In my southeast Olympia neighborhood, in good weather, it’s common to see couples walking together after dinner. At other times, you will see children speeding around on their bikes and students lugging musical instruments and backpacks to and from school. Driving to work in the early morning, I see the bike commuters, often in the dark, even on the wettest days. Our user-friendly climate allows for many pleasantly walkable and bikeable days throughout the year.
If only our roadways were as inviting to bicyclists and pedestrians as our climate. The walkers and bikers I see are those willing to overcome the myriad challenges we face if we want to get around without using a car. It makes you wonder how many people don’t take to the sidewalks or bike lanes because they don’t feel safe.
I recently asked around about places in Thurston County where people feel particularly unsafe when walking or cycling. Everyone named the area around the Capital Mall on the West Side of Olympia as one of the worst, especially the intersection of Cooper Point Road and Black Lake Boulevard. Crossing Black Lake Boulevard on foot entails crossing five lanes of traffic and praying that you won’t be mowed over by cars turning on both sides of the road. Many of these drivers are fresh off Interstate 5, or eager to get to I-5, so the sense of neighborly courtesy and neighborhood travel speeds is much diminished.
I loathe Custer Way, near the old Olympia brewery. Without a bike lane, cyclists are forced to take up a full travel lane. The worst is cycling east when you are slowed as you climb uphill but have to travel in the left lane to avoid the traffic in the right-turn-only lane.
The entire city of Lacey was nominated as one of the worst places to walk in Thurston County. For this dubious honor, Lacey can thank its high speed limits, the many streets without sidewalks, the lack of separation between the road and the few sidewalks that do exist, and drivers’ general indifference to the existence of pedestrians.
Downtown Olympia is mostly a good place to ride a bike or walk. Pedestrians benefit from the new “bulb-outs” at many intersections (bulb-outs extend the curb at the intersection, reducing the crossing distance and providing extra room for pedestrians to stand while waiting to cross.) The main issue for me downtown is the rude or deranged people riding bicycles on the sidewalk. Sure, if you’re 10yearsold, go ahead and use the sidewalk to ride to school. But it is never OK to ride on the sidewalk in downtown Olympia. Bicycle-riding on the sidewalk is threatening for pedestrians and discourages people from enjoying the walkability of downtown.
Sidewalk biking is just one area where law enforcement could play a major role in making Thurston County a better place to walk and ride. Have you ever heard of a driver being pulled over for failing to yield to a pedestrian? How about someone getting a ticket for driving 35 mph in a 25 mph zone? At a speed limit of 25 mph, an extra 10 mph puts you 40 percent above the legal limit. This is the mathematical equivalent of going 84 mph in a 60 mph zone. The difference is not merely mathematical, the difference translates in the real world to higher rates of death and severe injury for pedestrians. According to a AAA Foundation study, at an impact speed of 23 mph, a person has a 75 percent chance of surviving after being hit by a car. At 31 mph, the odds of surviving fall to 50 percent.
What frustrates me most is the gap between the official rhetoric and the actual experience of walking and biking in Thurston County. The city of Olympia has been touting its climate change credibility and adding bicycle and pedestrian amenities as funds become available. But the budgets available for walking and pedestrian projects are tiny compared to the budgets for road projects, and projects proceed at a snail’s pace.
What’s missing is a sense of urgency. There is so much work to be done if we are going to expand the population of people walking and biking beyond those willing to tolerate substandard facilities and careless drivers. The health benefits and the environmental benefits are well-known. Thurston County governments need to move pedestrian and bicycling measures up the priority list for action, not just discussion.
Paul Elwood is a professional investment analyst for state government and a member of The Olympian’s 2015 Board of Contributors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.