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Seattle's Missing Out on the Value of Motorcycles

Other cities, including Kirkland and San Francisco, are encouraging people to get out of cars and onto scooters and motorcycles. Seattle is mired in process on the question.

By Matt Fikse

Visit the City of Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT)website, and one finds exhaustive transportation plans and a section on "tools to get around" that includes: transit, carpooling, biking, walking, car sharing and "car ownership." The city has "master plans" for both bicycling and pedestrians and an array of minor policies on transportation topics, including a law from a few years back that authorizes Segways to roll on sidewalks.

Above: San Francisco's more progressive salute to motorcyclists, provides far more parking spaces for bikes than Seattle today.

But in terms of both policy and promotion, Seattle misses one significant urban transportation option that other cities have robustly engaged: motorcycles and two-wheel-with-engine vehicles like scooters.

As a recent example, the city's 96-page Draft Transit Master Plan, which of course focuses on public transit issues, nonetheless manages to ignore motorcycles (1 mention) as a transportation choice, while still relating to other modes like bicycles (268 mentions) and automobiles (319 mentions) in its various analyses.

Sound OFF Seattle Riders!

We know Sound RIDER! readers like to sound off, so we got the key names you can email or call to let them know your own thoughts.

Start with:

Peter Hahn, Director, Seattle Department of Transportation            peter.hahn@seattle.gov
206-684-7623

Then move on to:

Tom Rasmussen, Seattle City Council, Chair, Transportation Committee      tom.rasmussen@seattle.gov
206-684-8808

Every call and email is one step toward making a difference.

Whether it's a case of benign neglect or a bias against bikes-with-engines isn't clear, but many other cities do much more to incentivize and support urban motorcycle use as a green, low cost, efficient mobility option that provides a range of benefits.

When it comes to motorcycles, the most compelling policies�and most civic arguments on the topic�tend to be about the pricing and availability of parking. We need a much richer discussion of the possibilities.

One recent convert to the value of motorcycle-supportive policies is the city of Boston, which has followed other cities and implemented a motorcycle parking program to "encourage the use of environmentally friendly modes of travel" and "forward the city's sustainability goals," says Vineet Gupta, director of policy and planning for the Boston Transportation Department. "More and more residents and visitors have adopted scooters and motorcycles as their primary means of transportation," says Gupta, a trend that the city aims to support. Boston's new individually metered moto parking spaces have been a popular addition since being installed in several Back Bay locations.

Another case is Portland, Oregon, where the city operates a network of SmartPark parking garages in the urban core. Monthly parking rates for motorcycles were lowered to $30 a month (compared to $165-200 for cars) to incentivize two-wheeled commuting. In part, this was a recognition that motorcycles take up dramatically less real estate than cars, with four or five occupying a single car-sized space. In a welcoming nod to moto commuters, Portland goes so far as to offer free lockable pouches for motorcyclists to keep their parking payment stickers from being stolen.

In Seattle there are about 285 paid, dedicated motorcycle parking spaces and 30 non-paid dedicated spaces, about 315 total. A few years ago, the city changed local law to enable motorcycles to park without the usually required permit inside Residential Parking Zone (RPZ) areas, but other than that, motorcycles pay the same rates as cars in metered parking areas throughout downtown�no matter that several motorbikes can fit into a car-size parking space.

Before the arrival of the latest parking meter technology, multiple bikes could share a meter when they shared a space. Now, ever motorcycle must pay the full ride, even though they occupy a fraction of each Hummer-sized parking space.

For motorcyclists, San Francisco's policies are the urban holy grail. SF has done the most of any American city to embrace motorcycling, with 2,730 dedicated and widely distributed motorcycle parking spaces�nearly ten times as many as Seattle for a population that is only about 40 percent greater. According to Kristen Holland of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority, "Over the last 5-10 years, the SFMTA has steadily and slowly increased the number of on-street motorcycle spaces. While not part of a formal policy, a general position of support of motorcycling as one of many customer groups continues at this agency." Holland adds that the city routinely installs spaces wherever there is demonstrated demand and it accepts "proposals on a grass roots level through petitions and requests from residences and businesses."

Meanwhile, in Seattle, SDOT representatives talk through the issues in a "Seattle process" way:

"As we look at updates to our city's high-level policy and planning documents such as the Comprehensive Plan and the Transportation Strategic Plan, it may make sense to more formally call out approaches to prioritizing motorcycles and scooters," says Mike Estey, SDOT's Parking Operations and Traffic Permits Manager. "We've been asked on several occasions to consider a different on-street parking rate for motorcycles. There are policy implications for considering different rates not just based upon the size footprint of a vehicle, but on its impact on the environment (i.e., electric and hybrid vehicles) as well as its ability to carry multiple commuters and take vehicles out of traffic (i.e., vanpools.) It is challenging to determine how and where to draw those lines.

"On the motorcycle and scooter side, there are older scooters and motorcycles that produce more harmful emissions than cars. On the other hand, asking our parking enforcement personnel to distinguish one type of two-wheeled vehicle from another provides its own challenges. Also, cities like San Francisco can more easily charge separate two-wheeled rates because most of their paid parking technology is smart single-space meters that can be individually programmed. In Seattle where we have pay-and-display multi-space meters, it's harder to account for different uses and rates with one pay station on a block and several different potential types of vehicles parking there. We'll continue to think this through, but there are a lot factors in play."

Lots of factors, no clear strategy. Simply increasing the number of dedicated motorcycle spaces, dramatically, would be a place to start. Finding a way to enable lower motorcycle-specific parking rates (aren't there hundreds of old single-space meters in surplus somewhere?) would be a good step after that. Every parking space filled with four or five motorcycles means fewer cars, likely more available parking for cars, lower emissions per commuter and faster commutes for those who ride.

If the city were to develop a motorcycle strategy (other than indifference) as part of its transportation planning, it would likely be met with strong support in the community.

Daniel McIntosh operates an online community for motorcycle riders and enthusiasts that has more than 23,000 user accounts and serves as a regional social network across the Pacific Northwest, PNWriders.com. McIntosh frequently rides his Kawasaki to work downtown and has had his bike "towed" at least once. His blunt assessment: "Downtown Seattle is horrible for motorcycles. The city does nothing to incentivize people to ride. Seattle could get creative in a lot of ways." He adds that "Kirkland does a better job, probably the best in the state of Washington, in working with motorcyclists."

In a straw poll conducted on PNWriders.com for this article, motorcyclists who ride into downtown Seattle at least once a week chose "more parking spaces that are dedicated to motorcycles" as their top request. Those who ride downtown less frequently, but at least once a month, chose "lower parking rates for motorcycles" as their most requested improvement. All unscientific, of course, but an expression of significant demand and support.

As the City of Seattle begins the process of updating its Transportation Strategic Plan, somewhere in the mix of a robust local community of enthusiasts, examples of how other cities are doing this better, and acceptance of the potential for motorcycles to be a growing urban transportation mode, it will find the conceptual building blocks for a Seattle motorcycle strategy that is more effective for riders and city alike.

MF/Summer 2008


Matt Fikse is a management/communications consultant and former Director of Special Projects for the Mayor of Seattle. He rides a Kawasaki ZZR 600. Email: mattfikse@gmail.com | twitter: @mattfikse


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