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Seattle is rainy with unrelenting hills. How did it become a biking city?

caption: A biker rides in a protected lane on Broadway.
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A biker rides in a protected lane on Broadway.

Bike culture is as deeply ingrained in Seattle’s identity as coffee and Birkenstocks. And since the pandemic, biking has only become more popular among Seattleites.

“The first couple years of the pandemic, you couldn't buy a bike,” said Tom Fucoloro, founder and editor of the Seattle Bike Blog. “They were just all sold out — like every bike in America sold out.”

But with our rainy weather and hilly terrain, Seattle — at least on paper — should’ve never become the biking haven that it is today. That’s the unlikely history Fucoloro set out to explore with his recent book “Biking Uphill in the Rain: The Story of Seattle from Behind the Handlebars.”

To understand how Seattle became a biking hub, Fucoloro looked back 200 years to the city’s economy during the Klondike Gold Rush, when the steamship Portland arrived in Seattle in 1897.

“The city's population and wealth is booming at the exact moment that they're starting to build these bike paths… to support and grow the bicycle industry, and support bicycling as a way to see more of the city's land,” he explained.

The idea was to make Seattle’s undeveloped stretches more accessible — and profitable.

“These bike paths sort of helped develop these further out reaches of the city, which was all part of why they got built so quickly at the time,” Fucoloro said.

Considering the high price tag on bikes at the time, “there was an element of status that went along with it,” too, he added, likening it to golfing.

But in the early 1900s, a new status-signaling mode of transportation emerged: automobiles. “How did the bicyclists allow the cars to take over? The bicyclists became the drivers,” Fucoloro said. “This wasn't the start of Seattle's bicycle culture. This was the start of Seattle's car culture,” he added.

The city turned its focus toward building infrastructure that could accommodate the growing number of cars on its roads. And for a period, biking became nearly obsolete. But by the mid-20th century, bicycling experienced something of a renaissance.

Fucoloro pointed to a city-organized event in 1968, calling it “the birthday of the modern bicycling movement in Seattle.”

“That was the first-ever Bicycle Sunday,” he said. “Before this Bicycle Sunday, there were lots of people biking. But they weren't in any way organized, and they were rarely biking together.”

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department had low expectations for turnout.

“But instead, 5,000 to 10,000 people showed up, depending on whose estimate you want to trust, which completely overwhelmed the entire event,” Fucoloro said.

Politicians saw a new opportunity to brand Seattle as a bike-friendly city and seized it.

“They started putting up bike route signs and talking about building bike lanes and things like that,” Fucoloro said.

Then, the economic downturn resulting from layoffs in the “Boeing Bust” and then the oil crisis of the 1970s intensified the renewed biking interest.

“Pretty much anytime that there's an economic downturn, bicycling gets a big boost because people are trying to figure out like, ‘Alright — powers outside of my control have limited my money, but what can I do to save some money?’” Fucoloro said.

“And then once they start bicycling, they find out that actually, ‘I'm not just doing this to save money — I actually love this.’”

Social clubs centered on bicycling began to pop up around the city, hosting social events and fundraisers, and advocating for more bike-friendly infrastructure.

Seattle built its first modern bike lane on the Alki Trail in the early 1970s. Then came the Ravenna Boulevard bike lane. And in 1978, after a yearslong fight between bicycle enthusiasts and property owners hoping for an extra stretch of land, an abandoned railway corridor was reopened as the Burke-Gilman Trail.

“They came up with the idea of a trail as just a way to use it, to keep that corridor intact,” Fucoloro said. “And this was a revolutionary idea at the time — there are very few examples of this happening.”

The Burke-Gilman Trail became a blueprint for similar efforts nationwide, including the Rails-to-Trails program.

“The rules written for how to do this at the federal level were kind of created because they had to be created for this project,” Fucoloro said.

More recently, the city connected a network of bike lanes running through downtown Seattle.

“You can bike from the Fremont bridge to the International District without leaving a bike lane, which is unbelievable,” Fucoloro said. “This was a pure pipe dream 10 years ago, and it's real now.”

But despite Seattle’s history and reputation as a biking capital, not every part of the city has been invested in to the same degree. Fucoloro pointed to the state of infrastructure in southeast Seattle, where communities of color have historically been concentrated.

“Part of the reason why it's so difficult to bike in Rainier Valley is because they built a state highway through the middle of it, because of environmental racism,” Fucoloro said. “It was easier to build a state highway, which is now Rainier Avenue… through a neighborhood that didn't have the power to speak up and fight it, right?”

But even after the state highway was no longer in use, upgrades weren’t made to the road, Fucoloro said, because “the places we have resourced individuals and community councils that can demand things and get attention from city leaders – they get the budget, and people who don't have that are left behind and left out.”

“You get neglect, and you get purposeful malice in the story of building infrastructure,” Fucoloro added. “And so the lack of bike infrastructure is about the lack of investment, but it's also responding to the fact that it's difficult to build around highway infrastructure.”

Also on Fucoloro’s mind is Seattle’s alarming number of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths in recent years.

RELATED: The challenges of designing safer Seattle streets

Axios reported in May that Seattle saw a 15% increase in fatal bicycle crashes between 2017 and 2021. That’s despite the city’s Vision Zero initiative, launched in 2015, to eliminate all traffic-related deaths and serious injuries by 2030.

Nevertheless, Fucoloro is optimistic that the city can make Seattle’s streets safer.

“We have the know-how to do it,” he said. “Every single time the Seattle Department of Transportation does a Vision Zero safe streets redesign of a street, it works unbelievably well — like the number of serious injuries gets slashed almost to zero; fatalities very often go to zero… and traffic still flows just fine.”

RELATED: Seattle to get its first protected intersection

The city’s Levy to Move Seattle, which funds transportation-related maintenance and improvements, will be up for voter renewal next year.

“We need the funding and the commitment from political leaders that we're going to do this,” Fucoloro said. “I mean, it's like a moonshot, but we could do it. And what a legacy.”

Listen to the full conversation with Fucoloro by clicking the play icon at the top of this story.

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