On Wednesday, August 1, at rush hour, more than 300 bikers on machines of all models, shapes, and sizes crawled through Fremont two-by-two at a pace of less than five miles an hour. The purpose: to protest the city's decision to eliminate a planned bike lane along Stone Way North between North 34th and North 40th streets at the request of a single property owner. Every few minutes, the whole line, which stretched for so many blocks it was impossible to see the end, would stop in place to wait for lights, a situation that caused many to kvetch good-naturedly about the situation.
"This legal riding thing is a bitch, isn't it?" one biker, a thin young man on a red road bike, laughed. Indeed, traffic alongside the sharrows slowed to a crawl, as bikers filled up the lane in a stark, yet entirely legal, demonstration of what happens when you tell cyclists to share the road but don't provide them with a lane of their own. A few bikers behind me, a woman in a bright-turquoise shirt and a beat-up hybrid had a photocopied sign affixed to either side of her panniers; it showed a photo of Fremont property owner Suzie Burke, and read: "Madam Gridlock."
Burke is the woman who, along with the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, convinced the mayor and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to eliminate the Stone Way bike lane, arguing that eliminating a lane for motorized traffic would make it difficult for trucks to make their way along the street. Burke has described the area as primarily industrial; however, the majority of the businesses on Stone Way are retail, not industrial.
Unlike Critical Mass rides, which tend to draw a crowd dominated by messengers and messenger wannabes, last week's mellow crowd included casual riders, commuters on heavy hybrid bikes, hardcore bike geeks on hand-pedaled recumbents, and gear-bedecked weekend warriors. Michael Snyder, a "rain, shine, sleet, or snow" rider who commutes from Ballard to Fremont daily and rides along Stone Way a few times a month, says he worries that more proposed bike lanes would, like the one on Stone Way, be replaced by "sharrows"—lane markings that let drivers know bikes are present but don't provide a dedicated space for bikers, like bike lanes do.
A few days ago, Snyder says, he was riding in the new Stone Way sharrow when a car darted rightward into the "shared" lane to get past a left-turning driver, cutting Snyder off. "I live with the danger of rushed car drivers who are often tired, inattentively sipping coffee, or talking on their cell phones, and are pushing the limits of their abilities and their cars and come within inches of taking my life," Snyder says. Another rider who had wanted to be at the protest, Mark Rivera, was unable to attend; two weeks earlier, he had been riding in the Stone Way sharrow when a pickup truck turned suddenly into his path, knocking him down and running over his right arm while he was on the ground.
In addition to arguing that the extra lane was needed to accommodate trucks, SDOT justified killing the lane by pointing to its predictions that traffic would increase tremendously in the area by 2010—in some cases, as many as 10 times.
The Cascade Bicycle Club, which advocates for better bike policy in the Puget Sound region, questioned the city's numbers, which seemed not only high (as anyone who's ridden or driven on Stone Way can attest), but out of keeping with the city's adopted policy goal of reducing dependence on cars and increasing mobility for bikers and pedestrians.
So one day after participating in the protest, several Cascade activists went to the intersection of 35th and Stone (the same intersection surveyed by the city) and counted the number of bikes, cars, pedestrians, and trucks that traveled through the intersection at rush hour. Not too surprisingly, they discovered that traffic volumes hadn't grown significantly since 2001, the last time the city measured rush-hour traffic at the intersection: 1,548 vehicles total during the 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. peak hour, compared to 1,505 in 2001. Traffic, in other words, didn't grow—it stayed stable. So at least one major claim used to justify the elimination of the bike lane simply isn't true. Of those, moreover, nearly 4 percent were bikes; trucks made up just 8 percent of the traffic. (SDOT spokesman Gregg Hirakawa calls the Stone Way numbers "spotty," and says the city would count traffic again when it revisits the sharrow issue in six months.)
Bike activists worry that the city's backpedaling on Stone Way could spell trouble for other elements of the bike plan. After all, if one business owner can get a bike lane cut by complaining to the city, why shouldn't business owners elsewhere try to do the same? Already, that appears to be exactly what is happening. Of 30 miles of bike lanes that were supposed to be striped in 2007, the city plans to complete just 20—a 33 percent reduction.
Over in West Seattle, where bikers have spent decades lobbying for even a few miles of bike lanes, a planned bike lane along part of busy Fauntleroy Way Southwest is rumored to be the next on the chopping block. Meanwhile, the bike plan calls for "additional study"—instead of action—along the rest of Fauntleroy and all of 35th Avenue Southwest. And a planned sharrow on California Avenue Southwest, which would have at least given bikers some breathing room on the busy thoroughfare, has been put off until at least next year. Under the city's "Complete Streets" policy, the sharrow was supposed to be painted as part of a repaving project on California; however, city planners now say they need to "spend some quality time with the businesses on California" before they can complete the sharrows, according to an e-mail from Seattle traffic director Wayne Wentz to City Attorney (and West Seattle bike commuter) Tom Carr.
Back when Complete Streets was adopted, Mayor Greg "Most Bike-Friendly City in the U.S." Nickels said it would "make our streets safer for pedestrians and give cyclists, transit users, and motorists more choices." Environmental activist Mike McGinn, whose group, Seattle Great City Initiative, has made much of its work to pass the Complete Streets ordinance, says he's disappointed that the mayor is already backpedaling on that commitment. "Complete Streets, the Bike Master Plan, and the Climate Action Plan are all asking the city to do things much differently than they used to do them in the past," McGinn says. "I think it's a sign of how they're planning to implement those policies, and not a good sign."firstname.lastname@example.org