The bicycle wars of Seattle

Seattle has an international reputation as a bicycle-friendly city. Certainly, bicycling is a significant part of the local culture. I see more adult cyclists on the streets here, even in bad weather, than anywhere else I have lived. The powers-that-be who market the city to the world clearly cultivate that image as another example of how Seattle is cool and green and different and outdoorsy and, given its northern latitude, surprisingly mild in the winter, even if a tad wet.

But in my fourth month of being New To Seattle, I perceive something a little different–and a little darker. I see a love-hate relationship growing between the citizenry in general and that sub-section who choose to tool around town regularly on two wheels and their own energy.

What seems to be long-standing friction is surfacing in the run-up to a referendum next month called Proposition 1 in which voters are being asked to approve a $60-a-year increase in car licensing fees.  Part of that money would go for improvement of the bicycle-path infrastructure. Since bicyclists don’t have to register their vehicles, for them it amounts to a free ride.

“I am opposed to the car-tab tax for this reason: It asks nothing of the bicycling community,” said one recent letter-to-the-editor printed in The Seattle Times. “When cyclists step up and accept some responsibility for filling potholes and creating bike lanes and when they are held to reasonable standards of conduct and equipment protecting them and those of us in motor vehicles, I will happily share the road and the car-tab tax.”

Back in August, a post by me here about the poor state of street signage in Seattle drew this written comment: “The mayor is too busy painting bicycle lanes with the funds!”

In conversations with folks here, the issue of “crazy bicyclists” frequently comes up, usually in the context of some recent near-miss by someone driving a car. The speaker, of course, is the driver. The tone often has an edge to it.

I personally haven’t experienced any such incidents. For me, frankly, a far bigger problem is pedestrians who think nothing of crossing a street without first looking left and then right, as I (and hopefully you) were taught as a kid. I don’t care if they’re in a crosswalk with a right of way or not; it’s just not a very smart thing to do.

I think I’m starting to figure out the local politics of bicycling. According to the latest statistics I can find, not 1 out of 25 adults in Seattle commutes to a job on a bicycle. It’s not like some of those rush-hour scenes you see of wall-to-wall bicyclists pouring down streets in China or Europe.

So bicyclists in Seattle are a small special-interest group–but, like many small special-interest groups, one with clout wildly out of proportion to its numbers.They are well organized, move in political circles, claim credit for getting the current mayor elected, push an agenda and respond to slights like bees defending their hive. Indeed, the militant Cascade Bicycle Club and a political action committee (stated slogan: “We bike, and we vote“) affiliated with it have poured funds into the Prop 1 campaign.

Bicyclists also enjoy insanely favorable publicity in Seattle. A bicyclist killed by a driver (and there have been several recent cases) is often lead news in the print and electronic media. A pedestrian killed by a driver, less so. A car’s driver killed in accident with another car?  Maybe two grafs in The Seattle Times–on a slow news day.

I like to bike, too. It’s nice tooling around in a town where I don’t feel like there’s a bull’s eye on my back, as I did in other places I lived like Houston, Albuquerque and the Los Angeles area.

But I wonder if a bicycle backlash is brewing in Seattle. It might be economic envy; after all, it’s a lot cheaper to bicycle than operate a car. It could be some kind of class clash I haven’t yet doped out, or a reaction to perceived arrogance. Whatever the cause, I see Prop 1 as another battlefield. If it goes down to defeat–and my bet is that it will–a veneer of Seattle kumbaya will go down with it. Making more work for Seattle’s image-makers.

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The bicycle wars of Seattle — 5 Comments

  1. Pingback: Bicyclists lose, boozers win in Seattle vote | New To Seattle

  2. Pingback: Ballot propositions just as nutsy in Seattle | New To Seattle

  3. But Bill, a car’s contribution to wear and tear on the roads is many times what the entire fleet of bicycles will do. They can argue they help by reducing car traffic and maintenance expenses.

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