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Seattle again falls short of ‘platinum’ bike-friendly status

bfc_fall_2016_reportcard_seattle_wacatSeattle has again failed to reach “platinum” in the League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle Friendly Communities ratings. The city has maintained its “gold” status, which is revised every two years.

The city lost a lot of points due to the rare all-ages helmet law in King County. Requiring helmets under the threat of getting stopped and ticketed by police is not a national or global best practice for bicycle safety and encouragement. Cities with the best safety records and the highest numbers of people biking almost never have such helmet laws for adults (many don’t even have them for children).

Instead, those cities focus on safe and inviting bike routes and encouraging more people to ride, triggering a safety in numbers effect.

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The League specifically notes that the helmet law is likely getting in the way of bike share success. Again, best practices for bike share do not include mandatory helmet requirements. Instead, strong station density and low-stress, connected bike routes are important.

Though the numbers show an impressive 8/10 for “Bicycle network and connectivity,” the League docked serious points for the city’s reliance on sharrows. Sadly, this blog’s logo is still very relevant on Seattle’s streets:

The League specifically calls out a lack of action to improve biking downtown. The 2nd Ave bike lane opened shortly before the 2014 rating, and essentially no significant improvements have been made downtown since. They are excited about the downtown bike network plans, but you don’t get points until you build it.

The League also called out the city’s poor handling of bike lane closures during construction, suggesting that the complete streets policy on the books should also apply to construction zones. Yes! In fact, if you consider all the nasty bike detours that have been in place in the past two years, biking in and around downtown has actually gotten worse since the 2014 rating.

Still, Seattle remains the only “gold” city in Washington State and is tied with its closest peer cities like San Francisco and Minneapolis. Portland is the only city larger than 250,000 to achieve “platinum,” and many advocates there don’t think their city deserves it.

The point of all this is not just to get the rating. These League report cards are just one measurement tool for how the city has progressed compared to its peers. The larger point is to make Seattle a more comfortable and safe place to get around on a bike. It’s also to push Seattle to be a national leader, showing other places how a growing major American city can work for all its residents.

Our country already has many big cities that neglected walking and biking safety, and the results are horrible numbers of traffic deaths and injuries every day. Seattle can and must do better.

More details from Seattle’s 2016 report card (PDF):


Seattle has a less extensive bicycle network than peer communities like San Francisco and relies more on sharrows. There are some great efforts to address this through the proposed downtown bicycle network and continued improvements to neighborhood greenways. Work to quickly implement connected networks of these higher quality bicycle facilities in order to provide a functional, safe, and comfortable network.

Quickly complete the Center City Mobility Plan so that the City can move forward with a strong downtown bicycle network.

Your application indicated that your Complete Streets policy could be improved by ensuring that construction projects don’t create barriers to people walking and biking and that bicycle improvements are coordinated with routine repaving projects.

Seattle has experienced several issues with its bike share program. It is exciting that an electrically-assisted system is coming, but the City should thoroughly study consider the issues that may frustrate bike share in Seattle, including the King County mandatory helmet law and the ability of people to move within the bike share area without encountering high stress or dangerous situations.

Work with local bicycle groups and interested parents to expand and improve the Safe Routes to School program to all schools. Providing bicycles in schools ensures that all students can learn to safely ride a bicycle regardless of the availability of a bicycle in their household.


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24 responses to “Seattle again falls short of ‘platinum’ bike-friendly status”

  1. bidab

    To be fair, there are only five communities in the country with platinum, and four of them are little college towns. Seattle gets to platinum if the League lowers the bar, we ban cars, or we shrink the city limits to a 20-foot-wide strip that just happens to be coterminous with the Burke-Gilman Trail.

  2. bill

    The complete streets policy should apply, period. Lander St overpass,I’m looking at you.

  3. ftn

    I’m surprised about how little is being spent in bicycle infrastructure: 3% vs 14%!
    What a budget joke!

  4. Southeasterner

    “The 2nd Ave bike lane opened shortly before the 2014 rating, and essentially no significant improvements have been made downtown since.”

    I guess I don’t understand this comment. If no significant improvements were made since the last rating how did we go from 5/10 to 8/10 on engineering (bicycle network and connectivity)?

    The fact that nothing in Seattle is connected makes me think we should be closer to a 1.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      That’s downtown. Some significant projects happened outside of downtown. However, the 8/10 rating must be based on self-reported data, which would include sharrows. Our city’s bike network map looks amazing when you include sharrows!

      The comments from the League call this out specifically.

  5. Gary Yngve

    Those 10 building blocks don’t measure a lot of what matters:
    – % bicycling regularly
    – safe routes to transit, schools, libraries, parks
    – bicycle arterials to downtown
    – safe downtown network
    – very low injuries/fatalities
    – low theft

    1. William

      Completely agree. Aside from looking at the bike network, the criteria are largely irrelevant to the average cyclist trying to get around a city.

    2. Doug

      If they rates Seattle on the actual experience of riding a bike across toen, we’d get “lead” status.

      There’s no meaningful route connectivity, and SDOT ignores all the worst trouble spots year after year. In fact, my commute experience gets worse every year.

  6. Jean

    For Seattle to pour millions into E hikes is absurd. Use that money to expand cyclist infrastructure for 100o’s of our present riders who own helmets and know hills.

  7. Law Abider

    Lack of bike infrastructure and inability of the City to prevent short and long term construction closures of the existing infrastructure and six months of terrible weather each contribute many orders of magnitude more to preventing potential riders, than the helmet law ever would.

    I have yet to meet a single person that feels that the helmet law is preventing them from riding. I’ve heard people give hypothetical scenarios on this blog, but they are just that: hypothetical. At this point, the anti-helmet crowd is just grasping at straws. I’d rather they spend their energy on more constructive and pressing bicycle matters.

    1. Van Fiorwolf

      I have met people, many people, predominately women, who are barred by the helmet law. For example, V. (not using whole names because they deserve privacy) can’t use a helmet because her hair doesn’t allow it, she knows what goes into hair straightener and so she cornrows or lets it go natural. This really interferes with wearing a helmet, and shopping with one for her was a startling revelation for me on how much the cycling community caters to straight short hair. Then there’s A., she can’t wear a helmet over her hajib, she faces enough barriers in her life where I’m not going to be the one to make her choose over religious vs. man’s law (I have at least two male friends with a similar problem). Then there’s M., she can’t wear a helmet because of scalp issues. Let’s not even step into cost issues, but I know many people who, when it comes to the added cost of a helmet, are out, they’re already on food stamps, and are only now on the bus because of OrcaLift.

      These aren’t hypothetical people. In your experience, there is no one saying the helmet law prevents them from riding, in mine, there is a large contingent. Sometimes it can seem like anecdotal evidence carries more weight, but this is why we need to rely on unbiased data, which admittedly is tough to find.

      1. Virchow

        Helmets prevent critical head injuries and reduce the severity of those that do occur. Talk to Neuro ICU nurses at Harborview about whether or not helmets make a difference. These arguments that top bike cities don’t have those laws and have fewer accidents… therefore no helmet laws lead to more biking and fewer accidents stretch credulity with regards to any causal relationship.

        Good infrastructure leads to more bikers which leads to safer streets.

        More helmets leads to fewer serious brain injuries when accidents do occur.

        True True – unrelated.

        Good infrastructure AND more helmets are the policy goals that will maximize good health.

      2. Gary Yngve

        It’s pretty absurd to say that a person racing in a forward stance over 20 mph needs a helmet as equally as the person pedaling along in an upright stance at 10 mph or less.
        But if you are really motivated to reduce head injuries, https://pvcycling.wordpress.com/2015/04/11/time-to-get-serious-about-head-injuries/

      3. Virchow

        I don’t think blog posts constitute evidence. Below is peer-reviewed research.

        Can J Neurol Sci. 2016 Jan;43(1):56-64. doi: 10.1017/cjn.2015.281.

        Comparative Outcomes of Traumatic Brain Injury from Biking Accidents With or Without Helmet Use.

        Dagher JH1, Costa C2, Lamoureux J3, de Guise E4, Feyz M4.

        Cyclists without helmets were younger, less educated, single and unemployed. They had more severe TBIs on imaging, longer LOS in ICU and more neurosurgical interventions. Elderly cyclists admitted to the hospital appear to be at higher risk of dying in the event of a TBI.

        With respect the the matter of religious bias and hijabs… I am in Minneapolis right now biking with a helmet in 10-F and many layers. Ingenuity brought us the burkhini, surely we can find a way to design a head-cover friendly helmet.

      4. Law Abider

        I have pretty much zero sympathy for someone that doesn’t want to wear a helmet because of their hairso. If someone values their safety less than their hairdo, I don’t want them biking anywhere near me, because they likely value my safety even less.

        The hijab is an interesting case. There are plenty of search results on Google for helmets and hijabs, but nothing definitive. I would say if she is low speed biking and a cop tries to ticket her (unlikely as it is), she could explain her case. Again, not reason to change the law.

        The scalp issue is the same as the hijab. Unless the cop is a complete asshole, explain your case and no reasonable human being would ever ticket you.

        For not being able to afford a helmet, there are a few low or no cost options for helmets in King County, especially if they are children. For a low income person, obtaining a free or low cost helmet would seem like a major priority, compared to what a head injury with no insurance would be.

    2. William

      @lawabider – I wear a helmet and one does not need a neurosurgeon to figure out that it will reduce injuries for some kinds of bike accidents, but the most rigorous studies show that they play either no or only a minor role in reducing bike fatalities and serious injuries (see for example http://www.cyclehelmets.org/ for links to various studies). Some of the safest cycling countries have very low helmet use. One can argue why (cyclists with helmet take more risks as has been suggested for skiers; removing helmet laws increases bike usage which increase bike awareness and safety; cyclists without helmets tend to ride slow upright bikes that are inherently safer; bike helmets are just not that well designed for most real world bike collisions etc.) but is clear that there are other factors at play and making helmet use a big issue in the State when there are other more serious and fixable bike safety problems in the state is silly. From a practical standpoint there are plenty of adults riding around Seattle without helmets and I do not think stopping them is a major priority for the police.

    3. Nick

      How about this: I don’t want to wear a helmet.

      It’s absurd the government tells me to. The biggest danger to me riding a bike is getting hit by a car. Get rid of cars. Stop them from hitting me. Make them drive slower. Ban using mobile devices in cars. Give bikes a safe place to ride.

      If our government cares about our wellbeing, helmet laws are less than a drop in the bucket. Cars have been associated with excess death since they were invented.

  8. Nick

    I think it’s sad that Seattle is considered “Gold”. The League of American Bicyclists must have their bar purposefully low. I live in Tacoma, which is rated “Bronze”.

    If I were given out medals for bike infrastructure, or equating them with the relative preciousness of metals, I’d give Seattle a “Copper” and Tacoma an “Iron”. I don’t think there’s one major city in the US that is close to what I’d consider “Platinum”. We need to stop making excuses. I read a comment somewhere recently that we “can’t legislate bike culture” – or something similar. It’s ironic, because that’s the only way we’ll get the type of bike culture many dream of.

    “If you build it, they will come.” I’d add, “If you take it away they will leave.” (Works for cars, bikes, and transit the same.)

    1. Eli

      I think the ratings basically amount to:

      1. Platinum: Made some tangible effort to be a serious cycling city — even if the execution is still mixed.

      2. Gold: You’re showing real effort, or at least giving it funding and lip service. Maybe in another 10 years, you might actually accomplish something with that effort, so we want to encourage you.

      3. Silver: You’ve done more than the absolute basics so we want to cheer you on.

      4. Bronze: You’ve done *something* to be bike-friendly, even if bicycling in your city is still a joke.

  9. Gary Yngve

    On the levels of platinum, gold, etc., Palo Alto is way more bicycling friendly than Seattle, has better infra in my opinion, and has higher ridership, but is still gold (yes, Palo Alto is flatter and sunnier too). In Palo Alto, the ratio of uprights to road bikes is greater than in Seattle. I also see homeless-ish people here with bicycles with trailers or cargo bikes/extracycles.
    Stanford University is platinum, vs UW gold. Bicycling on Stanford is ubiquitous and has tons of separated paths or traffic calming.

  10. ODB

    The photo above of the sharrow pointing into a curb bulb illustrates the problem with curb bulbs (not sharrows). Curb bulbs force bikes to make quick maneuvers into tight quarters with cars. They may be nice for pedestrians and cause cars to slow down by making the street feel narrow, but for bikes they are a hazard.

  11. Marko

    Compared to many US cities, Seattle does an okay job (nowadays) for bicyclists. But world-class platinum? Not even close. Too many gaps in the bicycling network, reliance on sharrows instead of cycle tracks, manhole covers in cycle tracks, mixed use paths (Burke Gilman) instead of separating pedestrians and cyclists, dangerous potholes and cracks in roadways … need I go on? Sadly, in the US, this still passes as above average.

    Seattle deserves silver or gold. Platinum should be reserved for those who deserve it. Giving out awards that are not deserved would hurt us all by calling inadequate “good enough.”

  12. […] Just shy: Once again, Seattle falls short of “platinum” status for bikeability. […]

  13. Dave

    I just moved here from Portland, where I signed the petition to rescind Platinum status. I’m honestly flabbergasted that Seattle has a Gold rating, with the legal and cultural hostility, the dangerous and corner-cutting infrastructure, the lack of connectivity, and the ham-handedness of even the newest and most-headlining infra projects. And Seattle riders on the whole seem cowed by the structural violence, with far more curb-hugging and high-viz. Even the bad pavement! I seriously didn’t think you could have worse pavement than Portland. Time to go 26″ I guess…

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