Although Seattle, the economic and cultural hub of our region, rightfully receives ample scrutiny for its commitment to a greener, more equitable mobility system, it is important not to forget the similar responsibilities borne by our region’s other cities. In my previous article, I provided a vision for what transformative, paradigm-shifting change could look like for Bellevue’s transportation system. Although historically an auto-dominated city, our leaders could use lessons from other cities around the world and repurpose road space on key arterials to be used for safe, socially-distant walking, biking, and transit use instead. I was happily surprised that the expected “bikelash” was heavily outweighed by positive comments from urbanists, organizations, and community members alike who appreciated the future-oriented perspective for a city traditionally not associated with green mobility. 

As an urbanist myself, I find it easy to get lost in such grand, top-down visions of how things could be different, and I think that such theorizing ultimately serves a positive purpose–it enables people of all political realities to stop and consider substantial changes to the status quo. However, I feel it’s also important to acknowledge the enormous political will such transformations can require, political will that is often not available in suburban towns with several conservative councilmembers. Therefore, it’s essential that advocates not lose sight of the visionary goals we have for our cities while also focusing on the concrete improvements that need to be made to our non-automobile infrastructure.

And in Bellevue, there is substantial room for some concrete improvements due to the significant absence of separated, protected bicycle facilities (there’s a rimshot there that’ll make sense by the end of this article). Although some newer facilities are prioritizing separation and distance from cars, there are certainly plenty of examples of unprotected, narrow, and outright uninviting bicycle lanes that do little to ensure the safety of current riders or entice the new ones we need to meet our climate targets. These types of facilities cater only to a limited percentage of potential cyclists because of the higher-speed automobile traffic directly next to them. Can you imagine the (rightful) uproar if we used public money to engineer city roads that only 10% of drivers felt comfortable driving on?

Bike riders of all persuasions already know that painted lanes are not enough to ensure their safety–I and other cyclists I’ve talked with can relay numerous anecdotes of drivers dangerously speeding past us as we feel the whip of their wind bristle on our arms. But being the scientist I am, I wanted to confirm this quantitatively, and in doing so underscore our obligation to make our city’s bicycle facilities truly accessible for All Ages, Languages, Ethnicities, Genders, Races, and Abilities (ALEGRA)

  • Left: Bellevue Bicycle Corridor map with study points marked in red. (Bellevue DOT) Right: Strava heat map for Bellevue. 140th Ave is an important corridor for people who walk, bike, and roll in central Bellevue. (Strava)
  • Left: Looking north on 145th Pl towards the study point. (Google Streetview) Right: A closer look of the median, curve, and bicycle facilities on both sides of the street. For the majority of people who do not feel comfortable cycling next to motor vehicles unprotected, the sidewalk is currently the only safe option. (Google StreetView)
  • Left: 140th Ave looking northward as one approaches Main Street. (Google Streetview) Right: Looking South on 140th Ave from Main Street. Note the nearly two car lengths of space from the crosswalk to where the curb starts to curve to accommodate turning drivers. (Google Streetview)

To do so, I selected three sites on 140th Ave, a frequently-used cyclist corridor in east Bellevue. Although there are painted, intentional bicycle lanes along nearly the entire corridor, there are no buffers, barriers, or other mechanisms to ensure cyclist separation and protection from drivers. I therefore assessed driver behavior at the above three points by noting how far (if at all) they crossed over the paint line demarcating vehicle and bicycle separation. Points 1 and 3 (see above map) represented a curved and straight point, respectively, where road width is constricted by a median, so I measured how many feet drivers were away from the paint line as their vehicles passed.

At Point 1 in particular, the northbound bike facilities fall on the inner edge of the curve, so I have often observed drivers that will cut into the facilities to make the turn more tightly and thus maintain their speed. Similarly, Point 2 represents an intersection with a large corner radius, which enables drivers to more easily maintain their speed as they turn if they cut into the bike lane to do so. Here, I measured how far behind the intersection vehicles crossed into the bike lane as they conducted their right turn. For more detailed site descriptions and methods, please read the Author’s Note at the end of the article.

How Drivers Did

At Points 1 and 3, more than 300 vehicles passed by each site during an hour’s worth of data collection, and there were indeed marked differences in how far away drivers were from bicycle facilities as they passed. On average, drivers at Point 1 were less than 7 inches away from the bike lane, in contrast to the full foot (13 inches actually) of distance allotted on the straight road. This data was enough to show that cars do pass significantly closer to cycle lanes on curved roads than straight ones (p < 0.0001, for those that care about p-values). Although those six inches may sound minimal, it’s important to also look at the data’s distribution to understand the whole story.

As seen in the figures above, drivers passing one foot away from the lane comprised the largest category at both points, but significantly more drivers went onto or into the bicycle facilities at Point 1. This further emphasizes that drivers are not hesitant to behave in a way that maximizes their speed and mobility while potentially sacrificing the safety of people on bikes. Also note that the facilities at Point 3 are half a foot narrower than those at Point 1; therefore, if bike riders are the same distance from the curb at both points, a vehicle separation of 1 foot at Point 3 is only equivalent to a separation of 0.5 feet at Point 1. This illustrates the necessity of a comprehensive view of both lane widths and the facilities present to best understand cyclist safety.

Histogram of how many cars crossed into the bike lane while completing a right turn. Horizontal and vertical distances are to scale.
Histogram of how many cars crossed into the bike lane while completing a right turn. Horizontal and vertical distances are to scale. (Graphic by author)

Even more egregious was the driver behavior I observed at Point 2, where I measured how far back cars would cross into a bike lane to make a right turn. Across the 65 vehicles I observed, drivers entered bike facilities an average of 21 feet behind the crosswalk. One driver even entered the lane almost 40 feet before the intersection, and, as detailed in the Author’s Note, most vehicles actually entered at a point that exceeded my ability to accurately measure. It should be noted that it’s not as if it is presently impossible for vehicles to complete the curve without prematurely crossing into the bike lane. Although it was a motorcyclist who crossed the paint line 3 feet behind the intersection and thus represented the “best” in driver behavior, the other vehicles who had values less than 10 feet were all normal SUVs and sedans. In fact, a student driver correctly pulled up to the intersection, slowed down, and only crossed the bike lane 6 feet from the crosswalk after they had confirmed there were no cyclists behind them. This suggests motorists have the innate ability to understand the rules of the road, be aware of their surroundings, and drive around curves more responsibly–but they may sometimes forget to take such care after they’ve passed theirdriver’s tests.

But why have we designed our roads in a way where the only thing ensuring drivers show that care is a line of paint on the ground?

Why all this matters

Perhaps the most glaring limitation of these results is that, except for a few times where a cyclist actually was present while a car drove by, they do not capture actual behavior as drivers pass a cyclist. However, in a city that has committed to a Vision Zero pledge of zero traffic deaths on its streets by 2030, a city whose councilmembers unanimously backed a systems-oriented approach to Vision Zero, I do not believe that matters. Fundamental to the idea of Vision Zero is that “to err is human,” and people make mistakes. Drivers can be distracted for even a second and run over pedestrians in a marked crosswalk. Drivers can be blinded by the sun as they make a left turn on an early summer morning and collide with a cyclist. Drivers can fail to move over for cyclists and then make the malicious choice to continue on their way after a collision.

The key to actually seeing zero annual deaths on our roads by 2030 isn’t to rely on education and correcting human behavior–it’s to design our street networks in ways that make it impossible for such deaths to occur in spite of human behavior. By this logic, the takeaway from this data isn’t that most drivers are bad and their behavior needs to be corrected–it’s that there is a problem in the way this street is designed, and we need to change it to ensure that this behavior cannot occur. 

But what can those design changes look like given limited road space? As menial and dull as it may sound, a great first step is to comprehensively examine road widths in Bellevue. Although not the case for 140th Ave (more detail in the Author’s Note), the default lane width for new public roads in Bellevue is 12 feet, and road widths in many areas of the city actually reach 14 feet or greater. This is far off from the NACTO-recommended width of 10 feet for motor vehicle lanes. In addition to naturally reducing vehicle speeds by encouraging more cautious driving, reallocating road space for non-motorized uses, even just a couple of feet, can provide space for facilities that can actually protect and separate cyclists from motor vehicle traffic, like concrete. 

Told you that rimshot would make sense.

It’s important to acknowledge that there are actually many options for physical separations between cyclists and drivers, and they each carry their own advantages. For example, Bellevue elected to use white flex posts embedded in plastic curbs at several spots on 108th Ave NE when the facilities were constructed in 2018. Since the lanes were originally intended as a trial pilot project, using flex posts allowed planners to cheaply implement meaningful changes that could be readily moved or reconfigured based on community feedback. Similarly, the pop-up bikeways being implemented around the world often use plastic posts or caution cones to demarcate facilities not only because they are inexpensive, but because they can be easily reconfigured if planners or community members later realize the facilities aren’t working as intended. However, ideally these posts should not be used for long-term bike facilities because eventually drivers will realize they are the same as paint–they can just be driven over

This is why for long-term facilities, I believe concrete and other permanent, rigid barriers are the best alternative. 140th Ave has been designated a priority cycling corridor since the city’s 2009 Pedestrian and Bicycling Plan, and it will remain an essential bicycle thoroughfare for Bellevue residents in Lake Hills, Crossroads, Bel-Red, and other populous neighborhoods. Providing actual protection for these facilities shows that the city is making serious investments in the safety of all road users, and that message gets seen loud and clear by drivers who may be interested in switching to cycling, but currently don’t feel safe because they see 30% of cars regularly going into painted bike lanes! 

Given the context, large barriers wouldn’t even be required: with lower speeds, decorated walls like the ones pictured above can provide cheap and effective protection while giving community members a chance to show artistic flair and contribute to a neighborhood’s character. With the right combination of community feedback, right of way reallocation, and acknowledgement of transit users’ needs, many places where currently only painted bike lanes exist could be modified to include actual, meaningful protection. 

Granted, not every location will be able to accommodate the same cookie-cutter solutions. For example, the right-of-way at Point 3 currently appears to be too narrow to reallocate space from automobiles without dismantling the median or removing a lane (one can dream…). Additionally, detractors may scoff at the added expense meaningful protection brings, especially with limited budgets in the time of Covid-19. However, as I mentioned in my previous article, our city presently has no problems spending $2 million every year to study the implementation of road widenings in the name of “decreasing congestion” (even on key bicycle corridors!).

he city commissioned a study for widening 140th Ave at NE 8th Street, a project that would cost $1.6 million. Although this project has not moved forward, that such widening projects are even being considered in a climate crisis is concerning. (Concord Engineering
The city commissioned a study for widening 140th Ave at NE 8th Street, a project that would cost $1.6 million. Although this project has not moved forward, that such widening projects are even being considered in a climate crisis is concerning. (Concord Engineering)

If we have the money to even consider widening roads for cars in spite of the long-term, locked-in carbon costs that such projects will bring, why can’t we even consider the widening of the road for bike facilities? At a bare minimum, shouldn’t we get creative on solutions that can allocate more space for the safe, protected, ALEGRA facilities our city desperately needs?

Back in the beforetimes (when public meetings were still meetings in public), I attended the Bellevue City Council meeting where councilmembers unanimously approved the strategic, systems-oriented framework behind Vision Zero. Mayor Lynne Robinson praised transportation staff and expressed her excitement in going “all out” for the Safe Systems approach:

“I think there’s only one thing that’s more dangerous than not having a Vision Zero program and that’s having a partially implemented one. When we start to implement this, I hope we go full force and get it fully implemented as soon as possible.”

Flashing forward to yesterday: City Council met virtually on Monday, July 27th at 6pm to receive public feedback regarding community priorities as the city creates the upcoming biennium budget. Currently, staff is forecasting an expected 8% reduction in expenditures as a result of Covid-19, including reductions to the Capital Investment Plan. Although the Neighborhood Infrastructure Levy has been the primary monetary source for new cycling facilities, the CIP still provides critical funding for key non-motorized infrastructure improvements. The rapid, “full implementation” of Vision Zero that the mayor envisions will require (metaphorical and literal) concrete improvements that rely on adequate funding. Ultimately, any challenges we face, any barriers we feel there are to actually making our streets safer–they are solvable problems if we make it a fiscal and policy priority to solve them

And the solution won’t be more cheap lines of paint on the ground. 


AUTHOR’S NOTE: Site Descriptions & Data Collection

To compare configurations given the same basic road conditions and traffic volume, I selected three points on the 140th Ave bike corridor — Point 1 145th Pl SE & SE 10th St, Point 2 140th Ave SE & Main St, and Point 3 140th Ave NE & 12th St. This key north-south bikeway connects residents to Bellevue College, Sammamish High School, the Lake to Lake Trail, doctors’ offices, grocery stores, and other important businesses, so ensuring that users have safe facilities along the whole corridor should be a high priority for Bellevue’s DOT. In the late evening of July 14th, my partner and I went out to each site to measure lane widths and make the required chalk markings. Data was collected the following afternoon – my partner and I split up to cover Points 1 & 3 from 1:10 pm to 2:10 pm, then we both collected data from Point 2 between 2:30 pm and 3:30 pm. Posted speed limits are 30 mph along the entire corridor, from Bellevue College in the south to when the road becomes a five lane arterial between Bel-Red Rd and NE 24th St. Lane widths and general site descriptions are included below. 

145th Pl SE & SE 10th St

At this juncture where 145th Pl turns into 140th Ave, road users veer slightly northward along a gradual rightward turn next to a vegetated median. Although aesthetically pleasing, this median constrains available space for vehicles and seems to have necessitated a narrowing of the bike lane to accommodate. Although a full five feet just 100 feet before the turn, the bike lane at this point is only 4.5 feet wide. The automobile lane is approximately 10.5 feet wide, as measured from the raised pavement markers approximately six inches away from the median. 

The markings we had made the previous evening had substantially faded in half a day’s time, but they were still visible enough in the field to use them for data collection. Each hash mark represents 6 inches from the center of the painted line. (Photo by Author)
The chalk markings we had made the previous evening had substantially faded in half a day’s time, but they were still visible enough in the field to use them for data collection. Each hash mark represents 6 inches from the center of the painted line. (Photo by Author)

Because there is no physical barrier present, automobiles will often drift into the bike lane in order to maintain their speed as they complete the turn. By choosing this point, I wanted to gather concrete quantitative data showing just how significantly cars drift into the bicycle facilities (and how often). To do so, I marked chalk lines parallel to the painted white line at six inch intervals in both directions. As cars drove by, I noted which line the car’s tires passed over and recorded that value. I felt that notating the tire location was the easiest and most consistent metric to measure, but note that car mirrors can extend several inches away from a car’s body and pose a risk to cyclists even if the vehicle is otherwise in its own lane (another reason for more protected facilities).

140th Ave SE & Main St

This intersection lies northwest of Sammamish High School and provides a connection to Main Street for both cyclists and motorists. However, a wide curb radius currently enables motor vehicles to turn right onto Main Street while more easily maintaining their speed, and drivers will frequently enter the bicycle lane well before the intersection to do so. The motor vehicle lane is already narrow at 10 feet and there is enough room for a 5 foot wide bike lane, but cars still frequently drive above the posted 30 mph speed limit and complete this turn as quickly as possible. 

These markings had luckily not faded as much as those at Point 1, but based on the data I observed, it’s possible any lines I would have drawn beyond 20 feet would have been barely visible. (Photo by Author)

To measure how far behind the intersection turning cars began to enter the bike lane, I drew perpendicular hash marks at one foot intervals from the edge of the crosswalk extending back 19 feet (see picture above) and noted the point at which the rear tires of right-turning vehicles crossed into the bike lane. As I began collecting data, I quickly realized that I had underestimated just how far back cars will begin to move rightward for the turn. Because of traffic conditions preventing me from making additional markings, I elected to use environmental clues, such as parallel 5’ sidewalk panels, to serve as distance estimates. All observed cars entering the bike lane 20 feet behind the crosswalk or greater were demarcated in my datasheet as “estimated values”, but I believe all observations to be accurate +/- 2 feet. They certainly serve as good enough approximations to determine overall trends – that motor vehicles cross into cyclist territory significantly earlier than they should. 

140th Ave NE & NE 12th St

From NE 8th St to NE 14th St (about 0.4 miles), the bike lane turns into a narrow (4’) painted shoulder that frightens cyclists of all skill levels. While traversing northbound and going downhill, the relative pace one can keep with motor vehicle traffic adds some sense of security; however, the slower southbound trek uphill while vehicles whoosh past you is not for the faint of heart. Additionally, nearly 40% of this shoulder (1.5 feet) is actually just curbspace, leaving only 2.5 feet for asphalt. Although manageable on a big-wheeled vehicle like a bicycle, the difference in surface heights makes travelling in this “lane” on a smaller-wheeled vehicle (e.g. scooter, skateboard, etc.) dangerous. Automobile lane width is a relatively narrow 10.5 feet at the point of study, as measured to the vegetated median. 

Data collection and line demarcation proceeded the same here as for Point 1. Prior to this study, I had anecdotally observed a significant difference in vehicle drift between straight and curved roads, so this point was explicitly chosen as a companion to Point 1 in order to test that hypothesis. 

Data

As I knew not all motor vehicles passing by would be normal automobiles or trucks, I made some additional notes during data collection about whether the recorded vehicle was a motorcycle or (because Points 1 and 2 were along King County Metro transit routes) a bus. As acknowledged earlier, motor vehicles will also behave differently when they see that a cyclist is present, so I also noted if a cyclist was nearby when a data point was collected. I have uploaded all raw data to my Google Drive, so feel free to peruse and analyze as you please!

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8 COMMENTS

  1. I think we should toll the bike lanes so the bike lane users can help pay their additional share of the costs. There’s not enough usage to warrant the bike lanes. Thank goodness all the lime bikes have left bellevue. Was beginning to look like Seattle and that’s the last thing bellevue wants.

  2. I live on SE 16th, work near 140th/145th Pl., and 148th Ave and I’m overrun by bicyclists to and from for and against on bikepaths and on sidewslks. Bikes are all over demanding the right of way from pedestrians. The cyclists can’t or won’t chain their bikes up in the store and park them in front of fixtures inside or walk their bikes inside. Nope. Nope. Nope. Learn to obey the rules. Tired of having my taxes paid for a special class of rules breakers who can’t or won’t abide by the rules if the road AS ADULTS.

  3. I agree with asdf2 that right turn radius isn’t a huge deal on a bike – although it does pose a problem for pedestrian safety. The intersections that squeeze the bike lane between high-speed thru and right turn lanes for hundreds of feet (i.e. https://goo.gl/maps/y3UwvV5fFrvJH9hG7) are the worst, though.

    Overall, I think Bellevue is moving in the right direction. I’ve seen several bike lanes created or upgraded through the Rapid Implementation bike plan (which focuses on reducing lane widths as you mention), and multiple current capital projects (Newport Way and W Lake Sammamish Pkwy) are widening roadways for family-friendly bike facilities. Also, 120th Ave NE south of Northup Way looks like it has the exact concrete curb barriers you showed, protecting a 2-way cycle track; I just saw this yesterday and it looks brand-new.

    Obviously, there’s a lot more to be done – I have huge complaints with the (lack of) bike facilities in Crossroads and Bridle Trails, for instance.

    Also, please don’t conflate opposition to the “Defund the Police” movement with being “conservative”, in the 2nd paragraph. I disagree with that movement but support progressive policies in housing, healthcare, transportation, and other areas; I believe most mainstream liberal politicians (outside of Seattle city council and Minneapolis city council, at least) are in the same boat. I can be guilty of this myself, but we should all try to stop making blanket judgements of people over a single viewpoint as it’s divisive and counterproductive.

    • Overall, I’m hopeful as well! I think we’ve got some great transportation staff who are committed to better biking infrastructure. I think there’s definitely a lack of popular will sometimes though (as evident in this comment section), so I think there overall needs to be a culture shift in Bellevue’s leadership. In the linked video, the mayor is talking about the importance of education, which can only go so far – I enjoy writing these types of articles because I hope they push the discussion a little bit more into the wheelhouse of “What things can we build to make Bellevue a better place to bike and walk?” rather than just expecting it will happen naturally.

      Regarding the point on them being conservative, I could only link one example for each of them, but as a follower of both of them on Twitter, note that both of them are committed Republicans, who regularly post positive news about Republican officials and follow conservative news sources like My Northwest and KTTH Radio. Conrad Lee, not mentioned in one of the links, also voted in the Republican Presidential primary (you can enter his name for yourself in the didifuckupmyballot.com website). Although not always important on the local level, it’s important to note that these elected officials do operate out of a conservative mindset.

  4. Right-turning cars are going to cross paths with the bike lane no matter what you do, and I’m not sure that whether the car enters the bike lane 6 feet of 20 feet before the intersection really matters that much, from a perspective of safety. What does matter is that drivers can see you much easier when you’re in front of them than behind them, which is generally not a problem, as long as you avoid using a bike lane to pass cars from the right.

    Of course, one way to eliminate the conflict is to create a protected intersection, similar to what SDOT did at Mercer and Dexter, but that has problems to. With the protected intersection, anybody in the bike lane is essentially required to pass a line of stopped cars on the right in order to go straight. This means your life is essentially dependent on the driver noticing and obeying the “no right turn on red” sign, which is not standard at most intersections. If the driver doesn’t see the sign and decides to make a turn on red, he’ll be looking left, not right, since that’s where the cars are coming from, and if you’re passing through the intersection at speed on a bike, you’re going to get hit. In many ways, I feel safer just having the turning drivers merge in.

    Also, the statement that widening a road for bike lanes has never even been considered is not true. Bellevue very recently did just that on Northup Way, just west of 405, filling in a crucial gap in the 520 between the Medina section and Overlake section. Yes, it’s paint-only bike lanes, but it’s much better than the previous configuration, with no bike lane, shoulder, or even a sidewalk. The widening did not add a single car lane – 100% of the new road space was for walking and biking.

    Of course, there is plenty of room for Bellevue to improve on bike safety. There are still many arterial streets that don’t have any bike lanes at all, or only have them in one direction, which have no good alternative. There are also places where things just don’t connect, like the bike lanes on 140th ending a mile or so south of the 520 trail. Northup Way lacks a simple ramp to the Eastside Rail Corridor trail when it passes over it, leaving people to walk their bikes up/down a makeshift path instead.

    One good thing about biking in Bellevue, though – Unlike Seattle, the arterial bike lanes are generally on streets without parked cars, so at least you don’t have to worry about getting door’ed.

    • I think that’s a fair point on the right turn comment. The main benefit of making drivers take the turn later though is that it requires them to slow down – this is anecdotal as I wasn’t recording speeds, but you wouldn’t believe how fast some people would take that turn because they knew they didn’t have to look out for oncoming traffic. Sure it’s not the worst in the world if there’s no pedestrians or cyclists there, but the links in the article are good examples of how even looking away for a second can be fatal. At the very least, with slower, separated turns, if a collision *does* occur, it’s likely not to be severe.

      Good point on Northup – I could’ve formulated that sentence better, as I didn’t mean to imply that it’s never been considered in Bellevue. I was thinking in the context of this particular example, where 140th between 8th and 14th is unbelievably narrow, but as part of this congestion reduction projects, one of the ideas (not the one pictured) was to widen the ROW to give a new slip lane that would extend several hundred feet behind the intersection. I’ve seen no similar consideration on this particular road to widen it for improved bike facilities, in spite of the current facilities being extremely lacking. Granted, I understand the prohibitive cost that would be required behind that, so I’m not holding my breath. Merely meant as a argumentative point.

      Thank you for reading and your feedback!

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