23rd Ave is a Festering Gash Through the Central District: Put That Road on a Diet !

Looks like a pleasant place for a promenade, no? What fun to push a stroller around that streetlight pole as oncoming traffic rushes past an arms-reach away.

Oh, how exhilarating to feel the wind in your face as a bus roars by so close you could reach out and touch it.


Or for an exciting variation, try walking with your back to the traffic, and see if you can keep yourself from flinching each time a car screams up from behind you.

This is 23rd Ave in the Central District, between Spring and Marion, about the suckiest pedestrian street you could imagine.

The root problem is simple: the 23rd Ave right of way (ROW) is too narrow, and it should never have been made into a four lane arterial. The ROW on this section of 23rd Ave is only 60 feet, which, with four 12-foot travel lanes, leaves only six feet for sidewalk on each side. There’s no room for a planting strip, and if a tree is put in, it ends up blocking half the sidewalk.

For comparison, even the side streets such as Marion have a wider ROW at 65 feet, with eight feet of planting strip between the sidewalk and the curb. Martin Luther King Way is 85 feet wide, and has only two travel lanes.

Because walking along 23rd is a such a totally miserable experience, very few people do it, street life is dead, and 23rd is like a black hole cutting across the neighborhood. Pedestrian-oriented businesses fail. And street environments that repel pedestrians have a tendency to become havens for street crime — it is no coincidence that 23rd and Union, as well as 23rd and Cherry and other areas further south on 23rd Ave have had troubled histories.

Given that 23rd Ave is one of Seattle’s most important north-south arterials, and because at most transportation agencies reducing car capacity is sacrilege, I was astounded to learn that Seattle’s new Bike Master Plan proposes bike lanes on 23rd Ave, south of Madison. The only way bike lanes will fit on 23rd is if two motor vehicle travel lanes are removed, a so-called “road diet.”

Bikes lanes on 23rd are justifiable purely from the perspective of sustainable and balanced transportation. But a road diet would also be great medicine for the community around 23rd Ave by vastly improving the pedestrian realm and thereby catalyzing neighborhood revitalization. The power of streetscape improvements to spawn revitalization should not be underestimated, and a great example is just 11 blocks west of 23rd on 12th Ave between Madison and Cherry.

Dropping 23rd Ave to two travel lanes will reduce its maximum car capacity. But there are many other two-lane arterials in Seattle that handle the same traffic load as 23rd, Broadway being one example (see traffic counts here).

Still, I am highly skeptical that the City will follow through with the recommendation for bike lanes on 23rd, even though this recommendation was published by the City’s own department of transportation. And even though the City is trying to become more balanced in its transportation priorities. And even though we live in one of the most progressive cities in the country, the truth is most Seattlites are still inclined to give car capacity highest priority.

I have been in touch with the City regarding how and when the final decision will be made on bike lanes on 23rd Ave bike lanes, and will post when new info becomes available.

12 Responses to “23rd Ave is a Festering Gash Through the Central District: Put That Road on a Diet !”

  1. Adam

    Hmm. Really? Are the volumes really low enough that they could reducing it to two lanes plus a turn lane and two bike lanes? Just from observation I would think that volumes north of Madison are lower than volumes south of Madison.

    I think that sometime it makes more sense to separate bikes from major arterials by make “bike boulevards” a street over. I know that portland has done this with success. Even if you give bikers a dedicated lane it is much more pleasant to ride on a neighborhood street rather than a major road.

    A pet project of mine is that the 48 should be upgraded to BRT, and as much exclusive ROW should be set aside for that. I know that there are no plans for that to ever happen but I think that in Seattle we have very few arterials that allow transit to move quickly throughout the city so we just need to be careful what we do with them.

  2. Ben

    I would love to subscribe to your blog, but both the RSS feed and ATOM feed have errors according to IE7.

    Have you heard about this problem before?

  3. davebordoley

    I believe at some point I was tasked with writing this article, but luckily enough Dan beat me to the punch, and is obviously more eloquent than I ever could be.

    Mr. Nickels tear down this wall…

  4. zilfondel

    This looks exactly like 39th avenue in Portland – 35 mph speed limits, 4 lanes of traffic, measly little sidewalks with no buffer between them and the road.

  5. dan bertolet

    Adam, SDOT’s maps show 20,900 per day on 23rd north of Madison, and 15,100 south of Madison. Broadway (and 10th E) has 15,500 and MLK has 14,700.

    Agreed about bike blvds being more pleasant. But if you want to go fast an arterial with a bike lane is better. And many people ride bikes to get places rather than just for recreation.

    I’ll take BRT on 23rd if it means the outer lanes are only used by buses. That would at least give some relief to peds on the sidewalk most of the time.

  6. davebordoley

    Whats the benefit of making the 48 BRT? I could see the benefit of an express route with limited stops to make travel to/from the U-District faster, but in my experience on the 48 the problem is not central district to the U-District, but the U-District to/from greenwood which is painfully slow.

    Personally I would much rather see bike lanes.

  7. So Un-Seattle | hugeasscity

    [...] Pb Elemental is also adept at doing more with less, as the Trophy Building project demonstrates. They have a knack for finding overlooked parcels and turning oddities into opportunities, as in this project on a steeply sloping site just off the south edge of I-90. And they are taking risks with innovative projects in challenging areas, such as this live-work development or these townhouses, both on 23rd Ave in the Central District, an area has had ongoing troubles with street crime and gang activity. [...]

  8. Bike Lanes on 23rd Ave: Patience Grasshopper | hugeasscity

    [...] As previously reported, the City of Seattle’s new Bike Master Plan shows bike lanes on 23rd Ave south of Madison St. Since 23rd Ave is so narrow, the only way this could happen is if the road loses two motor vehicle travel lanes. But because 23rd Ave is such an important north-south arterial, I have always thought it highly unlikely that the City would follow through on the plan and sacrifice car capacity for bike lanes. There has already been one case in which the plan was watered down, on Stone Way in Fremont. [...]

  9. COMTE

    I’m not sure converting 23rd to two-lanes/turn lane/bike lanes makes a lot of sense, particularly since 19th already has bike sharrows.

    On the other hand, reducing the transit lanes and adding a center turn lane does make some sense, since there seems to be an on-going issue with cars needing to make left turns primarily from the north-bound lanes, which can cause some significant backups along 23rd, north of Madison.

    IF the bike lanes could be incorporated into that kind of a structural modification, I could see some benefit, although I have to say, as a daily commuter along 23rd, I seldom see more than a handful of bikes along that corridor between E Union and Boyer, so I’m not sure if this would be more a matter of “if you build it, they will come”, because there doesn’t appear to be, from my observations at least, a pressing need for this currently.

  10. David Hiller

    Enjoying the thread.

    Just getting to the Red Apple from my house is a bit harrowing. Walking or bicycling, you’re a 2nd class citizen on 23rd. It really is a blighted corridor.

    FWIW, the destinations are on arterials – as are the signals that give priority over non-arterial streets.

    While I commute 19th daily, it’s annoying to have to stop and wait at every arterial crossing (only Madison has a light). Real bike boulevards have half-signals at the arterial crossings. With those my commute might be a bit more efficient, but that still doesn’t reconcile the fact that 19th does not bring one to daily destinations.

    So, with the capacitiy of a 3 lane urban cross section being 22,000 vpd – and the current volumes being less than that – it would make a prime candidate for rechannelization. The sooner the better in my mind.

  11. MJH

    Often bike boulevards provide parallel routes to busy arterials where either there is not sufficient roadway to accommodate bicycle lanes, or the conditions deem it unsafe for bicycles, e.g. streetcar tracks. That said, if 19th is in fact a bicycle boulevard, it should have some kind of special signal treatments where it intersects arterials, espcecially at the Union St intersection. Of course the best scenario for that corridor is a rechannelized 23rd ave with bike lanes.

  12. Deciding Between Cars And People On 23rd Ave | citytank

    [...] degrades quality of life and compromises the City’s goals to create walkable neighborhoods. As I wrote in 2008: Because walking along 23rd is a such a totally miserable experience, very few people do it, street [...]

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