Maybe it needs to happen in every town on its way to taking bicycling seriously as a mode of transportation: Bikelash. It’s a clever term to describe a period of public outrage over bicycling projects when neighbors believe that the projects will have a potential impact on driving.
Bike projects in Seattle today are not exactly controversy-free, but the response is nothing like what it was just a few years ago. Then-Mayor Mike McGinn was the lightning rod for a lot of that anger, and his political opponents and many reporters found it convenient to bludgeon him over bike issues. But he embraced his identity as a biking mayor, and he played a key role in directing the conversation away from bikes vs cars and toward safe streets for all users.
McGinn did not win a second term, but the conversation about safe streets when he left office was in a dramatically different place compared to when he assumed office just four years earlier.
In some ways, bikelash describes an often frustrating but necessary process where community members need to hash out opinions on street safety and car dominance. But it also forces bike advocates to better understand people’s concerns and expand the coalition of people who support safe streets. It also pushes safe streets advocates and politicians to better understand how to talk about safe streets, which is a concept essentially all neighbors support.
But perhaps most importantly, bikelash is a chance for new voices and new leaders to rise who can help lead the conversation beyond simply fighting for bike lanes here and there and toward a complete shift in how the city approaches safe streets. Seattle Neighborhood Greenways is the perfect example of this, and their energy has completely flipped bikelash on its head. Because bikelash is a knee-jerk response to the difficult concept that streets are not simply pipes for cars, and death and injury is not the acceptable cost of doing business in our city. It’s a culture shift, and no culture shift is easy.
Mayor McGinn recently chatted with Josh Cohen at The Bicycle Story to talk about bikelash during his time in office. It’s a great read for anyone who was not involved three-to-five years ago.
What bike accomplishment are you most proud of from your time in office?
I have a theory that every city that decides to do biking seriously has to kind of go through a passage where everyone just loses it. Then once you get through that and you actually start implementing projects and everyone has the opportunity to have their say, you get to the other side. And we’re at the other side now. We’re doing dedicated cycle tracks. We did the first couple in Bitter Lake Urban Village, Broadway, and now that’s what we’re doing downtown. We established that pathway, and now I don’t think we’re going to get knocked off it.