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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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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