During the ProWalk/ProBike Conference in Seattle, I am staying with friends 5 miles north of the conference site. My friend Nancy, a long-time bicycle commuter, led me on the bicycle ride into downtown this morning during rush hour. The experience contrasted in some interesting ways with my commuting experience in Louisville.
Seattle has the fastest growth rate of any major US city and suffers from severe automotive traffic congestion. As you picture my bicycle commute here, keep in mind that I passed and was passed by many more cars this morning than I encounter on my commute in Louisville. No part of our trip was on the famous Burke-Gilman Trail or any other off-road path; we rode on streets with lots of cars, trucks, and buses. We had the use of bike lanes for perhaps a quarter of our route, and it was generally clean. The streets were in about the same state of maintenance as Louisville city streets, with occasional holes or cracks requiring dodging but no really bad stretches.
Immediately, I noticed the omnipresence of other bicyclists. During a 5-mile commute at about 7:30 AM, we were never out of sight of other bicyclists. For about a mile and a half, we rode amidst an accidental assembly of 7 bicycle commuters. I don't think I've ever seen 6 other bicyclists during an entire 5-mile commute in Louisville, let alone 6 others at one time. On the return trip at about 6 PM, I only briefly rode without another bicyclist nearby. During the round trip, I saw at least 20 other bicyclists. They all appeared to be riding to or from work or on another trip for transportation - no racing bikes or team jerseys or groups of riders socializing or riding in a pace line.
I don't recall seeing even one bicyclist blow through a red light. For about three miles, I stayed within a block of another rider who did a track stand at every red light, sometimes for nearly a minute. I saw no wrong-way riders and very little sidewalk riding. The Seattle bicyclists, like Seattle motorists, universally yielded to pedestrians in crosswalks. I see this only rarely in Louisville. Most of the pedestrians crossed in crosswalks after waiting for the "walk" signal, another rarity in Louisville. On streets with two or three lanes in my direction, motorists accepted my staying in the middle of the narrow right lane. In general, I found the motorists patient and accepting of my presence.
Some bicyclists made some iffy choices, swerving around buses or cutting around slow-moving cars. For the first and second times in my many years of urban riding, I had bicyclists pass on my right - bizarre and dangerous behavior. On the whole, though, I found the behavior of Seattle's rush-hour on-street bicyclists better by far than run-of-the-mill bicycling practice in Louisville.
The high number of bicyclists on Seattle streets appears to have had an unfortunate side effect: none of the other bicyclists waved, nodded, or acknowledged me at all, even when I greeted them. The relative rarity of bicycle commuting in Louisville seems to support a camaraderie that I enjoy. I hope that we keep that friendliness even as numbers of bicycle commuters increase.
At the ProWalk/ProBike Conference, I continue to learn about ways to make bicycling safer and more enjoyable and convenient. Still, it's fascinating and heartening to see how much better bicycling can be even in the absence of visibly improved streets and intersections. Better attitudes and practices by motorists and bicyclists make an enormous difference.