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Seattle’s Rocky Path to Biking Infrastructure

By Arick Wong

For some, Seattle’s lush woodlands are best enjoyed on a bike. From the sequestered bike lanes to the scenic trails, Seattle has become a popular city for cyclists: roughly 3-4% of Seattleites commute to work on a bicycle. Environmentally-conscious infrastructure for daily commuting is a growing concern as urban areas sprawl and expand.

Over the next twenty years, Seattle’s Department of Transportation predicts that 120,000 people will relocate to Seattle. While adding bike lanes and trails have made travel smoother, implementing sustainable biking infrastructure has been an arduous process for the Seattle city government. Over the past four years, Seattle invested roughly 36 million dollars toward bicycle improvements in anticipation of its growth and in hopes of increasing its accessibility.

“The Northwest is a great place to [bike] for its beautiful views, topography and lack of snow,” says local Seattle cyclist and racer Rory Jack. “Seattle’s infrastructure helps in that it gets me out of the city and onto quiet country roads more quickly, but the city itself is not an ideal practice space.”

The Seattle Bicycle Master Plan aims to prepare for this sudden population increase and also ensure safety and mobility of its citizens, create environmentally sustainable solutions and increase awareness of public health measures. Street safety is a major focus of the Seattle Bicycle Master Plan: making pedestrians and cyclists more visible has proven to be effective at improving roadway safety.

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All photos via Tom Schmidt Photography.

Some recent developments include adding protected bike lanes on Roosevelt Avenue from 65th street NE and University Bridge and also the expansion of the Ballard Bridge sidewalk, which will drastically increase the visibility of pedestrians and cyclists.

“In general, I am satisfied with the time and money Seattle spends on its cycling infrastructure, [though there is] always more to be done,” says Jack. “Bike lanes are safer than general purpose lanes, and protected bike lanes are even better. But they do not eliminate the danger. One’s best defense is [still] to stay extremely vigilant while riding.”

While riding a bike on a busy street can be disorienting, many bike trails and paths exist within the greater Seattle area that eliminate the concern of riding in traffic. One of Seattle’s most popular bike paths is the Burke-Gilman Trail that extends from Golden Gardens Park in Ballard to the Sammamish River in Bothell. Originally founded as a railroad by Thomas Burke and Daniel Gilman in 1885, the Seattle-based railroad was built to boost trade and commerce. The city abandoned the railroad in 1971 until 1978 when the area from Gas Works Park to Kenmore’s Tracy Owen Station opened as a public trail. Today, the Burke-Gilman trail is one of Seattle’s prized possessions and one of America’s top urban bike paths.

“The Burke Gilman is a fantastic resource, and I have ridden the length of the trail countless times,” says Rory Jack. “There are sections that need work but in general I feel it is an amazing use of the old railroad. The volume of cyclists using the Burke-Gilman Trail through University of Washington or Gasworks on a summer day is quite a spectacle.”

With the expansion of bike lanes and trails within the Seattle area, the city has experimented with bike sharing. Pronto, a bikeshare company, has installed over 50 stations and 500 bikes throughout Seattle, and members of Pronto can either sign-up long-term or short-term. An annual membership grants you a key and extra time per bike ride while short-term users have 30 minutes per ride but charges a small fee for extra time.

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While implementing a bikeshare system in Seattle sounds ideal, Pronto was a bit of a failure. The shared bikes were being used less than once a day, and a good majority of Pronto’s board members eventually left for other positions elsewhere. As of March 15, 2016, the Seattle City Council voted to purchase the struggling Pronto bike-share program for 1.4 million to prevent it from shutting down.

“It all crumbled,” comments Tom Fucoloro of Seattle Bike Blog. “It wasn’t set up to succeed, but they [also] made a lot of bad decisions. It was a lot of miscommunication–too many cooks in the kitchen.”

Many factors contribute to Pronto’s failure, but one of the biggest reasons was a lack of sponsors that funded the program. The board of Pronto initially landed some large sponsorships from Alaska Airlines (2.5 million), Seattle Children’s Hospital ($500,000), and Group Health ($450,000). However, supplemental funding, in the forms of new sponsorships and grants, did not come through in time, and Pronto never properly expanded.

Another contribution to Pronto’s failure was the pricing. While it’s much cheaper to join an annual membership, the day passes are expensive and may prevent new users from trying the rideshare.

“It’s been a disservice because it’s eight bucks just to try it,” says Fucoloro. “But if you’re an annual member, it’s ninety bucks for an entire year which is cheaper than maintaining your own bicycle.”

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More recently, the city of Seattle has selected Bewegen, a Canada-based bike share company, to salvage what’s left of the bike sharing program. Since the city purchased the remains of Pronto, a plan to install new electric-assist bikes will most likely cost $5 million more. Depending on negotiations, the implementation of this new program could take significantly longer, but the city plans to input the new system in summer of 2017.

“If the city decides to convert the fleet into electric-assist bikes, it will make the system even more accessible to non-serious riders by overcoming the obstacle of Seattle’s hills,” says cyclist Rory Jack. “Hopefully the added speed does not create a safety hazard.”

While cyclists are looking forward to Seattle’s new bike lanes, the efficacy of the new bikeshare system has yet to be determined.

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