Protected bike lanes, like this one on Pike Street between Third and Fourth Avenue, run downtown but abruptly stop on certain streets.

A bicyclist's fatal injury this weekend by a hit-and-run on Rainier Avenue brought emotional pleas to Seattle City Hall on Tuesday for safe bike infrastructure downtown, as council members consider legislation that would set ambitious deadlines to complete several of the city's long-awaited bike lane projects.

Seattle council member Mike O'Brien is proposing a resolution that sets an 18-month timeline—a deadline of December 31, 2019—for the city to beef up its bike network downtown and close the gaps between many of its protected bike lanes. The full council will vote on the resolution on July 30 after council members in committee unanimously approved the resolution Tuesday.

Meg Wade, a member of 350 Seattle, in an emotional testimony mentioned the father of two who was killed, Alex Hayden, and said she was rear-ended once while she was in a turn lane. 

"We don't have safe bike infrastructure. This is life and death for most of us," she said on the verge of tears.

The Seattle Department of Transportation's decision earlier this year to delay plans for a protected Fourth Avenue bike lane had cycling activists frustrated over yet another broken promise. In committee, SDOT director Goran Sparrman said the bike lane would worsen congestion on the street and potentially affect bus access.

Instead, O'Brien's resolution pursues other missing links in the network of protected bike lanes downtown, which are aimed to improve safety and feel accessible to casual cyclists or new riders. The city has $21 million already allocated between the Center City Bike Network funding and the Washington State Convention Center package; SDOT didn't respond Wednesday on the estimated cost of the projects. 

While some bike lanes, like the one on Second Avenue, provide a barrier between the cyclists and vehicles and their own traffic light, others streets have no bike lanes or little to no protection from oncoming traffic; protected bike lanes also often end abruptly and suddenly integrate a cyclist into traffic with multiple lanes after an intersection.

"A network is only as good as its weakest link," said Vicky Clarke, Seattle policy manager at Cascade Bicycle Club. "We're really not seeing the potential because not many people are willing to ride in those conditions." 

Officials say encouraging biking not only reduces carbon emissions in the most cost-effective way but also frees up seats on crowded downtown buses—for, say, people who drive.

But the city's efforts in the past few years have come up short. Back in 2013, officials passed a climate action plan that set a target of tripling the bike ridership from 2007 by last year; O'Brien said the city made nowhere near that goal. Activists say the demand is there, and that other cities show the low numbers rather reflect a lack of a completed bike network that would encourage riders. 

In seven U.S. cities, cycling grew in popularity as the cities built up their bike networks, according to a 2016 study by the National Association of City Transportation Officials. A survey concluded that 81 percent of "interested but concerned cyclists" (those who are open to biking) were comfortable in a separated bike lane, while only 39 percent were comfortable with a bike lane without a barrier from traffic. Those potential bike riders make up about 60 percent of the total population, the study estimates.

"There’s a whole chunk of folks in the middle...that would bike if they felt safe," O'Brien told PubliCola. "You start to complete those little missing pieces, and all of a sudden this robust network appears."

Darby Watson, acting chief of staff at SDOT, said during the committee meeting that "it's a significant challenge in building anything in the right of way" downtown, especially right now with the private development growth. Watson didn't say whether she thought SDOT would be able to meet those deadlines, but cycling activists have been working with SDOT officials as they helped craft the resolution. 

SDOT would also be obligated to create "temporary connections" in areas where the department wouldn't be able to construct protected bike lanes.

Clarke said the resolution indicates a "move from just saying we have a vision to saying we have an implementation plan, and a timeline, and accountability." 

Here's a list of the gaps in protected bike lanes that the resolution addresses, with a deadline of end of 2019:

  • both directions on Ninth Avenue, from Harrison Street to Denny Way;
  • both directions on Bell Street, from Denny Way to Seventh Avenue;
  • one way on Seventh Avenue, from Bell to Blanchard streets;
  • one way on Eighth Avenue, from Bell to Pine streets;
  • one way on Pike Street, from Sixth to Eighth avenues;
  • one way on Pine Street, from Eighth to Seventh avenues, and from Fifth to Fourth;
  • and both directions on Second Avenue, from South Washington to South Main.
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