In many ways, I know my Seattle biking experience doesn’t really speak to most other people’s biking experience.
My personal geography patterns cover a small area of Seattle, mostly north of the ship canal. I live in north Fremont and most of my trips are between there and the University of Washington for my graduate program. I don’t think this is a unique footprint, but it covers a pretty insignificant portion of the city limits, much less the greater metropolitan area.
Even in my small space I deal with hills, the challenges of sharing roadways with traffic, a few dedicated bike trails and the difficulties of Seattle’s weather. Most of these are, I think, universal in this city to varying degrees. But it misses a lot of other common experiences – I almost never travel in or between the densely populated areas of Capitol Hill and downtown, which numbers alone suggest must be a common trip and probably requires dealing with steeper grades than I am faced with.
So to break out of my well-worn path, at least slightly, and because the whole point of this exercise is to find out if a bike is a realistic primary mode of transportation, I decided to take a ride downtown, a trip I’d made only by bus or car so far. To choose a destination, I figured ‘What’s more Seattle than heading to Pike Place Market?’ The answer is probably anywhere, I know, but I hadn’t been since moving here, and I think I have to at least go once before starting to roll my eyes at the very mention of the market and complaining about how it’s only for tourists. (At least I assume that’s how long-time residents react. I moved here from D.C., and that’s basically our reaction to anything anywhere near the Mall.)
Probably because the ship canal creates an unconscious barrier, downtown seems much farther away to me than it actually is. But getting there is a quick and easy trip, with a bike lane on Dexter Avenue (signed as the Interurban Trail) taking me straight there. Crossing Fremont Bridge leads to a slight rise, and then it’s almost entirely a downhill coast to the city center.
Once downtown, I run into a problem I’ve faced before. In a high-traffic area, it’s not always easy to determine the best route to get somewhere other than where the bike lane is leading me. Yes, bikes generally have a right to use the traffic lanes, but that doesn’t mean all streets are created equal or are comfortable to ride on.
A solution presents itself quickly, as my eye caught the sharrows in the bus-only lanes which were happily devoid of buses, and I wound down to the market.
The market itself is somehow both wonderful and disappointing. I’m not interested in the craft and merchandise vendors which make up a large part of the main floor of the market on the north side, and the famous fish stalls seem tiny (it made me long for D.C.’s relatively unknown Maine Avenue Fish Market, and resolve to find a proper local fish market here). I was pleasantly surprised, however, by the produce on offer at various sellers, and wandering around the market provides excellent people watching as well as a number of nooks and crannies away from the tourists and views of the waterfront area.
When I was ready to head back, I knew the amount of downhill coasting I did to get here was a bad sign, so instead moved in a little further east toward Lake Union, and took the flat route along the west side to the Fremont Bridge and once again huffed and puffed my way up Fremont Avenue home.
I’ve found each trip I take stretches the bounds of my mental “bikeable area,” making more and more of the city seem easily reachable. Now I know it’s an easy half hour or so to reach all of downtown, the distance between here and there is easily bridged in my head.
There are a lot of issues with biking in Seattle, but once I get out and go, I find riding on two wheels brings the city together in my head, and makes it easier to think about going places, not worrying about dealing with bus schedules or parking. Although I don’t know if I’ll be biking to the top of Queen Anne Hill anytime soon.