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Seattle hopes to de-escalate bike-car war

A rash of fatal crashes in the Seattle area has reignited what some call a war between cars and bicycles. Mayor Mike McGinn is hoping to de-escalate the conflict with a road safety summit Monday night at City Hall.

The first of three meetings will bring together bicycle enthusiasts, public health specialists, government leaders, and others to find ways to tone down the rhetoric and improve safety for all road users. Seattle also plans to look to other cities for help.

Transportation analyst Jeff Wood has seen some traffic safety strategies work in San Francisco, including dedicated roadways. Truckers know to avoid the bicycle streets and cars stay off the truck streets.

"It's a trade-off. You have your transit streets. You have your bike streets, and you have your auto streets, and I think it's worked out really well for the city [of San Francisco]."

Cascade Bicycle Club's government affairs director John Mauro says Seattle is way behind in what's called the Complete Streets Program.

"We won't, I think, in the near future see just a road for peds [pedestrians], and just for bikes, and just for cars. But I think the idea of separating users is a good idea" said Mauro.

Seattle has bike lanes, but beyond that, the city has put some roads on a diet, reducing lanes and slowing speeds. That has angered some drivers as has a renewed effort to cut speed limits in neighborhoods.

You can just imagine the outrage if Seattle does what's common in San Francisco and Portland: re-timing traffic signals to match the speed of bicyclists instead of vehicle traffic.

"This is nothing new for Portland [whose] downtown traffic signals have been timed to 12.5 miles per hour for years" said Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesman Dan Anderson.

Mauro loves that idea. "It actually can keep the same efficiency in moving cars through and it increases safety tremendously, and not just for bicycles, but for pedestrians, and also for cars."

In downtown Seattle, 2nd Ave. traffic signals are timed to help move buses.

Seattle is also looking at what are known as neighborhood greenways, open to cars but designed for pedestrians and cyclists. Portland has about 50 miles of greenways with speed humps and 20 miles per hour speed limits.

"When we lower speed limits, especially in our residential areas, we're not talking about an inconvenience for very many people. We're talking about keeping our communities safer," said Mauro, whose ridden the greenways in Portland. They have fewer stop signs to encourage bikes.

"They are great. It kind of puts the fun back in bicycling," said Mauro.

Seattle is the second fastest growing city for bicycle commuting in the nation. Portland's Dan Anderson thinks the war between cars and bicycles might just end when more drivers become bicyclists.

"When you have a larger percentage of your population who bicycles regularly, attitudes start changing along with it, because it's no longer us versus them when the [opponents] change" said Anderson.

The mayor hopes changing attitudes begin Monday with the first Road Safety Summit.

"I think we need to talk about this," said Mauro. "It's where we take the conversation that matters. Of course, everybody's going to be frustrated at times using our roadways, it's a limited amount of space but should that cost a human life?"

About the Author

Tim Haeck is a news reporter with KIRO Radio. While Tim is one of our go-to, no-nonsense reporters, he also has a sensationally dry sense of humor and it will surprise some to learn he is a weekend warrior.

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