Bike Lanes Throughout Rainier Valley Could Start a Much Bigger Change

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 hereOf 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. 

Who’s in?

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 


13 thoughts on “Bike Lanes Throughout Rainier Valley Could Start a Much Bigger Change”

  1. I do not know what they are drinking at SOT. They could not have checked the traffic. From about 3 PM from Spokane St intersection south it is bumper to bumper. Traffic is at a snails pace because the stop lights have created grid lock. I drove this evening from Orcas to Renton on Rainier Ave South. I counted we saw 187 cars going north or south on Rainier Ave South and 1 bike. The cars we could see into had 2.3 passengers. That is 430 folk who were going north or south. Since I was going south I could only count the north bound cars. Lets be conservative and say total there were close to 300 cars going north and south at 7:30 to 8:30 that would be 690 folks in cars confined to two lanes and one biker who was given 2 lanes.

    The city has given up two lanes that would allow a smoother flow of traffic. They gave up 50% of the roadway to one biker and created a classic traffic jam for 690 people.

    Lets think about this. Bikers are not licensed; there is no exam to ride a bike. This is obvious as they routinely run stoplights and stop signs. They ride 2 often 3 abreast blocking the bike lanes; but also going out into the auto lanes. The bikes are not licensed. Have you tried driving your auto without a license? Don’t you will get a ticket. Yet we have spent many millions screwing up our streets and painting all sorts of lanes and signage for the very small numbers of bikers. Giving away 50% of our surface street to this elite group of non-licensed, nontaxed, non-law abiding mavericks.

    Why do biker rate all this privilege. There numbers are so small as to be almost insignificant. Particularly, because this afternoon was nice and warm. On a rainy day, remember last winter when it rained almost every day for months on end, you rarely saw a biker. We have given up half a very expensive resource, our streets, for a very few.

    It is election time, I would love to have one of the candidates address this problem. We are told we have the 4th worst in the nation; are we attempting to become the worst traffic in the whole nation. Is SDOT trying to bring Seattle to a complete standstill with all these idiotic planes. What are they drinking in City Hall.

    1. Derf – thanks for this perspective – I heard the same recently from a route 9 bus driver. We can all agree that car traffic in Seattle has reached a breaking point and will continue to get worse. Its also widely accepted by transportation planners that adding car-capacity won’t alleviate the problem.

      Anecdotally, I’ve seen a steady increase in bike commuters in SE Seattle over the past year, tho for reasons article describes Rainier Ave is not the N-S route of choice (I avoid driving on this section of Rainier for the same reasons). Other large cities that have created safer ways for people to get around on bikes have seen bike riding adopted by a broad array of community members including local businesses.
      Relieving in-city traffic congestion and it’s corresponding problems (air pollution, unsafe streets for pedestrians, increased stress and less time for commuters to enjoy life) is complicated – park and rides, improved affordable public transportation, safe bike lanes – all need to be part of the mix.
      Given limited public funds and public real estate available for transportation improvements, and knowing that our already unbearable car commuting will continue to get worse – I think creating a safe bike lane on Rainier coupled with improvements to bus service is for now our only reasonable approach.
      Down the road a bit, I’m optimistic that with advent of electric driverless cars and next generation mass-transit, even more “transformative” changes in how we move about our cities are in-store for us.
      Until then – any reasonable alternatives to what we’re experiencing now seems well worthwhile – Matthew

      1. Car traffic has reached a breaking point largely because of the mismanagement of SDOT. SE Seattle had 3 major NS corridors, Beacon Ave. MLK , Rainier and to a lessor extent 23rd Ave. SDOT has taken all four from 2 lanes north and 2 lanes south to one lane each way. That is the loss of 4 north and 4 south bound lanes.

        Is there any surprise that traffic comes to a standstill on these streets every afternoon? Like it or not cars are part of our transportation system as are trucks. Are you really suggesting that a mom with three children can go shopping for food on a bike? If the answer is yes you are as dumb as the planners at SDOT.

        What hold do bikers have on SDOT. We have given up half our north south street for this elite group who do not obey traffic rules, do not pay licensing fees, are not required to have any certification as to their skills.

        I have 2 friends who ended up in the hospital because of women on bikes hitting them and knocking them to the sidewalk. Both had severe concussions along with spine injuries. In both cases the bike rider took off. They did not offer assistance or give ID so they could help pay for the medical expanses. One of the victims died within a couple of months. They were elderly. I guess the women on their bike did society a favor. In another case the bike rider ran a stop sign and t-boned a car causing $3,000 of damage. This biker also took off.

        Why is there no enforcement against these criminals? Why does our present City Council not get concerned about those who commit these hit and run crimes. Why do the candidates for city council and Mayor not get concerned for the outlandish recommendations of SOT? We have the 4th worst traffic in the nation and are number on in outlaw bike riders. We have elderly being killed by bike riders. Is it not the purpose of the Mayor and City Council to make Seattle a better safer place to live? It is time to replace those on the city council with new people.

        You have blinders on. Have you notice that hills that Seattle is built on? I have yet to see a biker ride to the top of Beacon Hill. It is a small minority of folks who are young enough, fit enough, do not have to shop for a family, who lives and works on the flat part of Rainier Ave. South, has a shower at work so they do not smell like a buffalo while at work and who will ride their bike in the rain.

        If the increase in bike use is exploding so quickly why did I see one bike on Rainier avenue vs 188 autos today. At this rate they will be in similar numbers in 2217.

    2. I did not support a road diet, which has caused significant congestion in Columbia City, and do not support bike lanes. Traffic on Capitol Hill is a nightmare and SDOT is offering the same reckless road planning in CC with bike lanes. Before long, there will be trolleys and parking in the flow of traffic lanes. Situation seems to invite more accidents, congestion, frustrations, and confusion. Columbia city was doing just fine until excessive construction and traffic changes.

  2. From my conversation with SDOT, they don’t have a good understanding of why trucks are driving through the valley on Rainier Ave. Is it perhaps because the drivers are avoiding a bit of hill climb at the start of MLK past that intersection with Rainier? How much fuel / energy does each route take?

    1. Could the truck be making deliveries to Lows, Darigold, or any of the several hundred large, small and mediums sized businesses? Could it be package delivery or mail trucks.

      Do you all live in a vacuum. If SDOT does not understand why there are trucks on the streets in SE Seattle they are as dumb as a post.

      Yes, they have to climb beacon hill to serve businesses that are on Beacon hill. The trucks do this regularly.

      Get real. We need transportation corridors and SDOT has vacated 50% of our major N-S streets.

      1. Hey Derf – lets not insult each other on this OK?.

        You obviously care deeply about the issue and have come to the conclusion that maintaining, and presumably increasing capacity for cars along existing arterials is the only viable way forward.

        If you agree with the general consensus that traffic will continue to get worse if the statue quo is maintained – what alternatives can you agree are worth exploring?

        Yes much of Seattle is far to hilly for people like me to bike on (health issues) – at least without electrical assist. And yes absolutely big retail stores need easy access for deliveries and yes a sizable portion of bicyclers and drivers are not adequately trained or attentive to safety concerns.

        I don’t live in a vacuum Derf – I’m just trying my best to imagine ways we all can support people (commuters and residents), communities and businesses without giving in to the inevitability of 24/7 commuter crawl.

        What do you think amy be reasonable options to car-commuting? How can we make arterials safer for cars and bicycles to share real estate? How much of the problem is those commuting through SE to points south or north? Be interested in hearing your thoughts on this – Matthew

  3. As a biker I believe bike lanes are important for southe east seattle, but other things need to be considered in the routing of the proposed bike lanes.
    I live and work on Rainier Ave. in Mt. Baker neighborhood. My business, as well as other business, on Rainier Ave. in Mt Baker neighborhood, unlike thriving business in Columbia City and Hillman City lucks timed street parking for customer to park their car for a few minutes and this has a direct effect on our business.In the past, I tried to raise the issue to the city with no success.
    I want my business and other business close to me to get timed street parking lane as many businesses south of Mt Baker neighborhood enjoy the privilege of slowed traffic and timed parking. As much as I want a safe bike lane to ride on, I hate to give the potential of Mt Baker businesses getting timed street parking to bike lanes.

  4. First have SDOT stop making traffic worse by cutting down on the number of streets we have that carry N and S traffic.

    SDOT is largely responsible for our problems in SE Seattle. We did not see traffic jams at 3 in the afternoon until they started giving half our streets to bikes.

    I am not suggesting you are dumb as a post unless you are a decision maker in SDOT, or the mayor, or city council who have the power to reign in SDOT.

    They all took an oath to do what was right for the people of Seattle. It is time to dump the whole bunch. The mayor is going. We will have a new City Council person from district 8. If we are wise we will also get new blood from district 9.

    Now is the time to throw the rascals out.