Monday, September 17, 2012

Reclaiming the Arboretum: A Cautious Hooray for Sharrows and Speed Bumps

The section of Lake Washington Boulevard that runs through the Washington Park Arboretum began as a bicycle path, developed before cars arrived in Seattle. Later, the Olmstead Brothers incorporated this road into their grand plan for an interconnected network of peaceful parks and boulevards.  By the time I moved to East Capitol Hill 35 years ago, however, this road had degenerated into a speedway for people driving cars to and from the 520 freeway.  The 25-mile-per-hour speed limit was observed only as a sign at the entryway.

Riding a bike along this narrow road was only for the bravest of the brave. (disclaimer: this photo was not taken in the Arboretum).

Even though I consider myself an "enthused and confident" bicycle rider, I did not ride along this road. 
But yesterday, all this had changed. As I often do, I rode my bike from the University District through Montlake, pedaled into the Arboretum along a gravel path and across a footbridge, then strolled with my bike along the lovely Azalea Way pedestrian path.  To continue on my way home, I usually wait awhile for a break in the roaring traffic before crossing Lake Washington Boulevard by the Japanese Tea Garden.

Yesterday, to my surprise, the first driver to approach me stopped and let me cross the road.  That's when I noticed the fresh paint on the roadway:

The freshly-painted sharrows are meant to remind people driving cars that people also ride bikes along this road.  I'm not especially fond of sharrows; research shows they have little or no influence on how people behave in traffic, and do almost nothing to make bicycle riding feel comfortable and appear safe.  How could these sharrows make such a dramatic difference here?

When I looked around, I realized that other changes were forcing people to drive more slowly.  A few yards to my right I saw this sign:

I walked over to check it out.  A steady stream of people in cars cautiously and slowly approached the raised crosswalk.  Those who failed to slow got a good jolt - I could see the cars bounce, then slow. I walked my bike back and forth a few times just for the pleasure of seeing people in cars slow down and stop for me.

Then I swung my bike onto the road and pedaled through the park.  Nobody whizzed by. Sure there were cars on the road, but they no longer felt threatening.  I passed another traffic-calming feature: a speed bump near the park entrance (but I was so happy to be riding, I didn't stop to take a picture!). 

Do the sharrows, speed bumps and raised crosswalks mean that Lake Washington Boulevard is now a low-stress route that will invite people of all ages and abilities to ride bikes and walk?  No - for many people (children, people with disabilities, folks older and less mobile than myself) it will never feel safe to ride a bike on a road with this high volume of car traffic, or even to cross on the raised crosswalk, even if the cars are moving only 15 or 25 mph. Fortunately for the more wary, additional changes are planned for the Arboretum.  A car-free shared use path will soon parallel this road.

So for now, I welcome the sharrows, the speed bumps and the raised crosswalk, and look forward to the day when Seattle fully reclaims the Olmstead vision of a beautiful city interwoven with welcoming, peaceful connected paths for walking and riding bikes.


  1. Ooh, that raised crosswalk is exciting! I don't ride down there often, but I'm going to have to check it out for myself very soon. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Sounds like progress - especially the hope of a parallel non-motorized shared use path. Cars do rather interfere with the Olmstead vision, though.

  3. Yeah!

    This sounds like big improvement. THANK YOU for noticing and posting.