by Casey Jaywork
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Capitol Hill is as taxing for bicyclists as its steep name implies. Yet the Hill is an epicenter of Seattle pedal-power, boasting a hardcore cadre of year-round commuters, which has ballooned in recent weeks as the sun has returned to our heaven.
Why do they do it?
To answer this question, I talked to cyclists on the street, including the Hill’s only currently open-for-business bike mechanic (at 12th Avenue and East Pine Street, beside Washington Liquor Store). For Seattle Bicycle Collective owner/operator JT Lawson, the allure of the velocipede is a combination of lifestyle, community, and citizenship. Biking “makes me happy,” he told The Capitol Hill Times, adding that the combination of healthy exercise and outdoor exposure adds to the simple thrill of racing on your own steam. “I like how [bike culture] brings people together.” But he also acknowledged that his method of commute affects a wider community than just bicyclists. “It’s my responsibility to bike in the city instead of driving,” he said, rather than “live in a wasteful way. It’s part of my civic duty to live smart.”
Another cyclist who I spoke with, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed that living responsibly is part of what motivates his two-wheeled motion. “I have a car, but I avoid driving as much as possible,” he said. I don’t want to use up gas, I don’t want to pollute the environment if I don’t have to.”
Many of the people who I spoke with talked about how the visceral joy of biking is augmented by other perks, like the convenience of cycle-commuting in a city perpetually clogged with automotive congestion. “It’s so much faster and cheaper,” cyclist and bike polo athlete Danielle Khleang told me. “You can get everywhere faster, in like half the time. I go to UW and I live on the Hill; it takes me like 15, 20 minutes to get there. If I took the bus, depending on the time of the day, it would take 40 minutes.”
A common theme among interviewees was the omnipresent danger of automobiles. The anonymous cyclist said that car drivers have become less of a threat to bicycles in the past decade or so. “[Drivers were] the big problem before,” he said. “Drivers wanted to compete with you more than drive with you. They wanted to race you or cut you off. That’s changed a lot,” thanks in part to added bike lanes and signs.
Still, drivers can and do bring cyclists uncomfortably close to the edge of their mortality. “It really is kind of dangerous,” Dan (who did not wish to give his last name) told me. “Because the culture isn’t real nice out here. Everybody wants their own way.” Khleang recalled an erratic taxi that whipped into the bike lane in front of her. “It made a sudden right-turn, and I just [flipped] right onto the trunk of it. And it was…not awesome. It was pretty shitty.”
Cars aside, road conditions offer plenty of dangers for unwary cyclists. Dan pointed out the broken glass that is common along backstreets and bike lanes. And Khleang, who is apparently a difficult person to kill, also told me about a time when her front tire was engulfed in a massive pothole. “It wiped me out and I cut up my whole leg,” she said. “That sucked. That sucked big time. My knee was just tore up.” White-collar worker Suhas Rao pointed out the dangers posed by Broadway’s lightrail tracks. “My friend fell down,” he said. “There’s the tracks, the railroad tracks over there? Yeah, he fell down a couple of times there. And there are [grates] and your bike slips on that.”
But none of the cyclists who I spoke with entertained the notion of quitting because of these dangers. “I guess it is really partly the thrill of it,” Dan told me. “I’ve always been this way, though.” Khleang agreed, saying, “Once you start biking, you just kind of love it.” Rao described biking around the Hill as pretty fun. “There are a lot of things to look around, especially coming from the suburbs. It’s a nice way to explore the area.”
When asked how cycling on the Hill could be improved, everyone gave the same answer: pay attention. “Just be aware of bikes,” the anonymous cyclist told me. “Respect bikes. Respect bicyclists more than maybe you have in the past. That goes for cars, pedestrians—sometimes pedestrians walk in front of you, or get out of cars without looking. That happens all the time. That’s the main danger, really, that bikers have. People not being aware, looking to see if a bike is there…[Cyclists] can be killed very easily.”