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Sunday, October 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine

Wheeler Dealers

CULTURAL CHANGE reveals itself in weird ways.

Like the week gas topped $3 a gallon and Zack Treisman, a mild-mannered mathematician and avid cyclist, was arrested by plainclothes King County Sheriff's deputies while pedaling through Belltown with 300 others during a monthly ride called Critical Mass.

You could look at the incident as isolated, a twilight confrontation between free-wheeling cyclists and zealous cops.

Or you could see our city at a cultural crossroads — the conflict, really, over how to deal with congested streets, global warming, an obesity epidemic.

Loose, leaderless, Critical Mass is more Idea than Political Movement. Part celebration, part demonstration, the semi-spontaneous bicycle rally meanders over urban asphalt (intentionally clogging streets) in about 100 cities around the world on the last Friday of every month. There's no membership roster, no pre-planned route, just a parade of pedals, clots of stalled motorists and a provocative motto: We're not blocking traffic. We ARE traffic.

Their Web site asks: Why are people compelled to organize their lives around having a car? What would an alternative future look like?

Anyone can ride Critical Mass, for any reason. Treisman, then a University of Washington grad student, needed a breather from his doctoral dissertation on arc spaces and rational curves, so he decided to join friends for an invigorating spin around the city. Plus, he believes bicycling is healthy and helps preserve the environment.

In San Francisco, where Critical Mass began in 1992, rides can take on a righteous confrontational edge. Early posters featured cyclists screaming "Get Out of Our Way!"

Here in polite Seattle, riders are more likely to yell, "Get on your BIKE!" Cyclists have been known to chat with captive motorists about trendy fixed-gear bikes even while "corking" or blocking intersections so comrades can stream past.

Typically, Seattle police ignore Critical Mass — despite the participants' merry and egregious violations of traffic rules and open-container laws. But on that long summer evening, King County Metro Transit police intervened, jumping out of a van to tackle and arrest a skinny teen who'd corked an intersection and 30-year-old Treisman who came to his aid.

News accounts focused on whether the deputies had properly identified themselves, on turf tensions between city and county police, on law-enforcement issues with Metro Transit. Witnesses stepped forward. Investigations ensued. Charges were not filed.

Traffic resumed.

But on the cracked pavement, significant questions remain unanswered.

What are we going to do about traffic? Pollution? Our health?

LOOK UP. See all those construction cranes? New condos. More people. The city's head count has topped 560,000 and is still climbing. After a decades-long dip, we've exceeded Seattle's previous population peak (550,000 in 1960).

Yet there's a significant demographic difference between now and the baby-boomer '60s: Fewer kids. These days we are a city of grown-ups, high rises, zoned urban density. Translate: More drivers, many small households and double the number of cars. The reason Seattle feels crowded is not because we're jostling elbows. It's because we're bumper to bumper. "Congestion is a car problem, not a people problem," says Peter Lagerwey, coordinator of Seattle's Bicycle and Pedestrian Program.

Gridlock, impossible parking and high gas prices make it increasingly enticing to get around by bike. And statistics, though squishy, show more people doing just that.

The 2000 U.S. Census found bicycling this area's fastest-growing method of getting to work. In the city, 1.8 percent of adults commute by bicycle. (To compare, the rate is 2.2 percent in Tucson, 1.9 percent in San Francisco, .5 percent in Chicago. In certain German, Dutch and Belgian cities, 25 percent of all trips are by bike.)

Sure, it's hilly here, and our winters are rainy and dark. On the other hand, we have a temperate climate, several college campuses, and a population that's relatively young, educated and concentrated in the sciences.

Those factors add up to more cyclists.

On Bike-to-Work Day in May, Cascade Bicycle Club counted 15,000 cyclists, more than double the tally five years ago. The Bicycle Alliance of Washington, a statewide cycling advocacy group, has seen its membership climb from 700 to 2,600 in a decade. Cascade now sponsors 1,200 bicycle rides a year; 14,000 people subscribe to its free mailing list, and its 6,500 dues-paying members make it the largest local bike club in North America.

Equally significant, the average Cascade member is a white man, 45 to 55 years old, a likely voter, annual household income above $75,000.

ON STREETS, that means pedal clips and potential political clout.

"We have 4,000 members in the city," says David Hiller, the club's advocacy director. "Our recent budget was $1.4 million. We have a staff. We have a political program. We understand the intersection between electoral politics and public policy. . . . The mayor realizes that he never loses in this city for being a leader on the environment."

Thinking global is one thing; acting local, another. Take the Fremont Bridge, the state's busiest bridge for bicycling with more than 2,000 cyclist crossings on a summer day. Ten percent of the state's bike commuters live in the 17 census tracts just north of the bridge; adjacent to the bridge, 6 percent of workers are bike commuters.

Yet come time for a $31 million project on the bridge's approaches, the engineering firm hired by the city spent $25,000 counting cars and not a dime counting bikes. What's more, early construction plans ignored pleas by cyclists to change the geometry of curbs, eliminate double-blind crossings with right-turning cars, create a temporary bike lane during the Burke-Gilman Trail's 18-month closure. The project manager complained of budget stress, rocketing steel prices, wary about trying something new that might prove unsafe.

"Every step of the way, it was like we were asking him to throw his own mother off a bridge," Hiller says.

So Cascade staged a call to action, gathered 900 petition signatures, penned an angry letter to the mayor and City Council, urged 8,000 Seattleites on its e-mail list to do the same. The letter called for an immediate halt to design work on the bridge until non-motorized bridge use was studied, and it requested the mayor include bike and pedestrian planning in all future road construction. On a parallel track, philanthropist Peter Goldman, an environmental lawyer and board member of the Bicycle Alliance, had a heart-to-heart about city cycling with Mayor Nickels and Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis.

The Mayor's Office phoned Cascade Executive Director Chuck Ayers: Let's meet.

"The log jam burst," Hiller says. "There was finally a recognition that the city's bicycling community was large and active, growing and sophisticated, and not asking for anything unreasonable, just equal access to our public rights of way."

The mayor announced a $300,000 Bicycle Master Plan to improve bike friendliness on urban streets and better connect the city's often discombobulated bike routes. His nine-year, $365 million transportation proposal, scheduled for the Nov. 7 ballot, earmarks about $38 million for the bike program.

Indirectly, even more could be spent on bike routes because the City Council recently adopted a resolution called Complete Streets, calling for the city to integrate improvements for biking and walking into every road repair and new transportation project.

"Almost 40 percent of the population doesn't drive," says Barbara Culp, head of the Bicycle Alliance, "including disabled, elderly, children, those who can't afford it. So we have a car culture that ignores a huge percentage of the population. When we talk about Complete Streets, what we're really talking about is transportation equity."

The problem, Ayers says, is that Complete Streets and the Bicycle Master Plan are merely resolutions, not law. "Without the weight of law," he says, "it falls by the wayside."

What if all these bike plans stay parked on a shelf?

CALL IT Portland Envy.

Cyclists in Seattle dream of bikeways in The Netherlands, but close to home, they're jealous of Portland.

I caught up with Zack Treisman, the Critical Mass cyclist, the week after he'd returned from a math conference in Europe. Other than algebraic geometry and the fact that he owns three bikes but no car, Treisman comes off as a completely normal guy. Which is just the point.

"In Copenhagen, there's more bike traffic than car traffic at rush hour. You see people out there looking like my mom and grandmas just riding to work or riding errands around town. It's clearly a standard and acceptable mode of transportation. In Seattle, it's still unusual if someone rides a bike around the city."

Treisman, his girlfriend, Jill Bodnar, and his mom, Janna Treisman, talk wistfully of Portland, which has 156 miles of bike lanes, 68 miles of off-street paths, 30 miles of bike boulevards. (Seattle has 25 miles of bike lanes, 37 miles of paths.)A recent count by the city auditor found 4 percent of Portland residents get to work by bike; 9 percent in some neighborhoods. The increase in cycling has been dramatic, says city bicycle coordinator Roger Geller, jumping by more than 300 percent during the past 15 years.

That's because since the mid-1990s, 1 percent of statewide transportation revenue has been dedicated to bike and pedestrian facilities, and Oregon state law requires all new transportation construction and road rebuilds to be bike-friendly.

Amazingly, even as the number of cyclists has soared, Portland has seen virtually no increase in reported crashes. Without conclusive studies, Geller and other cycling experts stop short of claiming bikeways and cycling facilities make pedaling safer. They will say that having more people on bicycles increases motorists' awareness.

Somehow, it transforms the culture of the street.

As Seattle's cycling community grows and matures, Hiller predicts motorists and cyclists here will become better at sharing the road. "Peer pressure," he says, will deter rogue bikers from terrorizing pedestrians and darting into traffic.

For now, the scene is just a few steps beyond the lean, bearded and Lycra-clad. The day I rode with Ayer, Hiller and Patrick McGrath of Cascade, Hiller repeatedly emphasized that he's overweight and out-of-shape, and as we pedaled, pointed out heavy cyclists, women cyclists, older bikers, pedalistas wearing fashionable non-synthetic clothes.

Within a decade, Lagerwey envisions a transformed urban culture where it's common to hop on your bike to pick up milk, go out to dinner. In Seattle, more than half of all trips are less than five miles, a reasonable pedaling distance that Lagerwey calls "low-hanging fruit." As the city finishes shared-use trails including the Burke-Gilman and Chief Sealth, paints stripes and "sharrows" to denote bikeways and adds signage, he expects the percentage of bike trips to triple or quadruple.

What would it take to get you on a bike?

THE FOUR barriers to cycling: safety, time, convenience and comfort.

Safety is the deal breaker.

According to city statistics between 2001 and 2004, there was one bicycle fatality each year (except in 2003 when there were none) and an annual average of 247 reported injuries, a rate believed to be vastly underreported.

Consider: The most revealing moment at the first public meeting of the Bicycle Master Plan was when Tammy Sufi, of Toole Design Group engineering consultants, asked how many cyclists had been hit by cars. Hundreds of hands went up. How many reported their wrecks? Only about a dozen.

A 2003 article in the American Journal of Public Health found the risk of fatal injury in the U.S. 12 times greater per mile on a bike than in a car. U.S. cyclist fatalities were more than twice those of Germany and four times higher than The Netherlands, the study found, even though those countries have lower helmet use and more children and seniors bicycling.

Dr. Catherine Staunton, a public health consultant who researched bicycle injury prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calculates that an American bike commuter who averages 10 miles per day for 40 years has a 1 in 60 chance of fatal injury, a 1 in 2 chance of hospitalization and an average of 5.5 visits to the emergency room. Seattle is somewhat safer for cycling than the average American city, but not much.

Others point to Portland's remarkable crash statistics.

"Riding bikes is not killing people," Hiller says. "Heart disease is killing people. If everybody rode their bikes you'd see a startling decline in the rate of cycling fatalities, and you'd probably look at a startling decline in heart disease, too!"

Ideas on how to improve safety are all over the map.

Staunton advocates physically separating bikes from cars wherever possible by creating a network of bike paths and bike boulevards safe enough for seniors and children. To turn a quiet residential road into a bike boulevard, she suggests putting stop signs and signals at all cross streets and limiting use to bikes and local traffic.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, meet David Smith, a longtime bicycle commuter and "bike driving" instructor who had four bad crashes in 20 years before wising up in 1990 and studying how the safest urban cyclists ride.

Don't segregate the cyclists, he says. Train them to ride safely in traffic.

Since then, he's tested his techniques at the city's worst intersections. "I really tried to push the limit in more and more difficult traffic," he says. Left turn onto Dearborn by Goodwill. The Aurora and University bridges. Westlake at rush hour. He's pedaled 70,000 miles without a crash.

His secret? Behave like a vehicle. Follow the rules of the road, ride straight, look sharp, use body language, a sort of pantomime, to let motorists know your intentions.

"You need to learn simple social skills for the traffic environment," he told me the afternoon I rode along to watch his techniques. "Realize that motorists are watching you and trying to figure out what you're going to do."

On city streets, riding about where a car's right tire normally tracks gets you out of the dangerous "door zone" where cyclists get bonked when people in parked cars open their doors. It removes you from the blind spot of cars pulling away from the curb and out of driveways. Theoretically, it also forces motorists to change lanes when passing, instead of squeezing by.

To my amazement, the techniques worked; cars gave us wide berth. Then it was my turn to go it alone. Smooth pedaling — until a left turn required occupying the entire left lane, which would slow a line of cars headed by a huge SUV. Hot radiator grille in my mirror. Instead of holding ground, I bailed out to the shoulder.

"What happened there?" Smith asked during a sidewalk conference.

I'd lost my nerve.

"So this is an emotional issue," he said. Earlier in the ride, Smith told me he'd been active during the civil-rights era and long ago worked in an Alaskan cannery where he was disheartened by the racial segregation. He paused, watching cars stream past.

"What's it going to take to make you believe you're equal?"

THE BIKE racks around the UW's Gould Hall overflowed. Inside, at the first public meeting of Seattle's Bicycle Master Plan, a crowd of 450 swarmed around city bike maps, their mood hopeful but wary. Their weapon of choice: Sharpie markers.

Comments, scrawled on maps:

Along Dexter Avenue: DANGEROUS!! Door zone! Starbucks needs to tell its customers to WATCH OUT!

On Second Avenue: CRAZY to have a bike lane on far left — bikes get creamed by left-turning cars.

Alaskan Way South: To call this a bike lane is a JOKE! It is often unpainted! Broken pavement! Glass!

On 15th Avenue Northwest, leading to the Ballard Bridge: This is the most dangerous street in all of Seattle.

On index cards: Post rules of the road on billboards for motorists! All these plans look great. Now get the paint going!

"For the first time in 22 years, I feel like the stars are aligned to have a Bicycle Master Plan," Lagerwey said, ecstatic about the turnout. "The public is ready to take it to another level."

But others, like Ayers of Cascade, were skeptical. "To change the whole culture of transportation, you need critical mass. We won't have that critical mass unless we start implementing the plan and have the law behind it saying: This will be done."

ON THE STREETS, the ride called Critical Mass feels like a fiesta.

One guy pedals atop a double-decker bike, his panniers loaded with five 12-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Another trails a large stereo speaker booming experimental Japanese music and Broadway show tunes. There's a nude tattooed bicyclist, a steady ringing of bicycle bells.

But these are not WTO anarchists or hard-core bike messengers (who patronizingly refer to Critical Mass as "amateur hour"). Mostly, they're regular folks, exactly the type Lagerwey and Cascade are trying to get onto bikes. There's a real-estate agent, electronics technician, fourth-grade teacher, research engineer, graphic designer. The August night I rode Critical Mass, I chatted with Sadie Frederick, the manager of Mighty-O Donuts near Green Lake, who pedaled a sturdy commuter bike with a handle-bar basket, a la Wizard of Oz. She wore a skirt, not Lycra, and said she was riding Critical Mass for the first time to celebrate giving up her car. A Cabriolet convertible. She loved it, but didn't really need it — an environmental choice that also eased her budget.

At 31, Frederick looks exactly like the kind of friend who'd drive a fun convertible. That she's on a bike instead may say something significant about where our society's headed.

At the moment, we're pouring down Pine toward the Pike Place Market where red neon meets sunset in a fabulous glow. It's a glorious ride — the only time I've ever felt safe pedaling on city streets. Clearly, that's because I'm surrounded by other cyclists, cars kept at bay. I flash on Staunton's ominous safety statistics and wonder which of us will wind up in Harborview's trauma unit in coming years. Will we ever have bike routes safe as Portland's?

Does urban cycling in Seattle have enough momentum to go anywhere? Or will this all be yet another exercise in spinning our wheels?

Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest staff writer. Email: pbock@seattletimes.com. Harley Soltes is a Seattle-area freelance photographer.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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