Monday, August 25, 2014

Commuting by Bike Trail - Seattle Edition

Bike trails can be nice for a leisurely ride. Some can even be useful for commuting. An ideal commute route is flat, has few intersections and goes straight to where you want to go. Rail to trail conversions seem like they could be ideal here. Trains usually prefer the flat, straight route with minimal intersections. They also tend to connect old developed areas where people live and work. Alas, the most popular rail lines also tend to still be in use (or have been sold off before they had a chance to be made into a trail.)

Another great trail candidate is along a river or other body of water. There are often bridges to carry roads over. This minimizes intersections. They also tend to be fairly flat. Alas, they also tend to meander.

Seattle is filled with hills. Thus, one of the main benefits of trails is the flatness. Alas, you often pay for this in a meandering route.

The Burke Gilman is the most popular trail. For commuting purposes, it works pretty well coming from Fremont to the University of Washington. The trail is in decent condition. The path is fairly direct and has few intersections.

Coming from the west to the Fremont bridge the utility is not so great. There are a lot of road crossings. These are mostly in low traffic industrial areas with good sight lines, so you can usually keep going. However, the condition of the pavement at the crossings tends to be awful (and the rumble strips before the crossings don't help.) You also need to exit the trail to go a few blocks on low traffic local roads before getting to the Fremont bridge. Then there is the matter of the railroad track crossing. The trail smartly does a 90 degree bend so we can cross perpendicularly instead of parallel. (I've had a bad wipeout on parallel tracks in San Francisco. It is not fun.) However, the turn does slow you down. For speed, Leary is a great alternative. The pavement is new, it is straight and fairly flat. There are just a couple lights before the bridge - and you can easily take a quick right turn to get back to the trail if you get a red light. (The disadvantage is that Leary has two lanes of traffic in each direction without a bike lane.)

The section of the Burke Gilman trail north and east of the University of Washington campus is fairly flat. However, it meanders a lot. There are also currently plenty of detours through campus, as well as a lot of bike and pedestrian traffic in the area. The pavement condition can be described in two words "tree roots". The trail is filled with them. There is supposedly a 15 mph limit, but you would be hard pressed to reach it. The trail also has a bunch of "grade level" street intersections. Sand point is a road option near the trail. It has fairly heavy traffic, but not a whole lot of intersections. There are also plenty of roads options that can provide a more direct connection to various points. (I recall seeing a sign saying something like "fast cyclists go here")

Once you get north of Matthews Beach, the trail hugs Lake Washington and provides a direct route with minimal intersections. (The tree roots also seem to not be as bad.) Alas, there are not a whole lot of attractions up here. However, this section of the trail would be useful for commuters going down to Seattle. (An inertia may make it worth staying on the trail.)

Jumping to another trail, the Northern Interurban trail is fairly useful in spurts. From 110th to 128th it is a flat, smooth trail, with only significant intersection at 125th. Of course, Fremont, Dayton and Phinney also are good roads that meet that criteria nearby. The disadvantage is all of those end at 130th. The Interurban continues as a "cycle track" down Linden. The two way bike lane is pretty well done. However, you need to be cautious at the driveways. (Cars sometimes go through oblivious to any traffic - they have to get through the bike path and the parking row to see if anybody else is coming.)

South of 110th to just north of the zoo, Fremont is signed the Interurban street route. This is a good "bicycle boulevard", with plenty of traffic circles, stop signs on the side streets and stop lights on the major streets. The street is very quiet. Perhaps this is why I just seem to want to go it slow. Dayton is also a decent alternative here (though it has a little more traffic and a little hairier intersections.) Greenwood has lots of stop lights, but has a bike lane and can be really fast - as long is you don't get caught by the red at 85th. 3rd Ave NW and 8th Ave NW are great ones for descending south. (Though not so good for going uphill) However, we are diverging from bike paths.

North of 145th, the interurban trail turns into a trail. This is one of the best sections. It is flat, with the only real "hill" being the bridges over 155th and Aurora. Oh yeah, The bridges. It flies over the only major intersections. (The nearby alternative would be Greenwood/Dayoton, with a few big traffic lights and plenty of nasty hills.

North of 155th, however, the trail takes a turn for the worse. There are a number of street crossings. Most of these streets are low traffic residential streets. However, there is just about zero sight distance, with a stop sign on the trail (and not on the street.) So much for speed. The trail also jumps on a sidewalk (and can be difficult to follow.) The sidewalk is in good condition, but with small chunks it is almost a rumble strip.

The Mountain to Sound and I90 trails are great commuter trails - if only for the fact that they are the only alternative. The Mountain to Sound has a few road intersections with lights that can take some time. Once you pass those, it is a long trip through the tunnel and over the bridge to Mercer island. Straight, fast, long and with enough up and down to keep you going. This is a nice one.

Once in Mercer Island things get a little sketchy. There are trails forking off in a few different directions, and it is not clear which one is the direct one to take you to Bellevue. (They could use some better labeling.) The next bridge to Bellevue is shorter. The trail continues on for bit, but does a lot of turning and meandering. Eventually it becomes a bike lane towards eastgate and then disappears altogether. (Eastgate has a bizarre pedestrian/bike bridge over a freeway that just dumps you at a street corner. It is one huge massive interchange for what looks like only a moderately sized street. Oh well, if Seattle likes cars, Bellevue is madly in love.

The south ship canal bike path is a great commuter path from Magnolia to South Lake Union. Going along the water, it is flat, in good condition and does not intersect other streets. It continues on as the "westlake parking lot path".

The westlake path requires some vigilance to watch out for cars, and some slow down for a few raised sidewalks. However, it is a flat alternative to the Dexter bike lanes. (The Dexter lanes south of Mercer are really nice. However, there is a nice hill involved.) There are plans to make the westlake path "official". We'll see if that works out.

The Eliot Bay trail connects downtown to Magnolia. It is a flat alternative to getting there and avoids a lot of the intersection hassle. However, it seems to be really long. The big interbay loop to access Thorndyke and Magnolia can get fairly narrow (and can be subject to closure.) The trail also leaves you along the coast downtown - which could mean some distance through downtown traffic to get to a destination.

The verdict? Trails can be useful in commuting in Seattle, but usually they are the "quiet", rather than the fast option.

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