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A case arguing for Seattle’s controversial bike lanes

(SDOT Photo)

If you’ve lived in Seattle the last few years, you may have noticed bike lanes popping up around the city. These lanes have proved controversial for drivers, as they’ve come at the cost of traffic lanes and parking spaces. Ultimately, though, according to one expert, these lanes could prove integral to solving Seattle’s growing congestion problem.

RELATED: Seattle’s plans for more downtown bike lanes

Mark Hallenbeck is the Director of the Washington State Transportation Center, with a focus in urban transportation planning and policy. According to him, adding bike lanes at the expense of space for cars is simple math.

“Cars are inefficient uses of space in dense areas,” he told MyNorthwest. “They physically don’t work well in places where there’s lots of activity. In our dense areas, land is an incredibly valuable resource, and cars are land hungry.”

Seattle’s population has grown at a steady 2 to 3 percent every year since 2011, while the city government has had to quickly build infrastructure to keep up.

The result has seen Seattle consistently rank in the top 10 in the country in terms of traffic congestion, on par with cities like Chicago, Dallas, and Boston. And while bike lanes aren’t a panacea by any stretch of the imagination, they’re certainly seen by the city as a large piece of the solution.

“The city is going to promote those modes that use space efficiently, and therefore can move the most people,” he noted. “Bikes and pedestrians have the ability to move an awful lot of people in very little space, and therefore those modes are being promoted.”

A question of safety

When it comes to the “build the bike lanes and people will use them” philosophy, the prime motivation is as basic as it gets.

“The reason you’re going to things like bike lanes is you’re trying to prevent people from dying,” said Hallenbeck.

A June 2018 report from the Washington Department of Transportation found that pedestrian and bicycle deaths have doubled in the state over four years. That being so, it stands to reason that people would be reluctant to ditch their cars if the alternative is viewed as a direct threat to their livelihood.

“An awful lot of people aren’t willing to (use bikes) because they don’t feel safe,” Hallenbeck pointed out. “The city has to (fix that) before people are willing to see that as a legitimate choice.”

More than that, an environment where biking isn’t seen as safe makes for an all too easy decision for most drivers.

“If you can drive sit in congestion or you can die on your bike, people still sit in congestion,” he said. “If you present them with a realistic cost/performance perspective, and you give them a legitimate opportunity to ride their bike safely, then you get a big shift in people who are willing to do the other.”

Helping people make a decision

Drivers in Washington state have proven reluctant to give up their cars in recent years. Backing that up is a survey conducted by PEMCO Insurance in September, that found 93 percent of people in the the state said they’d prefer to drive as their primary mode of commuting.

In that same survey, 52 percent of respondents said they wouldn’t make any changes to their method of commuting, while just 9 percent said they would ride their bicycle more often.

Meanwhile, the most recent numbers from the Seattle Department of Transportation saw a 20 percent decrease in cyclists on city roads in 2018.

RELATED: SDOT reports 20 percent decrease in cyclists

That all being so, the issue for Hallenbeck then becomes making the bike option both safe and reasonable.

People only change when the option is rational, and they only change when there’s a reason to change. A car is a wonderful thing, don’t get me wrong. Its problem occurs when you have too many of them in too little space. And then, they have really good characteristics for you, and really bad characteristics for everybody else, which reflects back on your ability to drive.

Essentially, driving might be a convenient decision for an individual, but if everyone makes that same decision, drivers all suffer the congestion-related consequences together.

Looking at that congestion from a top level down, the City of Seattle then has its own decision to make.

“The city is looking at its street system and saying ‘OK wow — if we have to put a whole lot more people here, and they have to get there, and it has to be safe, which streets do we need to be able to change to accommodate this?'” Hallenbeck posited.

Enter the city’s influx of bike lanes, arriving in neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, downtown Seattle, and more.

Debating bike lanes

While bike lanes carry advantages in terms of relieving congestion long term, the short term affects haven’t been well-received by a handful of communities.

RELATED: Seattle council members have no clue what bike lanes cost

Things got especially heated in the debate surrounding a 35th Avenue Northeast project. The controversy has included alleged death threats and vandalism to construction equipment. Those death threats were later clarified in a correction to a Seattle Times story.

In the midst of that project, a “Save 35th Ave NE” coalition formed to oppose the bike lanes, arguing that eliminating 60 percent of the neighborhood’s parking in favor of a bike lane harmed the local community.

A petition from the group saying as much has garnered upwards of 5,000 signatures and counting. It reads:

35th Ave. is a critical neighborhood arterial that serves nearly 14,000 vehicles per day. The City’s plan envisions only one vehicle lane in each direction. This will result in gridlock. Frustrated drivers will zoom onto side streets, putting children and pedestrians in further harms way. Buses and emergency vehicles will be impeded.

Over in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood, a similar project will soon take shape as well, eliminating 300 parking spots and two lanes of traffic to build a bike lane that connects the University Bridge and downtown along Fairview Avenue North and Eastlake Avenue.

The debate here is a nuanced one to say the least. On one hand, building bike lanes is aspirational by nature, as part of a larger “build for the city we want to be” mode of thought. On the other, some argue that Seattle should be building for the city we are right now.

In a city full of drivers reluctant to leave their cars behind, that aspirational philosophy regarding bikes becomes a tough sell.

“When you’re trying to ration a scarce resource, you either use cash, or you use regulation, and people don’t like either of those outcomes if their choice of travel goes away,” said Hallenbeck. “It’s a really difficult balancing act the city is trying to deal with — since cars are least efficient, they’re given less emphasis in the improvements the city is doing.”

Seattle’s rapid growth certainly isn’t going to make the city any less crowded in the coming years. The hope for the city and experts like Hallenbeck, is that bike lanes will at least be one of a variety of solutions to relieve this crisis.

Correction, 1/23/19: Amended “death threats” regarding the 35th Avenue Northeast project to “alleged death threats,” in relation to a correction run The Seattle Times.
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