“So, when is the last time you rode a bike?”
This question, from Downtown on the Go Bike Coordinator Matt Newport, came at a predictable point in our conversation.
Right about the time it became clear I was a skeptic.
Newport, a 34-year-old father of three who bikes his kids to school on most days and then bikes to work, is the perfect type of person to handle holdouts like me. In fact, it’s a big part of his job — one he attacks with understanding and compassion rather than militant bicycle fervor.
“Well, um, gee, it’s been a long time,” I stammered.
Like since I was 12.
Next thing I knew, Newport, true to form, was offering to loan me a bike and personally take me on a ride through my Hilltop neighborhood. The area, he assured, was one of the best in the city for biking, thanks to its relative flatness, its low speed limits, and the fact that most residential streets go straight through. “Kidical Mass loves riding in Hilltop,” he told me, referencing the monthly kids and family bike ride he organizes, named after the Critical Mass political and social cycling movement that has spread over the last two decades to cities across the country.
Indeed, the fact that a guy like me gets the reference, and knows what Critical Mass is, without having to Google it, speaks to how far the biking movement has come.
Tacoma-Pierce County Bike Month, which happens to be May, is part of that movement.
Bike Month, now in its eighth year as we know it, is a chance, according to the Downtown on the Go promotional material, to “celebrate the bicycle and the many reasons we ride: commuting to work or school, for errands, for recreation or competition.” Believe it or not, however, Bike Month in Tacoma goes as far back as 1925. And Tacoma was known as a bicycling hotbed as early as the 1890s. There’s history here.
As The News Tribune’s Craig Hill detailed in last Sunday’s Adventure centerpiece, Bike Month is packed with activities, so many that a person can participate on a daily basis.
But what about those not quite ready to “celebrate” pedal-powered transportation?
They are an equally important part of the endeavor.
“There are some challenges to being a bike advocate in a hilly city and a mostly rural county,” Newport admits. “The main challenge is just getting people to see biking as walking-plus. … Downtown on the Go’s message is really, ‘You don’t have to bike commute every day. It’s a commute option you have in your toolbox.’”
Anecdotally, Newport says he’s witnessed a steady increase in bicyclists in Tacoma over the past few years, a cultural shift he attributes at least partially to the city’s significant investment in bicycle infrastructure – things like bike lanes, designated trails and way-finding signage – all part of the Mobility Master Plan.
“There are so many more people biking around now than there were in 2008,” Newport says. “And there’s an entire infrastructure that’s here now that wasn’t then.”
For admitted skeptics like myself, however, perhaps the most persuasive point is that the numbers on bicycling in Tacoma back up the anecdotes. Diane Wiatr, Tacoma’s active transportation coordinator and a senior planner with the Office of Environmental Policy and Sustainability, is able to break down a pronounced trend.
Every year, in late September or early October, the state Department of Transportation organizes a one-day count of bicyclists and pedestrians in cities across Washington. While it represents an unscientific snapshot, and an increase in bicycle paths and lanes in Tacoma has led to what Wiatr describes as a slight increase in counting locations, the results are nonetheless telling.
With volunteers counting between 7-9 a.m. and then again between 4-6 p.m., the number of tallied cyclists has gone up from 204 in 2011 to 621 last year.
And it’s not the only method we have for quantifying bicycle ridership. Recently installed bicycle-trip counting devices near Wright Park – on Division Avenue between Yakima Avenue and G Street – have been recording bike trips since August 2014. At this location, Wiatr reports a total of 6,017 trips toward downtown, and 4,783 toward Yakima Avenue.
“That’s over 10,000 trips not taken by car,” Wiatr contends.
That said, the fact remains that none of those trips was taken by me, and I’m surely not alone in my resistance. After speaking with an ambassador like Newport, however, it’s hard not to come away bike-curious.
I’ll be taking him up on that offer to cruise Hilltop soon.
Another win for Bike Month.