For decades in Seattle we have argued over road real estate. We all want our space on the road, whether we drive a truck or bus, commute by car, walk to work, or ride a bike. Sharing that space — especially when we are in a hurry — brings out our cranky side, and our usual polite “Northwest Nice” evaporates.
I have been writing for many months about Neighborhood Greenways (read my blog posts here, here, and here) and argued we can adopt lessons learned from other cities to bring the war between transportation modes to an end. My stretch goal is to create a new reputation for Seattle as a city where we all get around more smoothly by sharing a little road real estate. This means that we try something slightly new for us: we make a conscious decision to designate separated space for pedestrians and bicyclists, and prioritize and protect routes for moving goods.
This is a do-able goal. During my recent visit to Copenhagen, I bicycled for six days through this established city where transportation has become a top priority. People get around efficiently, and surprisingly the people on bikes, in cars, and on foot get along. Years ago Copenhagen residents exchanged car-clogged streets for smoother flowing traffic by adding safe and segregated bike lanes on many of their city streets. Traffic moves smoothly and bikes move even faster. What changed?
In the 70’s Denmark faced the triple-threat of an energy crisis, a recession, and increasing congestion. People were finding that gas was ridiculously expensive, getting to work on time was hard, and road rage was becoming a regular occurrence. Sound familiar?
So the people demanded more investment in their transportation infrastructure to give them more transportation options. A photo of a rally where people cried for better mobility is now famous. More buses, more trains, and yes, more separated bicycle lanes and something called cycletracks — parallel to and separated from pedestrian walkways — were built.
Over the past thirty years, Copenhagen has added light rail as well as 350 km (218 miles) of cycle tracks, and identified certain non-arterial streets as Greenways. The Greenways are off the main arterials giving pedestrians and bicycles priority. The city planners think about moving people and goods as a totality, figuring out ways to move thousands of people by keeping them out of each other’s way.
Initially, the decision to add the bike lanes and cycletracks in Copenhagen did not start to promote cycling itself; rather it was seen as a less expensive way to move lots of people fast. Today, Copenhageners say they continue to ride their bikes into town because it’s faster than driving, more convenient to their work, and cheaper.
The infrastructure includes bike stop lights, pedestrian lights, turning lanes. Astonishingly, people obey the lights letting pedestrians and bicyclists go first, and allowing time for cars to turn right.
Since making the investments in bicycle infrastructure, some stunning facts have emerged. A full 50% of the people ride their bikes at some point during the day, and a full 37% ride their bikes to work (even in winter!). Most kids ride their bikes to school. Parents have worked with the local government to select and create safe and protected routes to school and prefer their kids start their day with a little exercise.
They are healthy people; their rate of obesity is very, very low. Parents take their children to day care on their bikes. Cargo bikes with kids snuggled in the front are very popular, and women in dresses and heels ride their bikes equipped with fenders, chain guards, and skirt guards.
The infrastructure has become a tourist attraction, bringing dollars into the City. Tourists come to ride. They ride bikes to restaurant and to museums. They ride a water taxi directly to the opera house. They take the train back to the airport. Copenhagen is proud of their city and they promote its mobility.
We can do this too. Granted, this will require a slight attitude shift. It will require the commitment to new Road Manners whether we are hauling freight, driving in a car, riding on a bike, or walking on our feet. But the results can be Positive Motion for everyone.
How do we start?
- Start Simple and Easy: Add Neighborhood Greenways in our neighborhoods that want them. Greenways are lovely additions on non-arterial existing streets that provide safe and comfortable ways to walk and bike to schools, libraries, and local business districts. Wallingford, Beacon Hill, Ballard, and NE, here we come!
- Our students and our health: Work with our allies, including local health organizations, schools, and freight community representatives to identify and fund separated bike lanes and cycletracks. Safe Routes to School is a great beginning. We can improve our health by walking and exercising more, reduce obesity and at the same time make getting around easier for everyone. Hey UW, Virginia Mason, Swedish and other Major Institutions, will you follow Children’s lead and work with us?
- Put Bicyclists in our Place: Bring stakeholders together to design fully separated north/south cycle tracks to and through downtown. This will provide safe places for “willing but wary” bicyclist like me to cycle. Providing safe lanes or cycletracks for bicycles provides predicatability for bicyclists, reduces the number of drivers, and leaves space for those who must drive into and through downtown. I suggest we consider designating one lane on one way streets – perhaps 2nd and 4th Streets through downtown for bicyclists, connecting to 5th, 6th or 7th through South Lake Union area. East/West connectors will be considered as the stakeholders designate.
- Designate and respect priority streets. Designate certain freight corridors that have priority over other modes to move their goods. Sure, fast bike commuters may lawfully take the most direct course, but the rest of us will prefer to ride on protected non-arterial roadways and cycletracks designated just for us. Truck drivers need access to I-5 and other highways. We can share the roads.
- Remember our manners! This will require each of us to take a few conscious steps to watch out for the other guy. Rule 1: Think soft to hard. Pedestrians have priority in the crosswalks, but pedestrians must stay on the side walk when the Don’t Walk signal is flashing. Rule 2: Bicyclists give way to pedestrians and obey the signals. Rule 3: Cars give way for pedestrians and cyclists and get to turn when their time has come.
- We can all get along. Remember that at one time or another either we, or someone we know and love, is walking, biking or driving. Say “thank you” to the person willing to walk, bike, bus and carpool, because those of us who do make room for those who must drive their cars and trucks.
We can become a city where people WANT to drive and ride downtown again. As one colleague said to me last night, what is taking us so long?! Will you work with me to make this happen?