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Rocking the Great White North

All my stress is transit related

Last month I attended the Seattle Department of Transportation’s open house for the Dexter Avenue reconfiguration project. This is one of the latest arterials SDOT has proposed for a road diet – as they coin it – to address speedy traffic, safety concerns, pedestrian access and to better accommodate public transit. The proposal will add buffered bike lanes on each side, remove the two-way left turn lane, and provide in-line bus stops amongst other smaller changes aiming to improve the thoroughfare. Overall, it seems like a big win for cyclists and pedestrians, while motorists will finally be forced to obey the 35 mph speed limit. It’s about time! Right now it feels more like a 50 mph highway that just happens to have bike lanes.

I don’t live near Dexter and it’s actually not my quickest route home from downtown but I quite prefer its dedicated bike lanes and lack of stop lights compared to Eastlake, my other route home. I found it interesting that most people who attended the open house were from the immediate neighborhood, often living a block or two from the road in question and each having at least one pet concern with the project. Why won’t there be a light on both sides of this crosswalk near my house? How I (a cyclist) pass a bus pulling over with the middle lane removed? How am I supposed to pull into my driveway without the center lane? The concerns were all over the board and the SDOT folks did an excellent job of fielding the questions. More than anything, I think it’s way positive that SDOT seeks out direct feedback from the people who will actually use the roads on the daily. You can engineer all you want but usability is almost never perfected on the drawing board.

I asked a few questions specific to the bike lanes, on street bike parking, speed limits, and also questioned their conclusion to use this solution compared to other bike lane options (e.g. separated by parked cars, barriers or planters for separation, ect.). These were more curiosities than anything and I agreed mostly with the proposed approach. When my inquiries had expired, I broke out the camera and asked if it were okay to take a few snaps. An SDOT rep said it wasn’t a problem and laughed about the state of citizen journalism. “You’re not one of those bloggers aren’t you?”

With a devious grin I snapped another photo and replied, “How could you tell?”

“Just a hunch. It’s an age of opinions we live in. Everyone seems to have a perspective of their own these days.”

“Isn’t that the idea of democracy?” I replied as I clicked a few more times and moved along.

Later I spoke with the older gentleman concerned about getting around buses while on his bike headed up the Dexter hill. He insisted that the entire plan should be scrapped for this tiny, but in his eyes make or break, flaw. I disagreed and expressed that these proposals would yield net improvements by taking all modes of transportation into account. Some modes will see more cons than others, but overall, it’s a step in the right direction for the system taken on the whole. He didn’t have much of a response but still managed to walk away clinging to his position. I suspect he wasn’t the only concerned citizen walking away unhappy that his individual squabble wasn’t fully addressed and corrected to his liking.

[wicked sweet slideshow]

Fast forward to this week. A report by Washington State Ferries gets Seattle bike bloggers of all stripes up in arms. The report reads…

WSF is seeking ways to expedite loading operations for several reasons. Currently, bicycle loading/unloading is a challenge since they are first off the vessel and can impede the unloading of cars. This creates a safety issue, which is more important than the delay, with the anxious drivers that have waited to unload now following the bikes down the road.

Panel recommends that cars be unloaded ahead of bikes.

Safety is of the paramount importance with efficiency second. The Panel recommends that a trial project be undertaken to change the loading/unloading sequence with bicycles being loaded last and unloaded last. This allows better separation of vehicles and bicycles and gives the Mate more control over the space allocated to bikes. Bikes are also slower than cars and can slow the disembarkation of those they are in front of. By holding back bikes, it also avoids the need for bicyclists to move through the car deck with their bikes in order to get to the front of the vessel. By off loading after the vehicles, bikes will not be sharing the road at the same time as the disembarking vehicles, allowing for a margin of safety.

All reasonable arguments, right? Apparently not to everyone. In zombie lockstep, local cycling evangelists have emerged with pitchforks in hand, completely dodging the primary issues WSF raises: the safety and practicality of unload procedures. Instead, they whine about cycling not being further incentivised, point to fuzzy language in the proposal and dispute that bikes don’t actually impede anything in this scenario. It’s the highest level of annoying when those you consider to be on your team suddenly become irrational in the name of tribalism and self-centeredness. This isn’t an attempt to keep cyclists off ferries and us two-wheeled travelers aren’t going avoid the ferry just because we’re last in line (don’t make me call the waaaaambulance). Let’s be realistic.

Fact: Cars are faster and accelerate quicker than the average cyclist. If bikes go first, the entire line of cars can only go as fast as the slowest cyclist taking the tiny lane and the result will be a less efficient ferry unload from start to end. The logic is pretty straightforward. Bikes going after cars is an easy and practical solution to improve safety and efficiency at the small cost of cyclist convenience. We should also remember that this is a trial run and the data from it should speak for the final policy implemented. Dodging facts like a republican and sidestepping the real issues destroys our collective credibility. When we raise these petty complaints, we look like that douche in the back of the plane at a window seat, standing up as soon as the aircraft touches ground. Sit back and have some patience or better yet propose a better (equally safe) strategy to share the exit. Much as you want to believe so, this isn’t car-centric people trying to be bullies. This is a group of individuals devoted to ferrying passengers in the most efficient and safest way possible, maximizing their costs and minimizing liabilities. Let’s be sensible and take our neighbors (yes, even car people) and the system as a whole into account, eh?

Both events clearly point to the same issue I believe plagues modern society. The SDOT lady was absolutely right, we live in an age of opinions and I think that’s indisputably a good thing. Much better than an apathetic citizenry. At the same time, it’s important to recognize when opinions are stupidly wrapped up around our very specific situations while accounting for little else. Maybe, just maybe, the best, most optimized and efficient solution doesn’t put me me me at the front of every line, receiving the highest pay out or getting the best tax break. I think we can all do a better job of thinking outside of our small, personal situation and remembering that there are often many constituencies and goals that play into policy decision making. The sum of the parts is what we should each strive to improve.

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