My tire wobbled and I swerved to correct my path. A car hissed by me while the driver laid on his horn, just to remind me of his presence in case I hadn't realized from the roar of the 2,000 pounds of steel bearing down on me that he was inches away. Or maybe he was trying to remind me that a bike didn't belong on this road.
Of course, six years ago, the city decided that bikes did belong on this road. After years of study and community engagement, Mayor Mike McGinn proposed, the city council passed, and Mayor Ed Murray signed into law the city's 2014 Bicycle Master Plan. In addition to protected bike routes and pedestrian improvements all over the city, the plan called for nearly three miles of uninterrupted, protected bike lanes on 35th Avenue Northeast, stretching all the way to Lake City. In 2015, voters overwhelmingly approved paying for that plan. In 2017, the city council again agreed to build 1.2 miles of that bike lane. But recently, those bike lanes got scrapped when a bunch of bike-hating homeowners and Mayor Jenny Durkan got involved.
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I huffed and puffed over my handlebars and tried to forget about the bumpers breathing down my neck. My bike hugged close to the parked cars, my mind well aware that a car door opening could send me spinning. Own the road, all the cyclists I'd asked before riding this death trap of a street had told me. But how could I confidently keep pace with this kind of an incline on a road that clearly was not designed with cyclists in mind?
I was making my way up 35th Avenue Northeast, away from the bike-friendly Burke-Gilman Trail and up into the heart of Northeast Seattle, where the internal combustion engine is still king. To make matters more nerve-racking, my peloton for the day included none other than Alex Pedersen, a front-runner Seattle City Council candidate in the November election for this district, who has advocated for the exact dangerous street design we were currently experiencing. He, like the mayor's office, doesn't think we should implement what the updated 2017 Bicycle Master Plan called for.
The city had planned on putting a protected bike lane on this main thoroughfare, until some homeowners and businesses caught wind of the plans and launched a vitriolic campaign against them. In the end, Mayor Durkan bowed to their wishes in favor of continued street parking and wider lanes for cars.
The cars beat the bikes, in other words. But cyclists have yet to back down.
Now bike advocates have renamed the street the "Durkan Speedway" while calling on city hall to go back to the original plan. Mirroring the two-sided debate over the fate of 35th Avenue, the future leadership of Seattle City Council District 4 has come down to a contest between anti-bike-lane candidate Pedersen and pro-bike-lane candidate Shaun Scott. Pedersen thinks cyclists should use a different road; Scott thinks the city should build the bike lanes they'd previously committed to building.
It's one thing for a politician to advocate a position at community meetings, but how would their campaign slogans sound between gasps of breath? Both candidates accepted the challenge to ride the road with me and my editor Eli Sanders, as well as Stranger reporter/photographer Lester Black, but in the end, only Pedersen made the ride with us.
Could Pedersen still argue against bike lanes even as he experienced the dangers of cycling on a road without them?
Just five minutes in, Pedersen was already showing his nervousness at cycling this road. I followed him as he bobbed out of the roadway toward the curb whenever an opening between parked cars presented itself. I gritted my teeth when the parked cars impeded our path and we steered back into the road.
That was (one of the times) when I swerved. Apparently, I have a habit of subtly shifting my whole body whenever I turn my head. That includes turning my handlebars. Not a great realization to make during rush-hour traffic.
We paused near Northeast 55th Street to see if Shaun Scott, Pedersen's opponent, was going to join us. The last I'd heard from him, he was waging a losing battle with a Lime bike.
"Trying to find a way to make it down there but this is really hard," Scott had texted. "I'm not typically a biker and getting around on these streets is really stressful."
I wiped the sweat out of my eyes. "Well, I guess we keep going," I said. Pedersen swung his leg, the one with a high-visibility yellow band cuffing his jeans, over his bike and followed my lead.
Thirty-fifth Avenue Northeast cuts through the middle of District 4. It stretches from University Village up past Northgate. It's a crucial arterial thoroughfare for cars, buses, and—at least in the past—bikes.
The heated debate last year pitted neighbors against one another and turned a planned redesign of almost three miles of 35th Avenue Northeast into an ideological war. The original plan had put two protected bike lanes on either side of the street, which would have eliminating on-street parking along the west side.
Two groups formed to fight it out: One was called Save 35th Avenue, and one was called Safe 35th Avenue. Confusingly similar.
Save 35th was the neighborhood group trying to prevent the bike lanes. The members of this group were angry at city hall, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), the Bicycle Master Plan, and their former council member Rob Johnson. A Crosscut piece from April 2018, which read like an angry post on the neighborhood app Nextdoor, explained the issue as such: "SDOT documents characterized the proposal as a 'paving project' when, in reality, it is a complete reconfiguration of the neighborhood's main arterial." The article said that the neighborhood had not been told about the bike lane plan and that Johnson, then the district's representative, was pushing the plan ahead.
Pedersen claims he wants the city to build an interconnected bike network, just not on main roads like 35th Avenue. He said as we biked that the anti-bike-lane cohort was upset because of "a lack of transparency and forthrightness." The Save 35th group was organized and had "a big voice and an e-mail list that resonated with people about the lack of transparency on the city council," he argued.
Safe 35th, by contrast, was the coalition formed by people who were pro–bike lane and pro-redesign because 35th Avenue is, frankly, a terrifying street for anyone who isn't driving a car. The bike lanes on 35th Avenue, they pointed out, were in the city's long-term Bicycle Master Plan, meaning experts and city officials had already studied the situation and made a decision, and voters had approved that decision more than once. Why should some angry homeowners and a dentist's office get to kill an already planned bike lane that the whole city had agreed to?
Things got even more dramatic when someone planted fireworks at the construction site last summer (Save 35th vehemently denies it was them). Mayor Durkan, like a disappointed parent negotiating with two warring siblings, finally stepped in and hired a mediator to meet with the two groups. That mediator was paid $14,000.
Ultimately, 35th Avenue Northeast was repaved without adding any bike lanes, but it did get a new center turn lane for cars.
Now Pedersen and I were experiencing the reality of the "Durkan Speedway" on two wheels, with cars using the opposite lane of traffic to pass us dangerously within inches of my handlebars and just seconds before other cars would come in the opposing direction. At Northeast 65th Street, we turned right and then took another right onto 39th Avenue Northeast, a side street that runs parallel to 35th that Pedersen thinks serves as a useful cycling replacement for bike lanes on the main street.
While 39th Avenue is safer and calmer, it's far off the main drag where shops and restaurants are. Don't cyclists need to get bread and go to the dentist, too? It's inconvenient for people who bike as their primary means of transportation, cyclists told me, and it isn't a through street. The greenway winds and meanders uphill. It's broken up by the streets that intersect it, and bikes never have the right-of-way. At stop signs, you have to wait for a break in traffic. It feels a bit like a game of Frogger. And then, at 85th Street, the greenway just stops.
As we turned off 65th Street and started down the greenway, we stopped so Pedersen could explain how this meandering route still served cyclists. "We should definitely keep getting feedback from users on how to make greenways better," he said. "We need to be asking cyclists what they need and how to make it better."
Scott still hadn't shown up, so we couldn't hear his argument against this greenway philosophy, but we made a plan to all meet at the neighborhood's brewery, Burke-Gilman Brewing Company. As we breezed down the quiet side street, no longer vying with cars on the bike-lane-free 35th Avenue, Pedersen said he would have to make sure there was room for expanding greenways in the budget. There needs to be "an ongoing feedback discussion" about what happened with 35th to try to "move on from that decision."
We eventually made it to the brewery. Scott showed up wearing a sweater (it was at least 70 degrees outside), shorts, and a sheen of sweat on his forehead. He was holding a brand-new bike helmet in one hand. "I'm running for city council, I'm not biking for city council," Scott joked.
At that point, Pedersen said he had to go. The two posed for a stiff photo together, and then Pedersen was off. That left me to wash away the bike ride with Scott and some IPA. I could see why all my Wedgwood neighbors liked Pedersen. He was charming and thoughtful and seemed to have an understanding of the issues facing his district.
His takeaway from this experience—since he is not a cyclist himself (nor am I, nor is Scott, to put it mildly)—was to listen to more cyclists. He wants to do that with long, thoughtful studies and an intention to carve space into the budget for those studies. That feels like a Seattle Process wet dream that will never happen. It sounds like a vague campaign promise to get cyclists to shut up. And it's kind of hard to take after years of studies that resulted in experts suggesting bike lanes and voters approving bike lanes and then the city setting all of that aside.
But if he's being genuine, and if he does spend time listening to cyclists, Pedersen is going to hear one thing over and over: 35th Avenue Northeast needs to be fixed.