CALL IT A TRIAL BY TIRES: Self-described transportation wonk Blake Trask saddled up as the new statewide policy director for the Bicycle Alliance of Washington in August, just as a pavement-based crisis was ramping up in Seattle. Last summer three bicyclists died in collisions with cars, including Michael Wang, a 44-year-old killed by a hit-and-run driver in South Lake Union. And discord between the two camps only rose after the City Council opted to place on the November ballot a $60 car-tab increase that would fund, among other things, $1.4 million in biking infrastructure. Despite what biking critics may think, Trask’s solution to Seattle’s cars-on-bikes predicament doesn’t include taking away your SUV. But he wouldn’t mind if everyone took it easy out there on the road.
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The “war on cars” is a convenient meme. But it’s much more complex than that. It’s an issue of creating safe ways for people to get around.
My goal is to make biking really freaking boring. In the same way that the DOT doesn’t design one roadway for Porsche drivers, I don’t want to design a bikeway for the users who go 30 miles an hour. I want to design one for the people who go eight miles an hour. It’s about bringing bike riders into the fold and making them part of the system.
Sometimes I come into a design review meeting with SDOT thinking, Let’s get this thing done for bikes. But then I look at all the needs and think, Gosh, this isn’t so cut-and-dried. Like, we do need to provide for freight. So maybe we should consider a bicycle route somewhere else to best accommodate them. You walk in ready to say, “Fight!” and then you realize that there’s the other side of the story that’s really legit.
When I’m on a bike I’ll find myself getting upset at a driver for doing something unsafe. But then I’ll be in a car and I’ll catch myself doing something that makes me think, Wait a second, I’m doing that very same thing that made me want to go after that driver when I was on a bike. It’s human nature. And I think it goes back to the fact that we need more empathy.
Most people are jerks at one point or another. I used to work on First Avenue, and every day I’d see I don’t know how many cars run this red light. Should I say that all car drivers behave recklessly? No, in the same way that I shouldn’t say that all bike riders behave recklessly just because there are some bicycle users who run red lights.
You have to condition yourself to riding next to cars. But when you do, you start to forget that there’s an inherent danger in riding a bicycle. What the Mike Wang thing did for me was bring me back out of that conditioning a little. I need to watch out. I have a 10-month-old daughter and I want to live to see her grow up.
I do drive. And I don’t have this sense of guilt, like, Oh my gosh, I’m driving. It’s easy to get places. Driving’s good.
What can drivers do better? They can follow all the rules of the road. Everyone could follow the rules of the road and move predictably, whether they’re in a car or riding a bicycle. And they can take a deep breath and realize they’re not going to save too much time by trying to do that one thing that’s not safe.
It’s human nature to put things into convenient buckets to understand the world. In this case, we either create a bicycle identity or car identity for ourselves. But the reality is that 99.9 percent of people who ride bikes own a car. So one of the things that I really try to work on is avoiding the term cyclists, just in the same sense that I don’t call a truck driver a motorist. It just seems goofy.
I don’t want to heighten the issue of bicycle acceptance to place it on par with other social movements that have been way more important in humanity’s existence. But they follow similar story lines. They started with people saying, “That’s impossible. That will never happen.” People pushed, and ultimately it became something that was understood and recognized. And then everyone said, “You know, we’re better off because we have this right or we have this ability.”
My great-grandfather helped build parts for the Smith Tower. My family has been here for four generations. It’s kind of like rooting for your home team. I want us to beat the New Yorks and Chicagos of the world. People want to live there. People want to invest there. I haven’t heard that any of the changes going on in these cities are screwing them up or hurting economic development or anything like that. Seattle works for people in a lot of ways, but we want to figure out how to make it work for more people in more ways.