This year’s Worst Intersection in Seattle is the car-choked crossroads where Green Lake Way N intersects with N 50th St and Stone Way N.

So many cars are coming from and going to so many different roadways that nobody wins. People stuck in their cars often wait through multiple light cycles as backups can stretch for several blocks in all directions. And it’s worse for pedestrians, who also have long wait times and often have to cross more than one street.

The worst experience is walking north from the west side of Stone Way N. People on foot cross a right turn lane and have to wait on a little island, surrounded by a sea of metal and concrete. Then, there’s the wait to cross at least two streets. Yasmeen, who nominated this intersection, says: “There are so many intersections at that point that it can be several minutes before you get a walk light.”

Looking south on Green Lake Way N. (Google Streetview)
Looking south on Green Lake Way N. (Google Streetview)

Once through the intersection, it’s a walk in the park — but only in a literal sense as the sidewalk disappears and there are unpaved paths on the edge of Woodland Park. Good luck enjoying yourself if you’re pushing a stroller with small wheels or just wanting to keep your dark shoes clean. This area is busy with joggers, walkers, bicyclists — all sharing a narrow path and wondering what happened to the sidewalk. If you want the luxury of a paved sidewalk, you’ll have to cross yet another intersection to get to the east side of Green Lake Way N.

Seattle Bike Blog calls the intersection “a complete mess,” though people on bikes may be the only ones who don’t completely hate the intersection as north-south bike lanes have been added in recent years.

Of course, one of the primary reasons why this intersection is so bad is that so many streets intersect here. But, that wasn’t always the case. As shown below, this intersection used to be just one of many four way intersections in the city.

Clipping from 1912 Baist Map of Seattle. (Seattle Archives)
Clipping from 1912 Baist Map of Seattle. (Seattle Archives)

However, when the Pacific Highway was built in the early 1930s, traffic engineers sliced through the existing residential grid so that motorists could get to Downtown faster. The new road was labeled Green Lake Way N and, like Bridge Way N ten blocks south, required tearing down existing homes to provide access to the new highway, now called SR-99.

N 50th St / Stone Way N / Green Lake Way N today. (Google Maps)
N 50th St / Stone Way N / Green Lake Way N today. (Google Maps)

So, is this intersection fixable? What if, to borrow a software development term, we rolled the intersection back to a previous version? As suggested by blogger Al Dimond, we could improve the intersection by removing the diagonal route to Aurora and turning it back into a four-way intersection. This extension of Green Lake Way might be a real-world Braess’ Paradox, meaning that removing it could actually improve travel times for everyone. At the very least, as Dimond says, it would create a “more cohesive and walkable neighborhood with more pedestrian-friendly intersections.”

If you’re not sold on that, then commenter Izaac Post recommends a roundabout:

Roundabout concept. (Izaac Post)
Roundabout concept. (Izaac Post)

Roundabouts are proven to reduce collisions and fatalities. And, while this intersection isn’t one of Seattle’s deadliest intersections, pedestrians would welcome the decreased vehicle speeds that a roundabout would bring. However, the intersection is already pretty complicated, so would a roundabout make it even more confusing? This would be the busiest roundabout in the city and drivers and bicyclists would need to share it. Would bicyclists feel comfortable sharing a roundabout with drivers?

While the City has a Vision Zero plan to eliminate roadway fatalities, the ten terrible intersections we had to choose from and recent rollbacks to the bicycle master plan show how far there is to go toward creating a safe street network that is comfortable for all users. This intersection configuration at the corner of Woodland Park has been with us for over 80 years and it may not change in another 80 years. We should have hope, though, that at least by then there will be paved sidewalks.

14 COMMENTS

  1. I love the roundabout idea. I believe it would dramatically improve the safety and traffic flow.

  2. This intersection highlights how our neglected streets with pre-interstate designs are totally inadequate for volumes that I-5 brings into the grid. Also, the lack of accommodation for pedestrians that discourages walking: Pedestrians need to wait for two lights to cross corner to corner when drivers are allowed to make a turn.

  3. At this point, I realize I should have provided a legend or at least colored the bike lanes green. I was envisioning a dutch-style roundabout like the one attached here. The medium grey lanes next to the tan sidewalks were where I wished cycle paths were located. Of note, the cycle path depicted coming from the north heading into the traffic signal turns the wrong direction, which I should correct.

    • this would just cause chaos. drivers’ can’t even stay out the new protected bike lanes nor do they know how to properly enter/exit a roundabout.

      • Izaac is being illustrative of the concept. Obviously if a roundabout were implemented at the desired location, it wouldn’t be this scale. It would be less complex. People are capable of figuring things out with enough guidance. For instance, adding the planter boxes on the Second Avenue bike lanes has done wonders for compliance.

    • To be clear: I’m not for or against the roundabout of Izaac’s, though I do find it very interesting.

      The Eindhoven example that you point to is located at the confluence of highways at the suburban fringe. It only makes sense there for bikes because the highways weren’t going away, yet tons of commuters on bike pass through. Separating the “conflicts” made the most sense.

      In any case, the Dutch and Danes show VERY CLEARLY that at-grade roundabouts work just find for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists with fewer conflicts, if managed properly, than other types of intersections.

      Grade separation of pedestrians and bicycles in an urban setting doesn’t enhance anything. We absolutely should not grade separate our streets for pedestrians and bicyclists on city streets. Doing so outright discourages most people who might otherwise consider walking or biking, encourages more dangerous motorist behaviour, and it runs afoul of accessibility for those who are mobility challenged.

  4. I don’t travel through this intersection very often any more, but when I do I’ve always found traffic to be pretty light. Isn’t this mostly a rush-hour problem. Does anyone have traffic volume data by hour?

  5. GIven that this would have to be a multi-lane roundabout, there is not enough room without acquiring quite a bit of private property, including the house on the northeast corner. I doubt this proposal would go anywhere.

  6. This isn’t even close to the worst intersection. At least this one has a light. And lets not get started with roundabouts because drivers here can hardly handle traffic circles with stop signs.

    • There are definitely far worse, but this was voted the worst of 2016. People nominated many, many other streets earlier on in the process. The purpose of the annual vote is to highlight intersections that need improvements. This still needs attention, and so do scores of others.

  7. I pass through this intersection at least twice a day, in a car, on a bike, or on foot, and it is maddening. It’s gotten a lot better on a bike, but it’s much, much worse for cars than it used to be, and it’s hard to imagine how it could get worse for peds than it already is. I’d love to have the old street grid back, but that’s impossible: municipalities never, ever, ever give up right of way. And the park side is never going to be fixed, because the park will never get rid of the huge parking lot and pointless grass strip, or put in a sidewalk, or fix the massive flooding in the bike lane, which is also the only pedestrian ROW, to the north along the lake, where the drains are now the high spots, not the low, thanks to ground subsidence.

  8. Also, note the simultaneous addition of N Midvale Pl, which carries east-west traffic from 45th up to 46th (which is the only way to Market Street). East-west traffic is always impossible in this city, and with the addition of a gazillion new people trying to get in and out of Ballard, it’s gotten massively worse. So there’s no letup that might allow for an adjustment to the light cycle. The route from Ballard along what is now the molasses-slow 44 bus is a natural for a subway or light rail train, which I believe is now scheduled for approximately 500 years in the future. At least on my bike I can scoot around many of these roadblocks.

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