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May 1, 2011

News & Features

Cars vs. bikes in Seattle: Can't we all just get along?

Special to NWautos

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Motorists and bicyclists share the roads in Seattle, but not always in harmony. (Linda Hughes)

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A sign on Fairview Avenue North directs cyclists to get off the street and onto the walkway -- a scenario that many drivers like. (Linda Hughes)

Some of my best friends are drivers. Some of my best friends are cyclists.

Seattle's a great driving city -- just watch out for the belligerent bikers. It's also a great place to bike -- except for all the deranged drivers.

Meanwhile, the city continues to lure people out of their cars and onto their bikes with everything from painted bike lanes to bus-mounted racks to storage lockers. Estimates from the Cascade Bicycle Club number our bike-commuter population at more than 15,000, and the number of recreational cyclists is surely many times that.

Inevitably, as the number of cyclists on the streets rises, so does the number of accidents. According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, approximately 300 bike-car accidents are reported annually, and from one to three cyclists are killed each year, on average.

Cars crash. Bikers lose their balance. Merge them together, and throw in a few iPod-deafened pedestrians and maybe a streetcar or two, and things can get more confusing than Gas Works Park on the Fourth of July.

Symbol of sharing
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  • Shared lane pavement markings -- also known as "sharrows" -- are symbols on the pavement to help guide bicyclists to the best place to ride and remind motorists to share the lane.

Hooray for the invention of halogen lights, the micro-switches that make them blink, reflective fabrics that can be seen from space and all the other technological innovations that make it possible for all of us using our city's streets to see and be seen.

Whether we're perched precariously on a bike seat, swaddled in a stroller or ensconced in the leather-lined luxury of a Lexus, we're all a lot safer thanks to the likes of GE, Honeywell and 3M.
Seeing each other isn't the problem as much as being with each other is. More miles of bike lanes, government regulation or technology are no match for human stupidity or intolerance.

If your neighbor is in such a hurry to get to the Nordstrom One-Day Sale that she forgets to check her side-view mirror before opening the car door in front of a bicyclist, well, whatcha gonna do? Accidents happen.

For every accident, I'm guessing that the near miss or the mere nuisance causes hundreds of expletives to be hurled every day. The cyclist blocking your lane in full team regalia who thinks he's the pace car at Indy, the hipster on the fixie who speeds through the red light, the guy on the recumbent who appears to have left his training wheels at the bar -- all are likely to be greeted with a goose of the horn, a too-fast pass on the outside and a few choice words.

And then there are the offending drivers. Oh, you know who you are. That little brush-back swerve of yours is so obvious, and the "invisible biker at the four-way stop" charade, and the pièce de résistance -- the stealthy, near-silent slide up from behind (I'm talking to you, Mr. Prius) and honk of the horn to scare an unsuspecting cyclist. And you wonder why you see a flock of birds being flipped at you in the rear-view mirror?

This is Seattle's version of the Middle East conflict. The drivers resent the cyclists; the cyclists distrust the drivers.

As a cyclist who sometimes drives and a driver who sometimes cycles, I have friends on both sides of this divide. On any given day, each is as self-righteous as the other.

Clearly, the two-lane solution isn't working. It's time to stage our own Camp David-style summit, where each party can air its grievances and, hopefully, acknowledge the other's right to exist.

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