Before Covid, the Fremont Bridge was set to surpass the 1.2 million bike trips logged in 2019, yet cyclists and pedestrians still have to compete for space on one of Seattle’s busiest thoroughfares.

The bright blue and orange Fremont Bridge is one of Seattle’s most distinctive pieces of infrastructure. Completed in 1917, the Fremont Bridge was was the first double leaf bascule drawbridge to be raised in the region, making it cutting edge for its time. A major overhaul of its approaches, decks, railings, and mechanical and electrical systems completed between 2005 and 2007 preserved the landmark, including the iconic paint job, but did little to change the distribution of transportation modes served by the bridge. Now the pedestrian and bike advocacy group Ballard-Fremont Greenways is advocating for the City of Seattle to make updates to the Fremont Bridge that would increase safety for cyclists and pedestrians, while also giving priority to transit.

Improving access and safety on the Fremont Bridge has risen to the top of the group’s priorities because of the high amount of bike traffic the bridge accommodates. Since the City of Seattle installed a bike counter in 2012, data has shown consistent growth in crossings made by cyclists with a record-breaking 1.2 million trips logged in 2019.

As more and more Seattleites use active transportation for commuting and recreation, the Fremont Bridge has become a vital link over the Ship Canal and Lake Union for commuters and recreational cyclists from the Fremont, Ballard, Wallingford, Phinney Ridge, Greenwood, Crown Hill, and Queen Anne neighborhoods. It also serves as a point of connection between the Burke-Gilman Trail and Westlake Protected Bike Lane (PBL), two of the most heavily used cycling routes in Seattle.

Cyclists are forced to move to the sidewalk in order to cross the Fremont Bridge. With widths that barely exceed six feet at key points, the sidewalks are not equipped to handle large numbers of cyclists and pedestrians. (Photo by author)
Cyclists are forced to move to the sidewalk in order to cross the Fremont Bridge. With widths that barely exceed six feet at key points, the sidewalks are not equipped to handle large numbers of cyclists and pedestrians. (Photo by author)

But the Fremont Bridge’s design, which includes sidewalks as narrow as six feet at key points, makes it difficult to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians, who are forced to share the same two-way pathways while crossing the bridge. While narrow, the Ballard Bridge, the next alternative to the west, is narrower still and notoriously dangerous.

How can the Fremont Bridge be made safer for pedestrians and cyclists?

“We can fix it!” wrote Ballard-Fremont Greenways in a letter referencing the current situation on the Fremont Bridge the group recently submitted to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and City officials.

The letter, which has been endorsed by The Urbanist, proposes installing a two-way protected bike lane on the easternmost end of the bridge combined with a southbound transit–and bike-only lane. Back in May, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways included similar Fremont Bridge alternations in its citywide plan for 130 new miles of open streets to promote physically distancing and improve mobility and exercise opportunities during the pandemic.

A rendering of the proposed two-way protected bike lane and transit- and bike-only lane proposed by Ballard-Fremont Greenways. (Credit: Ballard-Fremont Greenways)
A rendering of the proposed two-way protected bike lane and transit- and bike-only lane proposed by Ballard-Fremont Greenways. (Credit: Ballard-Fremont Greenways)

The two-way protected bike lane would create a continuation of the Westlake Trail into Fremont and connect to the Ship Canal Trail, while the southbound transit- and bike-only lane would provide an alternative route for cyclists continuing on to Dexter, Nickerson, or Florentia. The group is also advocating for painted bike crossings at the messy Westlake/Dexter/Nickerson/4th Ave N intersection and addition of bike lanes on Nickerson and Dexter.

A map of the southend of the Fremont Bridge showing connections to nearby streets. Credit: Ballard-Fremont Greenways
A map of the southend of the Fremont Bridge showing connections to nearby streets. Credit: Ballard-Fremont Greenways

While different designs were considered, including adding both southbound and northbound transit- and bike-only lanes, Ballard-Fremont Greenways settled on its preferred alternative because of how well it would allow for the new infrastructure to connect to existing bike lanes and trails, facilitating safety and comfort for users of all ages and abilities. The preferred alternative also was found to have fewer impacts on freight and motor vehicles crossing the bridge than some of the other design options considered.

Ballard-Fremont Greenways considered a range of factors while settling on it preferred alternative of a two way protected bike lane combined with a transit and bike only lane on the Fremont Bridge. (Credit: Ballard-Fremont Greenways)
Ballard-Fremont Greenways considered a range of factors while settling on it preferred alternative of a two way protected bike lane combined with a transit and bike only lane on the Fremont Bridge. (Credit: Ballard-Fremont Greenways)

So far the advocates have not received a response to their plan from SDOT or District 6 Seattle City Councilmember Dan Strauss. To heighten awareness of their proposed plan, volunteers passed out flyers to pedestrians and cyclists crossing the Fremont Bridge over Labor Day weekend.

Ballard-Fremont Greenways is asking for supporters to advocate for making crossing the Fremont Bridge safer and more comfortable for pedestrians and cyclists by contacting City officials and spreading the word to friends and family.

Correction (9/10/2020): This article has been updated to reflect the correct number of bike trips (1.2 million) on the Fremont Bridge in 2019 rather than the misstated 1.9 million figure.

Update (9/17/2020): SDOT Spokesperson Ethan Bergerson offered the following response to KING5: “Safety is our highest priority at SDOT. We are taking the concerns raised in this letter seriously, and are currently evaluating the request for a new protected bike lane on the bridge. Our review will assess how the bridge functions for all types of travel including bikes, cars, pedestrians and the numerous bus routes that travel over this bridge. We are also looking into what kind of surface treatment may be needed to support bicycling across the bridge deck. We intend to provide a formal response next couple of weeks.”

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Natalie Bicknell is Senior Reporter at The Urbanist. She is a writer and community college instructor who lives in the Central District with her husband and two dogs. In her research and writing, she is always on the lookout for better ways of creating sustainable, diverse, and vibrant cities. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I agree that the current sidewalks are unsuitable for biking (I am usually crossing it on roadway instead). I am using the bridge mostly to connect either south (Dexter) or west (Nickerson/ship canal trail). I do not see a good way to connect from the proposed east side PBL to these streets. Are cyclists heading to these streets supposed to take the bus lane, or cross at the Nickerson/Dexter junction?

  2. Nice I guess but completely ignores that the problem isn’t the bridge itself but the two intersections it connects to. The intersections are what cause the backups onto the bridge (there is no way around this). So the transit lanes proposed would only exist on the bridge structure itself. Because as soon as you get off the bridge drivers will be cutting across the transit/bike lanes to make right hand turn. Then these turns can get backed up that means cars will start lining up in the transit lanes to make those turns. Completely defeating the purpose of the transit lane to begin with.

    The backup problem gets worse when you realize you are forcing two lanes of traffic into one lane creating a persistent bottle neck. Which will of course just exacerbate the backups whenever the bridge goes up.

    It would frankly be better to simply build a small bike/pedestrian bridge next to it instead. Or better yet replace the bridge itself with one that has sidewalks of sufficient size.

    The proposals as is would do little to help transit, while simultaneously infuriating everyone who drives over the bridge. Making them even less likely to support any future transit projects.

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