Friday, October 12, 2012

STOP! You on the bike - STOP!

If you've ever ridden a bike on the Burke Gilman trail through the University District, you've seen the giant stop signs with flashing lights warning you to stop before you cross Brooklyn Avenue.  You're a law-abiding careful bike rider, so you probably stopped - while all the other reckless people on bikes whizzed on through.  And then one block farther on, you've caught up with all those reckless people again, since they've dutifully stopped at the red light at University Way.

If you were riding the Burke last week, you may have even seen a friendly police officer give a kind but stern warning to one of those other bicyclists:  next time, you'll get a ticket if you don't stop!

I rode the Burke Gilman again today, thinking about this intersection as I rode.  The more I thought, the less I understood WHY there would be a stop sign there at Brooklyn.

Travelers on Brooklyn see this dramatic signage as they approach the trail:

Most people who drive along Brooklyn here seem to think this means they are supposed to yield to bicyclists  - so when I actually stop at the big red stop sign, people approaching in cars impatiently wave me through.

Yesterday, as I rode east from Fremont, I passed through quite a number of other intersections - and at every other intersection between Stone Way and Brooklyn, the Burke Gilman has the right-of-way. Cars crossing the trail must stop at stop signs, even at the busy crossings by Dunn Lumber and the roads that give cars access to Gasworks Park.

I remembered hearing that the 2007 Bicycle Master Plan included something about intersections, so I went on line and looked it up.  You can read the whole section for yourself if you like; it's Appendix H: Roadway Crossing Design for Bicycles.

The relevant section is titled "Mid-block Trail Crossings."  This is a bit geeky, so bear with me. Bicycle trails and roadways are classified according to their importance for transportation.  The Burke Gilman Trail falls in the category of "regional trail."  Brooklyn Avenue is classified as a "minor arterial" - you can look that up for yourself, too if you want.  Here's what the Bicycle Master Plan says about the mid-block crossing of a Regional Trail with a minor arterial:
Regional Trails are effectively principal arterials for bicyclists, but trail user speed
is generally lower than that on Principal Arterial streets. Therefore, Regional
Trails should generally be given priority over Minor Arterials
, Collector Arterials,
and Access Streets. However, if the traffic volume on the street being crossed
exceeds the traffic volume on the trail by 20% or more, the street should be given
Doesn't this mean that the Burke Gilman - Seattle's number one bicycle arterial - should be given priority over a dinky little "minor arterial" like Brooklyn?   I haven't measured the traffic volume on Brooklyn, but every time I've been on the Burke Gilman, I've seen way more bikes at this intersection than cars.

Both the people driving cars who yield to trail users, and cyclists who ride across this quiet "minor arterial" without stopping, act AS IF the guidelines in the Bike Master Plan were being followed; that is, they act as if people traveling on the trail had priority over people driving on Brooklyn.  Just one block farther on, the same people who rode on across Brooklyn without stopping wait patiently for the light to change at University and again at 15th.

Rather than ask Seattle Police to ticket people riding bikes across Brooklyn, it would make more sense - and be more in line with the guidelines of the Bicycle Master Plan - to redesign this intersection to give priority to travelers on the trail.

Meanwhile, there are a few people, both on bikes and driving cars, who recklessly roll through the stop lights at University and at 15th. Those are the folks who need to be reminded to share the road safely.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What if you can't walk?

Last week I gained a new perspective on active transportation in my neighborhood: my mother-in-law got a wheelchair to help her get around outside the house.

Just a few years ago, she walked everywhere, up and down the steep hills, carrying her groceries in her backpack. Then she started using the bus to manage the hills. When walking to the bus stop was too much she took the Access van or a cab - and just recently, she stopped going out by herself entirely.  I used Zipcars to take her to her doctor's appointments, and afterwards we'd go out to lunch - but otherwise she stayed in the house with her cats.

With the wheelchair (and someone to push it, mostly ME!), plus our Seattle buses all equipped with wheelchair ramps, I thought she should be able to go everywhere again. Here she is waiting for the #48 to take us to the Arboretum.

But it hasn't been all that easy.

Here are some of the challenges we face:

1. Sidewalk bumps. Uneven spots that I barely notice when I'm walking can stop us cold with the wheelchair.  I'm getting better at anticipating these spots but even so, we ran into a  bump today that knocked her hearing aid out!

2. Terrible curb cuts - or none.  Some corners reach a real dead-end in a wheelchair: no place to go, except turn around and look for another route.

3. Terrifying street crossings. In order to get to or from the bus headed East, we have to negotiate this daunting expanse of pavement.  Drivers generally don't realize they are supposed to stop for people walking (or in wheelchairs) at unmarked intersections.  And why is this intersection unmarked?  People are getting on and off the bus on both sides of the street here.

4 . Bus stops on steep streets, combined with terrible pavement.  The #8 and the #11 stop just down the hill from the stop sign you see in the photo above.  The hill is very steep, and the sidewalk at the bus stop is broken up.  Bus drivers sometimes have to try twice to find a spot to lower the ramp.  It takes a strong steady assistant to get a wheelchair on or off the bus without sending it careening down the hill.

5. Steep hills. Negotiating hills pushing a wheelchair is not the same as walking or riding a bike. On a bike, I can get off and push the bike up just about any hill.  With my mother-in-law in the wheelchair, there are some hills that are just too steep. I evaluate the hills with a different eye.  Going down is worse than going up; I can't risk losing control and having her sail down on her own!  For an elderly person alone in a wheelchair, these hills would be impossible.

But the biggest barrier at the beginning was simply that I didn't know where we might encounter these uncharted obstacles.  There's no map that shows the broken sidewalks or the missing curb cuts or the hills too steep to manage.  We had to figure this out by trial and error.

I've now taken my mother-in-law on several outings with the wheelchair with no major mishaps.  I'm confident we will be fine going anywhere Metro can take us on the bus.

But if I were on my own in a wheelchair, I think I'd probably sit at home with my cats. We citizens have a lot of work to do before our streets are safe and accessible for people who depend on wheelchairs for transportation.