Late last month, the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board overruled an ordinance by a small North Seattle municipality to restrict development of the Burke-Gilman Trail north of 145th Street. That narrow portion of the path is lumpy with tree roots and riddled with stop signs until Kenmore, and has long been a bane of recreational cyclists and commuters. It also passes through several driveways—and in some cases bisects the properties—of residents in Lake Forest Park, whose city council passed Ordinance951 last fall, which sought to assert its control over the disputed turf and pre-empt King County's planned trail widening (along with other improvements projected to begin next year).
In its ruling, the board invalidated the ordinance, saying it violated the state's Growth Management Act. It further declared the trail "an essential regional public facility," therefore subject to county, not municipal, control. In other words, bring on the backhoes and traffic engineers, and expect the trail to be redesigned and widened from 10 to 18 feet.
The Cascade Bicycle Club, which lobbied hard against 951, was quick to claim victory. "This blows out their ordinance," says the CBC's David Hiller. "Two thousand [riders] per day go through Lake Forest Park. The real critical decision here is that regional multiuse trails were declared essential public facilities. We set precedent."
Let's stop here—literally. No matter what the Growth Management Hearings Board says, bikers should still be prepared to halt at all those annoying stop signs along the Lake Forest Park segment of the trail, or potentially be cited by an attendant bike cop and pay a $67 ticket. "It is our jurisdiction," says city administrator David Cline. "We enforce our laws, and one of our laws is that you should stop at stop signs."
Indeed, Lake Forest Park's own police reports show that tickets for stop-sign violations rose 250 percent from 2004 to 2006 (when 189 were issued; that's about $12,000 in city revenue). Helmet warnings are up no less dramatically (not all riders who patronize the Burke-Gilman Trail realize that Seattle joined the rest of King County in 2003 by requiring bike helmets). And in 2006, the city began issuing speeding tickets, too. "We have radar guns," says Cline. "If [the speed limit] is posted 10 mph, that's what it is."
Wait a minute: There are speed limits on the Burke-Gilman? Yep. In Seattle, it's 15 mph. King County hasn't yet determined such a limit, but occasionally you'll see a 15 mph sign randomly posted along the trail. And while Levi Leipheimer averaged nearly 33 mph to win the final time trial of the just-concluded Tour de France, a recent King County transportation study by the Transpo Group said the mean-average speed for Burke-Gilman riders was around 14 mph. (Also, most bicycles lack speedometers.) The problem, for both the CBC and Lake Forest Park, is erratic signage for the city's reduced 10 mph zones. (A fast runner can also exceed this pace.) Riders passing north or south through Lake Forest Park will see only one such sign in each direction between Northeast 165th and 151st streets, but no indication where that zone ends.
"Enforcement is our right," says Cline, a nonelected Lake Forest Park official who describes himself as a regular trail rider. He adds that the city hasn't decided on how to respond to the 951 slap-down. "The city also wants improvements to that trail," Cline is careful to note.
Hiller takes a decidedly different tone, hinting at long-standing tension between cyclists and city. "Enforcement is a political issue up there," he says. "It has nothing to do with revenue; it has everything to do with retribution." Indeed, since King County announced plans in 2004 for bringing the Lake Forest Park trail section up to its standards, the mayor and city council rebelled. Ordinance 951 would have stymied the county's plans with onerous development criteria, essentially preserving the hierarchy of car and driveway over bike and rider. Hiller blames this on "a few viciously anti-bike council members" beholden to a handful of longtime residents, whom he describes as "a small group of homeowners who whine and bitch," with lots adjacent to the trail.
Until the early '70s, the same properties were blighted by regular freight trains that had the right of way over motorists (back then, the stop signs faced the other way). In recent years, Lake Forest Park has tried other legislative stratagems prior to 951, with much the same intent: keeping the Burke-Gilman small, slow, and locally controlled. Per the reversed Ordinance 951, any crossing that served 50 houses or more would have kept the stop signs facing the trail, regardless of how many trail users there were.
But the Growth Management Hearings Board decided the numbers are now weighted in the other direction. It's generally estimated that the whole trail serves around 2 million users (of all kinds) per year. Along the Lake Forest Park section, CBC and King County estimates range from one to two thousand riders per day.
The crowds were relatively modest during a recent Saturday afternoon Burke-Gilman stakeout, as one of Lake Forest Park's finest pedaled along the trail. At the problematic intersection of Beach Drive Northeast and Northeast 165th Street, where the officer made frequent stops, he'd often shout, "Watch the stop sign, please!"
Abashed cyclists typically hit their brakes too late, before yelling, "Sorry!" and pedaling away. It's not like this is a high-traffic, high-danger intersection: It's basically a T-bone facing the Sheridan Beach Community Club. Cars move at a crawl, pausing regularly to load and unload kids wet from Lake Washington, swaddled in towels and smelling of sunscreen.
In fact, it's the cyclists who are the speed demons and scofflaws. Without the lone cop to halt them, most riders check their speed and touch the brakes, then shoot through the intersection. Responsible parents with small kids slow more often than others, and motorists seem to sense the lawless confusion at the four-way stop. Near-collisions are never a factor, although some drivers seem stunned to realize that stopping for one cyclist means enduring a five-minute wait for the peloton to pass.
In its Burke-Gilman study, King County estimates that "less than four-percent of the bicycles come to a full stop before proceeding through the intersection." Extensive modifications are planned to this crossing; essentially, it would become a four-way "Caution!" intersection, with no stop signs to police. Yet for all the talk about traffic safety from both Hiller and Cline, the same report concludes that between 2000 and 2004, "No accidents on the [Lake Forest Park portion of the] Burke-Gilman Trail were found to be reported."
Anecdotal evidence, rather than hard data, seems to be driving the discussion here. Cline cites near-misses and a city "council member [who] almost got run over two times." Hiller condemns reckless riders who "blow through a stop sign at full tilt."
Indeed, the Lake Forest Park bike cop (who asked not to be named) insists that along the Burke-Gilman, "we've had injury accidents—car-bike, bike-bike, bike-pedestrian," but those cuts and scrapes may not result in official reports. Of his traffic-safety role, he adds, "There's a misconception that it's a moneymaking thing."
The officer doesn't issue a single citation while being observed, but during a short interview he has to interrupt his remarks every other sentence to shout at the cyclists rushing past: "There's a stop sign, sir!" It's obvious he could write tickets faster than the ink flows from his pen, but is choosing to operate in polite, exasperated warning mode instead.
Has he ever had to chase down any two-wheeled delinquents to issue a ticket? "All the time," he says confidently.