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As I wrote in our District 1 post, Seattle Bike Blog is not doing official endorsements for the primary. Instead, I’ll be going district-by-district, posting videos from the MASS Coalition’s transportation forums along with a roundup of transportation-related endorsements and other notable news items and thoughts. I also want to hear who you are supporting and why in the comments below.

With Bruce Harrell choosing not to run again, District 2 is our first of many open races this year. And, as a result, there are a lot of candidates, and endorsements are a bit more spread out. But as you’ll see, a couple names rise to the top.

This race has many good candidates (and one obviously awful one), so I’m hoping it turns into a run-off between the good ones. Phyllis Porter is a friend of the blog, served on the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board, worked with Bike Works to be an organizer of Rainier Valley Greenways and is an organizer of Seattle’s chapter of Black Girls Do Bike (check out this Seattle Channel video about it).

Tammy Morales and Christopher Peguero both also had very good responses to the questions Lester Black at the Stranger asked about bike lanes. Morales has clearly garnered the most endorsement attention, including from orgs focused on transportation. Ari Hoffman is awful and nobody should vote for him (there are many reasons, but you don’t need to go any further than his intro in the video below where he brags about his truck’s HEMI to a room full of transit, walking and biking advocates).

You can hear from candidates yourself in this transportation and housing forum hosted by the Move All Seattle Sustainably coalition (Rooted In Rights not only filmed it and added captions, but they also created this caption doc (.txt) for those who would rather just read it all):

Seattle District 2 City Council Candidate Forum on Transportation and Sustainbility - YouTube

You can also hear candidates talk generally about their campaigns via this pretty cool Seattle Channel video voting guide.

This post is also a chance for you all to share your thoughts and promote your favorite D1 candidates in the comments below. Did I totally gloss over or miss something important? Let me know in the comments below. If you work for a campaign, you are welcome to participate, as well. Just please disclose which campaign you work for.

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To verify your Council District, use this city web tool.

I apologize to readers waiting for Seattle Bike Blog’s City Council endorsements, but I just plain did not have enough time this year to do Council primary endorsements justice. I had written earlier this year that I planned on creating an endorsements board, but it turns out organizing such a board also takes a lot of time that I didn’t have. Between watching the kiddo during the week and working on a top secret project I can’t yet talk about, it became clear that any endorsement effort would have been lacking. So I decided against doing them.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be Council primary coverage! This week, I’ll go district-by-district, posting videos from the MASS Coalition’s transportation forums along with a roundup of transportation-related endorsements and other notable news items and thoughts. Sometimes one or two candidates will obviously stand out, and I’ll note that. This post is an example.

District 1 – Herbold goes unchallenged (basically)

The MASS coalition did not host a forum for this race, which also seems to be among the least competitive of the races this year.

Incumbent Lisa Herbold received endorsements from the Transit Riders Union and the Stranger. The Urbanist, Seattle Transit Blog and Seattle Subway (PDF) did not endorse anyone in this race. 

Herbold’s single biggest disagreement with bike advocates this past term came when she voted against the city buying the beleaguered Pronto Cycle Share system from the non-profit Puget Sound Bike Share back in 2016. The city’s idea was to buy the too-small-to-succeed system so that it could invest city funds to dramatically expand it. Herbold joined Tim Burgess in opposing this plan, but they were outvoted 7-2. Herbold would later help kill the Pronto system by removing its operating funds from the 2017 budget, an effort that by then had support from the Council majority.

This was quite frustrating at the time. However it is worth noting that, by prescience or luck, she turned out to be right. At the time, nobody knew that the venture capital funded private bike share boom was about to cross the Pacific and unload in Seattle. And if we had known the city would shut down Pronto a year later, of course the Council should not have bought it in 2016. The time may yet come again for a public bike share system, especially if private companies continue to drop bikes in favor of scooters or go under entirely (the industry keeps evolving, so who knows where it’s headed?). But, with hindsight being 20/20, I don’t see a viable path in which Pronto could have weathered the private bike share boom.

So I’ll say it: Herbold was right, and I was wrong.

She is hardly the strongest Councilmember for biking, but she’s not anti-bike. The Stranger’s Lester Black sent a bike-focused questionnaire to candidates, and you can read her answers here. They are certainly better than her opponent Brendan Kolding’s answers. Phil Tavel did not respond, though on his campaign website he says bike and bus lanes “eliminated parking spaces and impacted the viability of personal vehicles as a transportation option.” He also vows to fight to protect free car parking, which he says is “One of District One’s unique qualities.” What an insult to his district! There’s way better stuff there than the damn car parking. Geez. Hard pass.

In their Herbold endorsement, the Transit Riders Union said, “her two challengers are people we really, really don’t want on the city council.”

The Urbanist had some good things to say about Herbold and spent most of their non-endorsement for District 1 talking about her, concluding, “At the end of the day though, she too often hands power over to reactionary homeowner interests on the city council and that’s a tunnel too far for this board.” So really, it was sort of an endorsement of her that was also trying to push her to be better. They didn’t have anything to say about her opponents.

So while Seattle Bike Blog is not doing official primary endorsements, this race seems pretty clear. With the fewest challengers of any district, both of whom seem to think more car parking is the solution to our transportation problems, Herbold is the obvious option here. I wish she had better challengers to push her a bit on transportation issues. But she doesn’t.

This post is also a chance for you all to share your thoughts and promote your favorite D1 candidates in the comments below. Did I totally gloss over or miss something important? Let me know in the comments below. If you work for a campaign, you are welcome to participate, as well. Just please disclose which campaign you work for.

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Drum roll, please ! Join us on July 20 at the Redmond Central Connector Park and be the first to see the Eastside Rail Corridor’s new name. To help us celebrate we will have live music, a bike rodeo for kids and more! . https://t.co/hOSg9yEbsv pic.twitter.com/X8vLenjKZV

— King County Parks (@iheartkcparks) July 11, 2019

Yeah, no. The Eastside Rail Corridor Trail will not be named Traily McTrailface. Sorry.

I’m pretty sure I know the name, but I’ll go ahead and let King County announce it in style 10 a.m. July 20 at Redmond Central Connector Park (hmm, this trail isn’t the only thing that could use a better name).

We reported a while back on the contending names for the under-construction trail, which is planned to connect from Renton to Redmond. None of the names were notably amazing or seemed to find a strong following of supporters. I’ve been referring to it as “The Eastside Trail” for years now since it’s official name “The Eastside Rail Corridor Trail” is a real mouthful. Of course, there are several trails on the Eastside, so my name wasn’t all that great, either. In Kirkland, it is known as the Cross-Kirkland Corridor Trail, a name that will remain in use for the Kirkland-owned section.

Maybe if King County succeeds in fully funding and completing the trail according to its ambitious schedule, someday we’ll name it the DowWay or the Baldutrail. Honestly, if the county completes a fully-separated rail trail from Renton to Redmond, they can call it whatever they want. It will be amazing.

It’s worth noting that passing the King County Parks ballot initiative this August would go a long way to helping to build this thing. So we should really do that.

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The latest design for Madison/12th/Union is much improved and rather innovative.

SDOT is hoping to begin construction on its Madison Street RapidRide G project in 2020 with service set to start in 2022. That assumes they get the Federal grant they need for the $121 million project. Capitol Hill Seattle reports that the project is still rated well on the FTA’s Small Starts Project list, but you never know what will happen with the current Federal administration.

The project team is hosting a series of open houses and tablings starting this week. You can also submit comments via their online open house.

Though the bulk of the project is about transit, of course, there are some great bike elements. There are also a couple spots where the project (or a complementary SDOT project) could help complete some key bike connections.

The buses

Unlike loading a bike on the front of the bus like usual, these special buses will have four spaces inside that are accessible from the rear doors. Riders can pay at stations rather than the front of the bus, allowing them to enter via any door. And the raised bus stop platforms should make it easy to roll a bike inside.

Since the Madison bus will climb some of the steepest streets in the downtown and the densely populated First Hill as well as a very steep section of between Madison Valley and 23rd Ave, this route could be quite useful for people looking to use it as something of a bicycle elevator.

Unfortunately, those same steep climbs are also responsible for the biggest bummer of the latest design concept: The buses will be diesel rather than electric. The city had trouble finding a company that would make these custom trolly buses, which is a huge bummer.

Downtown

The project will redesign Spring and Madison Streets downtown, including a mostly-protected bike lane on the left side of Spring from 1st to 9th Ave, connecting the waterfront to First Hill. This is a steep climb, for sure, but sometimes it’s the only real bike route option. Your options for getting to First Hill are pretty much all steep or are very round-about, and a comfortable bike lane makes tackling such climbs for pleasant. Plus as e-bikes become more and more popular, steep routes like this will likely see more use.

There are some sections where the bike lane is paint-only, including a couple door zone bike lanes. Obviously, this is not optimal, but it is better than it was in 2016. Here are the Spring Street plans:

Madison/Union/12th

This is the most exciting update since the previous iteration of the design. This intersection is awful today. It is really big and confusing, and it has a very poor safety record for all users. It’s also the intersection of two important bike routes with bike lanes: 12th Ave and E Union Street. Today, the 12th Ave bike lanes just sort of drop, and you have to mix with right-turning traffic and bike across this large area hoping that anyone trying to turn left sees you. It’s not a good experience. People biking on Union Street, on the other hand, don’t have an obvious way to get across at all. Some people bike through the crosswalk and wait in the green bike boxes painted in the right-hand lanes of busy Madison Street. Others hop on the sidewalk. Neither option is comfortable.

The latest plan here dramatically redesigns the intersection, making it tighter and simpler for people driving and providing a continuous biking path that keeps people on bikes off the busy sidewalks. The design now only allows transit (Metro’s Route 2 bus) and bikes to continue west on E Union. It also creates a large bulb-out on the northeast corner to create more sidewalk and protected bike lane space. The result is that people walking and biking will have more space to maneuver through or wait for the signal and significantly shorter distances to cross, a key factor in safe intersection design.

Here’s a closer look:

This design is unusual, sure, but it’s an unusual intersection. This was a huge challenge to design, and it looks like the team has done a great job. I can’t wait to see it in action.

This project will connect well with the city’s 2019-20 Union Street protected bike lane project, which will go to MLK Way (hopefully that team can be half as ambitious with those intersections as this team was here).

The Madison project is also stopping just two blocks short of reaching the Broadway Bikeway. Between this improvement and the other Union Street project, SDOT should find a way to make sure they complete the connection to Broadway by the time this Madison redesign opens.

Greenway crossings (good and bad)

The Madison project with also complete some a quality neighborhood greenway crossing at 18th Ave near the top of the hill. This sets the stage for the very promising “Central Ridge” neighborhood greenway route from Judkins Park to Volunteer Park. This route stays on top of the hill, creating a surprisingly flat route through very hilly parts of the Central District and Capitol Hill (from south to north it follows 20th, 19th, 18th, 17th then 16th Avenues, turning as needed to stay on top of the hill). Crossing Madison is one of the big challenges for this route, so a new signal and crossing at 18th is a big deal.

There’s still no direct way to cross the “bottleneck” near the Bottleneck Lounge at Madison/24th/E John Street, though new ADA-compliant curb cuts will make it easier for people to use the crosswalks, which have also been tightened up a bit thanks for a significant curb bulb on the south-western corner.

The green markup is mine, showing where Bicycle Master Plan elements are missing from the design.

The end of the line needs some work, still. But, honestly, it’s not too far off. There are three smallish issues here.

  1. The planned bus layover space is in the path of a neighborhood greenway on E Harrison St, as is noted in the Bicycle Master Plan.
  2. 27th Ave E, which turns into E Arthur Place, is also a planned neighborhood greenway and is currently a fairly well-used route as an alternative to busy, bumpy MLK Way E. But people need to be able to turn left from Arthur Pl onto MLK to access the important Lake Washington Loop bike route. The right-turn-only design for eastbound Arthur is not going to work for people biking.
  3. MLK is supposed to have bike lanes for this one block section between Arthur and Madison.

There’s room to work with here, so I think a solution shouldn’t be too hard. Designing a space for people on bikes to turn left from Arthur is probably the single most important detail to add since removing that turn would make things worse than they are today. This also feels like a missed opportunity to help people get from the 27th Ave greenway across Madison to 28th Ave and the Lake Washington Loop bike route. The painted bike lanes on MLK for this short block as noted in the Bike Master Plan would be helpful. There are also more ambitious options for making this connection, though I’m not sure how much the project team can add this late in the process.

Notice anything else in the latest plans? Let us know in the comments. And definitely leave feedback either in person or via the online open house.

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Then-member and now City Council candidate Phyllis Porter presents ideas about Rainier Valley bike routes to the Board in 2016.

Applications are open for a seat on Seattle’s volunteer Bicycle Advisory Board (“SBAB”). So if you want to volunteer your time to help the city make bicycle investments and influence bicycle policy, you should apply by July 28.

No professional expertise is required. In fact, some of the most effective board members have been regular ol’ Seattle residents who just want to learn, ask questions and offer their thoughts as people who ride bikes and want to help their city do better. Did you know Bill Nye was once an SBAB member? What I’m saying is, you could be Bill Nye.

The Board had made excellent strides in recent years to diversify its representation and leadership, and women of color have been co-chairs of the board for years. But the Board has lost some members of color in the past year (including Mayor Jenny Durkan’s controversial decision to oust Co-Chair Casey Gifford in November). People of color, women, LGBTQ folks, people from immigrant and refugee communities, people with disabilities, and people of all ages are encouraged to apply.

Send a resume and cover letter to Serena.Lehman@seattle.gov by July 28. Learn more in this SDOT blog post.

The State of the Bike Board

As a reporter who has been covering Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board (“SBAB”) meetings since 2010, these are some of the most interesting — and frustrating — times for the volunteer board. For years, the Board was focused on helping advise SDOT on crafting plans, including the Bicycle Master Plan, commenting on individual project details and helping to prioritize the  city’s annual work plans. This was, of course, important work.

But in the past year and a half, as Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration has dramatically cut or delayed bike investments, the Bicycle Advisory Board has been a consistent and principled conscience for city leadership, unafraid of giving advice leaders don’t want to hear. They have been unrelenting for years in their unanimous opinion that Seattle needs to focus on investments to connect south Seattle to correct the city’s history of building most bike lanes north of I-90, for example. Unfortunately, SDOT has ignored their advice and released a bike work plan largely lacking in southend commitments.

Of course the city has not always listened to this volunteer advisory board, and they don’t legally need to. SBAB has no actual power. But the city would be wise to support the current membership and take their advice seriously because they are providing our city with a wonderful and thoughtful service.

The Board has very few second-term members left at this point, and many of the volunteers are up for a term renewal. Rules already limit members to two two-year terms, which is effective at ensuring the same voices do not consistently run the table and control conversation. It is useful to have a mix of first and second-term members because having some institutional knowledge helps the board conduct business much more efficiently and effectively. And in my decade of covering the Board, any volunteer willing to sign on for a second two-year term has been allowed to do so (and should be thanked for being so generous).

But that changed in November when Mayor Durkan’s Office ousted former Co-Chair Casey Gifford just hours before what would be her final meeting. And a representative from the Mayor’s Office has told the Board that the Mayor plans to open all her seats, including those held by members up for a second term, to new applicants (the Mayor appoints half the Board and the City Council appoints the other half). Sure, the mayor is allowed to do this, but it’s unprecedented in my decade of covering this Board. And given the way the Board has been critical of recent bike plan cuts, it feels a bit petty and disrespectful of these volunteers’ time.

To make things worse, Gifford was a woman of color leading the Board, so her surprise ousting sent all the wrong messages about how welcome the Board is to people of color. I hope applicants know that the Board did not make that decision, and members were dismayed when it happened. Luckily her replacement, Selina Urena, has been great. This is why we need as many great applicants as possible. Even if valuable members are not renewed, Seattle needs good volunteers ready to take their seats and continue this public service.

I am not going to lie to you and say that joining the Board will be all fun and games. It is a lot of work, and it can be demoralizing when that volunteer work gets ignored by city leadership. It’s not uncommon for volunteers to burn out. But it is important work, and you will learn a lot both about transportation policy and about how the city truly functions.    You will get the inside scoop on transportation projects and have an opportunity to ask planners, engineers and sometimes politicians questions. Plus you get to hang out with a pretty great group of fellow volunteers once a month. So that’s pretty cool.

From SDOT:

Do you love your two-wheel ride? Are you passionate about making Seattle a place that is safe and easy for people who bike?

The Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board (SBAB) is seeking at least three new members.

Consider applying for this 2 year volunteer position.

Who Is SBAB?

Created in 1977 by our City Council, the volunteer board plays an influential role in achieving Seattle’s Bicycle Master Plan vision that riding a bicycle is a comfortable and integral part of daily life in Seattle for people of all ages and abilities

Here are a few other tasks that members do:

  • Advise the Mayor and the City Council
  • Participate in planning and project development
  • Evaluate policies
  • Make recommendations to all city departments, including SDOT
  • Meet on the first Wednesday of each month from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at Seattle City Hall

How do I qualify for this position?

  • The City of Seattle is committed to promoting diversity in our boards and commissions. People of color, low-income communities, immigrant and refugee populations, people living with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness, LGBTQ people, women and girls, youth, seniors and Native Populations are encouraged to apply.
  • Board members are frequent users of our bicycle network and represent a variety of ages, levels of mobility, diverse communities, and reside in neighborhoods throughout the city.
  • Must be a Seattle resident.

 Where do I sign up?

Submit a resume and cover letter via email by July 28, 2019 to Serena Lehman at Serena.Lehman@seattle.gov.

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Screenshot from the clarifying ruling (PDF).

A clarifying ruling by King County Superior Court Judge Roger Rogoff this week has put some extra pressure on the City of Seattle to win an ongoing appeal if they want to keep construction of the Ballard Missing Link on its recently-announced schedule. It also raises some questions about ongoing work on Market Street.

“The Superior Court ordered that SDOT may not proceed with construction of the Missing Link of the Burke-Gilman Trail until additional steps under SEPA are completed,” Dan Nolte, a spokesperson for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, said in an email to Seattle Bike Blog. “We respectfully disagree with this decision and believe that we have already complied with SEPA and the Court’s orders. Appeals are ongoing in the Court of Appeals and the City is evaluating next steps.”

Trail opponents have all but declared victory following this ruling (read their statement in this PDF), but that may be a bit premature. They lost almost every argument they made, and the only one that stuck has been thoroughly dismissed by the city’s latest economic study. So sure, if the city loses its appeal, opponents would live to fight another day and would successfully delay the project even more and further increasing the city’s costs (hooray?). But they should have a much more limited set of arguments to make since they would really only be able to argue against the new economic analysis (at least I think this is the case, though I am not a lawyer).

And, if the city wins its ongoing appeal, then this should all be a moot point because the courts would have determined that the economic analysis wasn’t needed in the first place and the initial FEIS was good to go. I say “should” because we have seen this trail delayed by increasingly complicated legal battles for decades. I’m not going to declare this thing a done deal until the day we cut the ribbon.

The more interesting and troubling question is whether the ongoing work on Market Street is now under scrutiny. Judge Rogoff’s decisions says, “It is hereby further ordered that SDOT shall not conduct any construction under the FEIS considered by Judge Chung unless that construction can stand on its own, or has independent utility beyond furthering the Missing Link Trail Project.”

The Market Street segment currently under construction is part of the city’s Ballard Multimodal Corridor project, which includes transit, paving, utility and street safety upgrades in addition to the trail connection between the Ballard Locks and 24th Ave NW. So is that enough to satisfy Judge Rogoff’s “independent utility” requirement? The City Attorney’s Office did not have an immediate and clear answer about whether this work could continue (staff was leaving for July 4 vacations as this story was breaking). I don’t know what would happen if the city had to stop work while Market Street is half demolished. Hopefully that doesn’t happen, because that would be a real nightmare scenario.

So yeah, as you can see, there’s a lot riding on the City Attorney’s appeal.

Summary of the trail’s environmental study

  • August 2012: A Seattle Hearing Examiner ruling forced the city to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement for the Missing Link, which the city began under Mayor Mike McGinn.
  • June 2017: After two years of “scoping” analysis and another two years of study, the city released their “final” version of that study.
  • December 2018: After a year and a half of legal battles, Judge Chung ruled in the city’s favor on every point of debate except for one: He determined that the city needed more analysis about a narrow slice of the economic impact the project could have, especially regarding the appellants’ claim that the trail would increase company insurance rates. Seattle’s City Attorney Pete Holmes immediately disagreed with this ruling, stating that Judge Chung’s required analysis is not covered under the state’s Environmental Protection Act (“SEPA”). The city filed an appeal, which is still ongoing.
  • July 2019: Judge Rogoff clarified that Judge Chung’s December ruling would require Seattle to cease trail construction and essentially re-release the FEIS with the new economic analysis attached. This would then reset all the clocks and allow for more trail opponent legal appeals.
More about this latest decision

Again, if the city wins its appeal, Judge Rogoff’s latest ruling should be a moot point. But if they don’t then his ruling removes a possible legal shortcut for the city’s trail project. The following is my analysis as someone who is not a lawyer.

Rogoff was having none of the city’s argument that its latest 66-page economic analysis did not significantly change the findings of its enormous Final Environmental Impact Study (“FEIS”) and therefore did not require them to release a supplemental FEIS. His July 2 ruling also does not comment on whether the city’s economic study satisfies Judge Chung’s concerns, saying the city would need to go through the whole public process before the Superior Court would make such a decision.

The ruling also clarifies that the city is not to begin construction on the trail sections in question until the FEIS is fully complete and appeals are exhausted.

The initial King County Superior Court ruling found that the city’s FEIS adequately answers every concern except for one: The possibility of an economic impact on businesses, especially as related to possible insurance rate increases. The city’s follow-up study determined, based on insurance industry interviews, that insurance companies do not use proximity to a trail in determining their rates. And while hypothetical collisions in which company drivers were found at fault could feasibly increase rates, “We anticipate that completing the trail would lower the probability of collisions compared to existing conditions,” the study authors wrote. Because, of course, that’s the point of this project.

People biking are getting injured at an alarming rate in this area, and they have been for a long time. Increasing safety is at the core of the project’s goal, and the appellant group lost their arguments that the trail would increase collisions. So if the trail is not expected to increase collisions and would not be responsible for a commercial driver breaking a traffic law that results in a collision, then the trail project could not reasonably be responsible for any insurance rate increases.

But what makes sense to me seems irrelevant in this endless legal battle. I’m assuming trail opponents will continue their appeals until they run out of legal avenues or money. And the appellant group’s attorney Josh Brower has proven very capable at tying up this project in endless legal battles for far longer than most people expected. He’s not exactly winning, but he keeps not losing. Even if the city wins its appeal, I won’t be ready to declare victory until the last cubic foot of asphalt is dry.

This whole debacle has also highlighted serious problems with our city and state SEPA laws. SEPA puts proposed projects under intense scrutiny, but not the status quo. The result is that existing dangers (like people crashing while biking in this area) and existing environmental impacts (like fewer people biking because of this trail gap) get protected by our own environmental protection laws. This is all backwards. It would likely take a state law to reform SEPA, and the Missing Link is a pretty good poster child for that effort. Because we have wasted decades and millions of dollars on a fight that has resulted in hundreds of people being injured. This is a broken system.

If the city loses its appeal, SDOT would need to release a supplemental FEIS. That more or less means resetting all the clocks basically to where things were in June 2017 when the FEIS was first released. There would need to be another public notice period, Hearing Examiner appeal and King County Superior Court appeal, assuming the trail opponents want to pursue legal delays as far as possible (and they have made it quite clear that they do). Perhaps the new cases would go faster since I believe only the much shorter economic impact addendum would be up for debate, but just getting on the court calendars makes up a lot of the delays in this process.

Losing the appeal would put the city’s planned construction schedule, as reported last week, on ice. Work is supposed to start on the Shilshole section this year. Well, it was really supposed to start last year. OK, it was originally supposed to start 15 years ago. The Missing Link Industrial Complex requires us to fight about this 1.4-mile trail segment forever because what would we even do with our lives if we weren’t fighting about it?

This has moved past the point of absurdity long ago. It would be funny if people didn’t keep getting hurt.

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Housing Choices for Everyone: Backyard Cottages - YouTube

I live in my friends’ backyard along with my spouse Kelli and 16-month-old daughter. We all worked together (well, the baby didn’t really help) to build a new house where a carport and patchy weed-filled yard was previously. And in the end it cost about as much or maybe a bit less than buying a lower-end condo of comparable size, though it could have been a bit cheaper had the city’s very strange building codes been improved.

And that’s exactly what the Seattle City Council unanimously did today. Congratulations to everyone who worked for years to get this passed (Full disclosure: My spouse Kelli is a legislative aid to ordinance sponsor Mike O’Brien).

After going through this whole years-long process to design, permit, finance and build our backyard house under the existing rules, I have some insight into what it takes to make projects like this happen. It was more difficult, took longer and cost more than I had originally expected. But much of that work was fun, and I am so happy with how it all turned out. And with these new rules making many of the steps easier, there are a lot of people who will find building backyard houses useful for many different reasons, such as:

  • People partnering to share a property that they could not afford on their own. As a bonus, you get to be neighbors!
  • People looking to generate extra monthly income.
  • People hoping to age in their own neighborhood by downsizing into new smaller houses in their backyards and renting the main house.

In-fill housing like backyard cottages and basement apartments are an especially great way to increase the number of people who can live in our city’s bikeable, walkable and transit-connected neighborhoods. Though this blog is focused mostly on transportation, that issue in intimately connected to land use. The way we build our communities determines how far people need to travel to meet their needs. Biking is one big way to cut costs, but that only works if your home is within biking distance of your needs. A lot of houses in so-called “single family” neighborhoods are a bit far from necessities by foot, but a very easy distance by bike. Biking and backyard houses go together perfectly.

But I also think it’s important to understand the inherent challenges to building homes this way.

If you are partnering on such a project, you will find that financing can be very tricky. Mortgage lenders do not like non-standard arrangements or small-scale co-ops (our initial idea). You’ll also need a pretty special group with the willingness to break that ancient rule: Never do business with friends. And, of course, this is not exactly a system that can scale well since every group will likely need to create an arrangement that works best for their unique situations and needs.

If someone already owns the property, they need to be willing to dedicate some of their space to build an ADU. While it’s great that those who want to make this trade-off now have that option, I’m guessing only a small percentage of homeowners will choose to do so.

A city study estimates that under the new rules people will build 2,400 more backyard cottages in the next ten years for a total of 4,400 extra ADUs.

It’s also important to point out that this rule change alone is not a replacement for subsidized housing programs or rent stabilization policies to help lower-income folks obtain or stay housed. Basement apartments are often on the cheaper end of market-rate housing options in a neighborhood, and these rules will make it easier to create those. That is a great and possibly under-celebrated element of these changes. Many people have underutilized basements just sitting there collecting spiders and holiday decorations. That could be someone’s home (and in my experience living in such a basement apartment, the spiders will not be displaced).

But I doubt new backyard stand-alone houses are going to be low-end. They will certainly cost a fraction of what it would take to buy a whole house in the same neighborhood. But even if you were to make lower-cost decisions all along the way, the baseline cost of building a new house is significant. This is especially true when contractors (and sub-contractors) are in such high demand as they are around here these days. Simply finding a contractor who would consider a project of this size was a serious challenge.

A backyard house is one more home, which takes one more potential bidder or applicant out of the market for other homes in the city. Anyone bidding on low-end Capitol Hill co-op units won’t have to compete with us now, for example. But though that’s certainly part of the solution, “trickle-down” housing policy on its own is not going to make the city affordable for lower-income people and families or help people struggling today. We still need to make major public investments in subsidized housing, and we still need to better protect people who are struggling to keep up with their rising housing costs.

I love this ADU legislation, but don’t for a second think that this work is over.

Ultimately, these rule changes should not have been this difficult or this big of a deal. It’s one small relief valve for the city’s housing supply problem, but it’s not a complete solution. It’s the kind of thing the City Council should have simply passed in the normal course of city business years ago before moving on to other work. Part of me worries that the amount of effort and debate we’ve put into this has inflated its potential a bit. That’s perhaps the real impact of all those lawsuits. It wasn’t about stopping these rules in particular, it was about derailing progress on more significant rule changes like legalizing apartments in residential neighborhoods or allowing smaller lot divisions.

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Photo taken May 31 shows that the bike lane ends before the intersection.

In yet another hit to the already sorely lacking southend bike network, SDOT quietly made a last-minute change to the Columbian Way paving project to remove an uphill section of protected bike lane as the road approaches Beacon Ave S. Neighbors didn’t know about the change until crews painting the planned bike lanes on the repaved street ended them half a block east of Beacon Ave S.

Just how quiet was this change? Even the project’s own communications and outreach staff didn’t seem to know about it as recently as June 6, according to emails sent to reader Matthew Snyder. Snyder had contacted the team May 29 as soon as he and other neighbors noticed the gap in the bike lane. A week later, SDOT staff sent this reply:

“We understand your concerns since striping is not yet completed. Crews are planning to complete striping on S Columbian Way / S Alaska St soon. Please see the attached PDF of the PBL plan where it shows that the PBL on S Columbian Way will continue through the intersection with Beacon Ave S. The plan also follows the City of Seattle’s protected bike lane intersection design standards. We hope that helps answer your questions.”

The document they sent was the 95% construction plan, which includes the complete bike lane neighbors thought was being constructed (the top image on this post). But the project engineers made a last-minute change to replace a block of the bike lane with sharrows, and they did so without any kind of public outreach or even public notice. They didn’t even bother to tell their own outreach staff or make sure information on the project website was updated to reflect the change.

Snyder, being a tenacious and engaged neighbor, was able to track down the 100% plans from the city’s contractor bidding website (the second image above). The team finally acknowledged in an email dated June 12 that the bike lane would “become a sharrow to make room for a right turn lane and traffic lane.”

This bike lane is among the only significant stretches of protected bike lanes SDOT currently plans in all of Southeast Seattle for the entirety of the Move Seattle Levy, despite consistent advocacy from all major advocacy organizations and the city’s own Bicycle Advisory Board urging the city to correct past injustices and invest heavily in the southend. And this gap greatly diminishes the effectiveness of this vital bike route. A bike route is only as comfortable as its least comfortable section. A missing gap like this is likely the difference between whether a family will use the lane with their kids or not, for example. This is the route from Columbia City to Jefferson Park and Mercer Middle School, for example. So eleven-year-olds are now supposed to just merge with car traffic every day while biking up a major hill to school?

Not only is the sabotaging of this bike lane extremely concerning, but the complete lack of public notice raises a lot of troubling questions. Compare the years of public outreach neighbors in wealthier, whiter Wedgwood received for planned bike lanes on 35th Ave NE as part of that repaving project to the complete disregard Columbia City and Beacon Hill neighbors received when SDOT decided to delete a key section of bike lane from this paving project. If there were arguments for removing this section of bike lane, people never had the opportunity to discuss them or advocate for a complete bike connection.

Mayor Jenny Durkan had contractors change the paving plan for 35th Ave NE after construction had already started to completely remove the planned bike lanes there. So we know she can add the bike lane back here. These sharrows are not good enough, and they do not meet the goals of the Bicycle Master Plan.

But this scandal also raises serious questions about SDOT’s trustworthiness. The public was clearly misled. The question is whether SDOT was lying or inept, neither of which is good. The department is investing public money into these projects, and the public has a right to know what they are building and when they make major changes to the core functionality of planned projects. And people in southeast Seattle have just as much right to know as people in northeast Seattle.

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Why we need to build this trail.

After adding another 66 pages to the peak of the Ballard Missing Link’s towering mountain of in-depth studies, Seattle is scheduled to start work on the core segment of the hard-fought trail this year.

Work is already underway on Market Street as part of a major road project that includes one third of the planned trail route as well as paving and transit improvements. That section, which more closely resembles a protected bike lane and complete streets project, was part of a big compromise deal former Mayor Ed Murray struck with industry leaders opposed to the initial route following the rail line between Shilshole Ave NW and the Locks.

Now the city has announced plans to begin work on Shilshole, perhaps the most controversial section of the project, after a court-required economic analysis (PDF) found, once again, that the project would not have an adverse impact on businesses. The additional study brings the total number of pages in just the final environmental impact study (“FEIS”) to 895. For a trail.

Work will now be broken into three phases. The Market Street phase is already under construction, the Shilshole phase is scheduled to begin this year and the NW 45th Street phase is scheduled to begin in 2020, My Ballard reports.

The 45th phase was separated from the Shilshole phase to consolidate all the work related to the rail line “while we continue to coordinate with Ballard Terminal Railroad,” SDOT Spokesperson Ethan Bergerson told My Ballard. Even though that rail line is hardly ever used, Federal laws provide a lot of protections for rail corridors still in use. And “in use” can mean just a handful of trips per year. The Ballard Terminal Railroad has been an appellant to the project in court.

NW 45th Street already has a temporary bikeway installed on the street, though crashes where the bikeway crosses the railroad tracks under the Ballard Bridge have continued to injure people. The final design would place the trail on the south side of the street, and the rail crossing would happen at the south end of Shilshole rather than under the bridge. With fresh pavement and a more purposeful 90-degree crossing angle, the new crossing should be much safer. But this work requires the city to make small changes to the railroad alignment. Let’s hope the BTR is not able to turn these small changes into another way to continue delaying a completed trail.

Economic study should finally put old arguments to rest

The latest economic analysis is a somewhat absurd document because it sets out to answer questions that are barely relevant to this trail project or within the realm of the city’s responsibility.

For example, one section tried to answer a persistent and baffling argument against the trail alleging that companies’ insurance policies would increase because of the project. But after report authors interviewed many insurance professionals, they determined that “insurance premiums would not change based solely on the completion of the Missing Link because insurance companies do not use proximity to a multi-use trail as a risk factor.”

Further, the authors found that “the possible economic impacts of potential risks from vehicle to bicycle/pedestrian traffic conflicts related to the Missing Link Project depend on two factors: the expected change in collisions and the assignment of fault.” They also had to research the impact of companies choosing to hire flaggers for trail crossings, possibly due to insurance liability concerns. The authors then state the obvious about the role of the trail project in these factors:

  • “We anticipate that completing the trail would lower the probability of collisions compared to existing conditions.” Because that’s the whole point of this project!
  • “Various laws and codes regulate the behavior of all the potentially at-fault parties and failure to comply may weigh towards a presumption of fault, but no law predetermines fault for collisions between vehicles and bicyclists or pedestrians.” Don’t break the law, and you won’t be found at fault for a collision. That seems pretty straight forward.
  • “There is no legal requirement for businesses to employ flaggers and/or spotters in response to the existence and normal operation of the BGT Missing Link.” Some businesses may choose to hire flaggers, and the study went into detail on how much these imaginary flaggers might get paid. But that’s the business’s choice. Trail crossings will be crosswalks like any other trail crossing, and there are many trails in town that professional drivers cross without flaggers. And, again, a business’s choice to hire flaggers is barely relevant to the city’s decision about whether to build this trail.

The study also found that insurance rates for companies along the route have already been increasing in recent years for a multitude of reasons that have nothing to do with this trail project. If there were a scenario in which insurance rates got too high for the businesses to operate, the trail would not be the reason.

But all of this should have been irrelevant to this study to begin with, as the authors note: “SEPA procedural provisions require the ‘consideration of ‘environmental’ impacts… that are likely, not merely speculative.'” The idea that a trail project team should even need to research potential insurance rate changes for businesses due to purely speculative collisions in which the professional drivers broke a law and are found at fault is just ridiculous. But this project blew past the phase of ridiculous long ago.

The authors also addressed a number of other random and sometimes bizarre concerns from businesses. “Some businesses and trade group representatives asserted that the psychological toll of the difficult operating environment will cause some businesses to move,” the authors wrote. I don’t even know where to begin with this one. You’re telling me that a business might find the existence of a biking and walking trail so psychologically troubling that they would have to move? I can’t even. But the authors do a good job of handling it professionally, writing:

“from an economic standpoint, we must assume that there is some financial benefit to operating out of their current locations or they would relocate. Attributing any relocation to psychological factors that are not fiscally motivated is inherently not an economic issue and outside the bounds of this analysis.”

And though the authors don’t go into it, if you want to talk about psychological tolls, let’s talk about the enduring trauma of people who have been and continue to be injured while biking through the Missing Link. GTFO.

We’ve clearly run out of things to argue about here. Time to build it and move on.

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Seattle’s ongoing experiment with private, free-floating bike share has changed the landscape for biking in the city, helping to raise city bike counts to record heights.

Bike share in Seattle has been unprecedentedly successful at increasing the raw number of bike trips taken in this city and growing the number of people who now consider biking as a transportation option for some trips or as a way to access transit.

The way the bike share services work has been evolving quickly and dramatically since launching in 2017. First there were $1 per ride pedal-only bikes from Spin, Lime and ofo. Then ofo and Spin left while Lime transitioned to e-assist bikes with an additional $0.15 per-minute rate. Then Uber’s JUMP brought their e-assist bikes and undercut Lime in price by charging the same $0.15 per minute, but without the $1 unlock fee.

The mid-2018 departure of ofo and Spin meant a significant reduction in the total bikes on the streets (nearly 10,000 in early 2018 vs 5,000 to 7,000 in early 2019) along with the increase in price due to the switch to e-assist bikes. SDOT data shows these changes did reduce the number of rides in the first quarter of 2019 compared to 2018:

Note that February 2019 was very snowy, so that big decline is likely a bit of an outlier. Graph from the Quarter 1 2019 bike share progress report (PDF).

Neither Lime nor JUMP have gotten close to hitting their permit limits of 6,667 bikes each. So current bike levels are unlikely to be affected by Seattle taking action against the companies for improperly reporting bike parking issues. As the Seattle Times’ Heidi Groover reported, the city penalized the companies by revoking 1,000 bike permits each.

Meanwhile, both Lime and JUMP have increased their per-minute rates to $0.25, which makes bike share less competitive by price compared to other options.

In summer 2017, a 30-minute bike share ride (without an electric assist option) would have cost $1. Today, it would cost $7.50 on JUMP or $8.50 on Lime (though with electric assist). Sure, the $1 fare was artificially low as companies competed intensely to gain users. Perhaps these prices are what is needed to make the business sustainable (companies don’t share that kind of information). But an up to 750% cost increase is pretty dramatic. For some trips, that could be more than the cost to hail a car, especially if there are multiple people. For people using these bikes every day, this could add up quickly.

The cost hikes come as companies are shifting focus nationally from bikes to scooters. The hikes also happened just before Lyft is supposed to launch their bike share service in Seattle (currently scheduled for “summer 2019,” according to SDOT).

Would a Lyft launch bring more competition and lower prices? Or are the days of very low-cost bike share rides over for good? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

One thing is certain: Seattle’s bike (and someday scooter?) share services will keep changing.

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