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Bike-car battles: Time to get along

Both sides can get nasty.
Bikes and Cars: Can't we all just play nice?

Bikes and Cars: Can't we all just play nice? Credit: bizjournal/Flickr

Cyclists on Dexter Avenue in Seattle

Cyclists on Dexter Avenue in Seattle Oran Viriyincy/Flickr

Drivers complain about reckless cyclists and bristle at the idea of having to share the roads. Increasingly, attention is being paid to the number of bikers fatally hit by cars, with drivers often going unpunished even when they are at fault. That trend prompted a New York Times op-ed writer to ask, “Is It OK to Kill Cyclists?”

Last summer a friend of mine, Dan McConnell, was assaulted by a cyclist, who punched him in the face through Dan’s open driver’s window, leaving him with split lips and loose teeth. As far as Dan knew, it was unprovoked, but the cyclist apparently felt Dan had not shown him due deference. The cyclist fled. Dan says if the police ever catch him, the rider will be charged with felony assault for the punch-and-run.

Dan is not alone. Both drivers and cyclists have been victims of road rage, and it’s not an entirely new phenomenon. Competition and thrown punches over who rules the roads goes way back in Seattle.

I learned that while doing a Crosscut research project on the roots of urbanism here. It included digging into late-19th- and early-20th-century Seattle, which saw huge changes in its transportation infrastructure. We moved from roads of mud and horse manure to paved streets more suitable for a newfangled form of urban transportation — the bicycle — which was followed soon after by the advent of the motorcar, the first of which arrived in 1900. Add to the mix an expanding streetcar system that linked the far-flung parts of Seattle by rail.

Negotiating change was tricky. Bikes created some chaos on the streets. They allowed individuals great freedom, and the ability to dodge in and out of traffic at high speed — bike speeders were called “scorchers.” They sometimes frightened horses and knocked down pedestrians. Bikes were even banned from downtown sidewalks for a time. In 1894, a group of “wheelers” was knocked down by a young lout on a farm horse. The bikers retaliated by beating him senseless. The Seattle police added patrol officers to keep a close eye on the bikers.

The city saw bikes as an asset for recreation and for commuting. By 1900, Seattle had some 25 miles of dedicated bike trails, paid for by cyclists and designed with the help of city engineers. The city also experimented with grade-separated bike lanes. In the 1890s, private investors built a bikes-only toll road that stretched between downtown and Georgetown, with hopes of linking the city with Tacoma.

But by the turn of the century, bicycles began to be displaced by the new, more powerful auto. And if bikes, horses and mud didn’t mix well, the fast, powerful auto created even more problems. Cars changed the speed at which the city moved, from a walk to a run, or faster. There were no driver’s licenses then; the first cars were mostly expensive toys for rich men, who often drove so recklessly, they became known as “automaniacs.” They ran people over, collided with trains, hit cyclists. In the Rainier Valley, some citizens threatened to shoot reckless speeders.

It took work to bring order: better roads, speed limits, penalties for breaking rules, licenses to identify individual drivers, a motorized police department that could catch reckless scofflaws. Eventually, wagons, bikes and trolleys largely disappeared, and cars ruled the streets.

Now, we’ve cycled back, transportation-wise. Bikes are popular again, environmentally clean and useful for getting around. Streetcars, which vanished by the 1940s, are coming back, too. The new urban strategy is to get the city to respect multiple modes, to be “bike friendly” and “walkable,” as well as functional for cars, trucks and transit.

It won’t happen on its own. Not only do we need to continue to expand infrastructure for each mode (more separated bicycle lanes, sidewalks and freight mobility improvements), we need to move away from the polarized mentality of cars versus bikes. There should be no “war” on anything.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Mar 25, 11:55 a.m. Inappropriate

As a cyclist, I try to be deferential to all car drivers: I treat them all as though they were deaf, dumb, and blind to all pedestrians and bicycles. At least that's the way most of them behave on the road. And that includes cyclists driving cars, myself included.

Even wearing high visibility jackets, I've been passed very closely by cars and trucks when I'm on the road. That's why I prefer the bike trails for getting around.

kedamono

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

Seattle Central City needs a 'different' transit system: one that works. Then, motorists can park at the most convenient garage and finish trips on transit. Those who would take transit into town but won't because once there, it's inconvenient to get around town, they would take transit more. Metro is the worst system I've ever tried to use. More buses than necessary and not enough buses at the same time. Mostly empty buses pass downtown stops while most patrons watch them go by waiting for their one-seat bus ride also mostly empty. Sound Transit follows Metro's lead and suspiciously ruined the potential rail offers. Established automobile-related business interests setting the guidelines for Seattle transit perhaps? Wasn't this how streetcar systems nationwide were first disabled then dismantled? Would Boeing have a hand in creating traffic chaos in order to sell getaway vacation flights to somewhere less horrible but even still need a rental car?

Wells

Posted Fri, Mar 28, 8:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Transit is not convenient, and who has time to wait for it, take the long way around with lots of stops, and then still have to walk some distance to reach one's destination? I don't. Transit simply shifts the cost of those who use it to those who can't, because it doesn't go where they need to go, i.e., east/west or anywhere not downtown Seattle.

mspat

Posted Tue, Mar 25, 5:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Some of this animosity is the fault of a few bicyclists and motorists who flaunt the rules of the road and infuriate those of us who are law abiding. Those few scofflaws are causing all kinds of headaches for the rest of us.

I suppose the reckless ones will eventually be weeded out but it sure would help if everyone would take a deep breath and try to be more courteous.

nwcitizen

Posted Tue, Mar 25, 7:43 p.m. Inappropriate

The next time we choose a text for the "Seattle Reads" program, I'd like to nominate the Driver's Guide. Motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians, and other miscellaneous wheelers -- I think everyone could use a good review of the rules.

sandik

Posted Thu, Mar 27, 1:02 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm wondering why bike riders are not subject to any sort of licensing requirement. The roads are shared yet the responsibility is not. Ideally, licensed bikes would display a license large enough to be seen by drivers. I once saw a bike rider who, after weaving dangerously in and out of traffic lanes, spit at a driver stopped at a light. I was left feeling helpless as the only way to do anything would have been to create a dangerous traffic situation. Licenses for bike riders may not stop this but it would provide drivers with some sort of alternative for reporting infractions. Of course, bike riders would be able to respond. Wouldn't this make the lanes for safer for all?

buttercup

Posted Mon, Mar 31, 8:58 a.m. Inappropriate

They would only be subject to licensing requirements if they were subject to the rules of the road, which apparently they are not.

talisker

Posted Sat, Mar 29, 9:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Does anyone write about bicycles on sidewalks?

In most cities they're only on sidewalks to park. Those who profess concern for walkability should consider diverting all bike traffic off sidewalks entirely.

simorgh

Posted Sat, Mar 29, 10:35 p.m. Inappropriate

It would be good to see the debate as not just concerning drivers and cyclists, but also concerning pedestrians.

As a frequent pedestrian I fear bikes as much as I fear automobiles. I find drivers more predictable and noticeable than cyclists.

Many times I've been closely passed from behind by a silent cyclist on a sidewalk and I've learned while crossing streets many cyclists don't stop for stop signs or marked cross walks.

I know that in some places sidewalks are the safest place to ride, especially for children, but I wish that cyclists would do a better job of paying attention to pedestrian safety.

Posted Mon, Mar 31, 12:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Bikes, other than children, should not be allowed to ride on sidewalks. It just confuses things - are they a pedestrian or a vehicle?

I bike commute, like today, and 99% of the time I see courteous biker - vehicle interactions. Then there is the 0.5% of bikers and drivers who are not anticipating or not being careful, and then there are the 0.5% of both that are just a**holes.

Licensing, while a cute idea, is never going to happen for bikes. And you really do want to encourage biking - just going across the Fremont Bridge last week the high count for a day was 3,600 trips! Given the cluster of traffic already - be thankful there is a huge chunk of bike commuters avoiding the car thing.

Treker

Posted Wed, Apr 2, 3:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Until there are safe lanes to get out of downtown, riding on the sidewalks is the only way for at least a few blocks. Yes I would prefer to ride on the streets but 5th Ave is not suitable for bikes until you reach the library (from about Westlake going South.) Pike is not suitable for bikes from 3rd to Boran...

So sidewalks it is.

GaryP

Posted Wed, Apr 2, 7:23 p.m. Inappropriate

The sidewalks along Pike Street are full of pedestrians, so they are "not suitable for bikes".

They're side-WALKS!

simorgh

Posted Thu, Apr 3, 7:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Hmmm. I ride those almost every day - never had a problem. I do see, however, a big problem in riding on the busy sidewalks in those blocks.

Treker

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