The recent Seattle Times article about conflicts on the Westlake promenade between people walking and people bicycling addressed some very real safety concerns, but missed the mark on what the problem is and who’s to blame. The conflicts between people on foot and on bicycle are definitely occurring on the promenade (commonly referred to as the Westlake Cycletrack). This is the first facility of this type that Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has built, so it is not too surprising that there are some issues that need ironing out.

But rather than taking a look at why these conflicts are happening, how we can fix the promenade to prevent them and how to make sure the next facility doesn’t have the same problems, the article simply quotes some people that are unhappy with the promenade and doesn’t dig any deeper. Why are the conflicts happening? What is it in the design that allows them to occur and why were these conflicts not recognized before the design was literally cast in concrete? What’s wrong in the SDOT process that allows this to happen?

A crosswalk along the Westlake Cycletrack. (Photo: SDOTr)

Previous Conditions

To fully understand the problems we are seeing today, we have to provide a bit of the background. Prior to this project, the Westlake cycling environment was downright miserable for all users. The narrow sidewalks were crowded. People on bicycles either had to choose to ride through the parking lot avoiding cars or ride on the sidewalk and be the cause of conflicts with people walking/running. The braver people chose the former and those who were more timid, especially families riding with kids, chose the latter. This left everyone unhappy. Motorists were annoyed with people zipping through the parking lot on bicycles, people on bicycles were annoyed with motorists backing out of parking spaces without looking and basically everyone felt that this space was not designed for them. Collisions and near misses between people on bicycles and people driving cars happened all the time.

The current Westlake Cycletrack. (Photo: SDOTr)

The article discusses the conflicts that are happening between people that are walking/running and those that are bicycling along this 1.2-mile promenade. These are very real concerns and anyone who uses this facility has certainly seen scenarios where conflicts could or even do happen. But other than pointing out that eBikes can go fast and giving some quotes from a couple business owners, the article doesn’t dig any deeper to figure out why a $6.1 million promenade that was designed for years and opened a year ago is having regular conflicts between the users for which it was designed.

The problem is not any of the people using the promenade. They are acting as the designers knew they would act. The problem is the design. SDOT knew how many current users there were riding bicycles, walking, running, parking and patronizing the businesses there. They knew that if they improved the experience for people walking, running and especially bicycling, those numbers would increase significantly. They also knew that a downtown network of protected bike lanes was planned in the Bicycle Master Plan and once the Westlake bikeway connected to that, the number of bicycle users would significantly rise again.

Yet the final design for the promenade was one that was not even able to handle current bicycle traffic volumes; it definitely wouldn’t handle any significant increase in bicycling and was guaranteed to not meet the needs of the intended users. In addition it created conflicts between the different users which is what we are seeing now.

Issues with Westlake Cycletrack Design

The problems with the design include:

  1. Width – The bikeway width is 12’ at its widest, including around bends, but it narrows down to 10’ in one section.  NACTO design guide recommends a minimum of 12’ for any two-way bikeway of any volume of traffic. With an already existing high volume of bicycle traffic that was expected to increase significantly once this project was complete, the width should have been at least 14’ to allow passing within the lane.
  2. No separation between bikeway and walkway – The walkway and the bikeway are directly adjacent to each other with no grade or physical separation to prevent users from wandering from the walkway to the bikeway or vice versa without consciously deciding to do so.
  3. Not enough separation with parking lot – The border between the parking lot and the bikeway is completely permeable allowing people to travel back and forth between the promenade and parking lot at any point along the 1.2-mile length of the promenade without necessarily realizing that they are crossing a bikeway when they do so.
  4. Crosswalk confusion – There are 18 crosswalks but there is nothing that directs people on foot that they should be using these crosswalks.
  5. Confusing crosswalk signage – The crosswalks themselves are not significantly demarcated to make it very clear to people on bicycles that they are crossing a crosswalk or to make it clear to the people on foot that they are about to cross a bikeway.  The only indication for people on bikes is the word “SLOW” painted in the bike lane as they approach a crosswalk. The only indication for people on foot is the word “LOOK “painted on either side of the crosswalk.
  6. Lack of signage – There is no signage or indication as to what the expected behavior is for the users. Are the people on bicycles expected to yield to people crossing the trail? The “SLOW” painted on the path suggests that they are not supposed to stop, just go slow. What about when people cross the trail at a place that is not one of the marked crossings? Do people on bicycles have to yield to them there? Much of this is covered by Washington state law, but the lack of signage and guidance makes it all much more confusing than it should be.
  7. No demarcation from bordering businesses – Some of the exits from businesses lack visibility of the promenade until you literally step out onto it and provide no warning or indication that you should be careful and aware that you are entering a potentially congested space with people walking, running, and bicycling.

What the Next Level of Cycletrack Design Looks Like

To see what the promenade could have been we just have to look at the recently rebuilt Burke-Gilman Trail through University of Washington (UW) campus which was designed around the same time as the Westlake bikeway. Clearly these two design teams were not talking to each other because the UW trail design is much better and much safer than the Westlake promenade.

The Burke-Gilman trail has a 10’ walkway which is 3 or 4 inches higher than the adjacent 14’ two-way bikeway. The borders of the trail are also impermeable to people except at the designated crossings. People are not completely blocked from entering and exiting the trail along the entire length, but there are treatments that make it clear to people that do enter that they are crossing into a different space. As a result, people are more aware of what they are walking into.

The two pictures below show examples of this. In one there are trees planted along the side of the trail and in the other there is a low concrete wall that can be easily stepped over. These treatments make it much clearer that access is allowed but that you are moving from one type of space to another. People won’t accidentally wander across into the trail as they are looking at their phone. Similarly, if they wander from the walking trail to the bikeway, they will feel the step down and realize they are crossing the “barrier”.

Compare this to the Westlake promenade where people can walk onto the bikeway from any part of the parking lot or walkway and they are given no indication that they are stepping into a space that has potentially fast moving people on bicycles coming from both directions. We will discuss options for addressing this issue as well as other safety problems with the design of the promenade in a future post.

Burke Gilman trail through the University of Washington (Photo: UW)

It’s clear that the real problem here is not the people using the trail. Any safety plan that starts with “if everyone would just…” is a failed safety plan. The Westlake promenade will be safe if everyone will just always be conscious and aware of where they are and where the other promenade users are at all times. Everyone will never “just do something” no matter what it is. The problem is the design. Mike Lindblom, the author of the Seattle Times article, should be pointing his finger back at SDOT and the Mayor’s office for spending $6.1 million to build a facility with a faulty design that they knew was going to result in conflicts like this.

The new section of the Burke Gilman through UW provides clear distinction of space. (Photo: SDOTr)

Getting It Right the First Time

Subsequently the Seattle Department of Transformation (SDOTr) will be presenting some proposals to fix the design of the promenade. Also, we’ll analyze how it is that we ended up in this situation so we can make sure we don’t waste another six million dollars making similar mistakes on the next facility.

Unfortunately, the design that SDOT used for the Westlake promenade can’t see profound changes without ripping it up and rebuilding. This is why it’s important for SDOT to not compromise on safety like this and for the Mayor’s office to give SDOT the political backing the department needs to be able to do it. Mistakes like this are cast in concrete for at least 10 years, and in most cases more like 15 or 20 years.

Seattle Department of TRANSFORMation (note capitalization) is a volunteer group of local transportation engineering, urban planning and safety advocacy professionals who work for/with Seattle DOT in various official and unofficial ways. We advocate for safety, equity and sustainable policies in transportation. We remain anonymous so we can speak the truth. Not associated with the City of Seattle or Seattle DOT. We are morally opposed to pineapple on pizza. @SeattleDOTr

18 COMMENTS

  1. Good essay. The SOTr ought to identify themselves, though. I’m not convinced that a short pavement drop-off like the BGT (which actually would be a very costly retrofit) and more signage would do the trick, but look forward to hearing their other suggestions soon.

    The SOTr photo also inadvertently shows a hazard that I missed — parking signs that cars have hit, so they bend toward the passing bicyclists, at about neck level….

    Everybody have a great morning.

    • Hi Mike,

      It’s not just the signs and pavement drop-off; it’s also physical borders in places to ensure people don’t unintentionally wander onto the trail, and (though the article didn’t mention it) things like raised crosswalks to get bikes to slow down at designated crossings.

      A physical border between parked cars and the cycletrack would also hopefully keep people from hitting those parking signs!

      • Landscaping could help, but only in certain places. And as you imply, some cheap block or curb material can keep rear bumpers away from the signs.

        The SDOT could do a great service merely by straightening and widening that tight 10-foot, curvy spot right next to the swim center — where e-bikes and athletic cyclists sometimes whip through at 20 mph or higher.

  2. First of all, please never use the term cycle track. It’s terrible marketing because it suggests that this a place to have races. It’s a protected bike lane! I regularly use the trail. The design is the not the problem. The problem is the electric assist bicycles. The riders tend to push them to the maximum speed, 20mph, which is way too fast for an urban trail.

    • Except it’s not *really* a protected bike lane, either.

      A bike *lane* is part of a street, built to transportation standards — this isn’t that. And a *protected* facility has signal-separated phases for different, conflicting movements at intersections — this isn’t that, either.

      This is an off-street bike path next to an off-street pedestrian path, with uncontrolled conflicts and no real mode separation.

      • You’re splitting hairs. If it specifically designed for bicycles and separates said bicycles from cars then it is a protected bike lane.

        • By that definition, mountain bike trails are also protected bike lanes.

          Both “protected” and “lane” have real meanings, and this isn’t either of those.

          It’s not a protected bike lane by NACTO standards, by FHWA standards, or by WSDOT standards.

    • I much prefer the European model for urban bicycling — ride upright (see and be seen) and at moderate speeds. You’re not training for the Tour de France.

      • If we got a mile of general-purpose lanes converted to PBLs every time someone used the ideal of Euro cycling as a rhetorical cudgel against US cyclists we’d have a cycling network capable of supporting the kind of mass-cycling culture some Euro countries have. Even if people called ’em “cycletracks” (or any other term that happens to be out of vogue)! As it is most of the country has bike networks only good for the “fast and furious” (if that!), so that’s who we see out there, even on the handful of decent paths we have.

        And before we hold up that Euro ideal too high, in the one day I spent in Amsterdam on my way out of Europe I managed to see a bike collision! As best I could tell a hipster doofus wearing giant headphones ran into a purple-haired woman from behind. Both on big black steel bikes with swept-back handlebars and full chain covers. No permanent damage I could see, though the woman looked like she wanted to cause some permanent damage to the dude’s face.

  3. These and many more design issues were thoroughly presented to SDOT during the conceptualization and design phases of Westlake. No one should be surprised by the conflicts, especially not SDOT, whose consultants apparently had to cherry pick lower design standards to allow conditions not supported by the city’s adopted standards.

  4. Signage can only do so much. When there are too many signs people just stop reading them. If you think people crossing the trail are going to start diverting to crosswalks when they’ve parked right in front of the business they’re going to, you may not have ever been in a parking lot.

    The sorts of conflicts there are inherent to putting through-traffic (both bikes and people jogging around the lake) between business entrances and parking. The way people negotiate these situations is more of a culture/negotiation thing than a signage/law thing. Sometimes people will get a little annoyed with eachother, and sometimes they’ll bite their tongues and hold it against the world forever (this is Seattle, petty passive-aggression is an art form here). But we should take perspective. We have solved the worst conflicts by providing cyclists a reasonable alternative to the parking aisle (where there were conflicts both with cars backing out of spaces and with cars entering the lot, sometimes having accelerated quite hard to make uncontrolled lefts — I personally witnessed a driver hit someone doing this a few years ago). The situation is tangibly worse for parking lot users; now all the bikes are in their way while they’re on foot. The magnitude of this negative change is certainly smaller than the magnitude of the positive change for cyclists, but people get a lot louder about negative changes than positive changes.

    • A decade ago, my colleague Susan Gilmore was bicycling when hit by a turning pickup in the old Westlake lot, in the exact scenario Al Dimond describes – and she was cited by police! That was our frame of reference before this all got designed. So yes, perspective.

  5. I rode the Westlake cycle track once just to try it. Even though it was a chilly weekend day, I still didn’t feel comfortable going fast. Since then I’ve just kept used Dexter.

    Most of the design problems raised by the author are a result of limited space. Since we aren’t going to redo this trail any time soon, and even when we do good luck taking more parking, we should focus on changes which don’t require more space.

    Very prominent signs at the ends of the trail telling ebikes to take Dexter might help. Normally I’m not a fan of ticketing cyclists, but I could get behind occasional speed enforcement in this one bit of trail. Us fast cyclists should just take the high road

    • The problem with speed enforcement is that there’s no posted speed limit on the trail. You’d have to prove in each case that the rider’s speed was imprudent in the context of other trail users and conditions.

      It’s not clear e-bikes are legal on the trail — under state law, if it’s closed to “motorized vehicles”, e-bikes are prohibited, but if it’s closed to “motor vehicles,” e-bikes are legal. https://app.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=46.61.710

  6. What needs to be fixed? All of the points seem to. e a human factor. You can engineer and engineer many times and you will still have the same issues. Common sense knows that this is not a speed racing track. If a cyclist wants to go fast, take Dexter. The mixing of people walking and cyclist can be mitigated by walkers looking up not down at the screens of their phones. Space is a limiting factor, you can not just create space. I live in Medellin Colombia where the ciclarutas are smaller than westlake, and there is much more desity of people using the space. There is nothing wrong with westlake. Cyclist need to quit treating it like a speed race track.

  7. The Westlake bike path is a great thing. Hopefully the details can get ironed out. In the Netherlands they have perfected bike path design. They have all sorts of strategies to make them safe and one is to tint the entire track red so that pedestrians and vehicles know to stay off. I pointed this out during the comment period in 2016 that the entire track ought to be tinted green. I got a friendly reply, but not much interest in the idea. I also commented that it really doesn’t make sense to expect bicyclists to wait for pedestrians – it might be the law or whatever, but it’s just too much work to start and stop a bike, and let’s be honest – it generally can’t be expected to happen. (I’m not saying this is right, just saying this is how people behave.) Perhaps some hedges or metal railings can be installed that keep pedestrians from wandering into the path? Not ideal, but perhaps it can help. But again, it’s really, really great that we have this bike path and that people are flocking to it. Thank you SDOT for building the westlake bike path!!

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