'Walk Bike Ride': Where the rubber hits the (oof!) road

While Mayor McGinn enjoys fairly smooth bike rides from his Greenwood home to City Hall, our intrepid reporter braves the washboard streets near her neighborhood, and brings you along for the ride.

Crosscut archive image.

Patching on a Seattle street.

While Mayor McGinn enjoys fairly smooth bike rides from his Greenwood home to City Hall, our intrepid reporter braves the washboard streets near her neighborhood, and brings you along for the ride.

The subtitle of Mayor Mike McGinn’s "Walk Bike Ride" initiative — "Making walking, biking, and riding transit the easiest ways to get around in Seattle" — may reveal more than the mayor wanted to admit. Is an unstated corollary of his plan to make driving the hardest way to get around?

The melodious themes of his initiative are a bigger, smoother bus system, more and better bikeways, and pedestrian safety and comfort. Only once does the initiative mention "maintaining local streets." Yet local streets are so pocked with holes and so gnarly with patches gone bad that plans for repaving them can’t be separated from plans for implementing "Walk Bike Ride."

Right now Seattle streets make a jolting misery of riding the bus. And it's worse for cyclists: Fractured asphalt can throw them into the path of moving traffic, and they can’t lift a hand to signal without risking loss of control. It’s too dangerous for families to bike to fun places in town — another fresh-air option crossed off the "Mom! Dad! What’ll we do today?" list of summer possibilities.

By way of illustration I videotaped a couple of my rides on a well-traveled southbound route from my home in the Roosevelt neighborhood. I rode my bike, then Metro transit:

For contrast, check out this video of McGinn bicycling from his neighborhood to City Hall. No wonder he’s so keen on getting us out of our cars. He’s happy and comfortable!

The Mayor’s southbound ride from Greenwood will be even more comfortable next year, after Dexter Avenue North is repaved from Fremont to Roy Street (separated bike lanes will also be constructed). Never mind that Dexter’s surface isn’t nearly as wrecked and treacherous as, say, Eastlake Avenue East between Fairview Avenue East and the University Bridge. According to Brian Dougherty, associate transportation planner for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), Dexter is the route cyclists most frequently ride to and from the city. So McGinn does not in this case appear (as did Mayor Nickels during his 2008 snowplow moment) to be deploying city resources to suit his personal convenience.

The rationale for new bike lanes northbound from Hizzoner’s home neighborhood sounds logical and disinterested, too. Sam Woods, SDOT bicycle program and projects manager, explained that the city was responding in part to Greenwood residents who had earlier applied for an arterial traffic-calming project to make crossing Greenwood Avenue North safer for pedestrians. New bike lanes there will mean more bang for the buck: slowing traffic, protecting people on foot, and furthering the 3-year-old Seattle Bicycle Master Plan all at once. (Memo to self: squeaky Seattle neighborhoods get the grease.)

SDOT recently held a forum about proposed improvements to Dexter Avenue. Staff members at the June 29 event also took time to chat with citizens about related topics. Project manager Jessica Murphy showed me a map of SDOT’s 2007-2015 street paving schedule and pointed out that 15th Avenue Northeast will be repaired in 2011. (You can find links to the map and to a schedule in list form here.)

Scheduled street improvements will be covered by the Bridging the Gap (BTG) funds that voters approved in 2006. However, Murphy warned, "It will take more than nine years [of BTG] to eliminate the backlog" of deferred maintenance.

Transportation planner Dougherty, also eager to catch up with longtime street deterioration, noted that I’m the first Seattleite he has heard complain about teeth-rattling transit rides and the frustrations of trying to read aboard Metro. "Doesn’t reading on a bumpy bus make you sick?" he asked.

Yes. So do the bleak prospects for smoothing out the bumps. SDOT communications manager Richard Sheridan recently sent Crosscut some depressing documentation of these prospects. Partly due to the "overall rise in paving costs we have seen in the last five years (related to oil prices and other factors)," he wrote, inadequate funding means that current rates of SDOT pavement repairs can’t keep up with the rate of pavement decay.

Despite a down economy, an effective mayor can get some things done, and McGinn of all mayors won’t want to throw bicyclists under the bus. But will he prioritize repaving Seattle’s streets, even though the improvements, clearly needed to make riding bikes and buses safer and more appealing, would also make driving cars more pleasant?

Perhaps he should road-test in person some of the routes his fellow citizens ride when they’re not at the wheel of the family sedan. Bicycling 15th Avenue Northeast would give the mayor a wicked good scare or two, and an Eastlake bus ride would make his book a blur.

Which Seattle roads would you like him to ride?


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