There were no honking horns and no road rage even as a rush hour’s worth of people traveled some of the most traffic-clogged freeways in the nation. That is, of course, because the 7,000 people on the 520 Bridge and I-5 Express Lanes were on bicycles.
Cascade Bicycle Club’s newest major event was a smash hit. The first ever Emerald City Bike Ride sold out, making it the club’s second-biggest event in their line-up (the annual Seattle to Portland ride sells out 10,000 spots).
Governor Jay Inslee opened the event with a short speech to a huge crowd gathered at the start line next to UW Station. He told the crowd to thank Former Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson, who was on the ride months after the state Senate fired her in a surprise political attack.
“She’s done more for bikes in Washington state than anyone,” said Inslee.
The ride started with a big bike traffic jam getting across the Montlake Bridge as the thousands of people registered squeezed down to a single lane. But once through this pinch, it was free-flowing all the way to Medina.
Speaking of Montlake, the ride was also a great reminder of the need for a second Montlake Cut crossing to provide more bike access from UW campus to the 520 Trail and beyond. The existing sidewalks are not wide enough for today’s biking and walking volumes, let alone the increase that will come when the 520 Trail finally reaches Montlake in summer 2017.
The ride across the 520 Bridge was easy and beautiful (the views, not the newly expanded highway). It was a strange feeling to bike to Medina since the current 520 Bridge does not have space for biking and walking. It was a preview of how dramatically bike access to the Eastside will improve when the trail finally connects in summer 2017.
After heading to Medina and back, the route went through the U District to the I-5 Express Lanes entrance. Though the general I-5 lanes remained open as usual, the fully-separate express lanes were bikes-only from the U District all the way to Seattle City Hall downtown.
There is no existing bike route anything like this. It’s fast, direct and relatively flat compared to all other bike route options. It felt like it only took a blink to get from the Ship Canal to City Hall, a route that usually includes several significant hills, many traffic lights and long stretches mixed with stressful busy traffic.
And the sections with the main decks overhead (like the Ship Canal Bridge) were surprisingly quiet. Much of the deafening noise you typically hear from the bridge is the sound of cars, trucks and buses driving on the express lanes bounding off the bottom of the road deck above and back down to your ears. And bikes don’t make very much noise.
It was pure joy, like catching a glimpse of a Seattle where biking is a true priority.
Cities are space, and infrastructure like freeways push out people to allow motor vehicle travel. But once a piece of infrastructure is in place long enough, people get used to it and soon can’t imagine the city any other way.
Freeways like 520 and I-5 are gigantic investments, and having a chance to bike these routes shows just how immensely car-biased our city’s major transportation investments are. Freeways are our nation’s biggest wonders, a series of trenches and bridges that allow multi-ton vehicles to flow through dense urban spaces without tapping a brake pedal. Well, until too many people try to drive at the same time, of course.
And freeways are terrible, horrifying places. They are loud, polluting and hostile to life. As USDOT head Anthony Foxx noted recently, they divided communities, disproportionately damaging or displacing poor and minority neighborhoods. It’s ironic that Cascade named this ride the “Emerald City Bike Ride” because these freeways are about as far from natural greenery as you can get and still be in Seattle.
It’s also ironic that the state opened a major highway expansion project like the new 520 Bridge with a fun run Saturday and a bike ride Sunday. The new 520 Trail is great and all, but it’s really just righting a wrong from half a century ago when the bridge was designed to exclude people walking and biking.
At its core, the $4.56 billion bridge replacement project is a highway expansion adding two more lanes between the Eastside and I-5. That’s a dizzying amount of money that could build Seattle’s entire 20-year Bicycle Master Plan ten times over or build a subway from downtown to Ballard.
Freeways were last century’s solution to transportation, and while they have successfully encouraged sprawling development, they’ve failed by most other measures. Our challenge now is to find better ways to move people and goods around our city and region, to reconnect communities damaged by freeway construction and to find better ways to use the infrastructure we have.
A bike ride on the freeways is a chance to take a sober look at what we’ve built, sort of like exploring our city’s open wounds.
I will never look at Seattle’s transportation infrastructure the same again. And our concept for an I-5 Express Trail only seems more viable and powerful. I-5 through Seattle is going to need major repair and rebuilding work soon. We will have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to heal damage from the past reimagine our city’s biggest infrastructure wonders.