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The Seattle Times political team explores national, state and local politics.

September 6, 2011 at 3:30 PM

Seattle gains a worldwide spotlight -- for hazards to bicyclists

Posted by Mike Lindblom


If you haven't seen it already, be sure to read this commentary in The Economist magazine about the hit-and-run crash that killed Seattle bicycle commuter Michael Wang this summer.

He was riding home to Shoreline, on Dexter Avenue North, when a brown SUV turned left and hit him in the South Lake Union neighborhood. Seattle Times coverage is here.

The British magazine, with a weekly circulation of 1.5 million, frames the crash as an example of why riders are three to five times more likely to die in the U.S. than in northern Europe:

The road where the 44-year-old father of two was hit is the busiest cycling corridor in Seattle, and it has clearly marked bicycle lanes. But the lanes are protected from motor vehicles by a line of white paint -- a largely metaphorical barrier that many drivers ignore and police do not vigorously enforce. A few feet from the cycling lane traffic moves at speeds of between 30 miles per hour, the speed limit for arterials in Seattle, and 40 miles per hour, the speed at which many cars actually travel. This kind of speed kills.

Between 4,000 and 8,000 people a day commute to work or school via bicycle in Seattle, often including the mayor, who rides on Dexter. City leaders and thousands of residents are striving to catch up with Portland, where 17,000 daily bike trips are taken across four major Willamette River bridges.

The local news pages have encouraged caution in the bike lane, better cycling infrastructure, and sharing the road.

With about $4 million in "Bridging the Gap" property tax to be spent for bicycling this year, and another $1.4 million a year added if voters pass a car-tab increase in November, now is a good time to rethink what it takes to build a safe route.

One promising idea is "greenways," the idea of retrofitting side streets near main routes for a 20 mph speed limit, so casual riders can use them, instead of expecting everyone to deal with arterial traffic. The Cascade Bicycle Club's views are evolving to add a focus on "low stress" bikeways, especially to encourage more women to ride, says policy director John Mauro.

Nonstop ideological skirmishes haven't helped. Supporters pushed for whatever lane stripes they can get -- even in hazard zones like the left side of Second Avenue or low-priority routes like Northeast 125th Street -- with dreams of taking bicycles mainstream. U.S. culture trains drivers to be hyperconscious of their "right" to road space, instead of adopting a more practical, Zenlike attitude that flows with all kinds of travelers. Especially on Dexter, there is no excuse for failing to perceive any lawfully riding cyclist.

On the other hand, no amount of money can shield every cycling route.

The Economist editors favor more traffic separation, but also offer some advice that's free: "Calm down."

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Anonamoose, 1. Holding up cars, and pissing them off when they are in the bigger wheeled weapon is stupid. I don't care if cars do the same...  Posted on September 8, 2011 at 1:03 PM by Use Your Head. Jump to comment
Use Your Head, good points. allow me to elaborate 1. cars do the same thing despite the 5-car delay law 4. not really. i've lived on...  Posted on September 8, 2011 at 11:08 AM by anonamoose. Jump to comment
Being a former car driver commuter, but not being able to afford a car had to take to the streets on a bicycle I have found a few things...  Posted on September 8, 2011 at 9:38 AM by Use Your Head. Jump to comment

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