Most-Read of 2013: #10 Seattle's bike-lane bigotry

No. 10: Seattle's Biking Master Plan has focused most of its efforts on North Seattle, leaving the just-as-needy-but-less-wealthy neighborhoods down south to fend for themselves.
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One way to claim space in the roadway (and make motorist enemies).

No. 10: Seattle's Biking Master Plan has focused most of its efforts on North Seattle, leaving the just-as-needy-but-less-wealthy neighborhoods down south to fend for themselves.

Editor's note: As we look ahead to the New Year, we thought you would like to see the 10 Most-Read Stories from Crosscut in 2013. Like this one, the 10th most read, many will point the way to continuing discussions in 2014. This was originally published on Aug. 15. In late November, the city presented a bike master plan recommended by Mayor Mike McGinn went to the City Council, which is reviewing it. Details and links to the plan are here. The recommended plan has been met with considerable praise, including at a public hearing.

In 2007, with a fanfare, the Nickels administration proposed “within 10 years, to make Seattle the best community for bicycling in the United States.” The roadmap to this goal was supposed to be a Bicycle Master Plan, self-described as “visionary.” Six years on, how’s that vision working out?

The results can at best be described as mixed. If you take the crudest measure, the number of miles of “bicycle facilities” — dedicated or designated bicycle routes — laid down, the city's doing fairly well. It proposed to expand its “bicycle network” from just 68 miles in 2007 to 450 in 2017. As of 2012, it had built or — more often — painted 158 new miles, for a total of 226.

But it’s done that via a heavy reliance on the most confusing and unsafe but — whaddaya know — cheapest facility of all, the dreaded sharrow. You may know the sharrow as bicycle icons painted on otherwise ordinary traffic lanes to remind motorists to share the lane with bicyclists, as they're supposed to do anyway. Depending on whom you talk to or how the traffic is, sharrows are (a) instructive and mildly effective, (b) irrelevant, (c) confusing, and/or (d) a diabolical hoax, giving cyclists false confidence while suggesting to motorists that they have exclusive rights to streets that aren’t painted with them. (They don't.)

Ninety-two of those new miles were sharrows; the city fulfilled a whopping 83 percent of its intended sharrow miles. But it lags much further behind at implementing most other types of bicycle facilities; the kinds that require actually building new infrastructure or taking space from motorized traffic, such as bike lanes and neighborhood greenways (streets reconfigured to slow traffic and favor pedestrians and cyclists).

The sharrow strategy "may have helped to grow bicycling in the city,” the Cascade Bicycle Club concluded in its midterm “Seattle Bicycle Report Card” last year, but it “has likely excluded a significant percentage of potential new riders.” And it hasn’t fooled anyone into thinking that Seattle has built enough real bikeways ­­­— not even the folks who assemble national lists of bike-friendly cities.

Twenty-plus years ago, when today’s so-called Mayor McSchwinn was fresh out of law school, Seattle could make a fair claim to being the bike-friendliest city in the country. The Burke-Gilman Trail was a visionary model of rail-line repurposing, on a scale advocates in other regions could only dream of. By 2007, Seattle could only aspire to becoming best, but Bicycling magazine still rated it among America’s five top bicycling cities. (These ratings, based in large part on data assembled by the League of American Bicyclists, are supposed to reflect the “5 Es”: engineering, encouragement, evaluation and planning, education and enforcement.)

Last year, Seattle dropped to tenth on Bicycling’s list, behind not only Portland, Minneapolis, Boulder and Eugene, but San Francisco, Chicago and (horrors!) New York. It’s fallen most conspicuously behind Portland, which doesn’t bother with sharrows but instead, as of last year, had installed 318 miles of greenways and dedicated bike lanes and trails. Portland offers cyclists enough safety and service amenities — from bike sharing to dedicated traffic signals and wayfinding signs — to make Seattle’s efforts seem positively 20th century. More than 6 percent of Portland’s commuters go by bike; just 3.6 percent of Seattle’s do. Memo to Seattle’s anti-bike backlashers: Stop grousing. You could be in Portland.

Adding insult, even as two-wheeled Seattle fell in the ratings, the bicyclist’s league recognized Washington as the most bike-friendly state. Worse yet, the actual achievements Bicycling lauded Seattle for were more political than practical: “growing political support,” the PAC launched by the Cascade Bicycle Club (perhaps the largest such organization in the nation), the successful candidates it’s backed, such as Mayor Mike McGinn and City Councilmember Mike O’Brien.

The substantive story is very different. The 2007 Bicycle Master Plan, as conceived and especially as implemented, hasn’t just excluded novice, slow and cautious riders who can’t or won’t use the same lanes as cars. It has perpetuated an even more grievous form of exclusion ­­­— economic, geographic and racial.

Seattle’s bicycle-route development so far has conspicuously favored prosperous, mostly white central and near-North End neighborhoods at the expense of less affluent neighborhoods with large immigrant and other minority populations in the northeast, southwest and especially southeast corners of the city. In this, as when it lays down cheap sharrows, the city has gone for the low-hanging fruit, allocating bike facilities to the communities that are already most disposed to biking (the downtown-Ballard-U-District-Capitol Hill nexus), rather than the communities that could benefit most from this healthiest and most economical form of transportation.

The good news: Transportation officials readily acknowledge these shortfalls and voice their determination to correct them. They concede that the emphasis on painted lanes and sharrows rather than separated bikeways has favored a seasoned, skilled and bold (or foolhardy) minority over the “willing but wary” masses who would try cycling if they didn’t have to ride between two-ton hunks of motorized metal. And they acknowledge the geographic and social inequities built into the 2007 master plan and its subsequent implementation — especially in Southeast Seattle, the city’s most racially, ethnically and economically diverse quadrant.

That whole quadrant has not a single safe, convenient, widely accessible north-south route. The closest thing is the Chief Sealth Trail, which runs diagonally up Beacon Hill from Myrtle Street under humming powerlines. It will get you downtown — if you don’t mind climbing up the hill and descending along fast, windy streets in mixed traffic. It’s like routing cyclists from Ballard to downtown over Queen Anne Hill.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.

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