Is Seattle the Number One Pretender in Bicycling?

A separated bike lane in Calgary separated. Image: Kyle Bakx

Separated bike lanes are critical for safety and increasing bicycling. Image – A separated bike lane in Calgary, by Kyle Bakx

To hear some people, Seattle is overrun with bicycle lanes and activists. Across the city, bicyclists are pedaling rampant, pushing aside car and truck drivers, increasing congestion and decreasing safety, and ruining the economy. And those people say it won’t get any better, because Seattle has a Mayor who actually bicycles and seemingly doesn’t care about cars. But in reality, pro-roads, anti-bicycling folks don’t have a lot to complain about.

By the numbers, Seattle is a still a pretender when it comes to bicycling. That’s right: one of the nation’s greenest, liberal, transit-friendly cities has fallen behind even cities like car-crazy Los Angeles. In recent years the “bicycle buzz” has come from Austin, Nashville, Washington DC, New York, Chicago, and Canadian neighbors Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. When was the last time Seattle was cited in a national story about leadership in bicycling?

Bicycle advocates and some transportation insiders know this. A year ago the Seattle-based, 15,000+ member Cascade Bicycle Club noted:

“While we applaud the City of Seattle for the incremental progress it has made toward the vision and goals of the Bicycle Master Plan over the past five years, when we look across America, it’s clear that Seattle is being outpaced. . . .Instead of marginally improving the status quo, other cities – Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Portland and New York – have shown bold, innovative leadership.  And in doing so, they’re providing Seattle with inspiration for how to become a city with truly outstanding biking opportunities so that everyone – adults, kids, new and more seasoned – has the freedom to safely ride their bicycle to get where they need to go,” (2012 Seattle Bicycle Report Card: Cities across America outpace Seattle in bikeability).

More recently John Pucher, one of the world’s leading experts in bicycle facilities, bicycled Seattle and left town “deeply disappointed.” I listened to Pucher describe his experience riding on Seattle’s Second Avenue (“death-defying”), and it was clear he was quite spooked and feared for his safety. In fact, it’s hard to imagine he would ever ride that bike route again. Mike Lindblom of the Seattle Times rode with Pucher and documented the ride here.

Seattle once was the trendsetter, not the laggard, in bicycling. Pucher observes:

“In 1990 Seattle was at the vanguard of bicycling in North America, with one of the highest commuting rates of any major city. Seattle led even Portland, with 50 percent more bike commuting (1.5 percent vs. 1 percent of workers). Over the past two decades, however, Seattle has fallen behind… By 2011, Portland had boosted bike commuting nearly sevenfold to 6.9 percent, far surpassing Seattle’s modest rise to 3.7 percent.”

Seattle's new Linden Avenue cycle track. Image: City of Seattle.

Seattle’s new Linden Avenue cycle track. Image: City of Seattle.

Wait, you say. Isn’t Seattle building a bunch of Greenways to boost bicycling and walking? Sure. Seattle has three miles, and plans for five more in the coming two years. But Seattle will still lag the pack:  Vancouver has 94 miles of greenways, and Portland has 82 miles. Somehow the two cities (and their elected officials) have survived this terrible intrusion on car drivers. Greenways typically are “low-speed, low-traffic” streets. They tend to significantly increase bicycling (and walking), particularly among those would like to bicycle and walk more but find most normal roads to be unsafe for such activity.

And hasn’t Seattle been on a bike-lane building frenzy in the recent years? Sure, Seattle has tripled its on-street bike lanes to 78 miles since 2007. At that rate it’s only a matter of a decade or so before Seattle matches Portland’s 320 miles of bike lanes.

But the design of bike lanes matter as much or more than the miles. Pucher notes that many of Seattle’s bike lanes

“are too narrow and placed directly next to parked cars, posing the danger of car doors opening directly in the path of bikes.  Second Avenue. . .is an egregious example of a poorly designed bike lane, with people on bikes endangered by cars entering or leaving parking spaces, car doors protruding into the bike lane, and cars and trucks making left turns at intersections.

“By comparison, Portland has, most wide enough and far enough away from parked cars to avoid the danger of car doors. Moreover, many intersections in Portland and Vancouver have advance stop lines and traffic lights for bicyclists, turn arrows for drivers, and bright green paint, all of which increase visibility, minimize conflict and improve safety.”

How many more people would bike in Seattle if bike lanes were more like the bike lanes in Portland, New York, and many other cities? Well, we know what has happened in New York City since adding 380 miles of new bike lanes and paths since 2000 (Pucher presentation):

  • Quadrupling in bike trips since 2000
  • 56% increase in retail sales along cycle tracks
  • 74% decrease in serious cyclist injuries

We’ve written in the past about the positive economic benefit bike facilities can bring to local businesses:

Seattle's Dexter Avenue North Road Diet.

Seattle’s Dexter Avenue North Road Diet.

 The news isn’t all bad.

Pucher was impressed with Seattle’s dedication to building the greenways.  He also liked Dexter Avenue North, of the state’s busiest bike-commute streets, and was clearly encouraged by the expertise of Seattle’s bicycle advocacy community.

And the Cascade Bicycle Club notes that Seattle is making progress.  “The Seattle Bike Master Plan Update is bringing our code up-to-date, adding many of the street treatments Pucher calls for to our tool box – green bike boxes, wider bike lanes, bike-priority signals.”

Another sign: The Linden Avenue separated bike lane opened this year, and more protected bike lanes are in the works. (Learn more about Linden at this City webpage).

The City of Seattle recently improved upon and made permanent a “guerrilla” bike lane improvement. The City deserves credit for this, as it easily could have taken a bureaucratic, paternalistic position instead of keeping an open mind and reviewing the situation objectively. (Though the need for the “guerrilla” action could also be interpreted, possibly, as a sign the City still doesn’t quite get how to design safer bicycling facilities.) Learn more from a Seattle Times story.

And Seattle finally gets a bike share program next year, albeit long after so many other U.S. cities.

By the way, funding new bicycle and pedestrian facilities doesn’t have to fall solely on the public sector. Pucher notes that “increasingly, companies around the nation are sponsoring protected-bike-lane construction in return for including their names as sponsors on route signage. The companies include Walmart in Springdale, Ark., and Auto Zone in Memphis, Tenn.” Auto-Zone, a car-focused company!

And like with many issues, simply increasing funding isn’t the sole solution to increasing bicycling facilities. You can triple the bike lanes but if people don’t feel safe, they won’t use the lanes. Seattle needs to get its design chops in order, and produce better facilities than it has in the past.

Seattle is full of imagined excuses – and legitimate challenges – when it comes to expanding and improving bicycle facilities. But most of those excuses and challenges exist in the other cities that somehow are figuring out solutions, finding funding, and getting things done. Seattle residents and tourists deserve better.


Building a bicycling renaissance in Seattle,” John Pucher op-ed in Seattle Times

A call for Seattle to regain our lead in biking,” Cascade Bike Club

Worse than Manhattan? Bike expert rattled by ride through city,” Seattle Times

Cycling to the Future:  Lessons from across the Globe,” John Pucher presentation at the Bicycle Urbanism Symposium (pdf)

“Seattle embraces idea of Cherry Street bike-lane buffer,” Seattle Times


Learn more about city cycling from these two new books:

City Cycling, John Pucher and Ralph Buehler. The book “describe ways to make city cycling feasible, convenient, and safe for commutes to work and school, shopping trips, visits, and other daily transportation needs. The book also offers detailed examinations and illustrations of cycling conditions in different urban environments: small cities (including Davis, California, and Delft, the Netherlands), large cities (including Sydney, Chicago, Toronto and Berlin), and “megacities” (London, New York, Paris, and Tokyo).” Atlantic Cities reviewed the book: “A Sober, Data-Based Approach to Bicycle Advocacy.

 Cycle Infrastructure, a European publication, presents “a survey of best-practice cycle routes from around the world, alongside interviews with the people that made them happen.” The Guardian reviews the book: “Paths of glory: what might a cycle-friendly city look like?