If you want to know what’s up with urban cycling you’ve got to talk to folks who put rubber to the road everyday. OTM recently sat down with four bike commuters who are all dedicated to the idea of bicycles as transportation. We got a great roundtable discussion-including some crash stories.

Henry Seipp
Shadle Park HS Drama Teacher
Bicycle Commuter for 6 years
(previously lived and bicycle-commuted in LA)

Sally Phillips
Computer Support, Federal Court House
Bicycle Commuter for 20 years

Grace Danborn
Works at REI (part-time) and Adjunct
Professor, English Department,
Gonzaga University
Bicycle Commuter for 1 year

Liza Mattana
Stay-at-Home Mom
Rides for errands, meetings and
transportation

OTM: IS SPOKANE A GOOD TOWN FOR BIKE TRANSPORTATION?

L: I think so. There is a variety of trails, there are a lot of streets that aren’t heavily trafficked by cars. A lot of arterials have wide shoulders and drivers share the road for the most part.

OTM: EVERYBODY AGREE?

H: That depends on the part of town you are in and the time of day, how busy the street is-but overall most people share the road. I lived in Olympia, WA for a while and thought it was a great place to ride, but the weather was terrible. It’s colder here in Spokane, but nine months of rain is really hard for riding. In Los Angeles, I lived three years and commuted along the beach-which was great but the wind and sand just wreaked havoc with my bike. For me Spokane is a great place to ride, it’s not raining everyday and there’s no sand.

S: I’m real active in the Spokane Bicycle Club. When new members come to us from other places they often talk about how great a place Spokane is to ride, how there’s not as much
traffic.

OTM: GRACE, WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO START COMMUTING?

G: I just really hate driving my car. Frankly I can just walk and bus pretty much everywhere I need to go. If you live in Browne’s Addition you can have a car-less existence. I’ve always ridden my bike for fun. I biked in Juno, Alaska, I biked in the suburbs of Denver when I lived there. But I was really, really, really scared of traffic. I also knew someone who got hit by a car and broke her jaw coming down the South Hill. That happened just as I was starting to bike more. That scared me. I think there are a lot of people who are closet bicyclists, who stick to the alleys or stay off the roads. If we can just welcome them in. Just knowing about the Bike Buddy program is great. It’s hard to just walk into a bike shop and say, this is where I live, this is where I’m going, what’s the best way to get there? The first time I went up the South Hill I tried to bike up Grand [laughter]. It was just ridiculous. Being able to talk to other cylists has just been great. The SRTC map was really helpful in terms of route planning. Now I only use my car to go skiing.

OTM: WHAT COULD WE DO TO GET MORE CYCLISTS OUT THERE AND MAKE SPOKANE A BETTER CYCLING TOWN?

L: It’s matter of being proactive and seeking information out. You have to talk to other cyclists. You have to look at maps and find out where your best routes are. A community cycling center would be great. More bike lockers in a central location would be great. There are a few of them in Park and Ride stations but some downtown would be a great help.

G: Also getting those maps up and out in more locations would be great. There should be some downtown at the bus center. The other thing I was really nervous about was commuting in the winter. But, I’ve been fine.

H: People will look at you like you are nuts. But we all ski, and people go snowshoeing. It’s the same deal. It’s warmer than skiing.

G: It’s not anymore dangerous than walking. Once you let a little air out of your tires and you are okay with the fishtailing it’s okay.

OTM: LET’S TALK ABOUT BIKE LANES
FOR A SECOND. IN SOME PARTS OF THE COUNTRY THERE IS CONTROVERSY ABOUT BIKE LANES-WHETHER THEY ARE A
GOOD THING TO HAVE OR NOT, HOW AND WHERE THEY SHOULD BE? WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT BIKE LANES?

H: One of my problems with Spokane cycling is the bike lanes. Just because they paint a white stripe doesn’t make it a bike lane. There’s tons of glass there, there’s tons of debris there, the pot holes are still there, the sewer grates are there. I can’t ride in it. I have to ride in the right hand tire mark. Especially this time of year. That’s why I don’t commute on my road bike. I ride my mountain bike. Some of the bike lanes and roads in Spokane you need a mountain bike for.

G: Even in the summer. I was biking up to Greenbluff and there’s just glass and trash all through the bike lane. You are just asking for a flat tire, and I got several [flat tires] staying in the bike lanes before I got out of them.

OTM: THERE’S AT LEAST A COUPLE
PLACES IN TOWN WHERE ROAD WORK HAS ELIMINATED OR SHORTENED BIKE LANES.

L: I’m not pro- or anti-bike lane. I think they are not maintained alot of times. I think they add to confusion alot of times-should I be in this bike lane? What do I do when the bike lane ends? What if there is not a bike lane? Does that mean I can’t be on the road? I think “Share the Road” signs can be great. I like the idea of “sharrows,” which is an arrow where that right wheel well is, so that people say “Oh, that’s where a person on a bike should be.” It’s detectable, you know where to look.

S: The bike lane I use the most is on South east Blvd. When I am coming off the hill everyday it is the most efficient way for me to get downtown. I use it all the time and it illustrates all the problems we are describing. The streets only get swept a couple times a year. There’s gravel and garbage, and all the debris that the car tires push over there. There’s no continuity there. From 17th to 25th it is a continuous bike lane, and then they start interrupting it. At the 31st it picks up again and dumps you out on bike-friendly Regal [laughs]. But I use it all the time anyway, because it is the easiest way and because I am one of those crazy cyclist that ride all year long and there are times you really need a road that is being plowed.

H: So are you using the bike lane or the street?

S: I won’t be using the street, there’s too much traffic there.

H: I’ve been hit by several cars in all of the cities I’ve been in and I’ve never been hit in traffic. I’ve been hit on a side street. Or I got hit on the sidewalk when someone was coming out of a parking lot. The best place for me is on the right wheel mark. When I’m coming down the South Hill, I’m passing cars. When I’m going up I’ll go in the bike lane because I’m going slow and I can look for glass. But for the most part when I am going 18-20 miles per hour, I am in traffic, I’m not on a bike lane, I’m not on a side street, I’m not on a sidewalk. Especially when it’s dark. In the summer when it’s sunny, I will ride wherever. But not on the sidewalk-I always feel that is the most dangerous place to be.

OTM: IF THE MAYOR, CITY PLANNING,
CITY ENGINEERING WERE LISTENING
RIGHT NOW WHAT WOULD YOU TELL THEM THEY SHOULD DO ABOUT BIKE LANES IN THIS TOWN?

S: I would asked them to describe what the plan actually is for the bike lanes. You can’t just paint a stripe in the road that runs six blocks and disapears into nothing. The impression we get from the way the city puts down bike lanes is that they are just reserving a space on the road until they need it for a real use, for a car. They will put it down for a while and then take it away when it is convenient for them.

OTM: LIKE SOUTHEAST BLVD.?
S: Yes. In several places.

OTM: SO YOU THINK THEY NEED MORE
OF A PLAN?

S: Yes.

H: If they do make a bike lane, the have to pave it all the way to the sidewalk. There shouldn’t be any parking.

OTM: HAS ANYONE ELSE BEEN HIT BY
A CAR?

S: I’ve been hit several times. Once it was definitely my fault. I was being too accommodating. I was too far over to the right. I was waiting for cars to pass me so that I could move over and do a left turn. A car passed me and that car masked the fact that there was another car coming behind it and I couldn’t hear it. I went right out in front of the car. The guy slammed on his brakes and I was just glad he had good reflexes. I just bounced right back up and took off. The other two times it was in the vicinity of South east Blvd. Where I was on the arterial and cars came from a side street and stopped, but apparently didn’t see me. They went right out into the street and hit me. In either case I wasn’t hurt, a bruise that’s it.

G: I had a crash once, but it was my fault. After I switched from my old Schwinn to my new Novaro, a car pulled out in traffic right in front
of me I could have braked more gradually, but instead I flipped right over my handle bars. I was afraid I was going to hit his car. I just kind of rolled up onto the sidewalk. It was at 2nd and Browne.

OTM: SO YOUR DISC BRAKES WERE
A LOT MORE POWERFUL THAN YOU WERE EXPECTING?

G: Yeah, it was the first week I had them. With my old Schwinn I would pump those brakes and say Hail Mary’s coming down a hill. It was definitely my fault, but it was also someone cutting right in front of me.
H: I’ve been hit by several cars, several times, even when I was a kid. Once I was in a bike lane and traffic was just flying by me, and there’s a ton of traffic, so there’s no way I can go into traffic. There’s a sidewalk on my right and an overpass too. So I am flying down this bike lane very fast. I go around the corner and and there is a bike going the wrong way on the bike lane. It’s this little old man with giant trash bags filled with cans all over his bike. All I can do is either careen into him, careen into traffic or try to bunny hop my old ten-speed up onto the curb. So I bunny hop this road bike and I bite it. I get hit by a homeless guy with aluminum cans. [Laughter] That’s why I don’t like bike lanes.

L: I feel like we should have a clause in there that if the bike lanes are well thought out, and if they are put on certain roads then they do make sense.

H: I think that would be great to have great bike lanes that were planned and maintained.

OTM: CAN WE CLEAR SOMETHING UP?
YOU NEVER RIDE AGAINST TRAFFIC IN THE BIKE LANE?

Everyone: Yes

OTM: WHAT WOULD MAKE SPOKANE A
BETTER BIKING TOWN? HOW CAN WE MAKE MORE PEOPLE COMFORTABLE WITH BIKING AS TRANSPORTATION?

S: I don’t know how we can make this happen because it requires culture change, but the faster the traffic is going the less margin for error you’ve got. If you get motorists to drive the speed limit instead of 12 miles over that would be nice.

I’ve been in towns, Mt. Vernon, for example, where 25 miles an hour is the speed limit all through town. I don’t know how to get people to think about the speed they are going in their car as something they are doing for their community.

H: Articles like this will help. I started riding to Shadle and because of me, I know I hear people saying “You know, I’ve always meant to do that.”

G: I think employers can help a lot by having showers on site. Or by offering some sort of incentive, like giving you a free lunch once in a while.

L: When I think of what you need for a bike-friendly city, there’s bike parking that’s well-lit and safe, maybe it’s covered. Those bike maps should be accessible to anyone, not just people in bike shops. Bike lockers …

H: What are bike lockers?

L: It’s a locker that you have for your bike. They cover the whole bike. They have them at some STA Park and Ride’s. You have to pay for them, but the problem is, there aren’t very many of them and they are usually spoken for.

L: Others things would be a cycling center like Seattle has, the Bike Station. You check your bike in, you pay a membership fee. There’s somebody there.

OTM: IS IT POSSIBLE TO MAKE CYCLING MORE OF A POLITICAL FORCE IN SPOKANE?

L: There’s a new bicycle advisory board. There’s work going on right now with the comprehensive plan and making biking a quality of life issue along with walking and “Near Nature, Near Perfect.” There is the potential for that to happen. I’m hopeful.

S: When the people who make the decisions, in this city, the funding decisions, decide there is an economic benefit to having a vibrant bicycling community things will change. It could be
that we will have to learn from the Coeur d’Alene experience where biking amenities and just part of public amenities in general. They’ve bought the idea that if you want people to come to your town and spend money you need to
provide them with a beautiful atmosphere, whether it’s artwork or nice bike lanes. It’s something that’s talked about but I don’t
know if it is accepted that there is a bottom line advantage.

H: What comes first, the city that has a lot of bikers so the city responds, or the city responds and that creates more cyclists? I don’t know what the city’s role is supposed to be. I just ride my bike and if more people want to join me I hope they do. I don’t know if Lance Armstrong has increased cycling’s popularity, or if the new interest in triathlons is doing it, but more and more people are cycling. Twenty years ago you [talking to Sally] were by yourself out there. Now, you must see are tons of people commuting.

S: They pass me all the time. [Laughter]

OTM: WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR
PEOPLE THINKING OF RIDING MORE? MAYBE THEY ARE THINKING OF RIDING A COUPLE DAYS A WEEK, OR MAYBE THEY ARE TRYING TO AVOID BUYING A SECOND CAR FOR THE FAMILY.

G: I have two things. A) Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions about anything that has to do with a bike. B) Make a commitment to it. It’s easy when the weather gets gross or you have to haul things to say “Oh, I’ll just do this in my car.” For me that commitment is I am going to try to ride every where except Mt. Spokane. But your commitment could be just riding to work two days a week. Just make a commitment to yourself.

S: Check with your employer. That’s very important. One thing I’ve always been able to do is take my bike inside. If you leave it locked up outside because there is no alternative sooner or later it’s going to get stolen. Also, make them aware that you are doing it. When I first started I was really concerned that I was going to have a flat tire on the way to work and be late. But actually, that’s never happened. You may find out that your employer wants you to be a really healthy person, because it’s an advantage for them too.

H: My gut response is, it’s a lot easier than you think. If I’m in the car because I have to pick up the kids after work and I don’t get to go for my ride, I am more funky at work. When I ride the endorphins take over and make you feel good.

L: Give it a shot and go with what you have. Then talk to people. Our neighbors ride a lot now, compared to when we first met them two years ago, partly because they are excited because they see us on our bikes all the time.

H: People forget how fun bikes are. I get friends on a bike and they say “This is awesome!” Yeah, it’s a good time. The funny thing about bike commuting people think it takes such a long time. Whether I’m riding my car to Shadle Park or riding my bike to Shadle Park the difference is only a few minutes.

L: Talk to people who can help you, like the bike buddy program. Try to be a little bit prepared, so that it won’t be miserable experience.

OTM: WHAT ARE BIKE COMMUTING
ESSENTIALS?

L: A Water bottle. Maybe a map.

S: A tire patch kit or a spare tube.

G: Reflectors, a helmet.

L: Some kind of blinky light on the back so that people can see you.

OTM: IF SOMEONE CAME UP TO YOU AND SAID “I’M THINKING OF MOVING TO SPOKANE, BUT I’M NOT SURE WHAT KIND OF CITY IT IS TO BIKE IN,” WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THEM?

S: It’s a great city to bike in. We’ve got the Centennial Trail, mountain biking, awesome road rides on the Palouse, pretty manageable city riding. It’s varied and wide open. Plus world class trials over in Idaho.
H: Plus Mt. Spokane. Sometimes it’s an issue how you are going to get over the river. But mostly it’s tremendous. It’s a nice city with four seasons but our winter isn’t that crazy or cold. It’s not that hot in the summer. Spring gets a little muddy, but the biking here is beautiful.

S: May is a great time to get started biking.

G: I think it’s great. You just have to watch where you cross the river and how you come down hills. You are going to get cussed at or yelled at eventually if you bike enough, but you’ll just move on with your life. It’s not bad at all.

My glad-to-be-alive meter is off-the-charts when I ride.

 

1. HIRE A DEDICATED CITY EMPLOYEE
for Bicycle/Pedestrian policy and implementation. Should be at least a half-time position.

2. COMPLETE A BICYCLE MASTER PLAN
FOR THE CITY. A crucial element for securing long range funding in big chunks. Could be a great tool for bringing economic development funds to Spokane.

3. COMPLETE THE FISH LAKE TRAIL. Especially the section closest to Spokane that links to the Sandifur Bridge.

4. COMPLETE THE CENTENNIAL TRAIL.
This includes many smaller projects including the Mission St. underpass, Argonne Bridge Westside underpass access, Stateline underpass, and the West Link.

5. SEEK BIKE FRIENDLY CITY DESIGNATION. The League of American Bicyclists awards this to top-notch cycling communities. Spokane should pursue this honor.

Local bicycle activist Loren Dudley spends a lot of time thinking about how to make Spokane a better town to bike. He’s Vice Chair of the Board of Directors for Friends of the Centennial Trail and owner of Silver Bike Tours.