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Bikelash? I’d rather go ride in the sunshine

Danny Westneat and I had an excellent chat Tuesday about Seattle’s resurging “bikelash” this past week. Coincidence or not, this week has also had fantastic weather for riding a bike.

The frustrations started with the announcement that Mayor Mike McGinn has hired former Cascade Bicycle Club Advocacy Director David Hiller. This hiring sent at least two local TV news stations into attack mode, and the result has riled up anger at Seattle bicycle riders in general and kickstarted the “cars vs bikes” meme all over again.

While King 5 was running this video last night, people were gathering in Gas Works Park for the 7th annual Ride of Silence. The ride is a somber event in memory of people who have died while riding bicycles over the years in our community and across the country. King 5’s Linda Brill scoffs at the idea that a “bicycle expert” could be a transportation adviser to the mayor, but the number one reason people do not ride bicycles in Seattle is because they do not feel safe riding near cars on our city’s streets.

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Underneath the criticism of the mayor’s vocal support for cycling is an assumption that bicycle use is not a legitimate form of transportation. Yet every day, more and more people in Seattle are discovering the nearly indescribable joy, freedom and practicality of riding a bicycle. The city’s investments in bicycle infrastructure are paying off. The number of people in this city choosing to ride a bike will keep rising, and the number of people driving will continue falling (as they have for the better part of the past decade, long before Mayor McGinn took office).

Behind the endless debates about “road diets,” signal timing and market rate parking, there is a beautiful vision of a city where people get where they need to go efficiently, cheaply and in better health. Cars are here to stay, but our city, state and federal governments have all spent massive amounts of money over decades in an attempt to make them the most practical way to get around. They are engrained in our culture and for some purposes, they are very useful. However, we cannot fit more cars into our city. Ignoring the toxic exhaust hurting every citizen in this city, the environmental impact of burning gas and the danger motor vehicles pose to all road users, there simply is not any more room.

This image says it all:

Well, maybe it doesn’t say everything. That image makes a very clear argument for transit and bicycle use in an urban setting, but what about the fun? What about the parties, the community, the wind in your face, the smiles and the laughter? No, I think this photo from last year’s Tour de Fat actually says it all:

Well, maybe that’s not quite right, either. In reality, for the majority of my everyday bike riding I am either alone or with a good friend that I love. Time spent on a bike brings me closer to my city and to myself. It’s time to reflect or just watch the world and smile. No, I think this simple photo says it all:

I met this woman a few months ago next to the playground at the old T.T. Minor School in my neighborhood. She rides her bike as much as she can, pulling her young daughter in a trailer behind her. At this moment, her daughter was off playing and otherwise being a kid while this woman just sat on this bench watching her as the night rolled in.

With a new biking season finally getting into high gear, it is up to us, as people who ride bicycles and/or urban advocates, to present to our fellow citizens an image of what bicycling is and what it can be. Perhaps this is where the mayor could most improve. When McGinn speaks about bicycle use or vastly expanding transit, he is talking about ideas that can make Seattle more affordable, safer and happier. But he can’t just say the words and the statistics, he needs to make us understand what that means and what it looks like. I’m talking videos, people smiling, diagrams, animations showing how traffic flow works during a road diet, etc. People need to get excited and feel like part of an ever-improving Seattle.

Bike to Work Day is Friday. A lot of people are going to experience first-hand how empowering it is to get where they’re going under their own power. Some of them will discover that a street that used to be scary is now much safer with bike lanes and calmed traffic. They may choose to make a habit of riding. More people will be added to ranks of daily rush hour commuters who choose to ride bicycles. These safer streets are just a glimpse of how our city could be with a more complete bicycle network.

We will not successfully rebut misinformed bits of bike rhetoric until we can effectively present how much better life for everybody in Seattle could be if more of us rode bicycles every day.

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15 responses to “Bikelash? I’d rather go ride in the sunshine”

  1. Biliruben

    Nice post.

  2. NickBob

    The comments on that column have climbed to over 500, another flame war in which road rage transfers to text. I thought it was pretty funny that a Times writer could wonder about the local bitterness and not reference fellow columnist Nicole Brodeur, who has written several pieces expressing that bitterness, one of which made me ride to the offices of Cascade to join up.
    The Times and several local media outlets are strongly pro-tunnel, and they’ve decided to use the mayor’s bicycling as a cudgel against him since he’s the biggest roadblock against the tunnel after, uh, popular citizen disapproval. It’s a Fox News style campaign, and it stinks, and it may also be working.
    All that said, it was a reasonable conversation the two of you had. Good work.

  3. robotslave

    “the number one reason people do not ride bicycles in Seattle is because they do not feel safe riding near cars on our city’s streets”
    I’m certainly no fan of cars and driving, but no, this just isn’t the case. The number one reason people do not ride bicycles in Seattle is because it’s raining.
    I’ll be convinced by photos when they’re not taken during the kind of weather we only get for 4 months of the year.

    1. JAT

      in my anecdotal discussions with curious non-cyclists safety around cars is number one, rain is number two, and hills are number three.

      It rains a lot in Amsterdam. I’m just sayin’ (and as long as I’m sayin’ let me point out I’m NOT advocating a Dutch style parallel system of grade separated facilities – I’m just saying it rains…)

      1. robotslave

        I’m sure our anecdotal discussions are rather different. I can see safety being issue #1 in a few neighborhoods, but no way is it #1 for the whole city.

        Rain compounds traffic safety issues too, and in numerous ways, particularly when combined with hills. If the climate were better (or the terrain flatter) people would most likely feel safer on bikes in traffic, all other things being equal.

        Cycling is a nice transportation option in Seattle during the dry season, but when the rain starts, the wind picks up, and the temperature dips below 50, people are going to need other realistic choices for the remaining 2/3 of the year.

        Personally, I voted for the monorail. Three times, iirc.

      2. One thing about safety. If indeed there are only a few neighborhoods where safety is perceived to be an issue (I’m not sure that’s true), which neighborhoods are they? The busiest ones, where there’s the most traffic. The ones people go for work and entertainment. If people don’t feel safe riding downtown or on Cap Hill, and those places are important to them, then safety is an issue for them. If they make peace with these places, where traffic is thick but slow, consider the corridors they may have to traverse to get there: Eastlake, SODO, Westlake, SLU. The challenges of these ares are completely different and perhaps even more intimidating.

        It’s not that these problems are all solvable through infrastructure or something. And it’s not that hills and rain will go away. We certainly do need other ways to get around.

        What amazes me (I’m pretty new here) is how much worse traffic seems to be when the weather is nice. It really wreaks havoc on the bus schedules, enough that it might be faster to bike to work than take the bus in the summer. Does anyone know why that is?

    2. Tom Fucoloro

      The last photo was taken in March (though, admittedly, it was a nice day in March). But I get your point. However, I love riding in the winter. In fact, it’s almost like pedal-powered sunshine for me. If I were only in cars, buses and otherwise indoors for all that time, I would go crazy. Riding a bike and getting the blood moving and taking in the stunning if not gray city we live in is what gets me through dreary months in Seattle.

      The problem is, the majesty of a rainy Seattle day is really not very photogenic. The sound of the rain falling on tree leaves all around you as you ride up Interlaken Drive can’t be captured with a camera (especially my phone’s camera, which is all I have). But the experience of being around so much rain and fog is valuable and enjoyable, too. Well, so long as you have fenders and a breathable rain jacket.

      1. robotslave

        The problem is not that cold, rainy Seattle days are “unphotogenic”.

        I’m comfortably certain that there are quite a few photographers in our city who can romanticize a cyclist pushing forward through the cold or the dark or the rain or or hill or all of the above.

        I am equally certain, however, that their stirring, artistic photographs aren’t going to do squat when it comes to encouraging normal, average-BMI city residents to ride their bikes to work when the mean high temp forecast for the day is 46F, and the mean daily precip forecast is “yes, it is going to rain”.

        The problem is not that the weather is “not very photogenic”. The problem is that the (2/3 of the year) weather is totally shitty for riding bikes.

  4. […] to answer Westneat’s question about the bitterness, read Tom Fucoloro on how much fun it is to ride a bike. I think Fucoloro’s attitude is spot on–he highlights the individual pleasures (and […]

  5. Merlin

    I spent a couple hours back in February taking pictures of people in Seattle riding bikes in the rain. There were not huge crowds out there – but the people who were out riding were just folks going from one place to another, using their bikes for transportation. The proportion of women to men seemed a bit more equal too, compared to the sunny days that bring out sports cyclists. Here’s a link to a photo I posted on Flickr from that rainy day in February. http://www.flickr.com/photos/merlinrain/5447375640/in/set-72157626049993340

    And for what it’s worth, I’m a 65 year old woman and I ride all year, for my commute and for errands, which take me between Capitol Hill, South Lake Union, Downtown and the U-district. The weather is not a big deal.

    1. Andy

      I love that picture. Thanks!

  6. Nobad Weather

    Ride all the time (I skip snow and ice).
    There is no such thing as bad weather just in-appropriate clothing. Helmet cover, raincoat, gortex pants, and booties.

  7. daisy

    Yep same here all the time. Sneakers, hat, jersey gardening gloves and Carharts.

  8. Joel

    People would be jaw-dropped amazed at how comfortable it is to ride in the rain (not snow) with appropriate clothing. For the cost of a few oil changes, you can be in warm, breathable, and completely dry water-proof clothes while you ride, head to toe. Add waterproof pannier bags that hold your change of normal clothes and you’re all set.

    Hills can be bad, but you can pretty easily find a route that bypasses the worst of them most of the time. If you’re really out of shape, you can walk your bike up any hill, and after a few weeks of riding, the hills around here are no big deal at all.

    Those are the two biggest reasons I hear from people as to why it’s “impossible” to ride in Seattle year round. Actually, it’s much harder in most of the rest of the country where the summers are blistering and winters icy. Seattle is truly one of the best cities to ride in year round!

  9. […] projects in Seattle today are not exactly controversy-free, but the response is nothing like what it was just a few years ago. Then-Mayor Mike McGinn was the lightning rod for a lot of that anger, and his political opponents […]

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