Riding in the protected bike lanes along Second Avenue in downtown Seattle, you can almost feel the road engineering at work, the traffic being kept at bay by a force far greater than some plastic dividers—that force being stone-cold urban planning.
For the uninitiated, here’s how the lanes work: On the east side of the south-bound, one-way avenue, a “floating curb” separates car traffic from a two-lane cycle track. A two-tier light system manages traffic so that cyclists never cross intersections at the same time cars are turning across bike lanes.
The $1.5 million pilot project will turn 2 years old in September, and it’s clear that the Seattle Department of Transportation has been satisfied with the results. Starting in late March, the bike lanes were temporarily closed as they got a spruce-up that included more permanent barriers between traffic and better protections from cars turning into parking garages.
With the lanes now back in business, we decided to check in to see what lessons have been learned nearly 20 months into the new bike-world order. Here are the big takeaways.
1. Build it and they will come.
First and foremost: Bikers have been using the lanes.
“If you look at the bike volumes, before there were about 188 folks a day who would ride down Second. If you make it a two-way bike lane, you’d think you’d double that. But we’ve seen 744 a day—that’s a 300 percent growth,” says Dawn Schellenberg, the SDOT project developer in charge of the plan.
Part of that increase could be attributed to more people biking in general, thanks to the protection provided by the lane, but it’s also partly because bikers who were already cruising downtown adjusted their routes to avail themselves of the lanes.
“People did scoot from other roads to this road,” says Kelli Refer, Seattle policy director at Cascade Bike Club. “As long as it isn’t too far out of the way.” That’s good news, since it shows that by improving one street, you can improve transportation on several corridors.
2. We need to build more.
While the increase in cyclists on Second is a positive development, bike advocates emphasize that the lanes’ true benefits won’t be apparent until more bike lanes are built to connect them to other parts of the city. As is, you must be confident riding in downtown traffic to reach the lanes that run from Washington Street to Pike, meaning there is still a big deterrent to riding in downtown if you’re a novice.
“It’s a little bit of an oasis right now,” says Schellenberg. “If you’re a willing but wary person who wants to bike, getting to that area is kind of tough.”
The lane will become easier to access as SDOT extends the Second Avenue lane north to Denny. Schellenberg says that the lanes will eventually connect to other lanes coming online in South Lake Union. Refer says CBC is pressing SDOT to go even further, with cycle tracks that connect to Dearborn and the Pike/Pine corridor.
3. SDOT is surprisingly flexible.
One of the most encouraging aspects of the Second Avenue pilot project was the way in which SDOT was able to pivot based on how the lanes were actually working—or not working.
In particular, two bike/car collisions in short succession at the entrances of parking garages (neither resulting in serious injury) led SDOT to quickly adjust street parking in those areas. More recently, the department has installed raised curbs outside parking garages to slow drivers down before they cross into the bike lanes. Schellenberg says these and other lessons will smooth the rollout of more protected bike lanes.
4. People catch on.
For all the clever engineering, the bike lanes ultimately work only if people—drivers and bikers—follow the rules.
When the bike lanes first went in, so-called “ambassadors” were sent to street corners along the route to yell out to drivers who made illegal turns across the bike lanes and bicyclists who cruised through red lights. Whether due to the hecklers or just the time it takes to adjust to the new setup, Schellenberg says the stats show increased compliance over time. When the lights were first installed, 85 percent of cars were complying. Now that number is 93 percent. Bicyclist compliance began at 92 percent and rose to 93 percent.
That’s great, though not ideal. Refer says she’d give Seattle drivers a “B-minus/C” on their compliance with the lights, which she attributes to driver familiarity with bike lanes in general. As the lanes grow more common, motorists will get more practice driving around them, she says.
5. They’re not for everyone.
To a skeptic, one of the more confounding sights along Second Avenue these days are the bikers who continue to ride in traffic. On a recent afternoon, this reporter counted 40 bikes pass on Second in an hour, and eight of them—20 percent—were in traffic rather than using the bike lane.
Schellenberg acknowledges that the optics of in-traffic bikers can be awkward, since it would suggest that even bikers don’t appreciate the effort. But she says biking in traffic is legit. “It could be that they want to go when the light’s green, whereas they’d be paused in the cycle track,” she says. “They could need to make a right… . If you’re a very experienced bicyclist and feel comfortable, that’s OK. I hold no judgement.”
“The protected bike lanes are a little slower,” adds Refer. “There are some people who are really fast. But we need to create options for people who aren’t that fast.”
Daniel Person is News Editor for Seattle Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-467-4381. Follow him on Twitter at @danoperson. Get more from your favorite writers by subscribing to our weekly newsletters.