Seattle voters overwhelmingly approved a taxing levy in 2015 with the stated goal of building 110 miles of new or upgraded protected bike lanes and neighborhood greenways across the city by the end of 2024. As of the start of 2023, the city has only constructed 57% of that goal, according to a presentation SDOT is set to give the Move Seattle Levy Oversight Committee tomorrow (February 7).
But we already knew the city was behind on delivering its bike promises. We’ve unfortunately been tracking this problem since the very first year of the levy. After leading the development and passage of the levy, Mayor Ed Murray dropped the ball badly in 2016 and into 2017 before resigning in disgrace amid accusations of sexual abuse. At the time, SDOT placed blame for the bike project delays on “various reasons” and told Seattle Bike Blog that they had a plan to make sure bike route delivery stayed on schedule in the coming years:
“We recognize projects get delayed for various reasons and to that end, are planning and designing additional 2017 and 2018 projects to prepare for schedule risks,” said [SDOT Spokesperson Norm] Mah. “By planning and designing more mileage then we can accommodate delays in some projects and move enough corridors forward to make up for delays in others.”
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In order to deliver on Move Seattle, SDOT would need to build an average of 12 miles of protected bike lanes and neighborhood greenways every year. But after a slow start, that number ticked up to about 13 miles per year in 2017, then 14 miles per year in 2018. Seattle would need strong leadership to get the voter-mandated bike routes back on track, but instead Jenny Durkan became mayor. By the end of her first full year in office she still had not hired an SDOT Director, and Seattle had successfully constructed just 4% of its 2018 bike lane goal. The miles needed per year to meet the Move Seattle goal ticked up to 15.5, but Durkan had made it clear by this point that she was not interested in pursuing the levy’s bike route goals, and the Levy Oversight Committee sounded the alarm about the “disproportionately large” cuts to the bike plan. Hundreds of people protested the bike cuts during a June 2019 City Hall rally and bike ride downtown.
By the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the voters’ bike route plan already seemed unlikely. Understandably, the city’s delivery of bike infrastructure took a hard hit in 2020. Going into 2021, the city would need to build 18.5 miles per year to meet the levy’s goal.
But this is where things got really interesting. 2021 was SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe’s first year to actually run the department without being in total crisis response mode, and SDOT delivered 16.73 miles of bike routes, 9 of which were difficult-to-build protected bike lanes. That was within spitting distance of the mileage the department would need to deliver every year to meet the levy’s goal. The turnaround was astounding, and it showed what the department is capable of when given the proper guidance and resources. It also completed some notoriously difficult and important connections, especially in and around downtown.
SDOT did not maintain the 2021 pace during Mayor Bruce Harrell’s first year in office, another year with no SDOT Director for the first nine months. But with Gregg Spotts now running the department, he and Mayor Harrell are saying all the right things and they seem to be preparing a last-minute dash to build out the voters’ bike routes before the levy expires at the end of 2024. As of the start of 2023, the department needs to build a shade under 26 miles of protected bike lanes and neighborhood greenways in each of the next two years to meet the original goal. SDOT’s presentation shows that they are currently planning about 15.25 miles of protected bike lanes, 15–18 miles of neighborhood greenways and up to 12.5 miles of new or upgraded Healthy Streets. That’s a total of 36.25 miles of new bike routes plus upgrades to some existing routes.
It is unlikely SDOT will meet the full 110-mile goal from the Move Seattle Levy. But when the dust settles on city streets in 2025, they may have gotten close. They are currently anticipating between 90 and 107 miles, largely dependent on delivery of neighborhood greenways. (The exact accounting is fuzzy since funding can come from many different places in addition to the levy, but the point is that they are trying to get the mileage up). Given the pandemic and some bike lane miles costing more than anticipated, getting close would be a significant achievement. The numbers are so close that I wonder if there is a good, long and cheap project they could add that would allow them to actually meet the full mileage goal (1st Avenue S? Airport Way? Lake Washington Boulevard? Beach Drive SW?). Maybe I’m getting greedy…
Of course, there are a lot of “ifs” involved here. Building bike lanes is difficult work, and it will take some serious political commitment to follow through on bike route improvements at this scale. Exercise your online survey muscles to make sure they are ready for a lot of community engagement. If our city manages to pull this off, it will be the biggest expansion of protected bike routes in Seattle history. Let’s do it.