People

Don Brubeck: Connecting West Seattle

Don Brubeck

I accompanied Don Brubeck on a ride from West Seattle to downtown along this recently completed portion of the Alaskan Way Trail.

Don Brubeck is an architect, parent of two adult children, and grandparent in his early sixties who founded a volunteer-based community organization called West Seattle Bike Connections. Its mission is to give West Seattle a stronger voice in Seattle’s Bike Master Plan Update and develop more safe options for getting in, around, and through West Seattle.

From the WSBC website:
We know many people are willing but wary of using a bicycle for transportation because they don’t feel safe on the streets.  We have taken action and will continue to take action so West Seattle gets safe infrastructure in place for everyone to use, because this is what we want and hope you want it too.

Driving a car or taking the bus can be stressful when trying to leave West Seattle. The West Seattle Bridge has limited capacity. Many people use public transportation, but buses have limited capacity too. There’s a secret alternative that we want to share with everyone in West Seattle – the route off the peninsula by bike that is very easy and never congested!

We want more safe options for getting in, around, and through West Seattle.  We know many people are willing but wary of using a bicycle for transportation because they don’t feel safe on the streets.  We have taken action and will continue to take action so West Seattle gets safe infrastructure in place for everyone to use, because this is what we want and hope you want it too.

I met up with Don on bike under the West Seattle Bridge, next to the Chelan Cafe. This is one of the busiest and most industrial intersections in the city. Its complexity and bicycle-unfriendliness make it an obstacle for even seasoned commuters. There are approximately 21 lanes of truck and car traffic intersecting the crosswalks here, yet there is no clearly-marked safe path for cyclists.

It’s a tangle of semis heading to and from Harbor Island and West Seattle industrial sites, coupled with amateur motorists hoping for a shortcut. To top it off the button-controlled signals are shockingly slow to give right-of-way to cyclists and are unpredictable in their timing. This encourages bike commuters to throw themselves into the intersection Frogger-style, in a wishful dance with semis and cars. Seasoned bike commuters have learned to navigate this passage, but it provides no sense of safety at all for novice bike commuters.

Chelan Clusterfukk

This is the infamous Chelan Intersection, leaping off point for bicycle commuters heading downtown from West Seattle. There are approximately 21 lanes of truck and car traffic intersecting the crosswalks here, yet there is no clearly-marked safe path for cyclists.

To illustrate the excessively long duration of the wait for the WALK signal heading from West Seattle toward downtown, Don set up a camp stove, pressed the signal control button, and proceeded to cook scrambled eggs and create a breakfast burrito, all before the light turned green. You can watch our rough-take video of this below.

 

Watching Don cook breakfast on a small traffic island while semis hurtled by, revealed the kind of happy-warrior activism that’s way more convincing than a lot of other more adversarial approaches. Though the breakfast burrito looked tasty, I think most bicycle commuters would prefer a shorter wait time for safe passage across the street.

Don kindly submitted to a Q&A for this inaugural interview for People on Bikes.

What do you use your bike for?

Almost all of my solo transportation in Seattle, year round, including commuting from Alki to work downtown; trips to meetings and to meet friends around the city; shopping, recreational rides, occasional longer touring and group rides out of town.

When did the bicycle start becoming an important part of your lifestyle?

8 years old. A red 20 inch Schwinn gave me fun and freedom and a way to get to school starting at age 9. I’ve ridden bikes ever since. Not so much in high school when it wasn’t cool and I had a little motorcycle. Started year round commuting about 10 years ago.

Was it because your car broke down or for health reasons or other reasons?

Not due to cars. We have a car and a camper and now I have three bikes. Definitely for physical and mental health. Riding builds exercise into my commute time. I’m an introvert doing jobs that take a lot of communication. Riding gives me time away from that, to recharge. It also requires focus on where I am. Whether that is on a beautiful beach path or a potholed industrial street or downtown traffic, it is good practice at being “present”. Getting out in all kinds of weather, and learning how to deal with it, makes Seattle’s gray winters a lot more enjoyable.

Some people think there’s a bicycle renaissance going on? Do you agree? If yes, why do you think the time is now?

Yes. There is a huge amount of cultural inertia to overcome, but it is happening! Lots of factors, including teens and young adults not buying into the car culture, whether it’s due to lack of money, or environmental values, or that it’s become cool again for some mysterious reason. It is also due to cities becoming more dense, making it a real hassle to drive and park a car. Riding a bike is often the fastest way to travel, even if you don’t go over 15 mph. Older people are doing it for their health and fitness, and to do something about global warming, or to save money. There is now a wide variety of types of bikes readily available at local bike shops, so more options help, too.

Do you tend to socialize with other bike people?

Yes, probably too much!

Are there values you think they share in common?

Maybe some values in common for most I socialize with — being outside, using less fossil fuel, creating better urban social life on the streets. But there are lots of different bike subcultures and political and socio-economic groupings represented in Seattle , and some people identify as bike riders or cyclists, and some just use a bike sometimes. There is a lot of tribalism, too, and some cranky bike tribal warfare that works into the hand of people who would rather bikes not be allowed on the roads. Personally, I like almost all ways people use bikes and their little groups: club riders, randonneurs, kids with chromed Stingrays with 200 spoke wheels; the Alki Beach Creeps and the Dead Baby Bike Club; tweed rides; bike festivals; bike businesses; family biking and cargo bikes; the 206 bike polo matches under I-5 at Ravenna; muddy cyclocross; Dutch bikes and utility bikes like your bike truck.

What misconceptions about riding a bike do you want to change amongst people who don’t get it?

  • That it is hard to do. Even if someone is not very fit at all, there’s a way to ride, just taking it easy and gradually extending the range. Electric assist can help.
  • That is takes special clothes and shoes. Unless you are on a team doing bike racing, it does not take anything special.
  • That you need to change your clothes and take a shower after riding a few miles to work. It’s hardly ever over 60 degrees in the morning in Seattle. I wear my work clothes.
  • That it is dangerous. Riding a bike is not dangerous. Cars and trucks are dangerous. The more people who ride or walk instead of drive, the safer we will all be.

Because of you, have other people become bike users?

Quite a few co-workers, at least for Bike Month in May. As a Cascade Bicycle Ambassador a few years ago I met and encouraged a lot of people to ride. And I hope that our West Seattle Bike Connections group is encouraging people to get back to riding, or ride with their kids and let their kids loose to ride, and to try riding more places, more often. I think that if more people used a bike for getting around, our lives would be safer, quieter, healthier, more sociable, and less stressful.

Click here to learn more about West Seattle Bike Connections and get involved.

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