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Seattle’s new traffic garden is the perfect place to learn the rules of the road

Posted by on October 3rd, 2016 at 2:54 pm

Aerial view of the new traffic garden in south Seattle.(Photos: King County Parks)

Aerial view of the new traffic garden in south Seattle.
(Photos: King County Parks)

If we ever want bicycling to become mainstream, we must find a way to educate more people on the right way to ride in traffic. It can be tough though, because our streets make most people so stressed out that they adopt bad habits just to stay alive.

That’s where a traffic garden can come in: A place that mimics real-life street conditions and that’s out of harms way. These facilities have been used in northern Europe for many years (we reported on one in Utrecht in 2009); but the United States hasn’t fully adopted the concept.

Until now.

On Saturday in Seattle the Cascade Bicycle Club and their partners celebrated the opening of the White Center Bike Playground at a park about eight miles south of downtown. The project replaced two unused tennis courts and turned them into a smartly designed streetscape complete with crosswalks, multi-lane roads, a roundabout, and more. The idea was to create a place where kids and adults can practice safe riding skills in a realistic environment away from the dangers posed by other road users.

whitecenterbikeplaygroundopening1

(Photo: Cascade Bicycle Club)
whitecenterbikeplaygroundopening2

(Photo: Cascade Bicycle Club)
Grand Opening of Bicycle Playground at Dick Thurnau Park

(Photo: King County Parks)
Grand Opening of Bicycle Playground at Dick Thurnau Park

(Photo: King County Parks)
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The design and the idea came from former Portland resident and currently Seattle-based urban planner Steve Durrant. Durrant is a senior landscape architect with Alta Planning + Design who approached Cascade with the idea of a traffic garden nearly two years ago after seeing one in Copenhagen. They built their first one last spring in an alley outside Cascade’s headquarters in Magnuson Park. The new “Bike Playground” in White Center is much larger and has more features.

Durrant said he created the design with the inspiration from Copenhagen along with the needs of the League of American Bicyclists’ League Cycling Instructor program. He says the facility isn’t intended solely for kids and he expects it to be used by adults who are new to biking as well. “Instead of using chalk and cones and saying, ‘Hey kids, imagine this is a bike lane,’ we ended up painting actual lanes.”

In a telephone interview today Durrant said he tried to include many different traffic scenarios in the space: stop lines, crosswalks, lane merging, a roundabout, a one-way loop, and so on. In addition to the streetscape elements, the space has a shipping container for storing bikes and a cement pad for bike racks and tables for people to relax and watch the action.

The Bicycle Playground is open to the public and will be used in Cascade’s educational programs — especially their Major Taylor program which teaches young people from underserved neighborhoods how to become confident bicycle riders.

The project was funded in part with a $50,000 grant from King County Parks and private donations. Total project cost was just under $95,000.

Now the question is: Where should we put one in Portland?

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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37 Comments
  • BB October 3, 2016 at 3:13 pm

    It just looks like more of American “Bikes are toys for kids”, getting the little ones ready to graduate to cars soon. 🙁

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    • SE Rider October 3, 2016 at 5:28 pm

      We had these at elementary schools where I grew up in the midwest, and they were for practicing driving etiquette/rules. It was part of “Safety School”. I think I remember us going around them in pushcars are some kind of pedal go karts. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that I haven’t really seen them over the last 20 years.
      I think they were a good idea then and now.

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    • Kyle Banerjee October 3, 2016 at 7:00 pm

      I’m not sure how you get that — the idea is to help people develop the skills and the confidence to ride on real roads. Cycling is more safe, practical, and fun when you know what you’re doing.

      That a lot of the knowledge transfers to cars is not a bad thing.

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  • Mike Sanders October 3, 2016 at 3:47 pm

    Holladay Park between Lloyd Center and the MAX station. South Waterfront, maybe? Somewhere in St. Johns. Tigard-Tualatin area near the Tualatin River Trail. Rockwood near the MAX station there – plenty of room. Sellwood Park near the baseball stadium. Gateway area could use one. Zidell Yards Park near the west end of Tilicum Crossing (where the bridge dedication ceremony took place last year). Cully Park area. Gotta be someplace in SW Portland. Beaverton, Hillsboro, Forest Grove. What about community colleges and schools?

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  • rick October 3, 2016 at 5:24 pm

    Far more valuable than dog parks. On a serious note.

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  • Buzz October 3, 2016 at 5:31 pm

    What we really need is for the DMV to flip this idea and create a training course where motorists learn to drive in the presence of bicycle traffic.

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    • Eric Leifsdad October 3, 2016 at 8:47 pm

      First pass your bike driving test (on the real road), then you can take your car driving test.

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    • Mike October 4, 2016 at 2:06 pm

      How would you do that since I see a lot of cyclist riding in a very unpredictable manner. Uh oh, did someone just criticize cycling behavior?

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      • B. Carfree October 4, 2016 at 5:25 pm

        Unpredictable behavior on the part of other road users does not make education and experience less valuable. I’d say it makes it more important than it would be if everyone obeyed the law and behaved rationally.

        In fact, a big part of the training that prospective truck drivers get is designed to teach them to anticipate that other motorists will often do the stupidest thing imaginable. Part of the practical driving test in other states also involves noting whether or not the person being tested is aware of the hazards of other drivers behaving illegally.

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        • Eric Leifsdad October 4, 2016 at 7:07 pm

          Other than being a standard-issue troll (I think there’s an app for that), the “unpredictable behavior” motorists see from people on bicycles generally has more to do with not having ever ridden. Things like “They seem to swerve for no reason.” or “Why is he riding in the middle of the lane?” can be easily explained with a half-day course (or just actually noticing the broken glass in the gutter or an oncoming car they couldn’t see before deciding to go over a blind crest on the wrong side of the road (<- that's the left side, for those who missed this question on the exam and yes parking on the left is illegal.))

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    • Seth D. Alford October 4, 2016 at 10:53 pm

      That would be especially useful for Trimet drivers trying to maneuver into a bike lane. Maybe Trimet could set this up somewhere, using cardboard cutouts of bicyclists being pulled by ropes.

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  • wsbob October 3, 2016 at 8:49 pm

    I like this idea of a traffic garden…a lot. Probably, there are a lot of adult people that may be far more comfortable, initially working on their ‘bike in traffic skills’ in a situation like this, rather than on the roads with a lot of motor vehicle traffic. One thing I’d say though, is it’s kind of small…not so much for small kids, but for bigger people that likely would be riding 10-15 mph.

    On some Saturdays on a big parking lot, out in the Beaverton area, south of Walker Rd on 185th, motorcycle and scooter in traffic riding classes can be seen taking place. Essentially the same thing as this traffic garden concept, but the site unfortunately doesn’t have variations of lane situations and intersections with crosswalks plotted out.

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    • Ted Timmons (Contributor) October 4, 2016 at 11:25 am

      That moto safety class is Team Oregon. It’s the only motorcycle safety program in the country that has the explicit goal of reducing fatalities. Nearly every other state’s program is run by an organization that also represents motorcycle manufacturers.

      Oregon has also transitioned into the class being mandatory to get your moto endorsement.

      wsbob, the final two exercises (of 20 ‘parking lot’ exercises) simulate basic traffic situations, especially merging and a 4-way stop. There is no pedestrian/cyclist component but considering it’s covering only the bare minimum riding proficiency to keep new motorcyclists from killing themselves, I’m not sure it’s necessary either. My opinion is that motorcycle-on-pedestrian incidents are nearly as rare as bicyclist-on-pedestrian incidents.

      It isn’t uncommon for a confident student to get to those final two exercises and decide no, they aren’t ready to be a VRU in traffic.

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      • Kyle Banerjee October 4, 2016 at 2:36 pm

        I can’t speak for Team Oregon, but I took a free state funded moto safety course in Illinois in the mid 80’s. They provided bikes, helmets, insurance, etc.

        Among other things, the tests we had to pass required stopping within specifications after locking the rear wheel at 40mph, riding over pretty substantial debris like randomly scattered 2x4s, there were reasonably challenging timing and agility exercises as well as safety and class work. I can still remember the dumb acronyms they drilled into our brains.

        At the time, my reaction was that it’s too bad that the driver training and tests aren’t this good.

        I don’t know if it was partially or totally funded by the manufacturers, but who cares if they were. It’s a good thing if it helps people be safer and have more fun.

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        • Ted Timmons (Contributor) October 4, 2016 at 3:09 pm

          Kyle Banerjee

          I don’t know if it was partially or totally funded by the manufacturers, but who cares if they were. It’s a good thing if it helps people be safer and have more fun.

          It’s the same program. They’ve refreshed the content slightly, but, for instance, time is spent teaching and practicing very tight u-turns.

          Believe it or not, there are very few motorcycle u-turn fatalities. That hour could be spent doing things like practicing lane changes with other motos as ‘traffic’.

          The really interesting thing about that type of training is the only traffic safety education we may get as adults.

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          • Kyle Banerjee October 4, 2016 at 4:55 pm

            Funny that you mention that. When I took the course, I don’t remember doing any U turns, but riding with other motos was part of it. One exercise I remember thinking was kind of amusing was riding in a figure 8 pattern.

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  • Michael S October 4, 2016 at 1:27 am

    We have these traffic gardens in Germany as well. In Berlin, every district has its own and every 4th grade pupil (at an age of 10 ca.) needs to do a course. You can learn how to signal, you can exercise watching out for others whilst keeping track etc. That’s at least something, but don’t expect wonders from this alone. What you DON’T learn is, how to behave in real traffic. At the end of all these courses, the final examn is hold in the traffic garden itself, instead of in real life traffic. If a school would plan to do this, there would be an outcry of teachers, parents and police – ALL would object to this as too dangerous. However, it’s against the law for a 10 year old to drive on the pavement – so when you educate them to drive in traffic, but think it’s crazy to expect this in reality – that says a lot about the seriousness of this kind of education and the priorities in real life urban traffic.

    In the Netherlands, the final examn is in real traffic, btw…

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    • wsbob October 4, 2016 at 10:11 am

      “…In the Netherlands, the final exam is in real traffic, btw…” michael s

      I’d love to have more details on what the Netherlands has in the way of instructional materials and exams, including the final exam in real traffic for people biking.

      Here in the U.S., the single main source of instruction for people biking, I tend to hear of, that may have similarities to what’s going on in that respect in the Netherlands, is courses prepared and offered by LAB…league of american bicyclists… . The courses cost money, and there existence doesn’t seem commonly known of at all: not very effective towards helping increase the number of people that can ride well in a safe manner in traffic.

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    • Kyle Banerjee October 4, 2016 at 10:28 am

      They actually encourage people to learn to ride safe? That’ll never play in Portland — people would have to use common sense and work with drivers.

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  • K'Tesh October 4, 2016 at 6:06 am

    I need this here in China… The motorists here SUCK!!! Here, the very definition of motorist is “Moving Violation”. Cab drivers are the worst of the bunch.

    Don’t get me wrong, the people are nice, and they don’t do things “just to scare you”, but they don’t seem to realize how close they are from putting people under their wheels, or up on the hood of their car. There are times (like 3 today alone) that I’d love to have bricks attached to sticks, sticking out from the sides and front of my bike, and see how many new paint jobs would be needed.

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  • Graham Ross October 4, 2016 at 6:56 am

    Can you please cite earlier articles or sources supporting “our streets make most people so stressed out that they adopt bad habits just to stay alive”? I find the observation compelling and would like to read more. Also, in the second paragraph there is a sentence fragment. Thanks.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) October 4, 2016 at 7:17 am

      Hi Graham, I was speaking from my own intuition and knowledge and experience. But since you asked, here’s one article that touches on the idea.

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    • bradwagon October 4, 2016 at 1:56 pm

      I’ve noticed a few areas that I do this as well. If I need to make a left turn when there is a long backup of vehicles but a clear thru lane I will sometimes take the thru lane and turn left from the thru lane as if there were a bike lane next to the turn lane thru the intersection. A bad habit but I only do this at two intersections I am very familiar with that have a bike lane to turn into. I’ve found it to be the least disruptive way for me to merge over and get through an intersection that has a higher than usual number of vehicles.

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      • Kyle Banerjee October 4, 2016 at 2:46 pm

        That is not a bad habit. That is common sense and legal — there is no requirement to set yourself up for an obvious hook or crossing problem. Even if I’m not turning and there’s a bike path, I take the lane if I can fully keep up with traffic.

        One thing you’ll never see me do is pull up on the right side of any vehicle that even *might* turn right regardless of bike path. Trusting the fastest things on the road (piloted by god knows who) to look behind to see if they’re being overtaken by the slowest things on the road before turning just doesn’t strike me as wise.

        I position myself behind the rear left quarter panel so drivers watching for cyclists know they can turn immediately and those not watching won’t hit me while I maintain full speed.

        Even if I have a clear indication that they see me, I swing left so they can go ahead and turn since it allows us both to clear the intersection faster.

        I have never had a driver say or do anything unfriendly to me when doing any of these things.

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        • Eric Leifsdad October 4, 2016 at 6:58 pm

          Please never do this when there’s someone in the bike lane (or crosswalk.)

          And look out for the driver suddenly changing to the left lane while you’re behind their left rear wheel.

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        • Kyle Banerjee October 5, 2016 at 11:50 am

          If people are in crosswalks, I stop the same as cars, but I pull out unless I can position myself slightly in front of the car or someone else is already there.

          I pull left whether or not other cyclists are present because the safety issue is always there even if others choose to ignore it. I always position myself so the car can do whatever it wants without causing me trouble.

          One thing that boggles me is how many people seem to believe the calmest streets are dangerous, but then engage in some of the riskiest cycling behavior possible.

          Intentionally positioning yourself on the right of tons of steel that can turn on you is both stupid and dangerous. Anyone who insists on doing this on a regular basis WILL get in trouble.

          My motto is “Ride like everyone is trying to kill you, but don’t take it personally.” If you are prepared for drivers to do the dangerous thing, it’s no big deal when it happens. If you’re not prepared, things work out poorly.

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  • Spiffy October 4, 2016 at 7:22 am

    ‘Hey kids, imagine this is a bike lane,’

    there are still no bike lanes…

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    • wsbob October 4, 2016 at 12:04 pm

      What planner planner Steve Durrant said, sounds funny, given that his design doesn’t seem to have bike lanes. Maybe what he said was taken out of context.

      For the purpose of an instructional streetscape though, like this one, I’m not sure having bike lanes incorporated into it is very important. Bigger issues than knowing when to stay in the bike lane, is with one hand off the handle bars…learning how to signal for lane changes, merge across lanes, signal for stops and actually stop…look and prepare for other traffic…regulating speed to flow with and manage other traffic, for help in efficiently proceeding through intersections.

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      • B. Carfree October 4, 2016 at 5:34 pm

        I would like to see a small portion with a door-zone bike lane incorporated, complete with a door that can be swung into the dzbl. Considering that the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition found that the number one source of cyclist death and injury involving cars was due to dooring incidents, this seems like a very important aspect to any training course.

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  • Curtis Roth October 4, 2016 at 7:52 am

    Great idea.

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  • kittens October 4, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    Um…. how does this solve anything except let kids pretend they are cars?

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  • Eli October 4, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    I have to admit: I still don’t get the point.

    I’m familiar with the ones in Europe, which exist to teach kids how to ride safely to school and other places on comprehensive networks of traffic-calmed, family-friendly streets.

    But Seattle does not have such a family-friendly street network, nor does it have any immediate plans to build them.

    So this is nothing more than a playground where kids (and I guess also adults) can play make-believe and imagine that they are riding around in a bike-friendly city.

    I guess it’s useful for families who are planning a vacation to Vancouver BC?

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  • SeattleBikes October 5, 2016 at 10:59 pm

    To break the romance of this…the location is a bizarre choice and puts in the “fun playground time” instead of actual practicality. It’s a low-income, high-minority, high-immigrant neighborhood. I would be shocked if the majority of kids here have access to bikes.

    If they do, there’s no where around for them to apply the skills they’re learning. The area has very little bike infrastructure (worse than the city proper). I suppose for the kids who do have access to bikes, they grow up with interest that hopefully stays until adulthood when they can try riding their bike somewhere else?

    If you’re in another part of town, chances of you making the trip out there are very small unless you have a car (and people moving into the area usually won’t go there because of its historic reputation); it’s pretty poorly served by public transit.

    Seems like it’s cart before the horse for the neighborhood it’s in; inaccessible to other neighborhoods.

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    • wsbob October 6, 2016 at 10:36 am

      Those are fair questions you raise, but reviewing all aspects of this project, I think has it still looking like a good idea.

      “…The Bicycle Playground is open to the public and will be used in Cascade’s educational programs — especially their Major Taylor program which teaches young people from underserved neighborhoods how to become confident bicycle riders. …” bikeportland

      Hard to exactly tell from both this story and the Cascade bike club site, what will be the level of public accessibility to the bike playground, but it kind of seems like it may be open only when someone will be there staffing it, such as for example, during CBC educational program events. This story says the course’s home is the site of two unused tennis courts. In other words, on a site where there formerly was no public activity, there will now be some healthy activity events for kids and their parents to participate in together.

      The story also says the program has bikes for people to use on the course, which in itself likely will help interest kids from the neighborhood that don’t yet have bikes, in coming on over to participate in events on the course. Then…they might like to have their own bikes, and fortunately, those kind of bikes don’t tend to cost a lot of money. In other words: affordable perhaps, even for some people on low budgets.

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  • barb lin October 6, 2016 at 3:50 pm

    Hard to argue with Eli BUT we do have to start somewhere and as with behavioral changes in society such as recycling – its begins to take hold on a large scale through children, through schools. Its the long term game. As a parent I can see that it would be fun to take little kids here, before you would try them on a real street. A side benefit is its fun exercise for kids and the more comfy they are on bikes when little the more likely to be open to biking at all stages of their life.

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