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Ballard Greenways

Ballard Greenways

If you’ve talked to me in person in the last few months, you’ve probably heard me talking about Neighborhood Greenways*. To crib from a previous post “These are quiet streets that give priority to cyclists and pedestrians, while still allowing motorized traffic at lower speeds. They’re for people who don’t want to ride on the busy arterial streets, but still need to go somewhere”.

A group of folks in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle have been meeting to discuss Greenways, why we think they would be great for Ballard and how to organize to bring it about. We now have a name – Ballard Greenways** – and a facebook page.

Last Sunday, I organized a group ride to tour some of our proposed routes and to start promoting the idea to the community. We timed it to finish at the Summer Field Day, a kids’ event featuring outdoor games and races at a local park. A couple of neighbourhood blogs were good enough to post about the ride (Thanks MyBallard and Totcycle!), which brought us a few new folks. There was a steady drizzle all morning and I was concerned that I might have to cancel. However, the rain stopped midday, so the ride was on.

Chatting about the route as we wait for everyone to arrive.

This was the first time that I had brought Spencer for a group ride. He was very interested in this little girl in her trailer.

Spencer found it hard to resist touching everyone else’s bikes. Resist? Who am I kidding? He didn’t even try. Clearly, this will take more discussion and coaching before I try it again. However, once we got on our bikes and got rolling, he did great.

I’m afraid I don’t have any photos from the ride itself. Leading the ride, watching Spencer, and talking about routes took all of my attention. Next time, I’ll have to pass the camera on to someone with a free hand. However, it went really well. There were good discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of different routes. We were treated to a little local history about an old theatre and the old bus and streetcar routes.

I know we’ll have to be patient and that this will take a lot of work. The group rides and discussions over a beer are pure fun, but the serious organizing is just beginning. Still, I’m really excited to see how many people are enthusiastic about bringing better and safer infrastructure to our neighbourhood.

*After 10 years in the US, my writing is a random mixture of Canadian and American spellings.

**Cause we’re creative like that.

This is my group ride entry for the LGRAB Summer Games 2011.

All Summer in a Day

All Summer in a Day

This spring and summer has been unusually cool and cloudy in Seattle. (You don’t believe me? Cliff Mass has scientifically proven it!). Finally, Thursday was sunny and warm, making it a perfect day to take photos of my summer commute for the LGRAB Summer Games.

I cross Salmon Bay at the Ballard Locks. Cyclists have to dismount and walk across, but it’s worth it. It’s the best route across the water on the west side of Seattle. Early in the morning, it’s quiet and serene.

The light industrial area of Magnolia and Interbay is better for cycling than one would expect, as the roads and bike lanes are wide, but the traffic volume is relatively low. Plus, you can see trains! On sunny summer days, the number of cyclists increases dramatically.

Down the road, I pass the place where school buses go to sleep. During the school year, they’d already be on the road. In the summer, you can see them lined up by the dozen.
Finally, I reach the waterfront. This is the prettiest part of my commute. I even take a small detour, just to spend a little more time here.
The wild roses remind me of my time in Edmonton. Their scent mixes with the salty, fishy air in a way that is strangely familiar yet different from Edmonton’s background of trees and grasses. You don’t have to stop to smell the roses, but it’s probably a good idea if you want to take a picture of them.

On a clear day, Mt. Ranier appears to float above the horizon. We’ll need to have a lot more sunny days before I can take that view for granted.

By the time I am on my way home, the city has woken up and is outside playing. The Locks aren’t so serene now – cyclists and tourists continually thread past each other on the narrow walk way. I’ve said “excuse me” to people from many countries, given directions to the fish ladder, and explained that “yes, cyclist ARE allowed here. It’s actually an important route”. Being patient doesn’t take much work – after all, we all want to be outside a little longer when the weather’s so nice.

And that is my summer commute at its best!

Bicycle Sunday

Bicycle Sunday

On Sunday, Spencer and I set out on the trail-a-bike for a bicycle adventure. Bicycle Sunday is a program run by Seattle Parks, where Lake Washington Boulevard is closed to car traffic on summer Sundays. The weather was good and our schedule was clear, so we decided to try it out for the first time.

Technically, this is not a panda shot since we are beside our bikes, not on them.
Lake Washington Boulevard winds gently along Lake Washington with parks on one side and attractive houses on the other. It was a fun, family crowd, with trail-a-bikes, trailers, training wheels, and wobbly new-to-two-wheelers.

Friendly people from the Cascade Bicycle Club were out, selling and fitting helmets for new riders.
Neighbourhood kids had a lemonade stand. I don’t know how much business they did that day, but it was certainly a hit with my kid.

Now, Spencer wants to set up his own stand, so he can earn money to buy more toys.
Spencer: I could ask people for $5 for a glass of lemonade.
Me: No one is going to pay that much for lemonade.
Spencer: Well….what if I gave them lemonade AND let them play with one of my toys?
The protected road ends at Seward Park, home to a very nice playground.
Bicycle parking was at a premium!
And, of course, we had to end the day with ice cream. Hey! I just asked you to HOLD my ice cream while I took a picture!

I’d never gone to a Bicycle Sunday before, so I was curious to see how the experience compared to riding in the neighborhood or on the nearby trails. The combination of wide roads and the complete absence of cars created a remarkably relaxed and fun atmosphere. In comparison, the Burke-Gilman trail is quite narrow and, on a busy day, requires a lot of attention, especially when passing or being passed. Spencer is just learning to ride a two-wheeler (sans training wheels) right now. Once he gets a little steadier, he’ll want to move beyond the school playground, but won’t really be ready for streets or even the BG Trail for some time. Bicycle Sunday will be the perfect opportunity for him to spread his wings.
All in all, it was a lot of fun and we’ll certainly go again. However, it will never be an every weekend activity – I’m not a big fan of driving 12 miles in order to ride for 3. Now, if only we could convince Seattle Parks to do a similar event in north Seattle….
Margin of Error

Margin of Error

What makes good infrastructure? One key feature is that it is forgiving. Infrastructure that requires expert skills and an absolute focus is crappy infrastructure.

Photo courtesy of Michael Snyder via SeattleBikeBlog.
A recent example of this can be found on the Burke-Gilman Trail. This is the grandaddy of multi-user trails in Seattle. It’s a major route for bicycle commuters during the week and is thronged with the kids & dogs crowd on the weekend. It’s one of my favourite parts of Seattle. However, it does have its flaws, including a spot near NW 41st St. where the trail crosses railway tracks. The trail does try to indicate that cyclists should cross at a 90 degree angle, but the natural path to take is a shallow angle that places cyclists at considerable risk of catching a tire on the track and falling. To try to improve safety, a rubber mat was installed. This does prevent catching a tire, but can become very slippery itself when it’s wet or frosty. Not surprisingly, this has been the site of many accidents (well covered by the Seattle Times and SeattleBikeBlog) and I’m happy to hear that SDOT is fixing it.
The response to the story has been fascinating. At some point in the comments, you’ll typically see an exchange like this:
  • People ride too fast there! I always slow down enough and cross at a 90 degree angle and I’ve NEVER had a problem
  • Well, I’m a VERY experienced cyclist and have crossed that spot thousands of times without a problem before falling and breaking my arm!
  • People have to learn how to cross railway track safely. Slow down and cross at a perfect 90 degree angle!

Now, I’m all for safety, and hearing about these accidents certainly reminds me to be careful when crossing the tracks. I also recognize that the city can’t find and correct every hazard out there, whether it’s gravel, potholes or wet leaves. However, I think people tend to miss the point. When we build and design infrastructure, we can’t assume that everyone using it will be highly skilled. We also can’t assume that those who are skilled will be paying perfect attention at every moment in time. Our brains do not work this way. We all get distracted by things we see on our way, personal issues, or even thoughts of dinner. If a spot is particularly risky, you can do everything correctly (which we often don’t) and still have a significant chance of falling.

If our infrastructure demands perfection, it’s only a matter of time before we’ll fail. Good infrastructure allows for some margin of error. We demand it in the design of our highways and cars – let’s also demand it in our bicycling infrastructure.
The Magic Stoplight – Updated

The Magic Stoplight – Updated

Update at the bottom:

One of the key aspects of creating walkable and bikeable neighbourhoods is to funnel traffic onto arterial streets and use traffic calming measures on the residential streets. For the most part, this seems to work pretty well in my neighborhood. Frequent speed bumps and traffic circles keep traffic speeds low and discourage cut-through traffic. The streets are narrow and tree-lined, making it pleasant for walking. It’s quiet enough that I can give my son a little more freedom and let him run or bike to the corner on his own, though he still needs to wait for me to cross the street. It’s a pretty comfortable environment for novice cyclists as well.

Until…you reach the arterials. These busy streets have high traffic volumes and speeds and often no safe way across for pedestrians and cyclists. If there is a street light, it’s only triggered by the presence of a car on the secondary street – a cyclist can wait until nightfall without getting a green light. These arterials effectively form a moat or wall, separating my neighbourhood from parks, stores, friends – all the places that I want to use my bike to get to. Now, when I’m riding on my own, I can watch the traffic and usually find a gap between the cars that is big enough to dash across the road, even if it is a little hair-raising. When riding with my son, though, I was forced to either make a substantial detour to find a friendlier crossing or to dismount, hop up onto the sidewalk and press the button to trigger the pedestrian signal. Both options are annoying.
Last fall, my world changed. I discovered the Magic Stoplights. When a secondary street crosses an arterial, the city of Seattle typically installs an induction coil. If a car is waiting, the metal in the car triggers the switch, changing the light on the secondary street from red to green. In the photo below, you can just see the circular cut in the pavement where the induction coil was installed. What I didn’t know is that a bike can trigger also trigger the switch! Because a bicycle has so much less metal than a car, position is key. You have to place your front tire on the little white T, approximately at 9:00 or 3:00 on the circle.

Placing a bike wheel on the “T” triggers the green light.
SDOT has recently changed the marking to the cute little cyclist shown below. I haven’t seen any in my neighbourhood, but I have spotted one or two around the city.

Photo courtesy of
This seems so simple, but it makes a world of difference in finding safe, convenient routes to our destinations. It’s a great compromise, allowing safe crossings to cyclists, while maintaining good traffic flow on the arterials.
The main gap now is publicity – far too many cyclists have no idea what the markings mean. Every time I see a cyclist waiting for the light at the wrong spot, I make a point of telling them how to do it. I’m on a mission to spread the word!
Update: I was as at a neighbourhood meeting last night and chatted with a real, live traffic engineer. Apparently, the little white T marks the position of the induction lead, so positioning yourself on the opposite side of the circle won’t work. Also, he recommended placing the crank over the T, as that’s the part of the bike with the most metal. If you have a steel frame, it probably won’t matter, but if you have a carbon fork, the front wheel may not have enough metal to trigger the switch. I tried this on my way home, but, alas, I found I couldn’t trigger the switch no matter what I did. I’ve wondered about that particular intersection before, but there are always enough drivers and pedestrians around during commuting hours that some one always triggered the light before long. Looks like I’ll have to call SDOT on Monday.
Menstrual Monday – a group ride

Menstrual Monday – a group ride

I enjoyed seeing Deb’s Critical Lass pictures last month and I think it’s fantastic that the idea has spread to Chicago. As we chatted about it and I whined about how I wished there was something like that in Seattle, but I was too busy to set it up myself, Deb suggested that I look to see if there was something similar to that in Seattle that I could join. Of course, that was one of those brilliantly sensible suggestions, that you simply must follow up on. A bit of browsing on the local cycling blogs revealed Menstrual Monday, a women’s social ride held on the first Monday of every month. After a couple of days of dithering, I decided to go.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d only been on one group ride before, a rather ill fated outing with co-workers a couple of years ago. Would I be able to keep up? How far would we go? Would people be friendly? I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to go home and back again, so I decided to ride to the Seattle Center directly after work and then grab a quick bite to eat before the ride. The first thing that I realized was how small a section of the city that I’m familiar with by bike. The area around the Seattle Center is called Lower Queen Anne. It’s a reasonably dense urban neighbourhood, though much quieter than downtown. The traffic is steady, but not crazy. All the same, I was nervous on the streets. Although some of the major streets have bike lanes, I wasn’t confident that I could find the taco place I was looking for, particularly if I needed to make a left-hand turn, and I defaulted to riding on the sidewalk. Which, I should mention, is legal in Seattle, though not my preferred strategy. I can also ride VERY slowly so, no, I wasn’t endangering any pedestrians. It certainly took me back to my first days riding my bike in the city and renewed my sympathy for everyone just learning to navigate a city by bike. Clearly, I need to get out of Ballard more often. Still, I got there, had my fish taco, and headed out to the Seattle Center.

I found a few likely-looking women with bicycles, sitting on the grass. We chatted as more people rolled up. By 7 pm, there were 13 of us, which is apparently their best turn out yet. A lot of us, perhaps 2/3, were new to the group, which is always reassuring. The monthly theme was “Tour de Patio”, so we decided to go to El Chupacabra, a restaurant/bar in West Seattle. It was really fun to ride with such a big group, and streets that would have been intimidating on my own felt quite comfortable. The pace was pretty easy on a road bike and I had no problem keeping up – in fact, I actually coasted part of the way. After threading our way through the construction detour on Alaskan way and passing over the lower West Seattle Bridge, we reached the Alki bike path. I’d forgotten just how pretty Alki Way is. It’s near the waterfront with an amazing view of downtown Seattle across Elliott Bay. West Seattle has a different look and feel, with a southern California beach town atmosphere. I really must go there more often this year, though we may drive and just bring the bikes.. Because of all the construction, the trip there is not particularly kid-friendly – plus it’s pretty from Ballard (when towing a kid). 

After about an hour’s ride, we reached El Chupacabra, found spots to park our bikes and pulled up a few tables on the patio. I enjoyed the nachos and a margarita, and had a really good conversation with some pretty cool women. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember to take a photo of myself, so you’ll have to trust me that I was there! 

Finally, at about 9 pm, a few of us decided that we had to go home, while the other hardy souls went to a second bar. I was glad to have some company for the trip back, as the construction detours are a little confusing. Still, we all made it safely back to downtown, where we went our separate ways. I continued up to Ballard myself. The Elliott bay trail is not so much fun at night – it’s very dark. Thank goodness that I have a new bike light, or it wouldn’t have been possible to go by that route. Once I made it back to better light streets, I really booked it to try to get to the locks before they closed at 11 pm. I made good time – only to discover that they closed at 9! I don’t know where I got 11 pm from – the Land of Wishful Thinking, I guess. So, I had to make my way back to the Ballard Bridge. Luckily, traffic was very light, so it wasn’t too daunting. Still, it’s not how I’d chose to navigate a new route. Once I got back to Ballard, all was easy – the streets are have adequate lighting and I know the best quiet streets, so night riding was a piece of cake.

All in all, I had fun and I’ll definitely do it again. However, if it’s a trip east or south, I may take the car so that I don’t have to ride all the back to Ballard at night. I rode 32 miles that day (counting my morning commute)! Cycling is usually a solitary or family activity for me, and I found the social aspect of this ride to be a lot of fun. It also made it clear how much of a rut I’ve been in lately for cycling routes and how many fun parts of the city are out there waiting to be explored. Frankly, I sometimes need something like this to push me a little bit out of my comfort zone. This ride certainly did that, in terms of route, distance and the amount of night riding. However, it was great to learn that I could ride fast enough to keep up with a social group and that I have a decent amount of stamina if I take a comfortable pace.

I just discovered Heels on Wheels. Hmm, this could be fun…
Bicycle Corral

Bicycle Corral

During Dan’s visit (see May 29th post), we went for a walking tour of the Capital Hill neighbourhood of Seattle. On the way, we saw this beauty:I delayed our quest for the martini bar in order to take a photo of a bicycle rack – yes, I’m exactly that geeky. But…it holds a minimum of 9 bikes in a single car parking space! And it has an adorably cartoony car design. Since only a few bikes were parked there, I couldn’t really tell if the spaces were wide enough to allow two bikes per space. I suspect not. However, even at a single bike per space, a trade of 9 bikes for one car is fantastic. At that time there were only three bikes parked. However, I wouldn’t assume that meant a lack of demand. This was early afternoon on a Monday and the neighbourhood was extremely quiet. The streets were really quite deserted until two or three hours later.

Sadly, we are unlikely to see more bicycle corrals in the near future. Due to budget cuts, SDOT (Seattle Dept. of Tranporation) has put the bicycle parking program on hold and it may be cut entirely (see the write-up on Seattle bike blog
Riding with Dan

Riding with Dan

A couple of weekends ago, our friend Dan came to Seattle for a visit. In between talking, eating, and drinking, we also fit in a couple of bike rides. We were very intrepid.

We rode to Gas Works Park, the former site of a gasification plant. When the city bought the site to convert into a park, much of the former plant was preserved. It’s a gothic, rusting hulk that makes a fascinating contrast to the lush greenery of the park. Saturday was overcast, but the views of downtown and of the boats on Lake Union are always worth the trip.

We then took the Burke-Gilman Trail to nearby Fremont, and off-beat little neighbourhood that a bit self-consciously artsy, but is a great deal of fun. We checked out a second-hand book store, Theo’s Chocolate factory, and paid homage to the troll, who lives under a bridge and is clutching a real, full-size VW Beetle in one hand.

Then it was time for lunch at El Camino. The plantain chips with guacamole and pico de gallo were delicious. As were the margaritas.

At some point in the midst of all this, we had fancy coffees and cake at Simply Desserts. It was delicious, as always. Unfortunately, I was distracted by the chocolate and forgot to take a picture.

The next day, we rode up the Interurban Trail to Carkeek Park. After making your way down a steep hill and crossing a pedestrian bridge over the railway tracks, you reach the beach. It was a bit lonely and windswept that day, but still pretty. At low tides, it’s a great place to investigate the tidal pools and sea creatures.

All in all, our bikes were a great way to visit and see some of the city. We kept a fairly relaxed pace, which allowed us to visit and sight see along the way. I didn’t want to use my road bike for these trips, because it’s quite a bit faster than the other bikes, making it hard to keep together. Plus it’s less comfortable with street clothes. However, we only have two other bikes, so we couldn’t all go out together. Luckily for me, Andrew took the parenting shift, so that Dan and I could go out. I may look into renting a bike next time we have visitors so that all of us can go out at the same time.

Neighbourhood Greenways

Neighbourhood Greenways

How do I get there? How do I find a route that feels safe but is still reasonably direct and, if I’m really lucky, enjoyable? Recreational bike paths are great fun, but don’t really help you when you just need to get around town. Many city bike lanes are on busy arterial streets that can be intimidating to potential cyclists and are not particularly family-friendly.

Enter the Neighbourhood Greenways (previously called Bike Boulevards). These are quiet streets that give priority to cyclists and pedestrians, while still allowing motorized traffic at lower speeds. They’re for people who don’t want to ride on the busy arterial streets, but still need to go somewhere. I’ve been a seasonal bicycle commuter for the last couple of years, and am moderately comfortable in traffic. However, when I make short neighbourhood trips, I prefer a low key route, particularly when towing my 5 year old on the trail-a-bike. It’s a dramatically different experience – I’m much slower and less agile with the trail-a-bike and ride much more conservatively. For instance, I need a much larger gap in traffic when crossing intersections.

The Neighbourhood Greenway idea is gaining momentum here in Seattle. Last week had some terrific blog posts describing both the concept and details of the campaign to bring them to Seattle:

Much of NW Seattle (including the Ballard, Greenwood and Crown Hill neighborhoods) should be well suited to this. The streets are laid out in a reasonably regular grid. It’s relatively flat, by Seattle standards, at least until you reach Phinney Ridge. Traffic calming measures, such as traffic circles and speed bumps, are already common to reduce speeds on residential streets and funnel through-traffic onto the arterials. The above photo is of a typical residential street in this area. It’s narrow – allowing parking on both sides of the street means that only a single car can pass at a time. This is actually an advantage to cyclists, as drivers are already used to going slow and taking turns to let each other pass.

Traffic circles, like the one above, dramatically slow vehicle speeds. Frankly, it’s annoying to drive around more than one or two at a time. In contrast, bikes can pass by them with only a slight curve – they’re really a piece of cake.

So, what’s special about a Neighbourhood Greenway? How is it different than just riding on the residential streets already there?

1. Priorities at intersections. Currently, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to cross arterials without a traffic light.

2. Signs and paint to make it clear that this is a pedestrian and cyclist-friendly space.

3. Promoting a network. I think it’s great that folks in Seattle are thinking in terms of a network of Greenways – that’s key to making them useful on an everyday basis, as opposed to a once-a-month recreation or novelty. This also presents novice cyclists with clear routes to reachable destinations. Such a contrast to the current situation where every new cyclist has to figure it out for themselves.

Over the next couple of months, I plan to ride many of the proposed routes to get a feel for the advantages and disadvantages of the different options. Along the way, I’ll post a few photos and my thoughts on the plans.
Discovering my inner Mary Poppins

Discovering my inner Mary Poppins

One of my goals this year is to start using my bike for short trips around town. The local neighbourhood shopping district is about 2 miles away, which is outside of easy walking distance, but close enough that I don’t really need the car. Looking for a parking spot always annoys me, so I’m happy to skip that as well.

So, what do I ride and what do I wear? Though I love my road bike, these trips are better suited to something easier to just jump on and go. There are so many lovely city cruiser bikes, but, in the spirit of working with what I have, I’m using my trusty old mountain bike. It’s more upright and has better cushioning from bumps in the pavement. I replaced the quick-release fastenings on the seat and wheels with rods that have 5-sided hexkey (a pentakey?) as theft-deterence. Just a few weeks ago, I added a basket, so that I can use my purse instead of a backpack. I’d like to have a chain guard, but I don’t know if I can add one to it. I also want to add fenders.

I do wear a helmet, but am otherwise pretty comfortable in street clothes. Without a chain guard, I will use a pant leg strap when I need to. However, on cooler days, boots are a much more stylish option.

I’ve really enjoyed the more sporty side of cycling in the last few years – it’s fun to go fast and ride hard. However, I’ve really come to appreciate how much fun and how useful other styles of cycling can be. The simplicity of being able to bring a purse and wear my street clothes makes it much easier to use my bike as a routine mode of transportation. It’s also great to rediscover that cycling can be easy and relaxing.