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Watch: The case for a bike lane over the Fremont Bridge

Diagram of the bike lane concept with two general purpose lanes, a bus lane and a two-way bike lane in addition to the sidewalks.
From the Ballard-Fremont Greenways proposal.

The Fremont Bridge is Seattle’s busiest bike route pinch point. Routes from all over the region converge here to cross the Ship Canal, which is why the bridge’s bike counter registers the highest number of trips in the city. A record 1,187,146 bike trips crossed the bridge in 2019. It may the the region’s most important bike route, serving local trips and the Interurban North bike route that connects all the way to Everett.

But that 1.2 million bike trips have to squeeze by each other and all the people walking across the bridge on two skinny sidewalks. The crunch is not comfortable for anybody.

That’s why neighbors with Ballard-Fremont Greenways have put together a proposal and petition you can sign calling for bike lanes on the Fremont Bridge. The pandemic has made this need far more acute since social distancing is impossible on the skinny bridge sidewalks, but it’s a necessary improvement even without the threat of spreading a deadly virus.

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The bridge is historic and, unlike with the Ballard Bridge, there is no plan to replace it any time soon. The sidewalks have been beyond their comfortable capacity for a long time now, and they will only get worse. There’s no reason to put off this improvement.

The biggest challenge is almost certainly transit. The bridge raises and lowers often, leading to a build-up of traffic that then needs to clear in a big and often scary rush. As it is now, buses that serve downtown Fremont (31, 32, 40 and 62) simply get in line with cars. So the key to making a bike lane work here is to also give buses priority, especially during the moments when the bridge reopens. This likely means bus lanes and queue jumps that get buses to get to the front of the line before they even reach the bridge. Signal changes could also give buses a head start before allowing cars.

Changes like this will impact drive times for people in cars, but most people with cars have other options. The Aurora Bridge is right overhead and they also have free reign on the Ballard Bridge. Sure, these are not the most direct routes for all trips, but at least there are options. For people walking, biking and taking Fremont buses, there is no other option. So walking, biking and transit should be the priority here. The group’s proposed design (or some other design that meets these needs) still provides car and freight access, it’s just not the top priority anymore. And that’s the way it should be.

I think another major advantage of creating bike lanes on the bridge deck is that the sidewalks can become the iconic spaces they should be. People walking across should be able to stop in the middle and take a moment to take in the incredible view down the Ship Canal or out to Lake Union. People should be able to take a selfie. I know that sounds like a silly reason, but the Fremont Bridge is so cool and should be the kind of space that belongs to the people on the ground living life. It’s so much more than yet another pipe funneling cars.

Watch the King 5 report:

The petition letter:

Dear Elected leaders and city staff:

Please direct SDOT to establish an emergency bike lane across the Fremont Bridge.

As much as we need Stay Healthy Streets, we also need a safe, healthy crossing of the Ship Canal at the Fremont Bridge.  As one of the most heavily utilized cycling facilities in the City of Seattle, the Fremont Bridge recorded over 1.2 million bike trips in 2019 and usage in 2020 prior to the “Stay at Home” order was on track to surpass previous records—all in spite of the bridge having very narrow sidewalks that are shared by both cyclists and pedestrians:

  • The Fremont Bridge supports commuters and recreational cyclists from the Fremont, Ballard, Wallingford, Phinney Ridge, Greenwood, Crown Hill, and Queen Anne neighborhoods, as well as pedestrians traveling along the Burke-Gilman, Ship Canal, and Westlake Trails
  • The quarantine period has seen a dramatic surge in the popularity of cycling in these neighborhoods and across the City, increasing daytime bike traffic on the bridge
  • As more people return to work, we can expect the numbers of people cycling to increase dramatically during commute hours, especially for those who choose to use cycling as an alternative to public transportation
  • However, due to the legacy of the bridge’s original design, the narrow sidewalks—which are barely over 6’ wide at key points—are forced to act as a two-way multi-use paths, creating unsafe conditions at the best of times
  • With the addition of the need to maintain a “safe social distance,” the constrained sidewalk space has become even more hazardous for cyclists and pedestrians

The unsafe conditions along the sidewalks of the Fremont Bridge force cyclists to make the impossible choice between risking their health by riding too close to other people on the sidewalk and risking injury by riding with motor vehicles in traffic. Cyclists should not have to make that choice.

Fortunately, we can address this public health and safety issue by having SDOT create a protected bike lane across the Fremont Bridge.

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16 responses to “Watch: The case for a bike lane over the Fremont Bridge”

  1. bill

    Hear, hear, Tom! Bike lanes over the bridge would be wonderful.

    The last several months I have been biking across the bridge in the general lanes. I have wide, soft tires on my bikes so control has not been an issue. I am not sure I will ride on the metal gratings when it starts raining, however. I am a fairly fast rider, and I think drivers realize the surface is dicey, so I have not had trouble with tailgaters. Thus my experience so far has been positive.

    For everyone to feel comfortable in all weather the deck will need to be upgraded with a solid surface. That will add weight. But if the bridge is reduced to two vehicle lanes that will reduce the load the bridge carries, so maybe a solid deck for cyclists is feasible.

    I feel for pedestrians on the sidewalks. You are right Tom, people should be comfortable to loiter and gawk.

    1. asdf2

      I was on a an Emerald City ride once, where they managed to erect a temporary carpet over the Montlake bridge grating to make the ride safer. So, the surface issue is a solvable problem.

      1. dave

        it isnt compicated, the eastlake bridge has filled in the grid for a bike lane

  2. NickS

    Between the Westlake cycle track, the Burke Gilman, the other infrastructure in Fremont, I selfishly feel like SDOTs efforts and limited funds should be spent in other parts of the city, like SE Seattle, that are so far behind North Seattle that it’s not even funny. North Seattle should go into maintenance mode until SE and West Seattle (particularly south of the Junction) begin to catch up. I invite anyone complaining about crossing the Fremont Bridge to come down to Rainier Beach and see how good you have it.

    As Ryan acknowledges, the bridge is a pinch point for everyone including transit, I don’t think taking a chunk to put a bike lane in will be the most popular idea.

    1. Jessica Winter-Stoltzman

      As a resident of Fremont who crosses this bridge daily on bike for my commute, I agree (though now I don’t commute b/c COVID). I love biking in Fremont, but we are looking to move and buy a house somewhere in Seattle, but biking everywhere else is scary because there aren’t safe routes. So I feel like spreading the wealth would be fairer to residents of other neighborhoods and would give me more options of where to live!
      That said, I don’t want to naysay this project, I think it’d be great! I just want a bunch more like it!

    2. asdf2

      I agree that more definitely needs to be done for South Seattle. However, I disagree with the premise that all bike projects in North Seattle need to be held hostage until that happens. In many cases – this included – we’re not talking about a lot of money here, just paint, plastic posts, and some carpet to cover the grating.

      In many cases, the barrier to getting bike lanes done is not money at all, but complaints from people about the effect that the bike lanes would have on their car commute. Withholding projects from North Seattle does absolutely zero to address the political situation in south Seattle, so the net effect of such a policy is to allow south Seattle NIMBY’s to effectively veto bike lanes in North Seattle also.

      I have also read various depressing comments and editorials from people of color who are opposed to bike lanes in their neighborhood. Some do so out of fear that anything that makes the neighborhood more desirable will lead to higher rents and gentrification – in other words, that to keep the neighborhood affordable, the infrastructure has to suck and continue to suck. And from people who feel that they have to be in a car to move about their neighborhood, simply so that their skin color is less visible to racist cops, thus implying that any re-allocation of space from cars to bikes or pedestrians is inherently racist.

      I’m not sure how widespread such opinions actually are – a couple of random editorials is, after all, a sample size of just two. But, the unfortunate reality is that adding bike lanes to already-gentrified neighborhoods avoids many of these political battles (at least the bike lane opponents can’t play the race card). And unless you’re talking about extremely expensive infrastructure like a freeway bridge, it is politics, not money, that’s the real limiting factor.

      1. bill

        Carpet on a road is not durable long term.

        Instead of internecine fighting over equity, we should push for a bigger bike budget that will fund more projects and a mayor that will implement them.

  3. Would it be possible to add cantilever bike or ped lanes to the bridge ? I just don’t see how removing a lane of auto traffic would be part of an acceptable solution.

  4. R

    A bike lane over the Fremont Bridge is not a hill to die on. There’s limited political capitol that bicycle and pedestrian safety advocates have and this isn’t the project they should be backing.

  5. Thinking about this a bit more: it might be better to put attention to the Ballard bridge. That bridge is daunting to cross on bike. I wonder how many people avoid it and go to Fremont to cross, instead.

    If a significant percentage of people would switch to an improved Ballard bridge, that might take enough bike congestion off the Fremont bridge to defer any changes to the latter.

    1. dave

      if we are/were close to getting a new ballard bridge with good bike lanes then fremont would be less of an issue, but are we?

      1. Well, are we close to getting a new fremont bridge ?

    2. Jessica Winter-Stoltzman

      That would be interesting data! I live between the Fremont and Ballard bridges, so depending on my destination, sometimes Ballard is a shorter route, but I nearly always avoid it and cross the Fremont bridge instead (biking about 3 miles out of my way).

  6. Another thought: put rubber grate-filler on the curb lanes each direction – imagine a strip about 5′ wide. Some riders would feel comfortable taking those lanes, alleviating some of the congestion on the sidewalk.

    1. bill

      This might be the most practical, least expensive, and least controversial option.

  7. eddiew

    the drawing does not match the Tom text. The drawing does not provide transit priority in both directions; at the south end, the routes go in three directions. there are many riders on the bus routes. given limited ROW at both ends of the bridge, I wonder how the Tom suggestions for queue jumps could be provided. Note the SDOT improvement in the last decade to remove the parallel parking from Fremont Avenue North between North 34th and 35th streets.

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