Spring has been reluctant to arrive in the Northwest this year, but the weather is finally changing. With the appearance of some sun, I’ve been itching to get outside.
Since writing about my first bike ride in ten years, I’ve bought a bike, and spoken with friends and coworkers more about cycling in Seattle. Already, I’ve got seven days of bike commuting to the office under my belt.
It hasn’t always been pretty. But it’s getting better.
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On my first commute, I had a rough idea in my head about the route I would take. Off to a great start, I sped down the Burke-Gilman trail, traversed the Fremont Bridge, wove through the parking lots of Westlake…and then I hit downtown.
That’s when my plan fell apart. I took cues from a few other cyclists on the street, but found myself riding in between trolley tracks, navigating sidewalks, and being stranded on car-packed streets. In short, it was kind of miserable.
But, I made it to the office. Our building’s bike-friendly infrastructure, including a secure bike room and showers were welcome conveniences that I’d never really thought about before.
Over the past few days, I’ve been varying my routes and, a couple times, I’ve ridden with veteran cyclists. Thanks to their tips and shortcuts (and to Google bike maps), I’ve figured out a more precise route that’s not only quicker, but feels a lot safer, too.
A few thoughts on the whole experience:
- The bike community is friendly. I’ve run in to a few grumpy cyclists who pegged me as a novice (maybe because my lack of lycra?), but mostly I’ve been overwhelmed by offers from friends and strangers alike to show me the ropes, loaner bikes to get me started, and a whole lot of encouraging words. A driver even pulled up next to me and thanked me for properly signaling.
- Knowing well-ridden routes is key. Once I figured out the major bikeways through downtown, my commute was vastly easier and quicker—from 45 minutes to 30. In a mob of other cyclists, I feel more visible to cars. Strength in numbers, right? (Seattle could be better about marking major bike routes, but the city is making progress. Installing markers on bikeways is part of the city’s bicycle master plan, adding signage to 10 or 20 miles of roadways each year.)
- Biking with cars is a big obstacle. Having spoken with a number of folks who are still on the fence about bike commuting, the common deterrent is sharing the streets with cars—particularly downtown. Sharing the road with cars during my first few commutes was indeed harrowing, but I’ve gotten more used to it already. Sticking to biker-friendly routes has kept me on streets with fewer cars and more visibility.
- Confidence is huge. Each day I feel a little more comfortable and confident. I know the way to go, where the tricky spots are, and I’m more familiar with the conventions of the road.
Don’t get me wrong; there are some things I’m not in love with. Needing a shower when I get to work and again when I get home, for instance, or being stuck behind a bus and sucking down its exhaust fumes.
I know I’ve got a lot more to experience and learn. I haven’t trudged home in a sudden downpour, gotten a flat, or even had a close call with another cyclist or driver. There’re sure to be hitches along the way, and I’ll take them as they come and see how it goes.
But for now? It’s spring in Seattle, the mornings are sunny and crisp, the wind’s at my back, and…I’m hooked.
Bike sign photo courtesy of flickr user jcolman under a Creative Commons license. Photo alterations permitted by photographer for use on this post only.
This is pretty much my story too. The difference is that here in Miami, there aren’t a lot of cyclists to talk to and commute with, although that aspect is getting better, particularly at FIU. The rate at which I’ve been meeting people has skyrocketed in the past few months.
Since I started more urban cycling, I’ve also started wearing a safety vest and a brightly decorated helmet, and running bright flashing lights front and back. I want to be VISIBLE!I find drivers give you room – if you take it. Ride 3′ out from parked cars(doors open) or the gutter(glass and crap). If the lane is narrow, take it.GLtOM
I wonder how many fence-sitters would be more interested in cycling in downtown Seattle and Portland if a bike ‘lane’ downtown consisted of an entire lane of the roadway—not just a partial ‘bike-sized’ lane. “Take the lane” for good, not just while each cyclist rides by. A complete network of bike boulevards downtown could use every 4th or 5th street in each direction. This would be a reasonable way to support 20% to 25% cycle mode share, at very low incremental cost. Streets like this make great places for sidewalk cafes, with low traffic noise and fumes, and minimal on-street car parking. A restaurant or shop can serve many customers with minimal parking space, if most of those customers are cyclists and pedestrians.
“wove through the parking lots of Westlake” I know this seems like a good idea, but it isn’t. I was hit by a car in that clusterfuck and the officer who responded told me it was my fault because its not a bike lane. If she is right or not, I don’t know, but I choose to ride on Westlake or Dexter when its not under massive construction. good luck and be safe out there!
Christopher –The Westlake parking lots are definitely the least favorite part of my route. I’m very much looking forward to the end of Dexter construction. But for now I just ride a little slower and keep my eyes and ears open.The upside is that the parking lot is pretty quite on my way into downtown in the morning, and when it’s busier in the afternoon there’s a series of sidewalks and a sidestreet that keep you out of the lot.
Eric, you can avoid showing up for work sweaty if you don’t speed down the Burke-Gilman trail. Assuming your gears are low enough that you can take it easy on the hills, you can enjoy a leisurely ride and arrive at work ready to sit down at your desk instead of ready to hit the shower. Be cool. Let the racers pass you. The extra time it takes to get to work is more than offset by not having to make a trip to the locker room. Besides, taking it easy on the trail means you’re less likely to hit little old ladies out for power walks and dogs on long leashes.
Eric, good for you! So much of it is, as you say, confidence, and to build it, you have to get yourself out there. Every new thing I do—biking downtown, riding after dark, other new routes—I have to put on my courage. And when I’m done, I think, What was I so scared about?
Right on Eric. I’d like to reiterate Scott’s comment. I’ve been a bike commuter for a bunch of decades now as well as a road and dirt racer and one of the hardest things to learn, especially as you grow stronger and more confident, is to go slow. Slow down a little when you commute and you won’t be sweaty when you get to work but more importantly your less likely to get whacked by a car. My personal experience has been that I have contributed to many of my close-calls by riding too fast and focusing too much on the ‘exercise’ aspect. For commuting, enjoy the scenery and keep your Jedi powers on high. If you want to race, there’s plenty of other avenues for that.
Anita Van Asperdt
The more people will bike the better it will be, like you said strength in numbers, but not only that other traffic will be more alert for bicycles. In order to start developing a strong large community of bicycles we need to start with the kids and the teens. Safe Dutch-style bike paths are crucial! Giving kids and teens better and safer ways to move around not only is good for the environment and their physical health but also good for their emotional health while they grow to be independent. Finally, maybe we shouldn’t be so obsessed with a bit of body odor, having grown up in the Netherlands I don’t remember anyone feeling the need to shower after a bike ride, is that because we don’t have hills or do we have less sensitive noses.
Did you see I linked your reluctant bike post to my May bike commuting post on biking architect? Thanks for this update…its all good…BA is riding a 5 week trip from the Canadian Border to Mexico this August through the Cascade Mountain passes…The group would not mind having folks join them for the whole ride or just an afternoon?
One of the great things about getting around by bike is that you can approach it cautiously, make use of trails and pedestrian routes in situations where you don’t feel confident about certain busy streets (accepting a gentler pace and yielding to peds of course) and as your knowledge and skills increase, gradually you spend more time on arterials. It’s such a flexible means of transportation.
I agree about the no-no of the parking lots of westlake. I did that too, back when I first moved to Seattle (1991! agh!) and was a newbie like you. Dexter is the answer, and it’s not as bad as you think. Kind of nice actually. Or it was, fifteen years ago. Have fun Eric! patrick
Patricia—Thanks for the link!Patrick—Dexter is under construction for the time being, and apparently no fun for bikers.Everyone else—Thank you for the kind words, advice, and thoughts. I’m going strong, having commuted 10 of the last 11 work days—including one in a torrential downpour. Stay tuned for more.
Good for you, keep it up, ride whenever you can, you’re positively influenced many others!
I enjoyed your article. Keep up the good work and stay on your bike.
The Tim Channel
I just returned to two wheel transportation at the age of 52. I bought a used Tomos moped that’s geared to a top speed of 15 mph (25km/h) to use on the many dedicated bike paths here in Europe. I do not wish to pedal to a sweaty heart attack, and the lowest power mopeds/scooters can use the bike lanes legally here. If I were a native, I would have bought a €2500 e-bike to fit in with my German neighbors in lieu of a used €850 gas operated moped. In Holland (20 km away) gas-op mopeds are common, but across the border in Germany, they have embraced renewable electric in lieu of petroleum with such a passion it’s hard to get your head around. Germany installed more solar in Dec 2010 than the US did the entire year. An average BILLION euro per month is being invested in solar. It’s freakin’ EVERYWHERE. They just decided to totally quit nuclear after the Japanese meltdown. Wind generators? They dot the landscape like electric butterflies.
I would have gone electric bike, but I want to do some long tours without worrying about charging batteries every 60km. Initial (horrendously high) cost of e-bike here can be quickly recouped through fuel savings. Gas for my two cycle moped is the equivalent of $10 (US)/gallon.
As to the ‘dedication’ of routes for bikes? Defacto in nearly any direction you wish to take. Even between towns. My favorite bit of bicycle infrastructure? A dedicated drop-down railroad guard on the dedicated bike path between Graes and Epe (Germany). Over in nearby Enschede (Holland) they actually have dedicated traffic signals for the bike lanes, even though they’re immediately parallel to many of the regular roads and traffic signals that already exist for cars.
Botton line? At my age I wouldn’t be riding around on a bike or moped if it were not for the level of dedicated infrastructure and respect for cycle riders ubiquitous to the region. I’m not really interested in dodging traffic in Downtown, Anywhere.
If I ever move back to the US (don’t take that bet-lol) Seattle would be on my list of cool places to live for sure. Probably put away my bike though. Reading your experiences regarding the tight blending of cars/bikes in many areas leaves me with an uneasy ‘Evil Kneivel’ vibe that I don’t think I could shake.
Because the type of crowd that would read this will likely enjoy these bits of bike/environmentalism information, I offer the following:
How they felt about nuclear waste a good fifteen years ago in my neck of the woods:
Some bike lane pics/video from my moped rides: