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Ethan Epstein
Streetless in Seattle « Back to Story

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web page friends of the third world
As someone who lives in Seattle, I commend your article. As you wrote, it's difficult to make sense of our transportation policy other than as deliberately destructive and even dangerous.

The city is busily converting four-lane arterials into two-lanes plus bike lanes and a rarely used center turn lane. The result, which can be seen on the street that passes in front of my apartment, is depressing. All too many Seattle residents seem to think the little white line that marks the bike lane offers protection. It doesn't. Mixing arterial traffic with bikes makes no sense, other than as a excuse to choke down our already dreadful traffic. Bikes should be on side streets.

We've already lost two bikers to traffic accidents this year and I await with trembling for when a kid being transported by politically correct parents gets crushed beneath a delivery van. But tell that to our typical resident! It'll have to happen before they believe it.

Compounding the problem. while we're spending about $600 million extra to replace an elevated viaduct with a tunnel, we're also in the process of converting our already mediocre bus system into something resembling the infamous spoke and hub of air travel. Soon, it'll be almost impossible to get anywhere, even downtown, without taking at least two buses. And when that happens, the powers that be will whine and wonder why so few people in Seattle take buses. And they'll pose new taxes on cars.

The Greeks had a saying that seems to fit. "Whom the gods would destroy," they said, "they first make mad." On the west coast, our state and local governments seem intent on enacting 'mad' policies that make life worse for everyone. They think they're being pioneers. More likely, they're showing the rest of the country what not to do.

Omri wrote: "It's absurd to claim that a 3% reduction in the total length of car lanes in Seattle will cripple the city..."

Not absurd at all. I spent 12 years sitting in terribly congested rush hour traffic in the Washington DC area as part of my daily commute. Yet in that area a difference of only a few percent in the number of cars on the road on a given day made the difference between traffic that flowed reasonably well and near absolute gridlock.
The writer is from Portland, which rains as much as Seattle but is slightly less hilly, yet has the highest mode share for bicycle commuters of all major US metro areas.

One reason many people claim they don't bike to work is that they don't feel safe (separated from traffic, visible to cars and trucks, etc.). If that was true, then building separate bike paths (like in the Netherlands) would allow more people to bike to work.

But I am not sure that what people say is the real reason they don't ride to work. For some, it is just an excuse. If you take away one excuse, another excuse will rise in its place.

Every employer I have worked for in Seattle has had quite a few bike riders, but never more than 5 percent. I really don't know what can be done to get bike mode share up to even 10 percent, unless gas prices quadruple relative to income.
Nice hyperbole there, Heather. No one is proposing banning cars. Calm down.
Articles like this are a gross disappointment. Is this CityJournal or SuburbJournal? It's absurd to claim that a 3% reduction in the total length of car lanes in Seattle will cripple the city, but even if true, it only goes to show the need for Seattle to enable other ways to get around.
"The people behind the bike lanes, on the other hand, tend to be younger and"


Come back and tell us how great bans on cars are after you're paralyzed in a cycling accident, weak from chemotherapy, diagnosed with MS, 8-months pregnant, 88 years old, etc, etc, and require an automobile to get to work, family, medical care, etc.

Stanely Pawlukiewicz November 08, 2011 at 12:04 PM
I live in Fairfax County in Virginia which is just over the river from Washington DC. Fairfax County is not particularly bike friendly. It takes me about an hour to drive my car to the Tyson's Corner area within Fairfax, a trip of 17miles, of which 16 miles is on Interstates I-66 and I-495. On rare occasions,the trip can take 2 hours. Riding my bike to work, 21 miles each way, it takes me about an hour and forty minutes. At best(1 AM on Sundays) the car drive takes about 20 minutes.

The article seems to claim a causal relation between bike-friendly policies and traffic congestion. From my perspective, the Metro Washington DC area is robustly congested without any help from bike-friendly policies. I believe that this is also likely to be the case in most cities with traffic congestion problems.

‎3% is nothing...seems more like he is just carving out appropriate space so that those who choose to commute via bike can do so all across the city. Highway construction has destroyed way more than 3% of neighborhoods in cities and contributed to more than 3% of deaths by accident and air pollution. 3% for cycling means that motor vehicles still control 97% of the streets!
Of course rsentment against bikers could well stem from less fit people with weaker wills.

Seattle is wet and hilly and riders must have will power to bike commute.

My own guess is that the many of the lazier, weaker-willed, and flabbier might be inclined to detest bikers.

(I don't bike myself so call me a fair witness.)

Otherwise, the hate/fear bit about bikers is truly absurd.

I agree that the City's bike plan needs vast improvement and there are serious flaws. But the anti-bike reaction is out of proportion and offers no constructive criticism.

Reality check for DrFinlay:

Perhaps you should switch to boxing. It seems safer.
The "identity politics" accusation is absurd; I think this is more of a generational schism. Grumpy old Boomers and maybe even the older half of the X generation are still wedded to the antiquated notion that more highways, wider streets, one-way streets, and more and more parking will supposedly = better mobility. Well it turns out that all of these strategies have only induced traffic and congestion. By the 'more auto lanes' logic we should be seeing less and less congestion with every passing decade instead of more and more, and Atlanta and LA should be paragons of mobility instead of congested cesspools. The opposite approach - downsizing streets coupled with improved transit - is long overdue.

The people behind the bike lanes, on the other hand, tend to be younger and more open to other options (they're more in favor of "choice" than CJ apparently is).

By the way, autos are not the only transportation mode granted access to local streets. Except for interstate highways (limited by function and design to vehicular traffic), local roads are open to ALL modes and always have been. That evil "cycling community" initiated the better roads movement in the 19th century:
Actually the bus service and ridership in Seattle is quite good, maybe one of the better in the nation. Interestingly it is heavily subsidized through sales taxes paid by the suburbs. Also there is now a partial subway/light rail line so the city is "world class". But the new riders on that rail line are in the main converted bus riders at this point in its history so the jury is out on that one.

Rob Anderson.

I think you can find the study here:
Do you have a link for that federal road diet study?
cc.f /gsvssssb/sd October 25, 2011 at 4:10 PM
I await the needless escalation in biking deaths and the continued loss of economic value in Seattle. Why would people give in to this arrogant minority?
Seattle, Santa Fe, Boulder, and San Francisco are in competition for Wacko Capitol of the US....Voters elect people like McGuinn and they deserve what they get.....
Well, adding more motor vehicle lanes was already given a try and failed so why not try this and see how it goes?
And isn't it a good thing if people have more choices in getting around?

People throughout the world are now getting around by bike more and more. This is going to increase whether a city makes a place for them or not.
They should invest in mass transit. It would solve most of the problems he complains about.
A "teachable moment" for the glitterati of Los Angeles CA and our dim Mayor, another bike enthusiast (for the other animals...he NEEDS his limo).
I remember Seattle. Aggressive beggers all over the place, mostly young men. Philadelphia same thing, only less aggressive - I remember one guy was lying down, staring upward and asking for money.

New York used to be the same way, but somehow most of the beggers have left.

Cyclists? A relatively minor issue - if a city adds bike lanes and people don't like it, then business will leave.

I would like to second the next movement for the horse & buggy lane.
I would like to, also, introduced a new proposal to eliminate electricity and refrigeration. That will dramatically reduce our carbon foot print and effectively destroy the scourge of the world, American Big Business.
Ummm... Actually, it's the opponents of these projects, editorialists like Ethan Epstein and publications like the Manhattan Institute who insist on turning this into an identity politics debate. For most of us livable streets advocates, we simply want the freedom to choose biking, walking and transit as safe, affordable, practical options in America's big cities.

Ethan and friends really need to check in to their own ideological biases.
Puzzled in Minnesota October 24, 2011 at 8:44 AM
I live in St. Paul. We had heard that it was bike-friendly, but when we first moved here, seven years ago, we were shocked to see folks biking past our house even in the middle of winter, after a snowfall of several inches. Having come to appreciate the positive aspects of biking, I see that it can be really good, but one must be realistic. The best bike routes are not lanes forced into roads that bear heavy traffic, but rather separate from it: for example, Minneapolis is fortunate to have the Greenway, a former railroad route that runs latitudinally through the city. Colleagues who bike to work have chosen routes that do not carry heavy traffic. I question the wisdom of creating bike lanes on main thoroughfares; not only do car-against-bike tensions rarely turn out well, but as a driver, I know also that bikers have their own human foibles, such as riding two (or more) abreast, disregarding traffic lights, and failing to stay in their lanes. Biking is to be encouraged, but why is it necessary to be anti-auto in order to do so? Surely there are better and safer ways to accommodate both.
Wow, CITY journal, you made such a great argument for the Mayor's plan. Thanks! You truly are an urban publication. Appreciate you being part of the "cycling community".


Return to bike travel? How about providing horse & buggy lanes?
Dear T Campbell, assuming that you are talking about London UK, then it is simply a matter of fact that cycling and cycle journeys have increased exponentially over the last few years. When I first started cycling to work in London 24 years ago it was quite common for me, on a 12 mile journey into town, to see only 2 or 3 other cyclists. Now the streets are thronging with them and everyone is much safer as a result.
His promises/threats relating to the traffic issues are only about half of why he got elected. Seattle had had done with the former mayor and his crazy antics, enacting stringent anti-gun laws which were contrary to the state Constitution, then spending huge sums of public money in his desparate attempt to defend them in the ensuing legal battles. He lost, big time. I used to be a member of the Cascade Bike Club... but their radical socialistic political action status, promoting cycling THEIR WAY and failing to consider the desires of the larger cycling community has me determined to never give them another nickel. They seem to be wholly bent upon making cycling, their way, THE dominant special interest group in the area, and their egenda has already cost the public huge sums.... and solved very little. Makes me wonder if they don't have a deeper well hidden agenda. They were a major force in the election of the present mayor and his whacked ideas. Not being a resident of Seattle, yet using the roads (both with bicycle and car travel into and through the city), these cracked policies do affect me, yet I have no voice because of my lack of residency. No worries, I will NOT be moving there. Too crazy. Too expensive, Too crowded.

He should consider spending some serious money from the public trough on repairs and maintenance of the existing roads within his jurisdiction. Seattle has the worst roads in the entire Western US in regards condition. Start by firing ninety percent of the workers currently employed by the Seattle Department of Transportation.. I thought the WashDot workers were the slowest and laziest in the state until I was able to watch a few of those crews. Unbelievable how much time/tax money they can waste in an afternoon doing nothing.
We will continue to see tragic bicycle accidents as these bike lanes are incredibly invasive of auto lanes in some incredibly dangerous areas, such as very curved waterfront roads and roads leading to ferry traffic lines and 2 way traffic along with parked cars. The congestion is terrible and many are the idiotic kids riding against traffic, not having hands on the handles, tuned out listing gleefully to their ipods and couldn't care less about the danger. It's going to end in tears.
There are things that I agree and disagree with in the article, but there are a couple facts that stand to be corrected. The mayor was not elected for his anti-tunnel platform. He was loosing by quite a bit in the polls until he said that he wouldn't oppose the tunnel, at which point the election was his. When he got into office he immediately switched back to his old platform which is why he is wildly unpopular right now and won't win re-election.

Another thing is more cultural in nature. Seattlelites don't care about rain. Here it is often just a drizzle and while it might stop most picnics and kite flying it doesn't stop many other outdoor activities. We just put on our Northface gear and weatherproof jackets and go our merry way. We also tend to be outdoorsy (in general) so as more bike lanes open up more people will commute by them. My problem is that the amount of people who do switch to bikes likely won't be enough to stop a slow down in traffic from the diet.

Maybe we should build underground bike tunnels.
Clearly the author of this article sides with the partisans of automobility. Pretty much every argument that could be made against bicycles is presented here. Yet the fact remains that our transportation systems are incredibly inefficient and need to be rethought. Seattle's mayor sounds like someone who is able to think outside the box on transportation, and the country needs more of that.
We should not criticize too much. This type of action is what causes conversions in liberals. Let them sit in traffic for a while.
Epstein uses a common logical fallacy for proving that no one will commute by bike: the fact that currently, so few people commute by bike.

"It’s hardly surprising that, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation, a mere 2,600 people—out of a total downtown workforce of 230,000—commuted downtown by bicycle in 2009."

Yes, weather and geography are factors, but neither Amsterdam and Copenhagen are temperate paradises yet they boast the highest bike commuting rates in the world even when the weather is bone-chillingly cold and icy. And while Seattle has many hills, there are plenty of level or moderate routes through the city, just as there are in San Francisco.

If you build safe cycling infrastructure, people will ride even when the weather is seemingly inhospitable. The reason "a mere 2,600 people" rode to work in 2009 is because it wasn't safe, even when the weather was perfect. Build protected bike lanes and people will use them.

After all, why should all of the people who want to ride their bikes to work, school or for general transportation be forced instead to drive cars? Even if fewer than 1% of city residents would bike, does anyone who has to drive really look around at a highway or city street and think, "It would be great if a few thousand more people were in their cars right now." That, more than any road dieting, is what really causes so much congestion.
London tried this. It did not work at any level. No one took to the bikes. Traffic slowed down. So the same number of cars were in the area for a much longer period of time. Therefore, more air pollution.

Well done, Mr. Mayor.