Peter Lagerwey became the City of Seattle’s bike transportation planner in 1984, at a time when few cities had such positions. He quickly discovered that others expected his office to champion a few trophy trail projects and to leave the rest of the city’s car-centric transportation network unchanged. Achieving deeper systemic change, he realized, would require a careful understanding of the way funding operates through planning manuals, neighborhood commissions, and other mechanisms of bureaucratic power. Over time, he developed a nuanced understanding of how to use these levers of change not to win battles but to avoid divisive fights and find points of connection around values that united people.
Later, Lagerwey used these insights in a consulting role at Toole Design Group, where he led planning workshops and taught courses on urban design throughout the world, including in Detroit, Wichita, Honolulu, San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Amsterdam, and Perth. He learned how to use rhetoric and framing to help politically diverse communities move beyond zero-sum arguments of cars versus bikes. In 2015, he was named a White House Transportation Champion of Change for his work popularizing bike- and pedestrian-friendly planning.
Lagerwey’s approach to organizing is deeply pragmatic. It’s about getting things done and bringing people together rather than positioning himself as a thought leader. He’s a person of faith who was raised in the Christian Reformed Church and spent decades worshiping with the Mennonites, drawing insights from both traditions. He’s also a friend of mine. For ten years we worshiped together at Seattle Mennonite Church, discussing many of these ideas over after-church coffee and bike rides around the city he helped reshape. He demonstrates a kind of big-hearted curiosity and a strategic savvy that don’t always appear together. In retirement, he’s helping his church make significant acts of wealth redistribution, redeveloping its property with affordable housing at its center. Lagerwey and I discussed his faith journey, the overlapping goals of more equitable, safe, and climate-friendly cities, and how an understanding of power and influence within institutions can be a powerful tool for social change.
The Other Journal (TOJ): You’ve based your career on the belief that bicycling infrastructure makes cities and communities better for everyone, so let’s start there. What does good bike planning look like? And why does it matter?
Peter Lagerwey (PL): It has to do with equity. Fifty percent of Americans don’t drive. That includes kids, seniors, people with disabilities, and people who can’t afford to drive. I was working in Dallas years ago, in a very low-density suburban neighborhood with poor transit, and yet one out of every four households didn’t have a car. They simply couldn’t afford it.
By creating systems that serve everybody, we can have what we call complete streets, or streets that work for everyone, not just people who can afford cars. That begins with a commitment to managing speed, as there’s a very clear one-to-one correlation between speed and the frequency and severity of crashes.
TOJ: That means a car going forty miles per hour has both more crashes and more dangerous crashes than a car going twenty, right?
PL: Exactly. Every street has two speed limits: the posted speed and the one that people actually go. The most effective way to manage speed is not enforcement—it’s the visual cues that send a message. Are there sidewalks? How wide is the street? Is it striped with a painted center line? Are there people on bikes and people walking nearby? Is it lined by trees or parking lots or buildings? And how tall are they? All of these elements send a signal to drivers. And these are the design elements I help communities understand.
TOJ: What does the path from car-centric planning to complete streets tend to look like?
PL: It depends on where you are, because every place has different needs, but there is a common arc of evolution. Most communities start with a sort of trophy trail, usually a rail-to-trail project, and there’s a lot of excitement in that. As they do more of those projects, they find there are only so many preexisting corridors like this—railways, utilities, canals, and such. Then they start wanting to connect some of those new trails into a comprehensive urban system in which people can get anywhere in an urban area by bicycling.
TOJ: We sometimes think of planning as a zero-sum game that privileges drivers or cyclists or pedestrians or transit riders. But you’ve helped me see that these aren’t fixed identities. Most of us use different modes of transportation at different times. How do you help communities move beyond that us-or-them mindset?
PL: When you have a theoretical conversation, you can get stuck in that mindset. But when you get into the nitty-gritty of design, you find changes that benefit everyone. For example, there’s often resistance to eliminating car lanes to add bike lanes or bus-only lanes. The assumption is that fewer lanes means slower traffic. But doing speed studies showed us that traffic capacity is affected more by how many motor vehicles you can get through each intersection than by the number of lanes. So whenever we added bike lanes in Seattle, we also upgraded all of the traffic signals and made sure the traffic flow was optimized. That resolved a lot of the opposition.
Another myth is that you need to let everyone drive faster in busier areas in order to get the traffic through. But quite often when speed goes up, traffic capacity goes down, because you need more space between vehicles. During urban rush hours, average speeds are under fifteen miles an hour on busy arterials anyway. That’s safer, and it also lets everyone get home faster.
One more example: when the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, some places wanted to do as little as possible to meet the requirements of the law and get access to funding. We tried to help people see that it’s a false choice to think about people with disabilities and people without. When I led workshops around the country, I’d ask people, “How many of you will have a disability at some point in your lifetime?” We’d all raise a hand, because at some point everyone will sprain an ankle or have a ski accident or something. That’s where the idea of universal design comes in—designing places for everyone, including the parent pushing a stroller across the street or the child learning to bike. That really changes the conversation because it’s inclusive.
TOJ: This commitment to finding common ground in communities seems like a core part of your professional work. How did you get started on this path? And what did your faith upbringing have to do with it?
PL: In my earliest years, I lived north of Toronto in a first-generation Dutch immigrant community. My community was entirely centered around the church, where my father was the pastor, and the Christian school. There was a tremendous energy among the people there to make a new life and to make something of oneself, a drive that a lot of immigrant communities share.
It was a Christian Reformed church, a tradition that has evangelical and fundamentalist strains. But the church I grew up in was very concerned with Abraham Kuyper’s idea that there’s a way to integrate our faith in God into every sphere of life. In everything we did, there was a responsibility to live thankful and meaningful lives and to trust that we would have opportunities to live a meaningful life.
When I graduated from Calvin College, I had a very low draft number. In the dorms, we had debated the Vietnam War constantly, and I wasn’t opposed to serving my country, but I was opposed to the war, so I joined the service program Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA, which sent me to Anchorage, Alaska. I wound up organizing neighborhood associations and working with a woman named Lanie Fleischer who was building trails all over Anchorage. I read Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and became really interested in community organizing. The big downsizing of railroads nationwide was just starting to happen, and a number of us realized we needed to be ready to seize those opportunities to turn some of the rails into trails. After that year-long commitment was done, I moved home to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where my family was living, and I began working for the Catholic Development office as we organized to keep firehouses open.
TOJ: How did that come about?
PL: The city of Grand Rapids was proposing to shut down inner-city fire stations and build new ones in suburban areas. They were measuring the need for protection based on property values, which were declining in the inner city, and not on the value of the people.
The work had already started before I got there, and I learned some very practical things, like how to set up petition tables to gather signatures faster, or, when organizing block clubs, to give everyone a job—bring drinks to the next meeting, bring paper plates, bring cutlery—to give them a reason to show up. Saving firehouses turned out to be a great issue for organizing neighborhoods because it’s an issue everyone can support.
TOJ: What did you learn about community organizing through that work?
PL: Community organizing is about identifying and developing leaders and equipping people to speak for themselves. We learned to find the people in each neighborhood who could be the spark plug, or the connector, because we couldn’t and didn’t want to do all of the work ourselves. I also learned that people need to see tangible results, so often we would start with cleaning up a vacant lot or getting junk cars removed. The real point was to get people to know each other and learn to have a reason to get together. In the end, the city attorney told us our initiative couldn’t get on the ballot because of some technicality. But we had built so much support that the city could see they were on the wrong side of the issue, and they dropped the plan to close the firehouses.
TOJ: How did that shape your sense of the kind of career you wanted to have?
PL: There were a few important moments around those years. In 1980, I went to a conference of what is now the League of American Bicyclists. People from across the country were brainstorming about how we could make places better for biking and walking. There was tremendous energy about making change, but we also grasped the need to understand bureaucracy and how power works in municipalities if we were going to get anything done. That same year I went to Washington, DC, and visited a leader of the Bike Federation of America. He had a library shelf of bicycle plans from across the country. I had no idea they even existed, and I thought they were great. He said, “No, you don’t understand. This is my wall of shame. None of these are being implemented.”
It was one of those critical Aha! moments. I went back to school for urban planning at the University of Michigan and saw that the graduate school library had shelves and shelves of books on urban design by visionary types, mostly men; they were really talented thinkers with great ideas, but I couldn’t find a single book about implementation. That was another Aha! moment for me. I realized the world doesn’t need me to write a book about how to design cities. There are enough of those. But it led me to a real interest in how new ideas get adopted in the world.
I took a marketing class and learned about the psychology of change, where there’s sort of a bell curve of adoption. For example, with electric cars, there are some people who will buy them as soon as they’re available, just because they’re new. Then there’s the middle group, and a smaller group of late adopters. My theory is that most people don’t want to be first, but they don’t want to be at the end either.
TOJ: That sounds relevant to your work in Seattle. When you were hired as the city’s bicycle transportation director, how did you make the case that cycling infrastructure matters for the wellbeing of a city?
PL: When I began in 1984, it was me and a half-time person in a city that employed 11,500 people. I spent a lot of time thinking about what would make an impact. It took a few years of fumbling, but I discovered that we needed to deliver visible products on the street. I thought in terms of short-term, medium-term, and long-term changes. In the short-term, we put in one hundred new bike racks a year around the city, and we developed a program in which, if you call in, you can essentially get a bike rack, a sign installed, or a pothole filed. Our goal was to make three improvements to the city a day. We needed to show the neighborhood groups and the elected officials that there was a demand for the product and that we could deliver it cost-effectively.
I also realized that as long as bicycle programs fell under a separate budget category, their funding would always be miniscule, and all we’d ever do was add bike racks and signs and maybe an isolated trail here and there. So we put a lot of effort into making sure that every single city project included bicycling and walking considerations.
In a city of that size, there is always some master plan or manual being written, so I’d always volunteer to go through them and make sure the word bicycle appeared every few pages. There was typically no opposition to it; it was just something that had been overlooked. Most of those plans had a shelf life of five or ten years or so, so every time they came up for revision, we would work on them. Gradually, biking and walking considerations became institutionalized in plans that used to be very auto-focused. Others were doing similar work at the national level in Federal Highway Administration manuals.
We also realized that, in a city this large, we might only touch 10 percent of the projects going on, but there are dozens of other boards and committees throughout the city, so I sat down with bike and pedestrian advocates, and we reviewed something like seventy-five different neighborhood organizations and planning groups and identified which ones needed a biking and walking advocate on them. Many of those groups have a hard time finding volunteer members, so they were often happy to have our assistance and were rarely opposed to making the changes we were seeking. They just hadn’t been considering it before and didn’t realize they had the potential to do something about it.
TOJ: Seattle has faced criticism that its majority-white neighborhoods are better served by bike networks than its neighborhoods of color. How did you manage racism and equity issues when wealthier neighborhoods might be louder or better organized in asking for improvements?
PL: We learned to track every dollar we were spending so that we could show we were spending just as much, if not more, in poorer neighborhoods. We also did lots of counts to find out who actually bikes. We learned that if you look at commuting downtown to work, it is a predominately white male activity. But if you look at who bikes around neighborhoods doing errands or going to school, it is much more diverse by age and race and gender. How you design the counts matters. It’s easy to miss those shorter trips if you’re only measuring the main commuter routes downtown.
It’s been encouraging to see equity become a much larger part of the conversation. When I started, a lot of transportation funding was tied to motor vehicle counts. Each vehicle, including a bus carrying fifty people, counted as one funding unit. So you can see how a neighborhood where a lot of people bus or walk gets chronically underfunded, and that’s how institutional bias happens. In Seattle, we switched to counting people instead of vehicles a long time ago, but some places still need to make that change.
TOJ: What do you say to those who want to change their communities but who don’t have professional expertise like yours?
PL: We all want to live meaningful lives, and there are so many ways to do that. Every community has different needs, and every profession has a way to work for social justice. There is certainly value in joining rallies and demonstrations, but there are so many ways to go beyond that. There are neighborhood groups and civic organizations already doing important work, and they often need dedicated people to join them. I think the key is being true to who you are, because we’re so different as people, and we have different skill sets.
When I left the City of Seattle to work in consulting, I would lead transportation planning workshops in places all over the country, places as different as Tucson, Tulsa, Portland, Saint Paul, and so on. There were a lot of people with different interests in the room. I would start by reminding people they have two valuable resources, their time and their money. And time is by far the most valuable. So how do we be smart about it and use it to solve problems? People would respond well to that.
TOJ: What did you learn from hosting those conversations? What framing was helpful for them and what wasn’t?
PL: I learned that while there’s certainly a place for philosophical discussions and climate change advocacy, we were most successful when we focused on solving concrete problems and making things practical. If we can shift one percent of car trips to biking or walking, for example, that creates better air quality near your school or where your grandparents live. And we always had the numbers to back it up.
I spent a lot of time in Wichita, Kansas, where officials were initially very resistant to any changes. They had more single-occupancy motor vehicles than any city of their size, and they took pride in that. In our first workshop, the city engineer stood up and said, “I just want you to know we’re not going to spend a nickel of our transportation money on biking.” Then, I found out that they had a couple of senior centers nearby and that people in the room had parents there and were worried about them. Thus, we focused right away on road crossings for seniors to get to the bus stop. You go where people are and listen to their personal experiences, and eventually, that opens a lot of doors.
We also learned we needed local examples of good changes. I would sometimes hear people say, “Well, of course you can do that in Seattle, but we’re different here.” So if we were working in Minnesota, we’d bring pictures of other towns in Minnesota that had made the changes they were considering. If we were in North Carolina, we brought North Carolina examples, and so on.
TOJ: That sounds like the psychology of change and wanting to be just a little ahead of average on that bell curve of adoption.
PL: Exactly. It’s about finding ways to take pride in your place. The League of American Bicyclists gives out Bicycle Friendly Community awards. The University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center has similar awards for pedestrian-friendly cities, and those are powerful motivators. People will say, “If they can do it in Grand Forks, North Dakota, we can do it here in Fargo.” That kind of thing.
TOJ: The world has changed since you retired a few years ago. We’ve always had political division, but the political climate has changed, and we hear about people disrupting local school board or public health commission meetings in ugly ways. Do you think this consensus-building work is still possible? Do you hear from former colleagues that it’s changed?
PL: We had very occasional disruptive people in the past, but it’s always been rare, and we were able to sidestep most of it by keeping the rhetoric on practical improvements. From what I hear, that hasn’t changed much.
Some of the other changes are more encouraging. Equity is a bigger part of the conversation than it’s ever been. And there is more money available now for biking and walking infrastructure, and that will be even more true with the new climate bill. And many communities have institutionalized this need for planning that serves all people, so you’re not having the same beginner conversations anymore.
TOJ: You and I got to know each other through Seattle Mennonite Church, even though we both grew up in the Christian Reformed tradition. How did being part of a Mennonite worship community influence you?
PL: I only know that particular church, which is a bit different than rural Mennonite churches. I’m proud to tell people I go there, which hasn’t always been true for churches I’ve attended. It’s a community that’s very intentional about putting the value of hospitality into practice. The Reformed tradition I grew up in emphasized the part of religion that has to do with right thinking, and the Mennonites put more emphasis on right living or social action. We’ve recently signed an agreement to sell our entire campus in the Lake City neighborhood and tear down everything, including our church space. The new owners, a private not-for-profit housing authority, is planning to construct about 250 affordable housing units, and then the church will hopefully be built into the ground floor. It’s a long process, but it’s something I hope other churches will be able to learn from.
TOJ: I’m thinking about the experience you described earlier of being influenced by the Reformed emphasis on intellectual faith, the Anabaptist emphasis on service or action-oriented faith, and the contemplative emphasis on experiential faith. It sounds like that last part has been meaningful to you recently.
PL: I grew up in the 1960s when there was tremendous energy for social change, but I got very disillusioned with a lot of the activism of that time. It didn’t seem to have a good foundation, and some of the people I was working with became so angry that they became a lot like the people they were fighting against.
In 2014, I went to a contemplative retreat at the Oregon Extension, and that was life-changing for me. It kind of refocused me on things I’d learned from Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and Don Postema’s book on spirituality and prayer, Space for God. My wife and I have been hosting contemplative groups at our house for several years now, and I’m helping to organize retreats at the Oregon Extension. There just seems to be such a hunger for spiritual groundedness that can then become a basis for activism in other areas.
TOJ: You’ve developed a very deep understanding of the way power moves and operates within institutions and bureaucracies, from funding streams to city governments to various commissions that often get overlooked as agents of progress. I’m struck that paying attention to these levers of change can be a profound expression of faith and a way to seek good in the world. What do you make of that?
PL: I’ve had very few original ideas. Just about everything that we’ve discussed I’ve gathered in bits and pieces from other people. If I’ve done anything well, it’s identifying people who I can work with and being creative—and these are not necessarily people who are just like me but people with skill sets that I don’t have. Everything I’ve done has been with teams of people. That’s how most lasting change in the world happens. You can get a lot done that way.