by Andrew Kidde
If you look at the City of Seattle’s map of the major bike routes, you’ll see that Southeast Seattle is poorly served. There are few bike routes at all, and no north-south route (the way our valley stretches) that is flat, connects bicyclists to stores and services, and is safe. Rainier Avenue would meet all those criteria, except for safety. As anyone who’s tried it will tell you, you take your life in your hands when you ride a bike on Rainier. Yet recent SDOT planning efforts may make Rainier a safe route for biking.
Seattle Department of Transportation is gathering public comment for Phase 2 of the Rainier Avenue Corridor Safety improvements. As you may recall, the need for safety improvements on Rainier Ave is significant — on average Rainier Ave has one crash per day and is one of the most dangerous roads in the region. Particularly striking are the high number of accidents where cars just careened off the road and into buildings. Phase 1 of the project (S. Alaska St. to S. Kenny St.) was completed a couple years ago; and its major goal was to address this safety issue.
Phase 1 was basically a “road diet” (aka “lane rechannelization”) — SDOT repainted the lines so that instead of two lanes north and two lanes south; there are one lane north and one lane south with a turning lane in the middle. Many feared that this would clog Rainier Avenue with traffic jams, yet according to SDOT the road diet has not had much effect on travel times along the Avenue. We do see slower traffic approaching Columbia City both ways. But that seems a small price to pay for the huge safety improvement that we have seen along this stretch of road. See here. Also, the reduction in accidents eliminates all that waiting for accidents to be cleared which may explain why on average travel times have increased only minimally.
The basic idea of Phase 2 is to extend the “road diet” from the Phase 1 area to the Phase 2 area (from S Kenny St to S Henderson St). They have two alternatives plans to check out here. Of particular note is that Alternative 2 includes bike lanes! The other difference is that Alternative 2 (with bike lanes) also includes elevated bus islands that will be needed when the #7 bus route becomes a rapid ride route (yes that may be in a works too). In any case, the addition of bike lanes is a big deal — conventional wisdom has been that Rainier is no street for bikes.
And the implications are even bigger — bike lanes could be extended up into the Phase 1 area with minimal effort. When SDOT repainted the lines for the Phase 1 road diet, they provided three 12 foot wide lanes. A car is 6 feet wide, and a 12 foot lane is the most generous size, typical for highways with 60 mph traveling speeds. Twelve foot lanes invite speeding, and have been associated with increased traffic fatalities. Indeed, why did SDOT choose to put 12’ lanes in a re-channelization project that had safety as its main goal? It’s a mystery. In any case, if these lanes were reduced to 10 feet with a simple paint job, there would be 6 extra feet of right of way in the phase 1 zone. Sounds like a bike lane to me. Jim Curtain of SDOT agrees that it would be feasible, though there could be complications in the Columbia City area.
Bike lanes from Rainier Beach to Columbia City would be transformative. But what about the rest of Rainier? Could the bike lanes go even farther up?
A big factor here is the planning for the Rainier Ave and Martin Luther King Interchange. The plan is to “decouple” this interchange. See an image of what that would be like here. This plan gets rave reviews from the Seattle Bike Blog in part because, as they write the “plans show bike lanes pretty much everywhere they need to be.” In addition the de-coupling project is expected to increase traffic on the underused MLK (especially of “cut through” truck traffic) and decrease traffic on Rainier.
So imagine Rainier has less traffic from Rainier Valley to Mt Baker, bike lanes from Rainier Valley to Columbia City, and a bike route across the Mt Baker stretch. At this point, why would you not include bike lanes connecting Columbia City to Mt Baker? In fact, why not continue them all the way up Rainier! And voila, Rainier become a safe, useful, flat, north south arterial for bikes! It’s a clean energy, affordable, healthy, community-building transportation solution.
Andrew Kidde is a long term resident of southeast Seattle and an activist working on state and local policy on climate change and social justice; he is on the steering committee of South Seattle Climate Action Network and the Leadership Team of 350 Seattle.
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Matthew Rutledge