We visited Bellingham, Washington, where I grew up, last August. It has changed dramatically since my childhood. I think it is at least twice as large as it used to be, just for starters. Although there was always a university there in my memory, it has grown larger too—what used to be gravel parking lots for commuter students have been taken over by campus buildings, and the student population now lives there year round.
I rode my bike as a child in Bellingham, often for transportation, and as in many small towns at the time, this wasn’t considered unusual. Our parents didn’t consider driving us around to be part of their responsibilities, and the city buses were irregular, so it was ride or walk, and we did both. This was well before the time that kids were supposed to wear helmets, so none of us ever did. We also didn’t lock our bikes, because there wasn’t any bike theft. And I never had lights on my bike either, because there was a curfew and kids weren’t allowed out after dark.
When we rented bikes in Bellingham last summer I could not believe how much had changed. I rode on streets as a child because that was what was available, and the streets were mostly quiet. On larger and busier streets that connected neighborhoods, there were bike lanes. I rode on those too.
Now there is no need for many of those bike lanes, because in the time I have been away, the city of Bellingham has built greenways that are completely separated from the streets. Even though they don’t cover the whole city, they go almost everywhere I wanted to be. The city has a fair number of hills, but none of them are very steep, and the extensive infrastructure meant that bike commuters were visible everywhere.
Riding the greenways, and the quiet streets, I realized that people in Bellingham have no reason whatsoever to own a car (although almost all of them do). There are paths and bike lanes to take people nearly everywhere in the main part of town with minimal exposure to cars. There is always bike parking at your destination. Most of the interesting places to shop and visit are on dedicated pedestrian plazas—cars no, bike corrals yes. Admittedly many stores are a few blocks from the greenways, and it’s often necessary to ride on streets briefly, and of course my perspective on what constitutes serious traffic may be somewhat skewed. It still impressed me.
What interested me most was how many stores, restaurants and housing developments were oriented toward the bicycle and pedestrian greenways instead of the streets where cars were allowed. As we rode closer to downtown, parallel to streets we had driven on earlier in the week, I realized that what I had thought were abandoned buildings or warehouses were instead a community bike shop, a strip of small restaurants and bars, and a bakery. Opposite them were condo buildings that opened onto the greenway from walking plazas.
Bellingham does not lack for natural beauty. It runs in a narrow strip between the water and the mountains. The greenways run along the water and through woods, and the buildings that pop up along the trail seem tucked into a world without roads. Even in terrible weather (and the weather was often terrible during our stay, either hot and muggy or cold and raining) riding those greenways felt like stepping into the Shire.
Riding in Bellingham felt very bucolic, although it’s not perfect. From a car, it seems like many other small cities, even though there are a lot of bikes on the roads. There are strip malls and wide roads with speeding cars, and far too many crosswalks with lights too short to allow anyone to get across without sprinting. Yet when we got on the rental bikes I realized that there was a smaller second city built in parallel, inaccessible to cars and human-scaled. I have always visited Bellingham because my mom lives there, and had little other interest in the city. But now I have another reason to visit. I want to figure out how to export their infrastructure back to San Francisco.