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Originally published May 20, 2010 at 10:01 PM | Page modified May 21, 2010 at 12:09 PM

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Bike to work with care: Key danger zones

Friday is the annual National Bike to Work Day, and we've highlighted some of the hazardous places in the Seattle area for bike riders.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Around the region

Several online news partners of The Seattle Times are covering Bike to Work Day today:

PhinneyWood.com: In Fremont, hundreds of cyclists stopped by a commute station to grab free goodies, including water bottles and safety lights.

Eastlake Ave. Blog: REI's commute station at the south end of University Bridge was hopping at 7 a.m.

Central District News: It's Bike To Work Day, and we've biked up and then way down to Madrona Park, where Bridget and Emmett are set up with signs, muffins, and a ton of coffee.

West Seattle Blog: As of 7:30 am, 209 bicyclists had checked in at Cascade Bicycle Club's official Bike-To-Work Day commute station by the west end of the "low bridge" -- close to last year's pace, we're told.

In striving to be green, the Seattle area is faced with a safety dilemma.

As politicians call for more densely populated communities, trying to reduce sprawl and carbon pollution, residents are encouraged to bicycle on urban streets that seem more crowded every year.

This is National Bike to Work Day, a day that attracted 19,000 people in the Seattle area last year to the ideal of cycling more and driving less. Many of them are inexperienced riders.

So what is a ridable route? It depends on who's riding.

Bike ideology crosses a spectrum from confident cyclists who "claim the lane" in traffic, to the advice Seattle transport leaders heard a few years ago from Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia: "A bicycle lane that cannot be used by an 8-year-old is not a bike lane; you need a bikeway that's protected."

The city of Seattle, which gradually is adding a mix of trails, signs and painted bike lanes, retained its "gold" ranking this week from the League of American Bicyclists. Washington kept its No. 1 state ranking, based on criteria such as policies and programs and bike-friendly trails and roads.

Still, safety is an issue here. Five Seattle bicyclists died and more than 100 were seriously hurt from 2006-2008, city data show. At least four more died in Seattle last year, according to news reports. An elderly woman died last month after she was hit by a cyclist on a trail in Renton. And just Thursday, an accident left a bicyclist on Admiral Way in West Seattle pinned under a car.

Riders or drivers get careless, official bike routes can sometimes be treacherous and off-street trails don't exist in most areas.

We talked with avid cyclists and advocates to create this list (in no particular order) of places that are risky or too hostile for safe biking. Governments are aware of them, and in some cases are working on solutions.

Ballard Bridge's south end

A curb divides 40 mph vehicles from cyclists and pedestrians on the bridge, and the greatest test of will comes a few yards from the bridge's south end, where a cut in the curb channels riders directly onto 15th Avenue West. You have to "look for a big opening, where you're going to jump out," says cyclist Chris Phillips.

Sightline Institute founder Alan Durning highlighted this spot in April 2007 for his essay series "Bike Neglect." The city has since added warning signs. "It gives us a false sense of security, thinking we can go out there and the cars are going to stop," said rider Jo Simonian.

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Solution: The city is spending $50,000 to study whether it can add width to bike lanes on the bridge, and improve safety at both ends.

Ruts on Jackson Street

The slope along the Chinatown International District is a rare central-city route that's neither a freeway entrance nor ridiculously steep. But potholes can send you flying. Cyclists and drivers have a common interest here.

Solution: The concrete surface will be replaced in 2011-12 for the First Hill streetcar. Until then, the city will keep patching potholes, said Sam Woods, a Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) manager who oversees bike projects. Often, she'll bike on King Street instead.

University Bridge's north end

Barbara Culp, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington, fears this place since seeing a woman thrown by cracks in Roosevelt Way Northeast earlier this year. Just to the south, two lanes of car traffic combine and merge left onto the bridge, while cyclists weave to the right to the bridge's bike trail.

Solution: The city is studying some ideas, including possibly narrowing the car-merging lane, said Woods.

Second Avenue

The city refused to scrap this lane to make way for a proposed monorail. Near University Street, nine bicyclists were hit in 2006-08 — six by left-turning cars. The bike lane is positioned on the left side of the one-way southbound street.

Solution: SDOT has changed road markings and removed a parking space to improve sight lines.

North Linden Street

Shoreline's side of the Interurban Trail ends at a parklike, wood shelter — then spills into chaos at the Seattle city limits. North Linden Street from North 145th to 128th streets fills with cars from countless apartment driveways and spillover traffic from Aurora Avenue. It also runs past Bitter Lake Community Center, where safer cycling would benefit young people.

Solution: The city is studying ideas that include a separate bike lane to the west of parked cars, said Woods. Two miles south, bike-activated traffic signals are coming to Linden soon in the Greenwood area.

"Missing link" of Ballard

Seattle in 2008 finished the Puget Sound end of the Burke-Gilman Trail at Golden Gardens, a jewel for ex-SDOT director Grace Crunican. But for a mile in central Ballard, riders spill and swerve. Shilshole Avenue Northwest includes rails, dirt shoulders where industrial workers park cars and tankers making deliveries.

Solution: Industries and the city agreed on most of the $14 million corridor, just east of the Ballard Locks. But a judge ordered more environmental study, rather than let the city "piecemeal" the bitterly disputed project — which industrial advocates call a threat to Seattle's working waterfront.

Six more months of study are needed before construction can start on most of the missing link, says SDOT spokesman Rick Sheridan. Even then, riders will be guided off industrial Shilshole Avenue and onto Ballard Avenue Northwest for six blocks as an "interim" segment until a final plan is made for those worst six blocks. Taking the calmer, tree-lined Ballard Avenue is already good advice but requires using arterials that can be dangerous for novice riders.

Sodo bike trail to nowhere

The north-south bike trail along Sound Transit's new light-rail line provides an oasis in Sodo, where the scent of baked bread is carried by the south wind.

All of a sudden, the trail stops behind Franz Bakery, at three train tracks. Riders can shift to Airport Way South. Trail user Bryan McLellan, of Georgetown, says the trail works great for getting bikes off bumpy, truck-filled Sixth Avenue South, but "Airport Way is just a highway. At least once a day, I would have someone pull out and yell at me."

Solution: The city holds out little hope to complete this trail, due to multiple land owners, including railroads. The cost of land means other trail investments could be a better use for city bike funds, said Woods. SDOT is thinking about improving Sixth.

Burke-Gilman Trail at 25th Avenue Northeast

On a warm day, more than 2,000 people bike or walk the trail. Local drivers generally look for bikes, but it's easy to be distracted by businesses, junctions and signs. Quick bicyclists and joggers routinely try to beat the flashing crosswalk light, just as a driver has finally been able to make a left or right turn.

Aurora Burd, a bike-commuting graduate student, said it's a fairly good corner, but "if a car is trying to squeak through at the last minute, it's a bad condition."

Solution: The city this winter banned right turns on red, and put up signs telling drivers to yield to walkers and cyclists — "a pretty good help," said Woods.

Bellevue gap in Highway 520 trail

Bikes have their own path and bridges alongside the highway, but that trail heading west suddenly ends at Northeast 24th Street, dumping cyclists near four-lane Northup Way. "There's no good option there," says Rebecca Slivka, founder of bicyclewatchdog.org.

Solution: A current repaving project will add bike lanes to a four-block stretch of Northup. Bellevue is studying other interim routes in the area until a nearby I-405 interchange is redone, which "will take a number of years," said Rick Logwood, Bellevue capital-projects manager. Next year, the city will begin building bike lanes linking this gap to downtown.

Marysville to Everett

Four bridges on Highway 529 were built in the early to mid-20th century. They lack shoulders, and riders heading south into Everett must cross 60 mph highway traffic to use a walkway on the left side.

Solution: The swing bridge at Marysville will be replaced with a wider one, which fixes the shortest of the four crossings. No relief is in sight for the others.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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