We can all get along: Bikers and drivers learn to share the road

A lament from the past highlights recent progress: Motorists are learning to accept cyclists, and biking is getting safer in Seattle.
Seattle's streets are getting a little safer for bikers.

Seattle's streets are getting a little safer for bikers. furtwangl/Flickr

Never can tell what you’ll find when you clean out the “to do” folders and desk stacks. I just came across a story from the July 26, 2006 issue of the Seattle Weekly called “Breaking the Vicious Cycle.” In it, author David Neiwert set out to explode the myth of “bike-friendly” Seattle, noting that its streets (in contrast to Portland’s) are unsafe and unadapted to cycling, its drivers resent and rebuke (and all too often “door”) their pedaling brethren and reckless scofflaw cyclists up the hostility factor.

Since then, Seattle has adopted one bicycle master plan. It’s about to adopt another, now that aggrieved neighbors along the planned Westlake Ave. N. cycle track have struck an accord with the city and dropped an appeal blocking the plan. Cyclists, bike lanes and sharrows have sprouted like mushrooms on Seattle’s streets, along with a select number of separated cycle tracks and bike paths. But many of Neiwert’s points still hold. Seattle bicycling infrastructure still lags badly, especially in Southeast Seattle; the underfunded 2007 master plan remains in large part an unfulfilled wish list.

On one score, however, Neiwert’s 2006 report seems happily out of date. What he calls the “historically tendentious” relationship between motorists and bicyclists in Seattle now seems much less, er, contentious. Road warriors of both sorts may disagree, but after long and considered observation atop both types of vehicle, I have to say: We’re learning to share the road. On the whole, Seattle’s drivers are more alert to and accepting of bicycles than they’re ever been before. And cyclists, while we may still run stop signs when no one’s coming, are also behaving better (overpowered blinking headlights aside). The one-man Critical Mass displays (pulling over to the left side of single lanes to block cars from passing) are now rare. Likewise, at least off Capitol Hill, those too-cool-for-school, too-neat-for-the-street hipsters cutting diagonally across four lanes while riding no-hands, no-lights in dark clothing at night. Maybe they all got hit and became cycle angels.

It’s only natural, maybe even inevitable, that motorists would learn to accommodate bicycles. It’s a matter of lower-case critical mass. The number of cyclists reaches a tipping point. At that point, you can’t fight them anymore. You get used to them and you live with them.

The trend is reflected in the numbers of bicycle collisions (usually due to cars striking cyclists) reported by the Seattle Department of Transportation (below). Not that those numbers have gone down; over the past decade they’ve ticked up, then down, then up again — to a record level in 2013, according to preliminary data newly compiled by SDOT. The "Bike Collision Rate" below is calculated on the basis of crashes per 1 million bicycle miles traveled:


Source: Seattle Department of Transportation

They reveal what is, in effect, a substantial decrease in collisions and increase in safety, since the number of cyclists has risen much faster during that time. I suspect the number of cycle miles has risen even faster, as the expansion of bike paths and lanes has helped cyclists take on longer commutes. SDOT hasn’t yet crunched its 2013 ridership counts, but spokesman Rick Sheridan says, “We expect to see an increase in the number of bicycle commuters for 2013 and therefore a continued decline in the bike collision rate.”

Two contrasting incidents exemplify the change, even if they do nothing to prove it. Back in 2006, Neiwert recounted getting “called an asshole just for biking on Lake Washington Boulevard” — a road that was actually designed as a bikeway 120 years ago, and which I ride regularly to work.

Now some drivers do still get testy when you make them stop at busy crosswalks so you can walk your bike across, including one Seattle Police officer I flagged down and scolded for failing to yield. But that’s an issue of motorists disrespecting pedestrians rather than cyclists, and of the city failing to enforce its crosswalk laws. I’ve also seen motorists stop and yield at crosswalks when I’m pedaling and they have the right of way — an intermodal variation on the classic Seattle four-way-stop showdown: “After you.” “No, after you!”


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Feb 25, 8:34 a.m. Inappropriate

I have to disgree that it's getting safer due to drivers getting used to seeing bicyclists. I think the spike you saw in the 2013 data was due to the great increase of new riders during our prolonged dry weather last summer. I use my bike as primary transportation, and I encounter drivers daily who are not paying attention, deliberately pass too close to me in a lane, or otherwise endanger me. I think riding in the traffic lanes is extremely dangerous and that there are more and more drivers in the lanes competing for space. Perhaps people who live in Seattle are more used to seeing bicyclists and are more familiar with our traffic laws, but there are many people driving here from outside Seattle and THEY are not used to sharing space with bicyclists gracefully. We need separated facilities, period. In the meantime, see you on the sidewalk where I have determined the street isn't safe, and please don't fuss with me about how you think I shouldn't be there.

Rider1

Posted Tue, Feb 25, 9:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Although like the writer I both drive & bike, I can say unequivocally that whatever his experience is, I dare him to replicate it near Greenlake where I live. Cyclists routinely ignore lights and stop signs. Many of them appear to be determined to ride right down the middle of the road despite a line of cars crawling behind them, just because they can and they'll show us terrible drivers. They wear dark clothing and use no or inadequate lighting at night exposing themselves to the danger of injury or death and drivers to a lifetime of being haunted if they hit one of these folks who apparently believe drivers should be able to see them regardless of any efforts to make themselves visible.
Rather than feeling more comfortable with my fellow cyclists while I'm driving, I am increasingly frustrated and fed up with the attitude I see more often than not.
To those who make themselves visible and obey traffic laws, thank you. To the rest, if you want respect and care, you need to exhibit it towards the rest of the world.

mspat

Posted Tue, Feb 25, 12:28 p.m. Inappropriate

As a regular commuter cyclist for the last 25 years, I have to agree that cyclists routinely violate traffic laws at a far higher rate than motorists, and all too frequently make utterly unpredictable, unsafe movements. And riding without a light or in dark clothes is both stupid and irresponsible. But riding in the center of a traffic lane is in fact the correct way to ride where the road lacks a wide curb lane or dedicated bike lane. Downtown is a case in point - there is no way I'm going to hug the curb or lane line and encourage a car to give me a shave!

Posted Tue, Feb 25, 2:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Cyclists don't "ride right down the middle of the road despite a line of cars crawling behind them, just because they can." We do it because of the line of cars parked along the curb, one of which is going to have its door flung open without its driver checking to see if the coast is clear, or to avoid the front bumpers of vehicles that are starting to pull out into traffic. Trust me, I'd much rather 'ride right' and do so whenever it's safe - but I've been doored multiple times, yet never rear ended. Given my personal experience and the odds, I'll 'take the lane' when that's the safest option.

Posted Wed, Feb 26, 5:31 a.m. Inappropriate

I have long wondered why SDOT paints bike lanes in the door zone of parked cars. It's beyond stupid, but there they are.

Posted Wed, Feb 26, 9:08 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree that we want to avoid being doored. I was referring to cases where I was driving and a cyclist was going in the same direction with no parking to our right, so no possibility of being doored. As a person who uses both modes, I get that no one wants to take the risk of being doored, but when there is no risk, my choice is to stay to the right and allow the cars to pass me, and when I'm driving I appreciate it when fellow cyclists do the same.

mspat

Posted Tue, Feb 25, 4:54 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with the author. I think the level of civility exhibited by Seattle drivers, regarding cyclists, is some of the best in the country. Whenever I ride around town, I find that motorists seem to treat most cyclists with courtesy and respect, especially when the cyclist reciprocates.
I believe that the more people who try cycling, the safer it will become. When I am in my Jeep, I have a better understanding of what a cyclist is doing, and when I am riding I know what drivers are expecting and desiring. Respect is the name of the game, IMO.
I also don't mind a bicycle "taking the lane" in front of me. I assume they are doing it for a good reason. Besides, I am sitting in a climate controlled car with the music playing, doing no physical work. I can easily accommodate a 30 second slow down if it will ensure the safety of another citizen.

Cheers

Squirrel

Posted Wed, Feb 26, 7:21 a.m. Inappropriate

I, too, am a "one man critical mass rider" who rides down the center of the lanes sometimes. As stated above, I must do this for safety. Too many motorists will pass with 6" to spare if they can do so without crossing the center line.

So, I move over far enough so that they must, at least, partially cross the centerline to pass. That line seems like a psychological barrier: once crossed, most drivers will give plenty of room but otherwise will squeeze as close to me as needed in order not to cross the line. I don't think they even realize what they're doing.

If there's oncoming traffic and they have to wait, I apologize. But, my safety must come first.

pragmatic

Posted Wed, Feb 26, 7:41 a.m. Inappropriate

As a bike commuter for 25 yrs who has commuted in NYC and D.C., and had a stint as a messenger in Seattle, I'd agree that the vast majority of cyclists and drivers are civil, aware, and safe. There's always the bad apples that stick in your mind, however.

A couple notes - I have noticed a higher proportion of cyclists in Seattle that just do not know how to ride in traffic and are, well, just chicken shits when it comes to tolerating traffic. Even with a row of parked cars, in most cases there is no reason to restrict traffic - you can few into parked cars and, oh-my-god, actually anticipate. I've never been doored and generally commute by bike 3-4 days a week all year.

That said - there are roads where because of the configuration, weather, road speeds, whatever - where riding a bit more in the lane is the most prudent and safe thing to do.

My biggest peeve about bikers are the weekend warriors decked out in their road winnie matching outfits. Even on safe roads with an adequate shoulder they will ride two by two, side by side to take up space on two lane roads. WTF? Ride single file already and let cars pass. You don't need to have a conversation with your buddy about what type of fancy coffee drink you're going to have when you get to the hipster bakery that is your destination!

Treker

Posted Wed, Feb 26, 10:05 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree. I've been on the road (on my bike) in Seattle since '72 and have never been doored or even close to it. Just keep my eyes open and avoid the cars with pimp windows. My problems have always been with moving cars...

louploup

Posted Wed, Feb 26, 10:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Doesn't it really depend on your speed? If cranking up a hill, you have little chance to get doored. On the other hand, to use an extreme example, going downhill (and its not hard to go traffic speed) on 2nd downtown in the bike lane would be foolish.

pragmatic

Posted Wed, Feb 26, 3:49 p.m. Inappropriate

FYI - Avoid 2nd Avenue downtown and use 3rd, where traffic during rush hour is restricted to busses and bikes

Treker

Posted Wed, Feb 26, 6:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes, on Second Ave. depending on the time of day (how heavy and fast is traffic) I often "take a lane" -- I can usually go as or almost as fast as the traffic so I never get bothered, and can stay far from turners and doors.

As for using Third, it is so full of buses during rush hour, I prefer Second for southbound. Northbound, sure, no problem.

1K...1 : I do yell at them ("Don't do ____; it makes us all look stupid." etc.)

louploup

Posted Wed, Feb 26, noon Inappropriate

Sure - if I'm zipping down a hill as fast as traffic then yea, I'll mosey over to the lane. But say downtown, on a Stewart or 1st or 3rd - or any other relatively flat, well trafficked road, just get on with it and stay out of the way of traffic.

Treker

Posted Wed, Feb 26, 3:54 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm a Cyclist and a motorist. Today I was driving near Discovery Park and came to a stop to allow a no brain cyclist .to pass. How do I know he had no brain? No helmet and then ran the 4-way stop These guys drive motorists crazy! Yes, we need to share the road, but I can't help wanting to act like the "gene police" and get these clowns out of the pool!

Cyclists: let's do our part when we see some of our own at their worst. When we see cyclists wearing all black at night, not obeying traffic signs and signals, we should speak up!

Posted Sun, Mar 2, 5:48 a.m. Inappropriate

deleted

gom8

Posted Mon, Mar 3, 1:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Wow. "...the purpose for which the roads were built in the first place: safe and efficient transportation for motorized vehicles." Where on earth did you come up with that nonsense? Roads have always been built to accommodate the movement of goods and people in a variety of vehicles, not for the privileged use of a single mode. In fact many of Seattle's original streets were built for bicycles, in days before the arrival of motor vehicles. Read history; you might learn something.

The only "sense of entitlement" I find in this post is yours.

Posted Mon, Mar 3, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

deleted

gom8

Posted Sun, Mar 2, 8:23 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm all for making the roads safer for cyclists, but we need to start by making the sidewalks safer for pedestrians. I feel like Ratso whenever I brave the western side of the Fremont Bridge.

dbiehle

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