How bikes led Seattle's first roads renaissance

Roots of Tomorrow: Long before the Cascade Bicycle Club, Seattle was a booming city gripped by bike mania; its people caught up in the defense of their wheels.

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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Comments:

Posted Tue, Sep 24, 9:25 a.m. Inappropriate

And then, cars were invented, and everyone gave up their bicycles for the much-superior automobile.

The end.

Lincoln

Posted Tue, Sep 24, 1:40 p.m. Inappropriate

"much superior automobile... The end." -- If your only criteria is how far and quickly they move people and their stuff around compared to horses or bicycles. If you also consider land use & cultural patterns, impacts on natural resources, and public health, they are pretty crappy.

louploup

Posted Tue, Sep 24, 2:18 p.m. Inappropriate

You think "public health" was better in 1890, or now?

"how far and quickly they move people and their stuff around" and what else is transportation about?

Lincoln

Posted Wed, Sep 25, 12:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Your first post implies horses, bicycles, and cars are the only options for moving people (and freight) around. They are not.

As for public health, many metrics are better, but there are serious problems caused by emissions from gas and diesel engines. There are dozens of studies on the subject in medical journals. E.g., http://www.ersj.org.uk/content/17/4/733.short

louploup

Posted Tue, Sep 24, 12:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Lincoln: Later in the series, I write about the introduction of the car into Seattle and the challenges--even chaos--that caused at first. It's fascinating stuff.

Posted Tue, Sep 24, 2:53 p.m. Inappropriate

Will there be a map of the bike trails? And are any traces of the old trail system left?

Posted Wed, Sep 25, 12:35 p.m. Inappropriate

There's quite a bit of info out there. E.g., http://pauldorpat.com/seattle-now-and-then/seattle-now-then-bikers-choice/

louploup

Posted Tue, Sep 24, 4:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Seems like a bicycle, which gives a person the ability to travel several miles in a few minutes, is an anti-density and pro-sprawl technology (which is why I like them so much).

If everyone rode a bike, we could live and work further apart in cities because it would be so easy to jump on a bike and get between shops, offices and so on. Transit stations could be spaced further apart.

Making resources bike accessible means less need to cram into tiny apodments. You can easily live on the outskirts of town, at the end of a cul de sac, and acquire resources with ease!

jabailo

Posted Wed, Sep 25, 11:55 p.m. Inappropriate

It would be nice to have your knees.

For the rest of us, cars make sense.

By the way, is there a new trend with parents to ride their bike in heavy traffic with children in a tow-kit? I've been seeing more of this lately, in traffic situations that children do NOT belong in.

Posted Wed, Sep 25, 5:32 a.m. Inappropriate

Seattle is very hilly and it rains alot. Try picking up groceries, transporting work tools, or picking up a kid at daycare on a bike. Really, we go out of our way to accomodate a tiny percentage of people with all of these bike lanes.

Seasoned

Posted Wed, Sep 25, 9:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Another Seattle history nugget. Thanks. Bike fan or not, it's pretty cool to hear about some of the lesser known history of the city.

Saw this in the paper this morning:
Interesting article on census data for commuting in Seattle - which is now one of five US cities where less than half of commuters get to work by car. http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2021890245_westneat25xml.html

Disclaimer: I'm posting the link so you can read the article in it's entirety w/o me taking up a page by cutting and pasting the whole dang thing. Sheesh.

While a lot of folks still drive by themselves, the trend looks the same to Oregon's - folks commuting to the city or within the city have transportation options and younger folks are less inclined to have a car at all. Makes sense. Why would you want to sit hours of your life in traffic! Certainly not me.

An excerpt:
__________________________________________________________________
In fact, if you add driving alone and carpooling together, slightly fewer workers use the car today than did back in 2000 — even though the workforce has grown by nearly 50,000 (and the city’s population by more than that).

So how are Seattle workers getting there? This is where it gets interesting. The most obvious guess — buses and trains — is up since 2000, but only enough to account for a third of the change.

The real sea change in commute patterns around here is in, believe it or not, bicycling to work (up 152 percent since 2000, to 15,000), working at home (up 76 percent, to 26,000) and old-fashioned hoofing it (up 56 percent, to 36,000).

Ten percent of Seattleites walk to work, fourth-highest among big cities in the nation.
_____________________________________________________________________

So I'd say it's more than a handful of folks. But - biking isn't for everyone. Families are juggling kid schedules/after school activities, errands, whatever. Or connecting the line between work-daycare-home is a stretch. Having had a youngster at home and bike commuting a while back was challeging.

But- it's nice to hear about the pre-auto bike culture and see a recent resugence in interest. Thanks for the article.

Treker

Posted Wed, Sep 25, 12:40 p.m. Inappropriate

It is true that some trips cannot be done by bike. So what? Many can. It would easy to shift many trips currently accomplished by single people in cars to bikes if the infrastructure was provided. The "tiny percentage" problem is caused in large part because of the lack of trails and lanes that people feel safe on.

louploup

Posted Wed, Sep 25, 11:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Try opening your car door inside one of the townhome garages all over Ballard these days ... unloading groceries requires you park outside your garage so you can get the car door open far enough to actually get the grocery bag out of the car. Paper bag of course.

Lame.

Posted Thu, Sep 26, 7:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Well there's and interesting, um, non sequitur.

Treker

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