Becoming uninvisible: taking Seattle's bicycle plan for a ride

The challenge for cyclists in the big city is to be seen. The mayor's plan actually recognizes this.
Crosscut archive image.

The magnetic yellow card for cars.

The challenge for cyclists in the big city is to be seen. The mayor's plan actually recognizes this.

Two days after Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels unveiled a new Bicycle Master Plan, I was riding in a well-marked bike lane on Phinney Avenue North when someone reached out of an SUV and tossed a bottle-full of Gatorade all over me. At least, I hope it was Gatorade. There was no malicious intent. The car was stopped in traffic, I was breezing by on its right. It's unclear why the passenger chose to toss out the drink, but she immediately apologized when she saw what she'd done. Less than an hour later, in the University District, I was crossing Roosevelt Way with a green light in my favor when a car coming the opposite direction turned left in front of me. I grabbed handfuls of brake and screamed at the driver to watch out. (My screams are not ones of anger but of the near-dead. It's really the most effective attention-getting mechanism, particularly on a hot day when drivers have windows open.) Hearing me, she at first skidded to a stop. But when she saw I was slowing, she gunned the engine and continued to turn directly in front of me. As any experienced bicycle commuter knows, such is the life of cycling in the big city. Bike lanes, bike paths, bike routes, bike bridges – they're all great. But the challenge for bicyclists is not how to get somewhere, no matter how bike-friendly the route. The challenge is how to become uninvisible. To the credit of the mayor's plan, which shows that Nickels and his staff really paid attention to cyclists' concerns, it actually tries to address the invisibility factor. If enacted effectively, the plan will be as significant for raising cycling's traffic profile as for the conduits it provides or enhances. Included in the plan are sharrows – arrows painted on pavement encouraging bikes and cars to share a road lane. They'll go on Northeast 45th Street in the Wallingford neighborhood, on Third Avenue West, South Henderson Street, and Seneca Street. Renton Avenue South will get marked for shared use. Greenwood Avenue North will get paved shoulders beyond 85th Street. These are all strategic bike routes in need of improvements. Shrinking car lanes from four to two on bike routes, including Stone Way and perhaps 35th Avenue Southwest, is another great idea. New bike lanes in West Seattle (Avalon Way and 16th Avenue Southwest), on Eighth Avenue Northwest, and along Eight Avenue downtown will aid two-wheelers. And some connector elbows, including overpass access from Queen Anne Hill to Myrtle Edwards Park at West Thomas Street, and completion of missing links at Interbay, the Ballard Bridge, and Seattle Pacific University, are much welcomed. Overall, in fact, the plan addresses many of the key problem areas in Seattle, including better south-city access, a start on improved east-west routing, and enhanced downtown flow. I did get one chuckle at lanes being added to Northeast 65th Street above Sand Point Way, the problem there not being cars but a grisly, unforgiving hill climb. Any chance of a regrade as well? Sharing bike and bus use on Third Avenue, albeit only during peak times, is a huge move for embattled downtown cyclists. Cycling downtown is not as dangerous as one might assume, since traffic tends to move slowly. The main problem is congestion: dodging taxis, double-parked cars, and Metro buses while still trying to weave through pedestrian thickets. Bike lanes might help in this mix, but three years of riding in San Francisco taught me that urban-core bike lanes tend to get used by just about everything except bikes. The plan also refers to better police enforcement of cyclists who run red lights and motorists who turn in front of bikes. Kudos on both counts. Bike messengers in particular tend to push the regulatory envelope downtown. (In their defense, a cowboy mentality is their best survival mechanism.) As for drivers cutting off cyclists, any rider knows it happens just about every time you're out. And the only time a cop appears is when the cyclist actually goes down. The mayor's plan is encouraging in another respect. Early on, bike plans tended to – how to put this? – not "get it." They forced cyclists onto routes and conduits that were inconvenient, illogical, and second-class. They favored separating cyclists from transportation corridors via bike paths that actually encouraged invisibility and forced bikes to dodge inline skaters, baby strollers, joggers, dogs, and walkers. The mayor's plan does a lot to elevate cycling's stature, as much for transportation as for recreation. The mayor's notion that bikes will help alleviate congestion from whatever comes of Alaskan Way Viaduct construction may be a stretch, but one can always hope. If the mayor and his cycling staff are smart, they will find ways to nudge potential bike commuters into taking that fateful first step, the toe in the water, er, pedal, that turns a would-be into a hard-core commuter. The plan notes that more cyclists would commute if they felt safer, but that's like the fat guy saying he'd get more exercise if he had more time. The trick is to start small. In fact, pick the nicest day of the year, the flattest and shortest route, whether it be down to the grocery store or a brief section of the Burke-Gilman Trail, and just get out on the bike. You'll almost certainly love it, and you can build from there. And much more can be done to educate the driving public to put bikes on par with cars. My favorite strategy comes from a Vienna artist, Peter Miller, who came up with yellow refrigerator magnets bearing the message: "This magnet was tossed onto your car by a cyclist who felt that you might have been driving in a way that could have endangered their life. They chose to toss this magnetic note because it can neither damage your automobile, nor affix itself to rubber or glass and will therefore not affect your driving. It serves to warn you. With thoughtful contemplation and reverence for humanity, we can adjust our behavior to allow for all people to live life. This is a yellow card, let's please not let things get to Red." The idea is to slap the magnets on the doors and fenders of vehicles that come too close. I'm trying to get a swatch made – for after the scream.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Paul Andrews

Paul is a career journalist and a self-described bike nut.