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For a few hours, two Seattle freeways were bike-only (Photos)

IMG_4452EmeraldCity_layout_R2For a few short hours just after sunrise Sunday, two major Seattle freeways were beautiful places filled with smiling people.

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).

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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.

IMG_4403IMG_4398The 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.

IMG_4411 IMG_4454 IMG_4438 IMG_4431After 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.

IMG_4490 IMG_4468IMG_4479 IMG_4540 IMG_4512 IMG_4492IMG_4498IMG_4528IMG_4543 IMG_4538The ride tapped into a long-latent demand to experience our region’s most off-limits pieces of major transportation infrastructure by bike. And the experience was eye-opening in so many ways.

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.


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23 responses to “For a few hours, two Seattle freeways were bike-only (Photos)”

  1. Leo

    I rode the Emerald City, by the time we rolled off the freeway and took that sleigh ride downhill through downtown to the food stop, it took a while to be able to eat, we had such smiles on our faces.
    If this could be an alternate future, I want to live there.

  2. fred

    Why not close the I-5 express lanes EVERY Sunday morning for a few hours and make it free for pedestrians and bicyclists to access? The pure joy it would bring to residents and visitors would be worth the effort and cost.

    1. Becky

      YES! A thousand times this. I’d even concede not doing it on Seahawks days…except that ZOMG you could bike to the Seahawks game! Every Sunday it is.

    2. Law Abider

      The novelty would wear off pretty quick and the amount of bikers and pedestrians using it would drop off pretty quick. Then you’re closing down a route used by thousands of cars an hour for maybe 200 – 300 bikers/peds for a multi hour period.

      1. asdf2

        I’m personally of the opinion that the I-5 express lanes should be closed during non-event weekend mornings (and before 6 AM on weekdays), if for no other reason than to reduce noise for all the neighbors. The capacity of those lanes is simply not needed during those times. The only vehicles that really benefit from it are buses (due to the direct tunnel connection), but those buses will all the gone within 5 years anyway (to be replaced with Link).

        When I-5 eventually needs to be rebuilt, it would be nice if they could just get rid of the express lanes altogether, in favor of bi-directional HOV lanes on the mainlanes.

      2. Law Abider

        I don’t think the express lanes will ever go away. They are too valuable during the day to move freight and traffic.

        If anything, we’d see a bidirectional bypass, with exits only to 520 and 522. Maybe an HOV exit to the U-District to accommodate those straggler buses.

  3. Grain

    As fun as getting to ride bikes on the freeway one time is, our daily lives would be so much better if these automobile-age monstrosities didn’t enter our city centers at all.

  4. ronp

    Great post, highways, freeways, stroads — all are terrible. Hope my great grand daughter/son will live in a world containing a heck of a lot fewer of them.

    We are heading to Stockholm and Copenhagen in July and hope to see a bit of the future there…

  5. William

    Is the Emerald City bike ride going to be an annual event?

    Personally I am all for bike infrastructure but I also like to drive places and freeways let me do that. It is great to advocate for bikes, light rail etc but on the whole there are not going to be options for the poorest citizens who live a long way from the expensive cities and development areas around rail hubs. We also need to invest in our freeways by providing dedicated transit lanes so buses can move quickly on freeways and tax private vehicles per mile driven at a high enough rate that we keep the freeways clear and encourage citizens to bike or use transit. Driverless carbon-neutral vehicles can transform our cities for the better if we plan and invest in the infrastructure to let that happen.

    1. Wells

      So-called driverless autonomous cars is a ruse, a corporate lie. It is NOT technologically possible no matter what we’re told, nor would it solve most problems related to our automobile infestation that’s raising the cost of living and making life less sensible. No doubt Little Lord Billy Gates loves the idea (the money behind the idea) of pursuing another high tech product perceived as necessary. Hell, he’ll add to his obscene wealth just studying the idea.

      Portland’s “Bike the Bridges” in August is a great ride. Both the Fremont I-405 and Marquam I-5 bridges close down (one direction) and the upper decks host about 19,000 bicyclers for the 3 hour ride. Other bridges across the Willamette also partially close. That said, IMO, we’re at the end of an era. Excessive automobile use is ending as it is sooner rather than later admitted to be obviously unsustainable. Seattle is a mess of transportation infrastructure. Washington State DOTs and Transit Agencies are vilely corrupt. And oh do add Warren Buffett to the list of leaders hellbent on remaining a billionaire at the expense of a healthy planet and some remaining human civilization that isn’t stupid enough to believe his lies.

  6. Charity

    I could not stop smiling on this ride! The ride across the 520 on a clear sunny day, the silence broken only by laughter and clicking of bike gears. The view from the express lanes and the ease in which we traveled from UW to international district. The amazing fresh food at the food stop and camaraderie of the riders and then finally the solace of the arboretum roads.

    The only downside was that it ended too quickly.

    I fully support development of safe bike routes so that more people can experience the joy of riding to work. However, its not just bike routes that affect peoples decisions to bike to work. Its important to have access to bike repair facilities (at least a sturdy bike pump), a place to change, and a safe place to store your bike. Bike routes are part of the solution, but not the whole solution.

    1. MikeG

      I totally agree with this comment and would bike to more places but for the concern of having my bike stolen while locked up outside. We need more secured parking and bike lockers rather than bike racks that anyone with a bottle jack and chain cutters can steal your bike.

      I’d love to see a story about bicycle locks from the perspective of a bike thief.

  7. Ata

    I had a ton of fun on the Emerald City Bike Ride. But I think your vision of bike lanes next to the I-5 Express Lanes is absurd. Perhaps, you should consider how loud the highway is (on Sunday the noise from the cars NOT on the express lanes was almost unbearable). Or maybe you should consider how unsafe driving on lanes next to the express lanes would be. However you separate them, unless you build a completely separate path protected by a tunnel-like exterior–which defeats your idea entirely–there is no way a biker is safe with cars and trucks going in excess of 60mph right alongside. I mean, just today a truck tipped over and blocked all of SR99 for 8 hours. If that were to happen next to your idea, a large number of cyclists would be dead. Or perhaps you should consider the smell and the pollution. Oh my God, that would be atrocious!

    Perhaps you should take a step back from this “Me, too!” idea and consider whether anyone would actually want to bike in a loud, unsafe and toxic environment. Maybe you can leverage the kernel–a path unobstructed by hills or traffic lights–and come up with an alternate idea.

    1. Andy

      I’m sure Tom was envisioning something akin to the I-90 trail, not an actual unprotected bike lane. While retrofitting something like that isn’t feasible, planning for when I-5 is rebuilt could include it.

      1. asdf2

        The ride was great, the but last half-mile of the express lanes, I think we could have done without. The noise of an eighteen wheeler going 60 mph in a confined space is quite deafening. The ship bridge, however, was actually fairly quiet. The roadway above, itself, actually makes a pretty good noise shield. If this ride ever happens again, I would prefer to take the Pike or Stewart St. exits into downtown and ride through the downtown streets.

        520, however, was completely silent. The ability to actually be able to listen to birds while traveling across a freeway bridge was quite stunning.

    2. Josh

      The I-90 Trail is a great example of what’s possible. Sure, it’s noisy being next to freeway traffic, but it’s a transportation route, not a park.

      But even unprotected freeway shoulders are actually very safe places to ride bikes, much safer than stroads or rural highways. Freeways have minimal intersections, great sight distances, and no on-street parking. They’re still noisy, dirty places, but they’re not particularly dangerous. I can’t find any record of there ever having been a car/bicycle collision on Highway 167 from Renton down through Auburn, for example, even though traffic is well over 100,000 cars per day. Not a route for children, not a pleasure ride, certainly not a place for pacelines, but a safe, direct transportation route.

      1. asdf2

        “Freeways have minimal intersections, great sight distances, and no on-street parking. ”

        Not quite. As soon as you encounter a disabled car pulled over on the shoulder, trying to get around can be very dangerous. There’s also the exit/entrance ramps to contend with, plus the fact that nobody driving has the slightest expectation of encountering a single cyclist.

      2. Josh

        And yet the statistics say they’re quite safe for cycling, and the personal experience of people who regularly ride freeways says the problems are vastly overblown.

        Except in rare cases, perhaps on the Viaduct, motorists in the breakdown lane rarely ram their vehicles into the Jersey barriers or railings — there’s almost always room to get by, sometimes requiring you to get off and walk 20 feet, which isn’t really that bad considering how rare it is and how direct the route otherwise is.

        As for ramps, in busy areas, most cyclists simply ride down the exit ramp and back up the onramp to avoid crossing high-speed ramp traffic. In lighter traffic, you simply wait for an opening to make a perpendicular crossing; on any freeway built to Interstate standards, there’s plenty of space in the gore point to wait.

        I’m not saying they’re anywhere close to an ideal cycling route, but the idea that they’re extraordinarily dangerous is, as far as I can tell, only in the imagination of people who’ve never actually ridden on a freeway shoulder.

      3. Andy

        I’d go so far as to say that some highway routes can be pleasure rides – taking I-90 from Issaquah over the pass is pretty cool. Not sure when the construction is supposed to be over that blocks a portion of it, but I’m looking forward to it.

  8. Mark Smith

    The irony? Once the ride was over, you couldn’t just ride down to the festivities on the bridge. That was verboten.

    1. sb

      What festivities? There were festivities on the bridge on Saturday for pedestrians. There were no festivities on the bridge on Sunday after the ride.

  9. […] author who argues that Phoenix shouldn’t be dismissed as a “sustainable city.” Seattle Bike Blog has photos of people on bikes taking over two area highways for a big group ride over the […]

  10. Susan

    I loved the Emerald City ride, all 21.6 miles of it (or whatever it was, officially). My least favorite part was the noise from the regular traffic on the express lane. You couldn’t possibly hold a conversation with a fellow rider. I hope that, if and when the time comes for rebuilding the part of I-5 that goes through the city, it will be buried and a quiet park built on top of it.

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