We've all seen the gaunt, grizzled, and usually bearded guy pedaling up Dexter during a dark, rainy rush hour, weird lights flashing from his head. Or, wearing one of those neon-colored beetle-backed jackets, he's grinding his way along the Burke-Gilman Trail in a snowstorm, icicles dangling from his graying hair, snot-cicles from his nose. Or, on an otherwise pleasant summer morning ferry ride into town, he's the smelly, sweaty fellow walking around duck-footed in those dorky shoes that go clack-clack-clack on the metal deck. (And let's not get started with the recumbent crowd.)
Is this the face of cycling in Seattle? Look in the mirror, fair readers; chances are he's not you.
Not yet, anyway.
As traffic reaches all-time and seemingly insurmountable levels, maybe it's time to revisit one of the few artifacts not yet revived by the '70s nostalgia craze: biking to work.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO the lost promise of saving the earth, reducing congestion, and promoting fitness? And what about the rest of us? Can cycling be a viable way for us average desk jockeys to reach the office?
Several staffers at Seattle Weekly do ride bikes to work (this writer included). A few of us have been hit by cars (ditto). Some of us have crashed (let me show you the scars), while others are too intimidated to even contemplate bicycle commuting. So, for the uninitiated, let us encourage the neophyte ("My Bike Buddy," p. 22) and address safety issues ("The Road Warriors," p. 21). We've also got the memoirs of a bicycle messenger ("Messenger Memoirs," p. 23) and news about transportation funding (Outward Bound, p. 88).
But first, in no particular order, some of my own random cyclist-on-the-street impressions, interspersed with news and views of those trying to fit Seattle to bikes and bikes to Seattle.
THIS FRIDAY IS THE 12TH ANNUAL Bike to Work Day, an event that drew some 6,500 King County participants last year. (In fact, all of May is Bike to Work Month—who knew?) Riders will be counted and freebies dispensed at 36 sponsored checkpoints from Auburn to Everett (call 522-BIKE or see www.biketoworkday.org for information and locations).
Badly in need of exercise, Mayor Greg Nickels expects to break a sweat with the main body of riders (potential voters all), who will gather at Seattle Center, then begin parading to Westlake Center at 7:45 a.m. This follows his May 1 meeting with Seattle's volunteer Bicycle Advisory Board (BAB), which presented him with a five-point plan for a more bicycle-friendly Seattle (www.cityofseattle.net/sbab). Long in remission after the '70s OPEC crises, the B-word may finally return to the transit conversation, if the Bicycle Alliance of Washington (BAW) and Cascade Bicycle Club (CBC) have anything to say about it.
On one side of the table sit the idealists, like BAB chair Tom Bertulis, who expects "minute progress until the gas tax is raised." In the meantime, he and the board lobby for dedicated bike trails, painted bike lanes, bike racks, and even shower facilities at transportation hubs.
Pragmatists like CBC advocacy director Mark Keller look beyond government measures. "You need to have the people willing to bike," he says. "You need to have an environment that's conducive to biking. And you need to have bike-friendly places to get to. Without all of those things in place, we really can't see a cultural shift toward more bicycles."
EVEN IF CYCLING remains, for now, a transportation subculture, last November Bicycling magazine rated Seattle the most bike-friendly city of its size (between 500,000 and 1 million residents), with a 67 percent increase in downtown cyclists between 1990 and 2000. U.S. census figures indicate a doubling of bicycle commuters to some 197,000 statewide, but absolute numbers are unclear. (Although the state's population obviously hasn't doubled.) Census estimates place cyclists at 1 percent of Seattle commuters, which extrapolates to 5,600 riders out of roughly 560,000 citizens. That, of course, says nothing about how often those hypothetical 5,600 ride. Daily? Weekly? Monthly? Annually?
The city is certainly helping the trend. Seattle boasts 28 miles of dedicated bike trails (e.g., the Burke-Gilman), 15 miles of striped lanes (e.g., Dexter or Second), and 90 miles of signed bike routes (e.g., Lake Washington Boulevard). Since 1994, Metro's fleet of over 1,300 buses and vans has sported bike racks—used some 300,000 times per year! To cut down on bike theft, Seattle now provides some 1,900 racks and 60 fancy lockers at Metro Park & Ride locations.
Most significant is the city's ongoing project to complete its urban trail system. With its first section completed in '78, the venerable Burke-Gilman is the most established of the five planned trails and the most popular. Peter Lagerwey, Seattle Transportation's Pedestrian and Bicycle Program coordinator, says about $25 million in work remains—not all of it solely dedicated to bikes—to finish the trail system within the next decade.
"In many cases we are filling in gaps," he explains, like this summer's Burke-Gilman connection between the Ballard Locks and Fremont Fred Meyer. Other planned arteries like the Interurban and Chief Sealth trails have yet to be built.
Still, there's more to cycling than pavement and paint. Notes the CBC's Keller, "I think we're fairly well advanced in the infrastructure. I think we're behind in the actual promoting of bicycling."
WHICH BRINGS us back to Bike to Work Day. What do you need for that and subsequent everyday bike-to-work days? Lycra and spandex? No, just some regular workout clothes (for a long haul) or office attire for short trips. Helmet? Check. A $4,500 carbon-fiber-frame Lance-Armstrong-signature-model Trek racing bike? Please. I ride a two-speed 1963 Schwinn Typhoon (slightly modified) that weighs more than some cars. Whatever's gathering dust in your garage will do just fine. Put air in your tires, spritz some WD-40 on your chain and sprockets, check your brakes . . . and off you go.
Extras? Consider adding fenders. Those flashing lights—fore and aft—are essential after dark. Patch kit, pump, extra tube? They come in handy. Lock? If you're riding a beater, any old chain will do. Beyond that, protect your investment with the latest solid Krypto (or square chain), then get a small-gauge cable to thread your wheels and seat to it. And yes, rack-mounted panniers are nicer than a pack.
HERE'S ANOTHER thing to add to your list: courage. "The reason people don't bike is fear of vehicular traffic," says Lagerwey.
Take my example: During one weekday morning ride south on First through Belltown, some guy in a Lincoln Navigator begins honking at me. I'm in the right lane, close to the parked cars. I flash my best "What's the problem? Just go around" look. (He's got two lanes.) More honking. The window comes down.
"Get the fuck off the road!"
According to the Seattle Traffic Code (section 11.44.020), "Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall be granted all of the rights and shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to a driver of a vehicle." Does Navigator Man know that? Probably not. Does he care? Ha! All that matters is that he's driving a 5,198-pound, nearly 7-foot-wide vehicle and I'm slowing him down. He can't squeeze by me in the same lane, and I can't ride any closer to the parked cars.
Navigator Man could easily crush me and kill me—which is, paradoxically, why he's so upset (though he's far too angry to understand this). Here's where the '70s-era platitude of "share the road" breaks down. "Share the rage" is more like it, since cyclists and motorists are so often caught up in mutual incomprehension and anger. Urban cyclists are afraid of being hit by motorists; it means serious injury or death. At the same time, motorists are afraid of hitting cyclists; it means insurance company hassles and higher premiums.
I pull alongside Navigator Man at the next red light. Now we can see eye to eye (well, almost, given that his vehicle is over 6 feet tall). Fat, balding, red-faced, and apoplectic, this baby boomer isn't having any of my friendly education efforts.
"I've got the same rights as you," I begin.
"Get the fuck off the road," Navigator Man retorts. (Clever reiteration of the argument!)
Now comes the fun part. I know the rush-hour light patterns up First, and I know Navigator Man cannot, in fact, proceed faster than a cyclist. Which means I can simply ride alongside, trying to goad him into a heart attack. He can't stand it. More cursing, more yelling, more vein-throbbing anger.
Then, before turning toward the office, I offer the universal cyclist's reply to Navigator Men everywhere: "Step out of the car, motherfucker, and say that to my face."
And you know what? They never do.
WHY THE HOSTILITY? The SUV- cyclist divide, like the famous '00 electoral map of red-and-blue America, reflects a cultural schism. SUV drivers, most of them friendly, family-loving suburbanites, can't stand sanctimonious cycle zealotry. Just because they have kids, dogs, strollers, groceries, and a thousand errands to do each week, does that mean they have to be incessantly shamed and lectured? Must they be treated as bad people?
"Yes!" respond cyclists who are tired—frightened, really—of being treated as annoying obstacles by inattentive drivers juggling cell phones and lattes. Second-class citizenship rankles on the road; it is, literally, an issue of life and death. Then there's the guilt trip: Motorists are damned users and cyclists haloed savers in the two-wheeled gospel. Smugly, cyclists declare, "We're good people!"
Which gets us nowhere. Most cyclists, of course, drive cars (SUVs among them). Suburban motorists are—in my experience—far more accommodating of cyclists outside the city, where they value the activity as a sport or recreation. They just don't know how to react to cyclists in gridlocked Seattle where, in fairness, bike riders aren't always so neighborly.
AGAIN, TAKE MY example. I'm a scofflaw, a flouter of rules, signals, and conventions. I admit it freely; officer, arrest me now. Years of biking in New York have fine-tuned my jay-riding instincts: Pause at a red (crossing one-way streets only), check traffic, look over shoulder for cop, gun it.
The rule is forward progress. That's what separates a real city, a "world-class city" (to invoke former Mayor Paul Schell), from the hick- town roots Seattle is fast outgrowing. Pedestrians and cyclists alike know the value of such efficiency. We have appointments to honor, people to see, places to go.
Unsafe? Sometimes. Reckless? Maybe. Does it give cyclists a bad name? No more than speeding does motorists. On two wheels or four, everybody breaks traffic laws with the same calculation of risk, penalty, and "How much sooner can I get there?"
This creates another conflict between cyclist and motorist. It's not just the guy jumping his Cannondale off a curb into traffic that irks the latter camp; it's the thought that he's getting there faster that also galls.
To motorists, it's a rebuke, a sign that the system isn't working: low tech beats high tech, smaller trumps larger, economy defeats excess . . . up is down, and black is white. And guess what, Seattle? Our increasing density is only going to make cycling more efficient for short trips. The city transportation department estimates that it's already faster to bike than to drive from the U District to the Pike Place Market during rush hour. Five years from now? Just try it.
Then there's parking. Talk about convenient. During the time it takes you to read this sentence, I've parked and locked my bike.
IN NO PARTICULAR order, here are a few useful cycling tips I've gleaned from years on the asphalt, some of the wisdom still embedded in my skin: (1) Assume all motorists are idiots. (2) Assume all cyclists are idiots. (3) No one ever signals. (4) If you're going to turn, or think an oncoming driver is even thinking about turning, make eye contact. (5) There's nothing more dangerous than a cab without a fare, which will invariably turn or stop in front of you. (6) Yes, you should generally hug the curb/parking lane to let traffic pass you. (7) However, when doing so, assume any and all car doors will suddenly swing open—hence the dreaded expression "I was doored." (8) Unless you're carrying a change of clothes, pedal just up to the point where you're sweating, then ease off a bit; you'll only lose a few minutes. (9) Yes, it's permissible to wipe your nose on your glove. (10) Anything beats riding the bus. The bus is for losers—unless it's raining.
AS THE CBC'S Scott Marlow says about cycle commuting, "It's not a religion." Amen to that, brother. Instead of viewing the bike as a vehicle to moral improvement, instead of treating motorists like infidels, we need to keep the roads ecumenical.
Certainly there are sins to correct all around—mine included. Here's another example from my bicycle diaries, this time on a particularly wet, foul morning along Western. Hating life for having foolishly opted not to bus to work, I do my usual illicit weaving until a left-turn lane, where I stop for oncoming cars, getting wetter and wetter by the second. Beside me, a motorist abruptly halts in traffic and rolls down her window. "I just want you to know that I'm a cyclist, and that kind of riding gives cyclists everywhere a bad name," she snaps.
Then, before I can reply, she drives off.
In her SUV.
Now I'm a motorist, too, and I also welcome the safe, dry insularity of the car (or bus) when the weather is awful. But it also cuts you off from the elements. By contrast, cycling is all about Puget Sound's briny odor in your nose, the burn of your legs, the warmth of the sun on your skin, and, yes, the sensation of rain pelting your face. It can be a drag, but seldom more so than stewing in traffic.
Aside from the fitness angle, apart from the environmental benefits, beyond the yadda-yadda-yadda of it, riding to work is generally fun—which is really the best argument for Bike to Work Day and beyond.
Speaking of enjoyment, there's more to two-wheeled transportation than mere efficiency. Regarding that apparent disparity between Navigator Man and you, the puny cyclist, remember that feeling you get while passing a line of gridlocked SUVs: It's called power.