How Seattle’s Mayor Handled a Bike Lane Spat Without Sacrificing Safety

Advocates in Seattle had the backing of Mayor Ed Murray, who diffused a lawsuit from opponents that would have nixed the Westlake Avenue protected bike lane. Photo via Seattle Bike Blog
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray preserved plans for the Westlake Avenue protected bike lane when the project came under fire from nearby merchants. Photo via Seattle Bike Blog

On Tuesday, the Boulder City Council officially caved to opponents of a safer street design and voted to renege on the Folsom Street protected bike lane and road diet. We learned that the city’s elected officials only support safe, bikeable streets when it’s comfortable for them, and it doesn’t take much to make them uncomfortable.

Speeding — and therefore the risk of injury or death — was more prevalent on the four-lane design the City Council decided to revert to. Decision makers like City Councilor Mary Young were more comfortable going back to the more dangerous design than challenging the status quo because, as she told the Daily Camera“It’s hard to go to sleep at night because you’ve been insulted so badly.” 

Problem is, rearranging streets to give everyone safe, efficient travel options is seldom a comfortable process from start to finish. On commercials streets, there are usually at least a few business owners who are more than willing to, for example, blame a drop in used car sales on a two-week-old bike lane — and reporters eager to hand them a megaphone — even though we know that making places more bikeable and walkable is generally good for merchants.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

At some point, you are going to encounter some discomfort in the process of reshaping streets. The x-factor is how electeds deal with it.

Seattle is one city that has faced similar situations and emerged with its street safety goals intact. Mayor Ed Murray recently dealt with opponents of the Westlake Avenue protected bike lane handily and fairly. Colorado cities should get to know the story of how it all happened.

Murray actually faced fiercer resistance than Boulder’s elected officials. He had to deal with a lawsuit that threatened to block the 1.7-mile protected bike lane, a key piece of Seattle’s planned bike network. Instead of diffuse whining and yelling, the legal challenge came from an organized group that included more than 300 businesses. Parking capacity was at issue for business owners, who wanted to retain all 783 free parking spots in a city-owned lot the bikeway would cut through.

Murray did not fold like Boulder’s city council. He sat down with the group and hammered out a deal that retained the safety benefit of the bike lane. Some parking had to go, Murray insisted, but the city could convert many spaces to paid parking, increasing turnover in spots usually filled by all-day workers. He didn’t waver on building the bike lane, but assured businesses that it would be built section by section to better account for specific concerns from merchants. The offer was palatable and the group dropped the suit.

Murray is not much of a cyclist himself, nor is he known as a fierce bike advocate. But he’s a leader, and unlike in Boulder, he sees the necessity of creating a more bikeable city, and he follows through on that goal. Even when he knows some people will curse him for it.

He seems to recognize that the people who shout the loudest about how much they despise bike lanes don’t speak for a large share of voters. Writes Jonathan Martin of the Seattle Times:

Murray says, over and over, that the “mode wars,” pitting bikes against cars, are over. Maybe he hasn’t read the comment threads on Seattle Times bike stories, and he probably shouldn’t read them on this column.

What I think he’s saying is that the toxicity over bike policy is easing because as Seattle thickens and sprouts up, we’re realizing the city simply can’t be car-first. And the hard-fought battles that shrank traffic lanes or cars to make walking or biking safer have worked.

Seattle DOT says the Westlake bike lane is on schedule for a fall installation. Since Murray’s initial win at the negotiating table, another lawsuit has sprung up. Here’s the key question: Who would you rather have in charge when a challenge like that sprouts up — someone like Murray, or officials like the Boulder City Council?