Category Archives: Commuting

Seattle’s Unclean Streets

Here’s another gripe about Seattle’s lack of bike infrastructure – or really, its lack of attention to the basic blocking and tackling of running a city.

In a city of foliage-blocked stop signs, roads laced with seams, cracks and a shameful number of potholes, and a nod to cyclists in the form of paint splashed on the road, we can add this: a near-total lack of attention to street cleaning.

When I lived in San Francisco, even the residential neighborhoods had once-weekly street cleaning – a four-hour window where parking was forbidden, on pain of being towed.

And the city meant it, as I found out more than once when I forgot to move my car.

Here?  While it’s big news that we’re getting a fancy cycle track cleaner for Broadway, it’s more telling that it never occurred to the city that they’d need the thing.  And in Seattle’s leafier neighborhoods?  Forget about it.  Those leaves fall, and absent conscientious property owners cleaning the streets in front of their places, those leaves remain to moulder and create giant slick patches all along our residential streets.

I get that there are city budget priorities, and tax dollars only go so far.  But I bet we could cover a fair bit of the cost with all of the impound fees.

And until then?  Yet another reason to just take the lane.

A Note to Drivers from an “Aggressive Cyclist”

Really, KIRO7?  An investigation of “aggressive” cyclists?

Must be troll week.  But I’ll play along.

Apparently, “aggressive” cyclists are out flipping off drivers, running red lights and riding too close to pedestrians.

Guilty as charged.

But I think the nitwits at KIRO7 – who no doubt have never spent a day riding in the city, let alone commuting every day – need a little education in why “aggressive” cyclists do what they do.

  • The Bird!.  Me, I’m more partial to the “ass-slap”, as the times when I most want to flip the bird are when some impatient driver honks at me for taking the lane.  Is it rude?  Yes.  It it earned?  Yes.  If you’re a driver, and you get flipped off by a cyclist, there’s a 95% chance that you did something stupid, dangerous or rude to deserve it.  Just own it and try to be a better driver.

  • Running Red Lights.  Drivers need to get in touch with their passive-aggressive tendencies here.  Is it really such a problem that a cyclist just ran through a red light?  Does it affect you in any way, other than to offend your sense of law-and-order?   (Seattle pedestrians, cowed by generations of overly-hyper jaywalking enforcement, are complicit in this view)  Yes, cyclists occasionally run lights in dangerous ways.  But the vast majority of the time, what I see (and often what I do myself) is cyclists running through red lights when it’s safe to do so.  You see, traffic lights are designed for cars.  They’re not designed for bikes.  When you’re stopped on a bike in traffic, you are at your most vulnerable.  Red lights expose you to unaware right turners and red light runners in 4000 pound cars – all sorts of evil.  While there are plenty of situations where it’s safer to wait for the light, there are also many where it is better to ride through it.  Once you’ve ridden in the city for a while, you realize – as drivers and occasional cyclists don’t – that safety dictates taking what the philosophers call a critical view of traffic laws.

  • Pedestrians.  One critical element to riding in the city is to be predictable and visible.  Seattle’s pedestrians are neither; they dress in black and think nothing of scurrying into traffic after loitering pensively on street corners.  They also need to realize that cyclists need only 20 inches of space to get by them – which is, by the way, a lot less than a car.  We also want to preserve momentum; it’s what keeps us safe.  So we’ll ride in front of you, or ride behind you.  Just please keep walking in a predictable way.  And don’t expect us to stop for you, unless you’re in a large group.  Just keep walking.  You’ll be fine.

  • Bike Lanes.  Look, I know you think I should be riding in the bike lane.  But Seattle’s bike lanes suck.  They put riders right in the “door zone” of parked cars.  They’re often littered with debris, clogged with double-parked cars, or abruptly shut off for construction.  My daily commute includes less than 1.5 miles each way on 12th Ave, which has bike lanes in both directions.  And most days you’d need two hands, each way, to count the number of times I have to leave the bike lane for double-parked cars.  Riding in the bike lane also makes it hard for traffic turning into the bike-laned street to see you.  The downhill portion of 12th from Cherry to Yesler is –  much like the downhill lane on Pine – completely unusable without taking your life in your hands.  In short, Seattle’s bike lanes are unreliable and dangerous.  Sure, I’ll use them for climbing, when door zone issues and reaction time don’t loom so large.  And I’ll happily ride in them in other places where it’s safe to do so.  But drivers need to be prepared for cyclists to abandon the bike lane, and take the whole lane, whenever the bike lane fails us.  Which brings us to . . .

  • Taking the Lane.  For whatever reason, this seems to outrage drivers, even though in many places in the city we’re barely slowing you down.  I take the lane because it’s the safest place to ride.  It gives me the most options to avoid obstructions or one of Seattle’s famously-obtuse pedestrians darting into the street.  And I really don’t want you to try and “squeeze by.”  When you do, you radically reduce the bailout options, and increase the danger.  Riders have to be more aware, because we are constantly in danger of being crushed.  And drivers increase that danger when they squeeze by, or think we should ride right in the door zone – where we’re much less visible to car passengers, pedestrians and crossing traffic – to allow you to get ahead of us.  So hang back.  In the city, it’s not going to be for more than a few blocks.

  • Riding on the Sidewalk.  I’ll admit,  I don’t like riding on the sidewalk.  It feels wrong – even though it’s legal to do so in Seattle.  The thing is, it’s dangerous when done at speed, because of the lack of predictability and the overall cluelessness of Seattle pedestrians.  But it’s sometimes preferable to ride on the sidewalk for a block or so, in order to avoid construction or dangerous road conditions.  Or to execute a “Copenhagen left”, which is both safer and better for traffic flow in dense areas.  So don’t be offended at riders on the sidewalk – although it’s fair to expect that they ride slowly and courteously.

  • Sharrows.  Many drivers think cyclists need to ride in the middle of the “sharrows” found on Seattle streets.  But that would be wrong, because to do so would – again – put the rider right in the “door zone” of parked cars.  There’s also some unique quirk to Seattle roads that positions a pavement crack right in the middle of the sharrows.  Note to drivers: pavement cracks are bad when you’re riding a bike.  BTW, while some think “sharrows” is brief for “sharing arrows”, it’s actually short for “shitty arrows:” a way for the city to claim tons of “bike infrastructure” for the cost of a little paint.  Ultimately, sharrows are just a reminder that there will be bikes in the road.  Possibly taking the lane.  Nothing more.

  • Signaling.  I’ll signal when it’s safe to do so, and I think it’s useful to drivers, pedestrians or other cyclists.  But have you seen the state of Seattle’s streets?  It’s rarely a good idea to take a hand off the grips.

As with drivers, sometimes cyclists ride in rude or dangerous ways.  But a lot of what non-cyclists consider “aggressive” is just what’s required to navigate automotive infrastructure on a bicycle.  Ride a few miles on our pedals and perhaps you’ll have a clearer view.


Safety in Numbers?

Does having more riders on the road mean things are safer?  Probably, once you reach critical mass.  But there’s a difficult middle stage, where more cyclists make it more dangerous.  Like now in Seattle.

I’ve never been shy about why I believe it’s safest – at least in American cities – to be a vehicular cyclist and to be minimally troubled by obeying traffic rules.  The trouble is, many other riders adopt a more tentative riding style.  That’s fine for bike trails or quiet residential streets, but experienced riders know that approach doesn’t cut it for urban riding in a city lacking meaningful cycling infrastructure.

So the other morning, I pulled up on 12th  at the Madison intersection, heading south.  Two riders were ahead of me in the bike lane, stopped before the crosswalk.  The bike lane on 12th is borderline usable, but it doesn’t have a bike box at the intersection, let alone any special signaling.  A very large construction truck was in the lane, signaling to turn right.

This is a situation that demands pulling in front of the crosswalk, in front of the truck.  Or maybe, if there’s room,  joining car traffic in the regular lane behind the truck.  Basically, anywhere is better than sitting in the bike lane in the truck driver’s blind spot as he attempts to turn right.

One guess where the other two riders were.

So my choice is to rudely force my way around them, or defer to the dangerous riding decision they’ve made for me.

That’s just one example.  I want to ride politely, but I’m more interested in making it to wherever I’m going in one piece.  I’m sure with better bike infrastructure – and a lot more riders – this would largely be a non-issue.  It would rarely be necessary to ride aggressively or vehicularly.

But as bike commuting grows slowly on our pothole-riddled streets, there’s a tension between those of us who ride as the conditions demand today, and those who ride as we aspire for them to be.

Blame it on the Strava

I’ve never felt terribly competitive when it comes to athletics. Sure, I like to win when playing a game, but a bike ride? It’s my commute, my head-clearing dose of fresh air and sunshine, my two-wheeled therapy. I haven’t raced a bike since I was a teenager.

And don’t even get me started with running and triathlons – that shit will kill you.

So how to explain the effect Strava has on my commute? This simple app (recommended to me by no less than 3 of my co-workers), with its social aspects and obvious gamification, has me working – despite myself – to set personal bests and climb the leader boards for segments of my daily ride.

It’s insidious.

Where’s the Stop Sign?

So my wife and son were driving home today when they smashed up the car pretty bad. They’re fine.

The car, not so much.


They were driving on 12th Avenue on Capitol Hill. It’s a road that’s part of my daily bike commute. A driver (new to the city) came up a side street and blew through the stop sign. While that’s hardly the most responsible approach to an uncertain intersection, it’s not like the stop sign was very easy to see.

In fact, the stop sign in question is in the photo above. Can you spot it?

While I try to always ride aware – and as far from the curb as possible to maximize my chances of avoiding a collision with someone running a stop sign or not seeing me – it’s a reminder of how much is out of our control out there.

But perhaps the city could also help by making sure our stop signs aren’t camouflaged quite so effectively.

Bike Lanes v. Vehicular Cycling?

I make no bones about being a proponent of vehicular cycling. But that’s not to say I wouldn’t embrace riding like a coddled child in a secure bikeway if my city magically became Copenhagen or Amsterdam overnight. It’s just that Seattle lacks the bike facilities to make anything other than vehicular cycling a safe way to ride in the city.

And all those miles of bike lanes Seattle city government crows about? Please. More often than not, what passes for bike infrastructure around here is something like the godawful 12th Avenue bike lane in the picture above.

Thanks, but I’ll just take the lane.

To its credit, the city does have some projects in the works – like the Broadway cycle track – that look intriguing. And they had the good sense to do uphill bike lane / downhill sharrows when repaving the top few blocks of Pine a couple of years back.

The Seattle Bike Blog, in its post on this topic, linked to a recent Canadian study that examined the relative safety and appeal of different places to ride. Graphed out, it’s an interesting data set:

This is pretty consistent with my experience. Note the outlier of the cycle track; one of the most preferred and far and away the safest. Although I rode once on the new cycle track that runs down the center of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. and it was a bit terrifying, given how the police seem to find it very convenient for passing and U-turns.

And how about major streets with parked cars? This is what most of my commute is like. There’s a preference for having a bike lane, but only a marginal improvement in safety. This is no doubt due to the visibility, “door zone” and reaction time problems that riding in a bike lane alongside parked cars causes.

Finally, check out multiuse paths (like Burke-Gilman). Very high degree of route preference, but also one of the most dangerous places to ride, thanks to high usage and speed/skill differentials between users. Further confirmation that I’m safer on the streets, mingling with traffic.

At least until we connect Seattle in a web of cycle tracks . . .

“Google Bike Directions are Still in Beta”

We just moved into new office space. It’s in the I-District (Seattle’s Chinatown), and necessitated by our rapidly growing business. While it’s great for access to Korean barbeque and fatty Chinese pork, it necessitated finding a whole new route for my bike commuting. I figured I’d ride up King Street to 12th, and the north on 12th to Pike-Pine. While 12th has a typical shitty Seattle bike lane (that is, pressed up snugly in the “door zone” of all the parked cars), it’s a relatively slow climb and the traffic doesn’t move too fast.

And it doesn’t hurt that there are a bunch of bars along the route should I need a happy hour diversion on the ride home.

But I figured I’d see what route Google chose for me. Weirdly, it didn’t even offer 12th as an option. Instead, it sent me up to 19th for the northward portion of the commute. While this does mean spending much of the ride on streets with less traffic, it also means a needlessly steep climb at the beginning of my ride. And I actually prefer riding in traffic to dealing with the speeders and uncontrolled intersections in Capitol Hill’s residential streets. It may be that Google is trying to serve up results for more casual riders, but it gives me pause before relying on Google’s directions in cities I don’t know well.

Rain Bikes

Every morning this week, I have looked at a grey but rainless Seattle sky and opted to ride my primary bike. And every day this week, it has been raining on my ride home.

The problem is that my rain bike isn’t nearly as fun to ride as my primary (a lightweight, steel Salsa Cassaroll set up as fixed gear). So I’m going to grab the Salsa if it looks like there is any hope that it won’t rain (much). But it’s really no good to get covered in road spray, and it’s bad for the bike, too. There’s a lot of crap on Seattle’s streets.

The solution? Obviously I need to get a new rain bike :)

Cyclists and the “Moral Order of the Road”

Yes, I suppose those of us on bikes may be “annoying” to those behind the wheel, but this BBC piece from psychologist Tom Stafford posits that driver antagonism toward cyclists stems from something deeper – an innate sense that bikes disrupt the “moral order” of the road.  In other words, we’re cheaters, what with our riding-between-cars and jumping-green-lights and such.  And that makes drivers mad.

Maybe so, but one wonders how useful it is to plumb the reptilian driver brain.  There’s something about driving that lends itself to all manner of antisocial behavior.  Present company included; as someone who rides far more than he drives, I may be more aware of it these days, but I am certainly no less susceptible.

In driver mode we are paragons of impatience.   We take offense at the slightest affront.  I’m sure a psychiatrist would have some theories about what causes this: the shield of metal and glass between us and the rest of world; sublimation of feelings of powerlessness translated via an internal combustion engine; unresolved childhood trauma.  But whatever lies behind it, we act while driving in ways that would be tolerated in very few settings.

So if it’s normal for drivers to curse out someone with the temerity to merge in front of them in a perfectly legal merge lane (thereby lengthening the offended driver’s trip by a second or two), it should be expected that drivers would take umbrage at that alien invader of their environment, the bicyclist.  Particularly if the cyclist is slowing them down, or doing something dangerous.

Or even just breaking the rules.  As Stafford points out, heaps of cognitive research points to people being happy to dish out “altruistic punishments” – consequences that carry a cost to the punisher without yielding any direct benefit in return.  Think of the jaywalk scolds (a phenomenon that may be unique to Seattle), or drivers who get pissed and honk because a cyclist moves to the head of a line of stopped traffic or jumps a green light.

And I don’t know that there is a solution, at least not in the US.  It’s not safe to try and navigate any US city on a bike while scrupulously obeying rules that have been designed for cars.  That means adapting, playing by our own rules and sometimes doing things that rule-addled drivers find maddening (like creating our own bike boxes, taking the lane and running red lights).

Maybe the only answer is getting more people confidently riding bikes – so that they can be more enlightened drivers whenever they need to get behind the wheel.