More With the Sand Already


Sand, salt. Salt, sand...will there ever be another Snowpocalypse to generate such intense road-maintenance debate? While writing recently about bike boxes, and the painted lane lines that have been sanded away on some streets, I mentioned that the piles of old sand can create problems for cyclists who generally cling to the curb lane. Days later came this story in The Seattle Times, which I'm pretty sure followed a similar account from one of our old SW colleagues now writing for the Stranger. Oh, and here's a shorter account in the P-I, where anything bike-related usually triggers a flame war in the "Soundoff" comments section. But it was the Times' longer story, centered on a poor cyclist who suffered serious injuries after plowing into a sand-bank on the University Bridge, that set off the tedious usual recrimination between angry bike and car partisans (almost 100 comments and counting).

Eventually, of course, the city will sweep up the last few tons of sand left on the streets. But after a near-miss with a tour bus last night, and a minor bike crash during this morning's commute, I got to thinking a bit more about bikes, sand, and cars...


Along with others, we have ridiculed the "sharrows" painted by the city along various arterials, which are supposed to help bikes and cars play nice. Already, however, some of the new sharrows on Western (just outside my window) are fading--due to some combination of rubber and sand. Elsewhere in the city, as the Times story among others has noted, regular painted lane stripes and bike lanes are also becoming faint. They're especially hard to see at night (especially when so many of the city's streetlights are out.)

Thus, riding home along the Alaskan Way bike trail last night, my old beater mountain bike equipped with various flashing lights, I watched as one of those giant white tourist buses was heading from a parking lot perpendicular to my path. There's a stop sign on Alaskan, but the bike trail and (abandoned) trolley track lie east of the roadway. And the lighting is poor beneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct (which I believe is the responsibility of WSDOT to maintain). As the bike path intersects various parking lot entrances, there's generally no paint or even a yield sign to motorists, who commonly careen off Alaskan without much caution. So I got ready to brake, hard, and naturally the big white bus cut right in front of me, stopping at the sign and completely blocking the trail and trolley track.

Fine, nobody hurt, and only a minor delay. But if the deep-bore tunnel gets funded and the viaduct comes down, all of Alaskan will be completely redesigned to look something like this WSDOT rendering:


Pretty neat. And disregard that green-and-yellow, old-school trolley. The city is hoping to expand the SLUT into several new streetcar lines--possibly including one on First, and maybe one on Alaskan (whose tracks can be bicycle hazards). But there will still be car lanes. And I hope an improved bike lane with better painted markings at intersections. (Though many of those parking lots may be filled with new buildings.)

But bike lanes and roadway striping only do so much for overall safety, as I was reminded this morning when I nearly crashed my bike into the rear of a car. The driver was looking for parking, arrived at a crazy T-shaped intersection with a one-way lane facing her, and couldn't decide whether to turn right or left. So she just stopped in traffic without signaling. And I, like an idiot, got too close to her bumper, thought she'd turn right...but, oops, she veered left (where I sought to pass). So I braked harder and faster than I could get my foot out of the infernal clip mechanism, fell over sideways on the pavement from a near-complete stop, and suffered catastrophic banana damage to the lunch inside my backpack. The motorist was contrite, and I was embarrassed. Can't blame the sand for that.

Here's the thing: Losing some of our lane markings, sharrows, center lines, and the like; not having so many road signs or even posted in-city speed limits; leaving more intersections without stop signs or even traffic lights may actually be safer, according to some European examples, because the net effect is to make everyone more cautious and slow down. Not on the freeway, mind you. Not on major streets. But as I've noticed when driving one-lane Forest Service roads to get to the mountains, you concentrate much more on your driving (or biking) when you know that every turn and bend could be a problem, that you might have to pull over to let oncoming cars pass.

Which is safer: more bike lanes and roadway markings, or more attentive drivers? I'd argue the latter.

As a footnote to last night's ride, I kept a safe distance back from this furiously honking motorist who was annoyed because the big 4x4 ahead of her was inching his way up Western, unsure where to turn or how to proceed. (Urban Survival Tip No. 37: Don't honk at pickup trucks likely to have gun racks in the rear window.) Eventually the 4x4 found the turn to Alaskan, at which point I passed the honking woman in her sedan. Who had a glowing cell phone in her hand.
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