Saturday, August 27, 2011

Bike Safety, Part II

In a previous post I made an attempt to quantify how safe bicycle commuting was for me, personally. I concluded that for my specific situation it was probably safer than driving, and that the lifetime risk of death was at an acceptable level.

Since then, the north end of the Burke-Gilman trail has been closed for much-needed repairs and improvements, and the lack of a good detour has forced me out onto the streets for a shorter but more harrowing commute down the Interurban corridor. After two months of deprivation I have a renewed appreciation of how great an asset the Burke-Gilman trail is. And an incident this week underscored just how hazardous it is when bicycles and cars share the same pavement.

The Interurban trail is a work in progress. I get on just north of 185th and enjoy uninterrupted (if less than ideal) trail riding until 145th. Then it's onto the streets to 130th, back onto a dedicated trail, and then back to the streets for good at 110th and Fremont. This is where things get dicey.

Fremont Avenue north of Woodland Park is a low-traffic street, presumably good for bicycling. The problem is that every minor intersection is uncontrolled, with a small central barrier serving to slow traffic and suggesting (but hardly enforcing) a roundabout pattern of traffic flow. Bicycles can cruise straight through - but they shouldn't. In most cases visibility down cross-streets is poor until you get really close to the intersection, so the only way to ride safely is to cross at low speed. For southbound riders the geography is uniformly downhill from 105th through 85th, so this means continual braking.

On Thursday this week a young woman passed me at 105th. Concerned, I watched her slow down as she approached 104th, so I stopped worrying. Six blocks later I found her on the ground, in the middle of the street, with a car stopped by the central barrier and a concerned couple ministering to her needs. I didn't see the accident, which evidently was mercifully minor, but it was clear what had happened. My unease with the route increased.

South of 85th I head east to Greenwood, where I share the bike lane with buses and opening car doors. It concludes with an exhilarating, high-speed bomb down Fremont Avenue south of Woodland Park where the safest course of action is to share the lane with traffic, which in general is aware of and quite tolerant of us numerous bicyclists.

I haven't tried to recalculate my odds of survival over the next 10-20 years, since this is a temporary situation, but in just two months it has become abundantly clear that my ride is far less safe now. Unfortunately, just about the time the Burke-Gilman trail is scheduled to reopen my company will be moving its office out of Fremont to the International district, way down on the south end of downtown. I haven't tried to work out the best route there yet, but I really needn't bother: there's no question it will be much worse, worse even than my current commute.

Two months of street riding have me all but convinced that this is no way to spend two hours of every weekday. Sad though it is, I think my bike-commuting days may be numbered. My tentative plan now is to bike six miles to Edmonds and take the Sounder train downtown when the weather is good, and walk a mile and take a Community Transit express bus when it isn't. I'll have to get in my biking some other way.

I've worked my way through the K├╝bler-Ross stages of grief scale (though I think I skipped stage 3, Bargaining - just who would I bargain with?) and have now arrived at stage 5, Acceptance. I'm already finding upsides: less joint pain, more time to read, less total commute time. But I know I'll have to find some other way to stay in shape, and I'd like that to involve bicycling in some manner. Weekend rides with my wife to Redmond for breakfast? The occasional bike tour? Maybe I'll even finally sign up for one of the Cascade Bicycle Club rides I read about in their monthly newsletter.

Whatever happens, 2011 will go down as a Year of Change: a daughter married off, our son heading off to college leaving us in an empty nest, a historic Scandinavian tour...and the end of a decade of bicycle commuting.

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