Whether you’re in a car, on a bike or walking in Bellingham, you have to obey the rules of the road
Drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians will see substantial changes across Bellingham over the next few months, part of a long-term effort among residents and city officials to improve safety on local streets and help people get where they want to go in a variety of ways.
Cordata Parkway, Lakeway Drive, Roeder Avenue, Chestnut Street, State Street and Sunset Drive are among the roadways that will provide new or additional access for bicyclists and people on foot, including expanded bike lanes, pedestrian crossings and new stoplights.
“Balance. That’s what it’s all about,” said Chris Comeau, transportation planner in the Bellingham Public Works Department.
As part of that effort, some roads — such as Chestnut Street downtown and Cordata Parkway on the city’s north side — will lose a lane of traffic to accommodate a “buffered” bike lane.
That bike lane will be similar to the recently expanded bike lanes on Barkley Boulevard east of Newmarket Street, where a lane for cars was lost in each direction to separate bicyclists and drivers.
“It’s not because we want to get a bike lane in there. It’s because we want to make it safer for all users,” Comeau said in an interview.
Bicycling popular in Bellingham
According to the 2014 American Community Survey, Bellingham ranks 21st among U.S. cities greater than 65,000 population with the highest rates of bicycle commuting.
U.S. Census data showed a 60 percent increase nationwide in bicycle commuting from the year 2000 to the 2008-2012 period.
At the Oct. 8, 2018, Bellingham City Council meeting, downtown business owner Sonja Max said that 10 percent of her customers arrived by bike and 25 percent of her staff use bikes to get to and from her building on Prospect Street near the post office.
“I’ve encouraged the city to get out ahead of that type of growth and make sure that part of town stays walkable, bikeable and well-accessed by buses,” Max said. “Prospect Street is becoming a bicycle thoroughfare.”
She praised the addition of bike lanes last year on Barkley Boulevard.
”That makes it so much easier,” she said. “ A whole lane of cars was taken out and a big buffered bike lane was installed there.”
Among other bike/pedestrian projects planned this year, Roeder Avenue will lose some parking during a resurfacing project underway along the waterfront that’s also adding bike lanes and addressing the issue of curbside tree roots that were damaging the sidewalks, causing pedestrians to step lively.
In addition, new or expanded crosswalks will help pedestrians get back and forth across Lakeway Drive and Lincoln Street, both heavily traveled commercial corridors through the Puget and York neighborhoods.
Those crosswalks feature the new red lights that stop traffic, as opposed to the previous ones with only flashing yellow lights.
And for cyclists heading east from downtown toward the Whatcom Falls area, a “bicycle boulevard” is planned along Old Lakeway to get cyclists off the congested stretch of Lakeway Drive that dips downhill from Verona Street to Yew Street Road.
North State Street heading toward Fairhaven is an example of a buffered bike lane that has striping to give riders extra distance from cars.
“I ride that a lot — it’s actually pretty darn good,” said Hilary Higgins, who lives in the South neighborhood and works downtown when she’s not telecommuting.
“It gets a little tricky near the roundabout,” Higgins said in an interview. “(But) if you’re riding as a vehicle and following the rules, then (drivers) have to treat you as a vehicle.”
Higgins, who’s also president of the Mount Baker Bicycle Club, liked the idea of a bike lane heading uphill on Chestnut Street, expanding access to the Sehome and York neighborhoods, and is hoping for more bike access on Lakeway Drive.
“That whole area is gnarly,” she said.
Safe transit for cars, bikes, pedestrians
Bellingham’s focus on safety — and the city’s commitment to a “multi-modal” transit system that works for cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians — grew out of a series of meetings dating to the mid-2000s among elected officials, city staff, representatives of neighborhoods and businesses and interest groups such as bicycle clubs.
“We are implementing the plans that we worked with the public to create and the City Council adopted unanimously,” Comeau said. “You told us what you want, and we’re delivering that.”
City Councilman Terry Bornemann, who announced Monday that he won’t seek re-election, said the focus on bike lanes to foster neighborhood interconnectivity is key among his accomplishments over the past 20 years.
“When I was first elected, Bellingham was still a mill town and the citizens had almost no public access to Bellingham Bay, there were limited trail connections, and no bicycle lanes,” Bornemann said in an email.
Now, Bellingham has 51 miles of “bikeways” — including “bike boulevards” on residential streets and separated bike lanes on busier roads — along the 658 lane miles of city streets, according to the 2019 Transportation Report on Annual Mobility.
Of the 160 miles of bikeways planned for the city’s entire bike network, about one-third was complete through 2018.
There were 161 miles of sidewalk available on the primary pedestrian network out of 260 miles planned, about two-thirds complete, according to the 2019 transportation report.
Paying for roads, sidewalks, bike lanes
Funding for bike lanes and new pedestrian crossings comes from several sources, including sales and gas taxes, the Bellingham Real Estate Excise Tax, a voter-approved sales-tax levy called the Bellingham Transportation Benefit District, state and federal grants, and public-private partnerships.
Comeau said that bike and pedestrian projects are often paired with major resurfacing or other road projects to save time, money and avoid repeated traffic disruptions in the same area.
Much of the revenue is sales tax, he said.
“In order to generate revenue, people have to come here and buy stuff,” Comeau said. “What’s happening in Bellingham has been created by the people who live in lower mainland British Columbia.”
U.S. government border-crossing figures show that Whatcom County has some of the busiest ports of entry in the entire nation: Peace Arch is No. 3, Sumas is No. 7, and Lynden is No. 14.
“People have to remember that our system has to work for everybody. But our system still has to work for our economy,” Comeau said.
“We’re not trying to take away car keys from people,” he said. “We’re simply trying to make it easier for people who choose to (bike). We’re creating opportunities for people to get in and out of downtown.”
New stoplights for pedestrians
Additional 2019 projects include new stoplights to help pedestrians cross more safely on East Holly Street at High Street and on North State Street at Maple and Laurel streets.
All three locations are intersections with heavy foot traffic, Comeau said, because they are near Western Washington University bus lines and student-oriented housing.
“That’s going to make State Street so much better for pedestrian crossing,” he said. “It also will be safer for vehicle drivers not to have to suddenly stop (at a crosswalk) and risk a rear-end collision,” Comeau said.
Comeau said safety was also a factor on Holly Street at High Street, where Bellingham Police have sometimes focused enforcement of a law requiring drivers to yield to pedestrians.
“Our biggest concern right now is pedestrians getting hit in crosswalks,” said police Sgt. Carr Lanham, in a March 2018 interview with The Bellingham Herald.
Spike in pedestrian crashes
Focus on bike and pedestrian safety became a city priority after a rash of serious injuries and two deaths in early 2017, leading to the city’s Travel with Care program.
Crashes involving bicyclists and pedestrians rose in Bellingham over the past decade, but the number of deaths and serious injuries has been relatively stable, according to data from the state Department of Transportation.
In 2018, one person was killed and seven people suffered serious injuries in 50 crashes involving pedestrians in Bellingham, according to WSDOT data.
In 2008 in Bellingham, WSDOT statistics show that one person died and four people were injured seriously in 27 crashes involving pedestrians.
For Bellingham cyclists in 2018, there were no fatal crashes and five serious injuries among cyclists and bike passengers in 33 total incidents.
In 2008, that figure was one fatality and four serious injuries in 27 total bicycle incidents.
“People on foot or on a bike, that so much more vulnerable than people wrapped in a tin can,” Comeau said. “It’s also imperative that drivers understand ... that the public streets belong to everybody. Everybody has to look out for each other.”
Cyclists, pedestrians more at risk
League of American Bicyclists’ 2018 Benchmarking Report, which was released in February and examines data through 2016, found that deaths among bicyclists and pedestrians were at the highest level in 25 years nationwide.
Bicycle deaths increased 14.7 percent on a three-year average, and pedestrian deaths increased by 16.3 percent.
But pedestrian fatalities in Bellingham were dropping prior to the 2017 spike, according to the Benchmarking Report, which showed a 0.2 percent rise in the years 2007-2011 and a 0.6 percent rise from 2012-2016, for a combined 200 percent drop in total pedestrian fatalities over those years.
Bicycle fatality figures in Bellingham were incomplete over those years in the Benchmarking Report, but the 2007-2011 average was zero deaths and the 2012-20916 average was 0.2 percent.
Bicycle fatalities as a percent of all Bellingham traffic deaths rose from zero in 2007-2011 to 10 percent in 2012-2016, the report said.
A survey by Colburn Law of Issaquah lists three Bellingham intersections among the most dangerous for cyclists in the entire state from 2013-2017:
▪ East Magnolia Street at Cornwall Avenue was No. 8
▪ Northwest at Maplewood avenues was No. 12
▪ East Champion at North Forest streets was tied for No. 32
Although Bellingham earns a “bike score” of only 54 out of 100 and a “walk score” of 49 out of 100 from the League of American Bicyclists, the city also gets high marks for bike/pedestrian training and education, for city efforts to promote biking and walking, and the city earned a 2017 silver Bicycle Friendly Community Award in 2017.
It’s listed as the seventh-most bicycle-friendly city in Washington state, and Washington is tops in the nation among bicycle-friendly communities.
Growth drives transportation planning
Safety will become even more important as Bellingham’s estimated 2019 population of 89,045 continues to grow, with a resulting increase in traffic.
In 2008, Bellingham had 79,820 residents, according to U.S. census data.
Bellingham’s transportation report shows that in the period of 2005-2009, 68 percent of residents drove to work, 9 percent car-pooled, 7 percent walked, 3 percent biked, 6 percent rode a bus, and 5 percent worked from home.
By 2013-2017, 68 percent drove to work, 10 percent of commuters car-pooled, 8 percent walked, 3 percent biked, 5 percent took the bus and 6 percent worked from home.
City projections for 2026 show that 61 percent of residents will drive alone to work, 9 percent will car-pool, 9 percent will walk, 7 percent will bike, 7 percent will ride the bus, and 6 percent will work from home.
Alternative commuting methods
Bellingham’s growing network of bike lanes and pedestrian crossings — which are separate from the Greenways hiking and biking trails — will let people walk or bike to work, or to go places easier within their own neighborhood, Comeau said.
To illustrate, Comeau cited a 2015 project on the Alabama Street corridor that added bike lanes and connected parts of Sunnyland and Roosevelt neighborhoods that had been separated for years by the busy street, especially at rush-hour times.
Kirsten Wert, a program coordinator at Smart Trips, which promotes alternative transportation, said Alabama Street is on her route when she rides to work from her home in the Roosevelt neighborhood.
“It’s much easier to turn right,“ Wert said in an interview. “Even on a busy, busy traffic day, it’s much easier.”
Recent improvements along the Illinois Street part of her commute also have helped make her trip safer, she said.
Wert was heartened to learn about the city’s plans for bike lanes in the Cordata neighborhood, including safer bike and pedestrian access to Cordata Elementary School.
That work is being timed to coincide with a neighborhood park on Cordata Parkway between Stuart and Horton roads, which Comeau said officials hope will draw residents on foot and bicycle.
“That will be a big help for bicyclists,” Wert said. “ It’s a pretty street, but with two lanes the cars just fly.”
Building a connected network
Even as traffic congestion worsens in Bellingham, fewer people were biking to work 2016, a 0.9 percent drop from 2010, according to the League of American Bicyclists report.
But more people were walking to work, 8.3 percent, up 1 percent from 2010.
And a Seattle Times poll in January found strong support for more transit options — but not bike lanes, however.
“The less affordable Bellingham becomes, the more driving has to be done,” Comeau said. “As Bellingham becomes less affordable, all these bedroom communities are growing.”
Whether people are biking to work more or not, Bellingham residents tell their leaders that they want their neighborhoods to remain vibrant and viable places to walk and bike and drive.
And that means a connected network of bicycle and pedestrian routes.
“Most of the improvements will have very little effect on motorists in terms of added delay or convenience but will have significant positive impact on people walking, biking and trying to cross busy streets to reach their bus stops,” Comeau said in an email.
“We are not trying to making driving more difficult, but we are trying to re-balance our citywide transportation system, which has been heavily skewed toward auto-convenience for many decades, and make it easier, safer and more comfortable for people walk and bike around Bellingham. That is precisely what all of our publicly created and publicly adopted plans call for.”