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Let's talk about speed and Seattle's downtown bike track

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A pedestrian in Seattle wants to know why bicyclists aren't stopping at crosswalks. Do cyclists even know they have to?

Spring is nearly here and warmer weather means more bicyclists on the road.

But not everyone in Seattle is jazzed about that. Listener Richard Schwartz sent us this question: "Why does Seattle ask nothing of cyclists? There's no licensing, no accountability, no set speed limit, and no helmet law enforcement."

Richard's question has some emotion behind it. To find out what was bugging him, I went to his place — on my bike, because that's how I get around.

It's electric, and when I pulled up, Richard looked at me sideways.

"Can you ride this bike?" Schwartz asked, "I mean you can ride this bike on the cycle track? Because it's almost reaching a motorcycle."

Okay, my bike is not a motorcycle, but there's a reason Richard doesn't like these faster bikes.

He lives on a boat on Lake Union and he often has to cross a bike path called the Westlake Cycle Track.

It's two lanes of bike track right next to a sidewalk.

casey martin richard
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KUOW/Casey Martin

The bikes here go zipping by really fast, which makes the track difficult to cross if you're a pedestrian like Richard.

"Everyone who wants to access the businesses or their boats or works here, or whatever, has to cross this thing in order to get to the parking area," Schwartz said.

There is a 15 miles per hour speed limit but those signs are really small and they're tough to see from your bike.

As for crosswalks: Richard showed me what it's like to try and use one.

He takes a step toward a crosswalk and two bikes come racing up and go flying by.

They were supposed to yield and let Richard cross, according to Seattle law.

He said this is what it's like for him and his neighbors: The Westlake Cycle Track has become kind of a bike freeway.

Could it be that these riders just don't know what's asked of them? Where can they go to learn this stuff?

That's where Ryan Young comes in. He's an instructor at Cascade Bicycle Club, and he took me out for a ride.

"If you're passing someone, like on the trail," Young said from the saddle of his bike, "that signal could also include a bell ring or an 'On your left.'"

I asked Ryan about what I saw at the Westlake Cycle Track where bikes were flying by crosswalks without stopping.

He says the low barrier to biking — where pretty much anybody can hop on a bike — means most cyclists don't know the intricate rules of the road.

"It's something you learn a lot just from your friends who you ride around with," he said. "When you learn it informally, you might have missed some of those specific details."

caption: Cascade Bicycle Club's Ryan Young teaches people how to ride safely. He says bicyclists should think of themselves as vehicles and yield to pedestrians.
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Cascade Bicycle Club's Ryan Young teaches people how to ride safely. He says bicyclists should think of themselves as vehicles and yield to pedestrians.

I asked the City of Seattle about Westlake Cycle Track.

The Department of Transportation wouldn't say much other than they are in talks to put up big, clear speed limit signs, like ones for cars, later this year.

Kind of like they did on the Burke-Gilman Trail.

Seattle Police said last year they did write tickets to cyclists who did not yield for pedestrians.

Three. In all of Seattle.

The city says this track doesn't have a history of serious collisions.

So Richard Schwartz and his neighbors will have to keep trying to safely cross. He said he also tries to talk to cyclists about their speed.

"Once in a while, one will stop and turn around and come back," Schwartz said, "and except for one occasion, those conversations have been very good conversations."

I've got to admit, since talking with Richard, I know I've kept a closer eye on my speed.

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