Saturday, December 15, 2012

Bob Hall's Bicycle Master Plan

Seattle's Department of Transportation (SDOT) is performing a scheduled update of it's five-year-old Bicycle Master Plan (BMP). Information can be found here.
It's basically complete horse shit. Here's why:
Not a master plan
Call me nit-picky, but I was hoping that a Bicycle Master Plan would be, well, a little more master planny. So far everything in the plan is disjointed and piece meal: "Safety! Bike lanes! Education!" Those are nice ideas, but squishing a few good ideas together is not a plan. There isn't a single section that attempts to answer questions like this: "How will a cyclist get from the University District to Capitol Hill in a safe, continuous, easy to follow path with the least steep hills possible?" We have been talking about biking in Seattle for decades now and still nobody can answer this.
A plan, at the highest level, should look like this:

Each node would be a major destination of Seattle (Ballard, Fremont, Capitol Hill, Downtown, etc). Each line represents a clear path between each destination, and the weights of each edge reflect how much of a pain in the ass it is to ride this path at present. THIS DOES NOT CURRENTLY EXIST. Instead, SDOT installs bicycle lanes which actually end at intersections (EG: 20th Ave NW & NW 65th St).
During presentations, planners asked us: "Which street do you think needs to be added to or removed from our map, or which intersections?". WRONG QUESTION. Any given street or intersection does not matter as long as you can still get from Point A to Point B in a safe, continuous route.
Written by and for people who already bike
People who bike most places right now are basically crazy people. (This includes myself). They're exposing themselves to a significant amount of risk that the general public is not willing to take.

The Master Plan should adopt a safety classification system for streets. For example, the Mineta Report sets up four Levels of Traffic Stress (LTS). Simply put, LTS1 means a child is safe to ride on this street, LTS2 means an average person is fine, LTS3 means only risk takers feel ok, and LTS4 basically means Aurora Avenue. The master network needs to establish routes between popular destinations in Seattle, and each section needs to be LTS2 for the entire duration of that route. If only a quarter mile of the route is unsafe, the entire route is unsafe (because a rider still has to deal with the unsafe section).
In short, planners should (counterintuitively) not focus that much on cyclists. Instead, they should focus almost all of their energy on people who would ride but (rightly) consider doing so to be too dangerous.
SDOT rightly took a lot of shit for installing Sharrows (painted pictures of bikes with chevrons) on major arterials as part of the 2007 Master Plan. Some have speculated that this was a kind of accounting trick to increase the number of miles of "bicycle infrastructure" they've created. This is a little bit like a computer programmer measuring success by the number of lines of code written. Sharrows on busy streets (like NW 65th St) are totally unsafe and are frankly a complete fucking atrocity. They are not "better than nothing". They communicate to new cyclists that this is a reasonably safe street to bike on when it is not.
Riddled with obfuscating language
Take a look at their PDF entitled Plan Policy Framework and Facility Designation Criteria. For starters, the first page contains Vision, Goals, and Objectives. Um, what's the difference between a Goal and an Objective? Who knows. Here's one of the Objectives (remember, not to be confused with a Goal!) of the new plan:
Employ best practices and context sensitivity to design facilities for optimum levels of bicycling comfort.
Yeah, that's crystal clear. Somebody should get right on that. Hey, maybe I can write goals like this too. I'll try: "Facilitate leading edge designs to incorporate multi-modal use patterns into the urban framework." Career in urban planning here I come!
This one is my favorite (from PowerPoint Presentation, page 3):
Focused on completing the urban bicycle trail system and expanding on-street bicycle facilities
Right, so your focus was on facilities that were either trails or on the street... in other words, everything. You focused on everything, which is the opposite of focus. I can only conclude that the author followed a formula taught by some Communications 101 professor which is as follows: 1) Create five bullet points 2) Make the first word of each bullet point an action word like "Enact", "Identify", "Improve" or "Create" and 3) fill in the rest with bullshit. This is bad enough as a formula for a PowerPoint presentation, but it seems as if it was used for the BMP itself.
Seattle needs a real Bicycle Master Plan and we need it yesterday. The plan needs to be holistic, comprehensive and should outline a complete network of LTS2 routes throughout the city. We could have and should have designed this back in 1975. By 2007 there was no excuse, and dammit now it's 2012. The reasons for implementing aggressive bicycle infrastructure are getting stronger, not weaker (the details of which deserve its own post). The community feedback to SDOT should be this: Back to the drawing board.


Anonymous said...

Bob, a great observation.

Your node network mirrors the idea behind the Urban Village Transportation Network, proposed years ago at ago at the time when neighborhoods were (surprise) actually directly engaged in planning for the city.

The UVTN was meant to define easy and complete transit networks between the various "nodes" (urban villages) withing the city.

The city actually reported on this plan for a few years, but as seems to be the trend now, was abandoned for a new planning cycle and more consultants and dollar outlays without really trying to get to a functional end result (why our planner have to hire other planners is a mystery - or obvious that they are incompetent).

Until we get a variety of transit options that are functional to how we live (rather than dumping almost all of our money into supporting our downtown core), our plans will be aspirational at best, and not broadly community serving.

Unknown said...

See figure one from the 2007 BMP:

This was a start at your node network idea.

Bob Hall said...

@Unknown: Yes! That is exactly the graph I remember seeing at a meeting back in '07. I wish this was the first slide in the new BMP.