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Best Side Cycling: Are these Eastside bike lanes really among the worst in the U.S.?

No, they are not. Sorry for the spoiler.

Don’t get me wrong, the Coal Creek Parkway bike lanes in Bellevue, Newcastle and Renton are not sufficient for the road conditions. As you can see in the Best Side Cycling video, the road is too fast and busy for a skinny paint-only bike lane to provide a safe and comfortable space. The problem is made worse because the road is winding and hilly, creating scary situations where riders must put a lot of trust in people driving to maintain their lanes even in slick conditions. There are also long stretches of the road where there are no opportunities to escape the lane if needed for any reason, which makes the experience that much more stressful.

So if this lane is genuinely bad, why was I so quick to dismiss the idea that they are among the worst bike lanes in the U.S.? Well, unfortunately, there is a lot of competition for that title. The other lanes featured in the Momentum Magazine story are worse. But also, these are not even the worst bike lanes in our region.


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Right off the bat, I’d point to the MLK Jr Way bike lanes between E Union Street and the I-90 Trail in Seattle. They look like this:

Google Street View photo of a street with parking on both sides, a lane in each direction and a center turn lane. There do not appear to be any bike lanes.
From Google Street View.

“What bike lanes?” you ask? Precisely my point! Yet to this day, this is noted on the official Seattle Bike Map as having bike lanes. These were created many years ago and are effectively extended parking lanes. They used to paint little bike icons in these lanes, but SDOT paint crews have wisely and mercifully saved everyone a lot of confusion by no longer painting the bikes when they refresh the stripes. These never were real bike lanes, and the ever-increasing size of the average vehicle has only eaten further into whatever pitiful amount of space they once provided. One community member waged a years-long campaign to get the city to take them off the official bike map because he didn’t want the city’s bike lane prioritization process to rank this street lower because the computer thinks there are already bike lanes here. Because, I must reiterate, there absolutely are no bike lanes here. Unfortunately, even the recently-approved Seattle Transportation Plan calls for a bike lane “upgrade” here, signalling that the city’s database still considers these to be real bike lanes. Hopefully SDOT staff can step in and properly account for this when doing their prioritization calculations.

That said, it’s probably still more comfortable to bike on MLK Jr Way than Coal Creek Parkway just because of the traffic calming and slower speeds.

To Seattle’s credit, the city has been working hard to upgrade it’s worst bike lanes. The no-doubter worst bike lane in Seattle used to be the 2nd Ave chaos zone bike lane downtown (Easter Egg: You can see the very beginning of the Occupy Seattle protest in front of the Federal building):

But Seattle replaced that with one of the city’s best bike lanes back in 2015. It went from worst to first, a true Cinderella story in bike lane form. A couple years earlier, Seattle upgraded another candidate for worst bike lanes in Seattle on Dexter Ave. Those old Dexter lanes, oh boy. They were a lot like the MLK “lanes,” except absolutely packed with people biking every day of the year (this was before the Westlake Bikeway, so it served as the primary connection between downtown and the Fremont Bridge).

I guess my point here is that while it can be therapeutic to complain about terrible bike lanes, the good news is that we know how to make them better and have already done so for some of our worst examples.

By far the worst bike lanes are the ones that end right when you need them most. There are unfortunately too many examples to count, but someone who attended my recent talk at the Edmonds Library told me about a particularly surprising example near Paine Field in Everett. He said he was riding in the bike lane on Mukilteo Speedway, then followed the lane onto Paine Field Blvd where the lane line unexpectedly veered into the curb and the bike lane was gone. From a bike rider’s perspective, it seems as though the bike lane simply forgot it was a bike lane partway through the turn:

Google Street View image of what seems to be a bike lane getting smaller and smaller until it is gone.
From Google Street View.

There was a time when getting even a crappy, insufficient bike lane was an almost-impossible lift for bike advocates. Some of the early “wins” are abysmal by today’s standards (the old Dearborn bike lanes are another good example of this). We can charitably chalk them up to it being “a different time,” but we know better now. Fast streets with lots of traffic need more protection, and this is where the Coal Creek lanes fail. But better yet, bike lanes should be part of a larger safe streets effort that includes calming and better-organizing traffic so that we can counter the horrific increases in traffic deaths and injuries in recent years. Coal Creek Parkway’s biggest problem is not the lack of a concrete barrier for the bike lane, it’s that the street has too many lanes that are also too wide. This leads to fast speeds on a windy and hilly road in a region where it rains often. It is designed to be dangerous, which is why it is part of Bellevue’s “high injury network.” It is one example of the kinds of streets that DOTs across the region need to redesign with safety as the top priority. We know how to make streets safer, we just are not doing the work on the scale needed.

There is hope. King County leaders are convening a media event noon Thursday at Tukwila Community Center to “call attention to King County’s looming traffic safety crisis,” according to the media advisory. “In 2023, King County recorded more deaths on its roadways than in any other year, ending the year with 167 fatalities. This is up from 151 fatalities in 2022 and a marks a 100% increase from ten years prior. Within the past decade there has also been a 165% increase in pedestrian fatalities. In 2023, King County also saw 924 people seriously injured on its roadways, a 58% increase from 2015. These rising numbers have caused a growing concern from the [King County Traffic Safety] coalition, which is using this as an opportunity to inspire change.” Stay tuned.

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Comments

2 responses to “Best Side Cycling: Are these Eastside bike lanes really among the worst in the U.S.?”

  1. Dara

    It’s a real problem. Avondale Road’s bike maps are so inadequate that after talking with several people who have ridden them, I downgraded them to sharerows in the Greater Northshore bike map. I got into a little bit of an argument with someone who insisted that Juanita Drive south of Kenmore should get the same treatment, though being only a two-lane road, I decided to leave them marked as lanes.

  2. Skylar

    The worst bike lanes I’ve had the misfortune of seeing were in Orange County. Takes this one in Irvine, where it ends right before a right-turn pocket, continues left of the pocket, but doesn’t actually have a bike sensor so if you want to trigger the light, you have to scoot across right-turning traffic to hit the pedestrian beg button. Speed limit along there is at least 45mph, taken as a suggestion to go 60+.

    The few times I’ve been in Irvine, I’ve seen more drivers parked in the bike lanes than cyclists using them. The city is quite proud of their extensive bike lane network, though.

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