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Reader Question: I’m moving to Seattle soon, am I going to need gears?

Just got an email from Bryce, who is moving to the U District soon and will be commuting to Beacon Hill. What advice do you have for him, both in terms of bike routes and in terms of bike needs?

Hi Tom,

I am relocating to Seattle in a couple of months. My impression of Seattle is “hilly”. How “bike friendly” is Seattle overall? From U-district through downtown to North Beacon Hill. That’s most likely to be my commute every day. I am riding a single speed. Am I going to need gears? Thanks in advance.

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31 responses to “Reader Question: I’m moving to Seattle soon, am I going to need gears?”

  1. Breckenridge Cartwright

    Hey there and welcome.

    I live in N. Beacon Hill, and when I cycle to the U District, I usually drop down to Lake Washington and ride up that way, avoiding Cap Hill or Downtown. It is a very heavily used bike corridor, and cycling through the Arboretum is beautiful. That being said, when coming back and going up Beacon Hill, you will definitely want some gears!

    1. sb

      For what it’s worth, here are the three routes that google maps lists:


      What is the elevation changes like with the Lake Washington route you mentioned?

  2. Ryan

    I have to agree with Breckenridge, dropping down to Lake Washington makes for a very pleasant ride between U-district and Beacon Hill. Here’s a google map that shows one option for that route:
    Click here

    But here’s another more direct way that I like to go if I need to get between those two locations a bit quicker. It’s through Capitol Hill:
    Click here

    And I’d definitely get some gears, it will make the ride a lot more enjoyable!

    1. Dylan

      Your first route is great! But, why 17th over 18th?

  3. Bryce,

    It all depends on how strong you and your tolerance for pain. A better question is how much of Seattle do you want to see and experience?

    I’d opt for converting your single speed to an internal 8 speed.


  4. Tonya

    Seems like that route would take him up Capitol Hill (and First Hill) and Beacon Hill, both substantial hills with steep climbs north-south. I can’t imagine doing it without gears, myself. The only flat-ish way I can think of doing it is by going around Capitol/First hills by going on Lake Washington Boulevard and taking the I-90 trail to Beacon Hill, but it’s not hill-less — and Beacon Hill is a hill, no matter what.

  5. Jack

    I’m almost 50 and although I ride a lot, (100 miles +/week) I am always glad to have options. I like having gears, which provide me with options.

    Hope your move goes smoothly.


  6. Joseph

    Hi Bryce,

    It all depends. What gear ratio are you riding? I ride a 47/16, and I can handle all the hills I need in Seattle with the exception of a few that are steeper than, say, 15% or so. There are some steep ways to get up to Beacon Hill from the U District, but there are many that are no more than 8-10% – and even those the steep parts are pretty short. Most climbs are in the 4-7% range.

    So my suggestion is to try a few routes once you get here and get gears if you feel you need them. Having said, getting gears (or a geared bike) will certainly help you enjoy the area a lot more.

    More important than gears though: fenders! It does get a little wet around here.

  7. anon

    I see people riding single gears (and fixies) up the hill on Fremont Ave on occasion. It all depends on how fit you are.

  8. Doug Bostrom

    Not to reignite a theological controversy but (just in case you’ve become accustomed to doing without) brakes are worth consideration as well, maybe at least transitionally ’til you see the worst case scenarios for attempting to control speed w/rear wheel. Many streets here frequently end up w/a combination of exposed polished aggregate, steep grade and moisture. Can be nasty for stopping.

    +1 on fenders!

    Tom, not sure if you’ve covered it or if it’s already in the queue but Seattle Trans it Blog reminds us that the Bicycle Master Plan comment deadline is swiftly approaching.

  9. svemana

    I work at UW, but regularly ride to the VA (Beacon Hill) frequently. I have a single speed with a very hill friendly ratio of 44-19. I’ve met others with 44-18 and will probably switch to that soon. I ride from Fremont, Burke, University Bridge, up Harvard, Interlaken, 19th, then 18th up to Beacon hill. It’s got a couple nice climbs but nothing extreme. It’s a nice route and with less cars then taking 12th, which I ride going home.

    Seattle is definitely doable with a single speed, your legs get strong pretty quickly. just take a couple days off once a while, and your legs stay fresh. it’s also easier to clean during the rainy season.
    most of the big hills are on side residential streets, with Queen Anne, and the area between 23rd and the Arboretum having some real monsters between 18-20% grade.
    Even getting up Cap Hill is not too bad, if you take Pine from downtown. Of course with gears, everything becomes easier and you are not so limited in your routes. but keep in mind that the really steep streets are even avoided by people with over 20 gears. consider a 1×9 setup?

    I find Seattle drivers very considerate, but during rush hour, everyone is impatient. if you are willing to yield your ‘right of way’ at times, ride less travelled routes, take the lane at times, you can have a nice long cycling life here.

    definitely agree with the fenders comment.

  10. Steve M

    In a word, yes! There are folks who ride single gear bikes or fixies around town but frankly I have no idea how they do it. The city is hilly. Definitely a lot of ways around them as folks above have described – you’ll find your own routes, and do pick up a Seattle Bike Map here: http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/bikemaps.htm
    But give yourself a break and have gears. They city is a much more friendly and bike navigable place with them.
    See you on the road!

  11. Zach Shaner

    +1 on getting a 1×9. I ride from Cap Hill to Beacon Hill every day via 12th, and it’s really not hard with my 9-speed. From the UDistrict I’d suggest Eastlake to Stewart to either 5th or 2nd, and then either put your bike on light rail to Beacon Hill or ride up King to 12th.

    Avoid 23rd like the plague, 10th is a nice ride but only with gears, and 19th/18th are good low traffic streets. I personally would find the Lake Wa option to be too out of the way.

  12. Anthony

    The consensus is fenders, definitely. I am finally riding my non-fender equipped bike this week, but that can change so fast.
    As for gears, if you’re strong enough still, stay single-speed. Save your money on drivetrain replacement components and such. Otherwise I say go with a 1×8 or 9. To the guy who has a 47/16 only, were you the one kicking my butt yesterday down 15th along Interbay?! I was in my 52/21 and harder, yet NEVER caught up to you. Absolutely amazing how hard that guy rode, my hat off to him, whoever he is.

    1. merlin

      wow, if I had a clue, I’d be impressed!

    2. Joseph

      Anthony – ha! it’s been a loooong time since I kicked anyone’s butt (come to think of it, I don’t think that’s ever happened on my 47/16), so no, that wasn’t me. I wish I could say it was!

  13. How critical is the “through Downtown” part? Are you actually doing something there?

  14. Gary

    I like having knees… so gears are essential for me. However I have ridden a fixie home when my shift cable broke and I lashed so that I had a single middle gear 48×19 It was like using a stair stepper on the hills.

    That said, if you commute with a load, or want to pick up a heap of groceries gears makes it a lot easier.

  15. Andres

    I was faced with the same decision 2 years ago (coming from Boston, which is pretty flat). I opted for a sturmey-archer 3 speed internal gear hub, and was very pleased with that decision.

    That said, after biking around Seattle for about a year, I noticed that I was no longer shifting gears. My legs had gotten much stronger, so I ditched the 3 speed and went back to fixed gear. Now I’m perfectly happy riding fixed around Seattle, but the initial transition would’ve been pretty unpleasant without the extra gears.

  16. I recently picked up a singlespeed folding bike. I haven’t yet had to stop and walk it. That’s mostly on short trips, but they’re all hilly ones. None of Seattle’s climbs are all that long; on a short ride with only a couple climbs you can sprint up anything in any gear you want, and after you’ve lived here a while you’ll learn to sniff out flatter routes or routes with smoother grades and less repeated up-down without even looking at a topo map. Old roads that wind up steep hills instead of plowing straight ahead, roads that contour around hills.

    Also, don’t even look at Google bike directions in Seattle. It appears some idiots have mapped every damn staircase and drainage ditch in this town as bike paths. The city’s bike map is sort of OK unless you’re color-blind (its green and orange are nearly indistinguishable to me, on-screen or in print). Really no human has ever produced a good bike map. It may be impossible. So you have to try things. Which is fun.

    1. J

      That drives me crazy. I keep reporting issues to Google Maps, they fix it, then someone reverts it. Getting directions to take the Galer St. bridge over Aurora is pretty annoying. I think the problem is that some of the pedestrian staircases have runnels and that somehow transforms them into legitimate bike routes.

  17. Dylan

    18th ave S is one of the least steep ways to get up Beacon Hill and will be converted to a Neighborhood Greenway this summer, so it will be safe and a tad awesome. Try including it in your route.

    If you Really don’t like hills or biking along side our driver friends try this multimodal scenic route: light rail to SLUT to Westlake to Burke to U-district, super flat and mostly separated.

  18. no traffic lights

    My daily driver is fixed with around 72 gear inches and there are no prohibitive hills for me with the exception of one or two cross streets in the downtown area.

    If it’s fixed I would certainly recommend a front brake because you’ll want something to scrub speed on the descents. yay.

  19. Doug

    Keep the single speed and also get a fendered road bike with 32mm tires. That way, you have more bikes and your problem is solved!

  20. Lets not forget the fast way up Beacon Hill…Light rail to the elevator!


  21. used to do this commute all the time when i lived in seattle. highly against going downtown. highly in favor of having gears.

    i’d say go up captiol hill on 10th and then up beacon hill on 12th. those are your two main hills, would suggest gears for ’em. that’s the quickest route in my opinion.

  22. J

    I’d recommend a single speed if you’re used to hills already. I commute between the udist and downtown via the Burke and dexter all of the time. Also, riding a 20 mile commute to Bothell many times a week. Very fun riding minus a few huge hills. Also, the buses in Seattle have bike racks… Makes for another easy way to skip some areas.

    To the comments about your knees. Common folk lore in my opinion. A single speed needs a different approach to hills and speed. I can’t imagine the shifting I see on a daily basis jumping gears is all that great either on the knees. Now, fixed I’d agree on.

  23. Rebecca

    Coming from a place with few steep hills (Ohio), when I first moved to Seattle it was fantastic having a Giant with gears. But after a few months of riding, Seattle’s hills kicked my ass and I switched to a single speed Bianchi (and only ever have to walk on some of Queen Anne’s scary hills).

    I personally find that I get more use out of my lighter weight bike: takes up less physical space and easier to sling over my shoulder for the stairs at my apartment. However, I do now feel rather limited to riding in, or near, the city, and am considering getting a touring bike.

  24. Angie

    +1 gears
    +1 fenders
    Get a good lightweight, waterproof jacket (it magically lasts through fall, winter, and “spring.”)
    There’s a helmet law in Seattle too.
    have fun!

  25. I’ve been reading all the comments about biking around Seattle. I’m a 40-something former Marine with three back surgeries that wants desperately to ride his bike from the studio to work. My experience with riding is an 18-speed mountain bike with my wife, usually in a casual mode of travel. I’ll be travelling from Ballard to my new job on 4th Ave. Here’s my question for all of you: do you have showers at work? I don’t want to drive my F150 into downtown, but I’m not a big fan of public transportation either if I can ride my bike. But I don’t want to smell like the gym when I get to work. What suggestions or experience do all of you have when it comes to hygiene issues? This may sound like an odd comment, but when you work at a law firm, it’s taken seriously.

  26. Cameron

    I’ll be moving to Seattle in a couple weeks for a summer internship. I’ll be living in burien just west of the airport and riding to the Boeing development center in south Seattle/ tukwila (~6 mi.). I want to bring my SS bianchi San Jose instead of the geared mtb. Does anyone know how tough that route would be?

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