Breaking the Vicious Cycle

Seattle has a reputation as a cycling paradise, but there's a lot that has to be done before bike commuting is truly viable for regular folks.

Maybe it was the most recent $50 fill-up for your supposed economy car that did it. Or the most recent price increase in the downtown parking lot you use. Or you went to see Al Gore's global-warming movie and came out feeling like you ought to do something. Maybe all of the above.

But suddenly you're noticing all those people who are commuting to work on their bikes these days—and it seems that there are a lot more of them. And you notice that a lot of them nowadays are just normal schlubs like yourself.

Suddenly, riding a bike to work seems to make a lot of sense.

After all, Seattle has a national reputation as a bike-friendly city. It should be fun and easy, right?

Well, um . . . yes and no.

Sure, it'll probably start out pleasantly enough, especially if the weather is nice. If you live, say, in the U District or Ballard and work downtown, you'll likely catch the Burke-Gilman trail over to the Fremont Bridge, then connect with Dexter Avenue, the "bicycle freeway" into downtown with designated bike lanes on each side. So far, so good.

But then, as Dexter ends at Mercer, reality hits: You're now riding in the midst of auto traffic, and lots of it. You may make a dash over to Second Avenue and take its left-hand-side bike lane—the only one in the downtown area—but that isn't a whole lot better, thanks to an assortment of left-turning vehicles that are prone to making their moves right in front of you as though you don't exist. And then there are the grates and opening car doors.

Dodging them, you get to work, all nice and sweaty and smelling like it, and discover there are no showers at your workplace. Well, maybe tomorrow you can ride slowly so as not to break into a sweat. the hill on Dexter notwithstanding.

Eight hours later, when it's time to go home, you discover that there is no northbound bike lane anywhere on downtown streets. (Third Avenue is closed at rush hour to cars, and bikes are allowed to use it northbound, but it also entails dodging major bus traffic.) So you're stuck making your way back to Dexter by riding in traffic and hoping nobody spills a latte while using their cell phone in their SUV as they drive past you. Better still are the encounters with drivers who believe that they paid for the roads and you didn't, so you better get out of their way. Much colorful language and exchange of hand signals often ensues.

There! Was that worth it?

And it's not just downtown. Commuting to the suburbs can be even worse. If you take the I-90 bike trail to the Eastside (after discovering that the crossing on the floating bridge may look nice, but it's really not very pleasant), you can tool along until it ends abruptly at Eastgate—amid a consistently hostile snarl of auto traffic. And commuting into downtown Bellevue? Fuggedaboutit. That city was built for cars, and city fathers seem intent on keeping it that way. Kirkland, in sharp contrast, is actually fairly hospitable to bikes, while Redmond's self-proclaimed title as the "Bicycling Capital of the Northwest" (due to the velodrome at Marymoor Park) is severely undercut by its poor record in providing bike lanes along its broad boulevards.

Even if you commute to the Microsoft campus, as I did for a number of years, by using the Burke-Gilman/Sammamish River Trail, it's still a two-hour ride. You're inevitably going to want to use the bike-bus option over the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge (which has no bike path). This is the only direct route to the campus, and usually takes about an hour. While Metro's bike racks are superb—easy to use and reliable—there are only two of them per bus, and when you arrive on summer mornings at the Montlake bus stop, there can be 10 or more cyclists ahead of you. It may take a half hour before enough buses cycle through for your turn.

Seattle is supposedly bike friendly, but the system doesn't work very well for commuters.

Renee McMahon

In other words, the Seattle area's oft-touted bicycling system is actually a happenstance, an often broken network that doesn't function particularly well, especially when it comes to providing a complete infrastructure that could encourage people to take up bike commuting.

Andrew Galbraith, who moved here last year from the San Francisco Bay Area—where he also used to commute by bike—has found, in his year of commuting from Fremont to Pioneer Square, that Seattle's bike-friendly reputation isn't everything it's cracked up to be. "I think that it probably got that reputation because people look at things like the Burke- Gilman trail or Green Lake and think, 'Oh, there's bike paths,' because that's what the city is promoting, but the reality of actually commuting is different," he says. "It's one thing for people like myself who are avid bicyclists, but certainly somebody who doesn't bike much and thinks it might be a new way to commute, they might find it frightening. Especially downtown."

A lot of these bottlenecks and dysfunctions have solutions, but they require investment on the part of local government. And for the most part, local government, both at the county and city levels, has tended to treat the bicycle infrastructure more as a boutique recreational amenity, with specialized paths being built here and there, rather than a functioning segment of a regional commuter-transit system.

A 2005 study by the Cascade Bicycle Club, titled "Left by the Side of the Road," found that even though the Puget Sound region boasts a 1,521-mile bicycle network, "many needed improvements are necessary to turn this . . . into a true, working system." It found that 27 percent of the existing network "fails to meet the basic needs of bicyclists. This means that bicyclists attempting to navigate the region face severe safety hazards and sometimes insurmountable accessibility challenges—and there are no practical alternative routes."

Some of this has to do with an entrenched transportation bureaucracy that is often skeptical about the costs and benefits of accommodating bicycles, and that translates into reluctance on the part of policy-makers to make the kinds of changes that might make the network

This is not necessarily for lack of trying. Peter Lagerway, the city of Seattle's longtime bicycle-program coordinator, has been working for a number of years to change the culture and expand opportunities for cyclists from within City Hall. His progress has sometimes been halting. There have been experiments like the Second Avenue bike lane that produced mixed results at best, and others like the decision to remove the large signs along Lake Washington Boulevard reminding drivers to yield to cyclists that have not turned out very well at all.

Sometimes, the city's existing infrastructure, its discombobulated grid system, and its challenging, hilly terrain conspire to make changes difficult if not impossible for road planners and designers. In other cases, there are cultural and civic roadblocks, like the opposition to completion of the Burke-Gilman Trail through Ballard by the businesses adjoining the proposed route.

Nonetheless, Lagerway's long-term project of creating a master bicycling plan for Seattle is finally coming to fruition. Beginning in late August, Lagerway will host a series of public meetings on a draft Bicycle Master Plan, with the first scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 29, at UW's Gould Hall. Lagerway is seeking the public's input and asking for help in identifying specific areas that are problems for bike commuters, as well as ideas for solving them.

"We really have a two-part strategy here," Lagerway says. "One is, first of all, to integrate the bicycle into standard plans so that it doesn't get ignored. But having said that, we obviously now say that it's very important to do a Bicycle Master Plan, and it's going to take it to another level. But it's because it's going to work, and it's going to get off the shelf, and it's going to get implemented, because we've laid the basis in the comprehensive plan and the transportation strategic plan."

Calls for better biking have often been given political lip service.

The general concept is one adopted nearly 20 years ago in Portland. Sometimes called "Complete Streets," the idea is to require that planning and construction for all city street projects take into account not just automobiles but all other users, including bicyclists and pedestrians. It's worked marvelously in Portland, which now boasts a real model bike-commute network that functions well because it is fully integrated.

Lagerway insists that his new master plan integrates the "Complete Streets" concept into Seattle's planning process. But David Hiller, Cascade Bicycle Club's advocacy director, notes that Lagerway's plan would only be adopted by the city as a resolution, which leaves it toothless when it comes to enforcement.

"A resolution can be ignored with impunity. It's guidance," scoffs Hiller. "Seattle is notorious for putting many good words on paper." Hiller says that the CBC is working with city planners and council staffers to prepare an ordinance that, if passed by the City Council, would give the plan some teeth: "We want to be able to get it adjudicated, if need be."

According to Hiller, Mayor Greg Nickels' proposed $1.8 billion transportation initiative, scheduled to go before the voters this November, includes only $63 million (or about 3.5 percent) in line items directed at improving the cycling infrastructure. But Gregg Hirakawa, the city's Transportation Department spokesperson, points out that the larger transportation plan also integrates a planning imperative to improve streets for bicycle use, so its actual contribution to biking in the city goes well beyond those line items.

What concerns people like Hiller is that for years, Lagerway and his fellow bike advocates have been voices in the wilderness, and their calls to make Seattle a better biking community have often been smiled at indulgently, given political lip service, and then placed on the back burner.

"The challenge we have is convincing people," says Kirste Johnson, a transportation planner for the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), "because we see these really small percentages of commute trips from census data [the average in King County has for years been about 2 percent to 3 percent]. When it comes to divvying up pots of money for transportation projects, it's like, 'Why should we spend any more than, say, 3 percent? Why should we put more money towards this when nobody's doing it?'

"I think it's more of a chicken-and-egg thing, where if you don't put more into it, how will you know? There could be more people using it if we made it usable."

But now more people are using it, regardless of usability.

The city is currently developing a master plan for bicycling in Seattle.

Renee McMahon

Back in 2000, a census report found that bicycling was the fastest-growing mode of commuter transportation in the Seattle area, and another count reported a 57 percent increase in ridership between 1992 and 2000. In the past year especially, cycling commuters have become a common sight in Seattle. During rush hour on Dexter, the clumps of cyclists waiting at lights have grown to crowd size, and the bike paths have a steady flow of riders coming and going. The Burke-Gilman between Fremont and the U District likewise has become almost crowded.

Exact numbers of riders and the frequency of their trips are hard to come by, but there are some rough indicators of the growing popularity of bike commuting. One of these is the annual Bike to Work Day held in mid-May; in 2001, some 6,500 people participated. According to Chris Cameron, the Cascade Bicycle Club Education Foundation's commute director, that figure had climbed to 10,000 by 2005. This year, there were 15,000.

Cameron estimates that, this summer, as many as 12,000 people a day are commuting by bike in the Seattle area.

What's perhaps most notable about the change is the kind of people who are commuting by bike now. For many years, bike commuters have often been the most zealous cyclists, very fit, often boasting the latest gear and fast bikes as they zipped to their jobs. Most people couldn't relate.

Nowadays, you're more likely to see a middle-class professional with ordinary clothes and an ordinary bike trundling to the office. And as the image has changed, so have perceptions and motivations.

Ballard resident Jesse Christianson's commute to Madrona takes about 45 minutes. "I think for me it's about getting the exercise and not having to sit in a car," she says. Whereas cars tend to turn people into enclosed objects, there's a human dimension to biking that she appreciates. "You get to meet a lot of people who are really friendly. And then sometimes you're just riding on your own. But generally, I like being on my bike and being available to people, and have them be available to me."

The PSRC's Johnson, who also commutes to work by bike, says she consciously tries to cultivate a "normal image" when she's riding: "When I ride, I try to wear regular clothes as much as possible. I'll wear things like a pair of shorts under my pants or one of those liners. I want other people to look at a middle-aged woman, which I am, and think, 'You know, she's just a normal person.' I want it to look accessible, and not unachievable. I think one of the things that keeps people from riding is that they think they have to get a new wardrobe. They don't."

While no one is certain exactly why there are significantly more bike commuters out there, nearly everyone observing the trend notes the rise in gasoline prices as well as concerns over global warming and the pollution caused by automobile use as certain contributors. But the most significant underlying trend, they say, is the general growing acceptance of the very notion of bike commuting. The public perception of bike commuters is transforming rapidly—especially the more that people do it.

"It used to be that we were always having to do bike counts because we had to prove that if we spent X dollars we could get that many more people to use their bikes," says Lagerway. "The issue now never really comes up. If we build it, we know there are going to be bikes there. The issue now is, do we want all those bicyclists here? The people who are concerned about bike facilities are not saying it's a waste of money because nobody will use it. They're saying we don't want it because of precisely the opposite—it's going to get so much use, and we don't want that."

This change is critical to making bike commuting work in Seattle, because the relationship between cars and bikes has been historically tendentious here, and remains so. Nearly everyone who commutes by bike has tales—usually in multiples—of tangles with rude, threatening, and sometimes simply stupid drivers. The favorite: getting "doored" by someone who forgot to check their mirror before getting out of the car next to a bike lane. Ouch.

I've been called an asshole just for biking on Lake Washington Boulevard.

One of the real underlying problems is the entrenched sense of ownership of the streets by car drivers. Most of us have encountered, on a number of occasions, drivers who yell at us to "get off the street!" I've been called an asshole just for biking on Lake Washington Boulevard—which was built in the 1890s, before the advent of cars, as a bicycle route. It was a major tourist attraction for Seattle visitors.

So briefly, a reality check: There have been several studies (including one in 1995 from the Bicycle Transportation Alliance) that have established that bicycle riders actually subsidize the roadways for people in cars, and the logic for this is fairly simple. Nearly all bicycle riders also contribute, whether as property owners or renters, to the property-tax systems that underwrite most of our roadways, as well as other taxes—federal and state— that do so as well. Most also own cars, so they're also paying licensing fees and other associated charges that contribute to roadway construction. The only tax they're not paying—when they bicycle, anyway—is the gas tax, which only contributes a portion of the cost of roadway construction. In contrast, the amount of road wear that bicycles cause is insignificant next to that produced by cars and trucks. So bicyclists wind up paying significantly more in road costs than automobile drivers.

On the other hand, some of the animus coming from automobile drivers can be well earned. Some commuters—especially the inexperienced ones—are capable of all kinds of dangerous stupidity, including riding against traffic or without a light at night. And then there are the downtown bike messengers, whose athleticism and grace—as well as their competitive drive—can be awe-inspiring, but whose open flouting of traffic laws often leaves mouths agape and people stuck in traffic chafing.

Among the people who chafe the most, though, are the law-abiding cyclists. The scofflaws create a hostile environment for other bike riders, if for no other reason than they are so conspicuous. Drivers notice them because, well, they pull stunts that get your attention. And they certainly create an image of cyclists as people who see themselves—perhaps by dint of their superior virtue as physically fit nonpolluters—as somehow above ordinary traffic laws the rest of us have to obey. If you talk to some of them, you'll find that that attitude really does exist.

In the meantime, the law-abiding and conscientious cyclists go unnoticed, because they're trying to be. A skilled and experienced bike commuter is usually good at blending into traffic so that your encounter with them hardly registers.

The Cascade Bicycle Club's Hiller notes that every bloc of roadway users includes some lawbreakers, but for a community trying to gain credibility, as bicyclists are, the "scofflaws definitely hurt," he says. "It's important for cyclists to be seen as cooperative, law-abiding co-users of the roads, and when people ignore the law openly, it hurts."

The relationship between cars and bikes in Seattle has historically been tendentious.

Renee McMahon

The recent arrests of a couple of cyclists participating in a Seattle Critical Mass demonstration (in which large numbers of riders traveling in a crowd intentionally clog city streets) by King County Metro Transit police—the brutality of which raised a lot of eyebrows—underscored the cultural tensions that continue to exist between cyclists and motorists in Seattle. While the sheriff's office defended the arrests as appropriate, even County Executive Ron Sims wondered out loud just how necessary it all was.

Bike commuters have, by themselves, created their own sort of critical mass— one that seems to have undermined, if not erased, the long-held doubts about the effectiveness of building a bicycle-friendly infrastructure. If we build it, they will come.

There's a building principle involved: "Bicycling isn't terribly dangerous," observes Hiller. "The more people that are riding, the fewer accidents there are per cyclist; the accident-injury index goes down. The peripheral awareness of motorists goes up. So if you're thinking of getting out there and joining this growing group of transportation cyclists, you're making it easier for everyone, including yourself. The more bikes that are out there, the safer everybody gets."

That, in turn, helps build a mainstream cycling culture within the community that makes using a bike practical and attractive for more than just commuting.

"Only one out of five trips in the city is a commute trip," notes Lagerway. "It's really important to remember that we're going after all the trips. And a commute trip, a utilitarian trip, a school trip, a recreational trip—they're all equally important, because those are trips when you're not taking a car."

What makes it all tick is a robust infrastructure that creates a functioning network, enabling people to get to their libraries and grocery stores as readily as they might ride to work.

Necessity, however, may prove the biggest reason for Seattleites to start biking to work. Seattle is pretty much built out in terms of its traffic capacity, and as volumes continue to increase, traffic speeds are going to bog down even further. It's already easy for bikes to keep up with cars downtown because of the decreasing speeds, and as things get more and more jammed up, it's easy to outdo them. That's only going to become more the case in coming years.

"I'm very optimistic about the future of bicycling in Seattle," says Lagerway. "It's a built environment, but at the same time, the disadvantage that we have in the sense that it was built years ago and we only have so much room, it's also our biggest advantage. Because we're really at a point now where we cannot build our way out of congestion. The space isn't there, the dollars aren't there. We're not going to tear down buildings to widen streets. There is no other alternative but to do something other than be in a single-occupant vehicle if Seattle continues to grow. So once we get more people on bicycles, well, success builds success."

David Neiwert is a Seattle freelance writer and author who also edits the Web log Orcinus. His most recent book is Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow