How the mayor became a bike commuter #ghcc

This article first appeared as the Cyclist of the Month column in the May 2011 Cascade Courier, our membership newsletter.

Ride with the mayor this Friday, F5 Bike to Work Day, starting from the commuter station just south of the Fremont Bridge at 7:15 a.m. Join McGinn and others as they ride to a rally at City Hall.

Cyclist of the Month: MIKE MCGINN
Age: 51
Occupation: Mayor of Seattle
Wheels: Raleigh Detour Deluxe

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On the road

It’s the kind of morning when the wind threatens to blow you over. It’s also only the second morning I’ve biked in months. There I am, pedaling to meet Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn for his commute to City Hall. The mayor, I notice, is better prepared than me for the inclement weather, with ear warmers, baseball cap, helmet, rain paints and a bright yellow rain jacket.

Among the hallmarks of McGinn’s tenure as Seattle’s mayor, his bicycle commute is one that, rightly or not, rises to the surface. Many feel threatened by what they see as a challenge to the status quo and supremacy of cars on the city’s roads. And perhaps the mayor and his bike are emblematic of such a challenge, one that others—myself included—embrace as a way for people to save money, stay healthy and collectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

That said, Mayor McGinn’s bicycle commute is also a personal choice, one that has evolved with his life’s changing circumstances. As we ride that blustery morning, he tells me the story of how he became a bike commuter.

McGinn grew up in Long Island, New York, where he tooled around as a young kid on a Raleigh three-speed Rudge. When he was 16, he had saved up enough money to buy an Atala ten-speed, which transformed his journey to school from a two-bus trek to an easy 25-minute ride. “The bike gave me freedom,” he says.

After high school, though, McGinn didn’t use a bicycle again for transportation until he’d graduated from college and came to Seattle for law school. But when he went to work for a Seattle law firm, his challenge was not to get on a bike—it was to get out of the car.

Upon becoming partner at the law firm, he received a “free” parking pass, a benefit that led to him driving to work more often and taking the bus less. Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien was the firm’s CFO at the time. O’Brien demonstrated how free parking for partners was not really all that—$250 per month passes came out of the firm’s profits, after all.

“The incentives were in the wrong places,” McGinn says, such that employees couldn’t see that driving had a cost that affected them. The firm came up with a plan whereby fees for parking passes were deducted directly from individual paychecks.

The policy change convinced McGinn and others to give up their passes or otherwise reduce their drive-alone commuting. What ultimately got McGinn to venture into bicycle commuting, however, was something more personal: plantar fasciitis, a painful swelling and irritation on the bottom of the foot.

“The best cure is not to put any pressure on your foot. I couldn’t jog or play basketball. I needed a non-impact way to get exercise.”

He went to Recycled Cycles and bought an old Trek with flat handlebars and decided to combine cycling with his commute.

“There were no showers at work, and I needed to look professional—not that I really did, but I was supposed to—so I couldn’t ride before work.” Instead, McGinn put his bike on the bus in the morning and rode it home later.

After a while, his resolution wavered. “The end of the day would come, and I’d be hungry or tired or sick. So I’d bike to the edge of the ride-free zone, put my bike on the bus, ride it to the top of Phinney Ridge and bike the rest of the way home.”

A solution was soon at hand, though, and it came with a meeting with Tracy Carroll, formerly of FlexCar. Both McGinn and Carroll arrived at the meeting by bike. The only difference was that Carroll’s bike was an electric assist. He let McGinn take a spin. “I got on, and it went WHOOSH,” McGinn says.

So, he took a risk (“Would I use the thing or not?”) and bought his own electric assist bike. The bike flattened out the hills, especially the one up Fremont Avenue—“It killed me every time back then.” Not only did the bike get him riding all the way home from work; now McGinn could bike in the morning without getting sweaty.

McGinn’s daily riding habits would change one more time, though, and that happened when he was elected mayor of Seattle. “The showers at City Hall are great!” he says. That means he’s been able to make the transition from the electric assist to a regular commuter bike. He gets to the office an hour before his first meeting each day, with time to shower and prepare.

At work

As we arrive at City Hall at the tail end of our interview, I’m exhausted. Unlike me, the mayor’s in good cycling shape. It’s not surprising, given that 90 – 95 percent of his morning and 80 percent of his evening commutes are by bike.

“I’m a utilitarian cyclist,” McGinn says. He rides for exercise and to save money. And though he doesn’t bike recreationally, he certainly derives pleasure from his daily commute, which gives him quiet time in the morning to prepare for his day or, in the afternoon, to process. He believes more people would choose to bike if they felt safe.

“In Seattle, transit use is up. City data over the past 10 years show that walking is up, biking is up and we’re driving fewer miles. We need to meet the demand for alternative transportation and build a system that people will use. We need to give people more choices.”