The agenda for Tuesday’s Seattle City Council Sustainability and Transportation Meeting called for a presentation by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) on updates to the city’s bike master plan (BMP), which includes projects all over the city. The plan appears to pull back on installing protected bike lanes, which would have brought cycling advocates out in droves, anyway—but tensions were running extra high thanks to a controversial decision to remove bike lanes from a North Seattle revitalization project.
The BMP incorporates elements of the Move Seattle levy, a voter-approved property-tax measure that funds road and transit projects. Initially, the levy was supposed to fund, among other things, more than a hundred miles of greenways and bike lanes. Some construction-cost surprises (the now-infamous $12 million bike lane) and federal-funding disappointments have been drying up the financial well.
In 2015, Seattle met the vast majority of its bike-lane construction goals. In 2018, the city only built 4 percent of that year’s goal, and many of them were catching up on projects from 2017, Seattle Bike Blog reported. The delay in even just getting connected bike lanes downtown led to the Seattle City Council passing an ordinance laying out a timeline and asking for regular reports.
It’s a known issue—and something that’s been called out by the levy’s oversight committee. “This rate of progress is unacceptable,” reads the committee’s annual letter to city leaders, distributed last month.
In the new plan, SDOT hopes to tame some of the outcry that has traditionally surrounded road improvement projects by doing more transparent outreach. But it also takes what newly minted SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe said in committee is “based on more realistic assumptions.” It also does a kind of risk analysis on upcoming project—low risk, clarified Zimbabwe, means “we don’t anticipate anything affecting those [projects] going forward.”
“The plan does reflect some difficult choices related to the cost of projects,” said Zimbabwe.
Those choices include dropping more than 25 miles of bike lanes from the master plan, including projects in Greenwood and Beacon Hill, and starting to back off even more. But while there’s the reality of money, the question of political will loomed large over city council chambers.
During public comment, Cascade Bicycle Club spokesperson Vicky Clarke called the 35th decision “a blow to the chance of improving that street for the next decade or more... The mayor’s solution is a confusing middle ground [that] does not make it safer for people biking or walking that street.”
Kelsey Mesher, Transportation Choices Coalition advocacy director, acknowledged that “a lot has happened since voters passed the Move Seattle levy,” including higher construction costs and an unpredictable federal funding situation—but called the need for safer streets “existentially critical.”
“The city needs not only a viable plan but an improved process for implementing it,” said Mesher.
Public comment veered from polite to dramatic, culminating with two people that showed up with a hand-crank paper shredder and copies of the Seattle Bicycle Master Plan and Climate Action Plan. The tense conversation continued during a prepared Powerpoint presentation from Zimbabwe and traffic safety coordinator Jim Curtin—which noted a 12 percent increase in bicycle ridership.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who represents northwest Seattle and chairs the committee, said there was “nothing unique” in the heated process around 35th.
“We know the playbook,” said O’Brien, and “the only way to get through these hard decision” are with a “north star” like #VisionZero and the city’s Climate action Plan.
“If we’re not being guided by meeting our climate objectives, meeting our safety objectives, then it feels like we’ll always say, ‘it’s just too hard,’” said O’Brien.
“I’m struggling with what is guiding the department and the mayor’s office right now,” O’Brien added. “I’m a little shaken right now as are a lot of people in the community.”
“I walk past a ghost bike every day,” added Northeast Seattle councilmember Rob Johnson, at his last committee meeting before his resignation takes effect. He said often thinks of the parallels between himself as Andy Hulslander, a father of two killed by a driver in 2015—and “how hard it would be for my kids to grow up without a dad.”
Zimbabwe said that “as funding becomes available,” SDOT can hopefully reintegrate some of those projects into the plan.
Johnson, noting that some in the audience had probably missed Zimbabwe’s confirmation process, asked Zimbabwe about SDOT’s safety goals and his “vision for protecting people in this city who walk, bike, or take transit.”
“I have a deep-seated commitment to protecting body that travels around the city. I think that comes from building a connected network [for] all ages and abilities... and that includes bicycle, pedestrian, and transit facilities,” said Zimbabwe. “For me that starts from understanding where our safety challenges are and prioritizing our investments in those locations to address the issues we are currently seeing in the community and working to overcome the actual crash patterns that we see... I do think that building out connected networks is critical and for me that means connecting people to transit, to schools, to other destinations that they trying to get to.”
“There’s a long process in doing that in some cases,” said Zimbabwe, “and incremental investments that we make should build on one another and continue to build out a connected network.”
“We’re going to have to find more ways to do this,” said Mike O’Brien. “We’re going to have to get more creative—whether it’s lower-cost things or new pools of money or look[ing] at rebalancing.”
“Every month they’re delayed is the risk—the real risk—that someone’s going to get injured or killed,” said O’Brien.