Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Letting bicycles and cars coexist
More than 900 riders have been injured and 5 killed in accidents since 2001. Seattle’s most dangerous intersection for bicyclists hardly looks the part: It’s flat, well-lit, signal-controlled. Where leafy Northeast Blakely Street crosses four-lane 25th Avenue Northeast just north of University Village, vehicles don’t travel much above 30 mph.
A convenience store squats on one corner, a Union 76 service station on another. Most of the bike traffic spends little time on the roadway, moving east and west along the Burke-Gilman Trail, parallel to Blakely.
But the intersection’s mild appearance is deceiving. According to Seattle Transportation Department traffic records, the crosswalk where the popular bike trail and 25th Avenue meet has been the spot of more serious bike-car crashes – eight – over the past five years than any other location in the city.
Statistically, several Burke-Gilman street crossings rank among the city’s most dangerous to cyclists. Other danger spots include portions of Capitol Hill and downtown.
Since 2001, more than 900 cyclists have been injured by accidents in Seattle, and five have been killed, including a 58-year-old man and a 28-year-old woman this year. Most accidents occurred in daytime and in good weather, according to Transportation Department statistics.
As the city writes its first-ever bicycle master plan — an effort to promote cycling and reroute some bike traffic to make it safer — it faces thorny problems, such as what to do with a trail that contributes to both safety and crash numbers.
Other top concerns: narrow streets with little room for bike lanes; increasing traffic and construction; and irritated motorists and cyclists who have formed a mutual blame society.
As for the Blakely intersection, it is prominent on the master plan’s radar.
A bicycle commuter passes through the intersection of Northeast Blakely Street and 25th Avenue Northeast north of University Village, statistically the most dangerous intersection in Seattle for bicyclists. The city wants to make bicycling safer.Graduate student Emily Howe, 27, had no idea she was running such a gantlet on her four-mile commute from Northeast 65th Street to the University of Washington, although she acknowledges more than a few close calls. “It’s the people making right turns,” she said. “They don’t always look for cyclists coming off the trail and crossing the road.”
Other cyclists who cross the stretch agree.
“I haven’t had one, but I’ve seen accidents here,” said George Bertsch, 64, a physics professor who has been commuting on his bike for the past decade. “I think the city needs to do more for cyclists.”
That’s what it is trying to do, said Peter Lagerway, the city’s cycling czar who is leading the effort to develop the cycling master plan. Two public meetings this week and a third in August drew more than 600 people and 2,000 comments. “We heard a lot of good ideas,” Lagerway said.
Among the good ones: improvements to the Second Avenue bike lane downtown, which now is considered dangerous; better east-west bike lane connections through the Aurora corridor; additional signs or lights at problem intersections; more bike carriers on buses; and connections between the city’s disparate bike trails.
And then there are others not as likely to fly, such as a 24-hour broken glass hot line and the suggestion that most downtown streets be closed to all traffic except mass transit, delivery trucks and, of course, bicycles.
“Obviously, every idea won’t work. But we’re trying to make a system that allows anyone to bike anywhere in the city,” Lagerway said. “It’s really a matter of taking cycling and making it available to everyone.”
The Transportation Department hopes to have a draft plan ready for public viewing at the end of the month and a proposal to the mayor’s desk by February.
The need for a plan is increasing, Lagerway said, because as congestion worsens and gas prices stay high, more people will turn to cycling. “We’re just not going to build our way out of congestion. It’s really becoming quicker to bike, (when) speeds are 10 mph in rush hour.”
To get there, the city is not only asking the public but also culling ideas from other biking towns. In Portland, Seattle transportation officials saw that many more designated bike lanes and bike route signs increased the number of cyclists in the city.
From San Francisco, Seattle likely will crib “sharrows” or shared bike and car lanes. This, officials hope, will solve the steady series of collisions and near-misses in the downtown Second Avenue bike lane.
According to Transportation department figures, that 17-block, southbound stretch ranks among the city’s worst even through it is a one-way street with a designated bike lane. Cyclists complain that they get pinched between Metro buses and motorists who merge into the bike lane and opened doors from parked cars.
Lagerway said that making the far-left lane a “sharrow” would give cyclists a full lane while still allowing motorists to merge into the lane for left turns. “People are not happy with the Second Avenue bike lane,” he said. “The ‘sharrow’ would be one solution.”
The hope isn’t limited to improving bike routes and safety. Bike advocates also think that by giving cyclists more designated routes, there will be less animosity between cyclists and motorists.
Cart Monson, a Mercer Island systems analyst for a transportation company, commuted 30 miles a day for seven years from his home to the Seattle Center. He stopped when his work began to require meetings with clients.
Even with all of those bike miles in his legs, Monson, 44, sympathizes, to a degree, with motorists. He said some cyclists adopt a morally superior attitude and don’t make room for cars. Then there are those who simply don’t have the skills to ride on public roads or who decline to obey the rules when they do.
“It’s the same thing that makes people feel they can hate SUVs. ‘Look at me, I’m saving gas. I’m being green. I’m being ecological. You’re still driving a car.’ ” Monson said. “It’s that sense of entitlement.
“If they don’t have the skills, then it’s not fair for them to be whining that the drivers are being rude if they’re going so slowly that they’re obstructing the traffic.”
Cyclists, on the other hand, say that most of the bad blood starts with cars. The smaller problem, they say, is drivers who see them and get irritated about the slow speed. The bigger: vacant, cell phone-talking motorists who don’t look for cyclists.
Bob Spencer’s commute, nine miles each way from Ravenna to downtown, takes him through some of the city’s high-accident stretches. He said drivers often are unaware of cyclists in their field of vision, particularly when making right turns.
But, he added, both sides need to raise their awareness. “We need more education for both sides,” said Spencer who attended one of the bike master plan meetings. “We need more bike land and more signs to raise awareness that we are out there.”
Lagerway said that ideally the master plan will reduce accidents and tension while it increases the number of riders. He said cyclists need to do their part by obeying the rules of the road. “It’s the best thing they can do to win the hearts and souls of the motorists.”
“There is such a thing as a critical mass, where you eventually get enough cyclists where behavior changes. I think a big part of this is, more people riding creates a lot of this success.”
The Seattle Department of Transportation will post the draft plan online at the end of December. Visit seattle.gov/transportation/bikemaster.htm or simply Google “Seattle Bicycle Master Plan.”