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Originally published September 30, 2011 at 9:36 PM | Page modified October 1, 2011 at 7:36 PM

Seattle plans side-street pathways for cyclists

Bicycling greenways — networks of residential roads that are outfitted with speed bumps, landscaped curbs that make portions of a street narrower, or stop signs to give cyclists and pedestrians priority over cars — have become a political selling point for Proposition 1.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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For several years, Seattle has painted bicycle lanes or icons on nearly all major streets, in hopes of encouraging people to ride.

Cycling has increased, but a lot of people remain ambivalent, including Jennifer Litowski of Ballard. She's comfortable riding some of the less-busy arterials. But when her 5-year-old son's bike is attached to the rear, she's not so nimble. The two detour to a calmer side street.

That's the idea behind "greenways" — networks of residential roads outfitted with speed bumps, landscaped curbs that make portions of a street narrower, or stop signs to give cyclists and pedestrians priority over cars.

Seattle is building its first greenway across the Wallingford area this fall and will install signs for a future route on north Beacon Hill, while advocacy groups are suggesting routes in at least three other neighborhoods. Mayor Mike McGinn is proposing $150,000 for design and public outreach on a route in Rainier Valley next year.

Greenways have become a political selling point for Proposition 1, a proposal to add a $60 annual car-tab fee to collect $204 million over 10 years for transit, pavement, pedestrian and cycling projects. Proposition 1 includes a potential $937,500 a year for two miles of greenway per year in addition to those already planned, according to a city-budget scenario.

"It's not about getting people out of cars, it's about letting people who want to ride bikes get out and ride their damn bikes," said a smiling Eli Goldberg, a University District greenway advocate who encouraged an audience last week to campaign for Proposition 1.

Proposition 1 opponent John Fox replies that greenways are an OK idea but show misplaced priorities, considering the ballot measure envisions only nine blocks of new sidewalks a year. "It's inappropriate to put that amount into this (greenways) package while short-shrifting sidewalks, road repair and bridges."

Even if the fee is rejected, City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said she'd propose to build greenways using part of the $3 million a year in bike funds already provided by the 2006 "Bridging the Gap" property-tax levy.

Greenways also are one ingredient in the Livable Streets Initiative by Seattle Children's, which will spend $4 million on local transportation as part of its major expansion in Laurelhurst. One-fourth of employees live within 3 miles of work, said transportation director Paulo Nunes-Ueno said.

Safety features installed

In the past decade, Mayor Greg Nickels, followed by McGinn, installed bike lanes, icons, signs and other features that now cover more than about 200 lane miles, to legitimize cycling as urban transportation — an approach that greenway backers say is working for a relative few intrepid and athletic riders. Both mayors also continued the slow accretion of off-street trails.

As usual, Seattle bike boosters are chasing Portland, where at least three dozen routes are finished or being built.

Portland greenways cost roughly $250,000 per mile, more than a striped lane and less than a trail. The goal is to allow a comfortable but brisk 10 to 20 mph ride parallel to major roadways. Seattle DOT called the concept "bike boulevards" in meetings a few years back.

Litowski, the Ballard mom, has reflected on the death of bike commuter Kevin Black, who was hit by a delivery van making a U-turn on 24th Avenue Northwest in early 2009. "It really drove me to seek out more of these quiet side streets," she said. "It made me realize how unpredictable traffic could be, and you don't have time to react."

Wallingford's initial project, approved for $110,000 in city funding, will follow North 43rd and 44th streets, from Stone Way Avenue North almost to Interstate 5. The route passes two schools, a park and Wallingford Center shops.

Cathy Tuttle, head of the local chapter of Spokespeople, which encourages newcomers to bicycling, said greenways are designed "for the reluctant 60 percent of us who've got a bike in the basement, but feel intimidated bicycling in the city."

On a muggy afternoon last week, plenty of cyclists used the city's bike lane on busy Stone Way North, but others found refuge on roomier Wallingford Avenue North, or even on narrow, leafy Burke Avenue North.

Zach Dahl, 9, stood on his pedals while riding uphill to his house along the greenway route. His morning trip to John Stanford International School takes a one-way, southbound street, where his main worry is cars nosing in from the side.

"I've had some close calls down there," he said. "One thing that would kind of help is a stop sign." He also would want to remove parking spaces near corners, to improve visibility.

About 60 people sat in a University of Washington lecture hall to meet Portland transportation staffers Greg Raisman and Mark Lear, nicknamed the Backstreet Boys, and invited by Goldberg. They explained how U.S. streets around schools tend to be unsafe for children, so parents drive them short distances, thus adding traffic and making the streets even more dangerous for those who do bicycle.

The former principal of a Portland school, near busy North Interstate Avenue, once banned student bicycling. But there's a greenway now, and 120 students bike to class, they said.

Bagshaw told the audience that on a trip to the Rose City, "I saw the greenways, and my life was transformed."

"What I am pledging to you is to make sure we do what Portland has done."

More than bike lanes

Bicycling groups, including Cascade Bicycle Club in Seattle, say they've changed focus this year to seek separated bikeways, not just painted arterial bike lanes.

"Nationally, there's no question the tide is turning," said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. "Now we've realized that has pretty much limited who will feel comfortable getting out and riding."

While supporting greenways, McGinn also will continue developing bike lanes on major arterials, figuring there always will be those cyclists who seek major streets as the most direct path. "He supports infrastructure that makes our streets safer, period," spokesman Aaron Pickus said.

Besides greenways, several cities are installing separated bikeways known as cycletracks. These are similar to Seattle's Alki Beach, where the eastern walk-bike trail is on a raised curb, while a row of parked cars shields the bikeway on the west side. The future First Hill Streetcar line in 2013 will include a cycletrack on Broadway.

A crucial difference between Portland and Seattle is the Oregon Legislature allowed cities to reduce nonarterial speed limits to 20 mph, which experts say is crucial for greenways. A bill sponsored by Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, failed to advance through the Washington Legislature this year.

Ryu says lower speeds would fit several east-west streets and school zones in Shoreline and other north-end suburbs. With the distracting Highway 99 tunnel debate in the state's rearview mirror, Ryu hopes lawmakers will be more receptive in 2012.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631

or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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