ON one recent spring day, I almost got hit by a car — twice — while commuting in Seattle by bicycle.
After nearly colliding with the second car, both the driver and I got out of (or off) our vehicles and confronted each other. We didn’t yell, rather we both apologized with confused looks on our faces. We were confused about how to share the street.
I had just returned from Copenhagen, considered one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world, and I realized I wasn’t thinking about my own safety. Bicycle infrastructure is so well-established in Copenhagen that riding a bicycle feels nearly effortless. Most streets have a raised, separated cycle track — protected bicycle lanes — and around 40 percent of the population commutes daily by bicycle.
Returning to Seattle, where there are only 3.2 miles of cycle tracks and only 4 percent of the population commutes by bicycle, I realized I needed to remember I was no longer in Denmark.
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In a 2013 phone survey conducted by the Seattle Department of Transportation, 28 percent of people with access to a bicycle cited safety as the reason they don’t ride more often, making it the chief concern of local riders.
Luckily for all road users in Seattle, the city has a plan to keep cyclists like me safe and moving on streets. The Seattle City Council approved the Seattle Bicycle Master Planin April. It greatly improves the city’s vision for safe, citywide bike infrastructure.
Seattle’s plan was partly inspired by Copenhagen’s cycling infrastructure. Many of its stakeholders and shapers were part of a delegation to Copenhagen in 2012 to learn from that city’s successes.
Lyle Bicknell, the Seattle Department of Planning and Development’s principal urban designer, was on the trip, and has lived in Copenhagen. He remarked on the diversity of cyclists there, with many of the elderly and children making daily trips often dressed in casual garb. He also shared a story of a visiting Danish intern in Seattle who wouldn’t ride here for fear of her safety.
Copenhagen offers a casual, safe riding experience; Seattle cycling might be better left to the hard-core. The master plan could close that gap.
Copenhagen may be leading the pack now, but there were speed bumps along the way. The first cycle track was created more than 100 years ago. In the subsequent age of the car and suburban growth, not a single new cycle track was built until the early 1980s. Then, large cyclist protests prompted the municipal government to support new infrastructure. Now there are around 250 miles of designated bike lanes.
Seattle now is where Copenhagen was 30 years ago, and this city can learn from Danish best infrastructure practices. The master plan seeks to add more than 100 miles of cycle tracks and nearly 240 miles of “greenways,” side streets with traffic-calming features, over the next 20 years, rivaling Copenhagen.
In the master plan, improvements are determined by risk to bicyclists in areas with a history of vulnerability and collisions. Greenways would be built where the posted speed limit is 20 mph and cycle tracks would be built where the speed limit is 30 mph or greater.
However, both cities are quite different from each other. Copenhagen is flat and dense; Seattle has hills and spread-out neighborhoods. The common thread is a political will to support the cycling population, with the goal of creating an equitable system for all road users.
Copenhagen’s system was created in fits and starts. Seattle has started down the road in the past decade to better infrastructure with shared roads and “road diets,” with mixed results.
The challenge now is figuring out how to fund building a better system. Seattle’s plan would cost approximately $20 million a year over the next 20 years. The City Council and SDOT have done the hard part of figuring out what works and what’s needed. Now we need to find the will and the means to support the plan and pay for it.
Nikolaj Lasbo is the producer and editor for digital opinion engagement at The Seattle Times. He is a dual citizen, American and Danish. On Twitter @nikolajlasbo