We can all get along: Bikers and drivers learn to share the road

A lament from the past highlights recent progress: Motorists are learning to accept cyclists, and biking is getting safer in Seattle.
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A new law might do more to protect bikers and pedestrians, if only it were enforced.

A lament from the past highlights recent progress: Motorists are learning to accept cyclists, and biking is getting safer in Seattle.

Never can tell what you’ll find when you clean out the “to do” folders and desk stacks. I just came across a story from the July 26, 2006 issue of the Seattle Weekly called “Breaking the Vicious Cycle.” In it, author David Neiwert set out to explode the myth of “bike-friendly” Seattle, noting that its streets (in contrast to Portland’s) are unsafe and unadapted to cycling, its drivers resent and rebuke (and all too often “door”) their pedaling brethren and reckless scofflaw cyclists up the hostility factor.

Since then, Seattle has adopted one bicycle master plan. It’s about to adopt another, now that aggrieved neighbors along the planned Westlake Ave. N. cycle track have struck an accord with the city and dropped an appeal blocking the plan. Cyclists, bike lanes and sharrows have sprouted like mushrooms on Seattle’s streets, along with a select number of separated cycle tracks and bike paths. But many of Neiwert’s points still hold. Seattle bicycling infrastructure still lags badly, especially in Southeast Seattle; the underfunded 2007 master plan remains in large part an unfulfilled wish list.

On one score, however, Neiwert’s 2006 report seems happily out of date. What he calls the “historically tendentious” relationship between motorists and bicyclists in Seattle now seems much less, er, contentious. Road warriors of both sorts may disagree, but after long and considered observation atop both types of vehicle, I have to say: We’re learning to share the road. On the whole, Seattle’s drivers are more alert to and accepting of bicycles than they’re ever been before. And cyclists, while we may still run stop signs when no one’s coming, are also behaving better (overpowered blinking headlights aside). The one-man Critical Mass displays (pulling over to the left side of single lanes to block cars from passing) are now rare. Likewise, at least off Capitol Hill, those too-cool-for-school, too-neat-for-the-street hipsters cutting diagonally across four lanes while riding no-hands, no-lights in dark clothing at night. Maybe they all got hit and became cycle angels.

It’s only natural, maybe even inevitable, that motorists would learn to accommodate bicycles. It’s a matter of lower-case critical mass. The number of cyclists reaches a tipping point. At that point, you can’t fight them anymore. You get used to them and you live with them.

The trend is reflected in the numbers of bicycle collisions (usually due to cars striking cyclists) reported by the Seattle Department of Transportation (below). Not that those numbers have gone down; over the past decade they’ve ticked up, then down, then up again — to a record level in 2013, according to preliminary data newly compiled by SDOT. The "Bike Collision Rate" below is calculated on the basis of crashes per 1 million bicycle miles traveled:

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Source: Seattle Department of Transportation

They reveal what is, in effect, a substantial decrease in collisions and increase in safety, since the number of cyclists has risen much faster during that time. I suspect the number of cycle miles has risen even faster, as the expansion of bike paths and lanes has helped cyclists take on longer commutes. SDOT hasn’t yet crunched its 2013 ridership counts, but spokesman Rick Sheridan says, “We expect to see an increase in the number of bicycle commuters for 2013 and therefore a continued decline in the bike collision rate.”

Two contrasting incidents exemplify the change, even if they do nothing to prove it. Back in 2006, Neiwert recounted getting “called an asshole just for biking on Lake Washington Boulevard” — a road that was actually designed as a bikeway 120 years ago, and which I ride regularly to work.

Now some drivers do still get testy when you make them stop at busy crosswalks so you can walk your bike across, including one Seattle Police officer I flagged down and scolded for failing to yield. But that’s an issue of motorists disrespecting pedestrians rather than cyclists, and of the city failing to enforce its crosswalk laws. I’ve also seen motorists stop and yield at crosswalks when I’m pedaling and they have the right of way — an intermodal variation on the classic Seattle four-way-stop showdown: “After you.” “No, after you!”

What I haven’t seen in the past year or two is drivers catcalling or bearing down on or roaring by an elbow’s width away from cyclists the way they used to. (Some readers will doubtless have conflicting horror stories to share; that's life in the city.) Last summer, heading home from work on Lake Washington Boulevard, I pulled up to the stop sign at Orcas St. and a voice boomed in my left ear: “Hey, you!” I turned to face the accoster, fight-or-flight hormones surging. He was a burly African American guy in a big SUV. When he saw me looking, he grinned sheepishly and apologized profusely: “Hey, man, I’m really sorry, I was just yelling at my friend over there. I respect you guys!”


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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.