SR-520 Design will discourage walking and biking to the UW and University Link

The new SR-520 will serve as a barrier to people trying to walk and bike from the Montlake area and neighborhoods further south to the University of Washington and the new University Link station. As currently designed, the project will essentially destroy the walkshed and bikeshed south of the Montlake Bridge.

Over the summer, WSDOT has (in good faith) attempted to make tweaks to the plans to better incorporate walking and biking, but the plans still fall short of acceptable levels of service. Simply put, the new SR-520 will make things worse.

The solution: WSDOT and SDOT must work together to refine the plans (which are still actually in a fairly conceptual stage) before the legislature funds a multi-billion dollar budget that fails to connect people who walk and bike to places they need to be such as the UW, transit stations, schools, parks, workplaces, and other parts of the City.

The map below illustrates where Neighborhood Greenway groups forsee family-friendly biking and walking corridors in the near future. It is worth noting that, with the exception of the trans Lake Washington trail, the WSDOT project area currently acts as a barrier to interconnecting this system, and thereby preventing folks from getting to the UW and the University Link. If done properly, the project could operate as a world class hub interconnecting all users to where they need to go! Let’s look as these failings in further detail.

Figure 1. Current or planned family-friendly bicycle and pedestrian routes (PDF version: Montlake Hub’s Missing Connections).

Montlake Bridge Gap

Starting directly south of the new Link Station and UW campus, the Montlake Bridge and car dominated streets create unacceptable levels of service for people who want to walk and bike through the corridor. Furthermore, this is the one of the most heavily used corridors in the City for walking and biking. Unfortunately, the current WSDOT plans do nothing to solve this problem. 

Don’t take our word for it:
• Bicycle counts from the upcoming 2012 Bicycle Master Plan show us (page 13) that this is one of the most heavily used corridors in the City. 
• The Nelson/Nygaard report (page 27) concluded that the level of service for walking and biking is either failing, or will soon fail to meet acceptable levels of service.  

East Montlake Gap

As you can begin to make out in figure 2 below, if you are traveling from the eastern side of Montlake or from Madison Park, WSDOT currently routes you underneath 13 lanes of traffic on the “Arboretum Waterfront Trail.” With thousands of cars per day rushing only a few feet overhead, the noise will be deafening. Furthermore, while WSDOT has promised artificial lighting, this will be a dark and scary place. This will simply create an unacceptable level of perceived and real safety for people walking and biking. This is especially true for the 60% of people who would like to bike, but are intimated by current conditions. For the same amount of money, we can build family-friendly connections that benefit people of all ages and abilities.

Figure 2. This shows option B, the option WSDOT will likely use moving forward (image source). 

West Montlake Gap

Here again the story is much the same. If you are on foot or on bike west of Montlake Boulevard, you must either cross at least 7 lanes of onramp traffic on foot, or use the Bill Dawson trail, which would take you underneath 12 lanes of highway. Neither option is acceptable. Running a gauntlet of long exposed crosswalks or passing underneath a huge expanse of highway will never be pleasant or safe. For people walking across 7 lanes of traffic or underneath 12 lanes of highway will simply not be an experience that they will ever wish to repeat. For children attempting to safely go to school, their parents will not find this connection suitable (and indeed they don’t, as evidenced by a letter from the head of the local PTA). 
Figure 3. An image of the west Montlake Gap – an intimidating gauntlet for pedestrians and bicyclists  (image source).


Figure 4. A better view of the pedestrian and bicycle underpass (image source page 26).

Portage Bay Gap

Despite an outpouring of public support, the Portage Bay Bridge Trail (a multiuse trail that would run along the length of SR-520 from Montlake to North Capitol Hill) is still not officially included in the design plans. Alternative surface street options are 159% to 259% longer and 3 times steeper (16% grade compared to 5%) in sections. In addition they are often poorly lit, poorly marked, indirect, not intuitive, involve arterial crossings, have driveway conflicts, and littered with debris. A longer blog post about this connection is in the works. 


Final Thoughts

It’s not as if these problems are simply insurmountable technical challenges. WSDOT has the tools and knowledge to complete these missing gaps in a family-friendly way. It simply has not been a priority in designing this massive new project.

It is imperative we get this right. This project area could act as a hub for all forms of transportation, but currently it fails to connect pedestrians and bicyclists to their destinations and to transit. Rather than allowing the new SR-520 to be a barrier to people trying to get to the University of Washington and University Link, we should seize this once is a lifetime opportunity to better connect our neighborhoods, our city, and our region.

FAQ: Many astute readers have asked great questions. Here is a collection of some quick responses:

Why Not 24th Ave E?

24th ave e, while a pretty good bicycle and pedestrian route now, will be considerably worse after WSDOT is done building the new interchange. 24th will serve as both a car off ramp and as a turning and cross street for two lanes of HOV and bus traffic. 24th is going to see considerably more traffic, and perhaps more importantly will be a major on/offramp area for the new interchange (see for yourself: page 31 of this pdf). Unfortunately, none but the fast and fearless bikers, and the brave pedestrians will want to use the new 24th ave.

What about the paths on the lids? 

As you can see in this diagram (page 25: pdf) the main trails on the lid are currently pedestrian only (yellow). Furthermore they primarily run east-west and do little to connect pedestrians and bicyclists north-south across the 520 project area. The only fully separated north-south connection is the one that is explained in the east Montlake gap above.

Why no specific engineering solutions? 

Although a number of engineers are part of Central Seattle Greenways, WSDOT and SDOT have their own team of engineers willing and eager to solve these problems if asked to do so. We have been told that the best way to be effective is to articulate the problems for walking and biking and to work with the City and WSDOT to give them the ability to work on potential solutions.

Are you attempting to be adversarial?

No. The coalition of Neighborhood Greenways groups that are working on this project are attempting to work with all parties involved. Our main goal has been to provide the 520 discussion with information about how people who walk and bike would like to use the project area. This is a voice that has been underrepresented during the design process.

Also, WSDOT deserves some serious credit for their design of the Roanoke Lid area. They have done a excellent job incorporating walking and biking facilities into the design!


Why is Central Seattle Greenways advocating for family-friendly infrastructure in Montlake?

Central Seattle Greenways has in effect become the spokes-group for the three Seattle Neighborhood Greenway groups that are most involved in this project: Montlake Greenways, Madison Park Greenways, and Central Seattle Greenways. Furthermore, people living on east Capitol Hill heading north, or people heading north via the Portage Bay Bridge Trail, need to be able to move through this area easily and comfortably. No neighborhood exists in isolation – we need a system of low-stress family-friendly bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure that knits our neighborhoods, our City, and our region together.

14 responses to “SR-520 Design will discourage walking and biking to the UW and University Link

  1. Great article and graphics. Please keep working this issue.

  2. i’ve written to SDOT and Rep. Pederson about the Portage Bay Gap. As a homeowner on Delmar Drive, I know this death-chute can’t be improved (too narrow). So… the Edgar stairs? No, there is no safe answer, yet the plan is still to endanger and discourage pedestrains for another 50 years. we must keep fighting!

  3. Seriously? These are utterly bullshit complaints.

    And going anywhere near a freeway (5, 520, whatever) is going to be loud! You’re not having a picnic under there, you’re getting through as quickly as possible.
    The pathway underneath *is fine*.

    There are biking/walking routes all over the source documents you neglect to mention (but at least link to).


    • Congratulations James, the current plans will work for you. While a trail underneath long expanses of highway may be okay for you or me, for the vast majority of the population who we are trying to convince to try walking and biking as a serious means of transportation, it is simply unacceptable. These trails were slapped on to the design late in the process – it’s not that they are the best options. As to your references to other trails are explicitly pedestrian only, and even if they were converted to accomodate bicyclists they still cross over numerous freeway onramps, intersections, and roads. The state is preparing to spend billions of dollars on these lids which essentially only function as screening – we can do better.

      We are going to keep pushing. Not for you, but for kids trying to get to school, for those less willing to pass under enormous expanses of freeway at night, for the 60% of the population that would like to bike more often if it were safer, for anyone who wants to comfortably walk from the University Link to the Arboretum, and everyone else who thinks that with the same amount of money we can do much better.

    • James,

      If you’ve walked or biked across 520 on Montlake Blvd lately you know it’s a disaster — or as Nelson/Nygaard calls it, a “level-of-service failure.” WSDOT’s 520 plan adds more lanes, intersections and freeway ramps to Montlake but keeps the same sidewalk paths for bikes and peds with no other improvements. More vehicle traffic + status quo bike/ped routes = less friendly streets. It actually, makes things worse.

  4. Why don’t you propose some changes then? There’s a lot of jeering in this article with no suggestions for improvement. Underpasses (if they are given the full 12ft path width) are a massive improvement over what we have today.

    This is a highway interchange. You can’t magically make the noise go away. To lessen the noise, you need to create physical isolation. Isolation in the context of the arboretum makes no sense, you don’t want to add more concrete everywhere.

    I do agree that the Portage Bay bike path is critically important. Please keep pushing for it to be included in the final design.

    Also, as an aside, please make the comment section larger in width. The small width is visually distracting when trying to read comments. 🙂

    • I should add that Shelby needs to be marked as a Bicycle Boulevard. Remove a lane of parking, add sharrows, and call it good. Ensure that there is a elegant connection to the new Montlake Cut bridge, and everything will be fantastic.

    • Great question Alper. As to the tone, I hope it doesn’t come across as jeering. WSDOT has made significant improvement to accomodate walking and biking, but it has simply been too little too late in the process. Part of this is our fault – neighborhood bicycle and pedestrian advocates did not start paying close attention to this project until relatively late in the process.

      We’ve been told, with the exception of the Portage Bay Bridge Trail connection, to not advocate for specific solutions. I actually had a conceptual design map showing a potential solution in the post originally, but was told it would be better to not advocate for any single solution. The impetus of this post is to show where the current existing desired routes fall short. We are asking that WSDOT and the City work together to come up with family-friendly solutions.

      • It’s the citizen’s responsibility to tell the State what it’s needs are (better walking and biking routes, in this case). It’s the professional designer’s responsibility to come up with the solutions.

  5. The images (e.g. figure 3) are too small to read, even when I click on the image for a larger view. Please add larger, higher-resolution images. Thanks!

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