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Pucher: Seattle should work to regain prominence as a cycling-friendly city

Screenshot from Seattle Times website (click to read)
Screenshot from Seattle Times website (click to read)

Back when Nirvana’s Nevermind dropped in 1990, Seattle suddenly became the musical focus of the nation. But perhaps not everyone realized that the city also had the highest bike commuting rate of any large city in the Pacific Northwest. Yes, even higher and Portland and Vancouver, B.C.

But now, with those two cities accelerating past Seattle—especially in the past decade—Seattle is long past due to catch up.

Rutgers professor and “City Cycling” author John Pucher was in town for June’s Bicycle Urbanism Symposium, and has written a second editorial for the Seattle Times. The path to Seattle’s next bicycle renaissance is clear: Build bike facilities that feel safe for people of all ages and abilities. From the editorial:

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Bicycling in Seattle also falls short by another key indicator of a safe, welcoming city to bike in: the number of women bicycling. Fewer than 30 percent of Seattle bike trips are made by women. It’s striking that more women bike to work in Portland (4.8 percent) than the share of men biking to work in Seattle (4.6 percent).

Portland, Vancouver, B.C., Montreal, Ottawa, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C. have all surpassed Seattle in overall bicycling and in the rate of bicycling among women. What accounts for the bicycling booms in these cities, where environments are at least as challenging as Seattle’s?

The answer is simple: Other cities are building integrated networks of neighborhood greenways and protected bike lanes separated from car traffic.

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31 responses to “Pucher: Seattle should work to regain prominence as a cycling-friendly city”

  1. Anthony

    This article had me hoping in the beginning, but it falls squarely flat and does a belly-flop at best.

    The reals answer is SIMPLE, educate the drivers that cyclists belong on the road and we’ll see a dramatic decline in cyclists being hurt. For some reason I don’t see this (am I missing it) at all here.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Unfortunately, education cannot solve this problem on its own. It’s an important part of the puzzle, but it requires actual infrastructure investments. I would say that Seattle is definitely a leader in education, which likely played a big part in our status in the early 90s. The majority of people driving in Seattle are polite, careful and patient.

      But that’s simply not good enough. It really doesn’t matter how many people drive carefully around you because it only takes one distracted and/or malicious jerk to make someone feel unsafe biking in the streets. The vast majority of people will simply never be interested in sharing the lane with fast-moving traffic.

      1. Jonathan

        Even for smart and educated drivers, there are many problem intersections and poorly designed shared streets that make it challenging for drivers to know what they are supposed to be doing in regards to cyclists. That contributes to the “argh! bikers!” attitude I encounter a lot. Throw in a few newbie drivers from out of state who don’t know where they’re going or who’s supposed to yield and you’ve got danger. The way I see it, design is a major contributing factor to making shared streets feel complicated and unsafe in Seattle.

  2. A

    In a city that can’t even perform basic road maintenance on its existing infrastucture, a network of separated, safe, comfortable bike lanes seems like a pie in the sky idea at best.

    Not only is further driver education needed, but punishment as well. The punitive outcome of inattentive and dangerous driving needs to be addressed as we’re currently living in the equivalent to the drinking-and-driving culture that existed in the mid 20th century with regards to the way people simply don’t take seriously the fact that they’re operating heavy machinery in close proximity to other members of the public.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Have faith! We can absolutely make a city-wide network of safe bike routes. It’s within reach. We have the money and the know-how. We just need to make it happen, and that takes the support and work of any many people as possible, including you.

      And I agree, there is a lot more that can be done to enforce traffic laws and to make sure violators are actually held accountable. Right now, it doesn’t seem like we, as a society, take reckless or negligent driving seriously. But I feel like that sentiment is changing, too…

  3. Anthony

    “A” says it quite well, no road maintenance for starters, and the idea of separated bike lanes is a “pie in the sky” fairytale. To me that equates to letting drivers run around Seattle w/o any consequences and not having to even consider other road users either.

    It seems like every opinion piece I’ve seen here lately settles on either the cyclist being the problem, or the ideas is to just make bike lanes that are kid-friendly and forget about the rest of the cyclists who commute on a daily basis.

    Plus Tom, the vast majority of cyclists RIDE in everyday traffic, are you one of the special few who gets to ride on a bike lane all the way from your hose to work, or taking the kids to school?

    I suspect that this blog has little to no interest in everyday “vehicular cycling”, and in fact seems to denigrates it constantly. This blog has barely noticed us at all, and the only notice seems to be a RIP memorandum after the fact for another poor cyclist who rides on the street.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Anthony, you’ve lost me. How does arguing in favor of safer bike facilities mean I don’t care about people who ride in traffic every day? If anything, I care so greatly for people who bike in traffic every day that I want them to be safer, more comfortable and to have more company on their bike rides around town.

      If you think building a bike lane that is safe for people of all ages and abilities to bike somehow takes something away from YOUR use of that street, well, I don’t really know what to tell you.

  4. Leif Espelund

    Anthony and A (who I believe to be the same person): vehicular cycling as the solution for all is the “pie in the sky” idea here. I totally agree with you that we need to continue to educate drivers and properly punish those that accidentally or purposefully maim or kill cyclists. I agree that you do and alway should have the right to cycle in general purpose lanes with vehicular traffic, if you so desire. But the vast majority of cyclists and potential cyclists do not want this. Only a tiny fraction of the population would ever dare to ride everywhere with traffic, especially those extra vulnerable users (children, elderly, disabled). If we want to increase cycling in Seattle we have to focus our energy on building an integrated network of safe, ideally separated, bicycle facilities that span the city. These facilities don’t always have to be cycle tracks or buffered bike lanes. They can also be plain old shoulder lanes and neighborhood greenways.

    I am fortunate to have a relatively safe route to and from work each day. I ride from Greenwood down 6th Ave NW (a great candidate for a N/S greenway!), I crossy over Leary and ride the BG through to Fremont, I ride over the Fremont Bridge and take Dexter into downtown. Across Denny is when it all goes to shit. Getting from 7th over to 2nd was already a pain, but with the construction on Bell it is made even worse. The 2nd Ave bike lane is a death trap and indeed I become a vehicular cyclist on that road. As a youngish, active man I feel fairly comfortable riding downtown, but I can imagine a mom and her kids would be terrified of biking south past Denny.

    Anthony (or is it A?), you are absolutely correct that the vast majority of cyclists today ride in traffic, but that doesn’t mean it is preferable, safer, or what people want. We need to build infrastructure for all the people who want to bike around, but are not comfortable with our current solution.

    1. A

      It must help your world view to think that everyone you disagree with is actually one person. It’s a mentally deficient way of going about things, but whatever gets you through the day..

    2. Becka

      2nd Ave is what stops me from biking to work – I live in the U-District and work downtown. From my house to the Montlake Bridge I feel very safe, and although Eastlake is not ideal, traffic is low enough that I regularly bike along it. But…once Eastlake ends, so does my willingness to continue on a bike. I would LOVE to cycle to work, and did every day when I worked in Fremont. But I’m just too chicken for the craziness that is 2nd Ave.

  5. Anthony

    Leif, I have absolutely no connection to the person known as “A”, period. Who this person is I truly don’t have a clue.

    Let me be clear that I do not have a problem with bike paths/lanes. When designed right and used properly they are a great resource for cyclists, and a better choice than a road for a parent teaching her/his children the way to ride a bike.

    And I agree that a lot of people don’t want to ride in traffic, but unfortunately don’t get the chance. If I had my way I would ride dirt to work, and at one point did in fact. Talk about safety, can’t beat a regular dirt road. But I ride in traffic everyday like so many others, and the only other choice is a car. So I choose to take my chances and I wish the Bike Blog would stand by vehicular cyclists, but that seems to the opposite of what happens here.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I have never not stood by “vehicular cyclists,” unless such a person were advocating against safe bike lanes out of some dogmatic reading of John Forrester.

      Obviously, if you are going to use a bike as your everyday mode of transportation in Seattle today, you have to learn how to safely ride with traffic. We don’t have a complete network of bike facilities. I don’t believe I have ever suggested otherwise or somehow denigrated people who bike in traffic (which would be essentially everyone who bikes in Seattle).

      1. Anthony

        I don’t have a clue who John Forrester is, my point is that if this blog is first and foremost about safety, then the clear and obvious choice is to work towards the promotion of vehicular cycling and its merits.

        That is from the beginning, the inherent purpose of cycling. Working towards a lesser goal may be admirable, but it falls far short of working to help the cycling ridership as a whole. People still want to ride today like they did 100 years ago, albeit on better bicycles. They are the ones who deserve the protection first, imho. And that is where the Seattle Bike Blog should be the biggest supporter standing by those who take the run from their house to work or wherever by public roads.

        What it looks like here is a purposeful means-to-an-end to push for bike lanes and using the guise of “for the children” as the talking point. Obviously if someone is going to ride they need to know the rules, that’s clear enough. But get these same people out on the trail and your story changes, dramatically. Or are there different standards for the trail vs. the roads?

        I remember in the last foray of this I was routinely criticized for asking the other trail users with children to consider those who don’t have them and are trying to get from point “A” to point “B” as a “FRED” and I was being impatient, etc. So, which is it?

        As for John Forrester, why not put up a link by him or even better have him or a vehicular cyclist advocate write a guest piece for the blog like you let Pucher do? Seems fair enough so we good get a viewpoint by the “other” side, we only get Pucher’s take on this now, why?

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        “For the children” is just a talking point? Tell that to this giant group of cycling kids on the way to school: http://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2013/05/09/this-is-what-seattles-bike-to-school-revolution-looks-like-video/

        If a street is safe for kids, then it is safe for everybody. That’s true, but it doesn’t diminish the goal.

      3. Anthony

        That’s a great video and I remember when you posted it. Shows possible vehicular cyclists there, at very young ages to boot. So, the street is safe because it was shut down, which I don’t mind at all in this case. But to see these kids ride everyday on a street and know that drivers will be aware and courteous is the ultimate goal. We have to face the fact that there won’t be bike lanes or paths to very many schools, if ever, no matter how much we fund that aspect of the bike programs throughout the nation.

        So, argue for the safety of vehicular cycling first and that’s where the talking point should be. No matter the age it’s vehicular cyclists who need and deserve the protection from errant drivers and to have a blog that stands up for them. If they are 8, great and more power to them in the long run. If 68, they deserve the same protection and could sorely use it.

      4. Tom Fucoloro


        I don’t plan to stop standing up for people biking in the street. And I’ll fully support any initiative to teach safe road riding skills to as many people of all ages as we can. But I also think that we can make safe routes to all our schools. Don’t give up yet!

      5. Gary


        I have read this, and however much folks on this blog despise “Vechicular” cycling, they’ve missed the point of the book. It’s called “Effective Cycling” and the point most folks seem to miss is that the early designs for cycle tracks created worse conditions for bicyclists, not safer.

        Fortunately enough bad and good cycle tracks have been built that traffic planners can now see what the design issues are and correct for them. It takes timing of the cross traffic lights where cyclists are in the intersection before drivers can turn into them. (one of many issues). Mr Forrester irked a lot of people because he actively prevented many cycle tracks from being built. However those tracks were not up to the current standard. Blaming “vehicular cycling” for the lack of safe routes is just wrong.

    2. Leif Espelund

      Anthony and “A”: why don’t you start a blog/group to advocate for vehicular cycling? I’m not being cynical, if you really believe it to be the best solution than you should advocate for it. I doubt anybody here would advocate specifically against vehicular cycling, if it works for the rider. We all stand by our right to take the lane, but don’t work against us when we are trying to get something better that serves more people.

      1. A

        Why are you addressing me? Where did I ever mention anything about vehicular cycling (aside from the words you seem intent on putting in my mouth for me)? Maybe you can start a blog/group advocating warm fresh pressed waffle cones for every scoop, if you like non sequiturs so much.

  6. I see this as analogous to the debates we had in the 1990s in the tech industry when PCs shifted from character-based (DOS) interfaces to GUIs.

    The existing PC enthusiast user base (coincidentally, about 1% of what it is today) was livid at the idea of having things dumbed down for someone else’s benefit. They ridiculed the Mac as a toy.

    Of course, that made it possible for PCs to go beyond early enthusiasts, who were willing to learn crazy contortions to use them — and who didn’t understand why the population at large couldn’t just “computer-literate” like them and use PCs of their era.

    Now that PCs are usable by everyone, the resulting economy of scale means that even though PCs are no longer designed for that 1% of enthusiasts, they are beneficiaries. They can go install Linux on a PC that is thousands of times more powerful at a fraction of the price.

    I guess it’s not surprising that just like some drivers resent the idea that we invest in streets for the benefit of people who aren’t drivers, it makes sense that some cyclists will resent the idea that we’re going to invest our bicycling dollars for people who aren’t yet active bicycle riders.

    1. Fine analogy. To be totally fair, we can extend it. A lot of enthusiast computer users throughout time have pointed out serious problems with many GUIs that would indeed prevent them from being an improvement over the status quo. It wasn’t just that any GUI was better, it had to be a good one, even for novice users. The Mac was broadly better than DOS. Microsoft Bob was not. Early Windows was a wash.

      Vehicular cyclists have done the same with many seriously deficient cycling facilities and regulations. Much of SDOT’s recent work has been much better than taking the lane. The unfortunate, long-faded attempt to make cycletracks between the treeline and curb on the sidewalk of Brooklyn Ave was not. Parts of the Interurban Trail in Shoreline are a wash. I think it’s silly for vehicularists to criticize well thought-out infrastructure that will complete a better cycling network but… let’s remember they learned the ropes when bike facilities were bad and bike-specific laws existed to force cyclists to use them.

      1. Eli

        Definitely true.

        If I may just add two quick points, the questions I’d like to ask hardcore VCs are:

        #1: What is your vision for how kids (8 and up) and seniors (at least through 80) will have safe transportation cycling to the places they need to get to?

        #2: How does the separated infrastructure actually prevent you from riding in the ways you want to ride?

        The pro-VC arguments I hear really remind of a common pro-Israel expression to the effect of “if Israel’s neighbors stopped declaring war on Israel, there would no more wars. If Israel stopped fighting, there would be no more Israel.”

        If opponents of separated infrastructure stop opposing separated infrastructure, it just means that kids and seniors get to ride bikes, and life just looks a bit more like this for the rest of us:


      2. Gary

        To answer #2, seperated pathways have two problems. First they are often multi use, so they have the same problems cars have with cyclists: Cyclists have to deal with slower moving pedestrians. I know a number of folks who have been hit by cyclists because the two of them weren’t paying attention..

        The second problem is at intersections with streets, it’s difficult for cars to see approaching cyclists who are off to the side. So if you put the cycle track behind a row of parked cars, then the straightaway is safer, but the cyclists will be in the intersection before a turning car will see them.

        Of course the way to fix that is to remove “free right turns”, and add lights where cycle tracks get a 10 second head start before cars, and to align the tracks to cross the street where they are visisble to cars.

    2. Leif Espelund

      I was struggling to come up with a good analogy. This is it! And just like the first iteration of GUIs were pretty lame and only a slight improvement, so is much of our cycling infrastructure. And with time it will only get better. But we have to build it for the 95% of Seattleites who are too scared to get out of their car right now.

      1. Eli

        P.S. I should probably add: convincing VC fanatics is about as productive as debating hardcore GNU/Linux enthusiasts.

        The VC-boosters have now had 30 years of US bike policy and have generated one of the world’s worst safety records and lowest mode shares.

        They’ve completely lost – just as Linux completely lost the battle for the desktop (no matter how many people may argue that you get faster performance if everyone compiles their own custom kernel ;-).

      2. Andres Salomon

        Hey now, at least we Linux enthusiasts aren’t getting people killed!

        Unless you count the number of people playing with their Android phones while driving…

      3. Gary

        ah… linux is running under the hood on your Mac… And “Linux” is an OS, the Mac Interface is a window manager. It handles the look and feel, the OS runs the jobs. The issue with early Windows and early Macs is that they tried to do both jobs.

      4. Eli

        Nope, it’s a derivative of BSD running under the hood. BSD != Linux.

        (I used to work in the Mac OS engineering team at Apple, BTW. ;-)

      5. Eli

        And as a total aside, I was also the lead tester for the GNOME desktop on Linux (Nautilus), back in 2000-2001.

        And I work on Windows now. 360 degrees!

  7. josh

    To be fair, it’s totally disingenuous to claim that vehicular cyclists “have had 30 years of U.S. bike policy.” Can you really show a widespread repeal of as-far-right-as-practicable laws over the last 30 years? An end to anti-VC police harassment?

    Don’t get me wrong, I find true believer VC advocates irrational, but I think that’s in part because they’ve been so consistently ignored by U.S. bike policy over the past 30 years.

    U.S. bike policy is driven by motorists, not cyclists, with the prime goal of getting cyclists out of the way of motorists. That’s clear in Seattle’s continuing legacy of door-zone bike lanes. As cycling infrastructure, they’re more dangerous than no infrastructure, but they get cyclists out of the way and let Seattle claim to be building bicycle infrastructure without any real investment in safety.

    1. Eli

      Is it disingenuous?

      I felt Peter Furth made the case for that pretty convincingly in his City Cycling paper, “Bicycling Infrastructure for Mass Cycling”. I guess YMMV.

      I don’t personally see much of a gap between pure VC philosophy and car-oriented policy, as pure VC is the idea that bikes act like cars (as you know), and therefore do not need special accommodations beyond wide shoulders and smooth pavement.

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