“The reason I moved to Issaquah was because I had three priorities. I wanted to be near Seattle, but not in Seattle. For my work I needed to be close to the east-west, and north-south connectors, the freeways. And I wanted to be able to mountain-bike right from my own backyard,” said Jeff Tonka, who moved to Issaquah in 1990 looking for a city that matched his lifestyle. “And, really, the third one was the first priority.”
As an Issaquah resident for whom bike-riding is an important part of life, he is not alone.
That was made clear at the inaugural meeting of the Issaquah Bike Club at the REI community rooms on Thursday night – there is a significant population that lives and works in Issaquah for whom riding for work and play is more than just a casual recreation, but a key responsibility of the city, an opportunity for commerce, and a vital community resource.
More than 30 riders of all skill levels and interests responded to an invitation to explore whether there was sufficient energy to form an Issaquah Bike Club. Organizer Paul Winterstein, a resident of Squak Mountain and a local champion of human service agencies and community groups, would have been pleasantly surprised by the large and passionate group which showed up at REI Thursday night.
The question now is not whether the energy is there, but how it should be harnessed. The priorities of the group are as varied as the interests of the individuals. Some are looking to a new club as place to host group rides; a message board of sorts, a meeting place. Others hope the club will promote rider education, and better cooperation with other trail and road users.
But one thing that almost all the members hope to see in the new club is the establishment of a unified voice that will ensure the interests and concerns of riders – dedicated bike lanes, bike racks, trails connections – are taken into account when the city makes plans for new roads and improvements, plans neighborhoods, applies for grant funding, and draws up long term blueprints for the city.
While groups such as the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, the Cascade Bicycle Club, and companies such as REI, have been involved in building a community of riders on the Eastside, there has been nothing unique to Issaquah – a club that represents local bike store owners and riders, discusses specific local issues, and builds commercial and social opportunities specifically for this city. With the landscape changing fast in the Issaquah Highlands, longer terms plans on the drawing board for the Issaquah valley floor, and businesses beginning to explore ways to cash in on their placement in the heart of the Mountains to Sound Greenway through initiatives like Issaquah Outdoors, it seems like an idea whose time has come.
Though he has been riding in and around Issaquah for a decade, Winterstein said the inspiration to foster an engaging bicycling environment came during a recent trip to Europe. He saw people of all ages riding as a primary means of transportation and of leisure; cities and towns respond with infrastructure to encourage visitors and activity.
“Places there build whole industries around riding,” he said. “It struck me as quite different the opportunities they have, the attitude, the acceptance.”
Winterstein was one of a small group of city leaders which encouraged the formation of a City of Issaquah Mountain Biking Task Force, which is now coming together and which will advise the council and staff on how increase biking opportunities and access within and around the city. It is an idea the council is taking seriously enough to include on its list of 2010 goals.
But although Issaquah is leading the way when it comes to progressive community development concepts such as home energy efficiency, resource conservation and preservation of open space, it seems to be a mean and unappealing place for cyclists. Many of the riders at Thursday night’s meeting described Issaquah as “user unfriendly” for riders, with many arterials lacking bike lanes, riders forced to compete with cars, and a culture not appreciative of non-motorized road users. Had there been any city planners in the audience, it would be have been an enlightening meeting.
For residents such as Eric Doyle, there are a number of small things that could be done locally to make a big difference for local riders. He mentioned that because of a few sections without a footpath or bike lane, it was difficult for students to ride from the Issaquah Highlands to Issaquah High School.
“We have wonderful resources here, in the form of our natural surroundings,” he said. “But I like the idea of a little advocacy, to put a little pressure in the right direction. I want this to be a place where kids can grow up and be able to ride a bike to get around.”
As a city councilor and avid bike rider, John Traeger said the formation of a conscious body with a common goal is one key step toward more leverage with the city. At recent meetings involving development plans and regulation changes in the City of Issaquah, the interests of bike riders are only sporadically represented, through groups like Evergreen, and individuals such as Highlands resident Tony Cowan, a key architect of the proposed mountain bike skills park in the Highlands, and Jeff Youngstrom, the founder of Getting Around Issaquah Together (GAIT).
“It’s all about showing up (to the meetings),” Traeger said, relating the willingness of the city to invest millions in soccer fields. “That’s because every time we had a council meeting there would be 65 people there from the Issaquah Soccer Club. That type of pressure, whether it is truly representative of the general population or not, does have an impact.”
Holding up a list of Public Works and Engineering roads projects currently on the drawing board, Winterstein reminded the group just what was at stake.
“All of these have the potential to impact cyclists,” he said. “When I saw the work the city had done at Sunset Way and 2nd Avenue, the first thing I noticed was there is no room for bikes. They’ve added a turn lane heading south, but there is no space for riders.”
But, as much as the new Issaquah Bike Club (or Issaquah/Sammamish Bike Club, as some have suggested) will be about building new trails, parks and opportunities for riders, the founding members are also looking within for improvement. On Thursday night, riders spoke of the importance of doing the right thing when out on the roads, to improve the volatile relationship riders have with motorists, hikers and other trail users.
“We have to behave like we deserve it,” Cowan said.
For information about upcoming meets, or to meet other riders in Issaquah, visit groups.google.com/group/issaquah-bicycle-club.