Bicycles may be the most energy efficient, healthful, and affordable form of personal transportation. But they are only practical to the extent that our communities are bikable—that is, that they provide safe routes that connect the places we need to go.

And the most important thing to remember about bike routes is that they are only as useful as their least-passable portion. A big hill can nullify an otherwise excellent route. For my kids, for example, soccer practice, drama, and scouts all lie on the other side of a big hill, so their biking is limited. They’re jealous of the residents of Trondheim, Norway, who climb a similar incline on an innovative bike lift shown in this video.

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  • For me, the weakest link in an otherwise superb ride from home to office (a subject I’ll write about another day) is the Ballard Bridge, a historic, four-lane structure that forms the westernmost crossing of Seattle’s ship canal. This bridge (pictured in this 360 pan) just about perfectly illustrates the current condition of bicycle infrastructure in most of Cascadia. In short, it encapsulates Bicycle Neglect. The bridge, or plans for it, also illustrates our nascent intention to take bicycles more seriously—call this aspiration Bicycle Respect.

    The Ballard Bridge—like the Northwest more generally—isn’t hopeless for cycling. It’s passable, just not very friendly. The bridge has sidewalks on each side, so that’s good. But they’re narrow, obstructed, and shared with pedestrians. At both ends of the bridge, furthermore, they dump out into motorized traffic at odd and worrisome angles.

    Here I am, on the sidewalk.

    Alan biking on sidewalk 350w

    And here I am approaching the small cut-away in the wall through which I must pass to leave the bridge without following a long detour.

    Alan approaching 350w

    Here I am waiting for a break in traffic.

    Alan waiting 1 350w

    And waiting . . .

    Alan waiting 2 350w

    And waiting . . .

    Alan waiting 3 350w

    And finally threading myself into 40-mph traffic to continue on my path to work.

    Alan threading 350w

    (Photos thanks to Elisa Murray, who rose early to bike with me.)

    Again, it’s not impossible to bike this bridge. I do it on occasion. More often, though, I take a longer, hillier route to avoid these few hundred yards of anxiety. More often still, I don’t bike at all, opting for a bus over this fearsome chokepoint.

    The Portland-based Bicycle Transportation Allowance found in a survey of Oregonians that 1 percent are “fearless cyclists,” who are undeterred by crossings like the Ballard Bridge. I’m not one in that category!

    Another 7 percent are confident bikers: they’ll take a route like the Ballard Bridge once in a while. I guess that’s me. Another 60 percent of people—the overwhelming majority—are “interested but concerned” riders. They would never brave the Ballard Bridge, though they enjoy cycling on safe, quiet, bike-only lanes and bicycle boulevards. Because such bikeways are so rare in North America, though, these people are more often potential riders than actual riders.

    These potential riders are the people we need to invite onto two wheels, if we’re going to stabilize the climate, reduce our oil addiction, and reverse the obesity epidemic. Portland (along with Vancouver, BC, and a few smaller cities that I’ll write about another day) has been systematically retrofitting its streetscape—to the tune of more than $1 million a year—to make it inviting for such riders. The city has more than tripled the length of its bikeways since the early nineties. Interestingly, the lion’s share of Portland’s funds have gone into making its downtown bridges pleasant to get to and cross on a bike. That’s because the bridges were the weakest link.

    In this paper, Roger Geller and Mia Birk, the current and past bicycle coordinators, respectively, of Portland’s transportation agency, show before-and-after photos of four downtown bridges, along with counts of cyclists crossing each at different points in time.

    This 1992 photo of the Broadway Bridge shows a cycling infrastructure much like the Ballard Bridge today: a narrow, obstructed sidewalk shared with pedestrians, and no good way to veer left toward the city center at the end of the bridge. Still, some 755 cyclists (no doubt of the “fearless” and “confident” varieties) ventured across the Broadway Bridge on a typical day in 1992. (It was, after all, signed as a Bike Route.) Study this photograph: it’s an image of Bicycle Neglect, the norm in Cascadia today.

    Broadway Bridge before 350w

    In this 2002 photo from roughly the same location, you can see the end of Bicycle Neglect: a segregated bike lane, separate from both car traffic and foot traffic; turn lanes for bikes; and a turn signal specifically for cyclists, to give them a chance to move left into the city center. (The pedestrian infrastructure is also improved: there’s now a crosswalk and a sidewalk to cross to.) These improvements paid off: by 2005, almost 2,100 cyclists crossed the Broadway Bridge on a typical day, likely including many “interested but concerned” riders.

    Broadway Bridge after 350w

    (Both photos courtesy of City of Portland, Office of Transportation.)

    Citywide since the early nineties, Portland has seen a tripling of bicycling to accompany its tripled bikeway network, and bicycle traffic on the bridges has grown ten times faster than has car and truck traffic. It wasn’t just the bridges, of course. Portland wove a network of bike routes that connects to the bridges. But the bridges were the
    limiting factor on bike growth, just as the Ballard Bridge is for me and my neighbors.

    Fortunately, Seattle’s Bicycle Master Plan specifies a way to solve the Ballard Bridge problem, as we noted here. It calls for a bicycle bridge to parallel the existing span. Expensive? Not if it removes the constraint on bicycle transportation for a section of the city.

    Here are two photos from Copenhagen, a city that does not suffer from Bicycle Neglect. (In Copenhagen, people bike more than they drive.) The photos show the installation of a bicycle bridge in Copenhagen’s harbor. Study these photos. They are images of Bicycle Respect.

    Copenhagen bike bridge construction 350w
    Copenhagen bike bridge completed 350w2

    (Both photos courtesy of Brian Hansen, City of Copenhagen.)

    (A big thanks to intern Deric Gruen, who did research for this post.)