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Originally published August 15, 2013 at 8:45 PM | Page modified August 16, 2013 at 7:18 PM

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Amazon gives a push to biking downtown

At its massive, three-tower Denny Triangle development, the online retailer Amazon is raising the stakes for what companies can do to encourage bicycle commuting.

Seattle Times business reporter

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Almost single-handedly, Amazon.com has driven the recent downtown Seattle office market boom. Now, at its massive, three-tower Denny Triangle development, the online retailer is raising the stakes for what companies can do to encourage bicycle commuting.

Amazon will build “cycle tracks” on Seventh Avenue along the two-block stretch of its office complex, demonstrating what a downtown network of dedicated bicycle lanes could look like.

The company also will provide stalls for about 400 bikes in each of its towers — three times the number of bike spaces required under city code and many more than other office projects provide.

A cycle track is a bike lane with a physical barrier to separate bicyclists from cars and pedestrians. City planners envision 101 miles of cycle track throughout Seattle, including along Second, Fourth and Seventh avenues downtown, but the proposed network requires City Council approval and funding.

“Cyclists are part of the fabric of Seattle, and so we’re thrilled to be creating a new cycle track that will make the ride to and from downtown safer and easier for all cyclists in the community,” said John Schoettler, Amazon director of global real estate and facilities.

The scale of Amazon’s redevelopment will give planners an unusual opportunity to design the highest-quality cycle track, with 7-foot-wide riding paths and a line of trees to separate the cyclists from other traffic, said Dongho Chang, city traffic engineer for the Seattle Department of Transportation.

“It’s what I would envision if we could have this at all locations downtown,” Chang said.

City officials would like the cycle track on Seventh Avenue to extend eventually to Pine Street. Amazon is giving the city $250,000 to study that possibility, and will fund improvements to an existing bike lane on Seventh Avenue from Denny Way to Blanchard Street.

The track on each side of Seventh Avenue would open in phases, as Amazon completes each of its 37- and 38-story office towers in the three-block area bounded by Eighth and Sixth avenues, and by Blanchard Street and Westlake Avenue. Construction already has begun on the first tower, which is scheduled to open as early as 2015.

Amazon’s 3.3 million-square-foot development — which when completed would be the largest downtown project ever — generated additional buzz earlier this summer when its designers unveiled plans for a 95-foot office building formed from three intersecting glass-and-steel spheres filled with plants and trees.

The public has one more chance to comment on the plans for that block, known as Block 19, when a city design review board meets on Tuesday at City Hall.

The cycle-track project emerged last year from discussions between the city and Amazon.

The company sought to acquire public alleys running through each of its three blocks. In exchange for those, Amazon agreed to pay for the Seventh Avenue cycle track on its blocks and to install bike crossings across Westlake, among other things.

Whether the Seventh Avenue cycle track gets extended is part of a broader discussion as the city updates its bicycle master plan and figures out what it can afford. The City Council’s transportation committee is scheduled to discuss the bicycle master plan Sept. 10.

Seattle now has only about a mile of cycle track, Chang said, although there’s more under construction.

This summer, the city opened a two-way track on Linden Avenue North between North 128th and North 145th streets; bicyclists traveling north and south share the same track, unlike the one that will be on Seventh Avenue.

Cycle tracks are used in North American cities like Vancouver, B.C., New York and Chicago to encourage more bicycle commuting on major streets. Internationally, cities like Amsterdam, Netherlands; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Guangzhou, China, also have cycle tracks.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia interviewed 690 people injured while cycling in Toronto and Vancouver, and found that riding on major streets with parked cars and no bike infrastructure was nine times more likely to result in injuries than riding on a cycle track. The study was published in December in the American Journal of Public Health.

Supporters say cycle tracks would convince more people that they can bike to work safely.

In Seattle, 3.6 percent of commuters bike to work, compared to 6 percent in Portland, which leads U.S. cities. Copenhagen leads the world, with 36 percent of commuters biking to work, according to public data compiled by Commute Seattle, a nonprofit funded by the city, King County Metro and the Downtown Seattle Association.

In addition to encouraging more bike commuting, New York’s cycle tracks have contributed to higher retail sales at street-front businesses and fewer commercial vacancies, said Jessica Szelag, a program manager at Commute Seattle.

But bike commuters in Seattle face another potential obstacle: finding a bike rack.

Less than a quarter of 1,152 commercial office buildings downtown offer bike racks to tenants, according to a 2010 study by Commute Seattle.

And even among those buildings that do, the numbers are modest: For example, Russell Investments Center provides 137 bike stalls; Columbia Center, 98; and Seattle Municipal Center, 104. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, next to Seattle Center, offers its employees 187 bike spaces.

Since 2006, the city has required developers of new buildings to provide one bike rack for every 5,000 square feet of office and for every two residential units. That meant about 140 bike spaces in each of Amazon’s planned towers.

Instead, Amazon will provide 427 bike stalls in its first tower and, according to plans recently filed with the city, 456 bike stalls in the second. City officials say Amazon plans to provide about 400 stalls in the third tower.

“It’s establishing them as a leader,” especially among younger workers who prefer bicycle commuting, Szelag said.

Another developer next door to Amazon is thinking along the same lines. Matt Griffin, developer of the 654-unit Via6 apartment complex on Sixth Avenue, incorporated a bike club with storage, locker rooms and bike-repair shop into the building.

“We’re trying to create a sense of community and build a bicycle culture, which we think is important to this neighborhood,” he said.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com On Twitter @sbhatt

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