What happened to Seattle cyclists taking over the streets to demand change? Our local Critical Mass movement appears to be all but dead. The Cascade Bicycle Club—one of the largest municipal bike advocacy groups in the country—is considering whether to curb its political work in significant ways. This must mean we've reached cycling nirvana in Seattle, right? That we're on some Amsterdam-level bike-friendliness shit? That the Emerald City is a gleaming biketopia, where we can trust in our esteemed city officials to respect and protect the city's estimated 158,000 cyclists?
Uh, no. Of course not.
This is the fucking USA, people. The A stands for automobile. The city and state are spending $4.2 billion on a tunnel-highway-boondoggle, while the feckless Seattle City Council systematically and deliberately underfunds our $240 million Bicycle Master Plan—the plan to make city streets minimally safe and usable for cyclists—by more than half, year after year.
David Giugliano (known widely in the bike community as Davey Oil) is the co-owner of a Greenwood bike shop, and he remembers when Critical Mass was in its heyday. He went to virtually every ride from 2001 to 2011, and participated so enthusiastically, he says, that he became a kind of unelected spokesperson for the events. This was the era of Bush, the Iraq War, and Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, who created the Bicycle Master Plan in 2007. "It wouldn't be surprising to see several hundred people on a ride," Davey Oil recalls. They were some of the largest rides of their kind in the country at the time.
The Stranger covered one such ride, in 2009, with photos of hundreds of cyclists mobbing onto the Alaskan Way Viaduct on a clear spring day. "Could we just turn the viaduct into an elevated bike path?" wondered The Stranger's Christopher Frizzelle, high as hell on the feeling of the mass ride. "Wouldn't that be insanely cool?"
So what happened?
Critical Mass began to go downhill, says Seattle Bike Blog writer Tom Fucoloro, "when the police wanted to shut it down, and that drew people who wanted to pick a fight with the police." In addition, in a 2008 incident that made national news, a driver allegedly assaulted some cyclists, and cyclists retaliated. Over time, Critical Mass started to feel less welcoming to riders of all stripes and ages.
Plus, Fucoloro says, "It felt a little weird going out and shutting down traffic to make a statement"—the message being that cyclists are people with rights, too—"when the entire city council and the mayor seemed to be on board with the idea [of building bicycle infrastructure]." The rise of openly pro-bike leaders like Mike McGinn, mocked by opponents as "Mayor McSchwinn" during his time in office, and city council member Mike O'Brien, who often commutes to City Hall on two wheels, signaled that bicyclists would finally get their due from city government.
But today, McGinn is out of office and O'Brien often cuts an isolated figure.
If there was ever a moment for Seattle bicyclists not to let their guard down, this is it. With the new district-by-district election system, and with three city council incumbents already announcing they won't run again, the makeup of the council is going to change dramatically this year. Given this, it would be good for remaining incumbents and fresh-faced challengers alike to feel some heat from their large bike-riding constituencies.
That's why so many people are upset by the news that the Cascade Bicycle Club (CBC) is considering removing the electoral hammer from its toolbox of social change, by nixing one of its political arms—specifically, the one that endorses candidates and gets involved in campaigns. The reconsideration is part of the group's weighing of whether to convert to a stand-alone charitable nonprofit, and the board had been planning to vote on the question on March 18.
The move to scale back political advocacy, some say, stems from a long-standing divide between more conservative bike club members, many of them based on the Eastside, and more progressive Seattle-centric members, who remain committed to electioneering. CBC board president Catherine Hennings says in the face of an outcry, including a petition to "Save Cascade," the board is now likely to delay a final decision until late 2015.
"I had perhaps not, until some of this dialogue got started, appreciated the power of [the CBC's electoral muscle]," Hennings says. The board heard from leaders like O'Brien that it was important to have a group that would "stand behind him."
But there are limits to what the CBC can accomplish, even if it retains its election-influencing powers. "I give a lot of credit to the establishment bicycle advocates," says Davey Oil, the former Critical Mass participant. They're "conversant in the language of politics as it's spoken," he adds. "And that's fine, but it leaves out people who are ready to ask for more and have less to lose. We need advocates who aren't trying to manage personal relationships with city hall."
In any case, the progress they're making at city hall is too slow—at this rate, it'll be at least a quarter century before the council funds the entire Bicycle Master Plan.
What to do?
Even in their heyday, Critical Mass rides weren't strategically directed at any particular goal, Davey Oil points out, other than sending the message that cyclists matter. And even today, they're not entirely gone from the city. The ongoing Critical Lass and Kidical Mass rides, two family-friendly group rides with ridiculous, adorable names, were inspired by the movement. Plus, if you head down to Westlake Park on the last Friday of the month—the traditional place and time for a Seattle Critical Mass start—it's possible you'll find a few riders. But it's not anything like it used to be, and it's not too late to start rebuilding the apparatus of grassroots bike activism to tackle the continuing problems with this city's streets.
Here are just four trouble spots, among many, that are worth calling attention to with a little Critical Mass–style action—action that might force a response at city hall.
1. The Ballard Bridge
The dangerous sidewalk along the bridge is in the news, thanks to brewery owner Haley Woods, who recently produced a seven-minute video showing all the ways in which the bridge is perilous for pedestrians and cyclists. (Primarily that all users are forced to share a narrow pathway, immediately next to cars whizzing past.) In 2007, the same year the city inaugurated the Bicycle Master Plan, Terry McMacken was riding along the bridge, fell, and was hit by a car. He eventually died of his injuries.
Woods says Mayor Murray watched her video and she's talked with Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly. But she's not confident that there will be any major improvements this year. In a statement, SDOT confirms it's studied ways to improve safety along the bridge, but it has no current plans to pursue them, absent "substantial additional funding."
"There are a lot of cyclists out there," says Woods. "If there was a way to gather and protest in some way, I'm sure they'd be on board with that."
2. The Broadway Cycle Track
This may seem like a minor point, but SDOT's lackadaisical approach to fixing the blue bollards—they look like Smurf turds—lining the Broadway cycle track on Capitol Hill feels like a middle finger to cyclists. Over the past six months, the agency has repeatedly set and missed its own deadlines to simply fasten down the objects so that they stop getting bumped into the cycle track. Because of this, they're still getting bumped into the cycle track, which is both annoying and dangerous.
3. Rainier Avenue South
This four-lane avenue streaking through South Seattle is straight-up hazardous, with more crashes per mile than Aurora Avenue. Fucoloro calls it "the city's worst neighborhood street," but says it could be the best, if the right improvements are made. SDOT is developing a comprehensive plan to redesign the street, but with yet another car accident (this time destroying a storefront) on February 27, the city needs to act with a sense of urgency—and with the needs of cyclists (and pedestrians) in mind.
4. Westlake Avenue
Local TV news channels show no sign of letting up on their drumbeat coverage of parking availability. Any sign that a bike lane, or an expanded car-sharing program for that matter, might result in less parking spots—they're on it like rabid squirrels. And despite the decline of Critical Mass, B-list right-wing radio hosts like Jason Rantz still fulminate on the daily about the phantom "War on Cars." That means parking zealots still have a voice in this city, and in the case of Westlake Avenue along South Lake Union, Mayor Murray decided to give that voice—a coalition of business and home owners along the corridor—input on the design of a much-needed protected bike lane, instead of kindly telling them to fuck off. The current version of the bike lane, Murray pledges, will result in the loss of no more than a fifth of the city-owned parking spots used by businesses.