Seattle advertises itself as one of America’s premier pro-bike destinations. And on paper it ought to be. Lots and lots of young people. Lots of environmentally aware residents. Plenty of folks looking for low cost alternatives to buying and maintaining a car. And have you looked at what it costs to park? So enthusiastic is city government about bicycles that it once owned a bike-share company (an expensive lesson). A former mayor was nicknamed “McSchwinn”.
But a recent Times/Elway poll shows a chilled relationship with bikes. When asked if they favor or oppose the development of more bicycle lanes, only 40% of city residents support it, while 56% oppose it – virtually the same ratio of opposition in the suburbs. In fact, on the “intensity” scale, slightly more city residents “strongly” oppose more bike lanes – 29% to 28% than in suburbia. Even more revealing is that only half that ratio – 14% “strongly” favor more bike lanes in Seattle.
But building more bike lanes is what soon to be out-on-his-ear Mike O’Brien is pushing as Priority One in transportation.
Because of public demand? Hardly. Despite almost evangelistic fervor for bike lanes among the small, but vocal and impressively organized activist groups and kindred spirits in SDOT, bicycling in Seattle (for commuting, not recreation) has dropped by more than 25% in three years. Enthusiasm for more bike lanes in the Times/Elway poll reflects the falling enthusiasm for bike commuting.
These numbers completely contradict the conventional wisdom about biking in Seattle. Never has it been easier for more people at more times in more places to find a bike, whether they own one or not, and ride it than it is today. And yet the numbers for bike commuting aren’t rising. Here is the dirty little secret why:
Too many hills and too much rain. That is not going to change not matter how much or how little climate change takes place in the next century. It really is that simple.
For recreation, sure, bike riding is fun. And it’s a great way to work out, though growing numbers of people find it safer, easier and increasingly convenient to do it on machines indoors. But for commuting or large scale tourist travel, there will never be large numbers of bicyclists. We are not Copenhagen. We never will be.
And it’s not for lack of trying. Bicycling magazine named Seattle the best bike city in American last October, an acknowledgement of the work done by bike enthusiasts in and out of government since the 70’s. The guiding belief on bike lanes was, “If you build them, people will pedal.” But look at the growing number of transit options (bus, rail, public and private van pools) Or telecommuting from home. Or walking, where you can at least carry an umbrella. Uber.
For what it’s worth, the decline in bicycle commuting is happening across America. According to the Census Bureau, between 2016 and 2017, it’s down by nearly 20% in San Francisco, 24% in Austin, more than 13% in Atlanta and more than 12% in Boston.
More bike lanes aren’t going to life those numbers any more than the additional bike lanes in the last five years have done so. When bicycles aren’t fun to ride, most people, even those who own and like bikes won’t ride them. And riding in clogged urban traffic isn’t fun.
Especially in a city with too many hills and too much rain.