Not really Streetless in Seattle

A better movie

City Journal, a creation of the Manhattan Institute, has a profile of Mike McGinn, Seattle’s newest Mayor.  What really grabbed my attention was the reference to Seattle’s Bike Master Plan and what City Journal claims is it’s call for converting 3 percent of Seattle’s car lanes into bike lanes.  This little tidbit is getting this article a lot of play, at least in my planner-nerd circles.  However, I can’t find any evidence to back up this 3 percent figure.

City Journal is anti-McGinn, calling him “anti-car” and painting his transportation initiatives as misguided.

Sure enough, when McGinn became mayor, he began pursuing anti-car policies. He’d like to levy an $80 fee for registering a car in Seattle, and he has raised taxes on parking in privately owned garages. He now plans to raise parking-meter rates downtown to $4 an hour from $2.50, which would make it costlier to park in Seattle than in any other American city except Chicago. He also supports maintaining the so-called head tax, which docks businesses $25 annually for every employee who drives alone to work.

But McGinn’s road diet, which went into effect in July, is probably his most audacious idea. As the centerpiece of the city’s $240 million “Bicycle Master Plan,” which mandates the construction of 118 miles of bike lanes and 19 miles of trails by 2017, the diet will convert 3 percent of Seattle’s car lanes into bike lanes. Even major freight routes, including one that leads to Boeing Field, will see car and truck lanes converted to bike-only use.

Then there is this:

Factors both meteorological and topographical make Seattleites unlikely to forgo cars as their primary means of transportation. Rain falls more than 150 days a year in this famously gloomy city, rendering cycling both unpleasant and unsafe. And Seattle’s ubiquitous steep hills make San Francisco look like Des Moines. It’s hardly surprising that, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation, a mere 2,600 people—out of a total downtown workforce of 230,000—commuted downtown by bicycle in 2009.

They forget to mention that citywide, Seattle is now tied for second among the 70 largest cities in the US in terms of bicycle commuter mode share and that cycling to work has grown 93% since 2000 and 22% since 2009.  They also forget to mention that (auto) vehicle miles traveled has been basically flat in King County since 2005, and VMT per capita has been on the decline in the region since 1999.

What about that 3 percent figure?  That seems substantial if true.  It wouldn’t totally surprise me given the other press I’ve seen about McGinn and his opposition to new auto lanes or facilities (see Deep Bore Tunnel and 520 Bridge), but this is taking away lanes, not just not creating new ones.  However, on my  brief scan of the bike plan, I can’t find any explicit reference to converting car lanes.  Is City Journal taking liberties, or did I miss something?

Appendix F, “Guidance for Retrofitting Seattle Streets to Create Dedicated Bicycle Facilities“, which includes guidance for arterial (high-volume) roads, does say “Implementing some of these facilities will require a change to the existing roadway configuration.”  However, it goes on to lay out a process for analyzing existing roads to see how a bicycle facility could be accommodated.  The process includes considering how the changes in the street cross section will effect traffic volume, speed, heavy vehicle traffic and on-street parking demand, among other things.  This seems like pretty typical engineering stuff.  The plan says where generally the city would like a bike lane, and then the engineers look at the details to see what might be possible.  Sometimes, it might not be possible at all, and the plan admits this.

If analysis finds that the target bicycle facility type is feasible, the project can move forward to implementation. If there are constraints that would prevent the target facility from being achieved, alternatives should be developed with the goal of improving bicycle safety and access to the highest degree possible, given the constraints of the particular corridor.

The process of developing alternative designs should always be informed by the recommendations of the Bicycle Master Plan, which identifies a facility type for all segments of the proposed bicycle network. Other alternatives should be explored as well, again with the goal of improving bicycle safety and access, and providing the most suitable bicycle facility given operational and environmental constraints within the corridor. If the city decides not to proceed with implementing the Bicycle Master Plan recommendation on a particular roadway, it will document the reason for its decision to choose a different alternative. The burden is on the city to explain why it is not implementing a recommendation in the plan.

Later, the appendix actually says if the desired cross section can’t fit because of “operational or environmental” factors, roadway widening should be considered.  That part didn’t make it into the City Journal article.

Here’s my guess about the 3 percent figure.  City Journal writer Epstein looked at the total miles of planned on-street bike lanes yet to be built (118).  Then he found the total number of lane miles of Seattle surface streets (3,745).  Then he assumed that each mile of new bike lane equals one less lane mile for cars (there are a lot of things wrong here, the biggest being that the plan prefers reducing lane widths in order to add facilities, which wouldn’t reduce car lane miles at all).  Then he did some long division, and presto: 3.15%!  Remember, City Journal is “the nation’s premier urban-policy magazine“.  If anyone, including the editors of City Journal or writer Ethan Epstein would like to explain an alternative calculation, let me know and I’d be happy to post it.

One thought on “Not really Streetless in Seattle

  1. Nice post. It seems likely that your explanation of the origin of the 3% figure is correct. I didn’t read the article, but the fact that they brought up weather and topography as likely deterrents is corroborating evidence of the authors’ facile thinking. Copenhagen, while flat, actually has more rainy days in an average year than Seattle. Topography doesn’t have a single number to use for easy comparison, but some hilly towns with high cycling rates that come to mind include Osaka, Japan; Bern, Switzerland; Salzburg, Austria; and Florence, Italy.

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