City Hall

Times Columnist Ignores the Facts on Road Diets

By Erica C. Barnett August 17, 2010

In today's Seattle Times, Nicole Brodeur waxes histrionic about the proposed Lake City road diet chorus (which Josh C. has covered here and here), accusing Mayor Mike McGinn of pushing his pro-bike vision on an unwilling city by "forcing four busy lanes of traffic into two lanes" of NE 125th St.

It's hard to believe one person can fit so many inaccuracies into a 600-word column, but Brodeur manages. Bear with me, because I'm going to go through them one by one.

1) Brodeur accuses the mayor of "tend[ing] to his pet projects" by "sacrificing car lanes in favor of bike lanes all over the city."

Wrong. Road diets have actually been going in all over the city for decades; the first road diet, on N. 45th St. in Wallingford, was installed during the Wes Uhlman administration in 1972. In 2007, the city council passed the Complete Streets ordinance, which requires the city to consider the needs of bikers and pedestrians when they repair and improve streets, rather than just drivers. In fact, the city has already installed 26 road diets, with work underway on two more, the plurality of them in the 1990s under Mayors Norm Rice and Paul Schell. Of those 28, only four have gotten underway since McGinn was elected.

Additionally, road diets aren't just bike lanes. They also benefit pedestrians, by slowing traffic and adding crosswalks. To characterize road diets as simply "bike lanes" completely distorts their purpose and effect.

2) Brodeur asserts that the bike lanes themselves are "exacerbating the hostile relationship between cyclists who use main roads and the motorists who would prefer to call them their own."

Wrong. What exacerbates hostilities between cyclists and drivers is the narrative---perpetuated by writers like Brodeur---that roads must be used by cars or bikes, but never both. The mere existence of bike lanes is an engineering decision, not a political statement.

3) Brodeur claims that McGinn is ignoring residents' valid concerns about "safety, business viability, and whether cyclists should be licensed to pay for all the dedicated lanes they're getting."

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

First, road diets improve safety. For example, on Stone Way, a once-controversial road diet reduced the number of speeders dramatically; increased bike traffic while decreasing car traffic both on Stone Way and on nearby streets (so much for "gridlock"); and dramatically reduced collisions between cars and bikes and pedestrians. All the evidence says road diets make streets safer, not less so.

Second, there is no evidence that road diets hurt businesses. Because they improve traffic flow (and access, by adding turn lanes) for both bikes and cars, they may in fact help them.

Third, cyclists already pay for roads. The idea that we "get" dedicated lanes for free is absurd. Most cyclists already have drivers’ licenses (because most cyclists also drive cars); in addition, roads are paid for with taxes that are paid for by everyone, including sales taxes and property taxes and levies. The Victoria Transport Policy Institute has a good explanation of how cyclists and other non-drivers subsidize roads for automobiles here. Moreover, cycling creates positive externalities like cleaner air and lower traffic congestion; driving, in contrast, produces negative externalities like sprawl, carbon emissions, and health-care costs from accidents. If anything, I'm subsidizing the roads Brodeur drives on in her two cars, not the other way around.

4) Brodeur asserts, without evidence, that "not a lot of cyclists use" 125th because it's steep. Therefore, she asks rhetorically, "Why give them their own lanes?"

I haven't been able to find any ridership stats for 125th, so I'm assuming Brodeur is using anecdotal evidence, which is hardly an evidence-based reason not to give "them their own" lanes. But, hey, as long as we're being anecdotal, my own anecdotal experience says Seattle cyclists will ride on hills, because Seattle is hilly. If cyclists refused to go up hills, no one would ride in Seattle. Moreover, lots of streets in Seattle are much steeper than 125th---as steep as 20 percent, according to SDOT's list of the steepest streets in Seattle. Compared to, say, East Roy St. (which, incidentally, does have an uphill sharrow), 8.5 percent is nothing.

5) Brodeur acknowledges that "too many people speed" on 125th, but then asserts---again, without evidence---that "forcing four busy lanes of traffic into two is [not] really the way to slow things down." Instead, she says, it will cause gridlock, turn[ing] an east-west thoroughfare into a thorough crawl, sending more cars racing down side streets." That assertion, again, contradicts all the available evidence showing that road diets don't cause gridlock, do keep people from speeding, and don't increase traffic on side streets.

6) After suggesting that additional cars on side streets would be terrible, Brodeur suggests that cyclists should ride on side streets. However, 125th is the only thoroughfare that goes directly through that part of Lake City --- all the other potential routes would force cyclists to navigate a circuitous maze of winding roads and dead-end streets. I'm guessing Brodeur wouldn't take well to the suggestion that she drive up and down neighborhood streets instead of taking the most direct route through the city.

7) Finally, Brodeur says cyclists should just bike four blocks north, to the bike lane on N. 130th: "Is a five-block detour too much to ask?" That's pretty rich, coming from a woman who, by her own admission, drives the five blocks to her walking path.
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