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What Does It Take To Get Seattleites On Bikes?

Flickr Photo/Colville-Andersen
Bicycle designers are starting to cater more to mom cyclists: running several errands with family in tote.

The Seattle Department of Transportation approved a Bicycle Master Plan in April 2014. Their vision is for biking to become "a comfortable and integral part of daily life in Seattle, for people of all ages and abilities."

But what would it take to get there?

According todata collected by Roger Geller for the Portland Office of Transportation, most of the people who currently bike are a hardy sort: "the strong and the fearless" and "the enthused and the confident." Together, these two groups make up less than 15 percent of potential bikers. 

By contrast, nearly 60 percent of potential bikers fall into a group Geller calls "the interested but concerned." That's a huge untapped market of potential converts, and transportation departments - including Seattle's - are looking to cater to their needs.

Bob Edmiston is on the steering committee for the Seattle bike group Neighborhood Greenways. He liked Geller's data, but wanted to make it more accessible. So he created "Wendy," a simple persona meant to represent "the interested but concerned." 

Wendy is willing, but wary.  

"She's a woman in her mid 30s," Edmiston said, "she's got some kids in a little burley trailer pulling behind her bicycle, she's wearing ordinary clothes, she's not wearing cycling specific clothing." 

Wendy doesn't want to ride in the street, or cross dangerous intersections. She won't let her kids ride to school because she feels it isn't safe. And she hates it when a safe bike lane just ends. She represents the huge (and hugely diverse) untapped market of those who might ride, if only it were safer or more convenient. 

Representing the market with this single persona is useful, Edmiston said, because it boils all the questions about bicycle infrastructure down to one simple question: "Would Wendy use it?" The answer, a lot of times, is no.

Transportation planners want to design networks that Wendy will say yes to.  For Seattle, that means off-street trails, cycle tracks or protected bicycle lanes, and neighborhood greenways. It means, in short, creating clearly marked routes that have a comfortable separation from cars.

But that's not all it's going to take to get the willing but wary out on bikes. It needs to be convenient, too.

That's a big part of the reason that Tyler Gillies and Davey Oil opened G&O Family Cyclery in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood. They're both avid cyclers and involved dads. Experience has taught them that some parents don't bike because they're just overburdened; especially moms.

"Women are expected to pick up the children, pick up the groceries," Oil said. "And it's going to be a lot harder to do that kind of trip chaining on typical commuter bikes."

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G&O tries to solve that problem by building the kind of bikes you can really haul stuff with. Oil shows off his own bike, a customized extra-cycle edge runner nicknamed "Blue-y." It has a cushioned bench on the back that kids can straddle. That bench is surrounded with a myriad of special doodads, like wraparound handlebars, running boards and cargo bags. And, of course, a bell.

All that customization means that Oil's kids can ride hands free. They can eat a sandwich, blow bubbles or even take a nap. "It gives the whole thing," he said, "more of the backseat experience. But like a really rad backseat." 

Blue-y also has four cargo bags on the back wheel and a basket in the front. And, if hauling kids and groceries up Seattle's hills sounds like a slog, G&O can even install an electric assist motor. 

Oil said it's taken a couple generations of trial and error to get to this point. "I think the family bikers have a lot of this stuff figured out, and there's a lot of fun, elegant solutions to practical logistical problems."

That gets us to the final thing you need to get riders of all ages and abilities out biking: fun.

On a weekend in mid-June, Madi Carlson rode to a safe streets event at Seattle Children's Hospital with a group of about 20 other adults and children. They call themselves Kidical Mass.

"It's a friendly family ride," Carlson said, "we just use a name similar to 'Critical Mass,' which is a little more political."

Fellow Kidical Mass-er Suzi Zook walked up as we were talking. As a new mom, she said, she really appreciates Kidical Mass. "It's been fantastic. And it's been a great way to meet other parents and families that ride with their kids." 

Zook said she's comfortable relying on her bike for everyday transportation. Her 20-months-old daughter Penelope loves to join her in a custom-built cargo hold in front of the handlebars.

For them, biking is just as Seattle's Department of Transportation wants it to be: a "comfortable and integral part" of daily life in Seattle. 

But there is a downside. 

"I feel guilty," Zook said, "when I put her in a car now. Because we walk to the driveway and she says, 'Bike? Bike? Bike?'"