Spring is in the air — perhaps a little early, but the sun and budding trees are here nonetheless. This also means that Islanders are out on the paths and in the parks; whether cycling, walking or skateboarding along.
The City Council could not have picked a better time to review and update its Pedestrian and Bicycle Facilities (PBF) plan. The extensive project, which is a constant work in progress, includes months of tweaking, implementation and completion. Although the final draft is set to be brought before City Councilmembers later this spring, the Council reviewed the hefty packet at its Feb. 16 regular meeting. In particular, the city focused on changes that the PBF Planning Commission has proposed.
The main topic of conversation surrounded cycling accommodation plans for the “Island loop,” which includes East and West Mercer Way. Ideas about introducing sharrows — painted signs delineating the direction in which cyclists must ride — and official bike lanes have been popular. Last week, however, city staff announced that bike lanes will not be possible along East and West Mercer Ways.
Planning Commission member and former mayor Bryan Cairns explained.
“We have fought the fight for many years with the definition of bike paths on West and East Mercer. They are not officially paths,” he explained.
So what can the city do to help protect cyclists navigate the windy perimeter of Mercer Island without feeling endangered by cars? One suggestion, Cairns said, is “that we remove the road buttons on that area.”
Meanwhile, the city is widening the road where it can. Although there is simply not space for a four-foot strip — the state width required to technically become a bike path — the city has created nearly three feet of space in long stretches of the East and West Mercer shoulder.
A new pathway set for 48th Avenue S.E. will also help cyclists get from the South end to the North end via Island Park.
As for the decision to throw sharrows out of the plan, Councilmember El Jahnke, who serves as a liaison for the Planning Commission, explained.
“Because there are shoulders on both sides of East and West Mercer, cyclists and Islanders will go around the Island whichever way they want,” he said, adding that sharrows would most likely be disregarded and create confusion.
Another issue that the City Council has brought up several times, in response to complaints from Islanders, is the large groups of cyclists called pelotons that circle the Island.
The city inquired as to whether the Island could pass a regulation against pelotons, which are very difficult for drivers to pass. However, according to City Attorney Katie Knight, Mercer Island cannot prohibit the professional riders from cycling around the Island.
“There is a [state] law that says cyclists are required to ride one or two next to each other. We can’t write a law telling them to ride single file, because it undermines the law that says they can ride two abreast,” she explained.
Yet Councilmember Dan Grausz was not satisfied by this answer. He argued that two cyclists riding abreast is not the same as a huge pack of peloton cyclists together.
“What angers everyone most is pelotons. Before we throw this out, we must be very solid with our legal stance on it,” he said.
Councilmember Jahnke supported Grausz’s point.
“We can’t pass an ordinance that conflicts with state law, but we can pass an ordinance that is more restrictive with state law. So why can’t we do that in this instance?” he asked.
The city will look further into the peloton concern.
Other changes that the PBF Planning Commission made to the draft include adding the term “safety” to its guiding principles — “facilities provided to the plan shall be designed to provide a safe system of facilities for all user groups” — restricting cycling on the sidewalk in front of the Park & Ride and rewriting the language in several sections for clarification.
Several open meetings, designed to gain input from Islanders, have been held on the PBF plan, the last one being in August 2009.
After discussing the draft on Feb. 16, Councilmembers directed staff to prepare a PBF plan ordinance for first-reading on March 15.