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Friday, September 30, 2005

Out of Your Car and on to a Bike

Out of Your Car and on to a Bike—at Your Peril!

Seattle just commissioned a study to examine what makes walking attractive to neighborhood residents. The authors of the study wanted to take a scientific approach in determining what makes neighborhoods healthy and livable. They began with a study of the driving habits of Americans and found that for every 30 minutes you spend in your car every day you have a 3% increase in the likelihood that you will suffer from obesity—a good reason to get people out of cars. The flip side of this equation is that for every kilometer walked per day, the likelihood of being overweight was driven down by 4.8%.

In another study comparing walking and bike riding in the Netherlands and Germany to the United States, it was found that in the U.S., 41% of all trips in 2001 were shorter than 2 miles, and 28% were shorter than 1 mile. Bicycling can easily cover distances of up to 2 miles, and most people can walk at least a mile, yet Americans use their cars for 66% of all trips up to a mile long and for 89% of all trips between 1 and 2 miles long. While cycling is almost nonexistent among the American elderly (+75), it accounts for a fourth of all trips made by the Dutch elderly and for 7% of trips made by German geezers.

There is a considerable safety factor involved. Per kilometer and per trip walked, American pedestrians are roughly 3 times more likely to get killed than Germans and over 6 times more likely than Dutch pedestrians. Per kilometer and per trip cycled, American bicyclists are twice as likely to get killed as Germans and over 3 times as likely as Dutch cyclists.

Another major factor in Americans’ reluctance to embrace walking and cycling is the degree to which we subsidize automobiles. Cars are much cheaper to own and operate here than in any Western European country. Parking is almost always free and overly abundant although this is not so true of downtown neighborhoods—and that’s why people walk.
In the Seattle study conducted by the Canadian urban planner, Larry Franck, it found that neighborhoods that provide a variety of shops encourage residents to walk more. I decided to do an informal survey of my own to find out which areas of Seattle are the most inviting for cyclists.

In my neighborhood in the lower Queen Anne district of the downtown area, there aren’t as many people on bikes as you see elsewhere in the city. I think this has a lot to do with the density of this section of Seattle. Distances are fairly short for just about all of your needs, so people tend to just walk to stores, restaurants, theaters, and everywhere else they need to go. It is just a testament to my own laziness that I actually ride my bike the three blocks to my gym or the coffee shop.

To get to the Freemont neighborhood from where I live I have to tack south along the 2nd Avenue bike lane to Battery Street, turn left, and make my way to Dexter. This takes some backtracking but a more direct route involves too many confrontations with automobiles. There is another bike lane on Dexter beginning at Denny Street and runs across the Freemont Bridge to 34th Street. From here you can take a right or a left on to the Burke-Gilman Trail.

Almost everyone in Freemont seems to ride bikes. Every bike rack in the neighborhood is full, and on this beautiful day the roadways were full cyclists. In my casual survey I saw more people on bikes here than in any other area of Seattle.

There aren’t a lot of high-rise apartments in this part of town so trip distances make biking preferable to walking. Instead of three blocks from your high-rise apartment to the grocery store, you have a six block hike from your single family home. Freemont also has the reputation of being a fairly hippie part of Seattle which may further explain the abundance of two wheelers. In addition, Freemont lies adjacent to the Burke-Gilman Trail which is a haven for local cyclists. This makes Freemont an easy destination for anyone living near the trail from Ballard, the University district, and into the suburbs on the east side of Lake Washington.

From Freemont, I rode the Burke-Gilman to Ballard where the trail ends and runs perilously perpendicular to a set of railroad tracks. To get to Old Ballard you must proceed along a busy street with a narrow shoulder. The city needs to do a little work to make this section of road a better place to ride a bike. Ballard Avenue is a pleasant place to ride and there are plenty of cool shops and restaurants along the way although there aren’t nearly enough bike racks. If you want to attract cyclists, bike racks are every bit as important as automobile parking is for motorists.

Seattle’s downtown isn’t nearly as bike-friendly as Portland. There is only the 2nd Avenue bike lane, everywhere else bikes must share the road with drivers—something that rarely occurs on Dutch streets where dedicated bike lanes are almost everywhere. In downtown Seattle you don’t see a lot of cyclists other than the kamikaze bike messenger crowd who aren’t easily intimidated by automobile traffic. You see very few bike commuters and no elderly cyclists. The safety of cyclists seems hardly to have been considered when designing downtown transit options.

The advantages of encouraging people to walk or bike instead of drive are numerous. It saves gas and increases fitness. The social advantage also seems obvious. What would you prefer, a strip mall or neighborhood shops? There are a lot of design considerations for promoting walking and biking, but the main one is safety. The areas of the city where bikes are protected from automobiles are areas where cycling thrives. A simple solution to making cycling safer is to slow car traffic down considerably wherever it intersects with bikes. For every 10 mph increase in car speed, pedestrian survivability rates plummet for accidents.

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