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May 8, 2014 at 6:25 AM

The strange thing about Ed Murray’s Second Ave. bike lane

A downtown bike path: does this look safe? (KEN LAMBERT / SEATTLE TIMES)

A downtown bike path: does this look safe? (KEN LAMBERT / SEATTLE TIMES)

Downtown Seattle is the city’s most difficult place to bike, and poor planning makes it downright dangerous. The current designated north-south bike route, on Second Avenue, is a narrow painted strip squeezed between traffic and the parking lane. It is wild with swinging car doors, trucks blocking the lane and sudden turns by cars. It is an “egregious example of a poorly designed bike lane,” bicycle policy expert John Pucher wrote in a Seattle Times guest column last year.

Mayor Ed Murray surprised the biking community – and some on the Seattle City Council – at Tuesday’s Cascade Bicycle Club annual Bike to Work breakfast with a sudden fix: a two-way cycle track (separated from traffic) on Second Avenue between Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square, to be constructed beginning in September.

The announcement was timed to support a $2.5 million Alaska Airlines donation to the new Emerald City Bike Share (branded as Pronto!), the grab-and-go bike rental program opening Aug. 25. The need for safer bike lanes downtown is clear, and addition of Pronto! (which will cater to inexperienced tourist cyclists) heightens the need. Good for Murray for proposing the fix.

What’s curious about it is Murray’s method. During his campaign, he frequently pledged to build broad support, bottom-up, for transportation improvements that are not mode-specific. That approach is consistent with the Bike Master Plan just approved by City Council, which includes a prioritization process that still is under way.

But in this case, Murray announced a full-formed plan – the route, the basic design, and a sped-up time schedule – without the usual months of public engagement and meetings.

“That caught an awful lot of people by surprise,” said Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen, chair of the city transportation committee, who heard it first at the Tuesday breakfast. He’s spent a year building support for a downtown cycle track, on the belief that a neighborhood – in this case, businesses that may lose sidewalk parking – hate surprises. “When people feel like a plan has happened without consultation, that’s when opposition grows that can be avoided,” said Rasmussen.

As an example, he points to a bike path planned along Westlake Avenue North. It was dropped on the maritime businesses after it had already been funded. The result: the businesses sued to block the path as well as the whole Bike Master Plan. The businesses dropped the suit, but I expect the Westlake cycle track to be fought inch by inch.

The Seattle City Council had already allotted $2.7 million for a downtown cycle track, but that project wasn’t expected to open until 2015 or  2016, after a community engagement period.

Seattle Department of Transportation spokesman Rick Sheridan said the Second Avenue path is a “pilot project,” of undetermined length. “We are very interested in getting public comment after it opens.”

Jon Scholes of the Downtown Seattle Association said the a pilot project can help determine “what works and what doesn’t as far as the design, location, signage, etc. We like the approach of trying this out and closely monitoring for a period of time to inform how other, more permanent cycle tracks are developed.”

Downtown must have a safer bike route, and Second Avenue has its merits. But Murray’s decision to short-circuit the usual Seattle process seems guaranteed to roil opposition that possibly could have been smoothed over, as Rasmussen has tried to do. The same downtown property and business owners will be asked by City Hall to support an unprecedented $15 wage, and probably to pay for a massive local levy to pay for the new waterfront park. This won’t help.

To see why a better downtown bike path is needed, here’s a Seattle Times map of bike and pedestrian accidents between 2007 and 2013. Note the cluster of accidents (which are under-reported) on the current Second Avenue route.

[do action =”bikecollisions”][/do]

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