Cycle Tracks Offer Added Protection for Bicyclists in Seattle

Oct 31, 2013

With the number of bike commuters up 78 percent since 2005, bike lanes in Seattle are packed. 

But not everyone feels safe riding in close proximity to cars, having to worry about distracted drivers or collisions with car doors.

So Seattle planners are in the midst of an experiment—one they hope will make anybody feel comfortable hopping on a bike to get around the city. Seattle is building what are called "cycle tracks" as a way of making riding on the street more attractive to the novice or reluctant rider.

What's a Cycle Track?

“The easiest way to describe it is if you took the Burke Gilman Trail and you put it onto the side of the street,” said Tom Fucoloro who writes the Seattle Bike Blog.

Fucoloro says cycle tracks are like the Burke Gilman Trail in that they’re completely separated from traffic. Cars park between the bikeway and the moving vehicles, creating a barrier.

“Unlike the painted bike lanes we’re used to seeing, where it’s almost like the bicyclist is protecting the parked cars from traffic, it’s the other way around,” he said.

Fucoloro has created videos of the city’s two new cycle tracks. One just opened on Broadway on Capitol Hill, and the other on Linden Avenue, opened in June. 

Take a virtual ride on the Linden track: 

Trying to Make Seattle like Holland

The idea for these completely-separate bikeways is based on a model used in the Netherlands where cyclists ride on a separate network of roads.

And, like those in Holland, these cycle tracks in Seattle are being built with their own traffic signals. It’s the sort of thing that thrills Fucoloro who doesn’t own a car and rides his bike everywhere.

“At the stoplight, there’s even a curb for you to rest your foot. It’s pretty luxurious,” he said.

Loss of Parking Worries Business Owners

Cycle tracks are not without their detractors.

At a meeting to discuss the building of one on Westlake Avenue North along Lake Union, property owner Bill Wiginton gave Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn a piece of his mind.

“We think the process stinks. We’re for safe bicycling, but eliminating parking, which will eliminate residences and businesses, is not the way to go,” he told the mayor.

Who Uses the New Bikeways?

How about the stated goal of these new bikeways—to get the old and young, the less-than-fit, the people who don’t see themselves as cycling enthusiasts to view biking as a real transportation choice?  

On a recent visit to the Linden Avenue cycle track in the mixed income Bitter Lake neighborhood in North Seattle, I saw a variety of users, not just speedsters, riding sleek bikes while decked out in Lycra.

There was a young man in baggy jeans and a baseball cap on backward. Another guy rode by, smoking a cigarette. Acouple of older gentlemen appeared to be out on a leisurely ride. And, most surprising, a cyclist zipped by with three little children on his bike—a toddler and a baby in a bike trailer, and another kid on a handlebar seat. He rode back by some 15 minutes later, apparently having dropped off the children at daycare. 

I asked a young woman out for a walk whether the cycle track will entice her to use it.

“Ya, definitely, if I had a bike,” said Kathleen Pichler. Then she remembered: “Actually, I do have a bike. I just need to fix it,” she said, laughing. 

Sidewalks and Crosswalks Part of the package

Cycle tracks are part of what McGinn calls a “complete streets” approach. When the street is redone, sidewalks and crosswalks are also installed or upgraded.

Proponents see it as helping create more livable communities.

On the new sidewalk next to the Linden Avenue cycle track, a man and woman were chatting. Barbara Madden, who uses a walker, had been out for a stroll. Fred Colby has been to the store. There were no sidewalks here before; this is a part of the city that was built without them.

Now, with a place for walkers and bikers, Colby and Madden say they’ve noticed a change in people's behavior.

“It’s marvelous how you see so many people you didn’t see before. They’re enjoying the sidewalks and the bike lanes,” Colby said.

“And it beautifies our city and it just makes it homey. And you get to meet all kinds of wonderful people who are your neighbors,” Madden added.