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What happened to Seattle's powerful bike lobby?

Once a prominent force in city politics, bike advocates are adjusting to a new reality — and planning a comeback.

Protesters bike down Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle during the Ride for Safe Streets on June 16, 2019.

It was the sort of idyllic summer afternoon that makes Seattle’s winter months tolerable. Blue skies, sunshine, warm but not hot — perfect for the celebration Mayor Jenny Durkan had planned. She was joined by Seattle Department of Transportation Director Sam Zimbabwe, a crew of SDOT construction workers clad in orange safety vests and a few dozen bicyclists on a block of Eighth Avenue downtown.

The occasion was the newly installed Eighth Avenue protected bike lane — a half mile of paint and plastic posts running north between Pike and Bell streets. It was one of just a handful of bike infrastructure projects being built in Seattle this year, and the mayor wasn’t missing the opportunity to highlight it.

“Bikes are not just recreation. They are critical means of mobility, and we have to make it safe for everyone to do,” said Durkan. “We need to do everything we can do to get people out of their cars, particularly single occupancy vehicles, and make sure we achieve both our Vision Zero goals [to eliminate traffic deaths and injuries by 2030] and achieve our climate goals. That's why we're building a robust connected [bike] network in our city.”

After remarks from Durkan, Zimbabwe and Cascade Bicycle Club policy director Vicky Clarke came the ribbon-cutting photo-op — 15 bicyclists breaking through a strip of crepe paper the mayor and Clarke held across the bike lane. One rider snagged a high five from the mayor as he pedaled past.

It was a jovial scene and one that fits the image of the Seattle recently hailed by Bicycling Magazine as America’s best city for biking. It also belied the turmoil that has played out between the mayor’s office and bike advocates over the past year.  

In June, a few hundred bicyclists rallied outside City Hall and swamped the streets of downtown in protest of what they saw as Durkan’s unwillingness to build bike projects. SDOT had just released its revised five-year Implementation Plan for the Bicycle Master Plan, the document that decides which of the projects SDOT should prioritize each year.

Created in 2007, the Bicycle Master Plan is the city’s guide for building bike lanes, trails and neighborhood greenways. It sets a goal of building more than 400 miles of new bike infrastructure. When the plan is complete, it should be possible for anyone on a bike to get around anywhere in the city on a safe bike route. But Seattle is a long way from that reality, and in recent years progress on the plan has slowed to a crawl. 

The implementation plan announced earlier this year promised 11 fewer projects by 2024 than were in previous versions of the document and eliminates commitments for several key bike projects in southeast Seattle, a priority for the bike lobby. The mayor said it was fiscally responsible to commit only to projects with funding and stop the cycle of overpromising and underdelivering on transportation projects.

A scaled-back bike plan alone would’ve been enough to spark outrage among advocates, but there was more: The implementation plan came on the heels of Durkan’s decision to cut bike lanes from a repaving project on 35th Avenue Northeast in the face of staunch, well-organized bike lane opposition from neighborhood residents and business owners.

The 35th Avenue decision, in turn, came after Durkan’s 2018 announcement to further delay the long-planned Fourth Avenue protected bike lane downtown for at least two years. That year, SDOT built just 1.88 miles of protected bike lane and 7.9 miles of new neighborhood greenways, far fewer than the 23 miles of lanes and greenways the agency had planned.

“With 35th, people were shocked the project didn’t move forward,” Cascade Bicycle Club’s Clarke told Crosscut in April after a draft of the implementation plan was released. “And it points to the fact that people who want to be able to bike safely around town really need to be standing up and getting counted in a way that they maybe felt like they didn’t need to before.”

Every new bike lane in Seattle generates controversy — it’s the nature of change, especially change that takes away parking spots for the sake of what many see as a niche interest. And progress on the Bike Master Plan has always been slow and hard won. But in years past, the city often pushed past the opposition to get projects built

Protesters gathering in front of Seattle's City Hall.
Bicyclists rally in front of City Hall during the Ride for Safe Streets in downtown Seattle on June 16, 2019. Hundreds of residents gathered to protest cuts to the city’s bike plan and draw attention to the need for transit reform. (Photo by Jen Dev/Crosscut)

It wasn’t simply that past mayors and city councils bought in to the “rightness” of the Bicycle Master Plan. It was that the bike lobby had built power in city politics over the course of several administrations. But after the decisions on 35th Avenue, the scaling back of the implementation plan and further delays on Fourth Avenue, advocates fear that is no longer true.

“The mayor keeps talking about shared values around climate, safety, accessibility, affordability and not following through when push comes to shove,” said Gordon Padelford, executive director of the bicycling and pedestrian advocacy nonprofit Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, in an interview this spring. “It’s liberating and clarifying in a way. … We need to be out connecting with people, building relationships, connecting with people over specific projects and mobilizing people.”

For bike advocates, the stakes are no less than life and death and the future of the planet. A network of bike lanes alone won’t eliminate traffic fatalities by 2030, but it is widely accepted that it will help immensely. Nor, of course, will biking do everything to avert climate disaster. But Seattle has started trending in the wrong direction on greenhouse gas emissions and without a dramatic uptick in biking (and transit and walking), the city won’t get close to meeting its carbon neutral goals.

To make all that happen, bike advocates must once again figure out how to build the sort of power that makes mayors care what the movement wants.

Protesters bike down Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle during the Ride for Safe Streets on June 16, 2019. (Video by Jen Dev/Crosscut)
 

Birth of Seattle’s bike movement

For a long time, Cascade Bicycle Club and Seattle’s bike lobby were one and the same. The group was founded in 1970 as a volunteer-run operation meant to “make cycling a more important part of our everyday lives — from commuting to work to obtaining and using more bicycle trails,” said co-founder Mike Quam in The Seattle Times’ first article about Cascade.

A few years after its launch, Cascade made its foray into advocacy, successfully lobbying for the creation of the Burke-Gilman Trail north of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and along Lake Washington. There were other advocacy efforts in the decades that followed, but much of Cascade’s energy focused on building membership through event rides, such as the Seattle to Portland ride and Chilly Hilly on Bainbridge Island.

Cascade’s shift to political formidability began with the hiring of Chuck Ayers as executive director in 1997. When Ayers began, the organization had four full-time staff and about 4,000 paying members. Over his 16-year tenure, he grew that to a staff of 36 and over 15,000 members. Participation in the organization’s annual ride events topped 50,000 people, all of whom ended up on the club’s campaign mailing lists.

It was an intentional push by Ayers to build a base of members and event riders significant enough to help push the club’s political agenda for more bike lanes and trails.

“We had internal conversations at the time about power and how to wield it,” says Ayers. “There are industries that wield power through lobbyists or an ability to contribute lots of money. At Cascade we realized we had the power of a citizen movement, so that’s what we mobilized.”

The first real demonstration of that electoral strategy came in 2003 in the Eastside suburbs. Elected officials in the small town of Sammamish were a barrier to completion of the East Lake Sammamish Trail. Cascade turned out its membership and donated to bike trail-supporting city council candidates and helped flip the 4-3 conservative council to a 6-1 pro-environment, pro-bike council.

“We showed politicians that there was a new political force in town,” Ayers says.

It was around that time that Ayers hired David Hiller as Cascade’s advocacy director. Hiller was a brash organizer known for playing bad cop to Ayers’ good. He helped build Cascade’s reputation as a thorn in the side of its political opponents and even some allies.

Despite the club’s endorsement of Mayor Greg Nickels, Hiller organized a protest ride on Stone Way in the face of the mayor’s plans to scale back bike lanes on Stone Way in Wallingford. When Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen opposed a “road diet” to reduce the number of car lanes on Nickerson Street from four to three, calling it road “indigestion,” Cascade organized a Tums for Tom campaign to have their members shame him. The councilmember changed his tune on Nickerson, telling The Seattle Times that “the influence of advocates for bicycling is incredible. I think that it’s more organized, and I think that they are more engaged in the whole political process in Seattle than they have been.”

Cascade’s influence grew along with its membership through the ‘00s and helped lead to the codification of more ambitious bike goals. In 2007, the club worked with Nickels’ staff and SDOT to pick projects for the mayor’s newly created Bicycle Master Plan. Nickels earmarked $27 million from the “Bridging the Gap” property tax levy to fund it. Rolling out the new plan for over 100 miles of new sharrows, bike lanes and trails, Nickels said he wanted to triple the number of bike commuters in Seattle over 10 years and “make Seattle the best bicycling city in the nation.” 

By today’s standards, sharrows (painted road markings suggesting drivers share the road with bikes) and paint-only bike lanes are considered outdated designs that do little to make biking safer, but they were a sign that Seattle was committed to bikes. It’s worth noting that even at the time, there was a farsighted recognition by some that the city needed to build physically separated bike infrastructure in order to drastically increase the number of bicyclists. Hiller fought against the idea, instead pushing for more painted bike markings and education about “vehicular cycling,” a theory of safety that says riders should mimic cars and ride aggressively in traffic. “In 2007, the DOT was really building a bike network for people that were already bicyclists,” says Padelford of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.

Still, the first Bicycle Master Plan marked a significant shift in Seattle’s bike infrastructure investments. In 2005, SDOT built less than a mile of new bike lane citywide. In 2006, the agency built half a mile of bike lane and 2.5 miles of trail. With the Bicycle Master Plan in place, 2007 saw SDOT put down 2 miles of trail and 20.7 miles of painted bike lanes and sharrows. In 2008, SDOT built 36 miles of lanes and sharrows and 4 miles of trail; 2009 saw similar amounts.

Solidifying power inside City Hall

The 2009 election was an enormous leap toward political power for Seattle’s bicycle lobby. Though Cascade backed Nickels in the primary election, it came out strong for eventual winner Mike McGinn in the general. A former chair of Sierra Club’s Washington chapter and a regular bike commuter, McGinn came to office fully bought in to biking and ready to help advocates implement their agenda. (His support for biking eventually earned him the nickname Mayor McSchwinn in the press). But Cascade didn’t just go after the mayor’s office in 2009; it also backed city council winners Mike O’Brien, Sally Bagshaw, and Richard Conlin, who became key allies on the council in years to come.

“Without political allies you don’t move things,” Ayers says. “If you look at our mission at that time, getting more people cycling, more often, more safely, how are you going to do that? You have to build infrastructure, especially if you want to get more women and children riding. City council controls funding for it, so that’s where you go.”

McGinn found some success pushing the Bicycle Master Plan’s so-called “road diets,” which reduce the number of car lanes on a street in order to slow traffic speed and make space for bike lanes. In his single term in office, Nickerson Street, North 125th Street, Dexter Avenue, North 45th Street in Wallingford, and others got road diets. Not surprisingly, removal of car lanes was wildly unpopular among Seattle’s nonbikers. But McGinn thought bike advocates gave him sufficient cover to keep going in the face of opposition.

“I would tell Chuck that he’s got to get people filling the crowd,” McGinn says of Ayers, the Cascade Bicycle Club director. “If it’s a mayor coming to tell you he’s changing your community, that’s one thing. If it’s neighbors arguing with neighbors, that’s another. You really need people to show up at those town halls and support [the project].”

There were other advances in the quality of bike infrastructure under McGinn. He introduced bike boxes in intersections, which allow cyclists to get ahead of a line of cars waiting at an intersection, and the city’s first buffered bike lanes, a precursor to protected bike lanes that give cyclists more space from car traffic, with a painted buffer along the lane. Importantly, SDOT built the city’s first protected bike lanes under McGinn including a block on Cherry Street Downtown, Linden Avenue in Bitterlake, and a mile of Broadway through Capitol Hill. Rather than just painted lines, protected bike lanes have physical separation from car traffic.

Yet McGinn’s administration was not viewed as a revolution for cycling. It was stymied by the recession, a contentious relationship with the city council, and the growing “bikelash” against bike projects. In the end, SDOT installed fewer miles of new bike lanes and sharrows per year under McGinn than the end of the Nickels years. In 2010, McGinn's first year, the city built 20.2 miles of bike lanes and 1 mile of new bike trail. But the next three years under him saw an average of just 12.5 miles a year of trails, lanes and sharrows, plus 7.5 miles of signed routes called greenways, which linked slow-speed neighborhood streets.

The bikelash was driven in part by the perception that bicyclists were receiving preferential treatment from city hall out of proportion with their small share of the total population. Even today, only about 3% of Seattleites use bicycles as their primary form of transportation to work — a number that has been essentially flat since 2010.

Dave Gering, executive director of Seattle’s Manufacturing Industrial Council, captured the mood in 2010 when he told The Seattle Times he was “tired of [bicyclists] having the kind of influence that’s sort of walking on water, as if they are not part of the political process … because they’re pure of heart.”

The movement also had an image problem — in part a product of its reliance on Cascade’s recreational event riders as its base. There was a perception that Seattle’s bicyclists were a bunch of well-to-do, spandex-wearing men. And who wants to spend millions of city funding to support a rich man’s hobby?

Perception is not reality. Across the U.S., people of color bike for transportation at higher rates than white people, and more low-income people bike for fun and transportation than middle- and upper-income people. But perception fueled the bikelash. “We may not have really helped the cause in the long term in some ways by being this very visible, Lycra-clad crowd of vehicular cyclists. It created this sense of them and us,” says Clarke.

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Ava Rigel looks up at bike protestors

Ava Rigel, 4, of Seattle looks up at the crowd of biking community members during a rally at Seattle City Hall on April 2. Last week, the Seattle Department of Transportation released details about the implementation of the Bike Master Plan and some community members are concerned that the plan is scaled back from what was originally proposed. Ava's mother, Sara Rigel, says she and her daughter ride their bikes to and from work and school, and they feel sad about the new details of the Bike Master Plan. (Photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

The cost of coasting

Tempers also flared when the bike lobby threw its own bombs. Cascade’s Hiller famously told The Stranger when drivers kill cyclists he would “love to hang [them] up by their toenails at the edge of town and paint 'killer' across their chest and let them hang there until the buzzards peck their eyes out.”

For the club’s board of directors it was a bridge too far and eventually led to the ouster of executive director Ayers and a proclamation that Cascade would take a kinder, gentler approach to politics. Elizabeth Kiker, an advocate with the Washington, D.C.-based League of American Bicyclists, took the reins in 2013. Her three years at Cascade were marked by high staff turnover, a merger with statewide advocacy group Washington Bikes and internal debates over Cascade’s role in politics, including eliminating its political action committee and changing its legal status so that it was no longer able to endorse candidates. In the end, the structure of the organization and the PAC remained, but the club kept a lower public profile when it came to politics.

Initially that worked. Despite Cascade’s endorsement of McGinn in the 2013 election, the newly elected mayor, Ed Murray, and his SDOT director, Scott Kubly, started off as key leaders on bike issues. Working off a newly updated Bicycle Master Plan that recognized the need for physically separated bike infrastructure, Murray and Kubly pushed for Seattle’s Second Avenue protected bike lane. Murray brokered a deal between business owners and advocates to get the contentious Westlake protected bike lane built. He spearheaded the nearly $1 billion, voter-approved Move Seattle levy to fund transportation projects and got the city’s Pronto bikeshare program off the ground. Pronto would later prove to be a costly boondoggle, but at the time it was one of the bike lobby’s highest priorities. In 2015, a Seattle Times columnist dubbed Murray “the real bike mayor of Seattle.”

But as his time in office dragged on, Murray scaled back his efforts on the Bicycle Master Plan, in part a product of the priority given to the growing housing and homelessness crisis, in part a response to the backlash around bike projects he no longer felt was worth weathering. Despite the influx of funding from the Move Seattle levy, SDOT dragged its feet, especially on the downtown protected bike lane network.

Councilmember O’Brien sees it as a weak point in the bike movement’s history, where it still grappled with turnover at Cascade and relied on name reputation more than the education, organizing and movement building that got it a seat at the table in the first place.

“It starts to get easy to skip a step,” he explains. “You need to be continually building your power and building your base. You can’t just say, ‘Hey, we have enough credibility and our name alone will get people elected.’”

By 2016, advocates were scratching their heads, wondering what was happening with the Bicycle Master Plan, especially its promises to build out a network of downtown protected bike lanes. In May 2016, advocates rallied in the lobby of City Hall chanting, “We can’t wait.” But it was to little avail. In the final two years of Murray’s term in office, before he resigned in the face of allegations that he had sexually abused five minors, SDOT was building just 8.5 miles a year of bike lanes, trails and greenways. SDOT’s implementation plan had called for 38.45 miles of new bike infrastructure over those two years. 

But if Murray’s slowed progress was a hint that the bike movement’s political power had waned, the start of Durkan’s administration appeared to be proof positive.

Her first year in office saw SDOT complete just 2.3 miles of new protected bike lane and less than 8 miles of new greenways. That same year, Durkan put the long awaited Fourth Avenue protected bike lane on hold, fearing that it would harm downtown traffic flow when combined with the coming closure of Highway 99 and the removal of buses from the transit tunnel.

Then came Durkan’s Move Seattle levy “reset.” The $930 million levy funds sidewalks, street repaving,  transit and bike projects. Durkan pointed to higher construction costs coupled with supposedly unrealistic project cost estimates as proof that SDOT needed to rein in the project list. “For her, the goal was to rebuild trust with voters and SDOT’s reputation as an agency that’s visionary but also delivers on projects,” says Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan. For bike and transit advocates it was a worrying sign that Durkan didn’t share their priorities.

Finally, there was 35th Avenue Northeast. The controversy centered on a proposal to remove parking along one side of a 2.3-mile stretch of 35th in Wedgwood and Ravenna in order to make space for bike lanes. The blowback from neighborhood businesses and residents was fierce and swift. According to one SDOT staffer, the city got hundreds of letters opposing the bike lanes and relatively few in support. At one point, police found fireworks stuck in the gas tank of a SDOT construction vehicle and somebody vandalized SDOT traffic counting equipment. Durkan hired a mediator for closed door discussions between sides, but it did not produce any consensus. In the end, the street repaving project moved forward without bike lanes.

“I think what motivates her is just not wanting controversy, especially controversy that reflects poorly on her. I think she backs off on controversial projects as a result,” says Katie Wilson, head of the Transit Riders Union and a contributing columnist to Crosscut.

“35th was hard. I won’t deny that,” says Deputy Mayor Ranganathan. “But I think it also offers a learning opportunity for how we as a city can partner with communities to build great multimodal project in a way that community feels bought in to.”

Once again, the advocates had a very different take. “35th is evidence that it’s different now,” says Cascade’s Clarke. “It happened despite all the technical and planning best practices clearly being in support of adding a safe place to bike. This decision points to the fact that planning best practices and [vision documents] are not enough. … Our job is to make it abundantly clear to people who want these things that they need to stand up and be counted.”

Rebuilding power

How does a movement on the outs begin to rebuild itself?

For Greenways’ Padelford, it’s about going back to the basics of grassroots organizing to not only build a base that can make or break elections, but one rooted in their communities and ready to stand up and fight for bike lanes there.

“Really classic door-to-door canvassing and community organizing will be really powerful,” says Padelford. “I think in the end that’s how we win.”

Winning, of course, means getting bike projects built. And to do that, Padelford thinks the movement once again needs the support of the mayor. “The challenge in Seattle is you really need a mayor who believes in making change for change to happen,” he says.

A new coalition of transportation, environmental and disability rights advocates called Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) is providing the organizing vision. The group includes Cascade, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, Transit Riders Union, 350 Seattle, Sierra Club, Rooted in Rights and others. MASS has put together a transportation package outlining projects and policies it says the city must implement in order to improve biking, walking and transit and make it practical to get around Seattle without a car.

The Greenways group has already started organizing around some of the MASS bike priorities, including a vision for a new bike path connecting Georgetown and South Park and another effort to improve bike routes on Beacon Hill.

Padelford said that in South Park the group is contracting with the head of the merchant retail association to do outreach and also subcontract with Spanish-speaking youth to do surveys and talk to people about the project. In Beacon Hill, Greenways volunteers and staff have been knocking on doors to tell people about their ideas and learn what people in the neighborhood want and need to bike and walk more.

That their vision prioritizes infrastructure for south Seattle is no coincidence. Lower income and more diverse than the rest of Seattle, the south end of the city has seen significantly less bike infrastructure investment than the whiter, wealthier central and north end of the city.

“There’s a recognition now that we need a really broad tent,” says Padelford. “I think the bike movement has a much better equity analysis now than it ever has. We recognize that it’s historically been a white space. It’s not enough to just point out that people of color bike more than white people and low-income people bike more than wealthy people. We need a movement that reflects the full diversity of Seattle and is fighting for the needs of everyone.”

The city council recently passed resolutions adopting three pieces of the MASS transportation package, including one that will require SDOT to build protected bike lanes identified in the Bicycle Master Plan when they’re doing street-repaving projects and one that asks the city to fund South Seattle bike infrastructure. 

Jon Orcutt, a well-known career bike advocate in New York who also worked in that city’s Department of Transportation under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, says that sort of ambitious vision is key to building your base. “You start to build a bigger constituency and maybe a younger constituency who says “where are my fucking protected bike lanes? … Those are the people you need to mobilize to gnaw the ankles off every politician who's not helping.”  

The question then is, can a broad-based movement with a strong vision and an unwillingness to mince words move the needle on biking in Seattle?

In some ways it seems it already has. Certainly, Durkan’s Eighth Avenue ribbon-cutting in August seemed like a turning point after the bike movement showed its anger last spring and summer. Amidst the celebration, there were hints of conciliation, with Durkan saying, “We know the Move Seattle reset process has been challenging and frustrating and difficult for many people.” She went so far as saying, “I want to thank all the advocates. Keep pushing us. It's the right thing to do.”

Deputy Mayor Ranganathan disagrees with the characterization that the ribbon-cutting marked a turning point. Instead she says, “It is a reminder that we should celebrate community success and infrastructure that’s building towards the city of the future. I think the turning point was really around [this summer’s] Bicycle Master Plan implementation plan and getting that adopted. At that point, we’re doing this and doing it together.”

Ranganathan says she understands advocates’ frustration with the implementation plan and what happened on 35th, but points to the projects that did move forward in the past year on 65th Street, Wilson Avenue in Seward Park and the protected bike lanes completed on Pike and Pine streets from Capitol Hill to downtown earlier this month.

“People worry that 35th opens the door for opposition of all kinds of projects,” Ranganathan says. “For every 35th people point to, there are plenty of other projects that have happened and happened successfully. … The mayor has been clear that she thinks there should be a protected bike lane on Eastlake. It’s an important connection between downtown and the University of Washington.”

Though she stood with the mayor on Eighth Avenue on that sunny day in August, Cascade’s Clarke is not sure she’s ready to trust everything is back on track.

“I don’t think it’s a turning point. The ribbon-cutting is a data point,” Clarke says. “At the beginning of the mayor’s term we got this data point with Fourth Ave. Then we got another data point with dramatically scaling back the Move Seattle levy. And also the data point of canceling the 35th Avenue bike lane. Now we have a couple more data points. We have the new implementation plan with a letter from the mayor and Sam Zimbabwe supporting. Another data point with mayor and SDOT being out in the community articulating support for the bike network, articulating that we're not doing enough on Vision Zero.”

She continues, “Things are going in a better direction than they were. But I think I am saying that action is what matters.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Seattle's first protected bike lanes were built under Mayor Ed Murray. They were build during Mayor Mike McGinn's administration. 

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What happened to Seattle's powerful bike lobby?

About the Authors & Contributors

Josh Cohen

Josh Cohen is a former Crosscut reporter who was focused on Seattle's growth and the changing region.