WE recently toured Vancouver, B.C., on bicycles and needed to get from False Creek in the city’s center to the train station. As we consulted a smartphone map, a fellow cyclist rolled up on a Raleigh three-speed. She waved off our device and said, “Just take the elevated cycle track and follow the signs.” Easy!
Around the U.S. and Canada, and in most European cities, urban bike riding has become downright mainstream: riding a bike has become safer, faster and a permanent piece of comprehensive urban transportation systems.
Prudent investments such as separated cycle tracks in Vancouver and Portland’s bicycle boulevards, non-arterial streets optimized for bike travel, are among the most cost-effective in the transportation-policy toolbox.
We were lucky enough to tour several North American cities by bike this year. Portland expects bike travel’s “mode share” to make up 25 percent of all local trips by 2030 with a total bicycle infrastructure investment of $580 million, the cost of just six miles of urban highway.
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As cities from Portland to New York make smart public investments, they have seen bike trips grow by double digits in each of the past four years. Seattle, by comparison, appears stuck.
Our city’s last push at integrating bike riding into its transportation system was 2007’s original Bicycle Master Plan, whose centerpieces are unprotected bike lanes adjacent to car lanes and “sharrows” that encourage bikes and cars to share roadways. At the time it seemed progressive. Now it’s like dial-up Internet. Progress since then? A two-page update to the 2007 plan.
Annual investment in Seattle bike infrastructure has been stuck below $7 million annually since 2007, just 2 percent of the city transportation budget. Annual counts of riders show the city could fail to reach its goal of tripling ridership by 2017.
We all have a stake in pushing the city to catch up as Seattle City Council works on the 2013-2014 budget.
A transportation system that allows more people to ride bikes safely and conveniently would benefit drivers, pedestrians, transit riders and bike riders alike. The myth of a pitched battle between bike riders and motorists is perpetuated by a tiny minority. The majority just wants a better, safer system.
That system begins with a vision supported by city leaders that sets clear direction for a fully funded update of Seattle’s Bicycle Master Plan. Such an effort must be followed by competent execution.
The experience of leading bike-riding cities suggest three city steps.
•The city should fully fund the recommendations in the 2007 Bicycle Master Plan, updated to include safety improvements such as the dedicated, protected bicycle lanes known as cycle tracks. The 2007 plan calls for $25 million per year; expenditures now run less than $7 million annually and have been shrinking.
•Create and fund a visible “bicycle czar” within the Seattle Department of Transportation with authority to work across divisions to truly integrate bike riding into the system. This is a position filled by strong, dynamic leaders in virtually every city that has made real progress. Seattle has no such leader.
•How about building a contiguous cycle track through downtown, connecting the heavily used Dexter Avenue bike route with the Chinatown-International District? About 5,000 people ride bikes to downtown workplaces every day, according to a 2010 study by Commute Seattle; providing safer roadways benefits riders and drivers alike and would demonstrate the effectiveness of this sensible improvement.
Taking even these modest steps will require public support and political leadership.
Mayor Mike McGinn has been silent recently on bike riding as serious transportation policy. He will forever be linked with the bicycle he rides all over the city, and he is the bicycle mayor. It behooves him to be an effective one.
The budget that will facilitate this transformation is being crafted now. Go. Voice your opinion. If we are to move Seattle forward, those who support a truly integrated transportation system must speak up now.
Thomas Goldstein, left, is former director of the Washington Bus, a nonprofit engaging young people in democracy. John Healy is a communications consultant.