Monday, August 17, 2009

Why the Zig-Zag Route?

A new section of the Interurban trail opened about two years ago, offering a welcome overpass over the busy intersection of Aurora and 155th, and another one over Aurora itself just a long block to the north. For a north-south commuter like me this is a great addition to the trail system. In 1993 I used to commute this route without any trails, and the best option at the time was to ride right on Aurora between 155th and 145th. Ah, to be young and foolish!

So why am I getting ready to complain? Am I never satisfied?

Here's why: to cover the short stretch from the southwest corner of 155th and Aurora to the east side of Aurora at 157th, a biker must negotiate a tight 180° off-ramp that sends you away from where you want to go, around a blind corner at the base of the bridge to head back north again, to a stop sign that doesn't seem to serve any useful purpose (since changed to a yield sign, through a fit of common sense), back up a tight 315° on-ramp, and finally down a more rational north-facing ramp back to street level.

Walkers can shorten the trip by using stairs, but bikes (and wheelchairs) have to follow this tortuous route. I have to ask: why all the zig-zags?I can think of a couple reasons, both of them cynical:
  1. The powers that be do not want bikes traveling at a high rate of speed, so obstructions were put there intentionally. There is a precedent for this: the Burke-Gilman trail through Lake Forest Park was "unstraightened" to slow bikes down as they approached driveway crossings. This is a sin that appears on its way to being corrected; why do more of the same in Shoreline?
  2. The powers that be are clueless about what makes a suitable bike trail.
Although the situation at 155th and Aurora seems almost intentionally obstructionist, I'm leaning toward the second explanation, chiefly based on evidence from the very same trail just a mile farther north. Between 175th and 182nd the trail makes its way along a wide grassy expanse between Aurora to the west and Midvale to the east. Though the two roads are perfectly straight along this stretch, the trail meanders left and right between the two, no doubt for obscure aesthetic reasons. Just before 182nd it lurches to the right towards Midvale, lurches left across 182nd, followed immediately by 90°, 135°, and 45° turns before heading north again. What the...?

It looks for all the world like someone penned in a gracefully meandering trail to serve as counterpoint to the surrounding Cartesian asphalt grid, then smacked their head at 182nd and said, "Whoa, there, we can't cross here next to Aurora, it's too dangerous! Better head over to Midvale!" The result just seems too lame to be diabolical; it must be incompetence.

So as a public service, I hereby offer my expertise as a dedicated bicycle commuter to the poor clueless schmucks trying to spend the trail dollars we've approved. I have a couple principles that, if followed, will make life better for everyone:

  1. Straighter is better. Meandering trails are great for hikes in the country; for commutes through the city they just mean added distance and reduced speed.

  2. Wider is better, too. Pedestrians are safer, collisions are reduced, and bikers are happier.

  3. When bike traffic exceeds car traffic at an intersection, aim the stop signs toward the cars, not the bikes.

  4. Sectioned concrete is great for sidewalks, but it's terrible for bike trails. Use asphalt, please.
In many places bikes are still not seen as real vehicles, doing real business. Eventually the word will get out that there are large numbers of us for whom bike riding is a way of life, not a weekend diversion. Shoreline hasn't got the message yet, but the changes coming to the Burke-Gilman trail in Lake Forest Park give me hope that other places have. The future is on our side. Let's all do our best to make it come sooner rather than later.