Yes, the new bikeway around (half of) Green Lake is a big improvement. We made a whole video about it. But it is only one part of a major series of paving projects all grouped together into one very big “Green Lake and Wallingford Paving & Multi-Modal Improvements” project that aside from Green Lake Way has been almost entirely about cars.
It didn’t start that way. But as the project developed, many biking and walking safety improvements were cut short or removed completely. Recent news that the city won’t move forward with the planned improvements and protected bike lanes on Stone Way from N 45th Street to N 50th Street is just the latest cut to the project’s bike improvements plan. “A change of funding availability due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other competing needs led to construction at this location being paused,” SDOT wrote in a project update.
Initially, bike lanes were planned on N 40th Street as identified in the Bicycle Master Plan. The project was also going to make much needed improvements to the connection between the Burke-Gilman Trail and streets leading up the hill like 5th Ave NE. But then, as with 35th Ave NE, SDOT and Mayor Jenny Durkan did not stand by the goals of the bike plan and folded in the face of some complaints. So instead they repaved the whole street without making any significant safety improvements (beyond the accessible curb ramps they were legally required to update). In lieu of bike lanes, SDOT proposed a couple biking and walking safety “spot improvements” as a consolation prize for people hoping the busy east-west neighborhood street would become safer to navigate. These included improved crossings at Ashworth, Densmore, Bagley, 2nd Ave NE and Latona.
But then as COVID-19 threw city budgets into question, SDOT cancelled the spot improvements. As a result, they simply repaved the street and prioritized car parking over safety.
But at least most of 40th has a bus route that can benefit from the paving investment. That’s more than can be said for N 50th Street. I don’t understand how this street made it to the top of SDOT’s priority list for paving. It does not carry any bus routes, and the team did not even try to make any real safety improvements. There’s no equity benefit, no safety benefit, no transit benefit, and no neighborhood improvement benefit. They simply repaved a street through a neighborhood without making it any easier or safer to navigate. Unlike safety projects require years of planning and advocacy and long master plans with lengthy justifications, cars-first projects like N 50th Street don’t need to demonstrate any tie-in with the city’s stated goals. I wrote a slightly tongue-in-cheek argument back in 2019 arguing that the city needs a Car Master Plan, and I used N 50th Street for the imagined cover image:
Without a Car Master Plan, many of Seattle’s biggest transportation investments are being spent without a clear focus on how these public projects will help us reach our major climate change, race and social justice, public health, housing growth, and high-level transportation goals. All of the other modal master plans take these issues seriously, but those master plan projects are the exception to the rule at SDOT. The default mode of operation is that every inch of road space should go to cars unless an existing master plan says otherwise. And even then, those plans are only considered suggestions that can be ignored.
I’m particularly salty about this project because it’s near my house and I get angry every time I try to walk or bike along it or across it with my child because it’s terrifying. But there are streets exactly like this all over Seattle. The sidewalks are very skinny and right next to traffic, which is moving very quickly because there are multiple lanes in the same direction, a design SDOT knows is dangerous and leads to speeding. There are also long stretches without a safe crosswalk, which is frankly unethical for a transportation department to build. And after investing a lot of public money into this street, we still signs prohibiting people from crossing the street:
This project either should have received a safety update or the budget should have gone somewhere else. The task of achieving Vision Zero is far too vast to be investing in dangerous street designs like this.
And that brings us to the latest cut. SDOT just announced that they will not be repaving and redesigning Stone Way between 46th and 50th Streets due to “a change of funding availability due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other competing needs.” At least this time they are also cutting the paving project and not just the safety upgrades. But it’s more bike lane mileage that isn’t happening, adding to the city’s long list of bike plan cuts and delays. SDOT lists the work as “paused,” but there’s no timeline to resume.
But let me put on my infinite optimist hat for a second. In addition to cutting the bike lanes, the city also will not make improvements to the awful 5-way intersection at Stone, Green Lake Way and 50th. Maybe this is actually an opportunity for Seattle’s next mayor to do something really great. Because that intersection needs a very bold change, and it’s very clear that Mayor Durkan is not up to such a challenge.
I gotta suggest my favorite idea, which comes from an old Seattle Bike Blog comment: Delete Green Lake Way between Aurora and Stone Way. The whole street, just gone. Then reconnect the neighborhood street grid and turn that awful 5-way intersection that absolutely everyone hates into a normal 4-way intersection. Do the same to the odd intersection with N 46th Street near Aurora. I am of course not a traffic engineer and don’t have the means to run all the traffic simulations and such, but I have a good feeling that this short diagonal street is causing a lot more traffic problems than it is solving. But I know for a fact it creates a lot of walkability and bikeability challenges. It’s so frustrating and stressful to cross, cutting off a lot of homes from easy access to neighborhood businesses, Woodland Park, and the nearby Rapidride E and Route 44 buses.
What’s really great about this idea is that even after reconnecting the neighborhood street grid, the city will have a lot of new developable land. This could be turned into park space, affordable housing, or sold to fund the road redesign project (or some mixture of these ideas).
This is all a long way of saying, We are getting a new mayor soon. We need a visionary leader who will stand up for our safety and climate goals and restore trust in SDOT’s ability to deliver on its promises. Rather than constantly looking for ways to scale back our city’s ambitions until they look like more of the same, our next mayor should challenge our city to think bigger and imagine a better world.