Editor's Note: The Puget Sound region often thinks of itself as a beacon of forward-looking urbanism, but it turns out that our bike commuting, urban garden planting, density warring ways aren't new. They are a reemergence of a northwest urbanism ethic that got its start in the pioneer days.
"Roots of Tomorrow: Urbanism in our Blood" is a multiweek series by Knute Berger, that will explore Seattle urbanism and its roots in Northwest heritage. This week's back to the future focus: bike culture. Check back throughout the week for more on the Northwest's original cyclists. This project is made possible with the generous support of 4Culture/ King County Lodging Tax Fund.
Twenty-five miles of urban bicycle trails built, funded and maintained with the aid of city engineers, designed for recreation, students and commuters. A dedicated bicycle toll road connecting Seattle to other Puget Sound communities. Bike cops enforcing cyclist speed limits, safety and dealing with the scourge of bike thefts. Bike shops — over 20 on Second Ave. alone — selling the latest models and newest gear. Multiple bike race tracks in the city.
Welcome to the Seattle of the turn of the century. The twentieth century, that is — 1894-1904.
Today, as the city puts a new Bike Master Plan in place, we see urban cycling as a forward-looking path toward greater urban sustainability. But this is not the first time Seattle has awakened to the possibilities of a "bike-friendly" urban complex.
Once, Seattle was a 19th century bike city, caught up in cycling's first golden moment. For a brief time — after the horse and before the automobile — bicycles were the hottest new form of do-it-yourself urban transportation.
In the 1880s, chains and pneumatic tires made cycling easier and cheaper; bicycles became much like the basic bikes of today. Here was a great way to get around, to enjoy exercise and the outdoors even in the city. Here was a means of transport for both men and women. Bikes were cheaper and easier to care for than a horse, simpler to drive than a buggy and offered more freedom than a trolley line.
The first recorded bicycle in Seattle arrived by boat in 1879 and was displayed at a stationery and book shop in Pioneer Square. It was a kid's bike, purchased by a man named Jules Lipsky for his son. But by the 1890s, adults seized on newer, improved models as a means of getting around Seattle's rough streets and over its steep hills — not to mention the thrill of riding down them. A mid-range bike could be had for $30 or $35 — about one third the cost of a good horse.
Second Ave. became bike row, where purveyors, like the wonderfully named F.M. Spinning, sold the latest models. In May of 1894, The Argus newspaper reported a "big demand for wheels" in Seattle, noting that "there have been more ladies riding during this past week than ever before." Frank B. Cameron, in his study, "Bicycling in Seattle 1879-1904," writes that the bicycle craze, which "had started in 1894 increased until about 1900 when there were possibly 10,000 bicyclists in Seattle." With a total population of about 80,000 in 1900, it was a veritable bike boom.
First, however, street improvements were needed for riders. "The streets of 1895 were described by [assistant city engineer] George Cotterill as 'strewn with wrecks of old planking, and holes were the principal features which distinguished the remains.'" Downtown streets were mostly mud mixed with horse manure. ("The horses were not wearing Pampers," Cameron told me over the phone.)
Sidewalks, where they existed, were often boardwalks set above the muck. Wagons got stuck, pedestrians got filthy. Raised streetcar and railroad tracks created hazards. Raised planked sidewalks were also crowded and problematic.
With Seattle's streets in disarray, cyclists became a major force in lobbying for civic improvements. Eventually, a group of smaller bike clubs and activists coalesced into the Queen City Good Roads Club, which pushed ceaselessly for a citywide bike path system, bike-friendly streets and sidewalks, bike regulations and safety programs.
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