Times' Road Diet Story Perpetuates Car vs Bikes

By Josh Cohen August 16, 2010

As we reported in Morning Fizz, the Seattle Times published a piece about the Seattle Department of Transportation's proposed 125th St. road diet that, once again, frames the issue as primarily cars vs. bikes and neglects to quote a single resident who supports the project.

To be clear, part of the aim of the SDOT's proposal is to make bicycling safer on 125th. But there are other, equally important benefits---speed and accident reduction and improved safety for drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists alike---that get overshadowed by fears that rechannelization projects will have a massive negative impact on drivers.

SDOT's blog highlights many of the safety and speed issues on 125th. People drive very fast on 125th and, unsurprisingly, there are a lot of accidents. SDOT reports:
• Eighty-nine percent of eastbound vehicles and 74 percent of westbound vehicles drive faster than the posted speed limit of 30 mph.
• The speed at which motorists are comfortable traveling (the 85th percentile speed) is 10 to 12 mph over the posted speed limit.
• From January 2007 to April 2010, there were 153 reported collisions along this stretch of 125th.
• In that same period, there have been 13 reported collisions involving pedestrians and three involving cyclists.
• Fifty-one percent of reported collisions resulted in injuries, compared to a citywide average of 33 percent on similar streets.

In addition, the SDOT blog points out that there are roughly 16,200 daily car trips on 125th. A three-lane rechannelization has enough capacity for 25,000 vehicles. And the safety and speed improvements come at the relatively low cost of $50,000 to $60,000.

Those facts get lost in the Times story among repeated claims by North Seattle residents that the rechannelization will destroy businesses, that no cyclists ride on 125th, and that it will result in massive gridlock. Neighbors leveled similar charges when SDOT proposed road diets on Stone Way, Fauntleroy Way, and elsewhere. Each time, those fears have not panned out.

Though the Times frames the issues poorly, the piece does give an accurate picture of the fear and misunderstanding surrounding the project. Every time the city proposes a major road reconfiguration, the debate devolves into an unproductive and inaccurate us-vs.-them, cars-vs.-bikes debate, despite the fact that that is rarely the sole issue driving the city's proposed changes. It's natural to assume that cutting the number of travel lanes in half will also cut roadway capacity in half. It's equally natural to resist big changes when you think they not only won't benefit you, but will make your life harder.

Given that people express those same fears with each new road diet proposal, forcing SDOT and advocacy groups like Cascade Bicycle Club to spend energy explaining why the proposal is about more than just bikes (typically with middling results), it's worth reevaluating the initial approach to road diets to try and minimize the inaccurate debate from the beginning.

It's not that SDOT didn't do any community outreach: As I reported in an earlier piece on the proposal, SDOT Communications Manager Rick Sheridan says the agency “worked aggressively using a number of different tools to make the community aware of the project," used email and door hangers, contacted local community groups, and showed up to talk about the project at community meetings.

However, SDOT's focus seems to have been on describing the elements of the project, rather than explaining why it's needed. The facts that SDOT listed on their blog last week are stark and compelling. They show 125th for what it is: an unnecessarily fast street with an unnecessarily high rate of accidents and injury. But that post came long after the debate about the project began. The SDOT project page doesn't explain how reducing vehicle lanes slows down traffic, nor that it does so at a relatively low cost. It doesn't explain why the project makes pedestrian crossings safer. These are essential elements of every road diet project, and they can't be overemphasized.

Road diets are always going to be contentious, and some people will never believe they're anything but punishment for drivers. But any effort to break the endless cycle of misunderstanding and fear about their impacts will be energy well spent.
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