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    The car that broke the back of Seattle's bike craze

    Roots of Tomorrow: Seattle's bike paths went from world class ... to roads in just a decade.

    This is the third article on Northwest bike heritage in "Roots of Tomorrow: Urbanism in our Blood," a series on northwest urbanism. Read Part 2, "Meet Seattle's first bike vigilantes," here. Or, read Part 1, "How bikes led Seattle's first roads renaissance,"  here.

    By the late 1890s and early ‘00s, Seattle's 25 miles of bike trails were reshaping the city and influencing its culture, from how people socialized to how they commuted to work.

    The bike trails ran throughout the urban core — and even to resort neighborhoods like Madison Park. Hundreds of riders used the Seattle trails to go on long scenic rides and picnic outings within town. Financing was provided in part by bike license fees – $1 per bike per year – and club volunteers still did much of the trail maintenance. Contracts to build the paths involved real work though: One handwritten contract involved "clearing, grading, surfacing, corduroying, bridging, culverts, ditching, guttering, elevating curves and rolling…"

    These paths were serious infrastructure, touted as one of the urban wonders of emerging Seattle. Trails wound up hill and down dale, following the city’s natural contours through clear-cut and old-growth forest. Bridges were built over streams and gulches.

    The city's hills were a challenge, but the views spectacular. "Probably [in] no city in the United States is there a system of bicycle paths so excellently conceived, so well constructed and kept constantly in as good repair as are those in and around the city of Seattle," the Seattle Times boasted in 1902. Failing to ride the paths to enjoy the scenic beauty, they said, would be "a misfortune to be sincerely regretted."

    Seattle bike paths: A 1900 map created by Anders B. Wilse versus 2013. Photo (L to R): MOHAI, SDOT

    Most popular was the Lake Washington bike path, which wound from Lake Union to its namesake body of water near Leschi. A public subscription was raised to pay for it, with some civic heavy-hitters kicking in as much as $25. When the path opened on a June Sunday in 1897, "nearly everyone in the city who owned a wheel rode over it," according to The Argus.

    Lake Washington Bike path near where I-5 and SR520 intersect today (near Roanoke), 1900. Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives. 

    Between Lake Union and Lake Washington, a bowered bungalow called the Halfway House served food and drink to riders. You could stop for sandwiches or ham and eggs to fuel your workout, get a caffeine boost with coffee or tea, or slake your thirst with sodas and orange cider.

    When spring came, good weather brought out the sexes and the cyclists. "The warm weather has brought out many fine looking female bicycle 'turn outs,'” the Seattle Republican observed in March 1900, “and it is useless to add that, the men have been doing the long look act ever since."

    The same paper ran a 1901 essay on the virtues of "The Bicycle Girl": A model of common sense, ‘The Bicycle Girl’ rode her bike to the office and knew her business better than anyone. "The girl who can ride a bicycle with grace and endurance can and will do almost anything that comes to hand, even to, in many instances, making a living for her worthless husband."

    Two women on a bike path near Port Townsend give the flavor of bike garb in 1898, in the middle of the first “bicycle craze.” Photo: MOHAI

    Beyond city limits, cyclists – at "the peril of life and limb" – wended their way through a maze of trails, trestles and roads that could take them to Edmonds, Everett or as far south as Olympia. They could even ride the 26 miles east to Snoqualmie Falls. The Queen City Good Roads Club organized large Sunday rides to Kent for ice cream socials at the home of state senator A.T. Van de Vanter. In 1897, 500 Seattle cyclists took an excursion boat to neighboring Tacoma and paraded through the streets.

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    Posted Thu, Sep 26, 10:45 a.m. Inappropriate

    Mossback's series is refreshing and important. He merits commendation for embarking on this history of bicycle in Seattle. It would be useful to know how Seattle's experiences reflect the evolution of urban displacement nationally. I recall that there were only 2000 automobiles registered in Washington state in 1910, so I can't believe their impact was as great at Mossback suggests at the turn of the century. The story seems to have oversimplified the real timeline. Could that be true?

    Those ladies on balloon tires in the Port Townsend picture have made me curious. Is there an article forthcoming on the history of bicycle technology?


    Posted Thu, Sep 26, 11:45 a.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks for this piece, Skip. (A larger version of the bike trail map is available at http://pauldorpat.com/seattle-now-and-then/seattle-now-then-bikers-choice/ for anyone who is interested.)

    Posted Thu, Sep 26, 12:19 p.m. Inappropriate

    MJH: A future story in my series will look at the first 10 years of the car in Seattle and the scramble to deal with this new technology. The impact on the bike system was quick. As I point out in this piece, there were a number of reasons the paths disappeared, development being one of them. But the impact of the car was quick on the trails. The most popular bike path in the city--Lake Washington--was turned to an auto boulevard within a few years of the first car's arrival here, and the rest followed. Still, Seattle remained a horse town for a long time after the auto arrived--that replacement was more gradual and didn't really take place until after WWI when auto technology advanced and costs came down.

    It would be cool if some local bike nerd looked at bike technology in the period, which I didn't get into much. An expanded version of these stories will be published in an eBook, where you can learn about one bike techno-wonder that visited town in 1897.

    Posted Fri, Sep 27, 1:06 p.m. Inappropriate

    Those 1901 women were fun, tough and smart. Loved the quote from the writer who noticed that (Knute, name please?).

    "The same paper ran a 1901 essay on the virtues of "The Bicycle Girl": A model of common sense, ‘The Bicycle Girl’ rode her bike to the office and knew her business better than anyone. "The girl who can ride a bicycle with grace and endurance can and will do almost anything that comes to hand, even to, in many instances, making a living for her worthless husband."

    Posted Fri, Sep 27, 10:11 p.m. Inappropriate

    common1sense: The writer of the piece was anonymous--at least the piece was unsigned.

    Posted Sat, Sep 28, 11:22 a.m. Inappropriate

    Love this series, Knute! (Doesn't the woman on the left in the photo look like she's checking her iPhone? (-: )

    Posted Mon, Sep 30, 4:35 a.m. Inappropriate

    Hah! Judy, I thought the same thing. She's ahead of her time in a pose that is now familiar!

    Posted Sat, Sep 28, 12:10 p.m. Inappropriate


    Though not intended, your story really is an "Emperor has no clothes” piece. We don't choose our modes of transport or housing out of environmental virtue or the greater good.

    Then as now, we choose based on individual convenience self-interest. The bike trails were chosen in the 1890’s, not in a fit civic virtue, but because, based on the available technology of the time, it was the fastest, most economical way to get around. The car came along and quickly became faster, and soon, with the Model A, economical, for most households.

    What happened with the housing pattern was no different. Rather than multi-family housing, the new modes of transport opened up development of the dispersed, single-family home, on the single-family lot. It was the sprawl and the loss of wildlife habitat, degraded water quality, etc. phenomena of its day.

    For Seattle Progressives, your piece ought to be thoroughly demoralizing. Their view of history is that the nature of mankind and history are moving toward something. Your historical piece shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The same self-interest drove individual and policy choices to the same predictable outcomes then, as now.

    To the extent that there is an urbanist, density, pro-bike, pro-transit revival now, it is because it is cheaper and more convenient, then the continued patter of sprawl. People, realizing they would have to pay a premium to live on an urban-wildland interface, in North Bend, and devote hours a day to driving to a job, are choosing multi-family, high density living near transit or a bikeway, within walking distance of amenities. They do so, not out of altruistic environmental or societal concern (though they may tell themselves that), but because it better facilitates their financial and lifestyle choices.

    Posted Mon, Sep 30, 7:23 a.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks for this astute observation!!


    Posted Mon, Sep 30, 2:35 p.m. Inappropriate

    I think you're kind of ignoring the fact that as a society, we didn't just sit idly by and enslave our infrastructure choices to whatever the collective wisdom was. On the lighter side, advocacy by early adopters of car technology lead to their chosen method of transport getting more infrastructure. On the darker side, market manipulation and money in politics gave us car-centered infrastructure. Speculative land owners won or lost based on their ability to get the roads to go where they owned land.

    War time investment (overwhelmingly public sector money) made the auto affordable, lead to the creation of the industrial capacity which made it so, and ultimately paved the way for decades of auto-centered growth.

    All of this - land use, investment, market motions were CHOICES, made with a good degree of graft, back-slapping, and "winner picking" on the part of the public and our elected officials.

    It wasn't some inevitable outgrowth of a series of totally rational choices on the part of homo economicus.

    Free market theory has a way of pretending economic decisions are these completely rational phenomena, easily explained by a small number of rational criteria. AND THEN, to top off that bit of naive reasoning, free market theory likes to the re-write history as though everything to date follows these rules.

    We do follow our own self-interest. We do collectively come to conclusions based on the aggregate influence of these self-interested decisions. But we also bribe, cajole, accept the status quo, tire of conflict, become lazy, take things for granted, misinform, and a series of other COMPLETELY IRRATIONAL sets of behavior.

    Put all that in a pile and you get our infrastructural legacy. But to assume the faith-based free market icon of enlightened self-interest is the source of all previous decisions is a little to naive for me.


    Posted Tue, Oct 1, 6:42 a.m. Inappropriate


    As the original Progressive Movement (which grew out of Prohibition, into a "good government" movement and gave us things like the initiative process, anti-trust law, and other anti-corruptions measures) and the Civil Rights movement show, it is very hard for "rent seekers", that use money to steer public policy in their economic favor, to overcome one man, one vote, when voters actively participate in the public process. The economically powerful overcome, one man, one vote, only when the electorate chooses to passively let them.

    To the extent that voters choose not to use one man, one vote, to check economic interests of the moneyed and powerful, they are passively acquiescing and consenting to the rent seeking (not your term, but it is what you describe) behavior.

    You had individual participants in the economy back then that made choices about buying cars to replace bikes, moving from downtown to the then rural or suburban lots because a car made it possible to zoom downtown and it suited their individual needs. Aggregate those individual choices together and you get a macro-economic result. Those same people, at that time white males, also voted. They voted on taxes and public policy matters of the day to reflect their economic values.

    We are no different today. The individual participants in the economy are acting in their self-interest, in whatever manner they consciously or sub-consciously define that interest. The point is that it is self-interest, not the greater good. Those same people are eligible to vote. They vote, or choose not vote and acquiesce to the public policy status quo, on the same basis.

    So you are correct, the land-use, transportation, environmental options are chosen, but since the market actors and electoral actors are largely the same, the processes mirror and re-enforce each other. One is not a check on the other, rather they compliment each other. They both reflect what we as individuals value, and when they aggregate them in a big stew, what we truly value as society.

    Walter Kelly wrote, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

    Posted Tue, Oct 1, 11:27 a.m. Inappropriate

    Again, I think you are simplifying to an extent that warps reality. One person, one vote is the aggregate society's tool for balancing rent seeking behavior. But that tool doesn't exist in some kind of purely rational vacuum, separated from misinformation, vote suppression, propaganda, etc.

    Also, I think you and I just fundamentally disagree about the influence of the society at large over public policy. I think there are examples (you listed some great ones) where the aggregate, rational judgment of the voter won out of influence peddling, graft, misinformation, etc. But those actions and tools did not erase influence peddling, graft, and misinformation. They just reacted to them and provided SOME counterpoint.

    Point of this very interesting (I mean this sincerely) debate in this specific context is this: We didn't get an extremely car-focused infrastructure because it was what made the most sense according to the aggregate judgment of the public. We got it for a lot of reasons, some of them worthy, some inevitable, and some unworthy and corrupt. Was there fair competition between ideas in Southern California when auto companies bought the streetcars and ripped up the tracks? Was that open, rational consideration of options, or a blatant market manipulation that took the true choice away from the consumer/voter?

    So, any argument based on "we got the infrastructure we have because it MADE THE MOST SENSE," seems, minimally, to completely ignore the inconvenient, messy parts of how we ended up here.


    Posted Tue, Oct 1, 8:51 p.m. Inappropriate


    Your point about So Cal and ripping up the tracks, was done in full view of the public. They had the chance to make a civic stink and have elected officials stop it. They acquiesced to it (a form of passive consent).

    There was no hue and cry by the public like there was when Pike Place Market almost got demolished by those seeking to make money by develping the real estate.

    You are right. Corrupt rent seeking is never stopped. It never will be. The nature of mankind is unchanging. History does not move toward something. It relfects our unchaning nature and repeats itself.

    Our founding father's were wise to create many checks and balances (one might question that in the current obstructionist environment where a minority of the majority in the House has shut down the government by saying no to the annual Appropriations). The best we can ever hope for are COUNTERPOINTS and the public seeing enough value in what will be gained by the expenditure of time and effort to excercise them. At some level, when we don't excercise those COUNTERPOINTS, we are deciding what will be gained just insn't worth the civic energy.

    "If you choose not to choose, you still have made a choice." - Getty Lee of the Rock Band Rush.

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