This is how Seattle betrays itself. Take an in-demand public good that will improve the city's quality of life, but before that thing can come to life, make sure that people with lots of money are totally on board with the idea. If the important public good gets destroyed in the process of bringing those moneyed interests aboard, so be it.
Case in point: the idea of installing a cycle track along Westlake Avenue North, connecting Fremont to South Lake Union. This civic improvement is the second-most-requested piece of bicycle infrastructure in the city, because this particular stretch of road along Lake Union is hellishly dangerous for bike commuters. Right now, if you're trying to ride along this bit of Westlake Avenue, you can either pedal in the street, where there's no bike lane or shoulder whatsoever, or pass through a winding, poorly designed parking lot with more than a thousand spots. One choice leaves cyclists to contend with cars whizzing around curves at high speeds, while the other option makes them play a kind of urban Frogger, dodging motorists pulling into and out of parking spots. Both routes range from nerve-racking to terrifying, depending on the level of traffic.
What is a cycle track and how would it change things? A cycle track is simply a two-way bike lane that's separated from vehicle traffic by a clear barrier, like the one that was recently built along Broadway on Capitol Hill. The installation of the Broadway cycle track seems to have made life safer for everyone using that particular section of heavily cycled roadway, and there's been no major outcry from Broadway businesses, or from people upset that parking spaces were moved to accommodate the track. Nor has the presence of the Broadway cycle track—as some "war on cars" types may have feared—forced all citizens to abandon their automobiles and start pedaling themselves from one end of Broadway to the other.
But, thanks to Mayor Ed Murray, people representing exactly these sorts of irrational fears now are being invited to influence the Seattle Department of Transportation's (SDOT) design process for the Westlake cycle track. How this plays out, and what the Westlake cycle track ends up looking like afterward, will tell us a lot about whether the mayor's approach to governance is as forward-thinking as he claims.
The new cycle track along Westlake has a budget of $3.6 million and is supposed to be under construction by 2015, thanks to long-sought federal funding that Council Member Tom Rasmussen calls "a godsend." When completed, it could serve tens of thousands of riders a week—32,000 people bicycled across the Fremont Bridge from May 12 to 18, according to SDOT. And while there are already marked bike lanes on either side of Dexter Avenue, which connects to the Fremont Bridge and runs roughly parallel to Westlake, a cycle track is far better than a bike lane. It's a facility that gives Seattleites of all ages the option of biking safely with a barrier between them and fast-moving hunks of metal, rather than just a painted line.
So what's the problem? Back in February, a group of yacht owners, business owners, and homeowners calling itself the Westlake Stakeholders Group hired a high-powered attorney and sued to block the city's entire Bicycle Master Plan over their objections to the Westlake cycle track and its impact on the availability of parking. Estimates from SDOT said the cycle track could necessitate the loss of 20 to 40 percent of parking spots along the route. However, the report also said there was always parking available along the route, and that paid parking spots in the lot weren't meeting the city's utilization targets. When asked, the stakeholder group made the head-scratching argument that it was "not opposed to a bicycle infrastructure that makes it safe for all," as Sierra Hansen, a former city hall staffer who was hired as their public-relations consultant, explained it to me. At the same time, Hansen said, stakeholders are worried about a cycle track "that puts people perpendicular to trucks and hundreds of cars" and that, by making bike commuting safer, attracts "children, families, and vulnerable users into direct conflict with commercial, industrial, maritime, and residential traffic and activities."
Which is kind of the whole point of a cycle track: to make things safer and to encourage more bicycling among the general populace—but (and this is the part opponents miss) to also protect cyclists from traffic. Cycle tracks, as well as bike lanes, are always going to be perpendicular to driveways. The point is that they're a hell of a lot safer than riding through parking lots or out in busy streets.
As the Cascade Bicycle Club geared up to fight the Westlake Stakeholders Group in the courts, Murray stepped in. He convinced the Westlake Stakeholders Group (some of whose members supported his mayoral campaign) to drop the lawsuit by offering to appoint two of its members to a design advisory committee. One of those members is a former insurance executive. The other is a wealth-management consultant with offices along the corridor. Murray also installed on the advisory committee a former oil-company executive who officially represents "freight interests," another person representing floating homes, a Westlake marina operator, and a Westlake business owner who offers boats for sale and for rentals.
In the end, out of 13 members, there were only two representing bicycle interests—one is Thomas Goldstein, an experienced political operator from the Cascade Bicycle Club, and the other is Sarah McGray, who works at PATH and commutes to work via Westlake. She said the mayor's office called her out of the blue and asked her to join the committee after she submitted a comment to the city about the cycle track last year.
Perhaps this is all a calculated, astute move by the mayor to take this battle out of the courts and move the project forward. If the Westlake business interests act in good faith on the committee and don't muck up the design of the cycle track, that could end up being the case. The committee is only advisory anyway, meaning it won't "decide or vote on the final design," according to a mayoral spokesperson.
But recent events suggest a different outcome. This month, Cam Strong, one of the Westlake business owners who's on the committee, touted "a big win" in an e-mail blast to his "stakeholder" supporters: the fact that SDOT has thrown out two cycle-track design proposals because of the objections of waterfront interests and "gone back to the drawing board."
SDOT disputes that things have really gone back to the drawing board, but the project's manager confirmed they've ruled out concepts A and B, which would have placed the cycle track on the west or east side of the Westlake Avenue parking lot. If there's a plan C, it has yet to be made public. And that's encouraging for the Westlake Stakeholders and their supporters, who seem unwilling to compromise, much less realize that a beautiful cycle track might actually be a boon for business while enhancing the quality of life along the corridor. They've continued braying publicly about their parking, leaving bright-orange flyers on car windows that say, "This parking spot is at risk!" And on May 20, they packed an open house event with people in blue T-shirts (sold for $6 a pop) that read "Save Westlake's working waterfront!" as if the Westlake cycle track poses an existential threat to their way of life. At the meeting, the T-shirted nutballs peppered a panel of transportation experts with daft questions like "Why don't only bicyclists pay for bike projects?"
Will the Westlake cycle track be tarnished, or completely derailed, by these moneyed obstructionists? It's too soon to conclude that one way or the other—SDOT plans to begin the design process in earnest later this year—but it's something we should all be worried about. In the last month, a new study of our system of government coauthored by a Princeton political scientist has gone viral because it found that rather than a real democracy, America's political system is better described as one of "economic elite domination," where the interests of the wealthy are far more often reflected in policy outcomes than those of the general public, according to 20 years of data. Here, in this local fight over one strongly desired cycle track, we have another potential example of that dynamic brewing. It's a fight that also raises broader questions about civic policy: If the mayor won't stand up to groups like the Westlake Stakeholders, how's he going to stand up to Comcast and break its monopoly on internet service? How's he going to stand up to big business and see through his minimum-wage deal? Put simply: What actually happens in the dangerous space where the mayor's politics literally meet the road?