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Seattle's New Bike Lane Wows Cyclists, Confuses Cars

KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray unveiled the city’s first protected bike lane in downtown on Monday, on Second Avenue between Pike and Yesler.

The lane, officially known as a cycle track, opens less than two weeks after the street it runs on claimed the life of Sher Kung, a 31-year-old mother and attorney who was biking to work. 

After opening, there was some confusion. Vehicle traffic heads southbound only, but bikes travel north and south. Specialized new traffic lights are supposed to help bikes and cars avoid collisions – particularly for confused drivers used to turning left freely.

Following a press conference held by the mayor, a crowd of cycling advocates, politicians and media unlocked their bikes and toured the new bike lane.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Whoops! This driver interpreted the new traffic signals incorrectly. A circular green light does not give drivers permission to turn left.", "fid": "75307", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201409/Car_Crosses_Against_Light[1].jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Cyclist George Stone was there; he said he loves the new bike lane. Danielle Schrimmer from Pronto Cycle Share said the bike lane is wonderful but that she is worried about "the amount of time it will take for people in cars and people on bikes to get accustomed to the new signals."

After the tour, I rode up and down the cycle track a few times. I saw two cyclists blow through their red lights, then express surprise when people on the sidewalk shouted out to them. 

"I think it will take a few days for people to get used to this kind of infrastructure," said Anne-Marije Rook, communications director for Cascade Bicycle Club. Rook was out on the corner with pamphlets to educate cyclists on proper lane use.

She said she's motivated by a love of cycling she developed as a child in the Netherlands. She recalled a school field trip she took when she was 12. Her class biked to the museum.

"I have always been biking. And then I moved to the States and I realized it’s really scary to bike here. It’s not safe. How can we change this?" Plus, people cycle at higher speeds in Seattle, she said.

"This is a great start,” she said, pointing to the new track.

While a quick street poll revealed enthusiastic support for the bike track, it was clear the system still has some kinks.

[asset-images[{"caption": "At the north end of the cycle track, signage suggests that cyclists turning left on Pike dismount and cross two streets before rejoining traffic.", "fid": "75309", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201409/WP_20140908_11_12_12_Pro[1].jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]For example, many drivers ran lights, obviously confused by the combination of green and red lights that indicate it's OK to go straight, but not to turn left onto the one-way street.

When drivers misread these signals, representatives from Seattle Department of Transportation would wave down the driver or – in more extreme situation – step out into the street to get the driver’s attention.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Pop Quiz: You're driving in a car adjacent to the new downtown bicycle track, when you see this signal before you. Are you allowed to turn left? (Answer: No.)", "fid": "75292", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201409/WP_20140908_10_51_50_Pro[1].jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]To turn left on Second Avenue, a driver must have a green arrow. It's written on the sign above the traffic signals, but it appeared some drivers weren't able to process that information quickly.

Dave Rauma, a project manager with Lease Crutcher Lewis stood on the sidewalk.

"I’m trying to figure out how to load material into this building," he said.

There's also the question of what happens at the north end of the cycle track. Currently, a sign tells cyclists to dismount and use the crosswalk. The Cascade Bicycle Club person stationed said SDOT promises to monitor the bike lane and make adjustments over time.

Murray said the city will watch the Second Avenue cycle track before building a citywide system.

Not that we have money for one yet, Murray said. To generate the necessary revenue, he says, "We're going to have to go to the voters."

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