First, the weather. One of the soggiest Mays on record — the first half of the month’s rainfall had already doubled an entire May’s average — took a brief respite from the wet stuff for nearly wire-to-wire sunshine. A bit of fog early gave way by 9 a.m. and the rest was gravy.
But sunshine alone cannot guarantee a record turnout, and the numbers at street level felt light as I rode through downtown. Two Cascade Bicycle Club stations confirmed lower counts by 8 a.m. than last year’s record totals, and the kickoff rally in front of City Hall was down drastically — only about 50, compared to 250 last year.
Which was a shame, because emcee David Hiller, Cascade Bicycle Club’s advocacy director, kept a great program on message and, more astoundingly, on time. Mayor Greg Nickels, not a cyclist himself although he admitted his waistline could use a few pedal revolutions, inadvertently came up with a pretty good meme for the day: “In Seattle, we walk the talk,” he said, “or maybe that should be, bike the talk.” Subsequent speakers picked up on the phrase, modifying it to the more syntactic “Ride the talk,” and a motto was born.
There are good signs. From 5,000 participants in 2000′s Bike to Work Day to 23,000 in 2008. Twenty percent annual growth in bike commuting. Some 56 miles of bike lanes and sharrows added in the past 2 years. Two of three missing links in the Burke-Gilman Trail completed, with the third one on the way.
“When people see bikes on the street they think differently about how our streets and the transportation system work,” Nickels noted.
Added City Council President Richard Conlin, the only official to speak actually wearing cycling gear (he had arrived by bike): In Seattle, “We’re thinking about bicycling as a means of transportation. This is how we get from place to place.”
The rally was pretty much all back-patting, but it should be noted that Cascade assigned the city a grade of “B” in its report card. (One point I thought got missed in reporting on Cascade’s grade: It was based on an intensive survey of Seattle cyclists. This wasn’t the club doing the grading, it was you and me. It was not a politically spun white paper, in other words, but a factual democratic assessment of the city’s bicycling progress.) As long as I’ve been cycling in Seattle (55 years), I think a “B” is pretty much spot on. I find Seattle a better place to ride than most places its size, even San Francisco, and the city is trending in the right direction. Portland, Vancouver, B.C. and a host of smaller cities outpace Seattle, but we’re getting better all the time. The effect of population scale on cycling is obvious.
There was plenty of newspaper and TV coverage of Bike to Work Day, including 3 stories in The Seattle Times, whose cycling awareness may have gotten a lift from the timely retirement that very day of editorial page editor Jim Vesely, a bike skeptic to put it politely.
Still, I was a bit bothered by the lower numbers. With such incredible weather predicted for days, why the drop-off?
After the rally ended promptly at 8:30 a.m., I rode up and down 4th and 2nd Avenues, which have bike lanes (or as we the more cynically inclined like to call them, “double-parking lanes”). They could use a little sprucing up, hint hint, and I still don’t care for their being on the wrong side of the street (left of drivers rather than right, where most drivers look for and expect bikes to be). For all its perils and potholes, I love riding in downtown! It’s an exciting place and you feed off the energy of the crowds. Perhaps in my next life I can be a bike messenger, if such a trade still exists (the digital revolution having imperiled this line of work along with everything else analog). Best of all you can “pass gas” at will — cars backed up for blocks, poor sods, waiting to make a turn or find a parking place.
Finally I headed back home (I don’t actually have an office to go to, so I was kind of cheating) to Green Lake via Dexter Ave. N., where clumps of cyclists were pointed in the opposite direction. One noteworthy gesture: A Metro bus driver kindly waited for a group of cyclists to clear before turning into a bus stop southbound on Dexter. Very nice…
At 4 p.m. I headed over for Ballard and the end-of-the-day street party/festival in front of the old firehouse. The place was jammed! Kidical Mass was there (tykes on bikes), the “Conference Bike” was there, booths gave out free taillights and Clif bars and Cascade water bottles. Lots of familiar faces, including mayoral candidate Mike McGinn, whom I often run into on Phinney Ave. N. riding home. McGinn cleverly stocks stickum “Mike Bikes” patches for your jacket or bike. Talk about riding the walk! When I mentioned he should ask for equal time given the mayor’s self-advertisement that a.m., he shrugged. “I’m the only candidate in this space,” he noted.
I stopped in at one of Cascade’s booths and asked if they had preliminary numbers. Around 19k, they said, confirming my suspicions: Down 4,000 from 2008. Two things immediately struck me: First, there have to be a lot fewer jobs to bike to these days, especially downtown. Banks and other service industries with headquarters downtown have really taken it on the chin. In its official press release, Cascade echoed similar thoughts.
But it also occurred to me that cheaper gas prices have contributed. I checked receipts from last April against last month: $4.19 a gallon then, $2.29 a gallon now. Tell you what, though. With all the talk about stabilization and recovery, gas prices are already starting to climb. For the past several years, they’ve struck worst during the heart of vacation time, when Americans hit the road and are least able to modify their gas intake. It looks like we’ll see a repeat of the pattern this summer, although word on the street is that a lot of folks are cutting back or cutting out the road trips, not because of the price of gas but because they’ve got no jobs.
My overall takeaway from Bike to Work Day is this: Bicycling to work is becoming ingrained in our culture. The numbers are not big, but they’re growing faster than anything else. Cycling is being treated as an equal form of transportation with the added benefits of health, saving money and convenience of parking. Bike to Work no longer needs a day of its own, although it’s fun to have one in any case!