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Proposed modal integration policy would dismantle the Bicycle Master Plan

Seattle’s Complete Streets ordinance turns 14 years old this year. Since becoming one of the first major American cities to codify in city law the idea that all major transportation improvements should include accommodations for all types of street users, the city has struggled to actually put this into practice. Loopholes allowed individual projects to be exempt from the ordinance. In 2019, after SDOT made it crystal clear how toothless the ordinance was by completing a Complete Streets checklist on 35th Ave NE in Wedgwood (after the department redesigned the street to include no bike facilities at the direction of the Mayor), the City Council passed another law requiring major repaving projects to include bike facilities if they are designated on the Bicycle Master Plan.

Now, it looks like the Seattle Department of Transportation is ready to throw in the towel on the Bicycle Master Plan entirely, and along with it all of the plan’s goals and benefits, under the guise of integrating all of the City’s modal plans together.

Last Thursday SDOT held its final meeting with the Policy and Operations Advisory Group (POAG) and presented a finalized draft “modal integration policy framework”. We previewed this framework after the group’s last meeting in December. According to the department, it was developed to create policy guidance on integrating the bicycle, transit, freight, and pedestrian master plans. It focuses on areas where the right of way is “deficient”, meaning that according to SDOT’s own design standards (as laid out in its Streets Illustrated Right-of-Way improvement manual) there isn’t enough room to accommodate all modes on a specific city block. “Even with a large policy foundation, we lack comprehensive policy guidance for how accommodate these networks in places where the [street] is too narrow for all desired modes and uses,” the policy’s executive summary states.

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An image of street space allocation as recommended by the Streets Illustrated manual.

That executive summary, which is the most detailed summary of the policy that we’ve seen so far, makes it even more clear that the adoption of this policy would specifically target the Bicycle Master Plan over the other modal plans. Across the three adopted modal plans (with the Pedestrian Master Plan analyzed separately), it cites 5,269 segments of bike lane, transit lane, or freight lane intended to fit within the space available from one curb to another. SDOT says 8% of them, or 440 blocks, are not wide enough to accommodate all of the modes specified as needing space in their respective plans. Amazingly, all but one of those 440 includes a planned bike facility. On half of those blocks (223), the bicycle facility is the only thing even competing for extra street space- no transit lanes or freight lanes are even conceived on those blocks.

In other words, if the Bicycle Master Plan didn’t exist, there would be one block of conflict between Seattle’s modal plans over the use of the curb-to-curb space on our streets.

In addition, there are another 1,208 street segments where a planned bike, freight, or transit lane fits in the street space only if a turn lane or a flex lane (parking, loading, peak hour travel) were removed. Again, this is almost entirely (598 of these) a bike facility all by itself. The policy states that flex lanes “in some cases, should be prioritized in right-of-way allocation decisions, and should be evaluated more consistently within concept design processes”.

You can see these numbers broken down in a chart produced by SDOT that shows the number of street segments called for in each master plan and whether they “fit”.

Chart showing conflicts between modes, with Bicycle Master Plan only being the most frequent one
This chart breaks down where SDOT sees conflict between the modal plans, with the Bicycle Master Plan being the biggest source of conflict.

So what would the policy actually do? It would determine a mode that should receive a first bite at the apple, so to speak, in reallocating street space- determined by the land use of the surrounding area. Inside manufacturing and industrial centers, freight lanes would receive priority over a bike facility if only one is determined to fit. Transit lanes would receive priority in areas that are not inside those manufacturing centers or in urban centers or villages. Currently SDOT doesn’t have policies that actually lay out when freight or transit lanes are called for, which it says it is developing as a forthcoming policy.

Inside urban villages and centers, pedestrian space would be prioritized. Seattle’s current Pedestrian Master Plan doesn’t really deal with sidewalk expansion, and so this would be a welcome broadening of the ambitions of that plan. SDOT says that there are 424 segments of streets along arterials where the current sidewalk width is three or more feet from meeting the standards in Streets Illustrated. The policy would preserve flex lanes (most frequently on-street parking) for future expansion, but only inside urban centers and villages.

So where would bike facilities be prioritized? The policy would designate “bicycle priority segments that are critical for bicycle connectivity”. In other words, a scaled-down Bicycle Plan map would decide which streets are critical to complete and the rest would be dropped off. Of course, this ignores the people would would use that deleted segment to access the citywide network. One of the goals of the 2014 Bicycle Master Plan is to have 100% of households in Seattle within ¼ mile of an all ages and abilities bicycle facility by 2035.

This map doesn’t appear to exist yet. At the meeting, the advisory group was told that SDOT would also be developing a list of criteria that would determine whether a route was critical, and that “route directness”, aka how far out of the way an alternate route would take someone, would be on that list. Obviously a scaled-down citywide bike map would need to involve a considerable amount of community input.

It’s also not clear exactly how bike facilities deemed “critical” would actually be prioritized in areas where the policy also says to prioritize other modes. What to do, for example, if a transit lane is recommended on a critical bicycle segment.

But the built-in assumptions that got us to this point, namely that there isn’t enough room on our streets to accommodate everyone and the Right-Of-Way design standards that have caused us to arrive at that conclusion, need serious rethinking. The unseen modal plan influencing these decisions is the base map: the amount of street space reserved for personal vehicles. The concept of a Car Master Plan came up quite a bit at the meeting. But without really seeing its influence here, we can’t push back on its assumptions. We do know that SDOT did not consider the removal of general purpose lanes entirely on any city street when considering which street widths are deficient- pedestrian streets or bike/transit only streets have not been considered here.

It’s pretty clear now the degree to which this plan targets bike facilities to be de-prioritized over almost all others. SDOT wants to fully develop this into a citywide multimodal map to be included in the 2024 Comprehensive Plan update, codifying this gutted bike plan as deeply as it can be in city policy, and use it to influence the next citywide transportation levy. There is very little upside to adopting this policy, and a huge amount of downside.

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12 responses to “Proposed modal integration policy would dismantle the Bicycle Master Plan”

  1. M.B.

    Well that’s depressing

  2. kyle

    How do parking lanes fit into this analysis? The graph shows yellow as “removal of turn or flex lanes”, but no mention of parking lanes. Are they also on the chopping block?

    Are unconventional (for the US) street designs being thrown out the window? Designs like Bell St fit many modes in less space, and it includes transit. [Yes, there is room for improvement on Bell St, but that’s mostly operational improvements at the intersections with signal/turning movement compliance, and not curb-to-curb limitations.]

    This seems like an idealistic policy attempt to resolve the entire City’s street network in one fell swoop rather than using the modal plans as inputs to the decision-making process when a particular corridor is ready to be rechannelized. If SDOT wants to avoid “modal wars” at the implementation stage, they should consider asking for input and not for permission. Conditions change and projects will always need to be designed with input from DOT leadership on what is the priority ‘today’ – a corridor that needs dedicated transit lanes one day might not need them after a new light rail station opens.

    1. Susie

      In the picture there is one car parked in a flex zone. In reality I would bet that 90% of “flex zones” are for parking.

    2. eddiew

      transit service has been removed from Bell Street. Route 62 now uses 7th Avenue and Lenora Street. https://kingcounty.gov/depts/transportation/metro/schedules-maps/route/062.aspx#route-map

  3. Mike

    The iteration between street design, Seattle’s Master Plan, and application has been interesting to watch. These master plans were written in a slightly different urban design ere before guidance like NACTO and Streets Illustrated existed, and much of our design has changed in the last 5 years after our Master Plans were written and adopted thanks to NACTO and SI. For example, the BMP is written with design assumptions from a decade old (think Mercer-type design era) on top of already old plans, yet NACTO and SI’s new design layouts are about 3-5 years old now.

    This is where people like me come into play: civil engineers who’s job is to look at these specific corridors & plans during planning & design, then figure out how to best utilize limited spaces and utilize parallel corridors where necessary. From this perspective, I appreciate having some guidance and flexibility within the plans because these Master Plans are treated more like hard fact and less like network recommendations on roughly where thing could or should go. There are times when new bike facilities could be included in projects because we’ve recently changed how we design & lay our streets since the BMP was written & adopted or a new opportunity is found to add them, but aren’t because the BMP says they’re not supposed to go there.

    I know this isn’t a preferred thought/opinion on a bike advocacy blog: given the geometric constraints of an urban environment, people biking are well suited on parallel corridors as long as they’re done properly and tie together critical destinations in a network fashion. Modes such as transit and freight are pretty well fixed due to geometry of vehicles including size and turning, and single-lane streets cannot be used as parallel vehicle corridors. Curbless streets like Bell are great for urban streets except with transit where speed, reliability, and board-ability become issues.

    1. westseattlebikeconnections

      The Freight Master Plan was just recently written. Participants were fully cognizant of these issues. It was coincidental with the development of Streets Illustrated, with overlap among those developing both. Look at the maps. There are NO parallel corridors through the Duwamish MIC for bike routes off of Major Truck Streets and “last mile” truck streets. The reason to have these plans is to be able to work out solutions that prioritize and accomodate modes, as is explicitly stated in each modal plan, not to fence of areas of the city from access by bike, or to cave in when getting to the hard parts.

    2. Urban Villager

      Two comments on your comment “people biking are well suited on parallel corridors”: (1) Why do you assume that people biking don’t want to get to the destinations actually located on the corridor – shops, services, etc. – as much as people driving or riding transit? (2) In our city, it is often the arterial that is graded more smoothly to even out the hills; this is an important consideration for biking.

  4. westseattlebikeconnections

    “Inside manufacturing and industrial centers, freight lanes would receive priority over a bike facility if only one is determined to fit.”
    Goodbye to Seattle,
    from West Seattle, Georgetown, South Park.

  5. AW

    At least the city won’t need to pretend anymore that the promises made by the BMP will actually be fulfilled.

  6. Bruce Nourish

    I have mixed feelings about the theory of a process like this. On the one hand, it has long been clear to anyone who actually read all of the Master Plans, that the city has written more checks against its ROW than it can ever cash. It is a good thing that SDOT leadership are now facing this fact, rather than dumping it on their frontline employees and consultants when it comes to designing each specific project.

    One could imagine a world of less fractious and self-serving politics where everyone who was involved in the several master plans got together, listened to each others’ needs and desires, and hammered out a compromise plan that everyone could support, or at least live with. But I can’t imagine that happening in Seattle in 2021, because most people who are civically engaged are too ensconced in their information bubble, and certain of the rightness of their cause, to actually listen to people they wouldn’t want to hang out with and don’t agree with. I suspect instead we’d get what’s happening here bureaucratically, where the bike plan bears the brunt of the shredding.

    The greatest practical failing of this exercise is that it resolves none of the arbitrary veto points that currently exist in every street design project, like endless SEPA lawsuits (Missing Link) or a bunch of NIMBY neighbors calling up the mayor to veto a bike lane (Wedgewood). I could almost live with a bunch of the BMP getting shredded if the payoff was that all of the remaining projects were unconditionally approved and could go to design and construction as soon as money came in.

    1. eddiew

      Yes. The reset is sorely needed. The SDOT analysis seems sound regarding the overlap of the plans. It was silly to have parallel monomodal master plans from the beginning. The ROW constraint is severe. The modal plans were dreams. The complete streets mantra was misguided in that it did not anticipate the many issues and constraints, but sounded good. The pedestrian master plan most needs funding. The technology of the BMP has evolved from stripes to PBL with more space and civil work. The McGinn transit plan dreamed of streetcars; how quaint. There is no second “e” in Wedgwood; it may have been named after a china pattern.

  7. Clearly, if we want more people to use bikes, we need more bike infrastructure. And I will stand with the point that it must be on most arterials, since that’s often where people want to be. Even if topography allows, a parallel street for bikes still won’t work for many people.

    But, also clearly, we can’t have as many cars if we are going to take lanes for bike infrastructure.

    As we’ve seen in the last couple years, there’s already significant push back from people in general about reducing lanes for cars. Understandably, people want to use cars, me included, for certain kinds of trips. For example, it would take nearly 1 hour by bus to visit my daughter. It takes 15 minutes by car. (If I go by myself, I bike, by the way.)

    As long as our transit is so inefficient outside of core areas, people will expect our infrastructure to support travel by car.

    Something has to give. But it’s false to assume we can make bike routes second class (i.e. on a parallel street with too many obstructions hills) and expect much increase in usage. We would just be wasting our money and political capital.

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