It's Gridlock vs. Bike Lock

Drive times and density, not $3 gas, might be the tipping point for bicycle commuting.

Just when you think Seattle's transportation problems couldn't get worse, they get worse. We're only Initiative 912 and a viaduct-flattening earthquake away from total downtown paralysis. One rogue gravel barge on Lake Washington could sink the Highway 520 bridge, and let's not get started on the bus tunnel's rail-retrofit fiasco. And just when you think politics couldn't get any weirder, Congress appropriates money to build bike paths and President Bush is talking about fuel conservation. He's an avid recreational cyclist and a friend of Lance. So, as in the OPEC-shocked 1970s, bicycling is back in the news as alternative transportation. Mayor Greg Nickels has proclaimed the goal of making Seattle a better cycling town; accordingly, a Bicycle Master Plan is being drafted.

Stand at the corner of Dexter Avenue North and Mercer Street in the morning, or at the Montlake neighborhood's 520 interchange, or at the downtown ferry terminal, and it would appear that droves of commuters are on bikes. Seattle has a great reputation as a bicycle-friendly city, though that warm-and-fuzzy image also reflects scenic trails leading away from the metro area. What about the actual numbers of dedicated cycle commuters headed into town, each reducing congestion, pollution, parking demand, and overcrowding on buses? According to the most recent U.S. Census data, about 1.8 percent of Seattle commuters regularly ride a bike to work. (To put that in perspective, in flat, small Copenhagen it's 30 percent.) When the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) conducted a 2000 count of riders entering downtown by bike, the figure was 1,737, up 57 percent from 1992. Everyone believes that trend has continued. SDOT hopes to count again in 2006. Of the counting, says city cycling liaison Pauh Wang, "We don't do it systematically." But anecdotally, "There seem to be more bicyclists on Dexter."

Meanwhile, on the Burke-Gilman Trail, established in 1974 and wildly popular with University of Washington students and staff, the Cascade Bicycle Club this year measured an 18 percent increase of weekday riders since 2000. Of an 8,010-rider sample, 32 percent categorized themselves as commuters.

Numbers are hard to get—you can't measure cycling with those little rubber strips that SDOT uses to gauge vehicle traffic. And there's more to the story than numbers. Says Barbara Culp of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington: "I'm convinced that the numbers are increasing, but I can't prove it to you. It's much easier to count cars."

Culp doesn't think gas prices alone will be the tipping point that shifts more commuters from four wheels to two. "We would like to see more on-street facilities," she says, meaning more bike lanes and racks, better signage for cyclists (just try to find your way from downtown to Alki), and better integration of cycling into overall transportation planning. That third point refers to what David Hiller, the advocacy director of the Cascade Bicycle Club, calls the "connectivity" issue—like the dangerous snarl getting on or off the Ballard Bridge. Or transitioning from the Dexter Avenue bike lane to that on Second Avenue. Being unable to load your bicycle on a Metro bus rack in the downtown ride-free area. Or just getting across Lake Washington on 520, where buses are limited to two bikes per rack. (If it's the last express run of the evening and the rack is full, sorry, you can't bring your precious Bianchi inside.) Ah, but that all costs money—painting lanes, giving up parking-meter revenue, buying rights of way for bike trails, etc.

Speaking for the city, which doesn't have unlimited resources, Wang says bike- specific improvements are typically "opportunity driven" by other traffic projects, as in Rainier Avenue South's recent makeover from four lanes to a boulevard, which created room for painted bike lanes. Likewise, the planned South End Chief Sealth Trail is being constructed in part with fill from the Sound Transit light-rail excavation. Bike-only improvements, like the Burke-Gilman Trail section completed this past summer west of the Chittenden Locks, require separate funding. Already planned is the Ship Canal Trail link that will connect a path that presently dead-ends west of Seattle Pacific University with the Myrtle Edwards/Elliott Bay waterfront trail. The route now is blocked at Fishermen's Terminal.

And what about the demise of all those parking meters downtown to which cyclists could once lock their bikes, replaced by the new green Paystation kiosks? Wang has a pilot program to retrofit the now-headless meter posts with bike racks. He hopes to install about 150 next year.

PUBLIC MONEY has also gone into the downtown Bikestation (311 Third Ave. S., 206-332-9795,, a public-private partnership run by a California nonprofit organization. Unfortunately, most of that grant just expired, putting the two-year-old operation into crisis mode. Presently, 65 parking spaces are available to members, who pay $30 to $116 per year for 24-hour access. Bikestation also houses a bike shop. Bikestation Executive Director Andrea White insists, "Seattle's latent demand for cycling is really strong," but it would appear that local funding isn't so generous as in California, where Bikestation has four larger operations.

In this distress lies the Bicycle Alliance's opportunity: According to White and Culp, the alliance plans to assume the Bikestation lease, maintain the membership/parking facility, relocate the alliance's Seattle office to the storefront, and move the repair shop to the back. (Bikestation's expert mechanic, Joe Simoneau, will relaunch the shop as for-profit Pioneer Bicycle Repair when the Bicycle Alliance makes the planned December move.) Says Culp, "This will be a great opportunity for us to be more visible." The Bicycle Alliance of Washington has some 2,500 members, compared to about 5,000 for the Cascade Bicycle Club; both actively lobby the city and state and sit on various advisory boards.

ULTIMATELY, OF COURSE, whether the percentage of bike commuters is 2 percent or 3 percent, that small figure is going to be driven, literally, by motorists. The preponderance of funding will continue to go to roads and mass transit, making cyclists feel ever more the beleaguered minority. But funding and its efficacy is increasingly in doubt. I-912, which would repeal a gradual 9.5-cent gas-tax increase that funds numerous road projects, will likely pass next month, squeezing Seattle more into seemingly intractable gridlock. Paradoxically, that will actually favor cyclists. "Congestion has a demand-management effect," says the Cascade Bicycle Club's Hiller. "The spillover goes to other modes. If the viaduct falls, if the 520 bridge swamps . . . " He lets the thought trail off, because this "transportation crisis" sounds like a horror movie.

There's one of Malcolm Gladwell's famous tipping points: congestion and commute times—when it takes longer to drive from the University District to downtown than it does to go by bike. (And SDOT estimates a bike now beats a car during rush hour on that trip by five minutes. My own riding supports this.)

The second tipping point is housing: cost and density. "We're benefiting from years of talking about more livable cities," Hiller says of the appeal of cycle commuting. Both the state's Growth Management Act and the city's planned zoning changes favor closer-in, denser housing, which would bring more people within easier cycling distances to work. (Not all of us can be athletes riding the Burke-Gilman Trail back and forth from Sammamish.) You may not agree with development in the South Lake Union neighborhood, and you may oppose a new urban village in the stadium/shipping district, but those are flat and easy bike rides into downtown. What Hiller calls the "ped-shed" distance equals a mile: the distance which most people are willing to walk before they look for a bus or cab or other option. The "bike-shed" number is three miles. And the Cascade club cites a Puget Sound Regional Council study showing half of all automobile trips are shorter than five miles.

So do you want to live within three to five miles of work? Could you afford to? It's the same trade-off faced by a shopper who buys a $350,000, 3,000-square-foot house in Duvall, then drives to Seattle each morning; or a 1,500-square-foot townhouse in Ballard, close by the bike trail. For the Duvall commuter, $3 gas might add $1.50 or so to the daily drive—latte money, in other words. Over a year, driving a Hummer, the cost would be more substantial. But, the owner might argue, look at the great deal I got on my house.

The Ballard bicyclist has to accept a more cramped lifestyle, and he might already own a Prius. Again, however, it's not the gas money. How much is your time worth during that two-hour, twice-daily commute from Duvall? And how much time might you save by biking from Ballard—or busing, when the weather's crappy—to the office? How much is that time worth?

Those are the numbers Seattle commuters will have to weigh in a post-viaduct, post-monorail, post-gas-tax future. Don't be surprised if the Dexter Avenue bike lanes look even more crowded next year.

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