Richard Schwartz went viral last week after being ignored by the City Council.
Richard Schwartz went viral last week after being ignored by the City Council. Screenshot via Seattle Channel

On Monday I wrote about Richard Schwartz, a Seattle native who has recently become mildly famous after a video clip showing him rebuking members of the Seattle City Council went viral online. In the clip, which was filmed on March 11, Schwartz uses his time during the public comment section of a City Council meeting to say that it’s discouraging to see members of the Council scrolling through their phones and generally not paying attention to their constituents during these sessions. Councilmember Debora Juarez, who was presiding over the meeting, interrupts him and tells him to get on with it.

The video, which was anonymously posted to YouTube, is just 29 seconds long, and the response to it was largely outrage directed at the Council. There were, however, some dissenters, including me. After additional videos of Schwartz at other City Council meetings were posted online, I wrote, “Richard Schwartz is clearly a passionate, engaged citizen with a lot of opinions about how the Seattle City Council is run. That's great! He's also annoying, speaks off topic, and refuses to go along with rules that are designed to make these meetings productive.” The title of the post was the Pulitzer-worthy, “Constituent Ignored by City Council Has a History of Being Fucking Annoying.”

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Correction: Richard Schwartz is not fucking annoying.

I caught up with Schwartz on Wednesday morning while he was on his way to the Oregon coast. A former English teacher, in retirement, he and his wife enjoy taking road trips around the Pacific Northwest in their VW van. “I figured it was a good time to leave town,” he told me, laughing.

While Schwartz was very gracious on the phone, especially considering I’d called him “fucking annoying” several times, he did have a few bones to pick with my piece. I wrote that Schwartz is “somewhat of a frequent flyer at these meetings, where he has a habit of using his time to address his personal grievances instead of addressing whatever is on the day's agenda.” Second correction: I was wrong about that, too.

“I calculated that between 2016 and this current incident, there have been 156 City Council meetings, and I spoke at four of them,” Schwartz told me. He has, however, contacted the City over 70 times, so while he’s not a frequent flyer, he’s a frequent caller and emailer instead.

Beside the City Councilmembers' lack of respect and response to their own constituents, Schwartz’s big complaint is the bike loop on the west side of Lake Union. He lives on a boat in the marina, and a few years ago, the city installed a bike lane between the sidewalk and the parking area on Westlake. Before the bike lane was constructed, cyclists were forced to choose between riding on a busy, no-shoulder road or ride through the parking lot, which most people did. The bike lane was sorely needed, and today, it’s heavily trafficked—and fast. And this is exactly Schwartz's problem with it.

“There are several thousand pedestrians crossing there every day,” Schwartz told me. “Before it was built, the City gave us all this assurance and said this is going to be designed in a way that would automatically control speed. They said they would build in physical barriers that would slow cyclists so they would yield to pedestrians.” That never happened, and two years later, Schwartz feels like he’s exhausted all options. “We've tried SDOT, the Mayor's office, the full City Council, individual Councilmembers, and they just don't respond. It's a valid issue and they just will not respond.”

Schwartz is not the only one concerned about excessive speeding in the neighborhood. Last year, he says he collected signatures from 350 of his neighbors. “We took that down to City Council and gave it to them and figured if 350 people are saying it's a problem, this is going to get their attention. We never heard a word back.”

I reached out to a friend of mine who lives in a houseboat on Westlake, and she agrees with Schwartz, too. “It’s a serious concern because many cyclists seem to think of it as a race track,” she said. “Either that or they’re riding bikes without brakes. There are signs saying ‘Slow Down’ and ‘Give Way to Pedestrians,’ but they don’t. And they ignore the painted crosswalks. So when you cross the bike path on foot, which you have to do whether you’ve taken the bus or parked a car or are simply taking out the recycling, you often feel like you’re a target for some guy bearing down on you at full speed. And yes,” she continued, “it’s always guys.” She says she’s had several close calls with cyclists herself, and, sooner or later, someone is going to get seriously hurt.

Schwartz doesn’t have a problem with bikes in general. “They act like we are anti-bike people,” he told me. “That is not the case. We just want it to be safe. There is a swim school down there for very young children, like 2 to 4 or 5. There are all these little kids every day going back and forth. It's dangerous, and it's really surprising that the City won't address it.”

Byron, the no-first-name publisher of the website Bike Hugger, also thinks the area is dangerous. “Short of another accident or death in our streets, it’s the best example of why the city needs more dedicated and protected lanes for cyclists and pedestrians,” he said. “The root cause of this isn’t careless cyclists; it’s the fact that the city ran a bike lane through a parking lot instead of on the street where it belongs.”

Tom Fucoloro, the publisher of Seattle Bike Blog, is more positive about that particular lane, which he says has a "very good" safety record. "The Westlake Bikeway has been operating safely since installation and is a huge success," he says. "The previous situation, with people navigating through a long parking lot dodging cars, was horrendous. Since building the bikeway, far more people are finding it to be a safe and convenient way to get around, which is great."

"People biking should yield to people on foot," he adds, "and it is frustrating that more people don’t. But cases of serious collisions are rare, though they do happen."

Since the video of Schwartz went viral, the City may be more inclined to listen to his concerns. Schwartz says he’s heard from both Mayor Jenny Durkan and Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, who apologized for his treatment by the Council. (He has, not, however, heard from Debora Juarez or from his own district representative, Sally Bagshaw.) He says Durkan put him in touch with her transportation advisor, but so far, he’s heard of no actual plan to address the problem.

As for how to solve this issue, Schwartz would like to see speed barriers put in place, which would also increase the rate at which cyclists yield to pedestrians, but he says there needs to be some kind of enforcement mechanism for cyclists who violate safety laws. He suggests that the City start requiring bikes to have some kind of license plate so that if a biker does run down a pedestrian, he or she could potentially be held liable.

This is highly unlikely to happen: Despite the fact that Mayor Dukan and SDOT just declined to build the proposed 35th Avenue bike lanes, part of the City’s climate agenda includes increasing bike infrastructure and other ways of encouraging more people to ride. A licensing program would almost certainly be a barrier to ridership, but a few speed bumps on the Lake Union loop certainly seem possible for a city with an annual budget of nearly $6 billion.

While the City continues to do nothing, Schwartz says he’s learned a lot from this experience—and not all of it good. Not generally one to spend time online, he says seeing himself and his motivations dissected on social media has reinforced his feeling that the way many people use the internet is, fundamentally, toxic. “My biggest takeaway from this is how dangerous the internet has become to civilized society,” he says. “It’s like a game of telephone. Facts become irrelevant. I’m not sure how society survives when everyone feels like they can be so nasty to each other.”

As for changing his tactics, this seems unlikely as well. “City Councilmembers not being responsive is never going to be on the agenda, so if you want to talk about it, you just gotta do it.”