By Clair Enlow
As a new wave of apartment towers rises in booming Seattle, the potential value in city streets is gaining exponentially. Tall buildings are filling up with millennials migrating to a hot job market, and downsizing retirees moving back into urban neighborhoods. Developers know that many of them hope for a life without cars. Whether they are sipping coffee at an open-air table, hopping a streetcar, or powering along on two wheels, that means sharing the streets.
City dwellers, officials, and planners are finding new and inventive ways for people to enjoy urban life and get where they need to be. They're all sorting, blending, and sometimes redefining the limited right-of-way. They're unlocking its value.
Even in this hilly, rain-prone city, 2015 promises to be a great year for the bicycle. Bike share is here. Pronto, the city's bike-sharing program, launched in October 2014 with a network of 50 stations and 500 bicycles, and easy helmet rental. All the bike-share infrastructure makes getting around on two wheels easy for visitors and residents alike. This is the first such program in a state with laws mandating helmets for all riders. For now, it's an honor system: cleaned helmets are available in one bin and they are returned to another for pickup and cleaning. Some time in 2015, this arrangement will be replaced with a more automated dispensing system.
Meanwhile, developers are taking bold steps to pitch bicycle-friendly apartment complexes in rapidly growing neighborhoods. One of these buildings, Via6, has been called a bicyclists' paradise. It's located at 2121 Sixth Avenue, between the downtown Seattle commercial core and the Denny Triangle, where Amazon is building its new urban campus. The ratio of car parking spaces to apartment units is a mere 0.65. With 654 apartment units in two 24-story towers, Via6 is designed around bicycle use at the street level.
The building's ground-floor restaurants and stores help make carless living feasible. There's a tool stand at the on-site bike shop, and residents have the option of leaving their bicycles there with repair instructions. A large bike storage vault is combined with lockers and shower facilities. For a low membership fee, nonresident commuters can swipe a card and use it.
All of this comes at a time when the city of Seattle is rolling out more and more bike lanes and safety features on city streets. A bicycle master plan approved in the spring of 2014 lays out an "all ages and abilities citywide bike network" that takes cycling beyond a niche activity, and past the common battles between drivers and cyclists.
In August, the larger cycling community was galvanized by a tragic accident on a major downtown street. It claimed the life of Sher Kung, an attorney and new mother who was struck down by a turning commercial vehicle at an intersection on Second Avenue. Long-planned revisions to that same right-of-way — including dedicated lanes and new lights and signage governing the positions of cyclists at intersections and the timing of turns — were accelerated by months.
Scott Kubly had just started his job as head of the Seattle Department of Transportation, and he was dealing with a handful of recent vehicle-pedestrian collisions, some fatal. Now he is pushing to make bike safety measures faster and better.
"For too long transportation has been focused on getting everything perfect and making sure everyone is in agreement," says Kubly, who has run a bike share company and worked in the transportation departments in the cities of Chicago and Washington, D.C. "People spend months and months just trying to decide on the right signage."
Instead, "we need to do things quickly," says Kubly, pointing to examples of intersections with trial markings. SDOT observes these experimental interventions to see if the resulting behavior matches expectations. If so, the markings stay.
Back to trolleys
Seattle has historic and iconic transit systems, from Colman Dock and the hardworking Washington State Ferry system to the Seattle Monorail. The Monorail, an aerial train from Seattle Center to the commercial core, has been running continuously since the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. But the city's extensive streetcar system had already died out with the coming of the auto age. The last commuter line along Westlake came to a stop in the early 1940s, not long before planning began on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an aging elevated highway along the waterfront.
As the new century unfolds, short trips in Seattle will increasingly be taken on streetcars. Seattle's growing network has already passed several important milestones on the way to a robust, sustainable system that provides a great alternative to driving in the city.
The first link in the Seattle Streetcar network, the 2.6-mile South Lake Union line connecting the South Lake Union neighborhood with the commercial core, started service in 2007. It was modeled after a modern, electrified line in Portland, Oregon, which started rolling in 2001. Seattle's $56 million project was partially underwritten by Vulcan, Inc. (owned by billionaire Paul Allen), and other property owners in South Lake Union, through a local improvement district.
The streetcar is owned by the city of Seattle and operated by King County Metro, the agency that also operates the city and county bus system. Fares ($2.50 per ride) provide 75 percent of the operating costs, with the rest covered by the city.
There were minor collisions with cars and stoppages when the streetcar began service, but these seem to be declining as the line becomes a more visible and dependable form of transportation in Seattle. Between 2007 and 2013, ridership has more than doubled to 2,600 per average weekday, and three cars bring service every 10 minutes. But ridership is still only a fraction of the 12,600-per-day system capacity.
In 2012, construction started on a line that follows Jackson Street up First Hill to Capitol Hill and Broadway. Now complete, the tracks await the completion of cars and a projected start-up in the first quarter of 2015. Construction on this part of the network was spurred by money from the light-rail agency Sound Transit. The supplier of the six-car First Hill fleet is Inekon, the same Czech company that built the cars in the South Lake Union line. Three of them are being assembled in Seattle.
In July, the route for a critical 2.5-mile First Avenue streetcar connection was approved, from the historic station areas at the base of First Hill through downtown Seattle, past Pike Place Market and Belltown to Lower Queen Anne and the South Lake Union line. Construction of the $134 million project awaits the final funding package, which is expected to include a $75 million federal grant.
Planned lines in the build out of the Seattle streetcar network will extend to the University of Washington and to the Fremont and Ballard neighborhoods.
The long view
With budgets in the billions, Sound Transit's Link light-rail system is steadily expanding. Seattle got a very slow start with rail. Voter recalcitrance and burgeoning costs, right-of-way process, and then administrative issues delayed the first link, which connects Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with the commercial core near Westlake Center. In 2008 voters stepped up again despite the recession, and planning continued after service began in 2009.
Kinkisharyo-Mitsui is providing the double-ended, low-floor light-rail vehicles for the electricity-powered system. Fares, including those to and from the airport, are under $3. Ridership on the 15.6-mile, 13-station Central Link, with two cars in each train, has risen from 12,000 weekday boardings in July 2009 to 37,350 in July 2014.
Redevelopment around surface stations has been slow, but with recessionary fears receding, private partners will be taking advantage of opportunities to build transit-oriented projects.
The tunneled, 3.15-mile University Link, connecting downtown's Westlake Station to the University of Washington, is scheduled to begin operating in 2016. From there, the line will extend to Northgate and Lynnwood. On the other end, service will extend south of the airport to Angle Lake Station beginning in 2016.
That will be the terminus until more funds are secured. Link will eventually run to Tacoma, meeting that city's existing 1.6-mile light-rail link, opened in 2003. Seattle and Tacoma are about 34 miles apart by car. In the meantime, the system will expand eastward, reaching Bellevue and the Microsoft campus by 2023.
While it was slow in coming, light rail was anticipated way back in 1989, when Seattle's downtown transit tunnel was built, with four artful underground stations. Since then, the tunnel and its stations have served only Metro bus transit. With the continuing expansion of light rail, buses will be withdrawn completely from the tunnel, and only trains will run there.
This will be a real milestone for mass transit in Seattle. The King County Metro bus system has played a key role, ramping up service with the green and gold buses both inside and outside the urban core — making it possible for hundreds of thousands of Seattleites to get around without a car. A nascent system of more frequent service called Rapid Ride is filling greater mass transit needs.
Sound Transit and Metro have shown that services can be coordinated for greater efficiency. We could see many reprises of a signal moment in 2010, when one key bus line from Convention Place to the airport was cancelled a year after Seattle's light-rail system began rolling, and replaced by expanded service on two routes between Federal Way (south of the airport) and downtown. Routes will shift once again when light rail reaches southward sometime after 2016.
In 2010, a bus trip from downtown to the airport was four minutes faster than rail transit. Their top speeds are both about 55 miles per hour. But buses must negotiate congested traffic in places, and in the summer of 2013, Seattle ranked fourth in the nation for traffic congestion, according to TomTom, the Dutch GPS maker. Only Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Honolulu have worse records.
And with growth, congestion can only increase. It is easy to surmise that eventually light rail will beat cars, buses, and taxis to the airport simply because rail is not stuck in traffic, and because wait times are short and access is getting better as the network builds out.
Adapting city streets
Planners agree on one thing: To move people where they want to go, more transportation choices are needed. Transportation officials at all levels of government are presiding over a historic shift away from automobiles after almost a century of overwhelming precedence.
On the level of personal finance, the cost of transportation can rival housing in the pie chart of household spending. Unsurprisingly, growing numbers of Seattleites, especially millennials and retirees, are foregoing the expense of owning a car. It's becoming much easier to make the choice.
Convenient ways to pay for service help. In Seattle, the ORCA card enables contactless fare payment and automatically calculates transfer credit between Link Light Rail and Sound Transit, King County Metro, Community Transit, Pierce Transit, Everett Transit, Washington State Ferries, and even Kitsap Transit across the Puget Sound.
Scott Kubly points to a map of Seattle in which different modes of transportation — the light-rail route, designated freight routes, new streetcar tracks, bus lines, bike trails — appear separately and together. The mixing of modes is also extending to cars and pedestrians, which traditionally have been kept apart.
On four blocks of Bell Street, which runs east–west through the center of high-rise-dominated Belltown, the city has brought cars and pedestrians literally to the same level in a traffic-calming strategy reminiscent of experiments in Europe.
It's an attempt to bring a badly needed park to a downtown neighborhood with little open space except a community garden and an off-leash area. Seattle Parks collaborated with SDOT to transform sections of Bell Street into a kind of urban park, one that includes movable public seating and private cafe tables. A series of events last summer brought residents out to eat, dance, and play in the ultimate block party.
There are other, slightly less radical ways to adapt current infrastructure to a new, multimodal reality. Take "bus bulbs," which are being tried at several intersections in Seattle. The existing sidewalk and curb bulge out where the conventional parking space meets the crosswalk at intersections.
Parking spaces are lost, at least during commuting hours. But payoffs include a dedicated lane for bikes and bus stops, plus greater safety for pedestrians, who can cross the intersection more quickly — all without asking cars to give up a lane.
The post-highway future
Multimodal infrastructure seems to be the wave of the future. According to a U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund report released in September, Americans as a whole are driving less — with total miles driven still at 2005 levels while per capita miles are down seven percent since that year. This reflects a number of trends, including a growing demand for walkable neighborhoods in Seattle and elsewhere, and more choices for transportation needs.
The flight out of cities has stopped. In the early 2010s, central cities grew faster than suburbs for the first time in 90 years. It has been shown that highway construction is damaging to the economies and livability of communities in and very near its path.
Federal and state governments continue to spend billions on new roads and highways at the expense of urgently needed road and bridge repairs, improvements in public transportation, and other priorities, according to the PIRG report. But they are also beginning to invest in other modes.
Blake Trask is policy director for Washington Bikes, a statewide cycling advocacy and education organization. "We're seeing an expanded emphasis (on bicycles) at the federal, state, and local levels," he says.
Last summer, the spirit of equity for cyclists extended east across the Cascade Mountains to the "other Washington" — the less urban part of the state. The State Route 20 corridor, which runs from Whidbey and the San Juan Islands to the Washington-Idaho border, became U.S. Bicycle Route 10, a brand new highway designation for a growing class of nonmotorized users. Revisions like shoulder improvements and strategic, parallel trails make it a safe and attractive route for bicycles in good weather.
Inside the city, necessary revisions in highway infrastructure go hand in hand with programs for added bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and open space amenities. Neighborhood groups are demanding these investments, which are considered vital connections and necessary mitigations to highway construction.
Happy urban trails
Along Seattle's urban waterfront, the transition from highway to multimodal transportation infrastructure is likely to be complete in the next decade.
From the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle's aerial highway, motorists love the view of water and mountains. The mood on the ground soured quickly after the viaduct was built in 1953, with waterfront businesses decrying the thundering noise and local architects criticizing the visual barrier and blight.
But people are hooked on the quick trips between neighborhoods like West Seattle and Ballard. It took the 2001 Nisqually earthquake to focus city and state officials on replacement of the slowly failing structure.
The viaduct is scheduled for demolition in 2017, but work on the deep-bore tunnel intended to replace it has been plagued by machine stoppage. In the meantime, the reconstruction of Seattle's seawall and plans for rebuilding the spectacular central waterfront are proceeding. The entire package is estimated at $3.1 billion, with slightly over a billion of that for surface improvements.
The redevelopment of the post-viaduct central waterfront is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect Seattle with the waters of Elliott Bay and all the views to the west. James Corner Field Operations, the designer of Manhattan's High Line Park, has led the framework design, guided by various stakeholders and a committee that includes designers and planners.
The design is full of strategies for sharing the newly developable shoreline among different forms of transportation. A grand boulevard along Alaskan Way is tied back into the street grid at every crossing, with a system of paving and a series of adaptable, leasable kiosks. There are four lanes of traffic along most of the way, but the design project, now 30 percent complete, really puts the pedestrian first. People on foot can literally rise above it all on the Overlook Walk.
The walk takes full advantage of the natural bluff that rises between Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market. Bridging over a street and landing with a series of terraces and steps near the historic piers and the Seattle Aquarium, the Overlook Walk will be a grand promenade between the market and the shore, mixing new buildings with a parklike walkway and offering great views. "It's really a web of connections," says Corner's design lead Tatiana Choulika.
Cary Moon is an urban designer, planner, and long-time advocate for Seattle's central waterfront. The future, according to Moon, lies in conflating streets and transportation infrastructure with other forms of infrastructure, from parks to storm drains and water. That is now happening with the redevelopment of the waterfront, where new planting systems will filter water and juvenile salmon will be invited and accommodated along the new seawall.
The JCFO plan also puts bicyclists front and center, making best use of a corridor that is richly scenic, completely level, and full of connections to downtown Seattle. A two-way, dedicated bike path with specialized, permeable paving and bike-share stations will accommodate all kinds of cyclists. There are dedicated routes through the complicated connections where traffic on the boulevard meets a diving and resurfacing state Route 99 to the north and south of the central waterfront.
It all adds up to a great ride for cyclists. "There's nothing about a commute that shouldn't be fun," says Kubly. Along the waterfront, it will be fast and scenic, with predictable times and health benefits — for the body and for the environment.
Blake Trask is likely to be among the riders. He commutes by bicycle between his home in North Seattle and his office in Pioneer Square, near the Stadium District in south downtown, a distance of seven miles one way. Game-day traffic can cause instant gridlock on city streets and panic in people who just want to get home.
"I don't ever worry about commutes when it comes to sports," says Trask. "Our traffic reports are very boring: uncongested [bicycle] trails."
Clair Enlow is a freelance journalist and civic columnist for the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.
Images: Top — Seattle's first downtown protected bike lane — on Second Avenue — opened last September. Courtesy Seattle Department of Transportation. Middle — Farther afield, cyclists pedal across the Pend Oreille River in northeast Washington as they follow U.S. Bicycle Route 10, created under a collaboration between the advocacy group Washington Bikes and the Washington Department of Transportation. Photo by Louise McGrody. Bottom — When the viaduct comes down, the Seattle waterfront will open up. The $2.1 billion waterfront redevelopment ties the Alaskan Way boulevard into the street grid, rebuilds the seawall, prioritizes pedestrians, provides biking infrastructure, helps restore salmon habitat, and adds green space. Images courtesy James Corner Field Operations.
Seattle's bicycle master plan: www.seattle.gov/transportation/bikemaster.htm
Seattle's waterfront plan: http://waterfrontseattle.org
Link light rail: www.soundtransit.org
U.S. Public Interest Research Group: www.uspirg.org