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  • SDOT
  • Current bicycle pathway along the Westlake corridor and projected cycletrack route

Seattle needs stronger bicycle infrastructure to promote health, the environment, and public safety. Duh. Now efforts to make the city safer for cyclists, bicycle advocates say, are being held "hostage" by a group of Lake Union business, boat, and home owners. The city's Hearing Examiner will hold a pre-hearing on Wednesday morning to consider an appeal, filed last month against the citywide Bike Master Plan, over the group's concerns about the construction of a cycletrack (a separated, dedicated bicycle lane) along the Westlake waterfront.

"The Westlake Avenue North project will create unsafe conflicts between pedestrians, cyclists, and commercial/industrial/maritime/business traffic and activities," the complaint (PDF) alleges, and "will cause loss of parking that is significant."

The group's lawyer, Josh Brower, has previously tied up the completion of the Burke-Gilman bicycle trail in the courts. In Westlake's case, he's filed a motion to delay the first full hearing until May, meaning the Bike Master Plan's progress could be delayed well into the year.

By filing the appeal, the group chose "the nuclear option" to destroy the project, said Thomas Goldstein, Cascade Bicycle Club's Policy and Government Affairs Director.

If you've bicycled along Westlake Avenue, from South Lake Union to Fremont, you know that none of the existing options are inviting. There's no shoulder on the four-lane street, where cars and trucks zoom past. The alternative is to bike through a series of connected parking lots, past hundreds of cars that can back out at any second. Both routes are nerve-wracking.

According to Seattle's Department of Transportation (SDOT), the highest percentage of respondents—81%—chose "reducing bicycle collisions" as the most important task for the project in a survey to solicit community feedback (PDF) in October. At least one respondent talked about getting hit by a car on Westlake. A majority of public comments, SDOT noted, concerned loss of parking.

It's no wonder that a cycletrack on Westlake was the second-most requested piece of bike infrastructure to be added to the city's Bike Master Plan, per SDOT. Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen calls it "a fundamental link in our bike system," and says a grant last year from the Feds was a "godsend to fund something that's been needed for so long."

The Westlake Stakeholders Group, which filed the appeal, sees it rather differently. "The information online indicates that a significant chunk of the parking lot will be turned into a cycletrack," said Sierra Hansen, a public relations consultant representing the group, which includes floating home owners, yacht repair shops, Argosy Cruises, and Kenmore Air, among others. Ironically, she's a former staffer for one of the most pro-bicycle politicians in the city—Council Member Mike O'Brien.

I pressed her and asked whether the group is irrevocably opposed to a cycletrack. "They're [the group] not opposed to a bicycle infrastructure that makes it safe for all," she replied. "That said, the idea of putting a cycletrack that puts people perpendicular to trucks and hundreds of cars... They have a lot of concerns." The group's appeal charges the project will "attract bicyclists, including children, families, and vulnerable users into direct conflict with commercial, industrial, maritime and residential traffic and activities."

There's an astonishing degree of cognitive dissonance here. The Westlake group says it's concerned with safety, but points out that a cycletrack will attract more kids and families. Because that's the whole fucking point of a cycletrack: make things safer and encourage more bicycling among the general populace. And cycletracks (and bike lanes for that matter) are always going to be perpendicular to driveways. That's inherent in bike infrastructure. The point is they're a hell of a lot safer than riding through parking lots or in the street.

What specifically is the Westlake Stakeholders Group's worry with regard to parking? When I asked Hansen about usage rates of Westlake parking spaces, she claimed the group wasn't privy to that data and that SDOT hasn't been transparent about when it conducts its parking studies.

In fact, all of that information is in the presentation SDOT gave at its October open house event and it's accessible online (PDF). According to SDOT's multiple studies during various times of day in September, the parking lots only reach target levels of occupancy during lunchtime.

SDOT and Council Member Rasmussen wouldn't comment specifically on the Westlake cycletrack since it's being challenged in the courts. But "it'd be hard for me to accept the notion that there hasn't been good outreach on this and opportunities on public involvement," Rasmussen said.

He complained that while there's robust support for the Bike Master Plan among the public and the city council, "we almost have to negotiate it block by block." Rasmussen had expected a council vote to approve the latest Bike Master Plan this month.

"My biggest hope is that they drop the Master Plan appeal because it is seen as obstructionist, hostage-taking and unpopular," Tom Fucoloro of Seattle Bike Blog said via e-mail. "Their first obvious chance to do that is the January 15 pre-hearing"—tomorrow.