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Seattle has a strong Bicycle Master Plan and rich array of facilities, but still a long way to go to be a truly “bike-friendly” city.
By Erik Neumann
The bike community is not unified, but broken into pockets of culture here and there: racers, activists, freak-trikers, and commuters. It’s a city that’s confusing, but also constantly refreshing.
This morning, I’m sitting at a coffee shop called Monorail Espresso. It’s a coffee shop in the smallest sense of the word. Opened in 1980 as Seattle’s first coffee cart, owner Chuck Beek built a reputation for Monorail on strong coffee, even by Seattle standards. Today, Monorail is mostly known as a bike messenger hangout. At any given time a half-dozen sweaty, moustachioed and tattooed cowboys of the steel horse can be seen sitting out front, where they can watch their bikes, waiting for a delivery. I ask the barista why so many messengers get coffee here and she answers: “Some of us date them, and they get a better discount here than at other places.” As I sit drinking, I’m suddenly interrupted by the clink of a quarter placed on my table. “Bicycle discount,” Beek says before walking back to his shop. “I didn’t see it when you first got here.”
Inspired by the encouraging start to the day I hop on my bike and ride up 5th Avenue into Seattle’s downtown. In the Seattle Municipal Tower, I meet Peter Lagerwey, senior transportation planner with the Department of Transportation. Lagerwey was project manager for the Bicycle Master Plan. His chipper, no-nonsense tone is that of a city official who can quickly cut through public criticism, without sounding patronizing.
“We’ve been in a remarkable period,” he says, discussing the bike plan thus far. “Because of the Bridging the Gap levy that was passed, we have a fair amount of funding available, and we also have a mayor and city council who’ve been very supportive. We have a unique combination of funds and political will.” I ask him why it will take ten years to implement the plan, especially when so many cyclists are looking for signs of change. “Some of the stuff will show up quickly, if they’re signs and paint. Other large capital projects can easily take five years or more to put together and we’re not going to do all of those at the same time. We have a certain capacity in terms of what we can do and also a capacity in terms of the amount of funding.”
Included in the list of projects to hit Seattle’s streets are trails through greenbelts, and new bridges and underpasses across 15th Avenue West, one of Seattle’s most dangerous roads to navigate. Recently a few large on-street bike racks have appeared, taking up one street parking space apiece. One, with a metal car-shaped profile, is a snarky reminder that one parked car can be replaced with enough parking for eight to ten bikes.
Despite what some consider slow progress on the Bike Master Plan and the recent threat of even greater economic drag, Seattle
has a rich array of existing cycle facilities. I head out of the Department of Transportation to my bike, and ride five minutes south to Pioneer Square where I stop in front of Bikestation Seattle. Bikestation is a downtown bicycle parking garage where commuters can store their bikes. Inside its long, skinny storefront are two rows of bike racks. The shop houses up to 75 bicycles, and can be accessed 24 hours a day with an electronic key at the front door. Seattle is the fifth Bikestation site, the other four other facilities being in California.
Next door, in a much quieter and cleaner office, is the Bicycle Alliance of Washington (BAW). Along with managing Bikestation Seattle, this advocacy group lobbies for cycling infrastructure, monitors transportation legislation, and serves as a policy voice for Washington cyclists. Currently BAW is lobbying for a variety of state transportation bills, including the Three-Foot Passing bill (HB 1491) which would legally define cars’ safe passing distance for cyclists as three feet. Another, the Traffic Actuated Signals bill (MB 1403) would require all new street construction in Washington to include traffic signals capable of recognizing bicycles as well as cars. Bike Alliance represents the kind of behind-the-scenes policy work that’s vital to good transportation planning.
Another great thing about Bicycle Alliance is the plethora of free bike maps they have on site, ranging from Vancouver, British Columbia to Portland, Oregon, and everywhere in between. The City of Seattle maps not only include the downtown core, but also routes around Seattle’s outside neighbourhoods and suburbs. Advocacy work, however, means little if it cannot be experienced in real life, so I leave the Bicycle Alliance with a handful of maps, riding west to the Seattle waterfront and the Elliot Bay trail.
The Elliot Bay trail is one of Seattle’s most interesting routes, snaking through Myrtle Edwards Park along the city’s waterfront. I ride past the Olympic Sculpture Park, under a giant insect-like grain elevator and through the Balmer train yard, squished between two fences just wide enough for my handlebars. As I reach the end, crossing the train tracks and 15th Avenue West, I follow signs for a bike path up an on-ramp that will take me to another trail called the Burke Gilman. As cars whiz past, fighting their own centrifugal force, I’m struck by the feeling of being in the wrong place. It feels like I’m about to drop out onto a highway, not a connecting path between two neighbourhoods and prominent bike trails.
Herein lies one of the biggest problems with biking in Seattle: connected bike trails. While the city has made strides with the Bike Master Plan, the biggest hurdle to making bicycle commuting a real transportation option for many Seattleites is the inconsistency of its trail network. Bike lanes and trails often end abruptly at busy intersections. “I wish there was more connectivity,” says Katie Chevalier, a Seattle bike commuter. “Right now everyone does something different. If we’re going to truly be a commuter city you need to be able to get wherever you want to go on a designated route.”
Unscathed from the ride, I arrive in Fremont and dismount at one of Seattle’s oldest bike shops, Wright Brothers Cycle Works. Inside, Italian and French flags hang from the ceiling and a stocky wood stove fills up one corner. Inside, Wright Brothers has a co-op bike space with benches, stands and tool sets, where owner Charles Hadrann teaches classes in bike maintenance and wheel building. This afternoon, a few co-op members are sitting around, tinkering on their brakes and drivetrains in a quiet, mechanical sanctuary.
If new bike co-ops springing up around the country are geared towards young bike punks, Wright Brothers caters to an older cyclist – either in age or aesthetic. Hadrann opened Wright Brothers in 1974. He’s known for his personal wheel-building technique, called “double lacing,” where spokes are actually bent in order to increase the number of contact points where they cross and the strength of the wheel. Wearing a black beret and a mischievous grin, he tells me: “If you care about something enough, you’ll learn how to do it yourself.”
Shops like Wright Brothers and Monorail Espresso are reminders of the pockets of alternative cycling culture alive in Seattle.
It’s a city with a broad ridership – from the spandex sporting, carbon fibre racers to denim-clad cargo bike riders. Shops like Aaron’s Bicycle Repair, 2020 Cycles, Counterbalance, and Free Range Cycles actively support bike culture and community building with seasonal rides and in-store events. Seattle’s bike community can feel disproportionately sporty and upper-class, but a number of organizations are working to promote cycling across the socio-economic spectrum and break out of the 15-25 year-old white male demographic.
Davey Oil is passionate about bikes. And if there’s one thing he’s more passionate about, it’s getting other people riding bikes. When I meet him, he rides up wearing a black, skull-cap helmet and large red sunglasses. Oil, a self-proclaimed “lifelong cyclist” works at Bike Works, a non-profit bike shop in south Seattle, focused on bicycle education for underserved youth. “I think it’s a lot easier for upper middle class, people of privilege to make the choice to cycle, or for cycling to not be foreign to them. If they don’t do it, they have friends who do it. I think it’s something that’s a lot more foreign to people of colour, people of lower income, people of lower socio-economic class,” Oil says. “Cycling is something that has been used as this dandy recreational pastime. It’s like if we were all riding horses to work. We’re that slow, we’re taking up that much room, and we’re shitting all over your neighbourhood. And we’re wearing these stupid clothes. And I think that’s a problem.”
Later that day, Oil’s comments sink in a little more. I’m riding on the Burke Gilman, Seattle’s longest and most functional bike trail. Spanning 17 miles, it is used by approximately 1,800 cyclists on a typical weekday. As I leave Fremont, a wealthy, white neighbourhood, I head towards the University District, another mainly white, well-off neighbourhood. The Burke Gilman will continue for another ten miles through other upper-middle class, white neighbourhoods, as does the Alki Trail, and the I-90 Trail, three of Seattle’s four dedicated bike trails. As I ride past the University of Washington, the Burke Gilman bends north, so I turn off onto another smaller bike route, heading once again towards downtown.
I stop in the International District, close to where I began my day’s ride. I chose this route because it passed some of the city’s best cycling spots and I was able to ride almost entirely on trails or in bike lanes. My final destination is Seattle’s newest bike addition, the Bikery. Stuck between a Mexican Carniceria and the Supreme Cornershop, it occupies a modest storefront. According to Oil, “the Bikery was conceived as a community bicycle shop for hands-on bicycle education. You’re recycling used bicycles and creating an educational program around bicycle maintenance and bicycle riding.”
The day of my visit, half a dozen people in their twenties are working on their bikes – overhauling hubs, tightening headsets, and greasing chains. The shop is small, with rows of bikes, wheels, and parts boxes slowly smudging the white walls into a cloudy grey. The Bikery is open four days a week, one of which is themed “Gears, Cheers and Queers,” the day of the week focused on creating a “visible queer presence in Seattle’s bike culture.” So far the Bikery is entirely volunteer run. The organization’s non-profit status is pending, but for now, members spend their time putting on classes and partnering with other groups in the community.
“Cycling is a lot like the experience of walking with very long legs,” Oil says. “As we take these long-legged steps, we learn to take part in civic life, not just by giving a little head nod to other cyclists, but making eye contact with all the drivers. Not just traversing through, but experiencing every inch of our trip.”