The Freight Advisory Board is not ready to stop fighting the West Marginal Way Bike Lane

The Freight Advisory Board is not ready to stop fighting the West Marginal Way Bike Lane
The Freight Advisory Board is not ready to stop fighting the West Marginal Way Bike Lane

After two years of planning, the West Marginal Way is ready to get a protected bike lane to complete the Duwamish Trail … but the freight advisory isn’t ready to give up pushing back. (Scott Bonjukian)

In January, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) announced that after more than two years of planning, it intends to finally install a permanent bike lane along a short stretch of West Marginal Way SW, filling a 0.4-mile gap that has existed for decades along the Duwamish Trail between the low West Seattle Bridge and neighborhoods just south. The project was proposed in response to the closure of the West Seattle Bridge in early 2020, when a large number of drivers were diverted to roundabouts and the city sought to improve routes in and out of West Seattle for people getting around without a car.

Since its inception, the route has faced strong headwinds from freight sector representatives, who raised concerns about the project reallocating street space in one of the city’s “great truck streets,” with the Port of Seattle in the process of upgrading the cargo in Terminal 5 dock near the north end of West Marginal Way . Since 2019, the West Marginal has only one southbound lane to improve sight lines and increase safety around the Duwamish Longhouse. It took until 2021 to install a separate pedestrian crossing at the cultural center. SDOT’s planned protected bike lane would only extend the single lane further north, making the argument that it would reduce vehicle capacity less tenable.

Map of the West Marginal Way with a short stretch of cycle lane shown north of the Duwamish Longhouse
The short protected bikeway, after being discussed for over two years, would take the place of an underutilized curb lane that falls off near the Duwamish Longhouse. (SDOT)

After the project came under intense scrutiny during meetings of the West Seattle Bridge Taskforce by then-Port Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck, among others, the city signed an agreement with the port securing $9 million for repairs to the high bridge. In return, the city agreed to hold off on building any protected bike lanes on West Marginal Way until the High Bridge reopened, among a long list of other provisions. It also required the city to work with the port “to ensure that the design will maximize safety for all modes and minimize freight loading on this Major Truck Street.” Now that the bridge has reopened, the harbor itself doesn’t appear to be an obstacle to construction, but not all property lawyers are ready to give up the fight.

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Seattle’s Freight Advisory Council, a cadre of appointees representing various elements of freight-related business interests, had initially pushed for West Marginal Way SW to be returned to a “five-lane facility” with two lanes in each direction and a center turn lane. The safety project in front of the Longhouse would be removed, a position that hasn’t been repeated since the board got brand new members in 2022. Even as SDOT moves toward building the bike lane, the board continues to raise questions about the project , most recently in a late February meeting that brought out officials from the top of SDOT, Project Development Manager Jim Curtin and City Traffic Engineer Venu Nemani. At this point, SDOT is completing the final steps to reach out before moving forward, and not at the point where the project is up in the air…for now at least. “We are committed to building this project,” Curtin matter-of-factly told the freight board at the meeting. “We’d like to build this, and we’d like to build this soon.”

The focus now is on the driveways along the street, and whether it’s safe to encourage more bicycle traffic along the West Marginal by completing the last link to the Duwamish Trail, which has been open since the 1990s. The busiest driveways are not even along the segment where SDOT is planning the bike lane along the west side of the roadway, but rather are farther south, closer to the SR 99 bridge at 1st Avenue S. The Alaska Marine Lines yard near SW Front Street, the highest volume driveway along the entire corridor , saw 477 trucks go in and out in one day when SDOT conducted a volume study.

A map showing a bunch of driveways, mostly on the segment where there are no planned bike lanes
The Freight Board is focused on the number of trucks exiting and entering driveways, with most of those trucks further south than the planned protected bike lane will be. (SDOT)

Freight board member Stanley Ryter, a project manager at the Port of Tacoma in his day job, wanted to know if there were any number of truck or bike conflicts that would be considered too many for the project to be safe. City traffic engineer Venu Nemani admitted that there may have been a number, but that current conditions are nowhere near that level. Still, no one is seriously talking about moving the existing path, and people who ride bikes can’t just be directed to use another street, especially where there is no real alternative like West Marginal. If anything, SDOT’s data suggests drivers of non-goods vehicles are a greater safety risk along the street than people riding bicycles, with 16 crashes involving trucks and other vehicles in ten years and only one involving someone on a bicycle.

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Most drivers travel incredibly fast on West Marginal, many well over the 30 mph speed limit. A speed study conducted by SDOT over a week in late January and early February found that one in four drivers exceeded 45 mph, with about 75 drivers per day exceeding 60 mph, double the limit. But last November, when SDOT installed a pilot bike lane along the stretch where the permanent bike lane is planned, the department saw speeds in the adjacent lane drop by about 5 mph — still not at the speed limit, but a striking data point when viewed by the overall safety environment on the street with the permanent cycle lane. SDOT now sees the bike lane as one element of an overall corridor improvement project, with the goal of making other safety upgrades on parts of the corridor that won’t get a bike lane. The lane itself will make everyone on the street safer, at least according to the initial data.

A big drop in speeds from before the pilot compared to during for one location on the West Marginal
With the installation of a pilot bike lane in November, SDOT saw average speeds in the adjacent southbound lane drop closer to the posted speed limit. (SDOT)

As for the design of the bike lane itself, which has mostly taken a back seat to debate over whether it belongs on the street at all, Venu Nemani called the facility “squeezed to the bare minimum” in terms of width, due to the fact that the other lanes in the street are kept at their widest to accommodate goods traffic. This isn’t going to be a facility that sees the same level of bike traffic as the Alki Trail to the north, for example, but SDOT expects bike and pedestrian traffic to double after the project is implemented. The compromise of the design standards for a bike lane like this is an indication that the department recognizes the primary designation of the street. It’s worth noting that since the early 1990s when the Duwamish Trail was first completed, a bike facility here was envisioned to entice people on bikes to check out the Duwamish Valley, although its value will almost certainly be realized most by people who already cycle to and from the South Park and Highland Park areas.

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A narrow two-way cycle lane on a five-lane street
The planned cycleway on West Marginal Way has a slimmed-down design to accommodate the on-street loading lanes. (SDOT)

As the freight board voted in February to send another letter to SDOT regarding its thoughts on this very short segment of bike lanes, after sending two others (when the board was made up of different members), it seems unlikely that their advocate will get the department to change course at this time. But it speaks to how territorial the freight board is, even with new members, that they aren’t willing to just let SDOT try the project out and see how it goes. In a few months, hopefully that’s actually what will happen.

Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has written for The urbanist since 2015. They report on multimodal transport issues, #VisionZero, conservation and local politics. They believe in using Seattle’s history to help achieve the vibrant, diverse city that we all want to live in. Ryan’s writing has appeared in The Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, Bike Portlandand Seattle Bike Blogwhere they also did a four-month job as temporary editor.

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