The history of mechanized transit has, since its genesis, been a history of tragic death and casualty. Take the train: Its invention also birthed derailments and collisions, leading nineteenth-century British doctor John Eric Erichsen to discover “railway spine,” a diagnosis for what we call “trauma” today.
The bike’s introduction to modern life didn’t come with the same inherent risks; but the rise of cars and their infrastructure—only years after bikes established a toehold in cities like Seattle—had superlatively disastrous consequences. Razing neighborhoods, killing pedestrians and bicyclists, and arguably shaping every aspect of life in their smoggy image.
This unfortunate reality compelled independent journalist Tom Fucoloro to write Biking Uphill in the Rain: The Story of Seattle from Behind the Handlebars through a bifocal lens. Chronicling bikes’ ascendance in Seattle, while also keeping an eye out for the cars tailgating behind them and crashing onto the scene. “In a city that once sported an awesome web of bike paths cross-crossing our communities, why did citizens let cars take over?” Fucoloro asks. “What happened?”
Fucoloro answers these core queries in an interview with The Stranger, depicting Seattle’s first bike and car owners as “Spider-Man Pointing at Spider-Man”-esque characters. Appreciating bicycles as a tool people deploy for a range of political goals, Fucoloro further describes how Seattle became home to politically engaged biking culture, including through extensive organizing efforts, and comments on the ways bicycles were used both for and against social justice during protests against white supremacy and police brutality in 2020.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
To start off: You've been writing Seattle Bike Blog since 2010. What drew you to writing a book in addition to that ongoing work?
Writing a blog, everything is very plugged into the current moment. I'll come up with an idea, write it, and publish it, often within the same day. So the idea of being able to just take a huge step backward, zoom out, it was just a really cool opportunity: getting a chance to really dive into the history in a way that didn't need me to turn something around immediately.
As I wrote this book over the period of a couple of years, the meaning of things that I had previously collected kept changing as I learned new things. The book is not really all that similar to the proposal that I first wrote. I just let it lead me. Initially, I thought I was going to write a bicycle culture book, and it turned into more of a Seattle history book. I think it turned out better than my proposal, so I'm happy with it.
Sorry for the pun, but the book uses the bike as a ~*vehicle*~ for covering several histories at once: real estate, white supremacy, resource distribution, local politics, the built environment, and so forth. The reason I bring that up is that you mentioned expanding the scope beyond biking culture; did you widen your lens because of the archival research you did? The early history you dig into shows how the built environment was so contingent upon the bicycle for quite a large chunk of Seattle’s early early years as a settler city.
Some of it was also the pandemic. I started writing this book in 2019, and the original version of it was supposed to have long-form personal profiles. But the pandemic basically made that not really cool to do. That's when I shifted to what I had access to: newspaper archives, digital archives, things like that.
I started out with the assumption that I knew little bits and pieces of the early bicycle history stuff, but I assumed that it would be the beginning of just Seattle bicycling, and then it dawned on me that the early bicycling stuff was not actually the start of the city's bicycle culture, but the start of the city's car culture. The question I wanted to answer was, “How did the bicyclists allow cars to take over these awesome bike paths?” We had bike paths all over the city. “How did they let the cars take over? What happened?”
And then I'm doing research and reading the columns of The Argus, which was an alternative weekly that had a weekly cycling column. In one of the final columns in 1904, the writer says, “You can't help but notice that most of the new auto owners are the former bicyclists.” It's kind of eye-opening like, “Oh, they didn't let the car drivers take over, they became the car owners—they’re the same people.”
So that's what led me down the road of following how car culture developed: into chapters doing research about how the city responded when people started just killing people with their cars, which very quickly became an enormous problem. You know, traffic deaths in Seattle peaked in the 1930s at just an eye-watering total—way, way, way, way, way more than today, even with far fewer people. I wanted to see how people responded to car culture, which ballooned into the freeway explosion in the 1950s and ‘60s, which was at the peak of its powers in the ‘60s before the public revolted. That provided a really interesting context to understand how the modern bicycling movement came to be, which was really sort of a counter-cultural movement, separate from car culture this time.
One notable vignette involves snooty Montlake residents working together with Black Panthers to mobilize against extremely destructive highway projects. Granted, those projects were more about stopping something versus building civically minded infrastructure like the Burke-Gilman. That difference represents a core theme in your book, and I’m wondering if you could speak more to that.
The freeway revolts were this huge political movement that built itself grassroots-style and was successful at pressuring city leaders to back off their support for some major freeway projects, including the RH Thompson expressway through the Central District and the Arboretum and also a much wider version of I-90, which would have destroyed much more of Judkins Park and Mount Baker. (It still destroyed a lot of the International District.)
This movement was successful at not only convincing city leaders to back off from supporting these big freeway projects, but it was also able to get a city-wide voting majority on its side. So the city put two freeway projects up to referendum, and voters said no to both of them, but then very shortly later, they put forward the Forward Thrust measures to voters, asking them if they wanted to fund a mass-transit system. And voters also said no to that. So, you know, they could successfully stop a freeway, but building support to create something new was so much harder to do.
So we were stuck in this period of indecision, and I think that's where biking really comes back in. There was a group of people in Northeast Seattle who noted that a railroad line was going to be abandoned, and they tried to figure out how to keep the railroad right of way connected, complete, and as a public good. So they came up with the idea of a hiking and biking trail, which is something that just had not existed before. They had to organize a community door-to-door and gather support. A lot of the people who were in the proposed path of the RH Thompson fought against the freeway and also organized to stop the trail. It’s so much easier to be against something than it is to invent a vision and then sell it.
It's really impressive what they were able to accomplish building the Burke-Gilman Trail. They had to get the federal government to invent a process by which a city or county could take ownership of a rail right of way that was being abandoned to preserve it as a public good. And that's what became what's now known as the Rails to Trails program, which is nationwide, and there are thousands of miles of these trails all across the country. This was an extremely influential project, which is why it's funny that we still haven't finished it.
There are a few instances in your book where individual leaders exert [unilateral] agency to start or stop things. The transfer to the city of Burlington Northern’s rail on the south end of Ship Canal, which is now a bike path, just because an outgoing railroad exec was willing to get flack for transferring the land during his very last minute at work before retiring. It's entertaining to read, but also just wild to think about the scale of power, where on one side, you need to create these constituencies of thousands of people to generate buy-in, and on the other side, you just need one guy to sign a piece of paper. Do those power dynamics still exist in the city today?
It absolutely does. One of the lessons that we've learned, especially during the early Jenny Durkan administration, is like, you know, we can have these moments where we’ve successfully aligned the full stack around an idea—all the way from the low-level staffers within a department, to the department head, to the mayor, to the city council, and they're all perfectly in line with each other on a goal. And when that happens, we can achieve so much and so much can happen really quickly. We've had these bursts of the city doing that. But if you lose even one part along that chain, it's wild how damaging that can be.
That's the role bicycle advocacy serves in the city: constantly trying to convince the city that we can do something new and different. The actual building of bike lanes is extremely easy. It's the alignment of political interests along with the bureaucrats within the departments that's the hard part. It was just very frustrating to realize that we had everything set up, and then we lost the mayor. I think it's healthy to know exactly what the power structure in Seattle needs to look like in order to create something new.
SDOT is excellent. Very, very, very, very smart people working there, and they know what needs to get done. And our city council has been very favorable. We got way behind, and now we've got a lot of key projects that were on pause that are all sort of moving. This is going to be a really big year for biking in Seattle. The department's trying to play catch up to get some of the promised mileage done before they put up another transportation package in 2024. We'll see if they all come through.
When you explain your motivation behind using the bicycle as this lens for talking about such a wide range of social issues in Seattle, how do you tell people why they should care about the bicycle?
Nothing about public spaces ever exists in a vacuum from the larger cultural issues at the time. When a decision is made about how public space is going to be used, that decision is being informed by the whole of society. Nothing that happens on the street is confined just to the space between the curbs. And the bicycle is just this tool. It's this thing that is affordable [nowadays] and simple and powerful and sometimes full of joy.
But if you look throughout Seattle history, each generation seems to see the bicycle in a different way and use it in a different way to achieve different goals at different points. In the early days, like when the bicycle first arrived, it was super expensive, and an elite status symbol. You look at the names of bike club members and it reads like a list of Seattle street signs—the Nickersons, the Dennys, Judge Thomas Burke. It was an elite group of plugged-in, wealthy people who were trying to use it as a development tool for their claimed land plots, while they're profiting off colonial expansion and genocide.
Later, when biking kind of comes back, it's much more egalitarian. More recently, during the protests in 2020, the Seattle Bike Brigade used bikes as a means of traffic control to keep protests safe. So they're using the strategies developed through Critical Mass and other mass bike ride events over the years. Biking was just the tool by which to keep a protest safe, to create a space in public on streets that are not designed for that use. I just thought that to be such an interesting evolution—how this generation is using bikes in a way that hadn't been used before. We're reinventing what the bike means and the role that it plays all over again. This is the way it's always been. People always see the bike as a tool and they're finding different ways that it can fit into what they need to do now.
So sort of the evolving need to use this tool for a range of political beliefs and even just pure human needs, like being protected from 2,000-pound vehicles.
But the bicycle is just a tool. The most prolific users of bikes at the protests were certainly the Seattle Police Department. There’s the officer who ran over a protester’s head while the protester was lying in the street. Rolled his bike right over his head, was caught on camera doing this. The bike is just a tool that can be used. It is not inherently a good thing. It's up to the people to do good with it.
Tom Fucoloro discusses Biking Uphill in the Rain on Thurs Oct 12 at REI.