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Will Seattle Get Serious About Making the Roads Safe for Bikes?

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Bradley Hanson
UNSAFE CROSSING A cyclist risks his life at the end of the Ballard Bridge.

"Okay," says my guide. "Now we're basically going to put your health and personal safety in jeopardy."

We are at the Ballard Bridge, on our bikes, on a drizzly Sunday morning. A spray of soggy road grime, kicked up by my rear tire, coats the back of my jacket. My guide, David Hiller, is taking me on a tour of some of the most frightening spots for bikers in Seattle. He is the advocacy director for the Cascade Bicycle Club, the largest biker-rights group in the Seattle area, and he has brought me to the southwest end of the Ballard Bridge to scare the shit out of me.

"Ready?" he asks.

Before Hiller scares the shit out of me, I want to tell you, dear reader, that I don't scare easily. I'm pretty fast, I don't get spooked in traffic, and I carry the limited street cred of having been a bicycle messenger one summer. I am, however, a mostly fair-weather cyclist, which is why I didn't stick around for the slog through winter as a messenger (hence the limited street cred). I don't enjoy riding in the rain. My one wreck as a messenger involved a slick sewer grate, a steep downtown hill, and a drizzly day like this one.

"We go after this car," Hiller says.

The car is tearing across the Ballard Bridge, heading south just like us. Because metal bridge grating can be like ice for bicycles, Hiller and I are on a separate, concrete-coated path, the kind of bike path that can be found on all three of the bikable bridges that crisscross the ship canal between Lake Washington and Shilshole Bay--the Montlake Bridge, the Fremont Bridge, and the Ballard Bridge. The ship canal cuts off the city's heart from its northern extremities, and to do any long north-south bike ride in Seattle one of these bridges must be traversed. None is perfect for bikers, but the Ballard Bridge is a special kind of nightmare.

At the southwest corner of the bridge, where Hiller and I are straddling our bikes, waiting for the car to pass, there is a small cut in the low curb that separates the bridge's bike path from car traffic. "Bike path" is a bit of a misnomer on the Ballard Bridge. The path is so narrow and so close to the rushing traffic that if feels more like a gangplank. On one side is speeding traffic, on the other side a long drop into the ship canal. Two bikers, headed toward each other along this path, wouldn't have room to pass without colliding, with one likely ending up in traffic, the other perhaps in the water. This curb cut that Hiller and I are now staring at is meant to integrate riders back into traffic after they have ridden the gangplank south across the bridge. It forces bikers to merge almost perpendicularly into traffic that is going 40 miles per hour. Much of this traffic wants to turn right a few feet beyond the curb cut, directly across the biker's path. If a biker makes it past this merge and turn alive, he or she is on 15th Avenue West, a howling road with no bike lane that connects to Elliott Avenue West, another howling road with no bike lane that leads into downtown.

The car passes.

"Go!" says Hiller.

* * *

Bridges are potent metaphors, usually employed to signal an uplifting connection between opposing forces, but Hiller likes to employ Seattle's bridges as a metaphor for disconnect. He believes the design of the city's bridges is a good metaphor for the wide gulf that exists between the consideration given to the needs of automobiles and the consideration given to the needs of bikers.

Perhaps you are thinking: Well, I'm not surprised that a city designed around the needs of the car would have a transportation infrastructure biased in favor of the automobile. To you Hiller says that he is not concerned with original intent. He's concerned about current intent, which, according to Mayor Greg Nickels, is to make Seattle the most bike-friendly city in the country. It's not just the mayor pushing this--Nickels' transportation director, Grace Crunican, has been heard speaking of the need to "curb the auto." The city's most recent transportation planning directives tout the benefits of maximizing bike use as a way of decreasing car congestion and pollution. Next year, the city will begin work on a Bicycle Master Plan, meant to chart the steps necessary to achieve the mayor's goal.

In the meantime, there is the Ballard Bridge, the poster child for how far the city has to go. Hiller and I are now speeding away from the bridge, down 15th Avenue West, which is one of those streets on which most bicyclists feel outmatched and vulnerable, like a rickshaw on the autobahn. I keep looking over my shoulder to see if any screaming trucks or mad SUVs are coming down the lane I'm riding in.

As we ride, Hiller begins to talk about Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1878 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized racial segregation. It seems a strange detour in the conversation, but I shouldn't be surprised. The language of biker rights often overlaps with the language of civil rights, and in bringing up this outdated case, in which the Supreme Court legalized segregation by saying it could exist as long as the separate accommodations for blacks and whites were equal, Hiller is trying to explain what bikers like him want, which is really quite modest, even retrograde.

Unlike most other American minorities, bikers, he says, desire segregation along the 1878 model of separate but equal (which was struck down in 1954, when the Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that separate is always inherently unequal). Hiller would be fine with it being 1878 for bikers. He wants separate but equal accommodations along the city's streets in the form of well-marked bike lanes, designated bike paths, and thoughtful intersections whose design considers the needs of bikes. Like the divided railroad cars that were at the center of the Plessy case, Hiller's ideal roadway would be divided into equally usable spaces for bikers and automobiles.

Next stop on our tour is the Fremont Bridge, Exhibit B, which is currently undergoing a $31 million renovation to make it more user-friendly. To get to Exhibit B, though, we first have to ride past another potential death trap for Seattle cyclists, also known as the most infamous set of railroad tracks in the city. It is near the Ballard Bridge, on Northwest 45th Street, where the eastern spur of the Burke-Gilman Trail ends behind the giant Ballard Fred Meyer. Railroad tracks imbedded in concrete--like the tracks on Northwest 45th Street--are dangerous for bikers because it's easy to catch a bike wheel in the narrow channels they create. On a bike, you don't want to cross these kinds of tracks at anything other than a 90-degree angle to avoid going down. But the city, in an effort to keep bikers out of the path of cars on this street, directs bikers over and back across these tracks at wheel-catching angles in a strange slalom along the side of the road that makes no sense and causes, according to Hiller, a lot of bike accidents. Whenever I'm on Northwest 45th Street, I ignore the city's suggested bike path, and ride the wrong way down the car-traffic lane. It feels safer, even if it's not actually safer.

* * *

We arrive at Exhibit B, the Fremont Bridge, where, in the early planning stages of its current redesign, according to Hiller, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) "spent $45,000 counting cars, and not a dime looking at the movement of bikes and pedestrians over the bridge."

The Fremont Bridge is the most heavily traveled bridge by bicyclists in the state, according to Hiller. And in the 17 census tracts around the bridge, one finds the highest concentration of bike commuters in all of Washington. Biker advocates wanted these numbers considered too, plus they wanted certain approaches to the bridge, which can be dicey for bicyclists, improved at the same time that travel for cars was being improved.

In a strongly worded letter sent by the Cascade Bicycle Club to Mayor Nickels last year requesting "immediate intervention" into the car-centered planning process at the Fremont Bridge, the club's executive director, Chuck Ayers, wrote: "The nature of the failures on this project is representative of endemic failures within SDOT. This is largely because SDOT has no policy mandating that bicycles and pedestrians be routinely accommodated...." In other words, SDOT had no policy mandating separate but equal.

Patrice Gillespie Smith, chief of staff for SDOT Director Grace Crunican, admits there was a problem early on, but that the director moved quickly to fix it, and that policies should soon require "routine accommodation" (separate but equal) for bicyclists in new construction. "Immediately when she found out about the bicyclists' concerns she had staff develop a response," Gillespie Smith said.

Hiller is pleased that the city is now working to improve the bike approaches to the Fremont Bridge, but the fight over the bridge is also emblematic of the modesty of the current biker-rights movement, which basically says to the city, whenever it is building or rebuilding a road: "Remember us on the margins, please."

* * *

With a tip of the hat to Stranger writer Charles Mudede, who can work a tenet of Marxism into almost any story, I would like now to briefly mention Marx's theory on the three stages of economic development. Basically, Marx believed that the imperfections of feudalism would give rise to the need for capitalism, and that the imperfections of capitalism would then give rise to the need for communism. Leaving aside the issue of whether one thinks Marx was correct, I'd like to propose a parallel theory on the three stages of bike-transportation development.

The first stage would be the car-centered city, a stage whose imperfections we are all familiar with. It has helped produce, to name just a few things: environmental degradation, sprawl, terrorism funded by our oil dependence, global warming, and the obesity epidemic. The second stage would be the one Seattle, at the direction of Mayor Nickels, is trying to get to: the stage of modifying the existing corridors of the car-centered city to accommodate both bikes and cars--the stage of compromise, of separate but equal, of bike lanes divided from car lanes. The imperfections of this phase will be similar to the imperfections of racist "separate but equal" policies; as with with white-supremacist thinking, car-supremacist thinking is not likely to create a biking experience separate but equal in comfort to that of driving.

The final stage may be as hard for Americans to get their heads around as Marx's third stage: communism. But it is not hard to picture. It would look a lot like the images we see of intersections in developing Asian countries, where there are no separate lanes for bicycles, but rather a chaotic integration in which bicycles fill the street along with cars, rickshaws, pedestrians, and other locomotion. It turns out, against all of our American intuition, and also against our penchant for order and clean division, that this kind of anarchic arrangement is actually safer. When a road isn't divided up for cars, pedestrians, and bikes, no one group feels like they own the road. With no one feeling like they have more right to the road than anyone else, people start looking out for one another.

Thus, at the cutting edge of Western traffic planning these days are a number of European planners who are coming to embrace this chaotic arrangement. They are ripping the signs and stoplights out of intersections in the Netherlands, for example, and erasing the road lines drawn for cars. With no mode of transportation being given favor over any other, and everyone left to share the public road space, things are actually better for bikes, cars, walkers--everyone.

A modern society will always need freeways, or high-speed trains--ways to cover long distances between cities quickly--so no one is arguing that rickshaws should be allowed on the high-speed train tracks or a mass of bicycles allowed on the highways. And bridges with metal grating like the Ballard Bridge will also always need separate concrete paths on which bikers can cross. But on the streets of a city like Seattle, across the shorter distances between neighborhoods, there is a higher goal than separate but equal. As this city prepares its Bicycle Master Plan, it should keep in mind not just its stated fantasies of an "urban trails" network of separate bike paths and bike lanes, but also the images of chaotic Asian roads. Lengthening the Burke-Gilman Trail is a fine idea, but it's not the highest evolution of bike friendliness. A dense urban chaos that de-centers the automobile (really "curbs" it, to use Crunican's word) could be better for cyclists, and safer.

And who knows? When that happens, and biking becomes a more appealing option, we may only need two lanes for cars across the Ballard Bridge, leaving the other two to be made into wide, concretized thoroughfares for cyclists. That would be a revolution.

 

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