible and necessary.

        Ebike use continues to grow at a crazy pace in Seattle. I’ve been following ebikes for maybe 7 years now. In 2012 I might see one or two ebikes a month. Now I see numerous ebikes everyday (and that doesn’t count Lime and Jump bikes). Finally got my own last October.

        Kind of a game changer for average folks who aren’t super-fit, etc. Elimiates the hill issues completely. Probably makes the weather less of a blocking issue too.

        More and more people are going to start to realize (as I have), that it’s a great way to make trips under 7 miles round trip. And as they do, the need for better infrastructure is only going to grow.

        So it’s sad that we continue to skate to where the puck currently is, rather than being proactive and skating to where it’s going to be.

  4. Kathy says:

    Let’s face it. Unless we go all critical mass and block traffic and get our keisters hauled off to jail and make a splash in the news, no one in this city administration is going to give two thoughts about our concerns. Funny how people in Portland are much more demanding and more capable of getting their demands met when it comes to infrastructure for people walking and biking and taking public transportation. An SDOT project manager who used to live in Portland even commented to me that people there would never put up with kind of treatment we do in Seattle. Are we too apathetic or just too nice?

    • JB says:

      There was a good piece on NPR last night about the Stonewall riots and gay activism during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, and I would say there could be parallels between those movements and today’s safe streets movement in Seattle. It’s a shame that as a member of the LGBTQ community, Mayor Jenny Durkan doesn’t have the leadership and moral fiber to stand up for other marginalized groups in society. She is willing to let the 96% bully and kill the 4%. Because hey that’s where the votes are.

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        I don’t think you can compare discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people and people who choose to bike.

      • JB says:

        Why not?

      • JB says:

        The Durkan Administration’s stance on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure isn’t just wrongheaded, it is morally indefensible. And they know it, or they would not be trying to pull this fly-by-night crap to sneak through with their awful street designs. Is it injustice of the same magnitude as anti-LGBTQ discrimination? I doubt it, but it is similar in that they have abandoned any pretense of wanting to do the right thing and are only doing the thing that is politically expedient and approved by an intimidating majority, and damn the consequences for the vulnerable minority. And on the same weekend that we have a Seattle Times op-ed from Durkan pledging that she will not rest until no one is marginalized by economic status, among other things. And yet as we know all too well, she has endorsed and worked to perpetuate – often with some very shady tactics – the marginalization of people who ride bicycles. And don’t forget that many of us bike simply because we have no other affordable option.

        In her place and time, Mayor Jenny Durkan is little better than George Wallace or Donald Trump or whoever the sponsors of DOMA were.

      • Al Dimond says:

        @JB: Because the second we step off the bike we can be anyone else. We aren’t turned away from businesses because we bike, not even car dealerships! We aren’t kicked out of our families!

        Us bike people are much more analogous to vegetarians.

    • Doug says:

      Just merge into the traffic.

    • Doug says:

      Just merge into traffic, you have the right.

      • Adam says:

        And naturally you encourage your own 12-year-old daughter to just merge into the traffic?

  5. Frank says:

    i’m not even a biker through this intersection. I’m an actual car driver here. and going back to the 2 car lanes there is an obvious mistake. right turn lane doesn’t need to be prioritized. unconfusing who is going to turn left there is much more valuable in making the car flows predictable and minimizing merge conflicts, given it returns to 1 single car lane on the other side of the intersection. so stupid

    • KM says:

      I only drive through this intersection too, I am a new-ish urban cyclist and barely feel safe in my own neighborhood, let along using major arterials to get to other ones.

      My husband and I drove this stretch yesterday, and it was the first time I saw the striping finished (?) and I was in shock. I hadn’t followed the project website of these bikes lanes since it’s not an area I ride it. Had a hunch they were going to especially blow that intersection when I saw the preliminary striping a few weeks ago. It’s appalling how bad it is.

  6. Peri Hartman says:

    Sharrows don’t solve this problem. But I do appreciate that SDOT wants two lanes through the intersection. That potentially allows double the cars to get through, which means more cycle time is available for other things, such as pedestrian lead time.

    I don’t know SDOT’s justification, if any, nor what other solutions are possible. Regardless, promising one thing and sneaking in another just builds distrust and animosity. Come on SDOT.

  7. asdf2 says:

    The original design, with right turning cars cutting across the bike lane, has its own safety issues. When traffic backs up, this results in bikes passing cars on the right, which means right turning drivers have to look for bikes behind them to avoid a collision. The actual design looks like a clean merge, and drivers, for the most part, only have to look forward to see a cyclist.

    Of course, the right hook problem can be dealt with by instituting separate signal phases for bikes vs. right turns, which SDOT already does at Mercer and Dexter. But, given that drivers aren’t used to having to wait to turn right when the light to go straight is green, I don’t trust drivers to actually obey such a signal when my life is on the line.

    I don’t know what the right solution is, but the picture looks no worse than what I already ride through, all over Seattle, on a regular basis.

    • Dardanelles says:

      Except – as people above have noted – traffic backs up at the light. Cyclists coming up the hill while cars are backed up have the choice of stopping and losing all their momentum well below the top of the hill, or weaving through cars to get in the front, which, without a clear green bike box painted by the crosswalk, is the sort of thing that is reasonably likely to incite road rage.

  8. Debi Y says:

    Sharrow’s do not provide any protection or comfort to bike riders. Bikes need their own lane, especially going up hill. We need a greater follow through from the city on providing safe bike lanes.

    • sleeknub says:

      The place where a bike lane is not needed is after the intersection (headed west) at Angeline, where the road is flat to slightly downhill. This is where removing the turn lane will have the greatest negative impact on traffic for very little benefit to cyclists.

  9. westseattlebikeconnections says:

    Typical of the misplaced priorities and failures of Mayor Durkan’s administration to stick to agreements. It seems they cannot be trusted even when only the final painting is left to do.

    The original design is not great, because it does not provide either mixing zone or a protected intersection design, putting bike riders exposed to right hooks as others pointed out. There is probably not enough roadway width to do it right.

    But the as-bullt design does not even conform to SDOT’s own design standard for a minimal “combined bicycle turn lane” when the lane is 13-14 feet wide, or a “shared bicycle turn lane” when the turn lane is less than 13 feet wide. The standard for the shared turn lane at least puts two sets of sharrow markings to the left of right turn markings. Unlike what SDOT just installed, the standard designs call attention to drivers and bike riders that bikes will be going straight through in the turn lane, and to bike riders to position themselves out in lane so drivers will see them and realize their intention, It’s here is the Streets Illustrated manual. https://streetsillustrated.seattle.gov/design-standards/bicycle/bike-intersection-design/

    • Doug says:

      Just merge into the traffic.

    • asdf2 says:

      I assumed that bike riders will be be going straight from the lane that is marked as right turn only for cars. Are to saying that to go straight in a bike, you’ll have to merge left into the car thru lane? If so, that’s really nuts.

      In general, I treat any right turn lane as a thru lane for bikes, whenever a bike lane picks up on the other side of the intersection, unless there’s a double right turn. Avoiding the merge benefits everyone (at the cost of preventing cars behind me from making a right turn on red). I have tons of intersections like this in my neighborhood, and this is how I avoid dangerous and stressful merges.

  10. Pedro says:

    In the opinion of this SE Cyclist’s perspective, the new AK Street ‘protected bike lane’ only modestly better than the ‘unprotected’ bike lane it replaced.

    When the bike lane ends, slow-moving (this section is still a steep hill) bikes have two options.
    — First option, merge your slow bike (5mph) into a lane w/ fast cars (25mph+).
    — Second option, go up on the sidewalk, which is 100% legal, thru a busy gas station driveway, then re-merge onto Colombian or Beacon. The street-to-sidewalk-to-street is a varsity level maneuver in the best of cases, which this section of Alaska St is not.

    But safety isn’t the real goal for Mayor Durkan. Her goal is the APPEARANCE of increased bike safety. This project will draw a shiny new, green line on the bike map in SE Seattle with virtually no west-bound safety improvement.

    Nicely played, Mayor.

    • sleeknub says:

      Going from street to sidewalk to street is a varsity level maneuver? Come on. I have been doing that since a year or two after I learned how to ride a bike, as probably most other bike riders have.

    • J-Lon says:

      I’ve done this varsity level maneuver a few times already. Not optimum, but effective.

  11. Dave R says:

    I notice on the project web page – marked as last updated May 6 – that the 100% plan with the sharrows is posted.

    https://www.seattle.gov/transportation/projects-and-programs/programs/maintenance-and-paving/current-paving-projects/columbian-way

    However if you look on the last version of the page saved by the internet archive project – May 23 – the 100% plan is not there:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20190523173509/https://www.seattle.gov/transportation/projects-and-programs/programs/maintenance-and-paving/current-paving-projects/columbian-way

    So they slipped it in after the fact and have failed to note that they updated the page since May 6.

  12. AW says:

    Upthread there was a discussion about activism for bicycle safety. I was at the ride for bike and pedestrian safety on June 16 and the turnout was so bad that it just showed the mayor that not enough people really care about it so she can continue to (at best) ignore bicycle safety. It is also my impression that groups that should be doing something to promote bicycle safety (Bicycle alliance of Washington, Cascade, etc) are pretty much impotent. So I am not expecting any type of attention to bicycle rider safety to happen any time soon.

    I have this idea that we should have a group of bicycle riders ride together along the specific unsafe streets and take the lane. The rear bike could have a sign that says “If there were a safe bicycle lane then you wouldn’t be behind us and I wouldn’t be risking my life”. Maybe this might wake up enough drivers and encourage them to advocate for bicycle lanes.

  13. JAT says:

    I drove through there this weekend – the intersection has always been dicey – but now delivers a pair of complex chicanes for motorists to accommodate newly designated left turn lanes and right turn lanes exactly where the “protected*” bike lanes are suspended.

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out, and by interesting I mean: People are going to get hurt. I’m not for any infrastructure that is unintuitive or a major departure from regular transportation habit. People expect to go in a straight line through an intersection – throwing in what is essentially a lane change is going to lead to motorists sideswiping each other and cyclists and SDOT should be held accountable when that happens.

    *just how much protection do plastic “plunger” bollards provide? I feel hemmed in by them and this weekend around the blind curve downhill on Columbia the bollard-hemmed bike lane was blocked by orange cones (presumably protecting the drying paint)

    • Adam says:

      More than a painted bike lane (unless there is extra space, like on Dexter). Usually the entirety of the bike lane is in the door zone, so you’re forced to ride on top of the outside line to squeeze between traffic on the left and potential door openings on the right.

    • sleeknub says:

      Totally agree on all points. I’ve already seen several dangerous situations with cars trying to navigate that new intersection. I also feel hemmed in by the pollards and these typical narrow bike lanes. If we are going to build bike lanes they should generally be wider and paired (so they are effectively even wider). I’m also a fan of solid separation, like parking or concrete planters.

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