Just 3 percent of workers in Seattle’s center city ride a bike to work. But a new analysis suggests that being near to a protected bike lane can lead to much higher rates of bike commuting, potentially taking cars off the road.
Not even 3 percent.
That’s the stat used by those who object to adding bike lanes to Seattle’s crowded streets, which necessarily means fewer parking spaces and less roadway for cars.
A greater percentage than that telecommuted. More than twice as many walked to work. More than 16 times as many took public transit.
Well, bicycling advocates respond, you’re not going to get more cyclists until you build more bike lanes.
It can feel a little chicken-and-eggy: Which come first, the bikers or the bike lanes?
A new analysis by Commute Seattle offers some added ammunition for bike advocates.
There are a bunch of large employers, Commute Seattle found, that have a radically higher percentage of bike commuters than the city average. What do those employers have in common?
A couple things, but most notably they’re all near a bike path or a protected bike lane.
Of the 15 businesses with the highest percentage of bike-commuting employees, all are within five blocks of a protected bike path. The top seven businesses for bike commuting are all a block or less from a protected bike path.
“This isn’t rocket science,” wrote Tom Fucoloro, editor of the Seattle Bike Blog. “Build more safe and connected bike routes to workplaces and you’ll get big results.”
The top employer for bike commuters, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, sits at the terminus of the new Westlake Avenue bike path in South Lake Union. More than 21 percent of its roughly 375 employees bike to work.
Bike Everywhere Day
The Cascade Bicycle Club is calling it Bike Everywhere Day. The League of American Bicyclists calls it Bike to Work Day. Whichever, Friday is a big day for biking. Dozens of events are scheduled throughout the Puget Sound region. Here are a few of the most prominent:
7:30 a.m. — Ride with Seattle Transportation Director Scott Kubly and others from Bike Works in Columbia City down Rainier Avenue to City Hall.
8:15 a.m. — Rally at City Hall to support a downtown “basic bike network.” Mayor Ed Murray is expected to speak
All day — At the Fremont Bridge, Cascade Bike will lead a celebration featuring food, drinks, raffles and prizes.
Source: Cascade Bicycle Club
That’s about 79 daily bike commuters, or, to put it another way, 79 potential cars removed from rush-hour traffic.
If every downtown business had the same proportion of bike commuters as the Allen Institute — admittedly, an unlikely outcome — it could take 50,000 cars off the road, according to Commute Seattle, although that figure assumes that everybody switching to bikes would be ditching a single-car commute, rather than the bus or a carpool.
Kelly Essmeier, 48, commutes on her bike every day, rain or shine, the four miles from her Magnolia home to the Allen Institute, where she works as a project manager. Usually using an electric-assisted bike (which can carry her kids as well, if necessary) she takes either the protected bike lane on Dexter Avenue or the new Westlake Cycle Track.
A big chunk of bike commuters at the Allen Institute would ride their bikes no matter what, Essmeier said.
“But for the fair-weather riders,” she said, “we’ve seen a lot more people jump on board because of the cycle track.”
When the Allen Institute moved to South Lake Union from Fremont in 2015, they realized that traffic would be worse and parking would be more expensive, Essmeier said. They wanted to encourage biking as much as possible.
“When they were building this building they really tricked out the bike parking and the facilities, with lockers and showers and all that,” Essmeier said.
That’s the second thing that every top business for bike commuters has in common — amenities that make it a little bit easier to ride a bike to work.
All 15 of the top bike-to-work companies provide indoor bike storage. Fourteen of the 15 provide showers. Six provide bike-repair stations. And four even provide the bikes themselves.
Jonathan Hopkins, executive director of Commute Seattle, said that a company’s culture in encouraging bike commuting makes a big difference. He noted that for the price of building one underground parking spot, a company can usually supply sheltered, secure bike storage for all its employees.
“Employer support makes a big difference. If people don’t have a safe place to ride and a safe space to store their bike, they’re probably not going to do it,” Hopkins said. “If we never built roads nobody would drive to work, either.”
At Seattle Children’s Research Institute — number 11 on the list of top bike-commuting workplaces, with more than 10 percent bike commuters — all full-time employees are offered a free commuter bike and helmet if they commit to biking two days a week.
Within the whole Seattle Children’s hospital network, 260 employees are using the commuter bikes, about 9 percent of all employees bike commute and more than half of bike commuters are female.
The main hospital in Laurelhurst also has an on-site bike shop that offers free repairs and tuneups for employees and discounted gear.
“We want to get people on bikes even if they haven’t been on a bike in a while,” said Jamie Cheney, the hospital’s director of transportation. “Children’s plays a big and very deliberate role in encouraging bike commuting.”
In 2015, as a pilot project, Calgary built a four-mile network of connected downtown bike lanes. During the 18-month Canadian trial, ridership on the streets with protected bike lanes tripled and total ridership into downtown increased by 40 percent. The City Council voted in December to make the bike lanes permanent.
Vancouver, B.C., likewise, has an extensive and connected network of protected bike lanes downtown. Ten percent of Vancouver commuters report biking to work, more than triple Seattle’s rate.
Seattle has a smattering of protected bike lanes in its downtown core, but, importantly, they’re not connected. The Westlake Cycle Track spits out onto Westlake Avenue and its notoriously hazardous-to-cyclists streetcar tracks. Relatively new protected bike lanes on Second Avenue and Broadway are similarly isolated — protected islands among mixed-traffic streets.
The city’s bicycle master plan, which has proceeded in fits and starts in the 10-plus years since it was first written, contains more than a dozen projects, tentatively scheduled over the next four years, to build new downtown bike lanes to make a fully-connected network.
That includes projects like protected bike lanes on Pike or Pine Street, King Street, Fourth Avenue and an extension of the Second Avenue lane north to Broad Street.
“Connecting up bike lanes and really creating a network is what is going to make bicycling an option for various ages and skill levels,” said Kelsey Mesher, policy manager for the Cascade Bicycle Club, which, along with Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, is pushing for a downtown “basic bike network” to be built quickly. “There are still a lot of dangerous places that you have to ride to get to work.”
Brian Hanson, who works in video-content management for Comcast Technology Solutions in downtown Seattle, commutes by bike three to four days a week.
Hanson, 50, has been bike commuting for 20 years. His workplace, which has about 240 employees, has the 10th highest rate of bike commuters in the city at 10.5 percent.
It’s about a 7.5-mile ride from his Maple Leaf home to his downtown office, right on Second Avenue and its 3-year old, protected bike lane. Depending on the route he takes, somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of his trip is on protected bike lanes.
He cites his company’s bike-friendly culture and good bike-storage facilities as just as important as the bike lane in promoting bike commuting.
“But I do see a lot more bikers coming down Second than I used to,” he said. “It’s definitely not for everybody, but everybody should try it at least once. The way Seattle traffic is going, I don’t know why people would want to sit in their car.”