Move over McGinn: Seattle's original bike mayor

Despite his “Mayor McSchwinn” label, Mike McGinn isn’t the first City Hall occupant to deserve the "Bike Mayor" mantle.
Despite his “Mayor McSchwinn” label, Mike McGinn isn’t the first City Hall occupant to deserve the "Bike Mayor" mantle.

This article is a part of "Roots of Tomorrow: Urbanism in our Blood," a weekly series on how the future of northwest urbanism is shaped by our past. Read the first few parts of the series here -- Part 1, "How bikes led Seattle's first roads renaissance"  or Part 2, "Meet Seattle's first bike vigilantes."

Mayor Mike McGinn rode into office in 2009 as Seattle’s “bike mayor.” His detractors accused him of being too pro-bike, favoring the self-propelled two-wheelers over cars. “Mayor McSchwinn” as they called him, claimed that he decided to run for mayor one day while bike commuting to work. The former head of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, McGinn continued his two-wheeled commute to City Hall after he was elected. It was a symbol of his commitment to the environment.

While this seemed novel at the time, Seattle has had other – much earlier – candidates for the “Bike Mayor” title. The first and foremost would have been George Cotterill, the civil engineer who helped build Seattle’s turn-of-the-century bike path system. Cotterill also acted as a volunteer and officer of the Queen City Good Roads Club, the city’s main bike advocacy group back in the early 1900s. Still, by the time Cotterill actually became mayor in 1912, most of his contributions to Seattle cycling had already been made. By that time, cars were on the rise and urban bikes were waning. Cotterill was “Bike Mayor” before he was mayor.

It would be more than 50 years before Seattle began to embrace bikes again. When the comeback arrived, it was driven in part by the organizing of Mayor Dorm Braman, who oversaw the first Bicycle Sunday in 1968 – an event that closed off Lake Washington Boulevard for cyclists for a day. It was a fitting transition: The city’s boulevard system was partly based on Seattle’s turn-of-the-century bike paths and “wheelmen,” as they were then called, were a vocal lobby for road improvements.

The arrival of Seattle’s youngest mayor, Wes Uhlman, cemented that comeback.

Uhlman, 34, was elected in 1969, coming into office at the birth of an urban cycling renaissance. At the time, bikes were resurgent with the new environmental consciousness – a young Washingtonian named Denis Hayes had launched the first Earth Day in 1970. They were a green, healthy, do-it-yourself transportation technology, and cycling was bipartisan. Gasoline shortages and rationing meant that even conservatives supported physical exercise and energy conservation. People wanted a bike friendly city that wasn’t reliant on Middle Eastern oil.

Uhlman capitalized on this, pushing for a system of bike commuter routes in the city. He believed that there was a “symbiotic relationship between the biking public and driving public" and that they could and should get along. That was – and is – a challenge: Drivers had long been used to ruling city streets. In the ‘70s, the Cascade Bicycle Club joined the push, lobbying for city improvements and a statewide plan that rested on the premise that the roads were for everyone — cyclists included. Eventually, the club even raised money for a legal defense fund to protect the rights of local bikers wrongly ticketed for using the roads.

Mayor Uhlman and the city council lobbied the state legislature to use gas tax revenues to help make street improvements and build bike lanes. The state passed a bill allowing that in 1972 — the same year Seattle created its first Bike Master Plan. The next year, Seattle opened its first modern “bikeway”, which ran from Green Lake to the University of Washington.

Other politicians hopped on the bike train too. Republican Seattle city councilman Tim Hill, who later became King County Executive, challenged him in the 1973 election. Hill argued that the city needed more bike trails, should close more streets off for Bicycle Sundays and needed more bike safety programs. His own steed was equipped with a “Tim Hill for Mayor” pennant.  

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Seattle Mayor candidate Tim Hill, riding his bike during the campaign, 1973. Photo: Seattle Times.

Despite his efforts, Uhlman was re-elected. He was savvy enough to know the value of posing on bikes for press photographers himself. As mayor, he went along on a mass ride to Pioneer Square during the 1971 “Earth Week” and rode at Green Lake to promote bike commuting with GOP King County Executive John Spellman that same year.

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Seattle mayor Wes Uhlman and King County Executive John Spellman.

Uhlman had substance too. When the state highway department was planning to expand I-90 into Seattle, it was Uhlman’s appointed advisory committee that pushed for pedestrian and bike lanes on the new bridge in order to mitigate what he called a plan to “dump thousands of cars into Seattle.” Tough negotiations led by Uhlman's appointee Gary Gayton forced the highway department to put a lid on the Seattle side of the project, which ran through the Central District. The move saved the neighborhood from being split by an ugly freeway trench and made room for Sam Smith Park, which was built on the lid.

The highway department also agreed to a bike and pedestrian corridor along I-90 to the Eastside – a 1,500-foot bike tunnel through Mt. Baker ridge, connecting to Lake Washington and the Eastside. In a national rails-to-trails survey, the I-90 bike tunnel was described as “the country’s most impressive example of an urban tunnel constructed specifically for non-motorized transportation.” Today, it anchors the Seattle end of the Mountains to Sound Greenway and is used by hundreds of weekday bike commuters and pedestrians every day.

The most significant, lasting accomplishment of Uhlman's bicycle-friendly career though was the city’s acquisition of a railroad right-of-way. In the mid-1880s, the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad Company’s railroad line went north toward Canada as far as Sumas and east toward North Bend. It ran from Ballard, past what is now the University of Washington campus, then northward along Lake Washington.

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Passengers boarding the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern RR in the 1880s.

The route is remembered by the names of two of the railroad’s major investors: Seattle judge and developer Thomas Burke and businessman Daniel Gilman.

By the 1970s, the Burke-Gilman’s owner, Burlington Northern, sought permission to abandon it – a fact to which Uhlman was tipped by one of his staffers. He was advised that the city should get ahold of it — a possibility that he Immediately began to explore. “It was a once in a lifetime city opportunity, and created a hell of a furor,” he said.

Thus began a controversial multi-year process. The property owners north of Sand Point were especially vocal: Some wanted the land that ran through their backyards for themselves, others were concerned about their privacy and still others hoped the rail line would continue to operate somehow, perhaps as a line for a historical steam excursion train. Ironically, some worried that allowing public access to the Burke-Gilman would invite crime and drive down property values.

“They feared undesirables would come,” said Uhlman.

At the time, civic protests were almost de rigueur in the city. Grassroots demonstrations in the ‘60s and ‘70s had helped save the Pike Place Market from redevelopment, boosted civil rights and "open" housing policies integrating neighborhoods. The Burke-Gilman trail proposal inspired even more of them. An estimated 1,000 advocates walked the railroad line in 1971 to highlight its suitability as an urban trail (Mayor Uhlman and King County Executive Spellman among them).

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A 1971 pro-Burke-Gilman Trail Hike.

According to the Seattle Times, opponents put up signs along the tracks with slogans like “Hike in the Woods, Not My Backyard,” and “We Don’t Want the Trail.” Some acquaintances of Uhlman’s were so livid about the thing that they stopped speaking to him.

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Neighbors protest the Burke-Gilman Trail in 1971.

Of course, the city did eventually acquire the Burke-Gilman and the resulting trail has become part of an ever-expanding bike trail network throughout the region. More than 30 years later, advocates are still hoping to complete the trail’s missing link in Ballard.

Seattleites moved on. Less than 10 years after the protests, a Seattle Times real-estate ad touted an $86,000 Sand Point condo for its “plush new carpet” and “desirable location next to the Burke-Gilman Trail.” A member of Uhlman’s church congregation approached him on the street one day to apologize: A property owner along the trail, he had snubbed Uhlman. When it came time to sell his home though, he’d gotten $75,000 more because of its location.  

In 1986-7, less than a decade after the trail’s dedication in 1978, a report of the trail’s impact on the surrounding community found that it had had little or no effect on crime, that nearly 75% of area real estate agents said they believed that homes within two blocks of the trail were easier to sell, and that two-thirds of neighboring homeowners claimed that the trail had actually increased their quality of life.

These days, the Burke-Gilman is so much a part of city fabric that it is almost impossible to imagine Seattle without it. Not only did it become a hit, but its success helped revive interest in bike trail networks in and outside the city. Uhlman and trail advocates had demonstrated in short order that the trail was more than a recreational bauble. It was – and continues to be – a valuable improvement to the region’s urban life and infrastructure. Some might even call it a jewel in the crown that sets a new standard for any claimant to the title of "bike mayor."

This project is made possible with the generous support of 4Culture/ King County Lodging Tax Fund.

For this story, particular thanks are due to Crosscut intern Sara Kowdley, The University of Washington’s Special Collections and Suzzallo Library, the Seattle Department of Transportation, the Washington State Department of Transportation, the Seattle Municipal Archives, the Seattle Room and digital resources of the Seattle Public Library, and the Museum of History and Industry.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.