Paul Andrews

Can Elected Bike Riders Impel Change We Can Believe In?

In Bicycle advocacy, Bicycle Commuting, Obama Bikes on November 11, 2009 at 1:55 am

With the election of Mike McGinn as mayor of Seattle and re-election of Council president Richard Conlin, it now looks as though the two most powerful office-holders in the city are, of all things, bike commuters. The third most powerful, newly elected County Executive Dow Constantine, is a bike lover, as is another newcomer, Council member Mike O’Brien, Together they comprise a two-wheeled coalition atop local government unlike any other municipality of Seattle’s size and prominence.

Will it make a difference? And if so, how much?

Conlin’s 12-year tenure, crossover popularity and political capital gained from a resounding victory in last Tuesday’s election have led some to designate him Seattle’s “interim” mayor while McGinn learns the ropes. There may be some truth in the appellation, but we think McGinn’s dedication to civic causes over the years gives him considerable momentum going into the job. And as anyone who has worked with Mike knows, he typically has a pretty good idea going in what he wants to do on any given issue.

We think McGinn’s infamous “flip-flop”— more like a soft-pedal (given his avocation) — actually won the election for him. It didn’t lose him any votes; what were tunnel haters going to do, vote for build-baby-build Mallahan? Instead it won crucial votes from the rule-book set, traditionalist Seattleites who needed a sign from McGinn that he could put aside personal conviction when due process dictated a different track. That said, we still hope Mike finds a way out of the geologic insanity and bottomless money pit of the Deep Bore.

If the tunnel does proceed, cyclists hopefully will benefit from increased surface options in the city. But the big imprint that cycling leadership can leave on the city will involve long-sought integration of bikes into Seattle’s traffic grid and transportation infrastructure. With downtown bike counts continuing to escalate exponentially — the Seattle Bicycle Master Plan calls for tripling the amount of bicycling in Seattle by 2017 — such integration is not only prudent but necessary.

Seattle’s Cascade Bicycle Club and the City will spend much of 2010 developing a 5-year update of the Master Plan. It will be fascinating to watch a transportation blueprint put together with cyclists as equal participants rather than afterthoughts. What might cyclists hope for in a McGinn administration?

Our wish list includes:

Completing Ballard’s “missing link” on the Burke-Gilman Trail. This is under litigation, but there are pressures and bargainings that a McGinn administration can bring to bear to “ameliorate” the process. Let’s git ‘er done guys.

More bike lanes. A recent study showed that bike lanes are safer for cyclists than is competing with cars on streets and highways, and with pedestrians, dogs and strollers on bike paths (although bike-only paths are safer). Yet the city has in crucial corridors moved away from lanes in favor of “sharrows,” or on-pavement arrows indicating that vehicles need to “share” the pavement with bikes.

Sharrows hold some symbolic persuasion. But we feel they’re more a sop than solution. The painted arrows soon wear off. “Shared” lanes invite “dooring” from parked cars. And we all know when push comes to shove who gets shoved out of the right-of-way.

True bike lanes on North 45th Street and on Stone Way should be a high priority. And while you’re at it, on Broadway, Queen Anne Avenue, Rainier and Columbia Way. I’m missing some, I know. North 80th or 85th (McGinn lives up there!). And more. (Check out Page yll of the Master Plan for a graphic of what the ideal bike grid should look like.)

North-south bike corridors are in pretty good shape; east-west needs to be beefed up. Cyclists shouldn’t have to fear for their lives just getting between the city’s main districts. It will mean pinching already heavy car flow on major arterials, but that’s an inconvenient truth of reducing car dependence.

More bike racks. It sounds screwy, but Seattle is running out of places to lock up bikes, particularly downtown. Especially at festivals, conferences and conventions, or grocery and department stores — anywhere large numbers of people converge — not only are existing racks woefully inadequate, even light pole availability becomes scarce. New construction still fails to take increased cycling traffic into account, an example being Trader Joe’s in Ballard. As we’ve noted on several occasions as well, bike racks should not be put in the nether regions of underground or covered parking garages, where theft is easier and the “door-to-door” time advantage and convenience of riding a bike is lost.

Better law enforcement. Cascade will resume its valiant efforts to pass legislation at the state level to improve traffic justice for riders and walkers. Although the state Supreme Court ruled that state law overrides local jurisdictions, police can still give out tickets and otherwise make their presence known when drivers endanger cyclists. There needs to be heightened awareness that cyclists truly do belong on city corridors and do not relinquish the legal system’s protections for street users simply because they are not sitting behind the wheel of a car.

Setting an example. McGinn drew attention during the campaign for commenting how he would change the go-everywhere-by-car policy of gas-guzzling Mayor Greg Nickels. Now’s his chance to show exactly how, and to provide a model for dignitaries everywhere about what it means to reduce four-wheel transport to two.

Bicycle advocacy in city government. We’re no fan of bureaucratic featherbedding, but cyclists have been under-represented in City Hall for so long (even though Nickels improved somewhat) that enhancing their presence at the planning table with a few good administrators would be well worth the salary allocations. Any McGinn/Constantine vision of transportation in Puget Sound that moves commuters out of cars needs to contain huge incentives to go by bike. Mass transit especially should give discounts or other benefits to velo travelers. We need fertile thinking to enter the post-carbon society, and there are a lot of creative bike minds in Seattle that can be tapped by City Hall.

At Cascade, advocacy director David Hiller says the club is looking forward to blue-skying about the future, and to being a driver (so to speak) of policy rather than a check-box constituency to be informed after decisions have been made. Cascade’s tireless efforts to broaden its own identity as well as McGinn’s appeal throughout Seattle, especially among Asian and minority communities, were undoubtedly the difference in the narrow election. The payoff will come with a local political clout rivaled only by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition among urban cycling organizations.

“We’re dreaming the big dreams, all of us, right now,” Hiller said.

  1. Great post. Interesting that you use the word “compete” (A recent study showed that bike lanes are safer for cyclists than is competing with cars on streets and highways,…)

    When I’m a motorist I rarely feel that I’m competing with the other motorists. When I’m a cyclist the sense of competition is keener, but it’s not the motorists I feel that from.

    In any event – while I’m unsold on the value of multi-use paths to transportation cycling, I can see the benefit of some additional bike lanes, the trouble is (and the widespread confusion over Sharrows (see Matt Fickse in Crosscut, for example) illustrates this) there just isn’t enough room on a lot of the streets for another lane.

    Unless,… we took away the on-street parking. It works for me, but imagine the howling in the comments section of the P.I. Ugh!

  2. Here, have a laugh on who ‘can’ lead Seattle…

  3. Since JAT has confessed to being unsold on multi-use paths for cycling, someone ought to do some selling. Bicycling and Pedestrian infrastructure are inextricable and should be studied together. Painted bike lanes next to traffic are in many instances inefficient and dangerous. A lot of curbside parking absolutely must be removed, for adequate curb extensions, bike ways, etc.

  4. Hang on, the study cited in the posting above says outright “Results to date suggest that sidewalks and multi-use trails pose the highest risk”

    On my commute there’s a crappy bike lane on each side of the street(recently upgraded from craptastic) along Marginal Way which end at Edgar Martinez or perhaps become the fairly new multi-use path paralleling the rail tracks and eventually the abandoned George Benson trolly tracks (and at one point crossing those tracks obliquely) on only one side of the street.

    This multi-use path intersects a number of crosswalks in a tourist-heavy part of town. My fear is that the City, in it’s infinite wisdom feels it has provided me with a bike facility. I cringe when I see cyclists faster than I abandoning the street where that path begins to take the functional equivalent of the sidewalk.

    I’m not sure what you mean by Bicycling and Pedestrian facilities are inextricable – from each other? I disagree. There are Bicycling Facilities and there are Pedestrian Facilities; they mix well very very rarely. in my opinion, of course…

  5. […] expansion hold huge promise for the locals. 5. Mayor Mike McGinn’s cycling agenda. We have big hopes for Seattle’s new cycling mayor and the city’s cycling blueprint. Not that everything […]

  6. I agree with everything except for more bike lanes along Stone Way, 45th Ave, and other major streets. I was at the rally to get a bike lane on Stone Way and now I regret it. We’re putting bike lanes on the busiest streets in Seattle. It creates crappy, unsafe riding conditions and too many bad car-bike interactions. The cyclist killed in Ballard last year was riding down 24th Ave, another bike lane on a busy street. We should follow Vancouver’s lead (and countless European cities) and direct cyclists to adjacent streets, creating “bicycle boulevards.” It’s not just safer, it’s also a lot more pleasant riding.

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