IN 1990 Seattle was at the vanguard of bicycling in North America, with one of the highest commuting rates of any major city. Seattle led even Portland, with 50 percent more bike commuting (1.5 percent vs. 1 percent of workers). Over the past two decades, however, Seattle has fallen behind.
By 2011, Portland had boosted bike commuting nearly sevenfold to 6.9 percent, far surpassing Seattle’s modest rise to 3.7 percent.
Bicycling in Seattle also falls short by another key indicator of a safe, welcoming city to bike in: the number of women bicycling. Fewer than 30 percent of Seattle bike trips are made by women. It’s striking that more women bike to work in Portland (4.8 percent) than the share of men biking to work in Seattle (4.6 percent).
Portland, Vancouver, B.C., Montreal, Ottawa, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C. have all surpassed Seattle in overall bicycling and in the rate of bicycling among women. What accounts for the bicycling booms in these cities, where environments are at least as challenging as Seattle’s?
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The answer is simple: Other cities are building integrated networks of neighborhood greenways and protected bike lanes separated from car traffic.
Neighborhood greenways — low-speed, low-traffic streets that are safer for families to bike and walk — have been shown to reduce traffic injuries for all road users, including drivers, while increasing bicycling especially by women and children.
Neighborhood greenways make residential streets pleasant, quiet places, while also enhancing safety, reducing air pollution and making streets a safe place for children to play.
Vancouver has 94 miles of greenways; Portland has 82 miles. Seattle has three miles.
Many of Seattle’s residential streets could easily, cheaply and quickly become safe neighborhood greenways. The city should be building far more, and far faster, than its current pace.
Seattle has tripled its on-street bike lanes to 78 miles since 2007, but many are too narrow and placed directly next to parked cars, posing the danger of car doors opening directly in the path of bikes.
Second Avenue in downtown Seattle is an egregious example of a poorly designed bike lane, with people on bikes endangered by cars entering or leaving parking spaces, car doors protruding into the bike lane, and cars and trucks making left turns at intersections.
By comparison, Portland has 320 miles of bike lanes, most wide enough and far enough away from parked cars to avoid the danger of car doors. Moreover, many intersections in Portland and Vancouver have advance stop lines and traffic lights for bicyclists, turn arrows for drivers, and bright green paint, all of which increase visibility, minimize conflict and improve safety.
In heavily traveled areas such as Seattle’s Second and Fourth avenues, the most appropriate solutions would be to build protected bicycle lanes, such as the five miles of superbly designed lanes in downtown Vancouver.
With concrete barriers and beautifully landscaped planters protecting vulnerable men, women and children on bikes from car traffic, bicycling has become more comfortable, safe and inviting for people of every age and ability.
Vancouver has seen an impressive rise in cycling among women, seniors and children. Protected bicycle lanes are greatly needed on Seattle’s busiest arterials, where dangerous gaps in the bike network exist.
With hundreds of miles of protected bicycle lanes being installed in New York City, Chicago and dozens of other cities around the country, Seattle should also focus its bicycling investment where it is the most needed.
How can investment in these safety projects be financed? Some government funds should be shifted from expensive highway expansions, which generate more car use, pollution and wasteful sprawl.
Another source of money is the private sector. Increasingly, companies around the nation are sponsoring protected-bike-lane construction in return for including their names as sponsors on route signage. The companies include Walmart in Springdale, Ark., and Auto Zone in Memphis, Tenn.
Well-known Seattle companies — Boeing, Microsoft, Google, Amazon.com, Starbucks, REI, Pemco, Amgen, Group Health, Swedish Medical Center, Vulcan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — should consider sponsoring urban bicycle projects to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability, safety, public health and the overall livability of Seattle.
Seattle’s employers should not disregard the challenge issued by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who threatened to create such a bike-friendly city that high-tech jobs and workers will be lured away from Seattle.
Sixty percent of people who live in Seattle want to bicycle more, but they don’t because they don’t feel safe. The implementation of bike infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with pent-up demand or modern design standards.
Meanwhile, cities across the country are stepping in and vying for the new generation of bike-oriented millennials. They’re building bike networks that serve all ages and abilities as a down payment on urban growth, prosperity and vitality.
Seattle finds itself at a crucial juncture. Now is the time for Seattle to regain its status as North America’s premier bicycling city by creating a complete, truly integrated network of protected bike lanes and neighborhood greenways. Investing in bicycling is a key to the city’s future.
John Pucher is a professor at Rutgers University and author of “City Cycling” by MIT Press.