Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Broken Promise on Mercer

Everyone hates the Mercer project. Activists campaigning for district-based city council elections attacked it as a symptom of the at-large council's downtown-centrism. Meanwhile, everyone hates an enormous parking-lot of a road, no matter how they're trying to travel along or across it. And it's an expensive parking-lot of a road -- no matter how much money we spend, “Mercer” will still be a code word for bad traffic, and we're spending a lot of money on it.

Complete streets rules, however, require that projects like this take into account bike and pedestrian access. Since bike and pedestrian routes across Aurora in the vicinity of Mercer and Broad were so horrible before the project started, almost anything would count as an improvement. So there's some promise at least. The removal of the worst parts of Broad Street and an Aurora underpass with sidewalks that are more than an afterthought will be great improvements when they're finished. And what's the plan for biking through east-west in the corridor? Instead of trying to build a cycletrack along the expanse of Mercer, plans called for a route mostly along Roy. OK, so it'll use a cycletrack along the expanse of Mercer for a couple blocks to get under Aurora, and east of there Roy will turn into Broad for a block and then Valley as it runs south of Lake Union Park, for reasons that I'd describe mostly as historical -- anyway, I'm going to call it the Roy route for the rest of this post.

The Roy route looked pretty good in the plans' overhead views. Not a centerpiece of our AAA (All Ages and Abilities) bike network, perhaps not always a ride full of delights, but a reasonably direct and safe way to get from A to B. In fact, by these standards, the lines drawn on the ground today are already pretty good. The temporary version of the Aurora underpass path is a little tight, and on the wrong side of Mercer for people riding through, but considering that it's an active construction zone, it's not so bad.

So what's the problem? Two things, and without fixing them the Roy route just won't live up to its potential to sew up the fragmented neighborhoods all the way from Fred Hutch to Lower Kinnear.

  • Signal timings. Too many of the signal cycles, particularly at 9th Ave N and Westlake, are way, way too long. Maybe, maybe, this can be justified during peak hours as a way to maximize vehicle throughput on Westlake. Personally I don't think any possible throughput that could be gained extending cycle lengths from kinda long to extremely long is worth delaying the bike route or pedestrian access to the park and bus stops... especially because the peak-hour queue for Mercer often extends past Valley. I think prioritizing pedestrian, bike, and transit access over vehicle throughput aligns with the city's stated policies. But even if SDOT disagrees about the relative value of peak-hour vehicle throughput, there is no possible justification for these cycle lengths off-peak, when there just isn't much traffic trying to use Westlake at all. If Seattle wants to develop a jaywalking culture, this is how it will develop a jaywalking culture.
  • Construction closures. There's a lot of construction coming to this corridor in the next generation or so, especially east of Aurora. If the Roy route is going to fulfill the promise of a pedestrian/bike route in the Mercer corridor, it must be continuously open, both ways, all the time. Currently construction on a building has closed the route eastbound for a single block between Westlake and 9th (it hasn't just closed the bike lane, it's actually closed the street to eastbound traffic generally). There's not really a great detour route, and the lousy one that exists (taking Dexter north to Aloha, crossing Westlake at the north crosswalk after a stupefying wait, and taking one of the various paths through the park) isn't indicated. The closure of sidewalks and crosswalks has had typical effects also, especially at intersections with long signal cycles and especially near bus stops. Making the Roy route one-way for a block is, for people biking, just like making Mercer one-way for a block would be for people driving, and the city needs to start thinking about it that way when it issues construction permits.