Putting Seattle In Perspective

By Josh Cohen August 3, 2010

As I mentioned on Friday, I am on an East Coast vacation visiting family and friends. I spent a few days with my parents and sister in State College, Pennsylvania, where I grew up and where my parents still live. I joined my dad on his bike commute home from Penn State University on Thursday. State College is not a bike-friendly town (though I did notice a few new bike lanes and sharrows) and after a year of riding in Seattle, State College's flaws were stark.

Due to low traffic speeds, riding on PSU's campus isn't harrowing, but bikes still don't get the space they deserve. There isn't even signage requesting drivers to share the road, let alone bikes lanes or even a measly sharrow. After leaving campus, we rode on a bike path for a few miles. Though that might sound positive, the bike path was only six feet wide (federal guidelines call for a minimum of 10 feet). The path doesn't get very much commuter traffic, so it was almost empty while we were on it. But  low traffic notwithstanding, the path is an example of a town making empty gestures to bicyclists rather than intelligent investments in infrastructure.

At the one main roadway crossing on the bike path, not one car (of the many passing by during rush hour) yielded to let us cross or even slowed down as they passed.

After a few miles, we exited the bike path and finished the commute on shoulderless roads, passed frequently by fast, seemingly impatient cars. It was the clearest example I'd seen of what most bicycling in State College is like: uncomfortable and far riskier than it needs to be. Riding on high-traffic roads without bike infrastructure doesn't really bother me (and my dad seems to have a bit of a defiant vehicular cyclist streak), but the near-total lack of infrastructure (let alone good infrastructure) is keeping a whole lot of people from even occasionally using their bikes as transportation.

On the other hand, beautiful scenes like the one in the above picture (taken on a different ride) are found just five or six miles out of town.

None of this is to say that Seattle's cyclists should be content with their significantly better, but still inadequate, bike infrastructure. Being better than the rest of the country's half-of-one percent ridership isn't a huge victory.

My experience in State College did put Seattle's progress in perspective, however. With serious budgetary woes and political and legal battles hampering the growth of the city's bike network, it's easy to have a myopic and pessimistic view about the rate of change. But, despite those impediments (and thanks in large part to Seattle's many bike advocates), Seattle continues to push forward and build new dedicated bike infrastructure. The city's installed a surprising number of new traditional and buffered bike lanes, traditional bike lanes, and sharrows this summer and has plans for several more big projects before the construction season is over.

Of course, Seattle is still a long ways from having a complete and connected bike network (and at current funding levels, I'll be on my deathbed before they do). But spending time riding in a place where bikes are third-tier road users (at best) makes me that much happier to live in a city that values bicycling and is moving forward with a big-picture vision to make bicycling work as a practical form of transportation.
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