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The Bicycle Story: Former Mayor McGinn on Seattle’s ‘bikelash’

McGinn announces plans for the NE 75th Street safety project
McGinn announces plans for the NE 75th Street safety project

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.

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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.

From The Bicycle Story:

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.

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7 responses to “The Bicycle Story: Former Mayor McGinn on Seattle’s ‘bikelash’”

  1. Joseph Singer

    Speaking of “bikelash” I’m amazed at the number of people who really resent biking infrastructure like the protected bikeways. The comment I hear most is “why are they spending so much money on bike stuff when other stuff needs to be done like fixing the sidewalks.” Or why are they taking “all” of our parking spaces away? (even though it’s not true that “all” are taken away. Mostly just placed differently with a few spaces removed.) There’s the perception that bicycle riders/users somehow are an entitled group.

    1. LWC

      I think the number of people who actually feel that way is quite small, at least in this city. Surveys have shown that most Seattle citizens support investment in safe bicycling infrastructure, but that majority viewpoint is not always reflected among the loudest commenters in public meetings, internet comment threads, and Seattle Times editorials.

      1. Erik Busse

        I am surprised by the backlash by those talking about the “war on cars” and creating bogeyman all over the place but I agree the citizens are smart enough to realize that a city safe for pedestrians and cyclists is a better one. I’ve lived in cities with limited walking and cycling opportunities and not coincidentally there it was harder to stay fit and did not have the same community feel as places where people can get around other than in a car. Seattle set itself back years ago when it continually dragged on its light rail development and dealing with looming traffic issues. Lets hope we continue the progress.

  2. RG

    Some of the “backlash” on the part of drivers is really rooted in fear on the part of drivers who are afraid to hit a person on a bike! Many cyclists do not ride in a predictable manner when they make efforts to save energy by running stop signs, running lights, changing from a street lane to a crosswalk and then up on the sidewalk just before angling across an intersection. I have seen this countless times on my short commute to work. At this point in the time with little enforcement it’s hard to know what many people on bikes are going to do…and that causes stress on the part of those driving their car. Separation is an ideal but unfortunately unpractical solution. I have no trouble sharing the road with cyclists who play by the rules and ride predictably and safely. As for me…I won’t cycle to work downtown in this environment no matter how much i love my bike. It’s not separated enough or safe enough as of yet.

    1. As a cyclist and driver, I agree with you on the fear aspect. However, even the most safe, predictable, alert, law-abiding cyclist makes me nervous driving when I have to share a lane. I know that ONE moment of inattention, someone else being reckless, or a problem with road conditions can result in my maiming or killing someone no matter how careful I am.

    2. This goes both ways, obviously. Drivers in this city are hardly an example for predictability and lawfulness. Just in the last two days of biking I’ve seen plenty of illegal, unpredictable, and irresponsible driver behavior; some of it caused me some very immediate fear and stress. I’ve been a passenger with a driver that was afraid of hitting some cyclists… while he was cutting between them instead of yielding in the obvious way to get to a right-turn lane on the far side of a bike lane. Yeah, let’s talk about stress.

      If you ever wonder why so many people show up to meetings about bike infrastructure all over the city, it’s because responsible cyclists face this kind of stress every day, everywhere we go.

  3. Dave C

    Cities in the USA need to redevelop transportation infrastructure in a broad, citywide blitz emulating Northern Europe. There should be no question of car vs. bike vs. ped. Each mode should have its separate pathway, with appropriate signals and rules of the road. With appropriate infrastructure cars and bikes and peds stay out of each other’s way and conflict is engineered out of the equation. Our efforts to date have been a set up for conflict. With poor to zero bike ways there is no incentive to follow the rules of the road. Bikes don’t belong on roads or sidewalks. The Linden, Broadway, and 2nd avenue bikeways are the best efforts yet, though are sub par compared to European standards. Cars and bikes really don’t mix well, so we eventually must separate them. It has to be a part of a comprehensive overall plan implemented in a logical calculated manner. Now all that’s needed is funding and backbone. It’s been done in other places, why not the USA?

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