Seattle is back on lists of best U.S. biking cities. Experts explain what cyclists need for a smoother ride

In 2018, Seattle was named “the best bike city in America” by Bicycling magazine. The Emerald City has not returned to the throne since, but this summer, Seattle is again being ranked among the best biking cities in the U.S.

Cycling advocacy nonprofit People for Bikes ranked Seattle in its top 20 overall and top five for bike-friendly larger cities, while Anytime Estimate has Seattle at No. 10 for best biking cities in the United States. The studies scored cities on attributes like safety, bikeability, bike shops and trails per capita, strength of cycling community, bike commuting statistics, air quality and more.

Seattle cycling advocates and longtime bikers say Seattle is a relatively good biking city, but more can be done to ensure a smoother ride.

Some experts say Seattle needs more bike network connectivity throughout the entire city as well as infrastructure that supports separation between drivers and bikers. The city lacks infrastructure in some neighborhoods, which threatens the safety of those living there, disproportionally affecting people of color and lower-income families.

Without proper infrastructure, it’s difficult to make biking your primary source of transportation said Barb Chamberlain, director of the Active Transportation Division at Washington State Department of Transportation. Chamberlain, 59, said network connectivity and separation from high-speed traffic are key to improving biking conditions. She has been biking for transportation for 20 years and advocates for her fellow bikers in her current role.

”Somebody in the room will often say that not everybody bikes,” Chamberlain said. “What they forget is that not everybody drives a car.”

In an ideal Seattle, there would be a connected, citywide network of bike routes, said Clara Cantor, 36, community organizer for the biking and walking advocacy nonprofit Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. One of the organization’s goals is to build that network for everyday use, connecting every Seattle neighborhood.

The city has off-street trails and has built several miles of protected bike lanes in recent years, but Seattle is not always a comfortable place to bike, especially when bikers have to merge with regular traffic, Cantor said. A bike commuter for most of her life, Cantor has poor vision, especially at night, so she uses biking and public transit as her primary means of transportation.

Cantor has to bike defensively, and sometimes aggressively, when mixing with traffic. She waves her arms and makes eye contact with drivers to ensure they see her. There are constant calculations to make when protected bike lanes are unavailable: Where in the lane is she going to ride? Who is trying to pass her? Are they being aggressive? Is she close to parked cars or to the lane markings?

“In the protected bike lane, it’s like, ‘This is my lane,’ ” she said, noting the difference between protected and mixed-traffic lanes. “It’s for me.”

Protected bike lanes represent one way to separate drivers from bikers, Chamberlain said, but separation from high-speed traffic can also include lowering driving speed and making alternate routes to a single destination available. Seattle has been gradually lowering speed limits since 2016 after the number of traffic deaths increased.

In the first five months of 2022, 11 people died in Seattle from traffic-related incidents, including two bikers and four walkers. Last year was Seattle’s deadliest for traffic deaths since 2006, with 30 fatalities; the city is on track for 27 such deaths this year.

Anna Zivarts, 38, is director of the Disability Mobility Initiative Program with Disability Rights Washington. Her willingness to incur risks while biking decreased dramatically when she became a parent, especially when riding with her son. Despite cautious cycling, she was involved in an accident a couple of years ago. It was minor, but she still reported it because filing crash reports is one of the only ways to get funding for street safety, she said.

Zivarts grew up outside Olympia and was unable to get a driver’s license because of an eye condition. She moved to New York City, then eventually Seattle, partly because of the robust metro transit system. She uses biking and public transit for transportation.

The crash occurred at slow speeds on a dangerous intersection and the driver understood her filing the report, but it was still scary for Zivarts.

“Unless there’s a police report, there’s no record of it being a problem,” she said. “This is a problem.”

WSDOT’s Chamberlain said her division helps plan and implement policies that will increase transportation safety and accessibility for people who are walking and rolling. But she noted that biking safety and accessibility are not equitable.

Fatal bike crashes are higher among people who live in households near or below the poverty line, Chamberlain said. And the number of fatal and serious bike crashes is also higher in neighborhoods predominantly comprised of people of color.

Lack of proper biking infrastructure is also present in lower-income neighborhoods, she said. Those neighborhoods often need safe infrastructure the most because of inaccessibility of other types of transportation like 24-hour public transit.

Some Seattle spots are dangerous for cyclists, said Vicky Clarke, policy director of cycling nonprofit Cascade Bicycle Club. Hostile environments are often created by big, wide roads that enable motorists to drive fast, including many in historically industrial neighborhoods like Sodo and Georgetown.

“A network is only as good as its weakest link, and the Seattle bike network has many weak links,” said Clarke, who uses biking and the ferry system as her primary modes of transportation.

International cities have invested more in infrastructure that supports biking safety, she said. The U.S. is 40 years behind European countries in regards to bike networks and safety, per a 2022 report from the League of American Bicyclists.

Still, while the job is far from done, Seattle cycling safety is trending in the right direction.

The city has created more bike lanes, lowered speed limits and passed a Bicycle Master Plan in 2021 that aims to improve safety, connectivity and equity. Several community nonprofits, departments and councils are dedicated to improving safety. Bike sales are still surging, especially e-bikes, meaning more bikers pushing for better infrastructure.

“When you compare to other cities around the U.S., Seattle is doing a pretty good job,” Clarke said. “But I think it’s also important to recognize that’s not necessarily because Seattle is doing so great. It’s because biking, in general, across the U.S. is pretty bad.”

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