There are more cyclists than ever on Seattle’s streets. But as a violent incident last year illustrated, it’s not always easy for wheeled vehicles to share the road. Can drivers, cyclists and the city all get along?
It’s almost 5 p.m. on a gloomy winter evening, and the intersection of Mercer Street and Dexter Avenue North is jammed with rush-hour traffic. Buses, cars and trucks inch through the dying daylight, hopelessly tangled in the gray-hued gridlock. The air is filled with the acrid scent of exhaust, and blaring car horns pierce through the ground-shaking rumble of engines as commuters make their way home.
This intersection—the heart of the so-called “Mercer Mess”—is one of the most congested in Seattle. The City of Seattle estimates that more than 80,000 drivers are delayed at this choke point every day. For drivers hoping to access Interstate 5, the Mercer Mess is an infuriating hurdle in an already aggravating commute.
But when the traffic light changes, a sea of bicycle commuters heading northbound on Dexter defies this near gridlock, flooding the intersection. Clad in spandex, denim, khaki, fluorescent jackets and everything in between, this posse of pedalers is swiftly growing to unprecedented numbers.
Having faced down the specters of increasing traffic congestion, an overcrowded bus system and gas prices, Seattleites are taking to bicycles more than ever before. As of 2007, when the most recent official bike counts were conducted, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) measured a 31 percent increase in the number of cyclists within the city since 2000. And that number increased in 2008. More than 24,000 Seattleites commuted by bicycle on May 16—otherwise known as Starbucks Bike to Work Day. And the number of bike commuters spiked in late summer and early fall as gas prices reached alarming levels.
But Seattle’s cycling boom hasn’t come without costs. Despite an ambitious 10-year Bicycle Master Plan—and Mayor Greg Nickels’ oft-stated goal of making Seattle the most bike-friendly city in America—Seattle’s streets are far from perfect for cyclists and drivers alike. And with the increasing number of riders on the road, opportunities for bike/driver conflict have skyrocketed. Tensions peaked last summer in a violent and headline-grabbing incident on Capitol Hill: Members of Critical Mass, a pro-cycling group that stages monthly on-bike demonstrations, sparred verbally with an impatient car driver, who went on to run down three cyclists with his vehicle. The incident reached its astounding zenith when enraged cyclists stopped the vehicle, slashed its tires and smashed its windshield. In a final act of malice, a cyclist allegedly struck the driver on the head with a U-lock.
The Capitol Hill Critical Mass fracas would seem to indicate that Seattle’s streets are becoming dangerously crowded with bikes, cars and bitterness. But many of the pro-cycling movement’s leaders counter that Seattle is, in fact, on its way to becoming a world-class cycling city—and that tensions between drivers and cyclists are only going to decrease from here. So what does the future hold for Seattle’s commuters? Will Seattle continue its path toward bike friendliness, or are the city’s streets simply too small—and behavior too ingrained—for the coming waves of bikers and drivers to share the roads and get along?
Despite its drizzle, its hills and its relative scarcity of bike lanes and racks, Seattle has long been a hotbed of cycling. The first 12.1-mile portion of the Burke-Gilman Trail—running from Gas Works Park to Tracy Owen Station in Kenmore—was completed in 1978, ushering in Seattle’s first era of bike friendliness. But by 2006, Seattle was home to only 39.4 miles of