New York's bike lanes put Seattle 'sharrows' to shame

Dedicated 'cycle tracks' are coming to a few streets in Seattle, but this city would do well to emulate Manhattan, not just Portland and Eugene.
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New York's bike lanes put Seattle 'sharrows' to shame, but they aren't universally loved.

Dedicated 'cycle tracks' are coming to a few streets in Seattle, but this city would do well to emulate Manhattan, not just Portland and Eugene.

Copenhagen, Denmark, is often cited as a bicyclist'ꀙs Xanadu, a place where more than a third of the population (according to the city) commutes to work by bicycle, a city with hundreds of miles of protected bicycle lanes, keeping with its image as a global center of forward, environmental thinking.

It is a city, in other words, that Seattle would be safe to emulate. In other faraway cities like Amsterdam, bicyclists prevail if only by sheer numbers. They feel so safe, many do not even bother with bicycle helmets. They ride their bicycles around town in suits and skirts as if riding a bike was as heroic as walking. (Now picture instead the Seattle cyclist decked out like some kind of a fringe crusader.)

Montreal, perhaps the most culturally European city in North America, also boast hundreds of miles of dedicated, protected bike lanes, generically called cycle tracks. More than a painted line, a cycle track is a dedicated lane that is protected from vehicle traffic by some kind of physical barrier, be it trees, a concrete wall or a row of parked cars.

Closer to home, in Eugene, Ore., bicyclists for more than a decade have enjoyed the convenience and safety of riding in cycle tracks, said Barbara Culp, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington.

'ꀜThey had cycle tracks 15 years ago and it was just an enormous difference,'ꀝ said Culp, whose daughter attended college in Eugene. 'ꀜThere'ꀙs an ongoing cycling culture in Oregon that dates back to the 1970s'ꀦwe'ꀙve always been playing catch-up.'ꀝ

Seattle'ꀙs Department of Transportation (SDOT) has only recently moved to add cycle tracks to its Bicycle Master Plan. (Its current plan does not mention cycle tracks, although technically one exists along Alki Beach in West Seattle.)

In a small step forward, Seattle has planned the construction of cycle tracks in two locations, along Broadway on Capitol Hill, and along a one-mile stretch of Linden Avenue North from North 128th Street to North 145th Street. (Plans for a Dexter Avenue cycle track were abandoned, in part, because of the steep grade of that street.) Richard Sheridan, spokesman for SDOT, said the Linden Avenue track could be completed in 2012, the Broadway track by 2013. To some, this is progress, to others a relatively small gesture that does not represent a meaningful improvement in the lives of bicycle commuters.

'ꀜIt (Linden Avenue) is an easy way to say, 'ꀘWe have a cycle track,'ꀙ 'ꀝ Culp said. 'ꀜBroadway would be more significant. What I would say is put one downtown on Fourth or Second avenue. That would definitely get my vote.'ꀝ

The city, for now, is not considering cycle tracks downtown, Sheridan said.

Playing catch-up to Copenhagen or Amsterdam — flat, compact cities where bicycling is rooted in the culture — is perhaps no dishonor. Nor is it necessarily a disgrace to play catch-up to Eugene, a relatively small, homogeneous city where there is more unanimity than plurality of thought, and a less complex transportation infrastructure to amend and accommodate.

But in the last few years, Seattle has been overtaken by another bicycle-progressive city, and it's not Portland, which also is consistently rated a better city for bicyclists than Seattle. This might come as a surprise to many: It's New York, which has neither the mild weather of San Francisco nor the West-Coast and Rocky-Mountain inclination toward wholesome, Earth-loving, nurturing behavior.

Yet, New York City'ꀙs Department of Transportation saw fit to install cycle tracks on most of Manhattan'ꀙs major avenues and cross streets and on major arterials in the outer boroughs. Between the summers of 2006 and 2009, the city built 200 bike-lane miles, nearly double its pre-2006 total.

The cycle tracks 'ꀜhave proven incredibly effective at improving safety not just for cyclists, but also for pedestrians and motorists,'ꀝ wrote Monty Dean, spokesman for the New York DOT, in an e-mail to 'ꀜA protected path was installed on a section of Ninth Avenue in 2007 and injuries to all street users there have declined by more than 50 percent and we'ꀙve seen similar improvements at other locations.'ꀝ

New York'ꀙs cycle tracks are protected by the sidewalk on one side and a lane of parked cars on the other. From a distance it appears cars are double-parked. To create the protected paths, a lane of traffic for cars had to be eliminated, a sacrifice that prompted complaints of back-ups and of the eyesore created by vehicles parked, seemingly, in the middle of the street. Yet the city continued to paint new cycle tracks.

David Hiller, advocacy director at the Cascade Bicycle Club in Seattle, said that during a trip to New York he observed bicyclists occasionally riding the wrong way and cars occasionally using the paths to pass traffic. He conceded that perhaps there is no such thing as a perfect accommodation for bicycles, but he favors the step New York has taken.

'ꀜThe best thing to improve bicycle safety,'ꀝ Hiller said, 'ꀜis to get more people bicycling. That'ꀙs what we know now.'ꀝ

Whether ultimately successful or not, New York'ꀙs cycle tracks are a bold statement — taking a lane away from the car and giving it to the bicycle — that is difficult to imagine here in Seattle, where everyone talks the part (read the city'ꀙs 'ꀜWalk Bike Ride'ꀝ initiative) and dresses the part (spandex and bicycle slippers are as regular a part of the Seattle uniform as the habit of middle-aged men growing beards), but does not seem willing to pay the true price of becoming a cycling city. A proposed bike lane on Nickerson Street (while not a cycle track, it would eliminate a lane of traffic) has already generated loud protest even though the DOT has deemed the street an under-utilized arterial that would not be adversely affected by the elimination of a lane.

While Seattle seems to have successfully marketed its love-to-pedal image, the reality of life on two wheels seems far different from the fantasy of happily strapping your inflatable kayak and Gore-Tex briefcase onto your bicycle rack as you prepare for your morning commute — with GPS-enabled, titanium coffee mug sitting in its handle-bar mounted cup-holder, and your thought-activated, full-screen genius-phone mounted to your helmet made out of recycled Kevlar.

One possible explanation is that Seattle, for as much as it hates to admit it, loves the car, a crisis of conscience that most of us can probably relate to and one that was fictionally portrayed in the iconic Seattle movie, 'ꀜSingles,'ꀝ in which one of the protagonists drives a gas-guzzling American car to the chagrin of her mass-transit-advocate love interest. People tend to resort to car alternatives not out of well-intentioned principle or fashionable cause but out of convenience. Driving a car in Seattle, for all the complaints about traffic, might still be too easy to do. So at present, the outrage and uproar over losing a lane of traffic on Second Avenue would probably outweigh the celebration of the creation of a cycle track on the same street.

Another explanation is the persistent and foggy notion that, in all matters great and small, Seattle possesses a 'ꀜpolitical culture of dithering and inaction,'ꀝ said Ted Inkley, former Seattle city attorney and board member of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington. 'ꀜI'ꀙm not blaming (Mayor Mike) McGinn or any particular individual. We used to joke at city hall that it'ꀙs something that gets pumped into the air-conditioning ducts.'ꀝ

Walkers and bicyclists need their own space. I know that'ꀙs heresy to some people in the cycling community, but I think separation is key if you want to get bicycling into the mainstream. —Ted Inkley, board member, Bicycle Alliance of Washington

For whatever reason, Inkley said, Seattle'ꀙs planners have a hard time 'ꀜmatching its actions to its stated intentions. 'ꀦ Compromise and discussion and inclusiveness are a good thing, but sometimes you have to act. That'ꀙs where this city has fallen down on all kinds of environmental and transportation projects.'ꀝ

Inkley described the city'ꀙs approach to bicycle infrastructure as 'ꀜnip and tuck'ꀝ surgery, mostly in the form of shared-lane markings, or "sharrows" — lines painted on streets to designate bicycle traffic.

Paths like the Burke Gilman trail expose pedestrians to bicyclists. Cycle tracks, by contrast, are unique in that pedestrians are not allowed on them. This solves a less-considered side of the bicycling problem (judging by many of the comments left on this website at the end of stories about bicycling), namely that walkers and drivers often find that cyclists are the menace, running red lights, failing to yield to pedestrians, riding the wrong way on a one-way street, claiming the sidewalk when it is convenient, flouting traffic laws that in their minds only marginally pertain to them. The negative sentiment builds into a perception that bicyclists want it both ways: They want the rights and protections of pedestrians without the constraints or obligations required of drivers.

'ꀜCyclists can intimidate too,'ꀝ Inkley said. 'ꀜWalkers and bicyclists need their own space. I know that'ꀙs heresy to some people in the cycling community, but I think separation is key if you want to get bicycling into the mainstream. You have to have separation.'ꀝ

So while Seattle bicyclists might soon have a few stretches of pleasant if not entirely useful roadway to call their own, that divorce between bicyclists and everyone else appears a long way off.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at