Portrait of Jeff Mapes, wearing a blue button-down shirt

Jeff Mapes

As I researched my book Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities, I couldn’t help myself. Everywhere I went, I critiqued the local streetscape by asking: is it good or bad for bikes?

When I visited my sister and brother-in-law on the Sammamish Plateau east of Seattle, I was quick to judge. We drove up a steep hill to get to their house, the main roads were narrow and filled with fast-moving cars, and the distances were long—too long for easy cycling. Except for the East Sammamish Trail along Lake Sammamish, there didn’t seem to be any infrastructure at all for cyclists or pedestrians.

In short, the fast-growing Sammamish Plateau seemed to share the crux transportation problem of sprawl everywhere: residents seemed locked in their cars for every trip.

My bike-riding brother-in-law John—a man who is hardened enough to have often commuted by bike to such far-flung workplaces as Redmond and downtown Seattle– proved my perceptions wrong.

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  • On a recent family visit, John suggested that we take a spin around the plateau by bike. With the thoroughness of a software engineer (which he is), John had over the years carefully scouted out a series of bike routes that largely avoid busy roads and provide pleasant riding. (Here’s a map that John made!)

    Sammamish bike trail segment

    We weren’t far into the 16-mile loop before I realized that I was seeing this cityscape from a whole new perspective. I realized that it was I, Mr. Pedaling Revolution, who had been guilty of seeing the world through an automotive windshield. (Maybe it was “car-head”?)

    I was so accustomed to seeing the neighborhood from an automobile that I failed to see the cycling potential. Of course, I wasn’t alone in that blindness. During 90 sunshiny weekday minutes on the road, we didn’t see another cyclist. Not one.

    It’s easy to guess why not. What I discovered on a ride was a lot of hidden bike infrastructure.

    We threaded our way along several informal trails that walkers and other cyclists had cut through bits of unclaimed landscape—trails that linked one cul de sac-dominated subdivision to the next.

    Mapes Sammamish bike trail 1

    Mapes Sammamish bike trail 2

    We biked between traffic-calming wooden barricades that neighbors had erected themselves—the outlaws!—to stop through-traffic.

    We also experienced some segments of official infrastructure: a paved bike and walking path next to a busy suburban thoroughfare, for example. . .

    Mapes Sammamish bike trail 3

    Mapes Sammamish bike trail 4

    . . . and a short dirt-and-gravel bridal trail.

    We biked 16 miles and spent only about one mile on busy roads. Our loop passed three schools and came near the plateau’s major shopping center.

    Many residents of the plateau could bicycle in relative comfort to at least a few useful destinations. Getting to and from the plateau involves some steep hills that are a real deterrent to cycling, but once you’re there, the bicycle could be a viable transportation option for local trips.

    My experience reinforced what I have learned during my conversations with planners and bikers from across Cascadia and beyond. While post-World War II sprawl was not built with bikes in mind, it can accommodate them better than you might expect.

    A few strategic cut-throughs can slash distances for cyclists and walkers, giving them an alternative to inhospitable arterials. Multi-use paths can serve as highways for bikers and walkers, giving them a spine for their own network of no-motor routes.

    Ironically, residents sometimes oppose such improvements; the trail along Lake Sammamish sparked legal battles from angry landowners. It’s much better to design these amenities into a subdivision before it is built; several studies suggest nearby trails can actually add to the value of a home.

    In any case, I’m not predicting that the Sammamish Plateau will start to resemble the bike-friendliness of my hometown of Portland. Most people still have to travel too far for jobs, shopping and school to make cycling the most attractive option. And cycling to the store is clearly not much of a part of the local culture—yet. Few people move to the plateau in hopes of stepping away from the car-driving lifestyle.

    But attitudes can change. We got a taste of that in 2008 when gasoline briefly cost $4 a gallon. If cycling becomes a cultural norm in the dispersed neighborhoods of the Sammamish Plateau—and in thousands of neighborhoods like them across Cascadia—residents may find they have more options than they realize. They just need to avoid my mistake, and stop judging the streetscape from the windshields of their cars.

    Photos, map, and guide service all courtesy of John Gilbert. Thanks!

    Pedaling Revolution book coverGuest blogger Jeff Mapes is the author of Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities. His day job is covering politics for the Oregonian.