The Seattle Times: Politics, friction reshape influential Cascade Bicycle Club
Seattle-based Cascade Bicycle Club has grown from a mostly recreational organization to a 13,000-strong group and a powerful influence at City Hall. Its political success has brought a backlash from those who perceive a “war on cars,” and internal disputes have led to a leadership upheaval. .
By Emily Heffter
Seattle Times staff reporter
An April fundraising breakfast for bicycling advocates could have been a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce, with all the business leaders and elected officials eating eggs and waiting for the keynote speaker.
The sixth annual Cascade Bicycle Club breakfast was proof, if you needed any, that a once-fringe activist group has landed squarely in the mainstream of Seattle politics. Sponsors included Vulcan and Starbucks, and the breakfast was attended by every member of the City Council, as well as the mayor, county executive, County Council members and state legislators.
The success of the bike lobby, represented mostly by the one-time weekend-riding club, is well documented. Over the past decade, Cascade has tripled its membership to more than 13,000 and pushed successfully for sweeping city policies that promise 118 miles of new bike lanes and safety improvements to encourage cycling.
Last year, the club helped elect bike-commuting Mayor Mike McGinn, who joined a host of pro-bike elected leaders. Cascade members meet once a month behind closed doors with a newly formed caucus of City Council members to discuss cycle-friendly projects.
But the lobby’s political success has brought with it a backlash from drivers and freight advocates who perceive a “war on cars” being waged with shrinking car lanes and rising parking rates.
Within Cascade, internal disputes about how confrontational the club should be in its lobbying efforts have led to a leadership upheaval. This month, the board fired Chuck Ayers, its executive director for 13 years, then hired him back on a temporary basis.
A group of members is petitioning to recall the board.
“I think we’ve hit a critical mass, where bikes are transformed from this really fringe group to being a relevant part of the population,” said City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, a cyclist who relied on Cascade’s support in his first run for elected office last year and founded the council’s bike caucus.
As the club has ramped up its political activism, candidates commonly seek its endorsement and members give thousands to its political-action committee to elect pro-bike candidates.
The identity crisis within the club may be inevitable as the movement evolves, O’Brien added: “When you market to the folks that go to the Chamber breakfasts, it creates a little tension with the activists.”
An influential lobby
Longtime local politician Jan Drago remembers her first encounter with bicycling advocates in 1994.
The Cascade Bicycle Club turned out hundreds of people to lobby for the “missing link” of the Burke-Gilman Trail in Ballard, a mile-and-a-half gap between the north and south ends of the well-used trail. Industrial businesses in the area opposed it, and a court battle has dragged on for years.
Cyclists, by most accounts, won. But the trail won’t be completed until after a court-ordered environmental study.
Drago is among the local elected officials who adopted many of the club’s goals as her own.
As City Council transportation chairwoman, she worked with McGinn — then an environmental activist — to pass “complete streets” legislation, a policy that says when the city is building or improving a road for cars, it must also improve pedestrian and bicycle access.
In 2007, cycling advocates worked with then-Mayor Greg Nickels to pass a 10-year, $240 million Bicycle Master Plan, one of the most aggressive in the country. It calls for 118 miles of new bike lanes, and 19 miles of trails, plus lane markings and signs.
Said Ayers, “Now we take on bigger issues.”
Now that the big policies are in place, bicycling lobbyists want follow-through.
In May, when a Seattle Times headline described council transportation Chairman Tom Rasmussen’s hesitation about a “road diet” on West Nickerson Street as “indigestion,” bike activists started a “Tums for Tom” campaign. Although his office was not deluged with antacids, he agreed to give the project — narrowing the street from four lanes to three — a try.
“The influence of advocates for bicycling is incredible,” Rasmussen said. “I think that it’s more organized, and I think that they are more engaged in the whole political process in Seattle than they have been.”
This fall, the council is playing defense on another issue involving the bike lobby.
McGinn proposed raising the commercial parking-tax rate by five percentage points to pay for $10 million in bike and pedestrian projects. If his proposal goes through, bicyclists would be among the few winners in a budget full of cuts and reductions.
Downtown business groups say they support bicycling, but oppose McGinn’s proposal, especially without a study of how higher parking prices would affect business.
And, said Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, “If it’s a citywide goal, then it ought to be some citywide rate base.”
Councilmembers are leaning against raising the tax increase, but say that doesn’t reflect their feelings about bike projects. They will look for ways to preserve the bike projects without the additional revenue, they said.
That attitude is frustrating to groups competing for limited city funds.
Dave Gering, executive director of Seattle’s Manufacturing Industrial Council, is fighting the bike lobby on a proposed “road diet” on Airport Way South and East Marginal Way South in Sodo. He believes the city shouldn’t encourage bicycling on freight routes.
Restriping Airport Way into a three-lane road was recommended by a 2007 “visioning committee” that included then-Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board Chairman Brian Dougherty.
Dougherty now works for the city, helping to analyze whether a road diet is a good project in Sodo. Gering questions the city’s ability to be objective.
“I’m tired of them having the kind of influence that’s sort of walking on water, as if they are not part of the political process … because they’re pure of heart,” he said.
A tamer approach
The bike club expanded its lobbying efforts to Olympia two years ago, where it pressed this year for tougher penalties on drivers who injure cyclists.
When the bill failed to pass, Cascade lobbyist David Hiller was quoted in The Stranger saying of careless drivers who kill cyclists: “I’d love to hang these people up by their toenails at the edge of town and paint ‘killer’ across their chest and let them hang there until the buzzards peck their eyes out.”
That kind of in-your-face rhetoric prompted the current crisis at Cascade. Ayers, 53, and Hiller, 40, have long led the club’s political side and acted as its spokesmen, but now board members say they want a more corporate approach.
“I think there are times to be cooperative, and times to be a bulldog,” Ayers said in an interview. “I think the board has decided that we do too much of the latter and it’s not good for the movement.”
After months of behind-the-scenes discussions about management of the club, the board offered Ayers a chance to resign. He refused, and the board voted 10-1 to fire him.
“This is not a situation where the board doesn’t like Chuck, doesn’t respect Chuck and doesn’t acknowledge his great contribution to this organization,” said Board President Chris Weiss at the club’s annual membership meeting last week. “It was a hard decision. Most of us on the board were recruited by Chuck to serve.”
After club members rallied around Ayers, the board agreed to bring him back for six months and postpone a board election to give members a chance to nominate more candidates. A group calling itself the Bike Club Rescue Squad now is seeking to recall the board.
The fight for funding
Bike advocates and elected officials say the growing pains are a response to an inevitable shift under way in city’s transportation system.
In 2000, about 3,600 people in Seattle commuted to work by bicycle, according to the Census Bureau. By 2009, the figure had grown to nearly 15,000 — still only about 4 percent of commuters.
“Our local street system has to be safe for all users,” said McGinn. “Whether or not you like bicyclists, they’re out there biking and they deserve to be safe.”
Clearly, lobbyists’ arguments about health and safety and environmentalism resonate with those in power locally and nationally. But now that bicycling advocates are on the inside, they have to fight for scant revenue like everyone else.
That’s the goal behind Seattle’s newest group of bicycling activists, Streets for All Seattle. They can be found at public hearings and events asking for $20 million for bicycling infrastructure and saying things like, “If there’s a war on cars, cars are winning.”
That line from the group’s leader, Craig Benjamin, isn’t getting much traction at City Hall. The mayor’s major initiative for alternative transportation, Walk Bike Ride, came with virtually no funding. But Benjamin’s résumé is familiar. He is a Sierra Club leader, like the mayor, and set up Streets for All Seattle under an umbrella organization called Great City — the nonprofit founded by McGinn before he ran for office.
Size: The Seattle-based club had 3,700 members in 2001. Today it has more than 13,000 members, mostly from the Puget Sound area. Cascade has annual revenues of almost $3 million and employs 24 full-time staff.
Activities: The club located in Warren G. Magnuson Park, 7400 Sand Point Way N.E., does advocacy work, hosts thousands of group rides and offers classes for kids and adults in bike safety and commuting.