Behind closed doors earlier today, recently appointed director of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), Samuel Zimbabwe, interim transportation advisor to Mayor Jenny Durkan, Elliot Helmbrecht, and other city staff met with members of Safe 35th (who support implementing safety improvements to 35th Ave NE) and representatives of Save 35th (who do not support safety improvements). During the meeting, Mr. Zimbabwe announced that there would be no bike lanes added to 35th Avenue NE.

“We have decided not to install bike lanes,” Mr. Zimbabwe said during the meeting. “This is a decision we’re happy to stand on.”

Instead, the City plans to add a turning lane to the arterial, which was an alternative proposed by the Save 35th group. “This decision is final,” Mr. Zimbabwe said.

This represents a blow to the nearly eight years of community efforts to bring safety improvements to the Northeast Seattle arterial, and follows more than a year of contentious fighting between local safety advocates and business interests and their supporters.

Planned corridor improvements to 35th Ave NE. (City of Seattle)
Planned corridor improvements to 35th Ave NE. (City of Seattle)

35th Ave NE had a completed design that included bike lanes (in some areas), as well as other safety improvements, the City’s own Bicycle Master Plan included the arterial, and the plan for the street supported other safety initiatives passed by the City (e.g., Vision Zero and Safe Streets for All). However, once again, Mayor Durkan has overruled safety improvements and capitulated to business owners and their supporters.

As one safety advocate pointed out, “so far, the Mayor has built less than half a mile of bike lanes in the entire city” from 2018 to 2019.

Planned redesigned of 35th Ave NE at NE 86th St without bike lanes. (City of Seattle)
Planned redesigned of 35th Ave NE at NE 86th St without bike lanes. (City of Seattle)

In a statement issued by Safe 35th, the group expressed concern for safety and precedent over the decision:

We are disappointed with Mayor Durkan’s decision today. It undermines the previous decisions of SDOT, city policy, and the will of the community–by bending to a vocal minority who used tactics of fear and misinformation. It sets a dangerous precedent for safety projects across the city. Improvements to the 39th Avenue greenway in no way equate to a safe, designated bike lane on our busy neighborhood arterial. We ask the City to identify how people on bikes, of all ages and abilities, are meant to safely access the places they eat, shop, and play in their neighborhood.

Over the last year, we have advocated on behalf of the countless people in our neighborhood who support the plan to update our busy neighborhood connector, 35th Ave NE, so that it will work better–including adding a protected bike lane.

Continuing, the group also said:

The impact is bigger than just this 1.2-mile stretch of arterial street in Wedgwood, Ravenna, and Bryant. We are very disappointed in Mayor Durkan’s lack of accountability to the people of Seattle who voted in favor of the Move Seattle Levy and who provided community input when the Bike Master Plan was drafted. We are concerned about the precedent this sets for future projects that include bike lanes and for the implementation of the City’s own Vision Zero plans and Complete Streets Ordinance.

As of this morning, the SDOT page devoted to the project indicates:

In response to the feedback we heard about the original design, and based on industry best practices, data analysis, and continued conversations with the community, we’ve chosen to move forward with a new design that includes 1 travel lane in each direction, a center turn lane (north of 65th) and parking retained on the east side of the street (between NE 47th and NE 85th streets).

The page goes on to say:

While there would be no protected bike lanes on 35th, people riding in the street would still benefit from slower vehicle speeds and clearly defined travel lanes. We will also be making enhancements to the parallel neighborhood greenway on 39th Ave NE that provides a route for people that prefer to bike on a quieter street.

It should be noted that the greenway on 39th Ave NE does not pass uninterrupted north to south through Bryant and Wedgwood, and requires people biking to stop at busy intersections and depend on drivers to yield in order to cross safely.

SDOT has not completed a traffic study to determine how a center turn lane would change travel times on the corridor.

Planned redesigned of 35th Ave NE at NE 73rd St without bike lanes. (City of Seattle)
Planned redesigned of 35th Ave NE at NE 73rd St without bike lanes. (City of Seattle)

So far, SDOT has not released any data, studies or engineering to indicate why they chose the turning lane alternative rather than adding bike lanes (which have extensive data, studies and engineering to support their inclusion in the design). During the meeting, Mr. Zimbabwe argued that they believe the new design will make the road safer. However, he provided no data or studies to support this contention.

“It was a compromise. It (the original plan with bike lanes) was signed off on because it was thought safe,” Mr. Zimbabwe said. “I signed off this (the new plan) because I believe it is safe. Both of them were tough, hard-thought decisions.”

Article Author
Chris Priest

Chris Priest is a writer and community advocate who lives in northeast Seattle. Chris is a founding member of Safe 35th--a community-based group focused on bringing planned and agreed upon safety improvements to 35th Avenue NE in the Wedgwood, Ravenna and Bryant neighborhoods. He is a frequent cyclist, runner, transit rider, and walker who believes safe, inclusive modes of transportation are the way of the future.