The Burke-Gilman trail is an incredible transportation and recreational resource for the city of Seattle. Not only do I (along with hundreds if not thousands of others) use it nearly every day for commuting to work from Ballard, I also credit it with getting me back into riding my bicycle several years ago. Jumping straight into riding the streets of Seattle was daunting after growing up in the suburbs and not getting on a bike since my sixteenth birthday; the Burke-Gilman offered me a safe, comfortable place to regain my skills and ultimately opened up the rest of the city to me and my bike.
With special concern for newer riders, and those who are just new to the Burke-Gilman, I have to draw attention to the very unsafe conditions in Fremont at North 34th St and Stone Way. Anyone who's biked through here is probably familiar with the problem. I was motivated to write this post after seeing a bicyclist come within a few inches of being hit by a taxi today, and while I'm tempted to blame the generally manic and dangerous driving of cab drivers here, the fact is that neither the driver nor the bicyclist really did anything egregiously wrong. To see why, we need to look at the intersection.
First, here's the view headed westbound on the Burke Gilman:
I've marked the lanes in question with letters: the space below the "A" between the fence and the dark building is the Burke-Gilman trail, and the space below the "B" is the eastbound car lane. What you can probably gather from this image is that the people going eastbound on the Burke-Gilman (i.e., toward me, traveling down the "A" lane) can't see what's going on in the "B" lane as they approach the crosswalk.
The following image illustrates the scale of this blind spot even better:
For more than 100 feet the bicyclist is unable to see what's going on in the car lane, and vice versa. The problem is actually worse than that, since the car lane is at a higher elevation than the trail up until the building blocks the view, so neither drivers nor bicyclists have any idea what to expect until they get to the crosswalk. And as I highlighted in the above image, the bicyclist is sometimes being told during the length of this blind spot that he or she is cleared to ride through the crosswalk.
Here's what it looks like from the eastbound car lane, at the stop line on 34th St. at Stone Way:
The reason this is a problem, of course, is that crosswalk signals tend to say "walk" when the parallel vehicle lanes's traffic lights are green, so cars can and do take right turns through the crosswalk while bicyclists and pedestrians are using it. And although I'm sure it's technically illegal for a car to take a right turn through a crosswalk without taking due care to look for pedestrians and bicyclists, in practice this isn't done very easily; drivers really can't see who might be coming up from behind that Solsticio building without already starting to encroach on the crosswalk. I'm certainly not trying to defend their actions, but this is at least partially the fault of the road design making it very difficult to see potential hazards (i.e., people).
On the flip side, some of the blame goes to bicyclists who don't slow down enough while moving through the crosswalk. (I'm guilty of this.) Even with a walk signal it's a very risky move to roll through a crosswalk at 15 mph or more when cars just a few feet away have a green light to pass through the crosswalk. We can get indignant about the fact that we have the greater right to the space, and we probably should, but that doesn't change the fact that if there's a collision we're the ones getting hurt.
Currently, the crosswalk signal only says "walk" for a portion of the time that the parallel car lanes are green, so in theory bikes and pedestrians get their chance to get through then cars get theirs. In reality this is a very busy, often backed-up road for cars, and if they see what looks like a clear crosswalk during the walk signal period they're usually going to go for it. If it hasn't happened already (and I'd be very surprised if that were the case), it's just a matter of time before someone is hit and possibly seriously injured. And it's especially likely to be a bicyclist who doesn't know to be wary of cars they can't see until the last minute. Something needs to be done.
What should it be? I'm not sure. Because of the amount of traffic on 34th St during rush hours and the lack of a right-turn-only lane it seems unlikely that we'll see any kind of partial limitations on right turns--if they were prevented until the crosswalk signal said "stop" you'd end up with the one driver waiting to turn blocking dozens of cars behind him for half the duration of the green light. I don't honestly care what the solution is as long as it works, but the first idea that comes to mind is to eliminate all right turns from the eastbound lane of 34th St.:
Alternate route for 34th St drivers, along N Northlake Pl.
At worst this would divert drivers a few blocks, and, based on my own anecdotal experience, many of them are headed east of Gas Works park (which starts at the bottom right of the above map) anyway. A possible compromise could be engineered in which drivers can take a right at Stone Way during the car-only phase but must travel through otherwise, but that might be overly complex.
Regardless of the solution, the city needs to take a look at this and start work on a solution. If the several near-misses I've seen in the past few months are any indication, the status quo is a serious accident waiting to happen.