Seattle’s on-again, off-again relationship with cycle tracks is back off again. But this time the issue is semantics.
In June the city’s Department of Transportation, affectionately known as SDOT, proposed putting cycle tracks on Dexter Avenue. That plan fell through for a number of reasons that should have been gobsmackingly obvious before SDOT announced it, but whatever. Instead buffered bike lanes will grace Dexter.
Lo and behold, cycle tracks re–emerged at the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board’s September monthly meeting. The plan as reported by Publicola was to install them along Linden Avenue North between North 145th and 128th Streets as part of the Interurban bike route. “SDOT Proposes City’s First Cycle Track (Again),” the headline reads.
But when BikeIntelligencer contacted SDOT, project manager Connie Zimmerman informed us that the term “cycle tracks” did not apply to the Linden project. Instead, the project officially involves buffered bike lanes. (Indeed, there is no mention of the term on the official Web page.)
That raises the question, what’s the difference between cycle tracks and buffered bike lanes?
As near as we can tell, the answer is that they’re spelled differently.
From a strict-constructionist linguistic standpoint, they are different — or at least once were. Cycle tracks technically refer to bike lanes separated from motorized vehicles by a physical barrier. In Europe that can mean everything from ramps to concrete medians. In Portland all it means is striped pavement.
Although it’s come into popular use only in recent bike-boom years in the U.S., the term actually originated nearly a century ago in England — which, after due deliberation and consultation with real bike riders, wound up rejecting the whole notion. Its current popularity apparently stems from the success of separated bicycle facilities in Denmark and the Netherlands — although they call them, prosaically enough, “paths.”
Under the classic definition, the Linden bike lanes do not qualify as cycle tracks. They’re separated from vehicles, but only by space (a buffer) — painted stripes on the pavement. Our video below shows recently installed buffered lanes on North 130th Street.
Unfortunately, a lot of newer bike-lane installations that do not meet the strict definition of cycle tracks have come to be lumped under the term. Somehow cycle tracks sounds cooler than bike lanes (which may explain Portland’s misuse). Silly as it may be, a project is likelier to get taken more seriously as “cycle tracks” than the more pedestrian (pun unavoidable) sounding bike lanes.
Whatever its cachet, we at BikeIntelligencer hate the term cycle tracks. It sounds like bikes sharing railroad right of way. Or what track bikes ride on.
As Zimmerman put it, cycle tracks “is a generic word like food. It could mean a variety of things.”
It’s unintuitive, it’s mushy, and it’s lost all meaning. We applaud SDOT for backing off the designation on Linden. And if the city never implements something called “cycle tracks,” we’ll be fine with that too.