The Ballard Ave Café Street project has been an iterative series of changes since 2020 designed to expand outdoor space for businesses, including lots of outdoor seating for restaurants and bars. To make it happen, SDOT made the street one-way for cars and limited parking. Now the city is preparing the next phase of changes, which could make things a bit better for walking and biking.
While the basic goals of project’s phase 1 were good, there was one big issue: By making the one-way northbound travel lane relatively skinny, the project made it very difficult for anyone on a bike trying to head south through the business district. The only parallel route options are Shilshole Ave NW and Leary Way NW, both of which are famously unfriendly to people on bikes. There are also no signs helping people on bikes figure out what to do, leaving people wondering if they are even allowed to bike the wrong way. But surely the city doesn’t want people to bike on the busy Ballard Ave sidewalks, right? It feels like people on bikes were just completely forgotten about, which is not the welcoming and comfortable experience that the café street is supposed to create. And unlike Pike Place, the single traffic lane on Ballard Ave still feels like a cars-first space rather than a shared space.
I asked people on social media how they ride south through the Ballard business district, and nearly all said they ride the wrong way on Ballard Ave (though a few said they ride on Shilshole). This is also what I do, though it does not feel comfortable. I suspect some people simply avoid the area now, which is too bad since a project like this thrives on people arriving by walking, biking and taking transit.
The good news is that SDOT is preparing to implement phase 2 of the café street design, and the changes will expand the amount of space on the street for walking. While this is not a bike lane, it is space people can bike through so long as they yield to people walking, according to SDOT. Hopefully this extra wiggle room is enough to make it feel more comfortable to ride southbound. Work is scheduled for “Summer/Fall 2023.”
I don’t honestly know why they don’t just make the street car-free, though, especially since there is so little parking on the street anymore. There are loading zones and a couple accessible spots, but that’s it. Can’t they just say, “ADA Parking and Deliveries Only,” or something like that? This all seems like a lot of work and space just to accommodate a handful of car trips. And if someone is circling the block looking for parking, I think we can all agree we don’t actually want them to be driving on Ballard Ave, right? At some point here, Seattle leaders and business owners have to get over their fears of making spaces car-free. It feels like they are trying to get as close as they can without actually doing it, but many of the benefits of a car-free street are not realized until the street is actually car-free.