Riding to Win

They snickered when Mike McGinn started off his campaign by showing up at cycling events with “MIKE BIKES” stickers. How quaint. He’s going after the funny-hats-and-clicky-shoes vote.

It was a startlingly unconventional way to build a base, campaigning in a bike helmet and blazer. But McGinn knew something that cyclists have long suspected: We’re a strong and growing political constituency, just waiting to be galvanized by a candidate who rides.

Cyclists are the statistical equivalency of the old newspaper circulation figure. Back in the day, publishers were fond of noting (especially to advertisers) how the print run was a misleading number. What was more important was that every paper that got printed was read by at least one or two other people besides the purchaser.

Cyclists are smart. They’re committed. They pay attention. They talk and IM and Twitter (and blog!). They cross over into numerous disciplines: Technology, education, graphic design, social work, non-profit organizing, entrepreneurialism and yes, even politics.

They vote. And for every vote they cast, you can count on two or three or more people they’ve influenced voting the same.

We disagree about a lot of things, because we’re fiercely independent. We have to be. You don’t risk your life competing with two-ton behemoths of glass and steel on a daily basis without having a certain self-confidence and belief in knowing what you’re doing.

But when we find out someone else is a cyclist, their stock goes way up. We have an instant bond. We are brothers and sisters in the daily combat of urban traffic. We know there’s a high chance our values will align, if not mirror, our compatriot’s.

We are the classic “cultural creative,” the description sociologist Paul Ray devised for over a quarter of the population. People who represent a commitment to sustainability, environment, health and justice. Cultural creatives also are highly individualistic: They think of themselves as a marginal minority, not a social subset. But taken together, they represent a powerful constituency.

Get them to vote together, and you have a solid numerical bloc from which to build a coalition. Mike McGinn may not yet win the mayor’s race, but he came so far so fast, from such a remote outpost of conventional political thinking, that like Barack Obama he’s shown a whole new path to campaign success.

McGinn was not the only “cycling candidate” in this election who did well. Richard Conlin, the City Council member who commutes to City Hall, and Mike O’Brien and Dow Constantine, both with strong ties to the cycling community, won decisive victories. None made two wheels quite as much of their profile as McGinn, but they are strongly in the camp of improving transportation networks with cycling in mind. And all won rousing endorsements from Seattle’s powerful Cascade Bicycle Club, whose 11,000-plus members make it the nation’s largest local cycling group and whose advocacy work is leading-edge for any membership organization.

Together, especially with McGinn at the helm, they constitute one of the nation’s leading elected cycling blocs. They promise not only to enhance Seattle’s already recognized cycling reputation (aided by Nickels), but to put Seattle at the center of cycling progress and innovation along the lines of Davis CA, Portland OR, Boulder CO and Vancouver BC.

When Cascade held its nose and endorsed Nickels in the primary, and I went off on my blog, McGinn told me he wasn’t worried. “We’re the only candidate in this space,” he said. As alacritous as it seemed at the time, he was right: For all the good work Mayor Greg Nickels did for cycling, he wasn’t one of us. Cyclists and their circle wouldn’t vote for Nickels and McGinn knew it.

We got the word out on our email lists and the blogosphere and Twitterdom. Everyone who asked me who to vote for mayor got a Full Monty of why Mike was right (and Mallahan was lame). I’ve not always agreed with McGinn and have even had run-ins with him in the past. But I know at core he stands, er, rides, in the same space I do and has the same goals.

McGinn may not win. But we think he will. The political polling system, and the vast network of bloviating analysts and pundits who somehow think they have credibility because their name gets displayed under them when they yap, have yet to figure out how to calculate the Obama Effect. They don’t know how to measure tweets. They can’t count under-40 voters on their cell phones (who don’t have land lines). They still think Downtown Business dictates elections.

When a race is close in the polls, the cultural creative has a huge advantage. His constituency is entirely unmeasured.

Funny hats and noisy shoes. McGinn was onto something.

Cross-posted on BikeIntelligencer.com


  1. 1

    ArtFart spews:

    Whatever his support or lack thereof of bicyclists, Greg Nickles in Spandex is one thing I’d be perfectly content to live out my days without seeing.

  2. 2

    Lefty Loosey spews:

    Well said, GOldy. As a bike commuter myself (and a member of Cascade Bicycling Club), I agree with you 100% I also know that actions speak louder than words: last week, 300-400 bicyclists assembled in a demonstration to finish the Burke-Gilman. McGinn was there; No Show Joe? What do you think?

  3. 4

    SJ spews:

    Hay …

    Latte drinkers outnumber cyclists by 7 to 1! AND we are smarter, more likeley to vote, and read!

  4. 6


    It’s kind of funny to see a cyclist in a clinic waiting room for an appointment with a doctor for a cycling injury – having rode in on their cycle.

    You’d think they’d kind of get it that it’s pretty dangerous out there. It’d be nice if Seattle was more like Davis, CA but that’s not going to happen any time soon.

    Never forget the time I drove towards downtown on Eastlake one Friday early evening. Never saw such aggressive, insane cycling. I guess some fanaticism is needed to change things but… I’m just sayin’..

  5. 7

    Poster Child spews:

    Great post, Paul!
    You won’t get a lot of positive commentary here – the divisiveness over cycling on the roadways is more virulent than that over waterboarding or tax cuts for the rich or socialized medicine and doesn’t fall along predictable progressive/conservative lines. Sad to say, but true I think.

    Some people cite the scofflaws – asserting without any evidence at all that they’re clearly the majority of cyclists; some people cite the danger and rather than seeking to improve road conditions, instead see it as evidence that cyclists must be mentally defective; some people are just annoyed at being slightly delayed in traffic (though I’ve never heard anyone assert that a Ford F-350 with a gunrack in the window driven by a slow confused and lost rural visitor should get the hell off the road); and invariably someone takes a shot at the “spandex”.

    It’s really getting a bit tedious.

    My political belief is that if something is bad for cycling it’s bad for America. All the bike-haters hate America. Why do you hate freedom?

    Thanks for the post. Go Mike!

  6. 9

    scott spews:

    Good post, Paul. In my circles, I’ve experienced all the social synergies you describe.

    There are some strong analogies here. Blogging and bicycling – both are more agile, more independent, more expressive, more connected, more personal, and simply more fun.

    Drivers think of themselves as independent, but in their cars that separateness is really only isolation. They’re largely oblivious to each other and to their surroundings. In traffic, most communication between drivers is limited to impersonal honks or occasional outbursts. Among drivers, there’s no real camaraderie and no inherent loyalty, except to the machine.

    A biker, a blogger, a grassroots campaign – they’re just more tuned in to their surroundings. They’re better able to adapt, to engage, to change course as necessary. Meanwhile, drivers, editorial boards, and Seattle’s establishment are locked in their institutionalized mindset, limited by their vehicles and the infrastructure intended to accommodate them.

    Last night, I saw Mallahan’s supporters immobilized by disbelief that they were losing. McGinn’s supporters cut short their celebration to pull off a first-ever tactic of delivering voters’ last-minute ballots to Tukwila.

    Agile, independent, more connected – and simply more fun.

  7. 10

    Geov spews:

    With all due respect, Paul, only three percent of the city commutes by bicycle. That’s a significant niche, but still, only a niche.

    I’m all for cyclist rights & opportunities. I cycled everywhere in my 20s & 30s – until I became disabled. Now, I can’t bicycle. Even taking the bus is challenging (and don’t get me started on how lame Access is).

    So where I get alienated is the substantial subsection of the bicyclist community that would very much like to abolish cars. Climate change or no, that’s my only practical mobility. As is true for any number of other people: seniors, moms with three kids and a pile of groceries, people whose jobs don’t mesh with public transit’s schedules and routes, etc.

    McGinn is one of those true believers who considers cars evil incarnate. He told me as much, in person. It was a major reason (but far from the only one) why, despite Mallahan’s lameness, I couldn’t vote for McGinn, either. And I’ve talked with plenty of people who similarly were turned off by McGinn’s fanaticism on that topic.

    So while you’re congratulating yourself for being his margin of victory, don’t forget all of us who might have otherwise voted for McGinn, but didn’t, because the vibe we got from him was that drivers of “two ton behemoths” are, in his eyes, irresponsible pariahs. Fuck that.

  8. 11


    Hi Geov @ 10

    Automobiles are an unmitigated evil. Sometimes I make these kinds of statements to start a debate, stake out a position, to shake things up.

    I’m also practical. For now, we need cars. But those cars should be better cars. And we need to progressively reduce miles traveled. Meanwhile, we need to push, push, push alternatives to cars. And another thing, I want the roads fixed, yesterday, and am only too happy to pay for it (vs some new stadiums, or a mayoral trolley, or…).

    Being anti-car doesn’t mean I want to outright abolish cars. I just think it’s a natural reaction to the dominant car crazed culture.

    PS- Access does suck. Disabled people need better transportation options.

  9. 12

    MarkS spews:

    For a guy who claims to be a bike commuter McGinn’s a bit on the portly side. I’m speaking as one who lost 90 lbs by taking up bike commuting.

  10. 13

    good thesis spews:

    excellent thesis. remember the off leach dog parks? this gave drago a hard core core of super solid support and volunteers and active loving people that helped her a great deal.

    it’s not whether you’re 3000 or 100000 it’s whether you are activated, whether you talk to everyone you know and do grass roots things and bikers do. Thank you.