We’re going on a Joyride

The following post is by Mia Birk, who will be speaking in Seattle next week as part of the Cascade Presentation Series. Please join us!

A Note to Seattle:

I am thrilled to be joining you on Tuesday, Nov. 9 at REI to share my new book Joyride. From what I understand, exciting things are happening as Seattle continues implementation of the Bicycle Plan. My company, Alta Planning + Design, is thrilled to be a part of it with you. Our work includes helping develop more bicycle-friendly streetcar lines, drafting a bike plan for the Beacon Hill Neighborhood, and filling in the missing link in the Burke-Gilman Trail (finally!)

A few years ago, I spent several days biking around Seattle in preparation for Alta’s bid on the Seattle Bike Plan.  (Super sadly, we lost. I was planning on relocating a couple days a week in dedication to your lovely city. But oh well… C’est la vie. Gotta let it go…)  Research included one heck of a scary ride (accompanied by Cascade's intrepid David Hiller) -- on various congested streets lacking bikeways -- that necessitated a couple shots of tequila at the end to calm my nerves.

That ride reminded me of my first ride in Portland back in 1993 with our lead traffic engineer, as described in Joyride, Chapter 1, Reality Check:

We roll out for North Portland, an annexed suburb characterized by wide, flat streets and an older, working-class population. The narrow but functional sidewalks of the Broadway Bridge take us to the east side, where we take two right turns onto Interstate Avenue heading north. That’s when things get interesting.

A couple miles of this gritty high speed road and my nerves are starting to fray. Then, Jeff and Rob stick out their left arms to indicate we’re turning onto a steeply ascending four-lane highway.

“Are you, kidding?” I think, as they make a break for it, quickly merging into the left lane. I nervously follow their lead.

Grunting our way up N. Greeley, we hug the edge of the road and slow to six or seven miles per hour. Like a swimmer flailing in a powerboat wake, I grasp my handlebars to steady myself from 18-wheeler wind blasts.

After the crest, we take another left-turn-across-traffic maneuver onto Willamette Boulevard, a quiet street lining a bluff overlooking the Willamette River’s shipyards. I breathe a little easier, sip from my water bottle, let my shoulders relax.


A typical Portland road in the early 1990s

The all-too-brief mile of calm is replaced five minutes later by a non-stop traffic stream as we approach the University of Portland, home to one of the country’s top women’s college soccer teams. I wonder if the players’ biggest concern is crossing Willamette to get to practice.

“Willamette is a very popular road for touring cyclists,” Jeff explains as we stop for a break. They’ve been trying to add bike lanes to Willamette in response to a cavalcade of complaints about safety.

“Students and local residents in particular are demanding improvements.”

“As they should be,” I concur.

“But it’s been hard,” he sighs. “Folks around here don’t like the idea of bike lanes at all.”

I look up the wide, straight expanse of asphalt. “I don’t understand. Just narrow the existing lanes. Or remove one side of parking. Looks like no one parks here anyway. Isn’t it a no-brainer?”

Rob and Jeff shake their heads, and Rob’s bony shoulders slump in weariness. “It’s not about brains, it’s about emotion. You’ll see at the public meeting next week.”

Jeff gets up off the grass. “Let’s keep riding.”

We squeeze along parked cars. Motorists impatiently hover behind us, then gun it to pass. We reach a narrow two-lane bridge, with not an inch of space for bicyclists or pedestrians. It’s been stressful until this point. Now, it’s white knuckle terrifying. The bridge dumps us onto bona fide industrial highway where no one drives below sixty.

I’ve been gritting my teeth, trying to be brave, but I can’t take it anymore. I let loose.

“What is this? You call this bicycling? We’re going to die out here!”

Rob looks back to see if something has happened to me.

“Where is the trail? The bike lanes? This is crazy!” My ranting gets their attention, and we stop. Trucks and cars fly by in a steady stream.

Jeff and Rob look at each other. “Um... Well, yeah,” Rob says. “This is why we hired you.” He tries a gentle smile and touches my arm with long piano playing fingers.

By the most generous accounting, Portland at the time has but a few dozen miles of disconnected bike lanes, green “bike route” signs on a few neighborhood streets, dead-end paths, highway shoulders, and way-too-narrow bridge sidewalks. Better than most cities, but nowhere close to where we need to be. Nothing resembling an attractive bikeway network. It’s like so-called roadway network from the late 1800’s – unpaved, unsafe, incomplete, dysfunctional. If my job is to fix this, I’ve sure got my work cut out for me.

I spew profanities. They wait me out. I turn my bike around.

“I’ve seen enough.” I sound like Ebenezer Scrooge to the ghosts in A Christmas Carol. “Let’s go.”

What was I thinking? That Portland was already like Amsterdam or Copenhagen? Bicycling conditions are deplorable, scary. I wouldn’t send my worst enemies onto these roads.

Doesn’t sound like Portland, does it? I go onto to describe more challenges, with transportation staff, other City bureaus, the business community, and the public at large. Keep this in mind as you move from the mostly off-road trail bikeway system to an integrated on-road/off-road system. What we’ve accomplished in Portland has not been easy. It’s not easy in the dozens of other communities in which we are working, either. Nor will it be for Seattle.

Seattle - like most other American cities - has been largely planned and designed around personal automobile travel; true reform requires overhauling everything from land-use practices to traffic and parking management space, building design, policies, models, and training. And although Seattle has some of the highest walk and bike rates in the nation, many Seattleites drive for most of their trips and are loath to change their ingrained habits. Yet, change is coming, whether they like it or not, and they see it every day with the new sharrows and bike boxes loudly proclaiming bicyclists’ presence.

Change can be scary, and scared people are no fun.

There are a few changes in Seattle I’m not sure I totally agree with. For example, on major roads, I feel strongly that bike lanes are better than sharrows. But I’m thrilled (and a little jealous) by how much funding Seattle advocates have raised, and the tremendous level of political support. Seattle is part of a national coalition I helped create called Cities for Cycling, which is working to develop guidance and information around the world’s best urban bikeway treatments. The Burke-Gilman and Elliot Bay Trails are already amazing, and are only getting better. And I’m impressed with the cultural changes underway, since more than anything, behavioral change takes time.

We need to expect a generation, or more, to truly integrate bicycling into daily life. But this will only happen if we stay on the path and keep the ball rolling, with a positive spirit, patience, and faith.

By the way, just about all the streets described in Joyride passage above now have bike lanes or a parallel path.

Looking forward to seeing you all Tuesday!

Mia Birk from Portland