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Bellevue Council torches their Vision Zero plan, refuses to stand against unfounded attacks on city staff

The news out of the Bellevue City Council this week was extremely disappointing. The council decided to backtrack on their Vision Zero commitment and all but toss out most of the Bike Bellevue network that was developed over a period of years following significant public outreach and study. In the process, they also left their city’s staff exposed to further personal and professional attacks (see section 2).

The ambitious Bike Bellevue plan may be doomed

Map of all 11 Bike Bellevue projects.
The Bellevue City Council has decided that most of these streets should remain dangerous.

Bellevue’s City Council voted to only consider reallocating general purpose travel lanes as a “last resort,” Ryan Packer reported for the Urbanist. During the meeting (the video is posted below), Councilmembers kept repeating over and over that they were opposed to any projects that would “remove travel lanes.” An attempt to pass a motion banning the removal of travel lanes failed 2-5 (Councilmembers Jared Nieuwenhuis and Conrad Lee voted in favor), but a motion to consider projects that would remove general purpose travel lanes only “as a last resort” passed 6-1 (Mayor Lynne Robinson opposed). Several councilmembers, including Dave Hamilton, made it quite clear that they don’t see themselves ever supporting any projects that would remove travel lanes. “I can’t imagine ever thinking it’s a good idea,” he said.

This vote, however, is in direct and clear conflict with essentially every official city transportation policy document, including (but probably not limited to) the 2020 Vision Zero Strategic Plan, 2023 Vision Zero Action Plan, 2022 Mobility Implementation Plan, and 2023 Downtown Mobility Study. All of these documents state that Bellevue has adopted a “safe systems approach” to traffic safety, which explicitly relies on redesigning dangerous streets to reduce speeding and improve safety for all road users.

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“Today, we know that one of the most effective approaches to improving safety on streets is to use road reconfigurations…to narrow travel lanes, reduce the number of vehicle lanes, or both, while providing space for bicyclists and pedestrians,” states the Bellevue Vision Zero Strategic Plan (page 25, PDF), which the City Council adopted in 2020.

“The Bellevue Transportation Commission examined the attributes of the Safe Systems approach and concurred that Safe People, Safe Streets, Safe Speeds, Safe Vehicles—as well as the supporting elements of leadership, culture, partnerships and data—all help contribute to reducing the frequency and severity of crashes,” states the city’s 2023 Vision Zero Action Plan (page 4, PDF). “This holistic approach accepts that people will make mistakes and that crashes will continue to occur, but it aims to ensure these do not result in serious injuries or fatalities.”

The core misunderstanding throughout the entire council meeting was that more lanes does not equate to better traffic, especially in an urban or even suburban environment. That is a simplistic and outdated way of thinking about how streets work. In reality, people and their movements are much more complex, and streets that are flexible are more efficient than streets that prioritize straight-ahead movement over every other movement. People are not Hot Wheels following the same track from A to B. Some people need to turn left and some people need to cross the street, and some people are walking, and some people are biking, and some people are in wheelchairs, and some people have strollers, and some people are making deliveries, and having too many travel lanes makes these non-straight-through movements slower and much more dangerous.

For example, this is why NE 65th Street in Seattle can now move 5% more vehicles after SDOT reallocated nearly 25% of the street space to create protected bike lanes and safer crosswalks (study PDF). People can turn left now, which makes it a better street to drive on. They reduced speeding by up to 75%, reduced collisions by 63%, and eliminated serious injuries and deaths. And they did all this while moving more people in cars and dramatically more people biking, walking and rolling. This is not a “last resort” solution, it’s a common sense solution that is backed by data rather than feelings.

Councilmember Lee spoke against “getting rid of car lanes for the benefit of bicyclists because one is suffering from the other.” But dangerous streets are bad for people in cars, too. Safe streets are not zero-sum calculations where any gain by one group must come at an equal loss from another. This isn’t a sport, it’s a city. Complete streets are about making streets that work for everyone.

Bellevue’s streets are not simply “pipes for cars,” as former SDOT Director Peter Hahn used to phrase it. They are part of the community. But the conversation during the council meeting never included any discussion of modern street design. The whole meeting could have gone so differently if only they had invited an expert in safe streets design to present about how modern safe streets work. But they didn’t. They irresponsibly scoffed at and dismissed the most effective and affordable method of improving safety on Bellevue’s streets, and then sent the city’s Transportation Commission misguided direction. It was depressing to watch.

I hope the Bellevue City Council takes the time to review their own Vision Zero plans and consult with safe streets experts (rather than politically-powerful developers), because there’s really good stuff in them such as this enlightening and relevant section about the history of street design in Bellevue (page 36 of the Bellevue Vision Zero Strategic Plan, PDF):

Many of Bellevue’s roads were designed and built in the 1950s and 1960s, in accordance with the standards and road building practices of the day. At the time, the priority for roadway design was to quickly and efficiently move cars. Reflecting the modernist culture and the automobile-oriented development patterns of that era—and the expectation that people would drive for all their travel needs—these roadways often lacked sidewalks and featured few pedestrian crossings. Bicycle facilities were non-existent, as the utilitarian cycling culture that influenced other cities earlier in the century had by mid-century been replaced with the notion that cycling was only a recreational activity. Since then, much has changed. Today, dependence on the automobile is being balanced with infrastructure investments that facilitate safe mobility by all modes along networks of Complete Streets. Complete Streets make it safe, comfortable, and convenient to walk, bike, and roll to get to work, school, shops, services, parks, transit, and anywhere else people want to go. Bellevue’s commitment to Complete Streets is in alignment with the Safe Systems approach to Vision Zero.

Councilmember Janice Zahn was an exception during the meeting. As a former member of the Bellevue Transportation Commission, Zahn spoke up about the importance of Vision Zero and the need to address safety on the city’s most dangerous streets.

“We committed to Vision Zero eight years ago as a city and developed the high injury network map,” she said, referring to a map that highlights the streets where the vast majority of fatal and serious injury collisions occur. She also sounded the alarm that backing away from these high injury streets could put grant funding in jeopardy. “In 2020, we committed to a safe system approach where a big part of what we’ve been doing the last couple years is actually pursuing DOT grants for safety on our roads,” she said. “The $2.7 million grant that we got actually includes a map that shows the high injury network and our bike network. So I’m really trying to understand if we’re going to re-evaluate these corridors but we’ve actually already published information that we’re pursuing grand funding, does that create any issues for us if we now decide that these aren’t the corridors that we want to pursue.”

Map with red lines denoting the high injury network.
83% of fatal and serious injury collisions in Bellevue happen on just 8% of their streets. From the Vision Zero Strategic Plan. Many of these streets are included in the Bike Bellevue plan, though the Council signaled a desire to remove them.

Zahn also noted that Bellevue itself has already repurposed travel lanes to build protected bike lanes, so the city could evaluate how those streets are now functioning. “Are we finding more issues related to travel time in those three areas?” she asked. “How much of a delay would we find to be acceptable if we’re actually creating better safety on our roads?”

In addition, there is plenty of data out there from places all over the country who have completed safe streets projects, including places that are not on the other side of the lake. “Many cities around the country have already implemented this, and they have data themselves,” said Zahn. “We have some data ourselves on our roads.”

She also pushed back against taking out any street that is in the high injury network map. “I would have a hard time, thinking about transportation safety, taking corridors off that have injuries,” she said. “Even if it’s hard to do because it’s a high injury network, we need to lean in and not take it out.”

Screenshot of a Tweet from King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci with a map and text: As I biked in speeding traffic and on sidewalks (the red parts) from home to downtown Bellevue today, I found myself wondering what my new council member meant when he proposed bike lanes be “a last resort” if car lanes are impacted. Maybe that means after I am hit? #VisionZero
The Bellevue Council’s actions caught the attention of King County Councilmember (and former Bellevue Councilmember) Claudia Balducci.

Unfortunately, making Bike Bellevue stronger was never on the table. The decision was made before the meeting even began that they were going to hack away at it. The meeting’s debate was merely about where to slash and how deep.

In the end, Bike Bellevue survived the most explicit efforts to gut it, but just barely. City staff and the Transportation Commission are still working to come up with priority recommendations to send back to the council for future debate and potential adoption. But the Council this week sent signals that they most likely will not approve funding for projects on the streets that need safety improvements most, and they likely won’t approve plans designed according to best practices for safe streets. Their misguided direction will hamper both the planning and engineering work, paving the way for an ineffective, incomplete and insufficient bike network for their city.

I urge the council to reconsider their direction.

Bike Bellevue has been developed through a years-long public outreach process. It is a strong plan that followed every possible step in the public policy development process. It is based on data—yes, real data—and best practices for modern street design. Why would the people of Bellevue engage in another of your public processes if you throw out their work like this? The signal to the public is that Bellevue never intended to follow through on making streets safer. I don’t want to believe that this is true, but after watching the meeting from this week, I don’t know what other conclusion there is.

The Bellevue City Council has invited more attacks on city staff

But Bike Bellevue aside, the Council’s decision to reward personal attacks on a city staffer is inexcusably cowardly. As we reported previously, a Bellevue resident accused Bike Bellevue staffer Franz Loewenherz of unethical behavior related to public outreach for the Bike Bellevue program. A city-ordered investigation into the allegation fully and completely cleared Loewenherz of all wrongdoing without caveat. The allegations were bogus, and the investigation instead highlighted that even under intense scrutiny the Bike Bellevue project was developed by the book and with integrity. We wrote that “it would be appropriate for city leaders to make a public show of support for Loewenherz, who I imagine has had a very stressful couple months because of this.”

Instead, they have done the opposite. The City of Bellevue removed him from the Bike Bellevue program and refuses to reinstate him, and then the Council this week all but dismantled it. They did exactly what the bogus ethics complaint was seeking. Councilmember Hamilton even parroted some of the ethic complaint’s points during the meeting.

“I think the issue I’ve seen that there has been some preferential treatment given to a subset of stakeholders I think was a mistake,” he said, “and I think going back to the Transportation Commission is a way to correct that lapse.”

Councilmember Hamilton, read your city’s report (PDF) please. I am begging you. Or at least read our summary. Investigators looked into these allegations at excruciating length and determined that the actions were “consistent with the project principle” that the Bellevue City Council directed. “The witnesses interviewed consistently reported that the public engagement process for Bike Bellevue has been “robust” and significantly more extensive than any other Transportation project they had previously worked on,” the investigation found. “All witnesses emphasized that the goal of the Bike Bellevue community engagement plan was to disseminate information about the project as widely as possible to get feedback from a variety of sources and perspectives, which included neighborhood groups, businesses, as well as likely users of the bike facilities.” This is all in the report. “The evidence does not support the conclusion that emailing the CBOs to share publicly available information and encourage use of the Konveio tool, which was also shared with other local organizations at the same time, including the Chamber and the BDA, was an attempt to ‘skew the results.’” The council should be pinning a medal on the guy not ostracizing him.

To go back to the first section of this post, Loewenherz was not a presenter at the meeting this week. If he were, he could have done a great job explaining modern safe streets practices and why more lanes does not equal better traffic because he is knowledgeable, honest and good at his job. [To be clear, I have not spoken to Loewenherz about any of this. These are my thoughts as someone who has covered transportation issues in Bellevue for more than a decade. And no, we’re not a “team.”]

The implications here go beyond any one person, though. The Bellevue City Council just publicly declared that filing bogus ethics complaints against their city’s staffers is an effective way to influence city policy and initiate personnel changes. Councilmembers threw a staffer to the wolves rather than stand up for someone who was doing the work that they directed. They have shown shameful cowardice and terrible leadership in doing so. Good bosses stand up for those who work for them and reject slander against them. They should be sending a clear message that filing bogus ethics complaints targeting city employees is not an appropriate or effective way to engage with public policy in the City of Bellevue.

If I were a staffer for the City of Bellevue, I’d be furious right now. From what I can tell, professional staff working for Bellevue are not unionized like staff in Seattle, King County and many other public institutions in the area. Perhaps it’s time for them to think about how they are going to protect themselves since the City Council has made it clear that they will not do so.

Watch the meeting (Bike Bellevue segment starts at 1:56):

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31 responses to “Bellevue Council torches their Vision Zero plan, refuses to stand against unfounded attacks on city staff”

  1. noah

    That’s absolutely infuriating. If there was actual justice in this world, this would be the sort of stain on their record that would get the council members voted out of office. As a neighbor, I can’t vote in Bellevue and can only look disappointingly in their direction, which makes things even more frustrating.

    1. Rick

      Apparently the Communications officer for city of Bellevue seize the council’s work in a very positive light. if you live in Bellevue I recommend you email the communications officer and ask her to be open and honest with Communications.

      1. Scott Callaway

        Bellevue city council greed is beyond imagine. If it doesn’t produce more dollars for the city and their salaries. It will be eliminated regardless of previous commitments. Shame on this mentality.

  2. Spencer

    Thanks for the great writeup about this frustrating situation, Tom.

    To readers living in Bellevue: I encourage you to reach out to your city council representatives and tell them you want Bike Bellevue.

  3. Roberto

    Ahh, the short-sighted and uninformed NIMBY’s strike again. Here is some news for the Bellevue City Council:

    1. Bikes don’t cause traffic, cars cause traffic. Every person you see moving on a bike frees up more precious concrete space for your big nasty cars to sit idly in traffic.
    2. You just opened yourself up to a massive lawsuit when the next traffic fatality happens on any of those streets in Bellevue. As Claudia Balducci said, you are choosing to react “After a person is hit” – and it will cost the city a lot more as a result.
    3. Instead of biking through and around Bellevue, it becomes so much easier to simply bypass Bellevue. That means no spending in your shops, restaurants, or events.

    Have fun playing by yourselves in your asphalt stroad-infested armpit of a city. The rest of us have better lives to live outside of Bellevue. Hmm… I like that slogan… “Bypass Bellevue”. It has a nice ring to it.

  4. Peri Hartman

    Maybe there’s a bit of greenwashing going on. Did Bellevue create the Bike Bellevue organization to make the city look good only to find it became “too successful” ?

    I admit, I used to sneer at Bellevue. But over the years, they have taken many pro active steps to become a more wholesome city. But now, this ?

  5. Mike Francisco

    Bellevue has reconfirmed its status as a car-dependent suburb of Seattle when it could have instead made a choice to be a real city, and a more livable one. So boring.

  6. Bob H

    If bike riders want bike lanes, they cannot take car lanes away. Raise some money if you want bike lanes or replace sidewalks on one side of the street but do not expect to convert car lanes which are full to create mostly empty bike lanes.

    1. Peri Hartman

      Bike lanes help you, as a car driver. When your stuck behind of a bike, think of how much you wished there were a bike lane.

      1. GreenlakeBob

        you may consider editing for clarity, that makes less sense than ai gibberish. Bike lanes in Seattle do not help me as a car driver. I look over at empty lanes that I used to drive in, no cyclists in sight. I look at the green light for the non-existent bicycles and realize I could be turning right if it weren’t there.
        Bicycles are great and all but this campaign to remove lanes of traffic is a waste of road real estate, is contributing to global warming as more cars idle. 20 years ago I could really get around Seattle. Now it’s a parking lot and the bicycle lanes made it worse.

      2. Eric Feiveson

        Bike lanes are not just about bikes. They also benefit pedestrians, even when they are no bikes in them. They increase the distance between the sidewalk and the cars on the street, which makes walking a lot more pleasant. If the bike lane replaces a car lane, that also means fewer lanes of cars to cross when crossing the street, which means more safety and less streets. Also, the green bike light you complain about that prevents you from turning right also allows pedestrians to cross the street safely.

      3. Alex M

        @GreenlakeBob You don’t see cyclists because:
        1. Bike lanes are vastly more efficient at moving them through the city, not getting them queued up waiting at traffic lights, and
        2. There is a vicious cycle of underinvesting in efficient transit infrastructure (bike lanes, buses, trains). This leads to more people needing to depend on cars which leads to less people able to use public transit which leads to more cars, and suddenly you’ve got unmanageable traffic problems.

        Cars are the least efficient form of mass transit yet devised, and every person who can take an alternative is another car _you_ are not waiting behind. I also have to say it’s absurd to argue that measures which take cars off the road will somehow result in more net global warming via increased idling. This is not something any sort of data backs up.

    2. AW

      If drivers want car lanes, they cannot take bike lanes away. Raise some money if you want car lanes or replace sidewalks on one side of the street but do not expect to convert bike lanes which are full to create mostly empty car lanes.

      It makes sense – only the perspective is different.

      Why should drivers be any more privileged than bicycle riders ? I live here, I work here, I pay my taxes and have as much of a right for a safe bicycle ride as you do as a safe car ride.

  7. Jimmy

    Bike lanes at tax payer expense? Let’s vote on it and we will see that the 12 bike riders in Bellevue could never get a single thing passed. Another utopian idea that would do nothing but make a handful of people happy and most mad.

  8. Dennis Moraski

    Pointing to 65th St NW in Seattle as a wonderful example was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Most people in Bellevue are of the opinion that there are no good models from the City of Seattle – you might as well have said it was great in Portland and San Fransisco too. Most voters in Bellevue have first hand experience in Seattle and want no part of their stupidity. Bellevue is for everybody, not just the elites who ride bikes and want to save the world by forcing their views down the throats of everybody else.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      The people getting injured and killed on these streets are Bellevue residents and workers. Do they not count as “everybody?” You can hate the entire city of Seattle if you want, I guess (your loss). But safe streets in Bellevue are about protecting the people in your community.

    2. Spencer

      lmao I didn’t realize I was one of the elites with my lil 2 wheeler. I should update my LinkedIn profile…

  9. Sharron Morgan

    OMG sanity may be returning slowly to parts of Wash Stste. Imagine letting cars travel on the streets of Bellevue. What a concept.

    1. Spencer

      Cars already travel on all of your streets. I think you’re overestimating how many cyclists take up all of your space.

  10. A

    Take away vehicle lanes to add bike lanes? Obviously this author doesn’t drive his kids to little league, or shop at Costco, or spend his weekends at Home Depot.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      It appears we have not met. Hi. I’m a father who doesn’t own a car. I bike my child to ice skating, school, the grocery store, wherever! We even bike in Bellevue. And I don’t spend my weekends at Home Depot. I prefer local hardware stores.

      1. Mike Francisco

        Tom – Some call it a “war on cars” but it’s really a battle of 21st century thinking vs 20th century thinking, as you well know. There isn’t much to be gained from engaging with dinosaurs on the issue of their own inevitable extinction. It’s inevitable, because evolution happens. Interesting that some of the car-brains found you here. Someday, if they’re properly preserved, they’ll be fossils.

    2. Charlie L

      Hi! I went to Costco last week and got back from Home Depot tonight with a load of wood, both times on my bakfiets. I don’t have kids, but two of them could fit in the box until they’re big enough to have their own bikes.

      You can do a lot in a cargo bike, and even more if safe infrastructure is built for it.

      1. Kevin

        I was disappointed that Home Depot in SODO took away the bike rack, it is much more awkward to lock up to a cart corral. The rack was right next to the exit door and very convenient, now it is a picnic table.

  11. Ben

    The downfall of Bike Bellevue isn’t as bad as it seems. It was mostly focused on adding bike lanes to Bel-Red road, but the new light rail line will run along that same route (slightly north), providing transport for cyclists and non-cyclists that will be safer and more weather-protective than bike lanes would have been.

    Furthermore, all the community debate generated by the Bike Bellevue proposal has significantly elevated transportation as a major local political issue in Bellevue. I think future council elections will focus a lot on issues like bike infrastructure, car dependency, and pedestrian safety. That will provide opportunities for residents to voice their support for those issues where it really counts: on the ballot.

  12. Neel

    Dinosaurs and cowards. We love our little fantasy that a 70-year-old “vision of the future” with shiny cars driving around shiny suburbs on shiny roads is just, scalable, safe, smart, or anything other than the reality – it is manifestly, financially, logistically, and intellectually bankrupt.

    They honestly sound like my grandparents. And I’m nearly 50. The only thing that will make Bellevue’s current transportation and land us planning work is a time machine.

    Hopefully there’s a backlash to this backward-looking, played-out vision for Bellevue. I don’t care how many tall buildings they put in their center – they still govern like Bellevue is a mall surrounded by subdivisions. Hardly even a town, let alone a city.

  13. thielges

    The terminology is part of the problem here. Road “Diets” don’t sound that fun at all. And when a road diet is implemented on a previously 4 lane street, the new configuration is usually two lanes for bikes, two lanes for car traffic, and a shared center left turn lane. That’s going from 4 lanes to 5 when you count them all up. Yet ironically this is often characterized as “removing travel lanes” when actually more lanes were created. Bicyclists are part of traffic, don’t let anyone imply otherwise.

  14. eddiew

    Right of way is often more scarce than funding. The Bellevue staff is good. The congested Bellevue arterials are those that feed freeway interchanges: NE 24th Street in Bel-Red, 148th Avenue NE/SE at SR-520 and I-90, etc. Bellevue tends to have too few local streets; their arterials are wide; they have many paint strip bike lanes.

    Often, the important tradeoff is not between bike infrastructure and general traffic flow, but with transit flow.

    Both Bellevue and SDOT could rethink the notion of placing bike infrastructure on transit arterials when nearby parallel streets could be used and separating the two modes would yield better safety and transit flow. There is not enough ROW for the complete streets mantra to work well. That is the multimodal issue with which the Seattle Transportation Plan wrestles.

    In Bellevue, bike lanes were placed on 108th Avenue NE directly through the Bellevue Transit Center (BTC); bike lanes could have been placed on the much quieter 106th Avenue NE; there is a pedestrian corridor between the BTC and 106th Avenue NE.

    Do eight to eighty riders really want to be next to buses?

    Tom provided a link to the after study of the Vision Zero project on NE 65th Street. See page 12; transit is slower. Does slow transit help any one? The project limits were only between I-5 and 20th Avenue NE. East of 20th Avenue NE, there is no infrastructure for cyclists. NE 68th Street has some paint and signs. The whole bike emphasis could have been on NE 68th and 70th streets. Look ma, no buses. NE 70th Street has chicanes to slow traffic, signals at the Roosevelt couplet, and a connection with bike lanes over I-5. NE 65th Street carries two frequent services, routes 45 and 62; they connect riders with Link, schools, housing, and employment. Route 79 is there as well.

    Several recent SDOT projects have placed bike infrastructure on transit arterials and slowed transit flow (e.g., Broadway, Pike and Pine streets in downtown, Roosevelt Way NE). The SDOT ROW manual suggests that bike infrastructure should be on the left side of one-way transit arterials, yet PBL were placed on the right sides of 7th Avenue downtown and Roosevelt Way NE.

    Please see the Pike Pine Renaissance, under construction. Westbound cyclists will have to transition between Pike and Pine streets via Melrose. If the Capitol Hill pattern had been followed, the downtown sections would have had two one-way PBL on Pike Street and two-way transit on Pine Street. SDOT held a great community process on the Pike Street PBL on Capitol Hill. Yes, eastbound electric trolleybus overhead would have been needed west of 8th Avenue. The transfer between eastbound bus service and Link in Westlake would have been 400 feet shorter. The PPR design was suboptimal for both cyclists and transit.

    1. Jake R

      Bike lanes are as much for pedestrians and safety as for cyclists. The same report finds a 30% increase in pedestrians and a 67% reduction in accidents. There’s a tradeoff against bus speed but from my perspective 65th is clearly better as a three lane road, especially with the large volume of pedestrians coming to/from the light rail

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        there are ways to improve transit speeds (for example, more in-lane stops). But also, safer crosswalks to bus stops is also a transit improvement.

  15. Al Dimond

    I’m an optimist. I believe we will, all the people of Earth as a collective, we will do what we need to do to survive climate change without a global calamity.

    To do that we’re all going to have to contribute to things that don’t benefit us directly. I’ve commuted mostly by bike and transit my whole adult life. I’m going to contribute to private-car electrification subsidies that, to be most effective, should target people that drive the most. Some of that, not all but some, is going to benefit “supercommuters” that make choices I think are really harmful. I’ll do that gladly — it’s part of what has to be done.

    Mode-shift is part of what has to be done, too. Getting people driving less and biking more is part of what has to be done. Biking is just so much less resource-intensive in the public and private spheres, it makes so much other stuff possible. Right now American cities are mostly failing at it. But it’s part of what has to be done and … it’s just going to happen. I don’t have much of a choice but to be an optimist about that. The cities that get going soonest are going to be best-prepared when it happens.

    So sorry to Bellevue, a city with very few opportunities to build its bike network on side-streets as Seattle often has. It’s going to have to build bike routes on these arterials one of these days and it’s chosen to put it off to a day when it’ll be paying the cost with interest.

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