Now that we’ve had the new, definitely not improved 35th Ave NE for about six months, it’s time to take stock in how it has worked out and determine what the group opposed to safety improvements accomplished.
According to the Save 35th group’s signs, door hangers, and other handouts, their main goal was to “save our parking”. They even made a self-absorbed video about it with business owners who dot 35th explaining how loss of parking would destroy their lives—it literally said, ‘we fear for our survival’.
But then, curiously, the leaders of Save 35th presented a compromise that removed approximately 50% of parking (the entire west side of the road).
They used to warn–based on no data–that the original plan with the bike lanes would remove 60% of all parking, so maybe they consider only losing 50% a win. However, when I spoke to representatives of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and the engineering firm in charge of the original design while we were fighting for bike lanes, they both said we wouldn’t have lost nearly 60% (there used to be certain times you could park on certain sides, zone restrictions, there were no set parking spots, etc.).
So, according to Save 35th, their number one demand was to not lose any parking and they lost nearly half of it. It’s difficult to see that as a win.
Second, according to their signs, they wanted cyclists on side streets. This absurdly conceited demand for people on bikes to be forced off 35tth failed too. There are no bike lanes, but there are still lots and lots of people who commute on bikes, so now cyclists and drivers use the same lane, which causes delays (and dangerous situations of course).
There’s no mandate to not bike on 35th. In fact, Sam Zimbabwe, director of SDOT, advised cyclists to ‘take the lane,’ which is what many of us do. Entitled drivers get upset and act aggressively. There’s a cottage industry online of close calls, antagonism, and nastiness from drivers on 35th to cyclists.
Finally, they asked for more lighted crosswalks, which is great; however, as noted numerous times by SDOT during the public outreach process, if we don’t calm traffic, cars go faster and don’t/can’t stop at crosswalks safely.
In an attempt to correct issues, the speed limit has been reduced to 25 mph and we have turn signals at key intersections now on 35th.
It is SDOT who changed the speed limit. At no time was that a request of Save 35th. In fact, their design widened drive lanes to 11-12 feet–the size of lanes on freeways, hardly promoting slowing down. It should be noted as well that generally engineers and urban planners don’t think a speed limit sign does much. “Simply, a speed limit sign should not dictate speed,” said Tom Sohrwelde, who authored The Truth About Speed Limits. “It should reflect how drivers are actually behaving on the road. When you want drivers to slow down, you change the road through traffic calming measures like speed bumps or even design narrower roads, both of which make speedy drivers less comfortable.”
But Save 35th did promote turn signals. So, they won that one! And, yes, it was their plan (one their group originally rejected) to insert a center turn lane down the length of 35th (wherever was feasible). The problem with that is because of the nature of 35th (mostly residential with libraries, churches, apartment complexes and other large facilities) there are hundreds and hundreds of feet where the turn lane doesn’t turn into anything. There is nowhere for a driver to turn into using this brilliant turn lane.
In addition, at even more places, the turn lane only turns into private driveways. So, they got all the people on 35th their own private turn lane (to go with the alleyway many of them have).
Of course, the problem with a center turn lane that turns into nothing is since it isn’t used for turning very often, it’s free most the time. Savvy drivers see a free lane and they drive in. For fun, use the hashtag #durkanspeedway on Twitter and you can watch video after video of drivers using the lane to pass other cars or cyclists, to drive blocks and blocks to get to a light, near head-on collisions, and all sorts of dangerous events.
Along with that, 35th still has plenty of parking, so again, when drivers see an open lane, they drive in it. This is dangerous since people don’t expect a moving vehicle in a parking spot and cyclists often try to pull over into these to let cars go by.
Because of all this and the fact that Sam Zimbabwe has said publicly a few times that were no studies or plans done to show that this new configuration is safer (it’s not), we have the Durkan Speedway. Tragically, in June, a 22-year-old neighbor on a motorcycle was struck by a driver and killed on 35th (at NE 75th St). This was the first fatality on 35th in a decade. It happened weeks after the new design was instituted (that the family of the victim has not sued the city and Save 35th is surprising).
Along with this, we have now had four cyclists hit by cars on NE 35th Ave. We actually reached this feat about three months after the new design. We used to have maybe one cyclist hit a year–if that.
Our neighborhood’s response to this can be best summed up by the owner of Essence at Salon Devine, a staunch Save 35th supporter, who told a KIRO reporter a few days after a cyclist was hit in front of her business, “I’m glad they didn’t put a bike lane in…”
Mayor Durkan and District 4 city council candidate Alex Pedersen have both come out in support of the new configuration. Think about that. We live in a city where the mayor and a candidate for city council are so focused on making business interests happy, they prefer a design that has killed a person and injured several others than one that would be safer.
And this is the new normal. The contractor in charge of the repaving, Jensen Construction, reported vitriol and aggression like they had never experienced (someone placed fireworks in their construction equipment), and instruments for a fourth parking study were sabotaged. This absurd behavior hasn’t waned. In fact, it seems like drivers and people who supported Save 35th feel more emboldened than ever to be hostile to cyclists and pedestrians (note: I was hit by a car in July on 35th when the driver decided to race me to driveway and turned into me).
So, we have a divided neighborhood like never before. There are about 200 residents of the area who will never set foot in Save 35th businesses because of how they behaved. Personally, I used to go to the Wedgwood Ale House every Friday for lunch. After they promoted Save 35th, I haven’t been there in more than a year (as well as The Fiddler and Wedgwood Broiler).
Now, no one thinks that’s going to close any businesses (and that’s not what anyone wants), but friction between local establishments and hundreds of us who live in this community is not a positive outcome. My family and I go elsewhere when we want to eat or shop expressly because it was more important to these proprietors that they have parking (which they lost anyway) than my or my family or friends or neighbor’s safety.
Now that Save 35th has created a political action committee (PAC) called Neighborhoods for Smarter Streets, it looks like they plan to ‘help’ other neighborhoods avoid safety improvements. This is truly concerning–especially considering how their efforts panned out here.
When you hear them talk, you’d think they’d accomplished this amazing feat. They even use the hashtag #saved35th, but look at their record. They didn’t save anyone or anything (quite the opposite). They made a dangerous street even more dangerous. Their focus was so dialed in on no bike lanes, they never considered what would happen to the people in the neighborhood. They didn’t save parking and they didn’t stop cycling on 35th. All they did was make sure it is less safe to walk, cycle, roll, and drive down our main arterial.
Just in our own neighborhood, on NE 75th St, there was friction about putting in safety improvements that included a bike lane. Collisions have dropped by 40% in just a year. This could have been 35th Ave NE.
Instead, we got the Durkan Speedway and a far more dangerous arterial in our neighborhood. So, thank you Save 35th for saving us from a safer street. Please don’t do it to more communities.
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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.