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Sightline: A reluctant cyclist learning to love riding (despite SLU confusion)

Eric Hess is getting back on a bike for the first time in over a decade, and he has written two pieces about his experience for Sightline. As the weather warms, more and more Seattlites will be looking to hop on the saddle and give biking a shot. Eric’s posts are good reflections on what it is like to start out from scratch.

In his first post, Eric describes his first leisurely rides down the Burke-Gilman and around his neighborhood. Among his thoughts is this:

This is a no-brainer for the cyclist set, but a bike expands your mobility—big time: A bike gets you profoundly farther than your feet in a lot less time. Within minutes I was beyond my walking radius and realized how close some cool destinations actually were–some were even reached quicker by bike than car, figuring in traffic and parking. Not to disparage my good friend Metro (Seattle’s bus system), but the bike also gives a person more flexibility than bus schedules and routes can offer.

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When I first started riding (after leaving my childhood bike behind in exchange for car keys for half a decade), the incredible increase in mobility was definitely the most exciting part about riding. I was shocked by how easy it was to get so far. “Why haven’t I been doing this all along?” I asked myself.

In his second post, however, he takes on commuting from north Seattle to downtown (via the Fremont Bridge) for a week. His ride was going fine until he got into the South Lake Union bike route blackhole around Westlake Ave and Valley St:

On my first commute, I had a rough idea in my head about the route I would take. Off to a great start, I sped down the Burke-Gilman trail, traversed the Fremont Bridge, wove through the parking lots of Westlake…and then I hit downtown.

That’s when my plan fell apart. I took cues from a few other cyclists on the street, but found myself riding in between trolley tracks, navigating sidewalks, and being stranded on car-packed streets. In short, it was kind of miserable.

But, I made it to the office. Our building’s bike-friendly infrastructure, including a secure bike room and showers were welcome conveniences that I’d never really thought about before.

Over the past few days, I’ve been varying my routes and, a couple times, I’ve ridden with veteran cyclists. Thanks to their tips and shortcuts (and to Google bike maps), I’ve figured out a more precise route that’s not only quicker, but feels a lot safer, too.

I am glad Eric persevered through his South Lake Union troubles and continued to attempt new routes until he found a new one. I posted my preferred route in a previous post. Given the combination of Dexter and Mercer project construction, a lot of new bike commuters will likely have the same experience as Eric.

If you ride downtown via the Fremont Bridge regularly, what advice would you give someone trying it for the first time?

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12 responses to “Sightline: A reluctant cyclist learning to love riding (despite SLU confusion)”

  1. joshuadf

    Yeah, until 9th Ave N at Westlake is open again, the only options are using the sidewalks or riding the trolley tracks up to Republican St.

  2. Lisa

    I agree, SLU is a mess. I end up taking the Westlake parking lot (a must for a first timer- I’ve been riding for a while and still can’t get the motivation to try Dexter). Then I cross Valley and Mercer on the sidewalks, head up Republican on the sidewalk to 9th, and then ride the sidewalk on 9th (the sidewalk on the west side of the street is open) for a block until the construction ends and the bike lane starts. This route seems to be the best I’ve found, except that it takes forever waiting for the lights at Mercer and Valley, and the curb ramps aren’t placed very well for maneuvering a bike.

    1. Lisa

      And then I just realized that’s exactly what joshuadf just said, just much more concisely.

  3. Biliruben

    I simply take the middle of the left lane on westlake. There are so few cars on westlake, it isnt a big deal. I am still so pissed that they destroyed the safest, flattest, most direct route into downtown with Allen’s underused slut, I brave the road to make a point.

    1. Kevin

      Me and you both, Biliruben. Solidarity!

  4. Ben

    I also take Westlake, and avoid the parking lots. By my estimation, a parking lot is one of the most dangerous places to ride my bike. Cars aren’t really looking for you there. Westlake (along the lake) is not used very much. Yes, there are busses, and trucks. But those people are paid to drive and will watch out for you. For the first-timer, it can be a bit scary, but there is the parking lot if it gets a little too intense.

    I then ride until the construction starts, then get off Westlake at 8th (by the US Bank), then take the first right (steep hill, but only one block, a newbie could walk it quickly), cross Dexter (there is a stop light here, so it’s easy to cross), then take Dexter the rest of the way into Downtown.

    On my way to Fremont, I take Dexter until Harrison (stop light), and then take a left on Westlake. This avoids the trolley tracks (you cross them perpendicularly this way, but you never ride parallel) and the road construction at Mercer and on Dexter.

  5. Andreas

    My preferred route is the same as yours, Tom. Fremont Bridge → Westlake parking lot → signalized L at Highland Drive (McCormick & Schmick’s) onto Westlake proper → 8th Ave N → R onto Aloha → signalized L onto Dexter bike lane. (Dexter construction is to the north thus far, and no need to bother with the ped actuator, the road sensors at both those signals detect bikes well and change pretty quickly.) After that, if I’m going to Capitol Hill I’ll hop back over to 9th on John. For Downtown I cross Denny then take Bell to 2nd for lower-elevation CBD or Pike Place area or 5th for higher-elevation CBD or if I’m headed to the ID.

    Northbound I usually get back to Westlake via Mercer, which will daunt most new cyclists, but most of the sidewalks in north Downtown are plenty wide and usually have ramps, so it can be done pretty painlessly off the road.

    But I have to add a note about the Westlake parking lot. The amount of lackadaisical riding I see there is ridiculous. Yes, most of the traffic goes pretty slow, but very few drivers are looking for cyclists and even a slow collision with 2 tons of steel will hurt you and/or your bike. Plus the cars pulling into the lot off of Westlake proper are invariably trying to squeeze through a tiny gap in (vehicular) traffic, so they’re going pretty fast and they’re definitely not looking for cyclists. If you ride the lot, take off your iPod, ride toward the center so you can see & be seen (move right when traffic requires), and constantly scan—not just for cars in the lot, but also for those who may be pulling in from the main road. Oh, and if you’re going northbound? That section just past China Harbor? If you just kept going straight, you’re going the wrong way down a one-way road. It’s dangerous and it will (and should) piss drivers off.

  6. Daily Bike Commuter

    I’m still riding Dexter. I have a fat tire commuter bike, so I’m not having problems with the rough surfacing where they ground off the top of the existing asphalt. I’m not sure I’d do that with a skinny, high pressure tire though.

  7. Brian

    I’m fairly new in town, going on my fifth year of living here. What is the history behind the Westlake parking lot? I’m curious to know what it would take to put a real separated bike lane there, or whether that was tried and failed long ago.

    1. Andreas

      You probably won’t see this comment, but I’ll add it anyway for anyone who might stumble upon it in the future.

      It was only in 2002 that the City dug up the old train tracks on Westlake and completely redid the parking-lot area. See pic here. (Track remnants can still be seen just east of the Fremont Bridge and in front of some houseboats in the 2400 block.) I don’t recall hearing about a big campaign or lawsuits from the cycling or pedestrian community at the time, and the City was still a few years away from the ped and bike master plans, so rather than create a mini Burke-Gilman (also an old railbed), they simply added more parking for cars.

      Within just a few years, talk started of a Westlake streetcar, creating the Cheshiahud Loop, trying to be the most walkable city, trying to encourage bicycling, etc, and everybody is looking at Westlake saying, “What a waste!” And from my discussions with SDOT folks at Dexter meetings, SDOT shares a lot of those sentiments. But given the money involved in redoing the street again, and considering it was redone less than a decade ago, a full redo isn’t going to happen any time soon. Restriping like Dexter is more economically feasible, but probably not politically viable.

      The most likely scenario is that if & when the Westlake streetcar happens and SDOT is forced to rip up the parking lot and/or road again, improved bike & ped facilities will be installed, hopefully cycletracks or a wide multi-use path. But until then, I wouldn’t expect anything to change on Westlake.

      1. RSB

        Wow, this is a really helpful post. Thanks for that. The pic shows how much that has changed in 10 years (look at the lanes in the road!). It also shows how little forethought went into that project — or to be fair, who knew back then that that would be the best bike route… It really is a shame… Westlake is by far the best way into the city and should be made a bike-accessible via.

        It really sucks. The Dexter thing pisses me off.. Westlake is far superior.

  8. daniel

    My route has me going over the George Washington Bridge (A.K.A. the Aurora bridge). The view is always great

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