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Seattle’s Mayor Fights for Cyclists

Published May 19, 2010

SEATTLE, WA (BRAIN)—Mike McGinn is one of a kind. He’s mayor of Seattle, a city of more than 600,000 with another 1.4 million people living nearby—on islands, across bridges and on houseboats. Traffic jams routinely snarl the city and he’s dead set against a $3.1 billion car tunnel along the scenic city’s coastline.

Right now only one of nine city councilmen support him on the issue. McGinn’s been trading barbs with the council’s president over whether Seattle would be on the hook for millions of dollars in potential cost overruns if the project were given the green light. He can veto it, but the council most likely would override him.

But cyclists love McGinn, and they helped put him in office. For example, McGinn recently told a local newspaper reporter that Seattle should undergo a “road diet.” (How many politicians have you heard say that?) Reduce the number of traffic lanes—that would slow down cars, make it easier to walk and ride bikes, McGinn said.

That’s part of his plans for Walk Bike Ride, an initiative to wean some commuters out of their cars and onto a network of transit routes, bike paths and walkways. And McGinn practices what he preaches.

McGinn, who rides his bike to city hall almost every day (a 6.5 mile jaunt), met up Tuesday with staff from REI, Raleigh America, the Cascade Bicycle Club and Steve Donahue, co-owner of one of Seattle’s best known shops, Recycled Cycles. McGinn was on his way to work.

Wearing a well-worn yellow Marmot rain jacket and a pair of black rain pants, a helmet pulled tightly down around a baseball cap, and sitting astride a beat-up Trek 700, McGinn verbally bashes the controversial project as a steady patter of rain falls on the group.

Dozens of Seattle cyclists whiz past, sporting yellow rain slickers and Ortlieb waterproof panniers strapped to their bikes. It’s just another day in May in Seattle. McGinn, a self-described populist who holds a degree in economics and a law degree from the University of Washington, appears an unlikely big city mayor.

No suit and tie, a scruffy beard and a portly build that supports a belly that beer drinkers would love. Steve Meineke, president of Raleigh America, described McGinn as the kind of guy most folks would enjoy sipping suds with.
But McGinn, as we pedal toward city hall, notes that he doesn’t ride bikes for recreation. He started commuting by bike years ago and now he’s hooked. And bicycles, as he puts it, have a place in a modern city’s transportation system.

Seattle’s weather and its downtown city streets make regular commuting for most residents challenging, but REI’s Brian Foley points out that there is a growing appreciation of cycling culture in the region. And Chuck Ayers, executive director of the Cascade Bicycle Club which counts 12,000 dues paying members with political clout, said he expects to count upwards of 20,000 cyclists using city streets, bridges and bike paths during May’s Bike to Work month.

But McGinn—a rare animal among most big city mayors—is leading the pack down 4th Street to city hall. The streets are slick and a light rain continues to fall. It’s 8:30 a.m. as rush hour starts to wind down. It’s a three-lane, one-way thoroughfare and McGinn pedals in the center lane. Several cyclists are a bit nervous.

But McGinn points out that traffic in the left lane jams up as cars and buses turn left and the same is true in the right lane. “We have the right away here,” the mayor said. And that’s it.

-Marc Sani

Topics associated with this article: People

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