Debunking the So-Called Bike Backlash
A New Poll Finds that Seattle Loves Cyclists, Wants Protected Bicycle Lanes, and Thinks Recent Anti-Bike Rhetoric Is a Load of Crap
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Reading the city's daily newspaper, you'd think that Seattle is awash in anti-bicycle sentiment. Everyone from neighborhood leaders to politicians agrees, the Seattle Times insists: The city has given too much to bikes already. You'd think bike lanes were part of a Machiavellian plot to push people out of their cars.
"I think it's been working for them, unfortunately," laments Cascade Bicycle Club political director Craig Benjamin. Elected officials and candidates are increasingly convinced that voters hate bikes.
For instance, the Seattle Times loves to riff on a theme about a "war on cars," with their editorial writers saying that drivers are being "shoved aside" for the "transfer of asphalt to bicycle lanes." The paper confidently declares that "now is not the time to fund bicycle improvements." Then there are the busybodies at neighborhood meetings, such as one who recently told Seattle City Council's Transportation Committee chair that "bicyclists are militant and looking to cause a conflict whenever they can."
But, as a new poll shows, most people in Seattle don't believe that anti-bicycle rhetoric.
They believe the opposite.
A January 17 report by FM3, a policy-focused opinion research firm, shows that Seattle voters overwhelmingly like cyclists—78 percent have a favorable opinion—and most of the city's residents actually ride a bike. What's even more contrary to conventional wisdom: By a two-to-one margin, voters support removing traffic lanes and some on-street parking to build bicycle lanes that are physically separated from cars.
"There's strong public support for making it safer for people to ride in Seattle, and there's a large percentage of people who would want to ride if we make those investments," says Benjamin, whose group commissioned the poll of 400 Seattle voters. It has a margin of error of 4.9 percent. And while some might argue that an advocacy group paid for the survey—and some naysayers will—FM3 is a reputable Democratic pollster with plenty of experience conducting surveys and advising everyone from small-time candidates to Senator Patty Murray.
As the city faces a crowded, high-profile mayor's race this year, candidates are probably thinking about ways to bring down incumbent mayor Mike McGinn. His regular bike riding has been a target for some opponents, and the Seattle Times derides him with the nickname "McSchwinn." Over the last few years, this sort of anti-cyclist rhetoric has been ramped up into a wedge issue (apparently to pressure the mayor and the city council into withholding money from the Bicycle Master Plan, which is only about one-quarter funded).
The problem is that this is a losing wedge issue. Anti-bicycle advocates speak for less than one-third of Seattle residents. These holdouts, the polling shows, are largely older, white, conservative men. Candidates who pander to those blocs with anti-bike talking points will be losing more votes than they're gaining.
Benjamin put it succinctly: "People aren't buying the story they're telling, and they don't agree with it."
This article has been updated since its original publication.