6 Things to Like About Seattle’s New Broadway Bike Lanes (And One to Fix)

broadway streetscape from hill 600

pfb-logo-100x22Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

To see how dramatically Seattle has changed Broadway, just above its downtown, by adding streetcar tracks and one mile of two-way protected bike lane, compare the photo above (from Saturday) to the one below (from Google Street View’s capture of the same stretch of road in 2011).

broadway before

As of this spring, the lanes through Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood connect Seattle Central College, Seattle University, the Swedish Medical Center, a high-density mixed-income housing complex, and a significant commercial node that’ll soon be anchored by an underground light rail stop.

Steve Durrant of Alta Planning and Design, a lead consultant on the project, said the lanes allow biking on a major artery that had been “essentially a forbidden street.”

The lanes were created as part of the $134 million First Hill streetcar expansion, paid for by a 2008 transit ballot measure. With space at a premium on the new street, the 10-foot-wide space immediately east of the northbound streetcar tracks was seen as the only viable way to get bike facilities on Broadway.

The resulting lanes are rare in one important way: they create a two-directional protected lane on one side of a two-way street. That’s a little-used design due to the large number of possible turning conflicts. But Seattle is showing that with enough money and care, it can be done.

I stopped by last weekend to have a look at the project’s unique features.

1) They use creative separation equipment

smurf separation 600

We’re bike lane separation geeks here at the Green Lane Project, but these giant sand-filled blue plastic separators were new to us when Seattle prepared to install them last year. As Seattle Bike Blog put it, Broadway might be the world’s first “Smurf-turd-protected bike lane.” As post-separated lanes around the country are showing their age, Seattle’s choice to use these more durable, visible barriers is looking smart.

2) Every intersection is marked with a green crossbike

kid in broadway PBL 600

Here’s a scene that hasn’t been seen on streets like Broadway in more than 100 years: a dad helping his daughter practice riding her bike while they head on an errand together.

3) Every driveway crossing is marked in green, too

many driveways 600

The consistent use of green at street crossings alerts cyclists and drivers to conflict zones. Every driveway along the lanes is marked with green, including the entrances to parking lots (above). (Also, check out the hatched-off areas near each driveway, signifying that drivers shouldn’t park there in order to keep lines of sight clear.)

Next to the lane there is also a busy gas station with a very long curb cut…

broadway gas station 600

…and little mini-marts.

minimart

“There are like two, three blocks in there that are really intense with driveways,” Durrant said. “It’s sort of what we were stuck with.” But the result, he said, seems to be fine as long as street users keep their wits about them. “I’ve ridden it now many times, and I haven’t seen a challenge with it.”

4) It rises to sidewalk level behind streetcar stops

streetcar stop

Broadway’s bike lanes actually cut the cost of the associated streetcar project significantly, because they run on top of a water line that would have had to be displaced if the streetcar had hugged Broadway’s east curb. This put the bike lanes between the transit stop and the sidewalk, a setup that’s common in Europe, and works just fine in the United States, but requires some nuance.

Here, designers raised the bike lane to sidewalk level for cyclists as they approach the transit stop, communicating to people pedaling that (like a car on a raised crosswalk) they’re no longer in their own space and should yield to pedestrians.

Here’s a similar design on Yesler, at the south end of Broadway’s protected lane:

yesler curve

5) It has a dedicated bike signal at every intersection

freestanding signal

Seattle has one of the country’s stiffest standards for traffic signals along protected bike lanes: At every signalized intersection — which is, in Broadway’s case, all of them — bikes get either their own signal phase or a three-second head start on motorists after each red light. Sometimes, as above, that means creating a freestanding light post for the bike lane (a significant expense) and sometimes (as below) it means an extra signal box hanging from the same wire as others.

6) Most signals have underground detection loops

detector loop

Place your wheels over these vertical white bars and the intersection will detect that someone is on a bike, waiting for a green light. Though these stencils are proven not to be very intuitive, they work — and the more they’re used, the more people will understand how useful they are.

Now, here’s one related problem that seems to have popped up…

7) The “no right turn” signals are often being ignored

no turn on red

The downside of dedicated signal phases is that many people in cars aren’t expecting them. Above was one of the four drivers I saw approach this intersection while cars had a red arrow but bikes had a green bike signal. Of those, three illegally turned right from their right-turn lane across the bike lane despite a “No turn on red” sign.

I wondered if people were simply looking at the rightmost signal and assuming it applied to right-turning cars without noticing the bicycle shape inside the signal head. One way to fight this misconception would be to put the bike signal lower or on the near side of the intersection, away from those that apply to cars. Another might be for the “no turn” sign to picture a red arrow rather than a red dot.

Maybe this is just one more mark in the case against turn lanes, or the case against right turns on red in general.

Durrant, the designer, had his own suggestion for a fix.

“Enforcement,” he said.

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  • Trying to move away

    Given my experience of living in Seattle, I think it’s more likely that Seattle drivers simply do not give a sh*t about obeying the law, or the safety of others. And it will be a cold day in hell before SPD lifts a finger to help bike/ped safety; that would infringe on the convenience of the entitled class of drivers.

  • mcas

    Looks really amazing. For the possible fix: they could also add shields/visors like SF has done on Oak Street and at Fell & Masonic. That way, the cars can’t actually seen the green for bikes — reducing confusion/excuses even further…

  • Another solution is a text “bike signal” sign below or above it. Honestly, the bike symbol can be confused with an arrow pretty easily. In the picture above the bike looks like a circle.

  • Biking in a skirt

    Decent. Far better than most edge facilities. I’d actually use this.

  • Gezellig

    Going to Seattle and Vancouver next month–will definitely have to try this stretch!

  • Southeasterner

    I also live in Seattle and agree with you 100%. Just this morning I watched a car run a red light right in front of a police car an almost take out a pedestrian. No action.

  • These text signs are actually in place already at most if not all of these — you can barely see them in the photos above. (Barely.)

  • BcycleSEA

    The smurf turds are actually really rather awful. I thought that was going to be the “thing to fix.” They aren’t bolted and move pretty easily INTO THE BIKE LANE, presumably when cars hit them. They are too heavy to be moved back out by just a mere human/bicycle, so we seem to be expected to file a maintenance request every time. Also, graffiti magnets! Terrible.

  • Amy Smolens

    What about putting a green straight-arrow instead of a green light for cars? That would indicate that drivers may proceed straight, and coupled with the red right-turn-arrow, might get the point across better.
    Good suggestions by mcas and Jass, too.

  • Guest

    I live in San Francisco and visit Seattle, staying in Capitol Hill 3-4 times a year. Most my friends up there drive or Uber to get around. During my last visit in June for Pride Weekend I had a few opportunities to ask friends what they thought.

    First and foremost my takeaway was frustration from all the traffic changes that were happening almost daily. That’s not just the broadway bike lanes, that’s the streetcar line, Capitol Hill Station construction, every other traffic and transit project going on within 20 miles, and a building boom that has this ally or that shut down at some random day or time.

    I have a particularly insightful friend thought that drivers were being sent mixed signals: at the crosswalks drivers are supposed to stay out of the green, but mid-block the green marks the driveways where motorists should be driving over. He understood the logic, but it was still backwards to him: the entire lane should be green *except* for the driveways, and even then they should have something special.

  • Jamison Wieser

    I live in San Francisco and visit Seattle, staying in Capitol Hill 3-4 times a year. Most my friends up there drive or Uber to get around. During my last visit in June for Pride Weekend I had a few opportunities to ask friends what they thought.

    First and foremost my takeaway was frustration from all the traffic changes that were happening almost daily. That’s not just the broadway bike lanes, that’s the streetcar line, Capitol Hill Station construction, every other traffic and transit project going on within 20 miles, and a building boom that has this ally or that shut down at some random day or time.

    I have a particularly insightful friend thought that drivers were being sent mixed signals: at the crosswalks drivers are supposed to stay out of the green, but mid-block the green marks the driveways where motorists should be driving over. He understood the logic, but it was still backwards to him: the entire lane should be green *except* for the driveways, and even then they should have some special striping to indicate a mixing zone.

    Something like what I’ve sketched out here.

  • josephsinger

    As far as graffiti magnets the truth is that if some miscreant wants to make something look like crap they will do it whether it’s Smurf turds or planters. I don’t know the mindset of people who think it’s cool to mark up an area with their tags but there it is.

  • josephsinger

    Also quite common for cars waiting to make a right turn will wait *in* a crosswalk. Another favorite thing to do is at uncontrolled intersections to poke your car’s nose into the intersection while waiting to turn.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Rode on it once a few weeks ago and found the lack of cyclists on the cyclepath during afternoon rush-hour rather conspicuous. I generally found the facility restrictive more than liberating. I had more than one driver block my way while pulling out of a driveway. I didn’t blame the drivers as they had to move across the cyclepath to see car traffic in the main roadway. Luckily I was going uphill at the time on the right side of the roadway. Had I been coming downhill on the contraflow side of the road it might have been more dicey. My take is that most Seattle cyclists are a traffic competent bunch and can’t be bothered with this slow-speed facility so they ride elsewhere.

    Also, the transition going southbound at the top of Cap Hill where they are still building the lightrail station is nonexistent! I was just getting ready to bomb down the hill and next thing I know there are these lightrail tracks trying to eat my wheels at 30mph. I nearly had to ride my bike into oncoming traffic to avoid them. I’ve been riding for 25 years and got 50,000 miles under my saddle and that really took me for a loop! Took all my skill to not crash! Only about 8 blocks later did I notice the cycletrack on the left side of the street! By that point I turned off.

    I know Alta did their best with what they had but I really found this facility to be far from a perfect solution. I think that’s why I saw less than 5 cyclists as I rode the length of this thing. I will say Broadway looks much prettier than it did before but I was highly underwhelmed by the function of the facility.

  • Joshua Putnam

    Speaking of legal compliance, bicycle-shaped signal faces aren’t actually legal in Seattle, or Washington State as a whole. They have FHWA engineering approval, but they’re not yet recognized in law. There’s no law that says a red bicycle signal means stop, or that a green bicycle signal means you can go.

    California took care of this years ago, the CVC specifically defines the meaning of bicycle signal faces. But the RCW and SMC don’t — circles are defined, arrows are defined, WALK/DON’T WALK are defined…. Bicycle signals simply have no legal meaning in Washington.

    SDOT has put the hardware far ahead of the legal infrastructure on Broadway. It’s no wonder compliance is low.

  • Fish

    The real issue is connectivity to the rest of the city. As someone who does not live in that neighborhood but goes there all the time, it is very difficult to bike there. You need to cut through downtown and like everything in Seattle there are a lot of hills. More than anything, it is cutting through downtown that is a challenge. The Bike Master Plan will be adding protected bike lanes downtown and then on a street that will connect it to Broadway (probably Pike or Pine). Until then, it’s really a bike lane that is just good for people that live on Capitol Hill.

  • Fish

    Ha, as someone who lived on the East Coast for 20 years, I have a fairly different take on Seattle drivers. It’s not that they aren’t rule abiding (they are much more so than in other cities), it’s that they all drive like oblivious senior citizens. I’m still waiting for the day that I see someone actually drive over the speed limit on the highway. There just needs to be more enforcement–besides patrolling South Seattle I rarely ever see the SPD anywhere…

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Yeah Fish you likely know more about this than I but what I found interesting was that north of the cycletrack and the construction of the lightrail station, cyclists were much more common.

  • Fish

    The whole thing is still very much a work in progress. Our bikeshare program is going to open up in the next month or 2 with stations all over the bike path. Once the streetcar starts working (also by end of year) then the path will end up being much more useful. Where I live and work in Fremont-Ballard there are so many cyclists you almost feel like you’re in a european city. The city is headed in the right direction, just everything needs to connect.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    So I’m going to ask the $100,000 question (and I’m shooting this straight at you Michael). Are we now building bike facilities for people who can’t otherwise ride a bike in traffic and that these facilities are becoming near useless to those that can?

    I’m not asking this because I’m some angry vehicular cyclist but I’m really concerned that this trend in the profession over the past several years particularly with all the protected bike lanes / cycletracks being built lately might cause problems in the future. I know already when I talk to experienced cyclists they are downright pissed off about much of the new protected stuff being built. Broadway could have been built using more conventional bike lanes that
    would not hinder the speed of the more traffic tolerant cyclist but it
    wouldn’t have been good for those that aren’t (like kids). They lament that all that space, wasted to their needs, could have been used to build conventional bike lanes. I would prefer protected facilities that service both skill levels equally well but that is not what I’m finding with 90% of cycletrack projects.

    I’m just not comfortable with the way the profession has been going lately and I can really see a schism forming in the bike community if all those traffic tolerant club cyclists start to organize and ask for facilities that service their needs.

  • Fair questions, Andy, but I want to know a little more about the problems you’re seeing and hearing about.

    Are you mostly talking about passing speed? I agree that that’s a sacrifice, especially if 5-foot-wide lanes like those above are ever crowded enough that back and forth traffic is common. At the moment, it isn’t.

    But experience/confidence isn’t the same as speed. Biking has been my own main transportation mode for five years, which seems like plenty of experience. In Portland where I live, I don’t think twice about riding in downtown traffic (where the stoplights keep
    everybody at 13 mph), and I’m OK with taking the lane on other
    arterials though I don’t exactly look forward to it. But I’ve never felt
    a problem riding in protected lanes here or elsewhere — just the
    opposite, I slightly prefer them because I like to sit up straight,
    ride side by side, pedal slow without anyone complaining, etc.

    The drivers-pulling-out thing is a separate problem, but seems like that’s more a design sacrifice being made to preserve parking spaces on a street that already has lots of driveways.

  • Gezellig

    Great sketch-up! The mixed-signals thing is insightful on your friend’s part.

    I guess a third scenario is one where the cycletrack is striped continuously bold green throughout its entirety…both midblock (while physically protected) and at openings (ie driveways and intersections).

    I really like these setups when the cycletrack is raised at driveways/intersections because it’s a strong cue to drivers they need to yield. In addition, YIELD TO BIKES signs can further reinforce this notion. This is what Cambridge, MA did:

    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-Vq1Li0EESsY/UcoRAqHUqdI/AAAAAAAAQu8/3_ugGYfP82w/s1600/2013-06-24_18-19-44_1.jpg

  • Gezellig

    That’s what I was thinking, too. While individual stretches of cycletracks are great, it’s really about the cumulative effect of a backbone network of them that intersect at key points.

    It’s still incredibly rare for US cities to have intersecting cycletracks–it’ll truly be a milestone when that happens. And I hope when it happens, they take into account physical protection so they look more like this:

    http://bikeportland.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/intersection-after.png

    And less like this:

    http://ramblershighway.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/dsc05982.jpg

  • Totally agreed.

    There are a couple intersections of protected lanes in Chicago. I haven’t actually seen them in action myself. The first intersection of two bidirectional PBLs is actually likely to be in Atlanta. Stay tuned for coverage of that.

  • Jamison, on the green markings: the way I think about it is that in both intersections and driveways, people *can* drive over the green when they’re in cars but should be yielding to bike traffic whenever they do so. And by the same measure, people *can* claim the right of way over the green when they’re on bikes but need to keep an eye out for cars whenever they do so.

    Isn’t that consistent?

  • Gezellig

    Cool, great info! I wasn’t aware of those, will definitely look forward to further coverage.

    I wonder if any city’s seriously looking into the protected intersection design à la Nick Falbo’s vid.

  • Not yet, at least as far as I know. So many of the American PBLs, especially the new ones, are bidirectional on one-way streets, in part to save space/money and in part because we have so many freaking one-way streets. Falbo’s concept assumes the full one-lane-on-each-side treatment, though some of his principles might be adaptable to a bidirectional intersection.

  • Jamison Wieser

    I agree it’s consistent, I still agree with my friend Brian that it’s backwards.

    I’m attaching a few examples photos of San Francisco’s newest cycletrack and bike lanes because Broadway really does look backwards from my perspective.

    Seattle is using solid green in its function to tell motorists they are not allowed to stop here this is a bike lane.

    SF is uses green stripes to indicate mixing zones and solid to indicate cycletracks (even if they’re too narrow for a car to physically fit through). Towards consistency SF now has stripes as the standard for all types of mixing/crossing zones:

    bikes (green), children (yellow near schools) pedestrians, (white now that SF is using ladder striped crosswalks as the default standard for all crosswalks), and transit (last year the SF began adding red transit lanes) with the same meaning: cars are never to stop hear only to be cross through when clear and the other user always has the right of way.

  • M M

    If your talking about a left turn you are suppose to in the intersection [half way]. I am from midwest where they are putting bike lanes in for forty or fifty cry baby bikers. I have driven for over FIFTY FIVE YEARS, and had to have insurance, a drivers license, and license plates. All that to use public streets but not the bikers they get it all for free.

  • josephsinger

    Your!!!! You evidently do not know how to drive if you think it’s normal to stick the nose of your car out into an intersection to make a turn. It’s not normal even “in the midwest.” If you think it’s normal you probably should leave your car keys at home and walk. You are evidently misinformed about taxes as well. Anyone who uses city streets is paying for them if they live in Seattle. Property and sales taxes are paid by everyone.

  • Gezellig

    Haha wow. Actually very small percentages of road infrastructure come from things like DMV fees and gas taxes. The vast majority come from….drumroll….general taxes that…drumroll…everyone pays for. Regardless of how much or little you drive.

    http://www.seattlemet.com/news-and-profiles/publicola/articles/we-all-pay-for-the-roads

    http://cycling.blogs.pressdemocrat.com/10129/you-dont-pay-road-taxes-so/

    Also, btw, even though we all pay for the roads:

    “Briefly, here is a summary of the facts: studies estimate that motor vehicle users pay an average of 2.3 cents per mile in user charges such as gas taxes, registration fees, and tolls. However, they impose 6.5 cents per mile in road service costs. In contrast, cyclist impose road service costs averaging a miniscule 2/10ths of 1 cent per mile.”

  • Gezellig

    Not just Seattle, but everywhere in the US!

    There is nowhere in the US where gas taxes and DMV fees pay anywhere near the cost of road building and maintenance. It’s such an easily Googled-away myth which is why it’s always amazing when someone occasionally brings it up again. Kinda like the flat-earth crowd.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Michael, I was in Portland a few weeks ago and I must say that what I saw there I totally liked! Nothing fancy shmancy just good ol’ AASHTO compliant bicycle facilities for the most part that seemed to serve the novice and the expert rather well. However, I will say some streets with bike lanes did require a level of traffic tolerance. I did notice (from what I saw) that the many of the bike lanes are rather wide which I think helps a lot. The one protected cycletrack (by the mall?) I thought was horrible BTW. I rode that stretch at dusk (but with a VERY good performance LED headlight) and I found it hard to follow and there were some storm drains 6 inches below the road grade in the cycletrack itself! No thank you! Don’t forget these facilities need to function at night too!

    And I’m not talking as much about passing speed as I’m talking about operational speed. The Broadway example here one can only ride safely at 15mph max but one can easily ride down the hill on Broadway at 30mph. Mark my words, some will try it even in the narrow cycletrack. Even if the cycletrack was split so each travel direction was on the right side of the road (and I think they could have done it if they located the tracks better) I think the downhill operational speed could have been higher AND safer.

    And really! Do we need children riding on Broadway? I just don’t know if building for “8 to 80” is really appropriate on such an arterial, particularly one that is so hilly and where experienced cyclists would want to attain the high speeds that gravity will allow them.

    Anyway, I’ve got to get back on the road driving cross-country. Please consider that my comments were written pressed for time. What I’d suggest you do next time you are in Seattle is to go ride with a group from the Cascade Bike Club and ask them what they think of these new facilities and get their opinions. You may have some interesting conversations.

    With regards!

  • Robert Jarman

    All these protected bike lanes need to fix the problem that they have speed issues is to make the bike lights go on a green wave, timed to 20-25 km/h.

  • Robert Jarman

    These lanes should probably be 4 metres wide not 3 metres wide (for a bidirectional track).

  • Robert Jarman

    It is also ambiguous as to whether the bicycles must also not turn right on red.

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