Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tapping into Local Bike Knowledge

I want everyone to feel comfortable riding bikes. But sometimes even I'm reluctant to ride. Right now, months into living and mostly not biking in Seattle, it's harder for me, mentally, to go hop on my bike than it is to walk or bus to my destinations.  I thought six years of riding in cities would ensure me against losing my momentum, but not riding my bike makes me... not want to ride my bike.

I mean, as an anthropologist who studies why people do or don't bike, it's not like I don't understand what's going on. Part of it is the ol' fear of traffic, thinking trepidatiously in advance about all the intersections where I'll have to negotiate potentially hostile drivers, but a big barrier is my lack of familiarity with my still-new city. I just plain don't know which streets are the best bike streets.

We're not yet at a point where a newcomer to a city can easily plan an excellent bike route. If you look at an overview of a city, you have no way of knowing what through streets tend to be high traffic. What looks like a quiet neighborhood street could turn out to be a traffic nightmare (ahem, 45th). Even bike maps lack authority, since city planning departments tend to be aspirational. Unfortunately designating a bike route on a map does not magically transform street conditions. On a designated bike route in my new neighborhood, I saw a sharrow painted over a pre-existing pothole. That = bad. It's like the time I biked from Long Beach to San Pedro following the LA County bike map, and discovered that the convenient route indicated on the map happened to run right through the Port of Los Angeles.

On the other hand, talking to local cyclists opens up a city of possible routes that wouldn't occur to the newcomer. For example, I needed to get down to Bike Works in Columbia City. Based on what I've seen from riding the bus, the way to get there from Capitol Hill would be riding straight down Rainier Avenue. Based on what I've seen from riding the bus, I'd rather not bike down Rainier Avenue.

I had asked Tom of Seattle Bike Blog to take me on a tour of my new neighborhood, Capitol Hill, so I could see what streets bicyclists prefer. He showed me some neat ways to get around high traffic streets and steep hills. Things were looking up. Then he showed me his route down to Bike Works, where we helped with a fun adventure I'll be writing about later today. Guess what, there is a way to get down there that involves zigzagging through gridded neighborhoods, some of them on a bluff overlooking Lake Washington. Another cyclist, Danny, told me about his first time riding down to Bike Works. Like me, he'd assumed Rainier Ave was the best way to go, and he went for it. Sounds like it would not have been my cup of tea.

Riding back later through quietly dark, tree-lined streets, rear lights flashing red and front lights flashing white, I felt like a million bucks. Knowing how other bicyclists get around makes a city more bike friendly. We're like troves of local knowledge on two wheels.

I know there are some sites out there that are designed to make this knowledge available to the general public, but I don't know anyone who uses them, so I've assumed they're mostly for recreational cyclists planning longer trips and not for people looking to get around town.