More Mercer Islanders commute by bike to downtown Seattle

If you’ve found yourself in rush hour traffic on I-90 lately, you may have noticed, a bit enviously, bikers speeding past in their own special lane. Bike commuting is a rapidly growing way of getting around in the Seattle area, it turns out, and the infrastructure for it is growing, too.

Although bikers and drivers sometimes don’t get along on Mercer Island, officials and commuters themselves say cars and bikes can share the road, and with biking season here, Mercer Island and Seattle both have big plans for making non-motorized transport a safer, more feasible option for local residents.

“It’s just really, really fun,” said Ellie Fields, who bikes to work in Fremont from Mercer Island on a regular basis, and has written about her commuting experience in her blog, “Surrounded by Water.”

“When I get to work, I feel good. I’ve been outside. I’ve been in the sun. It feels like I’ve been living a little bit,” she said.

John Mauro, the director of Commuter Programs for Cascade Bicycle Club, said he encourages people to commute for exercise, fun and community involvement, as well as the environmental benefits of driving less.

Thanks to the appeal of biking in Seattle, Mauro said the number of commuters is growing, with one count finding that about 15 percent more people bike to work in downtown Seattle in the morning than used to in 2007.

Overall, he said, 2.9 percent of all trips to workplaces in Seattle are made by bike, which compares favorably to the national average of 0.5 percent, but is still lower than Mauro would like to see.

“We’re at the top of a very short ladder,” he said. “There’s a huge untapped potential.”

The key to encouraging more people to bike, said Mauro, is making it clear that bike commuting can be an activity for everyone.

“I try to ride in normal clothes as much as I can,” he said. “Biking is not just for the spandex-clad warrior.”

According to the 2010 review of the Mercer Island Pedestrian and Bicycle Facilities Plan, which was originally approved in 1996, public support for biking infrastructure has increased on the Island, though conflicts between bikers and drivers have increased as well.

The 2010 plan lists 97 projects to improve infrastructure for bikes and pedestrians around the Island to be completed over the next several years.

“It was a process of looking at our resources and how we can accommodate all our users given limitations that we have to deal with,” said Nick Afzali, transportation manager for Mercer Island. “There is a community here that is very excited, very interested and that loves to do non-motorized activities.”

He said space and funding constraints as well as safety had to be taken into consideration in the updated plan, which was approved by the City Council in June.

Afzali said the city has not finished its list of projects to be completed this year under the plan, though it will probably include adding signs and striping roads. He said Mercer Island has about $30,000 to spend on the plan in 2010.

The city also announced in July that phase six of a shoulder-building project was completed along East Mercer Way. The city is to build shoulders along one side of each East Mercer Way, West Mercer Way and North Mercer Way to provide a clockwise bike route around the Island, according to Mercer Island Street Engineer Clint Morris.

The shoulder-adding project, which began in 2002, is to continue through 2015 and is to end up costing about $2.6 million overall, according to Morris and City Council documents.

So far, Morris said, the City of Mercer Island has found that bikers and pedestrians use the newest shoulder segment on East Mercer Way nearly every day.

In 2007 the City of Seattle also unveiled a Bike Master Plan that seeks to triple biking in the city by 2017.

According to a 2009 newsletter released by the city, the plan is to cost about $6 million and to create a 450-mile network of bike routes throughout Seattle. Eventually, the master plan is intended to make Seattle the best city for biking in the country, according to the Seattle transportation department Web site.

Marybeth Turner of the Seattle Department of Transportation said, so far, the city is on schedule installing bike lanes, painting bicycle symbols called “sharrows” on roads and adding signs for bikes routes.

“We’re constantly trying to improve and add more bike lanes,” she said.

Mauro said infrastructure for biking in the Seattle area has been improving, but not as fast as it should, especially since building bike infrastructure is much cheaper than building roads and highways for cars.

“Compared to car infrastructure, it’s amazingly different,” he said. “It’s a priorities issue; two or three highway miles would pay for the whole master plan.”

Fields said she would like to see more improvements on Mercer Island as well. She said Island Crest Way is not a good place to bike, and she would like to see better connections throughout the Seattle area between public transportation, park-and-rides and bike routes.

One advantage for Mercer Island residents interested in biking to work, though, is the I-90 bridge bike lane, something that other highways such as SR-520 lack, she said.

“The I-90 lane is great,” Fields said. “It’s nice and wide. It’s gorgeous.”

Mauro said the Cascade Bicycle Club came up with a program last year called “Bridging with Bikes” to encourage people to use the I-90 lane. Overall, Mauro said he would encourage everybody to give bike commuting a try.

With biking plans in the works throughout the area, Seattle and Mercer Island officials said that doing so will only get easier.

Mauro said he, too, was impressed by the I-90 lane and liked to ride it just for fun.

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