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Road wars: Danger lurks on creative commutes

The Puget Sound region has an unusually large number of unconventional commuters who trade in their cars or bus passes to brave the outdoor elements through walking, biking, rowing, kayaking, in-line skating — even unicycling.
A bicyclist checks for traffic while waiting at Seattle intersection. Many Puget Sound residents find innovative ways to commute to work, but they come with risks.Elaine Thompson / AP
/ Source: Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle)

Zooming down from the West Seattle Bridge on in-line skates during his daily commute home, divorce attorney Ed Huneke felt his brake shaft snap off. His feet flew out from under him and he landed squarely on the curve of his back.

Later, at the doctor's office, Huneke learned he'd fractured one of his spinal vertebrae, was lucky to not be paralyzed, and would have to wear a back brace for the next three months.

The Puget Sound region has an unusually large number of unconventional commuters like Huneke who trade in their cars or bus passes to brave the outdoor elements through walking, biking, rowing, kayaking, in-line skating — even unicycling. But while athletic commuters can squeeze in a workout, enjoy the outdoors and avoid the headaches of traffic jams, alternative commuting comes with a surprising level of risk, as well.

According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, the Seattle-Tacoma-Bremerton metropolitan area ranked 10th in the nation for the percentage of traffic deaths that involved pedestrians. In 2001, Washington bicyclists reported 200 accidents. Since the Federal Highway Administration estimates 40 percent to 60 percent of all accidents are unreported, the true accident rate is likely much higher.

That high rate is largely the product of an elevated interest in alternative commuting. Almost 60 percent of downtown Seattle workers commute in something other than a car, and the 2000 Census found that 5,943 people, or 1.9 percent of all workers, bike to work in Seattle. (That number may be deflated, however, as it was calculated in the typically cold and rainy month of March.)

In 2001, Bicycling Magazine named Seattle the top cycling city in the nation. Statistics on in-line skating, kayaking and other unconventional commutes aren't readily available, but transportation experts widely cite the Puget Sound area as a leader in them.

It's been over a year since Huneke's accident, and he hasn't attempted the West Seattle Bridge since. Though the avid skater still cruises the pathways at Alki Beach, he hasn't mustered the nerve to tackle his once daily commute to downtown Seattle.

“I liked the challenge of it, but because of that fall it's not something I really miss,” Huneke said.

Each type of athletic commute carries with it a certain degree of risk, and accidents range from harmless to the more serious experienced by Huneke. Seasoned alternative commuters find ways to lessen the risk.

Dr. Rainer Storb, the 76-year-old head of the transplantation biology program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, commutes from his Madison Park home to the Hutch each day in an open water rowing shell. With the bailer open on the shell, Storb can row through Lake Union waves that would swamp a flat-water boat.

Rough water isn't Storb's only concern in the winter, when short daylight hours mean he must row the 5-mile commute in the dark. Storb mounts lights on his bow and stern, but he still must keep a keen eye out for boat traffic. Last winter, he almost ran into a dark barge parked near Gas Works Park.

Several times, Storb flipped his boat because he failed to close the oarlock tightly and the oar jerked loose when he pulled hard through a stroke. Though Storb acknowledges flipping can be especially dangerous in the winter, he's learned how to climb back into the shell in just a minute.

“All the stuff that bothers you at work is gone within a half mile because you're concentrating on a good stroke,” Storb said.

Some athletic commuters gear up for their falls. Greg Harper, for instance, falls frequently. And no wonder: The research engineer at the University of Washington Nuclear Physics Laboratory rides a modified unicycle to work. It's an 11-mile round trip from Seattle's Crown Hill neighborhood to the UW, and Harper said he prepares for it by wearing knee and elbow pads every day.

Now 52, Harper has been unicycling since he was 11, but he only started riding to work four years ago. At that time, he purchased a Coker, a unicycle with a 36-inch in diameter tire that he calls a "gigantic speed machine." When he sits on top of the Coker, Harper's head is a full 7 feet off the ground. Harper likes the height because he can see more when navigating traffic.

When Harper decided he wanted to go even faster than the 9 to 12 miles per hour possible on the Coker, he designed his own unicycle with gears. A standard unicycle has just one gear because the rider needs to be able to outrun the cycle when falling forward. The geared unicycle, which goes as fast as a regular bicycle, is impossible for its rider to outrun.

“You're in for quite a tumble if you can't outrun it,” Harper said. “If you learn how to ride a unicycle, you learn how to fall.”

Even Harper has his safety limits. He won't ride when it's raining, because his feet can slip off the pedals too easily. In the dark winter, Harper trades in his unicycle for a bicycle because he can't avoid bumps in the road that merely jostle a biker but throw off a unicyclist. Though Harper knows how to stop and stand still on a unicycle without losing his balance, he often finds crosswalk signs he can hold until a light changes.

Dean Eldridge, who spent 13 years flying his own plane 50 miles from his home at Frontier Air Park, north of Lake Stevens, to his aircraft interior business in Everett, became instrument rated so he could fly in the dark and through heavy rain. If the fog became so bad he couldn't land at Frontier Air, Eldridge diverted the plane to Arlington Airport.

Huneke, though currently sidelined from his in-line skate commute, can recall all of his safety strategies in precise detail. He learned how to jump railroad tracks and how to relax and enjoy hitting terminal velocity on the steep downhill from the West Seattle Bridge. The moment he'd hit flat ground, Huneke would brake as fast as he could to avoid running into a curb and intersection.

Huneke, who will turn 65 in July, has logged almost 10,000 miles in his 15 years of skating. Though he has no immediate plans to return to skate commutes, he still remembers why he did it.

“With almost no equipment, you can put on these little things and get around faster all over town,” Huneke said. “It appeals to my sense of efficiency and frugality.”