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Originally published February 12, 2012 at 5:14 PM | Page modified February 13, 2012 at 7:37 AM

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Cyclists, pedestrians find oasis in Seattle's urban 'greenways'

Pedestrians, bikers and others are pushing for greenways — designated streets that offer safer ways of getting around without having to drive.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Bob Edmiston was ready. He had his bike. He had his route to work at the University of Washington. So last February, he started cycling from his Madison Park home through the Washington Park Arboretum.

Here's what he wasn't expecting: getting almost killed at least twice a week. And developing a preference for aggressive drivers over distracted ones. ("At least I know the aggressive drivers see me.")

Edmiston, 47, set out to find a safer way — away from the crowded, intimidating main roads, but still convenient enough to get to work in a reasonable amount of time.

He studied various side routes, then mapped, tested and improved upon them. It took him two months to nail down a way he considered safe and efficient.

That inspired him and a growing number of others to campaign to get less-traveled roads recognized as neighborhood "greenways."

Residents are organizing in neighborhoods across the city, encouraging people to come to meetings, reach consensus on the best routes and forward them to city officials. The city, in fact, is looking to these groups as key to creating a greenway network.

Greenways are designated streets — often parallel to arterials but much quieter — that offer everyone from cyclists to pedestrians and people in wheelchairs safer ways to get around without having to drive.

The streets are outfitted with signs, speed bumps, greenery and other traffic-calming measures, such as crossings and reduced speed limits. This year, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will build seven miles of greenways — mostly funded by the 2006 Bridging the Gap levy — in Wallingford, Beacon Hill, Ballard and Delridge at a cost of $150,000 per mile.

Residents say they see greenways as a way to deter cars and get more people out in their neighborhoods.

The rallying has gone viral. Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, Google Docs and blog posts are devoted to building greenways from Ballard to Montlake, the Central District and beyond.

To Edmiston, the crowdsourcing makes perfect sense. People usually know the best, safest, fastest way to get around their neighborhoods. Compiling that information is critical to building Seattle's greenways, he said.

"We're basically trying to harvest all the tribal knowledge within each neighborhood in order to make a new network," he said.

"Joyful" in Portland

Part of the impetus to install greenways is, no doubt, Portland envy.

In almost any conversation about greenways comes the echo of Seattle's neighbor. Portland officials say that by 2015, more than 80 percent of city residents will live within a half-mile of a greenway.

M.J. Kelly, spokeswoman for the Cascade Bicycle Club, said she spent a couple of days biking greenways in Portland last year and called it "a transformational experience."

"I could just go and go and go," she said. "It was joyful."

Jealousy or not, the idea makes sense, said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, a vocal proponent and Portland native.

"It's best practices," she said. "It's what works and what we can do to be smart. That's the lovely thing about greenways. We can afford it because we are using existing roads."

In the past decade, Mayor Greg Nickels, and now Mayor Mike McGinn, installed bike lanes, icons, signs and other features covering more than about 200 lane miles. Still, riding on busy streets can be intimidating.

Greenways, on the other hand, are being targeted to a segment of the populace known as the "willing but wary." These are the people who, say, have a bike sitting in the shed but are too afraid to fight cars on main arterials.

Take, for instance, North 45th Street in Wallingford. The car-saturated road has bike lanes — but riding alongside the stream of rushed and frustrated drivers can feel daunting.

So neighbors formed a group and pushed to get adjacent blocks designated as greenways. The project won a neighborhood matching-fund grant.

The greenways being built this year aren't connected. The goal is to hook them together over time.

That is the dream: to develop a network where everyone can feel safe getting to schools, business centers, libraries and other heavily trafficked places, Bagshaw said.

SDOT, which is in the midst of updating its Bicycle Master Plan, is meeting with neighborhood groups to figure this out.

Jennifer Litowski, a 39-year-old mother in Ballard, said trying to cross major arterials with her 5-year-old son sparked her to push for greenways. She joined a group, spoke with others and approached city officials about what would work in Ballard. She had never been part of a neighborhood movement.

Through this, she said, she's met dozens of people and forged closer ties to neighbors — exactly what she hopes greenways will help people do.

At a University District cafe recently, steps from the roar of cars on North 45th, Edmiston recalled the times he would dodge traffic winding through the arboretum, narrowly avoiding collisions as drivers sped past, laying on the horn.

"Cyclists do not belong in the arboretum," he said. "But they don't know any other way around." As a user-researcher — Edmiston makes his living measuring data — he felt compelled to figure out a better way to get to work.

Biking from his house through the arboretum proved time-consuming and difficult because of the hills. He would arrive at his university office drenched in sweat.

"That's just awkward," Edmiston said. So he started thinking about more efficient ways, which led him to invest in a $750 battery for his bike — all the better to cruise up hills with — and a special canopy to protect him from the worst of the rain.

Aggression avoidance

It took a lot of trips to find the least-hilly and lowest-volume route, he said. Aggression was most common on heavily trafficked lanes.

He bikes the 5.4 miles to UW in 20 minutes with nary a bead of sweat on his brow. That's all the more so, he said, because he's not expending energy "being regularly bullied by cars."

He wants parts of his route, which starts at East Garfield Street and ends at the UW Tower on Brooklyn Avenue Northeast, to be turned into a greenway.

He is giving presentations and recently spoke in front of the Greater Madison Valley Community Council, which has given its official support to greenways and wants more communities to get involved.

Edmiston said he's pleased at the response. But he's just getting started.

"The theory that bikes have a right to the road and should share lane space with cars on main roads ... is hazardous in practice," he said.

Information from The Seattle Times archive is included in this report. Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @soniakri.

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