City Hall

Another Times Columnist Gets it Wrong on Bike Lanes

By Erica C. Barnett August 26, 2010

Well, it looks like my streak of agreement with Seattle Times columnist Joni Balter is over. This morning, Balter wrote a column decrying plans to expand Seattle's bike and pedestrian infrastructure, arguing that "the depth of a stubborn recession" is not the "right time to ask Seattle voters to fund bicycle improvements."

Now, Balter's no Nicole Brodeur. She doesn't just make up every fact. But her basic premise---Mayor Mike McGinn wants to push through a bike agenda opposed by most of the city---shows that Balter doesn't understand, or is pretending not to understand, how Seattle politics works. And she gets many of the fundamentals wrong.

First, Balter makes the same error Brodeur did: Crediting/blaming McGinn for adding bike lanes throughout Seattle, writing, "The bicycle lobby helped elect the mayor and now it wants significant bike striping all over town in return." That policy, as I noted when Brodeur accused McGinn of “sacrificing car lanes in favor of bike lanes all over the city," was actually implemented under former mayor Wes Uhlman back in 1972. The plurality of the 26 road diets (bike and pedestrian improvements) that have been installed since then went in under former mayors Paul Schell and Greg Nickels. Much as he might like to, McGinn can't take credit for the city's bike-lane policy any more than he can be blamed for the deep-bore tunnel.

Balter continues, "The question of whether this group of citizens [bike lane supporters] can impose their will on the rest of the place will be answered in the next year or so." Balter's nightmare scenario: The city council puts a tax increase for bike and pedestrian improvements on the ballot.

This is where Balter pretends she doesn't understand how Seattle politics works. Balter's been around a while, and she knows raising taxes for bike lanes would require a majority vote. If most Seattle residents don't support a (still theoretical) tax increase for bike lanes, it won't happen.

Balter elides that logical issue by saying, basically, Seattle voters are stupid. "After a fair amount of Seattle process, the city would ask that reliable and generous Seattle ATM, the taxpayers, to pay higher property or sales taxes or increased vehicle licensing fees." In Balter's mind, it's not that voters would support a tax for bike lanes because they like bike lanes, but because they'll vote for any tax increase, no matter how ridiculous. (Apparently, she doesn't remember the infamous latte tax.)

Next, Balter argues that the city shouldn't raise taxes during a recession. "[W]ith pressing civic needs ranging from education to public safety, is this really the top priority? Or do these powerful interest groups merely have the city's ear?"

Leaving aside the laughable notion that groups like Feet First and the Seattle Bicycle Alliance constitute "powerful interests groups" (would Barb Culp be the Jimmy Hoffa in that equation?), it's worth noting that Balter's being disingenuous here. She doesn't just oppose taxes during a recession. As Cascade Bicycle Club director David Hiller pointed out in an email, Balter opposed Bridging the Gap, a tax that pays for road maintenance as well as bike and pedestrian improvements, back in 2005, "during a period of sustained growth and widespread prosperity."

Balter does at least acknowledge that "road diets" are largely about safety, not adding more space for bikes. However, she turns around and takes "motorists are angry" as an argument against safety improvements. Does the fact that safety improvements for pedestrians and cyclists "infuriate some motorists" mean we shouldn't make those safety improvements? Of course not, but that's exactly what Balter seems to be saying. (Keep in mind that "some motorists" opposed lowering blood-alcohol limits and requiring seat belts, too.)

Finally, Balter argues that turning four-lane roads into three-lane roads with a center turn lane will cripple freight mobility and make roads "less appealing" to cars and trucks by creating gridlock. Both those claims have been refuted again and again, most recently in a study by the city's transportation department finding that a road diet on Stone Way actually improved traffic along with safety.

Balter does make one argument I agree with: "The issue is not the worthiness of any project but the ability to pay for it all." True. Which is why we should be prioritizing projects that calm traffic, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve safety for all road users over projects---a certain downtown tunnel comes to mind---that do the opposite.
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