Monday, February 26, 2007

Commuting in the Emerald City

I've been to the Seattle area a few times since I got married (my wife's parents live across the Puget Sound in Bremerton) but this past week was the first time I'd been there where I actually noticed the cycling atmosphere and the cyclists themselves. Now, as I was in a car most of the time when I was out there (didn't bring my bike) I didn't get the first hand experience of riding in their traffic, but I did notice a few things that I really liked.

Keep in mind that I was mostly in the Pioneer Square and Pike Place sections of town (if you know Seattle), so I didn't get to see much in the way of suburbs and heavy business districts. However, I did get to see some neat facets of inter-modal transportation, which I'll get to.

First, Seattle is much more condensed than Columbus - a symptom of geography. When you have water on one side and hilly terrain all around you, building is harder, and therefore they tend to go UP instead of OUT like here. So traffic seemed a little more stop and go. But the cyclists I saw there seemed to be doing just fine. They were all properly attired with visible colors and wore their helmets, even the "punkier" ones, and they worked with traffic instead of in spite of it. Very nice to see.

Second, cycling seems much more accepted there than it does here. Perhaps it's a symptom of the traffic and the congestion of the city, but cyclists there didn't seem to be nearly as misunderstood there.

Third, and this was the neatest part for me (and made my wife wonder what I was looking at while she was looking at scenery and such), I loved the ferry system and the measures that have been taken to encourage people to ride in sections of it.

Bremerton, if you're not familiar with it, is a Naval shipyard town, and very blue-collar/industrial. Normally cyclists aren't coming from this sort of demographic at the moment, though I think many of them would be happier if they tried. But even there, the ferries for crossing the Puget Sound had lanes set up for them to enter the boat and had made special accomodations for the cyclists.

But the really impressive area was Bainbridge Island. Bainbridge is a more yuppie/white-collar area. We got stuck in rush hour for one ferry, which I actually enjoyed because I got to see how multi-modeal transportation can really work. Many of the walk-up ferry passengers came to the ferry loading via bus, and when they got off they had another bus available for them.

But the really neat thing was that the Bainbridge side had a "Bike Barn" - a large shed where commuters could store their bikes for the day in safety after their ride to the ferry. These folks would then walk onto the ferry and use public transportation on the other side. Then when they got home, their bikes were waiting for them and they could enjoy their rides home.

I would love to see this in Columbus: can you imagine "bike barns" being built in Dublin, Westerville, Worthington, and Hilliard, near enough to the COTA Express bus stops to be useful? Folks could ride their bikes to the stops, lock them up for the day, and head downtown for work. Then when they got home, their bikes would be ready.... all without cluttering up our roads with more unnecessary cars. Obviously, people would have to get over their poor opinion of COTA in this city, and that might be the real challenge.

I'm probably painting a really rosy picture of the situation out in Seattle, I've no doubt that the situation isn't as idyllic as I'm making it out to be. But there is a lot to be interested in regarding the Emerald City for cyclists, and Columbus could do a lot worse than to emulate some of these things.

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