Bike plan: the bad news isn’t so bad

The last couple of weeks have not been happy for bicycle enthusiasts, since SDOT released a revision of the Seattle Bike Plan that had significant cutbacks for 2016 and beyond. That was interpreted as both a violation of the voters’ faith when they approved the Move Seattle levy last year, and a failure to deliver on the conditions that the City Council wrote into their approval of the Pronto buyout earlier this year. The bicycle community has been up in arms about it. But yesterday afternoon, representatives from SDOT appeared in front of the City Council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee to try to explain their reasons.

SDOT’s Barbara Gray and Darby Watson explained that there were three causes for the change in plans:

  1. They ran over budget in 2015. They based their original budget on a basic $1 million per mile cost for protected bike lanes, but the actual costs were on average $1.3 million. The variance was very high; the stretch from Pike to Denny cost $7 million (and is just over a mile). Their 2015 budget was fixed, so they had to scale back to what they could pay for. And since the “out years” of the plan are funded by Move Seattle, the budget for those years is also fixed — so the scope of the entire project needed to be reduced. SDOT made the cuts in consultation with the Seattle Bike Advisory Board (SBAB), over the course of several difficult meetings. Committee chair Mike O’Brien noted that he had heard frustrations from the SBAB that their feedback was not represented in the changes to the plan. Council member Rob Johnson asked about the cost difference with “in-street separation” versus full-blown protected bike lanes; Watson explained that the two options for in-street separation, either just a painted bike lane or a “buffered” one with posts to keep  vehicles out of the lane, cost somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000 per mile.
  2. The Center City Mobility Plan, which details among other things the plan for rerouting buses out of the downtown tunnel, isn’t yet complete. SDOT decided to “pause” on some aspects of the downtown bike network plan until the mobility plan is complete next month and they understand which streets those buses will be travelling on. As O’Brien noted, lanes on downtown streets are a precious resource and there is competition for them between transit, bicycles, freight, and general vehicle use. Gray clarified that no one should think SDOT is putting the entire network on hold until the plan is done; but the bike plan and the center mobility plan are intertwined and need to inform each other.
  3. The current construction boom across the city is causing problems for their plans for installing bike lanes. There are so many projects, including along the routes they planned to use, that they can’t make progress on those segments. A big, notable problem is the critical stretch along 9th Avenue; they found multiple construction projects along the street. SDOT claims that their goal is unchanged: to connect the Westlake protected bike lanes to the ones along  2nd Avenue via 9th Avenue and Bell Street, and in the short term they are creating an interim protected bike lane and enhancing the ones along Roy and Dexter. SDOT is also cracking down on construction projects that block streets and bike lanes; they are updating the traffic control manual to  better protect pedestrians and bikers, and they have hired more inspectors to actively monitor construction zones to ensure that street use is not impeded.

So in response to these issues (and mostly the budget)  they updated the 2016 implementation plan (for now): they delayed some segments, moved up others opportunistically when streets are scheduled to be repaved, deleted 19 miles from the plan, and added back in 11 miles in other places. Their presentation has all the details. They will further revise the plan for 2017 and beyond starting in July.

The public comment session, which lasted nearly an hour, was a litany of complaints about SDOT and the dangers of the current patchwork system, descriptions of which ranged from “scary” to “terrifying.” In the view of some bicyclists, the current system, which requires frequent merging back into vehicle lanes when bike lane segments end, is in fact more dangerous than having no bike lanes at all. The city has set out a goal of a network of “all ages, all abilities” bike paths, but the reality  of what SDOT has provided today, and the promise of the scaled-back plan, doesn’t even begin to reach that promise.

Johnson argued for SDOT taking more aggressive action, noting several “high accident locations” where very experienced riders are getting into collisions with drivers. “That’s a design flaw,” he said. “We’ve got to get out there in a short-term fashion and fix those flaws to make the city safer.”

O’Brien pointed out that “it’s more than just miles; it’s which miles and which connections we are making.” He summarized what he had heard both from SDOT and from the bicycling community:

  • There are issues with safety and connectivity of the network in the downtown core. SDOT assured him that the projects tied to the Pronto buyout are still on track, though they will likely “spill over into 2017 a bit.” O’Brien wanted clarity on when SDOT plans to bring a 2017 implementation plan to the SBAB, and would like his committee to be briefed shortly after that. O’Brien also noted that while everyone wants to see high-quality bike infrastructure investments everywhere, there are trade-offs to be made and lesser-quality investments could deliver better safety and connectivity at least on a short-term basis.
  • There are construction impacts to the pedestrian environment, and while those are beginning to get addressed the impacts to the bicycle environment have not. In addition to SDOT scaling up their work to manage construction impacts on roadways, O’Brien noted that the community would be happy to report issues as they find them if the department has a way to do that. Johnson asked whether bicyclists could report it through the city’s “find it fix it” hotline, and Gray said perhaps, but she wanted to find out what would be easiest for the cycling community and adopt that method.
  • There are concerns that the bike network is not a connected network. It’s well understood that the city can’t build everything at once, and that the city is trying to be opportunistic when possible. But according to O’Brien, “People say ‘you built a beautiful chunk, and when I get to the end of it I have no clue how to get to that next chunk.'”

What didn’t get discussed today was SDOT’s continued pattern of being terrible at communicating externally. They screwed that up repeatedly with Pronto, with the 23rd Avenue project, with the tree-cutting on SDOT property in West Seattle, and now with the bike network plan.

O’Brien and Johnson played an interesting game of good cop/bad cop with SDOT today. O’Brien, for his part, tried to be nice, and understanding, and he pretty much rolled over and accepted the department’s explanation for all the changes to the bike plan. He also never pushed them on why they failed to communicate the reasons for the changes to the bicycling community at the time they made them known. In fact, he hasn’t held their feet to the fire on anything, nor demanded any accountability for their repeated failures. The current state of the network is a present danger to bicyclists around the city; to Johnson’s point, SDOT should have a list of the most dangerous spots and a team working on, minimally, ways to address those locations as soon as possible before more bicyclists get killed.

Johnson, on the other hand, came out swinging. Not only did he stress the urgency of fixing dangerous locations in the network, but he scolded SDOT for over-emphasizing “non-motorized investments.” Johnson pointed out that voters just approved $100 million per year for transportation infrastructure investments, but  only 10% is going to those non-motorized investments. He said that he talks to people every day who are prohibited by their spouses from riding their bikes because it’s too dangerous, and he wants to see next year’s SDOT budget reflect safety investments as a priority.

Where O’Brien, Johnson, and SDOT do agree is on a fairly radical view of the city’s transportation infrastructure when it comes to motorized vehicles. Gray pointed to projections of an increase of 60,000 workers coming into the center city daily over the next 20 years, and an addition of 25,000 more housing units there as well. But she noted that the vehicle capacity of the roads downtown is maxed out, so all the increase will need to be through transit, bicycles and pedestrian traffic. Johnson quoted one of his favorite statistics: that 30% of the land mass of Seattle is paved roadways; he said that he would like to see the city reclaim some of the lesser-used roads and repurpose them. O’Brien, for his part, is well known as an avid bicycle enthusiast and the Council’s biggest cheerleader for a safe, connected bike network throughout the city for all ages and all abilities. Together, they see a future Seattle where investments in vehicle infrastructure decline in favor of a combination of transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. It’s not yet clear whether that is the city’s inevitable future or simply the one they would prefer to see; it’s also not clear whether Seattle voters share their preference. Johnson may complain about the Move Seattle levy’s heavy investment in vehicle infrastructure, but that’s what the citizens voted for, knowing full well how the money would be spent.

Interestingly, Council member Kshama Sawant sat in on the presentation as well and mostly just listened, though she did offer her own view that differs a bit from her colleagues. She explained that she talks to people in the immigrant communities in the south end of the city, and they tell her that bicycling is not something they can or want to do. She threw her support behind a “massive investment” in the Metro bus system, knowing how important it is as basic transportation for people in low-income communities, and stated “I don’t want resources for bike routes to be pitted against resources for Metro.” Though currently that is exactly what is happening downtown; we’ll see if next month’s center city mobility plan resolves that conflict.

Under Director Scott Kubly, SDOT has been a vocal champion for bicycle infrastructure, and has made some good things happen. Taken at their word, some day Seattle may even have a safe, connected bike network for all. But the department also has a bad habit of poor execution, and even poorer communication when things go wrong. O’Brien summed up the situation thusly: “There is both a lot of love and a lot of frustration for SDOT. We have to do more work to stop frustrating our allies.” Unfortunately all we’re getting from O’Brien is words, and to date his words have done little to alter SDOT’s pattern of failure and disappointment.