Does Cycling Infrastructure Change The Cycling Experience?

I am old enough to remember the first great cycling boom in the US in the 1970’s.  In 1973 there were over 15,000,000 cycles sold in the States. I saved up money from my paper route, and with help from my parents, bought a Schwinn Varsity. It was yellow, and the guy at the shop threw in the fenders at no cost. I remember I paid $92.00 for it, which seemed very expensive back then.

Schwinn Varsity Catalog

I grew up in Portland, Oregon and I don’t remember there being “cycling infrastructure” at that time. It didn’t seem necessary really – I don’t think there were as many people driving all over the place all the time, but I might be wrong. But I remember the Mayor of Portland riding his bike to his office – he lived on the hill above us and I sometimes saw him riding down the hill while on my way to school. Cycling was not seen as an unusual activity. I would ride all over the neighborhood to friends’ houses, head up Mt. Tabor in NE Portland, go on bike camping trips up the Columbia Gorge, and jet down to the airport with my dad to watch planes take off and land. Cycling was something people seemed to do just for fun.

Now we are in the next great cycling boom – and with that has come the non-existent “war on cars”, and the assault on people who ride bicycles. Municipalities spend a fraction of their transportation and road budgets on improving the safety of the roads by trying to make space for people to ride their bicycles, and that is changing the perception of the status quo. I believe this causes stress in many car drivers, creating tension between them and bicyclists: It’s not the same as it used to be! Get out of my way!

I’ve also had the pleasure of living in Seattle for many years, a city which prides itself on leading the way in progressive policies to improve cycling accessibility. All over the city you see a growing, connected network of bike paths, bike lanes, separated bike lanes, and “sharrows”. Cycling has become an easier mode of transportation and it does feel safer than when I first moved to the city in 1986.

This summer I moved to London on a work visa. London is a much bigger and crowded city than Seattle by far, but it shares with Seattle some of the progressive ideology around cycling infrastructure. I was surprised to learn that Londoners are as connected to their cars and driving as any place in the US. Sure, there is a very good transit system of underground (the Tube) and overground rail, and a good bus network, but I’ve witnessed the worst traffic jams I have ever seen here. I don’t know how or why Londoners do it.

Still, cycling is a great way to get around if you can avoid the more egregious traffic spots. There is a good network of bike routes around town. Like Seattle it suffers from issues with the disconnected nature of the network, a mix of old and new ideas, and some obvious “just squeeze it in” situations. I come across many examples of well meaning, but totally misguided attempts to make things “safer” for cyclists. These appear to be designed by traffic engineers who haven’t ever traveled by bicycle – or on foot for that matter.

Pedestrians and Cyclists meant to share the same space. Safe from autos, but dangerous for pedestrians, and not ideal or direct for Cyclists.

Pedestrians and Cyclists meant to share the same space. Safe from autos, but dangerous for pedestrians, and not ideal or direct for Cyclists.

I see infrastructure like this all over London. A cycle lane is situated off the road on a wide sidewalk. On the positive side, it provides effective separation between cars and cyclists, but it puts pedestrians in harm’s way, and it means cyclists must slow way down to use the path. Often the track runs for less than a block, and then unceremoniously drops you back onto the street. Well meant, probably expensive to implement, but not useful really for anyone trying to get from point A to B, (note the cyclist waiting at the light in the street). This kind of thing causes unnecessary ill will: The naive person driving a car thinks “Why aren’t they using the bike lane?,” while the person on the bike thinks, “Who would design something this idiotic?”

London does have some excellent cycle networks that let you travel quite a long way across London. Some of them are designated by blue painted lanes as cycle highways. Others lead you on less busy streets around the city, like the “greenways” Seattle is finally embracing.  I rode one cycle highway from East London into the center of the city on a Sunday. It was great. There were plenty of cyclists using it. It’s well marked and lets you take a direct route to where you want to go. All good. But everywhere in London, drivers just park in the cycle lane with impunity. It’s endemic. Why go to the trouble of installing this safety structure if you continue to allow cars to park there without penalty? To be fair, on Sunday it’s legal to park in parts of these lanes, but you still see it all over London, any day of the week. It makes no sense, not to mention unsafe. Bicyclists have to squeeze between cars and London’s huge double-decker buses. Those things are massive!

Blocked Cycle "Highway"

Blocked Cycle “Highway”

This is when a cyclist might justifiably ask, Why bother to spend money this way if you don’t enforce the regulations? When riding in London, I constantly have to be alert for cars and scooters blocking the bike path so I can then move over into the other lane to get past. It’s aggravating, and a good example of a dangerous situation being created with public funds meant to prevent a dangerous situation.

Blocked Lane ahead

Blocked Lane ahead

I’m still learning about how bikes fit in here in London. When I lived in Seattle, I welcomed new bike infrastructure being put in, but also felt it wasn’t always necessary. I knew how to avoid bad traffic areas, and learned how to get across town on the disconnected network of bike lanes, paths and safer-feeling side streets. I also knew which bike lanes sections to avoid (I’m looking at you, 2nd Avenue!). But now that I am in riding in a heavily populated world capital, I can see how good bike infrastructure can improve safety and facilitate navigation (don’t get me started about street signs in London). Cycling is a vital part of transportation all over the world. Making streets safer for all users of the road can be accomplished, and in places like London and Seattle, it will happen.

How is bike infrastructure being managed in your city? Do projects like these work for you?

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Elliott Bay trail nears completion!

ImageThe work on the Elliott Bay bike trail is nearly complete. Tonight, the south-bound portion was open which is pretty exciting if you’ve been riding through the crazy construction zone for the last few months.

I expect the north bound section will open in a the next day or two.

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This is going to be a very nice, safe improvement for people who ride from the south end into Pioneer Square.

The biggest improvement is with the north-bound section: bikes will continue from the current bike lane straight through onto the new section. It keeps you out of the way of trucks pulling onto the new overpass near the Bertha Big Dig. It’s been pretty unpleasant for the last few months, crossing a few lanes of truck traffic, threading your way onto the bike path. It’s been downright dangerous at times as noted elsewhere

SDOT is really making room for bicycles and people on our streets, a sign that things are improving here in Seattle. This is also a very nice improvement for pedestrians walking to and from Pioneer Square.  Another reason to enjoy living here!

 

 

Are bikes traffic?

Are bikes traffic? Off The Beaten Path recently published an interesting blog titled “Aren’t Bikes Traffic?” about whether or not bikes are considered part of our definition of what constitutes “traffic” based on road signs in construction zones. Despite clear legal indication that bicycles are defined as part of what we know as “traffic,”  construction signs are often not helpful in clarifying which road user is entitled to the road.  His photos of a few signs with unclear directives, such as “BIKES MERGE WITH TRAFFIC” where bicycles are already riding in traffic, has made me pay attention to similar signs I encounter on my bicycle rides around town. He’s right: bikes are obviously part of traffic. It would be clearer if the sign said, “BICYCLES HAVE RIGHT OF WAY. PASS WITH CAUTION.”

I came upon this sign blocking the bike lane on Avalon Way in West Seattle the other evening. I have to say that this bike lane is such a nice improvement from what it used to be like cycling up Avalon. But, here is a familiar bright orange diamond sign that signals caution. It says: CENTER LANE CLOSED AHEAD. The sign is directly in the bicycle lane. This  causes anyone riding here to have to veer into the car lane to get around it. The irony is that what this is announcing is that the center lane is closed to traffic. There are still two unimpeded lanes for car traffic to proceed in either direction, but the construction crews didn’t really even consider that this sign completely blocks the lane for bicyclists.

Blocked Bike Lane

I don’t believe that the workers who placed this sign meant to put people in danger, but examples like this, where non-auto modes of transportation are not considered a legitimate use of the road and are rendered invisible, are all to common.

Be careful of the safety infrastructure out there.

Bike lanes in Port Angeles, WA, where bicycling is mainstream

On my way to Victoria BC this past holiday week-end, we passed through Port Angeles, Washington to catch the ferry across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria. Proof that riding a bicycle is becoming mainstream can be seen in the awesome new bike paths Port Angeles has installed through town. Port Angeles is not a super cosmopolitan, liberal seeming town. It is home to a small Coast Guard station, and a few functioning lumber mills. A pretty blue collar place from the looks of it.

But unlike in places like Seattle where bike lanes often seem to be an afterthought even with our awesome Bike Master Plan, in Port Angeles they took what was a three lane main street and installed bike lanes on both sides of the street. I’ve not seen this implemented before. It’s pretty cool and a good indication that riding a bike is beginning to be seen as a normal way to get around town, even in smaller cities like Port Angeles.

bike lanes

bike lanes

Hills are good for the soul

Hills. You either love them or hate them. Me, I really like riding hills. Going up, you get the fight against gravity and you “taste the effort”, as the French say. Going down, that effort is repaid as you experience gravity in the other direction. Fun!

West Seattle Panorama

West Seattle is a good place to ride hills. In 20 miles you can see some beautiful scenery, climb some great hills, and descend like crazy. Good fun in less than two hours.

Not all of us get to ride in the beautiful hill towns of France or Italy, or even around our local Mt Rainier, but the hills in Seattle aren’t so bad either in a pinch. Just up from Alki there are some great streets that have some serious hills. Here are a few that I like.

Hughes Ave SW

College, Hughes, and 52nd streets are fun ones to tackle. It’s steep, has an OK road surface for climbing, and there are usually few automobiles. If you are descending this hill, be careful. The manhole covers are deep, and the road isn’t perfect. Add fall leaves, and a steep road and you can get in trouble.

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But you get some good switchbacks, and will have stronger lungs when you are done. I like to do a loop around Alki out past the Fauntleroy Ferry. Again, good views, good scenery, good hills.

When you get to this intersection of Lincoln Park Way SW and Beach Drive, you can choose to go up the hill to the left, which is a good climb but the road isn’t good, and there isn’t much room. Instead, go the right and ride through Lincoln Park.

Beach Drive and Lincoln Park Way SW

Lincoln Park

You get this view instead and you can ride on the wide gravel path leading past Colman Pool, around the cove, and up a little hill back on to Fauntleroy.

If you continue on Fauntleroy past the ferry you turn left on Wildwood Ave, and then right on 45th S.W. If you are getting hungry you can stop for some old-fashioned pastries and a coffee at the Original Bakery. The line is usually 10 deep inside the door – always a little too long on the week-ends when I’ve thought about stopping.  You continue up the hill on 45th and then it becomes Marine View Drive S.W. This is a good hill if you like long hills, and a great hill for doing repeats. It’s probably almost a mile up to the top.

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As you head up the hill through the neighborhood where Marine View Drive starts just past Roxbury, you’ll notice that sidewalks end, and that there is very little space for walking or cycling up this hill .

Beach Drive past Roxbury

If cars are approaching from behind as you start on this part of the hill, you just have no room.

No shoulder on Beach Drive

There isn’t usually too much traffic on this hill, but as you can see, there is really very little space to get up this hill if you are walking, and on a bike you have about 1-2 feet to the right of the white line.

This issue is worth following up with a separate post. Why do some neighborhoods not have any room to ride or to walk?

To continue the ride, there is a nice loop on the top of this hill that means  you can come back down Marine View.  On the way down pay attention coming around the corner. If a car is turning right up the hill from Roxbury while you are coming down around that corner, it can be a little frightening.

On the loop on the top of the hill, when you come to the stop sign on 106th, take a right and go for a few blocks to Seola Beach Drive, which is nice little out and back through a pretty ravine to a strange little sewage treatment outlet beach, but it’s a nice hill both ways, with no traffic.

Seola Beach Drive

On the loop back you can take a nice detour again through Lincoln Park and ride on the gravel paths through the park. There are some little inclines that make for a relaxed alternative to riding along Fauntleroy with ferry traffic. Head back to Alki via Beach Drive S.W.

Riding in Lincoln Park

See you in the hills!