Best of 2011: Why is Seattle so hostile to its bicyclists?

It's always easier to hate a minority. An occasional cyclist reflects on what else might be going on.

Crosscut archive image.

A bike rider checks messages while at a street corner.

It's always easier to hate a minority. An occasional cyclist reflects on what else might be going on.

Editor's Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut is sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today we are looking at some of our coverage of transportation. This story first appeared in September.

Max Slade is a youthful, slender, 40-something, who lives on one of the local islands and commutes into the city to work for one of Seattle’s large, technology companies. He is a husband, a father, and a bicyclist, a label earned by commitment.

Almost every day, he rides to the ferry terminal, walks his bicycle onto the boat, and continues his ride on the other side of the bay, which until very recently meant pedaling across Lake Washington over Interstate 90 and into downtown Bellevue.

Over the past three years, he calculated he has ridden nearly 10,000 miles, saving himself and the planet 400 to 500 gallons of gasoline, although the fuel had to come from somewhere, perhaps the muffin he ate in the morning at a downtown coffee shop before he finished the remainder of his commute.

He is a conscientious commuter, following the rules of the road almost always, except, he said, when it might be safer to do otherwise. Getting killed on his bicycle is, by necessity, somewhere on his mind at any given moment. When another cyclist, Mike Wang, was killed July 28 on Dexter Avenue North, in a highly publicized incident, Slade immediately imagined himself in the scenario.

“The guy was exactly my age and had kids my (kids’) age,” Slade said. “I found an article where someone mentioned that drivers need to realize that people on bikes have families and more to do in life. I’ve had the same thought, so I had my daughter draw our family on my bike bag. I hope that makes people think of me as a father and more human.”

Cars dehumanize drivers, the logic goes, because we are hidden in them. When people are faceless and voiceless, we give them far less empathy or courtesy. Things we would never do or say to a person we might bump into on the street while walking, we will do or shout from our cars with middle fingers un-holstered. But a bicyclist does have a face. He is not hidden, nor is he invulnerable.

Yet, as common experience, and journalistic record tells us, we apparently hate bicyclists.

“It’s kind of everywhere,” said Mike Lydon, founder of The Street Plans Collaborative, which has offices in New York and Miami. He has also worked as a bicycling advocate in Vermont and Massachusetts and used Seattle’s master bike plan as a model when he was helping formulate one for Miami.

We hate bicyclists in Seattle too, and with a passion apparently, as evidenced by a column written by The Seattle Times' Danny Westneat for National Bike to Work Day earlier this year. In it, he discussed some of the obvious reasons for the bike backlash — it’s about politics, tax dollars, and sharing valuable infrastructure, or about the bad behavior of renegade cyclists — before concluding that these days merely being seen on a bicycle was enough to engender resentment.

That's in a city where cycling is practically a sacrament. Perhaps, especially here. The Cascade Bicycle Club’s annual Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic draws thousands, always more than the event can accommodate. So does its Seattle to Vancouver ride. The club added a second ride in August because it was so popular.

Perhaps the only thing that will calm bike hate is the contraction in the numbers of cyclists on the road as the bicycling season comes to its natural winter pause. While bikes are hung on hooks for the winter, perhaps we should take the time to contemplate what might drive, rightly or wrongly, our passionate suspicion of those who love or choose to pedal around town.

One friend, wise as he is glib, offered this: “Poor people ride the bus. Rich people ride bicycles.”

Many perceive cycling as a hobby at best, a luxury and selfish indulgence at worst. While not necessarily or even mostly true, it lines up with much of what we observe. The working poor often do not live close to work. Jobs tend to be in the city, where housing is expensive. A bus pass might seem a more sensible investment than a bicycle.

Our bicycling mayor is not a poor man. Neither is ferry-and-bike commuter Slade. Neither is the guy I saw today with, I suspect, more money invested in his gear than someone can spend on bus passes in an entire year. The Cascade Bicycle Club is well-funded, influential, and well-connected for a reason. And not because it is made up of poor, working folks who are forced to ride their bicycles to their jobs as hotel maids and bakers.

Connotations of race and class, Lydon acknowledged, is a “hot topic” in the bicycle advocacy world. “The public face of bicycle advocacy tends to be white, and upper class,” he said, because the work requires spare time and flexibility that working class people don’t often have.

“For a long time bicycling was the provenance of the poor,” Lydon said. “Cycling is in fact less expensive than a bus pass or buying gasoline. … Everybody rides for different reasons. It’s driving a car that is a very privileged thing.”

Done by the masses — imagine Beijing in the 1970s — riding bicycles is for the proletariat. Done by a handful — imagine Boulder, Colo. – and riding is for the bourgeois. The aim in Seattle is to blend the two on bicycles — imagine bike lanes in Copenhagen — to get a wide spectrum of people, wearing street clothes, riding inexpensive bicycles to work or to the store just because it’s practical and easy, not because it’s fashionable or adventurous.

When that happens, the politics associated with bicycling will probably be diluted if not neutralized. “People have this idea that bicyclists are all tree huggers who believe the world is heating up,” Slade said, pointing to another possible source of resentment. In that scenario a cyclist is going to seem sanctimonious or smug; the driver might feel guilt. Either way the cyclist loses, and hatred prevails.

Cyclists will probably always be a minority, which makes it easier to hate them as a group when one or a few misbehave. We all can think of a cyclist we saw riding recklessly, disobeying traffic laws, gesturing rudely, throwing his weight around, maybe slamming his fist into a car out of some misguided sense of self-righteousness. But we can also probably think of far more car drivers who have done something similar or worse.

The difference is that we are much more likely to indict all cyclists by the misdeeds of a few than indict all drivers, because, after all, we pretty much all drive.

“Cycling is a very explicit and visible method of transportation,” Lydon said. “It’s very, very noticeable. If you’re riding a bike, it really does stand out.”

African and Arab Americans understand the concept well. Had the Oslo gunman been Arab, the world’s reaction to it would have been far different. So it goes for cyclists. An impolite driver is just a bad apple, or someone having a bad day. An impolite cyclist represents all of his kind.

As a casual cyclist, I understand the beauty of traveling by bike is that you are not entirely bound to the limits cars are bound to. You can slip down an alley, ride against traffic in a pinch, roll a stop sign, pass through a red light if there’s an opening, ride downstairs or even on a sidewalk if you are careful. Freedom is being small, but also fast.

To some extent I do want it both ways, to have the protections of a pedestrian, but the right of way of cars. And I want the respect and privilege that comes with doing the world a small favor — even if I’m going to drive my car tomorrow. Now, I’m starting to hate myself.

“In a car,” Slade said, contemplating his place in the transportation ecosystem, “you’re always being slowed down, you’re always having to put on the brakes. On a bike, you’re always trying to go faster. You’re more free, in that you’re only limited by yourself and not all the people around you … I think drivers are annoyed because you’re slowing them down.”

These days, Slade is slowing down fewer drivers. His commute, now much shorter, ends in South Lake Union.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at