Cycling in Washington State

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 7/11/2019
  • Essay 20810

The first bicycle arrived in Washington Territory in 1879 on a steamer from San Francisco and within a decade, Washington, along with the rest of the nation, went bike-crazy. Innovative developments starting in the 1890s spurred cycling's popularity with both men and women, and soon bicycles were featured in songs, newspaper articles, and Fourth of July parades. As cycling expanded from a hobby to a mode of transportation, cyclists clamored for better roadways and paths. In the late 1890s, Seattle laid out its first 25 miles of bike paths, and for a time, it seemed as though the bike would be the future of transportation. But in the early twentieth century, as the automobile became more available, cycling was relegated to a childhood pastime. It was not until the 1970s that urban cycling took off, spurred by the environmental movement, energy crisis, and interest in a healthier lifestyle. Washington bike enthusiasts created cycling clubs, launched legendary bike rides such as Seattle-to-Portland, and lobbied to create the mixed-use Burke-Gilman Trail. Every year from 2009 to 2017, Washington was designated the most bike-friendly state in the nation.   

The First Bike Arrives: 1879

The first bicycle arrived in Washington Territory on November 14, 1879, and was prominently displayed in the window of a Seattle stationery and book shop at 617 Front Street owned by William H. Pumphrey. Four days later, the bike was sold to Jules Lipsky for his son.

About a decade later, significant developments in bicycle design, such as pneumatic tires and chain-drive transmissions, made bike riding safer and more accessible to people of varying ages, genders, and abilities. Thanks to the bike's relatively low cost and ease of maintenance, Washingtonians embraced cycling, which offered both a mode of transportation and myriad recreational opportunities. Its popularity soared when the horse-and-buggy era was waning but before the automobile became the vehicle of choice.

In 1889, about 200,000 bikes were produced nationwide. A decade later, that figure had increased to more than 1 million. "The bicycle met the need for inexpensive individual transportation ... for going to and from business, for business deliveries, for recreational riding, and for sport. What to us seems a simple device of modest and limited performance was, in the relatively unmechanized 1890s, a swift vehicle and a fine machine" (Wheels and Wheeling, 22).

Cycling Thrills and Spills

It didn't take long for cyclists to test the limits of their machines. Some wanted to set speed or endurance records while others sought awards for completing the most miles during a cycling season. Relay races were popular as were 100-mile "century" races. There were even bike-against-locomotive competitions. On July 5, 1888, the Queen City Cycling Club held the first bicycle meet in Seattle. The day's activities included a one-mile race, a half-mile race for boys under 17, and a five-mile race that pitted a horse against a bicycle.

Some riders tried their hand at making a living as professional cyclists. That was the case with Seattle resident Chris Dow. In 1896, Dow, "the crack rider of this city, who had recently joined the ranks of the professionals" ("Notes on Cycling"), was riding in the final two-mile race in a competition held in Victoria, British Columbia, when an elbow from a San Francisco cyclist named Terrell caused a nasty fall. The Seattle Times reported on the incident: "In the first lap, Terrell slugged him [Dow] with his elbow, throwing him off his wheel, breaking his right collar bone. There seems to be no doubt but that the assault was deliberate. It is not believed that Terrell will ride in Seattle for some time, for the feeling here is against him" ("Notes on Cycling"). Dow was unable to ride for several months as he recuperated in his North Seattle home.

Queen City Good Roads Club

By the end of the nineteenth century, an estimated 10,000 Seattle residents rode bikes, more than 12 percent of the city's population. Before long, cyclists were advocating for better roads. "Sidewalks, where they existed, were often boardwalks set above the muck ... Raised streetcar and railroad tracks created hazards ... With Seattle's streets in disarray, cyclists became a major force in lobbing for civic improvements" ("How Bikes Led ...").

Eventually, smaller bike clubs and cycling enthusiasts coalesced into the Queen City Good Roads Club, established in the late 1890s, whose members worked to raise awareness and secure funding for better roads. At a club meeting on July 24, 1896, held in the Burke Building in downtown Seattle, one attendee spoke earnestly about the hardships, if not outright dangers, he faced every time he got on his bike. "If you think you have no place upon which to ride now, you ought to have tried it five or six years ago ... Honestly, it was a punishment bumping over broken plank and stones and roots and deep ruts ... What we want is a place to ride out of the city, away from the streetcars and teams, and if that bicycle path is started, they may count upon me for a subscription of $25 the moment the contract is signed for the work" ("A Path for Bikers").

Queen City members formed committees to secure rights-of-way and raise funds. Club members who wanted a bike path to Leschi organized a boat trip to Tacoma in April 1897 which raised $111. An additional $640 was collected from a bicycle tax, and $300 was raised by selling donated bikes. In all, the club raised $2,951, more than enough to build a Lake Washington bike path, estimated to cost $2,200.

The Side-Path Movement

At the end of the 1890s, a handful of states including Washington began looking for ways to fund not just individual paths but networks built alongside roads within the existing right-of-way. The side-path movement, as it was known, was intended to link city to city. This never happened, though, and it was left to the automobile to create a city-to-city, and eventually state-to-state, transportation network.

In 1899, Washington passed a limited side-path law (overturned in 1901) that had no funding attached, nor did it require jurisdictions to build the paths. "Under that law, Washington cities could require all bicycle owners to pay for a license, create a fund with the proceeds that could be used to build either paths or roads, and fine owners of unlicensed bikes who attempted to take to the city roads. But the justices ruled that the small town of Hoquiam could not charge bicyclists a special fee when horse and carriage riders were not required to pay a similar fee. When two cyclists rode their unlicensed bicycles on the street, the city was wrong to fine them" (Bike Battles, 70-71).

In Tacoma, cyclists were of a different mind, asking their city council "to impose a tax of a dollar a year on all bicycles and then to use the funds to construct a cycle path. The council agreed to do so" (A Social History ..., 225). 

In fact, Tacoma was known as an innovative and welcoming town for cyclists. Its West Flume Line Trail stretched southeast from Tacoma to Eatonville; above it was a bicycle bridge, some 110 feet high and 450 feet long. Begun in 1896, the Galliher Gulch Bridge was marked by a large sign that proclaimed: Longest, Highest and Only Exclusive Bicycle Bridge in the World. In 1898, the trail system spearheaded by the city of Tacoma and the Tacoma Wheelmen extended to Longmire at Mount Rainier National Park. "These Wheelmen and their ladies were tough as one could ride to Longmire in one day, a distance of over 50 miles on less than perfect paths. When the automobiles arrived, the trail system fell away in just a few years" ("Let’s Cycle!").

Bike Paths Abound

In the 1890s, George F. Cotterill (1865-1958), an assistant city engineer in Seattle and founding member of the Queen City Good Roads Club, was responsible for laying out Seattle's first 25 miles of bike paths. "The conversion around that time of the high bicycle wheel to the low bicycle wheel made bicycles much easier to ride and very popular. Assistant City Engineer George F. Cotterill, conscious of the hazards of biking on city streets lined with planks, toured the city to look for good bikeways. His bike trails formed the basis of the city's boulevard system" ("Interlaken Park").

From 1894 to 1904, cycling seemed firmly embedded in Puget Sound. "Twenty-five miles of urban bicycle trails built, funded and maintained with the aid of city engineers, designed for recreation, students and commuters. A dedicated bicycle toll road connecting Seattle to other Puget Sound communities. Bike cops enforcing cyclist speed limits, safety and dealing with the scourge of bike thefts. Bike shops -- over 20 on Second Ave. alone -- selling the latest models and newest gear. Multiple bike race tracks in the city. Welcome to the Seattle of the turn of the century. The twentieth century, that is" ("How Bikes Led ...").

Once the automobile came on the scene, cycling as a preferred method of transportation nosedived. The popularity of cycling clubs dwindled and by 1905, many thought that recreational biking had run its course. People still enjoyed cycling as a spectator sport, though, particularly on the velodrome circuit.

This downward trend continued for several decades, both in Washington and on the national scene. "Summarizing the sorry state of the bicycle industry in 1934 ... the National Recovery Administration observed that 'because of the advent of other forms of transportation the popularity of the bicycle has suffered a great decline.' Agency bureaucrats wrote that 'in order to maintain some semblance of popularity,' the bicycle industry was forced to slash prices, cutting into profit margins, and 'the demand for the bicycle as a means of transportation became secondary to its demand as a plaything for children'" (Bike Battles, 125).  

But bikes were still popular enough to be stolen. In February 1942, bidding was fierce when the Seattle Police Department auctioned off stolen bikes, which sold for from $3 to $27. In all, 41 bicycles, one tricycle, and one scooter were sold in one day, netting the city $413. The auction was used as an educational opportunity, as well. "The Junior Safety Patrol, meanwhile, warned bicycle owners to obtain licenses for their own protection. If all bicycle owners would get license plates, there would be fewer thefts, police said. Many stolen bicycles have been recovered by tracing license plates" ("41 Bicycles Sold ...").

Bikes and Business

Some entrepreneurs saw the business potential in cycling, using bikes to run errands, carry packages, and make deliveries. In 1907, a 19-year-old Seattle resident named James E. Casey and his friend Claude Ryan started the American Messenger Service in a cellar under Ryan's uncle's tavern, using $100 they had borrowed. Casey hired other teens as messengers and his brother George eventually joined the firm. In 1913, the company stopped using bikes when it acquired its first delivery truck, a converted Ford Model T. A few years later, Ryan left the company and Casey expanded to California in 1919 where the business was again renamed. This time, it was called United Parcel Service.

In 2018, in a nod to its roots, UPS began a pilot program that used electric bikes to deliver large packages in Seattle's Pike Place Market and surrounding neighborhoods. The e-bike "includes a customized trailer that hauls removable cargo boxes and allows for greater flexibility when delivering packages to customers. The e-bike is powered by a battery-powered electric motor ... The Class II vehicle ... has a top speed of 20 miles per hour and enough charge to work 10 to 12 hours a day. The e-bikes are also approved for both bike lanes and sidewalks to increase the speed of deliveries" (Dutch).

Several communities backed bike competitions as promotional opportunities. In 1939, Redmond Derby Days was inaugurated by city business owners who wanted to raise money to purchase flags for the downtown corridor. The event highlight was a 25-mile bicycle race around Lake Sammamish. Seventy-five years later, additional events were added to Derby Days including the Criterium, a multi-lap race on a closed circuit, and a children's bike parade. 

World War II and Bicycle Rationing

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, "the bicycle was immediately seen as a partial solution to the problem of gasoline rationing, and the government encouraged bicycle makers to produce more. But ... the production of all children's machines was halted, and these had accounted for 85 percent of those produced in 1941" (A Social History, 247).

On July 3, 1942, the War Department started rationing bikes nationwide. Citizens who wanted to purchase a bike had to certify it was needed at least four days a week. They also had to prove they had to walk at least three miles to work or school if a bike was not available and that public transportation was either overcrowded, unavailable, or not frequent enough.

After the war, bicycle manufacturers went back to full production, although cycling was still considered primarily child's play. That began to change by the late 1960s. Seattle initiated Bicycle Sunday in 1968 that closed Lake Washington Boulevard to cars for a day. In 1970, the first Earth Day was held, which spurred environmental awareness and an interest in energy conservation. Around this time, two young Mercer Island residents, Mike Quam (1946-2018) and his younger brother Rick (born ca. 1952), came on the scene.

Urban Cycling Makes a Comeback

As cycling enthusiasts, the Quams saw that Seattle and nearby communities needed better cycling paths and decided to reach out to other cyclists. They scheduled a meeting on July 29, 1970, and contacted The Seattle Times to publicize it. The article drew 30 people to East Seattle Elementary School on Mercer Island and the Cascade Bicycle Club was born. Within two years, membership had grown to 300.

Mike Quam served as club president for two years, and later worked in sales and marketing at the Boeing Company, where he retired after 37 years. He died on December 19, 2018, of brain cancer. Cascade Bicycle Club merged with Washington Bikes in 2017 to form the largest statewide bicycle nonprofit in the nation. In 2019, membership stood at 17,000.  

Another influential figure in making Seattle more bike friendly was its mayor, Wes Uhlman (b. 1935), who, while in office from 1969-1977, "believed that there was a 'symbiotic relationship between the biking public and driving public' and that they could and should get along. That was -- and is -- a challenge: Drivers had long been used to ruling city streets. In the '70s, the Cascade Bicycle Club joined the push, lobbying for city improvements and a statewide plan that rested on the premise that the roads were for everyone -- cyclists included. Eventually, the club even raised money for a legal defense fund to protect the rights of local bikers wrongly ticketed for using the roads" ("Move over McGinn").

Birth of the Burke-Gilman

Mayor Uhlman and the Seattle city council lobbied the state legislature to use gas-tax revenues to build bike lanes. In 1968, the Burke-Gilman Trail Park Committee was formed and began advocating to transform an existing rail corridor into a multi-use trail for bikes and pedestrians. The rail corridor, created at the end of the 1800s to transport goods and bring more economic vitality to the area, had changed hands through several mergers and in 1970, was owned by Burlington Northern Railroad. The following year, facing declining use, BN decided to abandon the rail line and sell the property at market value.

Seattle, King County, numerous environmental and recreational groups, and the Burke-Gilman Trail Park Committee worked to acquire the public right-of-way. BN agreed to exchange the property for other land in Seattle and King County and after opposition from residents living along the pathway was overcome, the plan picked up steam.

The original 12.1 miles ran between Seattle's Gas Works Park and King County's Tracy Owen Station in Kenmore and was dedicated on August 19, 1978. By 2019, the Burke-Gilman covered 18.8 miles, starting at Ballard's Golden Gardens Park and connecting to the Sammamish River Trail in Bothell. A 1.4-mile segment through Seattle's Ballard neighborhood remained unbuilt and was known as the Missing Link.

Jerry Baker and the Velodrome

During this period of renewed interest in cycling, Washington got its first and only velodrome when the Marymoor Velodrome opened in 1975. During the early years of operation, the velodrome did not have a railing, lights, judges' stand, or a paved parking lot, but those elements were added over the next few years. In 2014, the 400-meter outdoor bicycle racing track hosted the USA Cycling Masters Track National Championships.

In 2016, the velodrome was renamed the Jerry Baker Memorial Velodrome in honor of Pacific Northwest cycling legend Jerry Baker (1931-2015). A lifelong cycling enthusiast, Baker estimated he had pedaled more than 220,000 miles since he first started keeping track in 1965. He also was the record-holder for competing in 36 consecutive Seattle-to-Portland (STP) rides, an event established in 1979 by Cascade Bicycle Club.

It was Jerry Baker who was instrumental in getting the first STP off the ground. "One of my roommates and a couple other friends, they just thought it would be a good idea to have a bike race, a time trial from city hall to city hall. About 100 started, but 69 people finished, because the first year it was a headwind and wet almost all the way. I'm surprised it ever happened again" (Lindblom). But happen again it did, and the two-day, 206-mile STP has become the Northwest's largest multi-day bicycle event, attracting some 8,000 riders. Cascade Bicycle Club also organizes the popular Chilly Hilly, a 33-mile ride around Bainbridge Island first launched in 1972.

Over the Cascades

In Eastern Washington, trails and cycling events were underway as well. Interest in road cycling had intensified, thanks to Greg LeMond (b. 1961), an American professional road-racing cyclist and three-time Tour de France winner, and in 1988, Spokane hosted the U.S. Olympic Road Cycling trials along with the U.S. National Championships.

In 1989, the Spokane River Centennial Trail was built to celebrate the state's centennial. The trail runs for nearly 40 miles from Sontag Park in Nine Mile Falls, Washington, to the Idaho state line and beyond. The paved trail was designated a National Recreation Trail on May 24, 2010, one of 30 recreational trails in 15 states.

Spokane also hosts the popular 24 Hours Round the Clock Race, held annually since 1991 in Riverside State Park. Solo riders and teams of up to 10 individuals compete over 24 hours on a 14.5-mile loop that covers a variety of topography. In 2011, 850 people signed up. "Armed with tents, headlights, sleeping bags, bicycles and maybe even some beer, hundreds of bicycle enthusiasts and their families kicked off a weekend of camping and bicycle riding ... 'It's kind of like the Woodstock of mountain biking, really,' race director Wendy Zupan Bailey said ... Bailey said solo riders who are competing for the top spot often ride the full 24 hours without sleep" (Bannach).

America's Most Bike-Friendly State

In 2013, Seattle Department of Transportation conducted its third bicycle participation survey targeting residents aged 16 and older. Half of those surveyed said they had access to a bike -- a 10 percent increase over earlier surveys. About 29 percent, or roughly 158,000 people, reported they rode a bike at least occasionally, with most trips running five miles or fewer. The average bike commuter in the Seattle area rode 1,992 miles a year.

A Nielsen study conducted from 2016 and 2018 showed that white men and men of color who bike for transportation were represented in equal numbers; the real difference in ridership occurred between the sexes. "Men are much more likely to bike than women, regardless of race and ethnicity. And it turns out Seattle's cycling gender gap is one of the biggest in the country ... Women are a lot less likely to use a bicycle for transportation than men, and that's true in every large metro area surveyed. In the Seattle area, of the estimated 169,000 cyclists, 128,000 are men -- about 76%. ... Among large metro areas, there is only one where cycling is more male-skewed: Sacramento, California" (Balk).

In 2015, Seattle voters approved a Move Seattle levy, authorizing the city to build 50 additional miles of bike lanes at an average cost of $860,000 per lane. Three years later, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) reported it might only be able to build half that number because construction costs had escalated from $1 million to $2 million per mile, about four times the national average. The cost of some downtown bike lanes was even higher. The 0.9-mile bike-lane extension on Second Avenue cost more than $11 million, although some of that was offset by a $5 million federal grant.

A 2017 SDOT survey showed that 3 percent of trips to local businesses were made by bicycle, compared to 40 percent made on foot, 35 percent by car, or 18 percent by local transit. For some residents, the proliferation of bike lanes was an indicator of a larger issue: that of privilege. "A single downtown bus lane is costing $12 million. The cost of the Burke-Gilman 'missing link' in Ballard is now pegged at $23.5 million. The city is removing small and minority-owned business parking in Northeast neighborhoods like Wedgwood and Roosevelt. The average Seattle taxpayer should be infuriated. I am concerned about the proliferation of bike lanes for another reason: because they displace the underprivileged and reapportion to the privileged" (Martinez).

Despite these and other criticisms, every year from 2008 to 2017, except for 2016 when no rankings were released, the League of American Bicyclists (also known as the League of American Wheelmen) named Washington the most bicycle-friendly state in the nation. Grades were based on infrastructure and funding; education and encouragement; legislation and enforcement; policies and programs; and evaluation and planning. In 2018, the League dropped its ranking system, issuing progress reports instead.

Washington’s 2018 progress report showed that, even though the state consistently ranked above the national average in federal data indicators related to cycling, "both the rate of bicycling to work and the rate of bicyclist traffic fatalities are headed in the wrong direction. The state certainly has the tools to reverse these trends in both its advocacy organizations and the Washington Department of Transportation, but the state is in danger of losing its long-term No. 1 ranking" ("2018 Progress Report").  


Robert A. Smith, A Social History of the Bicycle (New York: American Heritage Press, 1972); Smith Hempstone Oliver and Donald H. Berkebile, Wheels and Wheeling (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974); James Longhurst, Bike Battles (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015); Taylor Dutch, "UPS Launches New Delivery Program with Electric Bikes," Bicycling, October 21, 2018 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "First Bicycle in Washington Territory Arrives in Seattle on November 14, 1879" (by Greg Lange); "Queen City Cycling Club Hosts First Ever Seattle Bicycle Tournament on July 5, 1888" (by Chris Goodman); "Cotterill, George Fletcher (1865-1958)" (by David Wilma) (accessed June 3, 2019); "Notes on Cycling," The Seattle Times, July 1, 1896, p. 5; "41 Bicycles Sold at Police Auction," Ibid., February 15, 1942, p. 7; Mike Lindblom, "Well-Known NW Bicyclist Jerry Baker Dies at 73,” Ibid., September 24, 2015; Gene Balk, "Who Bikes in Seattle," Ibid., June 5, 2019 (; "A Path for Bikers," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 25, 1896, p. 5; "Money Enough," Ibid., April 29, 1897, p. 3; "Ex-Husky Lineman Gogan Suspended; Cowboys Mum," Ibid.sports section, August 5, 1988; Knute Berger, "How Bikes Led Seattle's First Roads Renaissance,", September 23, 2013 (; Knute Berger, "The Car That Broke the Back of Seattle's Bike Craze,", September 25, 2013 (; Knute Berger, "Move Over McGinn: Seattle's Original Bike Mayor,", October 15, 2013 (; Chelsea Bannach, "Round The Clock Bike Race Attracts All Levels," The Spokesman-Review, May 29, 2011 (; Matt Bevilacqua, "Why Washington Keeps Getting Named the Most Bike-Friendly State in the U.S.," Bicycling, October 25, 2017 (; "Guide to the Bicycle Friendly State Report Card," 2017 edition, The League of American Bicyclists. Report available at website (; "Interlaken Park," Seattle Parks and Recreation website accessed June 19, 2019 (; "Bike Data," Seattle Department of Transportation website accessed June 19, 2019 (; "Let's Cycle!" Tacoma Washington Bicycle Club website accessed June 19, 2019 (; "2018 Progress Report: Washington," The League of American Bicyclists, report available at website (; Mike Lindblom, "12 Million a Mile," The Seattle Times, May 21, 2018, (; Nina Martinez, "Seattle’s Bike Lobby Needs to Check Its Privilege," Crosscut, July 25, 2018 (

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