Next week, when the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) opens its new tunnel underneath downtown Seattle as a new SR-99, the northern exit from the tunnel will dump high levels of traffic onto one of the busiest bike routes in Seattle. And the situation will be compounded by the design of the intersection where tunnel traffic meets city streets–on a corridor that has seen serious injuries to cyclists in the past and where the City has not acted.

If you’re traveling northbound through the SR-99 tunnel and want to go downtown, drivers will find themselves on Republican Street making a right turn to get onto Dexter Avenue N. Dexter is a very heavily used bike route between Downtown and North Seattle: the route that saw a 40% increase in bike traffic during the first few weeks of a post-viaduct Seattle.

Visualization of the exits from the 99 tunnel onto South Lake Union streets (WSDOT)

The hundreds of people per day who rely on Dexter to get to work do not have an easy time of it. After years of construction along Dexter, the bike lane is still not fully protected along the street, with blocks where only a painted line separates people on bikes from traffic.

On Twitter, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) responded to a question about whether drivers making the turn from Republican to Dexter from the off-ramp would be prohibited from doing so when the light is red and cyclists have the right of way: “We’ll be monitoring this location closely to ensure that it is safe for people on bikes and on foot. There won’t be a right turn on red restriction when the tunnel opens, but if we see safety concerns we will be ready to make adjustments.”

Unfortunately, the City has been slow to respond when the lives of cyclists are put at risk, and even when they are lost.

In July of 2011, Mike Wang was cycling south on Dexter Ave N when he was struck and killed by a driver making a left turn across the bike lane. The driver left the scene, and was later sentenced to a hefty prison term, but the underlying action that he took–turning left across a bike lane–was a perfectly legal way to use the street. The design of the intersection afforded little margin for error.

Two years later, Brandon Blake was seriously injured at another intersection on Dexter, by a driver turning left. Two years after that, a helmet-mounted camera captures another collision that thankfully only results in minor injuries but which was caused by the same dangerous turn.

Dexter Ave N at Republican (Photo by the author)

The city’s track record on failing to take action to remedy unsafe situations quickly after collisions occur is pretty clear, even just looking at the single example of Dexter Avenue, but there are many others.

The safety implications of allowing free-right-on-red from a freeway onto one of the busiest bike routes in the city are obvious to most, but they should be most obvious to the Seattle Department of Transportation. However, the message of Vision Zero design–building a margin of error into all transportation infrastructure so that if the road user fails–is still not permeating into the entire department judging by this design. When longtime transportation reporters like Mike Lindblom are pointing out the “safety hazard” that the department of transportation is apparently unconcerned about, there is a problem.

Now we can only hope that no one is seriously injured before the department changes its mind.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. The tunnel will also add a lot of cut-through traffic on Republican. 99->Republican->Fairview->Mercer->I-5 to avoid most of the Mercer St. backup.

  2. Right Turn on Red is not a Traffic Management Proceedure.
    It is designed to avoid the waste of energy by idling cars.

    Motorists are encased in a metal cage and have bright red brake lights, air bags and other safety devices. Bicycle users have none of this.

    If the Ramp is not long enough to handle the traffic that will build up at each red light cycle, it is defective and needs to remain closed.

    • You mean the tunnel that WSDOT is spending over $4mil to advertise and has lowered the tolls because they’re afraid not enough drivers will use it? Yeah, traffic, suuuuure.

      • The Battery Street Tunnel was carrying 45,000 cars daily before the shutdown, and a lot of traffic to/from Belltown and the West (another 30,000 cars) that used Western is going to be going through the tunnel. Even if traffic dips slightly because of the toll (e.g. the 30% drop on 520) it’s still going to be a busy road. And that offramp is short.

        • This is exactly why the restrictions are needed. WSDOT estimates that traffic will go up by 30% from the viaduct during peak hours when there are no tolls. (This is probably wildly optimistic but I’m going with it) Every car turning right is a chance for someone to be injured or killed.

          • Every car backing up onto the mainline is the chance for a high speed collision. Sorry, the people biking will just have to stay alert. Bike commuting is in long term decline and it’s time to stop pandering to noisy activists.

          • “people biking will just have to stay alert” = “Some people on bikes are just going to have to be injured or die for the convenience of drivers”

            We just spent BILLIONS of dollars to create highway where there was none before. The Alaskan Way construction project is out to bid, at an estimated cost of $185mil. We are spending tons of money on this, and we could be making this intersection safe as well (or the ramp leading to it). This is a conscious choice we’re making to throw people who bike under the bus, rather than some legacy system that we just have to deal with.

          • It’d be simple enough to put a loop detector in the bike lane to trigger a no-right-on-red when it’s actually needed. Hopefully SDOT will look into that.

          • “Some people on bikes are just going to have to be injured or die for the convenience of drivers”???? Where did this thought come from? No one is expecting biker riders to die because of the Tunnel off ramp. That was one crazy post Andres.

          • Mike Wang was killed while riding a bike on Dexter by a left-turning driver in 2011. It’s not hard to imagine right-turning drivers hitting people (I’ve been hit by a right-on-red driver), or people getting hit when they’re forced to suddenly exit the bike lane due to a right-on-red driver blocking the bike lane.

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