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Ballard Ave changes should make it a little easier to bike southbound

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.

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Overhead graphic showing the design plan with expanded walking areas.
The Phase 2 design plan, from the project website.

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.

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7 responses to “Ballard Ave changes should make it a little easier to bike southbound”

  1. eddiew

    I am a cyclist who goes southbound on Ballard Avenue NW; I am careful and yield. The SDOT change sounds good. The Tom suggestion sounds better. Both Pike Place and Ballard Avenue NW might be car-free after a loading period (up to 11 a.m.? Occidental Avenue South has that signage). When I commuted from NW Ballard, I used Shilshole Avenue NW and made a left at 17th Avenue NW to reach the Ballard Bridge; that was 1993-2000 and traffic has grown. I rarely bike on Shilshole any longer; my downtown commute uses 15th Avenue NW inbound.

    My sister is getting me your book for my birthday.

  2. Spencer

    This last paragraph is a very level headed take. It can be bewildering to see SDOT contort themselves in this way when the solution is so much easier – make it car free, with the usual asterisks about loading and unloading.

    I think the city is generally just terrified of pushback from car owners. I feel like the very thought that some old curmudgeon will moan and groan in public comment makes them bail good and simple solutions in favor of a convoluted plan like this. It doesn’t seem to serve any constituency all that well…

  3. Braeden

    SDOT should consider formalizing two-way bike access while maintaining the one-way restriction for motor vehicles. They’ve done this on some greenways by maintaining the two-way one lane designation while putting a Do Not Enter Except Bicycles sign on one end. I am thinking specifically of 36th Ave S and S Spokane St on the Rainier Valley greenway (https://maps.app.goo.gl/LFZaDjGbVYK5QSLdA?g_st=ic). Why not use this treatment here to give cyclists some legal protections for behavior that is already fairly common? Sounds like an easy win to get a bit closer to a Missing Link solution while things drag on for Shilshole and Leary.

    Agreed 100% Tom on at least signing it Accessible Parking and Loading/Unloading Only. As you note, this would actually make it more convenient for drivers. It’s an obvious win-win.

  4. asdf2

    One related point I wish more people would consider is that the mere presence of cars on a street makes outdoor dining less pleasant. That’s because, in the time it takes to order food and finish a meal, it is nearly inevitable that some car is going to pull up right next to you and decide to idle their engine for several minutes; it is also nearly inevitable that somebody is going to decide to park right next to you and blast the horn right in your ear as they lock their car to go inside (yes, the vast majority of urban honking is done by parked cars with no drivers in them).

    Of course, making the street right in front of the sidewalk cafe car-free doesn’t mean that nobody can drive there to pick up food. It just means that those that do drive there need to park a block over and walk a little bit further so that people can enjoy their meal, which is far from an unreasonable ask. This is also a point that is completely orthogonal to how people get there, or the fact that Ballard has lots of walk/bike/transit options. Even in a suburban shopping center where there is no walkability, bikeability, or public transit, and everybody is driving, you still don’t want the outdoor dining to be right up against the parking lot. You want some sort of buffer, even if it’s just a few feet of landscaping, to make the dining more pleasant.

  5. Al Dimond

    I don’t really see much of a difference between the “phase 2” plan and what’s there today. As it is there’s a striped-off area that you can ride through, broken up by occasional parking/loading spaces. That can be workable as long as everyone is paying attention and trying to be responsible.

    The problem is… what happens when someone isn’t trying as hard as you to be responsible? What happens when you’re riding counterflow, against slow traffic, near an open loading-zone space and a driver pulls into the space aggressively and hits you head-on? What happens when you’re riding counterflow on a rainy night and a pedestrian, not expecting anyone moving southbound, runs across the street mid-block (if you don’t think you can be injured like this… tell it to the metal plate in my shoulder)? What happens when you get to a stop sign and you take your turn but the driver coming across isn’t expecting counterflow traffic and drives right into you?

    In the court of of the Seattle Bike Blog comments you won’t be found at-fault for these collisions — you (as the kind of person that reads a bike blog) were presumably being more cautious than average and were hit by someone that wasn’t paying attention like they should. But in an actual court? A real court in a city where the majority drives, in a wider society where a supermajority drives? Going up against insurance-company lawyers? You’re gonna take the fall. Even your own health insurance might try to screw you if they think they can convince a jury of drivers that hasn’t been on a bike since they were 12 that riding the wrong way down a one-way street is a daredevil stunt at any speed (my health insurance certainly tried to find a way to get someone else to pay for my surgery).

    One-way Ballard Ave is good for street cafes, mediocre for the pedestrian environment, and terrible for biking. It should be straightforward and clearly supported to ride both ways down a street like this, not something we convince ourselves is OK while skitching through. Maybe on balance it’s good for Ballard. Maybe. But it’s bad for us, let’s not pretend it isn’t.

    FWIW, these days I tend to divert off as far as 58th unless it’s out of the way (i.e. if I’m going south down 24th or something and I need to get somewhere on Ballard Ave I’ll take 58th to whatever cross street will drop me down closest, to 17th if I’m going toward the Burke or the bridge). If that’s out of the way I’ll take Leary between Market to 20th over Shilshole or Ballard Ave — since the 4-way stop signs were put in on Leary it ain’t that bad, I’d rather deal with that than making a left-turn off Shilshole. If I was riding from the Locks to Fremont maybe I’d take Shilshole. Maybe. I dislike Shilshole more than all the others, not because of the truck traffic as much as all the drivers that think it’s their personal bypass of Market Street traffic.

    1. Braeden

      Well said Al. I’ll refer you to my comment above for an example of exactly what you describe in terms of formalized counter flow for bikes. SDOT has done so on greenways. I guess Bell St is another example, though it’s not necessarily a great one.h

      Your point about liability is critical and something SDOT should 100% consider. I hope your message reaches the project team.

      1. Al Dimond

        I’ve used Bell Street very regularly the past few years, much more often than Ballard Ave even though I live in Ballard now. There’s this funny thing where the city has wasted a boatload of money hiring expensive design consultants and applied successive fashionable concepts to it in turn, ending up with a street that basically works pretty well in spite of itself and is almost as good as if they’d listened to the free advice bike advocates gave them all those years ago.

        Because of all the commercial activity on Ballard Ave its challenges are more similar to Bell Street than to a typical neighborhood greenway. One of the things that works about Bell Street is that it’s not cramped — if cars are coming downhill and I’m riding uphill I’m not shoved all the way against a wall. It’s spacious but informal. The worst thing about Bell is the left-side parking/drop-off spaces. It is legitimately awkward when I’m riding uphill and a driver wants to pull into one of them. If they’d listen to bike advocates and considered counterflow biking back when they were designing it they could have avoided that problem and they could do the same on Ballard Ave if they cared.

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